We’ve all had our fair share of fever dreams, and we all know how weird they can be. Reality warps and leaves logic to dissolve into a swirl of oddities and inexplicable visions. Then you wake up with a half-remembered narrative, strangely enlightened, convinced that what you saw were cryptic symbols demanding deciphering. That sensation unusually mirrors Zuzanna Czebatul’s world, where towering heads search for their footing amidst colossal party drugs lounging on lunatic tapestries. It piques your curiosity, urges you to decipher, but then reveals itself as already deciphered.
We came across Czebatul in a corner of Antwerp, where her massive party drug sculptures made their home in the Middelheim Museum’s exhibition, Come Closer. Since then, we spoke of the intricacies of her full creative spectrum, exploring themes of cultural perception, globalisation, and the transience of life. Her art fractures themes such as power, politics, and societal structures, presenting them in enigmatic forms that provoke deeper understanding—should the viewers choose to pursue it. Follow along to learn more about this nomadic artist.
Zuzanna Czebatul, A Trillion Threads Still Weaving (Red Sock), 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Sans titre, Paris. © Thomas Krüger
You grew up in Germany, studied in Frankfurt and then moved to New York to pursue a Master’s degree. Do you find that these diverse cultural experiences have influenced your work?
Certainly. Growing up or being born into one system and migrating into another influenced the way I perceive culture, language, and politics. Being born shortly before the end of the Soviet Union and then growing up in West-Germany has been a contrast. It gave me an idea that borders are separating ideas. And that these ideas are also not chiselled in stone, but rather made by the people who are there. Living in the U.S. for some time complemented my upbringing as a ‘90s kid, which was highly influenced by American pop culture. One could say that I am complementing the world for myself in order to understand its currents. Being currently at a residency in Saudi Arabia is adding to this endeavour.
Oh, is that where you currently live?
Well, for two months. I’ve been in China and in Kenya for some time as well. These were very impactful experiences. In order to potentially understand how this planet works, you have to visit certain places. As a child of globalisation, I have developed this notion that home is a place you care about, rather than where you live or where you’ve been born. This is contradicting ‘Heimat’, the German term for home or homeland, an emotionally charged concept in the West. In times of reactionary and separation, I feel that I’m on the other side looking at us humans getting liberated from old patterns and definitions. The logic of global economy does that already. I agree with Edward Said, who says that we should start to consider humanity as one culture with different expressions.
“Deconstructing cultural symbols is an attempt to uncover hidden meanings that aren’t apparent when they are intact.”
Your sculptures often seem to inhabit a space between creation and destruction, with elements appearing collapsed, deflated, or fragmented. What brings about this aesthetic of impermanence and decay?
I’ve had a long-standing fascination with ruins and the concept of memento mori, which reminds us of the passage of time. Decaying structures and architecture and what they represent inform my idea of manipulating this process into contemporary forms in order to view them differently. When you see the skeleton of a building, it tells stories that change over time beyond its original function. Deconstructing cultural symbols is an attempt to uncover hidden meanings that aren’t apparent when they are intact.
Can you tell us a bit about the outdoors sculpture in the installation?
Macromolecule Exploiting Some Biological Target is an ongoing series of monumentally-sized and inflated pills, which always carry a combination of minted words. For the Middelheim Museum, I developed a new group reading Dream/Engine, Brain/Drain and Vampire/Empire. The series departs from the promises of 1990s rave culture and how this last youth-movement, infused by new technologies, new pharma and new means of consumption has influenced where we are today. A recap of the utopian promises and how they eventually didn’t come true. Vampire/Empire, for example, talks about geo-politics and the socio-economic consequences of imperialism and a colonial past, which dwells into this delirious present. The inflated objects highlight what is usually hidden and reflect on the subjective and collective experience on different scales.
Zuzanna Czebatul, Macromolecule Exploiting some Biological Target, 2022. Exhibition view, La Suite de l'Histoire, 2022, Paris+ by Art Basel | Sites with Sans titre, Tuileries Garden, Paris. Courtesy of the artist and Sans titre, Paris
It seems we’ve just answered the next question, which is about how your practice involved producing your own materials for your sculptures.
These works are manufactured by a company usually producing inflatables for big companies, trade fairs, and such things. We developed the interior of the work together, as well as the covering method. Since I work with a wide range of materials, I tend to have a little bit of knowledge about them. They all have their characteristics, from hard to soft. Sculpture is an attempt to control subject matter, but while pushing its boundaries, there is only that much you can control. Air is one example. It has its own movement, the material containing it has its own gravity. It varies with temperature or air pressure in the atmosphere. So one might assume inflatables are easy, but they require a lot of knowledge and attention.
Currently I am participating in an exhibition at the Bally Foundation in Lugano with a new version of an older installation called T-Kollaps, an inflated Greek temple ruin. The columns, capitals, and pedestals are arranged in a theatrical manner, made of shiny transparent PVC. These large, erect, structures need to be balanced all the time. It is fun and playful but can also drive you nuts. The work questions the state of Western democracies under neo-liberalism.
