Behind the Screen: Body in Confinement

Anna Baumgart's Bomber Woman [Bombowniczka] amongst other works presented as part of _Skontrum Ewolucje_, 2012, installation view. Courtesy of Xawery Dunikowski Sculpture Museum, Division of the National Museum in Warsaw. Photo by Bartosz Górka.
As OUT OF STOCK rightly acknowledges, the notion of shortage is a familiar concept for the countries that are now considered New Europe. The shortage marked the moment when the pandemic actually appeared, taking weeks until we were again able to find masks or hand sanitizers for regular sale. The lockdown occurred suddenly and was an instant sobering-up of our expectations towards everyday production ― the quarantine forced us to slow down, which even still has a very real potential consequence of aborting our contemporary cycle of accelerated neoliberal capitalism. The pandemic has shown us how our lack of cohesion, our disparate movements and aberrations, can easily be labeled a crisis “of awareness, perception, sense and meaning”¹.  

An artwork that I have come back to in this moment is Bomber Woman [“Bombowniczka”] by the multimedia artist Anna Baumgart. The piece, considered to be one of the most iconic works in Polish contemporary art history, depicts the figure of a woman enceinte, wearing almost nothing aside from a apron-like fabric fastened at her hips, or as the title suggests, a suicide belt. Perhaps the most jarring aspect is her head, which is covered or masked by the face of a pig. This almost posthuman attribute² creates a paradoxical message, which is why it is both important to interpret the sculpture itself as well as its use within this text.

For me, this state of confinement that we have witnessed has evoked thoughts of exclusion, which have led to an increased awareness for those who have already been locked-down or somehow trapped by the system even prior to the quarantine, similar to our Bomber Woman, who has nothing left to lose but herself. The sculpture is full of visual codes for us to decipher. Baumgart constructed this work in a way that triggers the need to disassemble the various attributes while simultaneously asking for the work to be treated as a whole: “The affection-image is the close-up, and the close-up is the face (...)”, to quote Deleuze³. The artist states that if the artwork has a function, it is because of the affect: a contagious feature capable of bringing change, a rebellious act or even a legislative shift. The fact that the figure’s face is covered with a pig’s head has triggered strong reactions from those who suggest that the work actually represents Matka Polka [literally 'Polish Mother', the mother hen], and therefore these offensive attributes of exposed genitals and covered face should either be faced entirely or not at all, that she faces the wall so that we see her from behind. The fit, firm body is armed with several accessories: a piercing in her nipple, the apron or belt tied around her waist - which is also reminiscent of clothing worn by Sumerian goddesses -, and, finally, high heels with socks.

Whom or what is the subject of Baumgart’s portrait? A much younger friend of hers who can barely make ends meet, who then accidentally becomes pregnant, or is she a centuries-old terrorist ? What creates her need to fight, to defend, in this almost anasyrmic[ἀνασυρμός]-kind-of-way? Is it because she is forced to sacrifice her being like so many other women?
When looking at the apron and interpreting the title, we understand that what covers the waist of the woman is this suicide belt. In Polish, the figure of Matka Polka is a female who consents to sacrifice herself for her country: to raise her children and to keep her family in accordance with the traditions and values of her nation. Does Bomber Woman symbolically bury this paradigm? And if so, is she herself what emerges as the replacement for this outdated notion of mother(nation?)hood and female-ness? The affective aspect of this sculpture, which triggers strong interpretations and reactions, suggests that the overlooked [non-human] body should also be given agency. 

The sculpture is one of Baumgart’s most well-known works and most likely exists in the format of an image on myriad screens and otherwise online forums.

With the rise of image saturation across different social media channels, we’ve become accustomed to seeing countless photos of bodies: the more we see them the more we accept them, the more we are desensitized to them. Not only the ‘beautiful’ bodies in the selfies that blur past our fingers while scrolling through Instagram accounts but also the marred or violated bodies of war or other instances of forensic aesthetics.

