The talking pictures of Radek Dabrowski


Long before technological developments enabled the use of sound and movement in twentieth-century art, people longed for ‘living images’. According to legend, the mythical Greek sculptor and architect Daedalus succeeded in creating such a figure that could both move and talk, saying ‘I am a statue made by Daedalus. My name is Mercury’.1

In antiquity, this desire for living images was inspired by the pursuit of verisimilitude, which was realized by the cinema in modern age. However, the sense of wonder inspired by Daedalus’ statue, a work of art created from lifeless matter that approaches and speaks to the viewer, is still with us. Even now we experience works of art that address us in this way as something that, although it should be impossible, still makes us feel that we are being really looked at and spoken to.

Radek Dabrowski makes effective use of this remarkable property of works of art. In 1999 he began making monochrome, yellow paintings which seem to shout at us in white, digital letters: I AM IGNORING YOU, YOU MAKE ME FEEL NOTHING or GET THE FUCK OUT OF HERE. These paintings insult viewers, swear at them and keep them at a distance. Some are nicer, however, saying things like IT’S OKAY NOW, GET CLOSER or YOU’RE SUCH A PRETTY BOY. They reassure the viewers and pay them compliments to lure them closer.2

We are quite used to works of art that try to seduce us by looking beautiful, but insulting art still seems strange and bewildering. This effect was first applied by the twentieth-century avant-garde, which makes it a recent artistic procedure. The avant-garde artists, who had a bourgeois background themselves, severely criticized the indolence and mendacity of bourgeois culture. They wanted to insult the bourgeoisie with their work – ‘épater les bourgeois’ – to provoke reactions. The fact that these avant-garde works were condemned in the strongest of terms by the people who were being insulted was therefore regarded as a compliment by the artists. There came a time, however, when these same people cheerfully let themselves be cursed, to prove their progressive taste to their peers. The fate of the avant-garde was sealed.3

Radek Dabrowski also operates in a culture that needs to be addressed and confronted. This time, it is contemporary western culture that is so swamped with information and entertainment that it became ‘superficial and detached’. Radek feels we have become far removed from genuine reality. ‘We look at it through the eyes of the media, which makes it impossible for us to experience either reality or ourselves. We settle down in a comfortable chair, as it were, where we will descend into premature senility’. Moreover, from the vast amounts of information supplied by the mass media we tend to only pick what we like and ignore everything else. And the more the media harass us with stereotyped information about what is wrong in the world, the less we allow it to touch us. That is why Radek Dabrowski exclaims: ‘Cast off your lethargy and get your fingers burnt by reality.’4

Since the formats used by the avant-garde to activate viewers no longer work, Radek wants to take the next step with his work. His paintings must ‘come alive and shout for attention’, so that it is ‘impossible to view them passively’. They must be imbued with the force of the icons the artist saw as a child in the orthodox churches of Poland. Placed on a screen, the iconostasis, each icon has a gilded or silvered case – the riza – which covers the entire icon except for the face and hands of the depicted saint. The riza isolates the icon from its environment and emphasizes the gaze of the saint, which seeks out the eyes of the believers to turn their attention to the reality of God.5 Radek wants to give his work the same force and directness. That is why he does not make conventional paintings that aim to please but tough and unambiguous ‘intermediaries’ intended to tear viewers from their lethargy and confront them with genuine reality.6 To this end, the artist uses an extremely bright, yellow background and attempts to activate viewers by both insulting and complimenting them with the written message in the painting.

While such actions are the domain of the sociopolitically engaged branch of the avant-garde, Radek has a different attitude. He does not want to be a moralist and does not refer to specific social or political events. He even doubts whether it is useful to rouse people from their self-chosen dream.7 Still, he cannot stop provoking us with his work and cajoling us to remain alert, so we can experience reality without the varnish of blatant clichés. In his paintings, he treats the medium as a ‘weapon’ to make us focus not on the art of painting but on the reality beyond. In his short videos, which he has been making since 2000, he also uses the cinematic medium almost violently, to show us the mundane and the chaotic sides of his own environment and of the abandoned sites he encounters in his travels, stripped of the stylization and stereotyping of the mass media. To contrast these almost unmediated views, he uses video images appropriated from the media, which he sometimes reduces to the level of individual pixels. He also makes videos of staged accidents, playing the lead role himself, which engage in a dialogue with the endlessly repeated catastrophes served up by the media.8

Although the latter works are consistent with his vision of the media, which aggressively encroach upon life and death, these staged accidents also herald Radek’s changed relationship to reality. After his move from Groningen (The Netherlands) to Berlin (Germany) in 2001, and during his travels around Europe and South America, the world’s political and social events forced themselves upon him. Again, he is not an artist who actively seeks out injustice but he is affected by dramatic events, even if they are far removed from his own experiences.9

This inspired his video work ‘The Persian Project’, which Radek created in 2012, when he was moved to feelings of rage and incapacity by the war in the Middle East. To create this impressive video, he used both old and new images, which he amalgamated into a kinetic collage. Clips from his earlier videos and media footage trade off as foreground and background in this work.10 Sometimes the fragments veil the serious face of the artist, who keeps knocking on an invisible window, while his head rotates like a lighthouse beam at the top and bottom of the frame. Images of Oriental tapestries, carrying texts in white, photo shopped lettering, slide into the frame from the right like text on an illuminated news trailer. All the while, a fly scurries among the images, sometimes pushed along by a finger. Its irritating drone dominates the work.

