Combining Catholic symbols and glitchy-pop aesthetics, Polish artist Ada Karczmarczyk has managed to upset both the artistic and religious communities. This is not unheard of in the contemporary art world, which Damien Hirst unsettled in Britain with his menagerie of pickled animals with quasi-religious titles. Unlike Hirst, who attended a Roman Catholic school as a child but often calls himself an atheist, Karczmarczyk has used her art as a platform to share her journey to conversion. Her diamond encrusted Embryo is a nod to Hirst’s For The Love of God (2007), the skull which he allegedly sold for £50 million. However it has has more to do with life, or rebirth, than death. The Warsaw-based artist, who also goes by the pseudonym ADU since her conversion, is reinventing evangelism by breathing new life into its image, showing that faith can be both female and fun.
“I’ve always wondered what it’s like to reach the viewer who is deeply immersed in popular culture, and how to make him or her begin to ask himself or herself questions. I’ve become interested in the tactics employed by pop music videos, in which an important message may be contained without sacrificing the joyful energy that attracts the audience. This is why my art has an attractive pop form.”
“In my evangelical works I portray a spiritual leader guiding others toward the light”
Karczmarczyk began recording herself in 2008 and the works that came out of that take the form of video diaries. Crisis (2008), in which the artist struggles with her oeuvre, is full of the repetitive minutiae of daily life that are typical of vlogs. Filmed mostly indoors, it recalls Lynn Hershman’s Lorna (1979-82), an interactive work about a woman who never leaves her house, and whose life is controlled by TV. Though Karczmarczyk is behind the screen, as opposed to being in front of it, obsession with Hollywood and American reality TV is the topic of Blog (2009) and American Girl (2010). In these early works Karczmarczyk is silent, a stark contrast with the pop-priestess protagonist of her recent video works. The silence only adds to the humour, and we only hear her voice when she’s imitating something from a film or advert.
“American Girl, filmed when I was an artist in residence in New York, told the story of a girl dreaming of becoming a star, who didn’t have anything valuable to say at that time yet. Therefore, she tended to talk about her adventures with the use of her performance. After my spiritual transformation, the protagonist of my movies (i.e. me) began to slowly gain a voice. Only after I had discovered what I wanted to communicate through my art did I begin to sing,” says Karczmarczyk.
The first time we hear Karczmarczyk is in Litany (2008) where she’s confessing small everyday pleasures she used to indulge in. She was born in 1985, when Poland was opening up to consumerism after nearly 40 years of Soviet-dominated communist rule. “I used to be a girl who spent hours on dance floors and loved squandering her parents’ money on clothes and drinks. On the other hand, I felt terrible emptiness.” Finding a voice was both a mental and spiritual exercise: “At present, my voice is a very important element. In my evangelical works I portray a spiritual leader guiding others toward the light. The internet and YouTube are important tools of my mission, as this is where I post my religious songs.”
The artist looks to global pop stars like Madonna for their ability to unite people of different nationalities, races and classes. “I decided to make all my songs by myself, take care of the arrangement, record vocals, mix the songs, and film music videos — since I am not a professional musician, dancer, or singer, the results are not perfect, which is also often criticised on the internet,” she says. “The first song I worked on with more professional artists was Church Is A Girl (2015) presented during the contest “Spojrzenia” at the Zachęta Gallery in Warsaw. When I sang, dancing as the three main Christian churches, I wanted to present energetic, expressive, and joyful communities of believers rather than create a caricature that everyone would like to see there.“
”I like the fact that today anyone who wants to say something important has the ability to personally record a message and post it online”
Following in the footsteps of many Youtube pop sensations, in 2015 Karczmarczyk put on a series of concerts, The Evangelism Show, which presented her with the opportunity to connect with the audience between songs. But she is indebted to the internet community: “My work started with the internet. I like the fact that today anyone who wants to say something important has the ability to personally record a message and post it online.” Children of the Internet (2014) is a homage to this, though the song also preaches the importance of building a digital community based on love and friendship.
The internet is no safe place, nor is it a natural home for the kind of spiritual autobiography that Karczmarczyk has posted online. This is partly why her work is often misinterpreted as mockery. As Karczmarczyk does more and more TV performances — this year, dressed up as a cheerleader the artist presented a series of evangelic workouts for TVP Kultura — she is apprehensive about leaving her work in someone else’s hands. “I am really nervous about the fact that it is other people who have control over me and can edit my gestures, movements, and words to form a different message than the one I wish to communicate.”