The stark white coloring of Baumgart’s figure is an abstraction or detachment from natural skin pigmentation, which also somehow aligns this chalky body with that of a mummy. The textile adorning her hips is blood-red and thus almost instantly calls to mind the Polish flag, which also feels like an overt gesture by the artist. This sculpture was created at a time when right-wing advocates were searching for their visual language. Naturally, the flag was a perfect resource; shortly thereafter, a wave of patriotic white and red pseudo-sport fashions befell the nation. The two-party system was somewhat surprisingly aligned in their staunch criticisms of this work; the addition of the animal head to the body of this pregnant woman inspired attacks for Baumgart’s disgraceful use of the national emblem as well as her disgrace to the figure of the mother, further humiliated by her nakedness.

But why am I drawn back to this piece now, in this moment? The appearance of SARS-CoV-2 has triggered new types of behaviours and has revealed just how easily we can adapt to new safety rules that will help protect us from the disease. It also demonstrated just how easy it is to keep us away from everyday reality as our views very quickly became narrowly re-framed and filtered by algorithms created for and used by social media. We have all come across images censored for ‘sensitive content’  within our Facebook or Instagram feeds. This also applies to artworks, both in social media and in real life. Covid-19 serves as yet another reason to hide our body parts. Our activities in public spaces, especially during the lockdown, were very limited. Apart from the restrictions tied to the virus and its accompanying props, the pandemic highlighted the fact that by locking people in their private spaces, the public space could be more easily opened-up again for discriminatory and highly contentious legislative agendas, like banning abortion, in the case of Poland¹⁰. Like that of other works by Baumgart made during this same time period, Bomber Woman hovers around the complexities of motherhood as well as the roles that women play in different contexts. In conjunction with other issues typically relegated to women, these works were also being made during the time that Poland entered the European Union (2004), shifting the public eye towards issues of terrorism and other embodied, nationalized fears. Baumgart’s practice defies simple explanation and rather reveals itself again and again through both the materiality and the more formal qualities of her work, as she reaches for traces, patterns, representations and their interpretations, of both historical and contemporary figures, fictitious and real, near and distant. In her films and sculptural projects, the division between created and re-created image is violated. This work in particular has been recognized for its role in reframing images of motherhood, for disassembling more traditional interpretations, and adding a dimension of martyrdom, which is more typically relegated to the allegory of Polonia¹¹. It has turned out to be prophetic in the sense that it was created at least a few years before women started marching in defense of their rights, and so, of course, now it can be reinterpreted again from this more current perspective of masking. 

Over the past few months, we have started using enormous amounts of hand sanitizers and have avoided crowds for safety reasons. Keeping in line with social distancing protocols, we have newly covered our faces with masks along with other more quotidian daily rituals of hiding or covering ― performed almost imperceptibly ― in order to stay sane amidst the threat of being infected with the novel coronavirus. The material accessories of masks and other forms of veiling for security purposes have led to an almost exclusively screened environment, which serves as the backdrop to SARS-CoV-2, clearly delineating the moments during nationally-sanctioned social isolation from those that came before.