A hint of humour and kitschy eroticism are notable elements in your art, and yet they are used to depict more complex themes that deal with strength or weakness. How do you approach this contradiction?
There is a quote which I like to refer to by George Bernard Shaw: “You can tell people the truth, but make sure to make them laugh, otherwise they will kill you.” You can find this element in many of my works. I like to seduce the viewer into the thematic cosmos the work is unfolding by appropriating the sublime. My exhibitions can be unfolded like an onion: on the outer layer there is a joyful experience, but you can dive into political theory, economics, the junction of state and culture, and so forth.
Kitsch is not necessarily an attribute I aspire to have. There is something very violent and brutal about kitsch. It is the shortest way to a sensual experience containing an invitation not to think further. When you look at the aesthetics of the Nazis in Germany, for example, there is a darkness in the cuteness, something violent and brutal in the profound. Today we observe a raging anti-intellectualism, which also shows in the mediocracy of much art, offering low proposition for a sensual experience. This fits to the rise of wars, the threats imposed by climate change, and how much of the world is steadily shifting to the right.
Your installations engage with themes such as power structures, ideologies, and politics, prompting viewers to contemplate how we want to live. What motivates you to focus your work on these particular issues?
We talked about my biography, which was at a very early age informed by my understanding that a passport is a ticket to possibilities and freedom. Or not. My parents and I migrated to Germany in 1991 and had to fight for a residence permit. In the end, it seemed hopeless and we faced deportation. A parent of a school friend came up with the idea to collect signatures at school so we could stay. In the third grade, I had this astonishing experience where my classmates and I solved my parents’ existential problem. An early encounter with institutionalised xenophobia. Luckily, the kids voted for me. That was one of the initial points where you could draw the connection to today and to my work.
Zuzanna Czebatul, Their New Power (Head), 2020. Exhibition view, The Singing Dunes, 2020, Centre d’art contemporain – la synanogue de Delme. Courtesy of the artist and Centre d’art contemporain – la synanogue de Delme. © OH Dancy
What does it mean to you to have your work displayed at the Middelheim Museum, and how do you hope your audience will engage with your art?
I’m very happy to have the opportunity to be in Antwerp, a city that cares about the arts. With my works in the show, certain generations will probably be reminded of their youth and the young will be reminded that they are young. And that this is a fun and important time in life. I hope that viewers have fun with it but also feel invited to pay attention to the little things, those that are not blown up. If the works achieve some sort of meditation on how we consume and in what mental states we are as societies, especially now with the European elections coming up, that would be good. That is a lot to expect from three sculptures, but with my work in general I want to promote a plurality of coexistence. Even though some people might be opposed to the concept of drug consumption, they can hopefully find something on the symbolic level while allowing others to do it.
You’ve come a long way as an artist, your work being exhibited in various locations. Do you have any advice for young artists that are just starting their career?
Work hard, play hard. Being young is the time to do an unmeasurable amount of fun things but also to be very engaged in shaping what one wants. For me, this duality of excessively working while also making space for life has been always important. Certain things you won’t learn in art school or in the art world. Produce, produce, produce, but also with consciousness, questioning, does the world really need that? Because we’re also living in a dying world. I’m thinking a lot about whether the worlds needs another giant ecstasy, but the carbon print of these works is luckily much lower than other works I do. It is run by the equivalent amount of energy like three fridges.
So sustainability is important to you?
Even though I just said it, I need to contradict myself here because it is such an overused term since we continue to live the utmost unsustainable life. The question ‘does the world really need this?’ is a good one to ask when you are making art or producing stuff in general.
Zuzanna Czebatul, Vortex (New Day Coming), 2020. Exhibition view, The Singing Dunes, 2020, Centre d’art contemporain – la synanogue de Delme. Courtesy of the artist and Centre d’art contemporain – la synanogue de Delme. © OH Dancy
Zuzanna Czebatul, Siegfried’s Departure I, 2018. Exhibition view, Even a spaceship has to land sometimes, 2018, Futura, Prague. Courtesy of the artist and Futura, Prague
Zuzanna Czebatul, Andrea, 2023. Courtesy of the artist and Sans titre, Paris. © Andrea Rossetti
Zuzanna Czebatul, The Lunatic Fringe, 2023, exhibition view, Sans titre, Paris. Courtesy of the artist and Sans titre, Paris. © Aurelien Mole
Zuzanna Czebatul, T-Kollaps, 2019, exhibition view, Arcadia, Bally Foundation, Lugano. Courtesy of the artist and Sans titre, Paris. © Andrea Rossetti
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Zuzanna Czebatul, Kvertus Counter FPV Jamming Station, 2024, exhibition view, 5th Kyiv Perennial at Between Bridges, Berlin. © Eric Tschernow