MOST PEOPLE KNOW Pawet Althamer's art only on the basis of his sculpture: densely worked, life-size figures, often depicting himself or his immediate family, that combine organic materials with found objects such as clothing or glasses. These works exude a homespun, introverted uncanniness--think Ed Kienholz by way of Gunther von Hagens. Althamer is also well known for a more anomalous sculpture, disarmingly Pop in flavor: a massive inflatable self-portrait of the artist's naked self, floating in the air but anchored to the ground by scores of long cords, like a gravity-free Gulliver. However, to think of Althamer as a sculptor is to consider only a fraction of his output. Indeed, his practice is best characterized by a singular approach to collaboration: one that falls outside (and exists in playful tension with) the dominant, earnestly ameliorative norm of this mode. In contrast to the usual collaboration-with-others model, in which the self-effacing artist-initiator produces a rather unmemorable project through consensus, Althamer instigates an instrumentalization of authorship from the very outset. However, as we shall see, this instrumentalization is not accompanied by a lack of social responsibility. On the contrary, this responsibility is present and is marshaled through a delight in absurdity, fantasy, and the ridiculous--an approach that can only be described as civic dada.
In his hometown of Warsaw, Althamer has pursued four long-term collaborations that occasionally overlap: with the Nowolipie Group, an organization of mentally and physically handicapped adults to whom he teaches ceramics every Friday; with the residents of his housing block in the suburb of Brodno; with the artist Artur Zmijewski, who has frequently filmed Althamer's experiential situations; and with a group of seven delinquent boys known as the Einstein Class. Along the way, Althamer has undertaken shorter-term projects, usually at the behest of museums and galleries: with homeless Poles in Frankfurt (for the exhibition "Neue Welt" [New World], at the Frankfurter Kunstverein in 2001); with gallery invigilators in Warsaw, Vienna, and London (Staff en Plein Air [Staff en Plein Air], 2005, at the Zacheta National Gallery of Art, Kunsthalle Wien, and the Barbican Curve, respectively); with schoolchildren in Zurich [King Macius 1, 2001, at the Migros Museum) and in Kassel (Fruhling [Spring], 2009, at the Kunsthalle Fridericianum); with art students in Paris (Au Centre Pompidou, 2006); with prisoners in Munster, Germany (Prisoners, 2002); with illegal immigrants in Berlin (Fairy Tale, 2006); and with his own children (in an exhibition of work by Weronika Althamer, at BAK, Utrecht, in 2003; and in Bad Kids, 2004). Only a few of these adventures have resolved into a tangible product--be it a sculpture, installation, photograph, or video--that could stand as a visual icon to match the sculptures. More frequently, Althamer's projects have to be narrated by his mediators (curators and critics) as an ongoing, idiosyncratic convergence of physical and mental transformation. Furthermore, those who undertake this task often find themselves invoking terms that do not sit easily within the critical framework of contemporary art: the spiritual, the inspirational, the supernatural, the transcendent. At the fulcrum of each project is Althamer himself, a pied piper mischievously altering the coordinates of individual lives and their institutional containers--but in a strictly intuitive and untheorized fashion that doesn't readily lend itself to the contemporary shibboleth of "criticality."
Take, for example, Althamer's ceramics classes with the Nowolipie Group. Althamer began leading the class in the early 1990s as a way to earn money after graduating from art school, but when this ceased to be an economic necessity, he continued to meet with the participants every Friday evening. Their activities are always organized around a theme. When I visited in 2005, …