To endure this period of restriction, we have adapted to working remotely, homeschooling, and executing, essentially, all other activities from home.
Paul B. Preciado, Nous étions sur le point de faire la révolution féministe… et puis le virus est arrivé [‘We were on the verge of the feminist revolution… and then arrived the virus’], bulb, 27.04.2020, [accessed 13.07.2020] back
 The artist references both aspects related to her work: non-human and posthuman which can play a role in interpreting her work as the appearance of the artist’s work overlaps with the emergence of late-twentieth-century posthumanist concepts in philosophy (and animal studies), especially in Donna Haraway’s texts such as her Cyborg Manifesto (1985), recurring then in the late 1990s and the early 2000s.  back
Gilles Deleuze, Cinema 1: The Movement Image, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam, Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986, p. 87. back
Anna Baumgart: sztuka jest silna, gdy wywołuje afekt [Anna Baumgart: art is powerful when it triggers affect], interview by Przemysław Bollin, 6.09.2018, Onet Kultura, [accessed 12.07.2020] back
Shortly after the opening of the exhibition in 2005, the first public presentation of the sculpture: Dzień Matki [‘Mother’s day’] the artist and curator were asked to present it from behind to the gallery storefront.  back
My paraphrase of the author: Iga Gańczarczyk, "Każda boleść chce wyrazu". Uwagi na marginesie wystawy Zaśpiewajcie, niewolnicy Anny Baumgart [“Each pain needs expression”. Notes on the margins of Anna Baumgart’s exhibition <<Sing, slaves>>], Widok. Teorie i Praktyki Kultury Wizualnej, Instytut Badań Literackich PAN Instytut Kultury Polskiej UW, [accessed 12.07.2020] back
One of artist’s references is Kama from Fever by Agnieszka Holland, a movie from 1980, evoked both in the context of 20th-century totalitarian regimes and to modern forms of terrorism: “elegantly dressed, she walks through the bazaar with a bomb in a box decorated with a bow”, with an attempt to attack the Russian Governor-General, source: [accessed 12.07.2020]. back
“Politics consists in reconfiguring the distribution of the sensible [...] to introduce into it new subjects and objects, to render visible what had not been, and to make heard as speakers those who had been perceived as mere noisy animals”, Jacques Rancière. Dissensus: On Politics and Aesthetics, London: Continuum 2010, p. 25. back
 An insightful take on the increasing presence of forensic aesthetics in contemporary humanities has been represented in writing by Ewa Domańska, for instance: "Dehumanisation Through Decomposition and the Force of Law,” in: <<Mapping the Forensic Turn: The Engagements with Materialities of Mass Death in Holocaust Studies and Beyond>>, ed. by Zuzanna Dziuban. Vienna: New Academic Press, 2017: pp. 83-98, [accessed 12.07.2020] back
“Already in May, the Polish parliament proposed to remove the legal obligation for medical facilities to refer patients to another facility if they refuse to provide abortion care based on personal beliefs, with potentially dramatic consequences for women, who may be unable to access care”. For more on plans for favours making anti-abortion law even stronger, check the following article under the link:  [accessed 14.07.2020] back
Joanna Turowicz, Rzeźba Współczesna w Muzeum Narodowym w Warszawie. Diagnoza Kolekcji i rokowania na przyszłość [Contemporary Sculpture in the National Museum in Warsaw. Diagnosis of the Collection and its future prognosis], Skontrum. Warsaw: Xawery Dunikowski Museum of Sculpture, Division of the National Museum in Warsaw, 2013, p. 188. back
Lev Manovich, The Language of New Media, MIT Press, 2001, p. 94. back
Alexandra Pirici, I want my writing to be photographed so as to explain my hand, 3.05.2020, Harun Farocki Institut, [accessed 13.07.2020] back
Paul B. Preciado, Learning from the Virus, Artforum, 2020, [accessed 14.07.2020] back
Despite it being surreal for us to imagine in the first place, a pandemic reality, with its principles of protection, surreptitiously shifts the ways in which we perceive privacy itself, too. It exposes just how much of what we call private can be negotiated (or even denied), revealing the dissonance that is related to confinement.
In The Language of New Media, theorist Lev Manovich noted that the society of the spectacle has turned into the ‘society of the screen’ and despite it being nearly two decades later, such words still hold a cutting accuracy, perhaps even more now than ever¹². Sars-CoV-2 has locked us in our private spaces, with many people spending their time in front of the same screens through which they work, learn, relax, and also connect with friends and relatives. However, screens have not really connected us with the real consequences of the isolation but rather have, more effectively, separated us from them. We sacrifice our interactions for safety, but for most of us this experience of separation will only be temporary. 