The tapestries, belonging to the history of Middle Eastern cultures, are inscribed with children’s desperate outcries such as DADDY COME BACK HOME and MOMMY WHERE ARE YOU, with appeals for aggression or forgiveness such as KILL FOR ME or ABSOLUTION, and with defensive texts such as IT IS NOT MY PROBLEM and IT IS ALL IN YOUR HANDS. The artist continues to ‘illuminate’ these moods with his circling gaze and keeps us on our toes with his inaudible but compelling knocking. Meanwhile, the fly buzzes around, functioning both as a symbol of evil and the unresisting victim of the badgering hand. In this way, the video ‘screams, knocks, buzzes and begs for attention and help’ on behalf of the victims of the horrors.11

‘The Persian Project’ was exhibited in Berlin in late 2012 and early 2013.12 The monitor showing the video was laid on the floor. On the wall above it hung an oriental tapestry with a white, hand-lettered text: EVERYBODY WILL BE ALL RIGHT (2012).12 This tapestry was one of the few items rescued from a fire in Radek’s parental home in Poland. The text sounds like a mother attempting to comfort her child in difficult times: ‘Hush my darling, everything will be all right’. When linked to the video, which inspired the idea of painting on a real tapestry, it becomes clear that the mother is deliberately hiding the truth, since the actual horrors would frighten the child even more.13

In this painted tapestry, several elements and strands of Radek Dabrowski’s oeuvre come together: memories of his childhood, the development of ‘talking pictures’, the use of moving images with sounds and the fruitless search for ‘genuine reality’. In the tapestry text, the ‘speaker’ has good reason to deny actual events; the media deliberately keep us away from reality; and we too fool ourselves when we only filter the agreeable from the mass of information directed at us. Will we ever manage to apprehend ‘genuine reality’? Does it even exist or do we always need some kind of medium to experience a reality accessible to human beings?

Such questions continue to surround Radek’s work. To him, at least, it is clear that in western culture – with its duplicitous mass media – we have not the slightest chance of tracking ‘human’ reality. The more the artist travels to regions where such media are scarce, the stronger he experiences the ‘power of the meaning and commitment’ of the ‘very few pictures of saints and relatives that can be found there’.14 That is why he travels to distant lands and literally isolates himself from our culture, to ‘be able to look through the eyes of the icon’. Then he may perhaps be able to gain a glimpse of ‘genuine reality’, something that he has always longed for.15 And who knows, maybe this will result in very silent images.


Katalin Herzog, April 2015

Translation: Paul Hulsman



1. James Ferguson, 'The British Essayist', Vol. 34, Glasgow 1823, p. 270. The description of the figure made by Daedalus originates from a work by the comedy writer Plato (end 5th, begin 4th century BC).

2. Katalin Herzog, Anne Karen de Boer (eds.), Radoslaw Slawomir Miroslaw Dabrowski, Final Presentation MFA Painting 2001, Groningen. The yellow paintings have several dimensions: 120 x 180 cm, 139 x 186 cm and 154 x 203 cm. The project (ca. 30 works) was started in 1999, continued until 2014 and is still not completely finished. The texts on the early paintings have a digital font; the later paintings contain a ‘dialogue’ between a digital and a hand-lettered text.

3. Matei Calinescu, Five Faces of Modernity, ‘The Idea of the Avant-Garde’, Duke University Press, 1987, Durham, pp. 95-148.

4. Source: Radek Dabrowski, ‘Project proposal: Looking through the eyes of an icon’, 2003/2004.

5. Hilarion Alfeyev, ‘Theology of Icon in the Orthodox Church’, lecture, 2011,

6. Source: Radek Dabrowski, ‘Paintings must be seen.’ 2000.

7. Ibid.

8. Source: Radek Dabrowski, ‘Project proposal: Looking through the eyes of an icon’, 2003/2004. Radek Dabrowski, Anthropocentric, Muzeum w Koszalinie (ed.), Koszalin 2005, contains images of, inter alia, ‘In and Out’ (2000), ‘Anthropocentric’ (2001), Decomposition’ (2001) and ‘I Am Still Learning to Fall’ (2004).

9. Source: e-mail correspondence between Radek Dabrowski and Katalin Herzog, February 2015.

10. Source: e-mail correspondence between Radek Dabrowski and Katalin Herzog, November 2014. The video ‘The Persian Project’ can be seen on the artist’s website,

11. Source: e-mail correspondence between Radek Dabrowski and Katalin Herzog, February 2015.

12. Along with ‘Everybody Will Be All Right’, ‘The Persian Project’ was shown from December 2012 to January 2013 as part of the ‘Labor Berlin 12: Drifting’ group exhibit at the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin.

13. Source: e-mail correspondence between Radek Dabrowski and Katalin Herzog, November 2014 and February 2015.

14. Source: e-mail correspondence between Radek Dabrowski and Katalin Herzog, February 2015.

15. At the time of writing, the artist was visiting Cape Horn, the extreme southern tip of Chile.