Let me start by saying that in more than 10 years spent visiting galleries and writing on art in Tokyo, I have never encountered anything more disturbing than the photographs of Slawomir Rumiak.
It would be a grand understatement to say that the 32-year-old Polish artist’s work is not for everyone. Be warned, ye who would venture out to the Il Tempo gallery, that the exhibition there of some two dozen black-and-white photographs from Rumiak’s 2003 publication, “The Love Book — The Best of My Dreams,” is the stuff of nightmares.
Rumiak’s work accompanying this review is not representative of what is hanging on the walls at the gallery — there you will find young women with fish hooks tearing at their flesh, and young women with long strands of barbed wire braided through and tightly binding their breasts. Here you will also find disembowelment, fat older women with strange vacuum apparatus stitched into their abdomen, and the de rigueur Surrealist image — a razorblade slicing the eyeball.
The macabre creations are marked by their frighteningly superior execution — the images are so realistic that my Photoshop-savvy friend could not fathom how the artist does it. Rumiak, a skinny and fidgety self-described Surrealist, explained that he doesn’t use Photoshop nor digital imaging at all. His effects are entirely achieved in the darkroom. He also said, and this came as no surprise, that his endeavors do not always afford him the warm reception he enjoys in Tokyo (this is his second trip to Japan).
“Women often confront me, and with some I can explain but with others I can’t. It depends on the context. Some are genuinely interested in finding out why I am doing what I am doing, but others have already made up their minds about it.”
So, just what is Rumiak doing?
“Well, briefly, there are three points,” he explained.
“First, everyone has scars both outside and inside. When a child is born, the first thing that happens is that the umbilical cord is cut, and that is scar number one of many to come.
“Secondly, through history people have always scarred and mutilated themselves. This happens in tribes where they cut the skin to form patterns, and it happens when people pierce their ears and bodies.
“Finally, my art is playing with our pop-culture obsession with violence.”
Although Rumiak’s work is clearly an exploration of the dark side of the dream world, and is not intended to endorse violence against women, I would not have it on my wall for the very reason that it does depict violence against women.
This dichotomy between “who makes the art and why?” and “who collects the art and why?” is not new to the fetish-friendly Il Tempo, which boasts a decidedly risque exhibition schedule.
For example, another gallery regular is Jock Sturges. The San Francisco photographer, who has been busted for obscenity in the United States, shoots at naturist communities in California and France, and showed at Il Tempo for the eighth time this summer.
Although Sturges’ work can be found in the collections of New York’s Museum of Modern Art and Metropolitan Museum of Art, surely his pictures of nude children are also of interest to many pedophiles.
Similarly, one would have to be naive to deny that Rumiak probably has some really creepy misogynists among his cult of collectors.
Different societies deal with this reality in different ways. For example, I strongly doubt Rumiak could show these images in my native Canada, and he says that in his “very Catholic” Poland he has been dogged by censors.
Rumiak’s pictures revisit the spirit of the French writer the Comte de Lautreamont, whose detailings of torture and cruelty presaged Surrealism and celebrated what he famously referred to as “the beauty in the chance meeting on a dissecting table of a sewing machine and an umbrella.”
Rumiak serves a Jungian smorgasbord of symbolism, daring you to pull up a chair.
In the “Love Book,” there is a picture of woman lying on her back, her clothes pulled off, her eyes half open. A carving knife and a fork stabbed into her belly have produced a suppuration of caviar. In an attendant text, Rumiak writes: “I want to take the skin off you. Undress you to the pure nerve. Turn you inside out. To skin you to rude womanhood. To peel away the essence of your physical being until you are as pure as a little pink egg.”
Like I said — it’s not for everyone.
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