Another work by Baumgart that should be referenced here is Weronika AP, the figure of a woman who is festooned with a photographic image of a badly burned victim of the bombing in the London metro, a contemporary vera eikon, or true image, which has been compared to the evangelical figure of St. Veronica. The same technique is used for another sculpture of Natascha Kampusch, a woman who was abducted and held captive for years, whose portrait was created by using a press photograph¹³. Manipulation of the image on the screen, augmented visibility and equality can be a metaphor for isolation in the broader sense. We may not see what is excluded due to the restrictions placed over us to "stay home”, and I’m not referring only to those working as freelancers, or the artists or designers very often working this way under ‘normal’ circumstances.
Working remotely, which has become a daily routine for the majority, is something that has existed for decades, not to mention that it also deeply relates to the more traditional domestic role of the woman.
I want my writing to be photographed so as to explain my hand reads the title of a text by the artist Alexandra Pirici who notes that this recent lockdown is only temporary, which, in turn, has revealed the myopia of our perspective since being kept at home (although keeping us safe) didn’t allow us to witness the tragedy of the pandemic, but rather its props and phantoms: masks, sanitizing gels and regulations to movement, and the increased services of the ‘essential workers.’¹⁴
“There is still a world out there, tragedies some of us only read about, bodies, breaking-backs, warmth, suffering, joy and hope beyond online courses and home delivery. That some of us now have even less access to it, that we “see” it even less, is a tragedy, not something to be normalized, though we became experts at normalizing tragedy.” (Alexandra Pirici)
It also emphasized the fact that exclusion or [non-paid] remote work is a significant part of everyday life for many who remain unseen and filtered through algorithms and our panopticon screens. An additional effect of isolation is that we cannot see the fuller picture of reality, as algorithms diligently filter our screens to release only a truncated view. We cannot see the virus, and if we are isolated from those infected with it, it’s easier to forget (or willfully deny!) that it exists, despite it being exceptionally contagious and without a vaccine and cure.

Covid-19 has exposed this aberration of reality, which was perceptible before but largely ignored. As it was hardly considered progressive, it has been easy to trivialize in the public realm. It also reveals that the exclusions that come with “remote work” (can motherhood be considered remote work?) are a part of everyday life for many of those who remain unseen when filtered through our myriad screens. The view of bodies in social and public spaces, including Facebook, with popular formats such as selfies, reposts from museum accounts, and marches for women’s rights — has become ubiquitous. Yet at the same time we are beginning to see the consequences of the exposed body: we are familiar with censorship on social media through its non-human agents which automatically erase the pictures that reveal too much.

‘There are no politics that are not body politics’, Preciado has recently reminded us of Foucault’s words¹⁵. Under the specific conditions of Covid-19 we have quickly redefined the concept of accessories, which lose their visibility [affect] and gain special function, even if they do not actually work.
The mask: one of those few visible props of the pandemic, has incited a whole cycle of consciousness — in the beginning we tended to dismiss their appearance, perhaps out of fear? Shortly thereafter they became more and more regular and then obligatory, and now it is their lack that triggers our attention and our bare faces somehow now feel naked. 

We are now witnessing the circulation of images of the body, appearing via digital lenses, which overlap with the paroxysms of the cynical dysfunction of neoliberal democracies. I propose having a look at Anna Baumgart’s work to expand potential readings of this affective dimension, regarding the props we use during the pandemic as well as the potentially violent gestures of clothing and stripping.
Now, with the saturation of social media agencies and opinions created hurriedly and projected proudly, we are again seeing more conservative gestures arising in Europe, reminding us that the subjectivity of the ‘naked’ body will soon become policed in a more overt way. Baumgart’s work becomes an icon of contemporary art, which expresses the spirit of our ongoing debates on feminism. But, it also serves as a carrier of other meanings connected to camouflaging and politics, encouraging one’s own interpretations. In light of the controlling agencies embedded in our digital devices whose presence we are already very aware, we probably understand the immediate and pervasive functions of these works. The problem of overlooking can be related to the bare bodies of the pandemic, or as well be extended to those who have been pushed to involuntary confinement long before the virus ever forced our hand. 

I would like to acknowledge the artist Anna Baumgart who approved of the idea of my essay, Edith Lazar - the editor of OOS for accepting my proposal and, last but not least, Kathryn Zazenski who linguistically consulted me and my prattle.

Romuald Demidenko is a curator art historian and writer based in Warsaw, Poland. He collaborated with Komplot, Brussels (as part of School of Curators), Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art, Warsaw, BWA Zielona Góra and Gropius Bau, Berlin (as assistant to Anda Rottenberg).
He currently works at Xawery Dunikowski Sculpture Museum, Division of the National Museum in Warsaw. He is founding editor of Guest Rooms.