As Poland’s effective ban on abortions continues to spark mass demonstrations, a seminal women’s rights poster by award-winning American artist Barbara Kruger has returned to the country’s streets.
In protest against the new restrictions, a Polish gallery plastered Kruger’s work “Untitled (Your body is a battleground)” around the city of Szczecin, nearly three decades after the artist’s graphic work had first appeared in Polish public spaces.
“The situation in Poland is yet another attempt to continue the marginality and exclusion of women,” Kruger tells DW.
Not a blast from the past but a reminder for the present: Kruger’s poster hits the nerve of the zeitgeist
Controversial change in abortion law
On October 22, Poland’s constitutional court ruled that the termination of pregnancies due to fetal defects was unconstitutional, rendering Poland’s abortion laws some of the strictest of any developed country.
“The toxic twinning of the right-wing church and state works to guarantee control over female bodies, and does so with arrogance and contempt,” Kruger said.
The public backlash against the ruling in Poland has given rise to the majority-Catholic country’s biggest protests since the fall of communism 30 years ago. Meanwhile, the country’s right-wing government has also found itself at odds lately with the European Union due to Polish restrictions on abortion, judicial freedoms and LGBTQ rights.
“I hope (the posters’) public presence is a visual reminder that this struggle is ongoing, that the fears that feed the need to disempower women are powerfully brutal, but that the resistance to these fears is brave and growing,” Kruger added.
Decades of protest
The artist had originally created the work in 1989 for the Women’s March on Washington, a protest against anti-abortion laws in the United States that threatened to undermine Roe v. Wade – the US Supreme Court decision guaranteeing American women the right to having access to abortion.
In 1991, as Poland began tightening restrictions on abortion and sex education after the fall of communism, the Ujazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art posted hundreds of posters of the work in Polish translation on buildings in Warsaw.
Just a few weeks ago, The TRAFO Center for Contemporary Art in Szczecin received new prints of the poster from Kruger’s Berlin gallery, Sprüth Magers. TRAFO explains on its website the significance of the poster in Poland, saying that its first appearance came at a time “when we were in the process of forming a modern society.”
“Today, a quarter of a century later, body politics is still a valid issue. With the politicians trying to objectify the female body, Kruger’s work remains extremely relevant and ‘ready to use.'”
Artist with a sharp edge
The pro-choice work is one of Kruger’s best known pieces, following her much-copied signature style of short, acerbic slogans in mid-20th century advertising aesthetic.
Kruger has used this style since the late 1970s to address social issues such as racism and misogyny. For the cover of New York Magazine’s election issue in 2016, she took on then-presidential candidate Donald Trump with one word: “loser.”
Four years later, now that Trump actually has lost, the world awaits his exit from the White House. But Kruger doesn’t hold out much hope: “I think there’s much insanity, abuse of power, and incitement of violence yet to come,” she told DW.
“Whenever I hear someone say they’re ‘shocked’ by what the current regime is up to, it makes me nuts. It’s that failure of imagination that has helped bring us to this crazy scary moment. Trump’s white grievance and his posse of cons, grifters, flunkies and co-conspirators are not going anywhere. They’re 74 million strong […] Don’t be shocked.”
Kruger’s works have traveled the world – but they won’t be showing at galleries again any time soon due to COVID-19
A new age – on hold
Kruger’s next big project is currently on hold due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. A traveling exhibition of large-scale installations was planned for museums in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles – the city where she lives. But with record death tolls it is unlikely that he show will be shown anywhere anytime soon.
“The planetary pandemic we are now living and dying through is a crushing, chaotic firestorm,” the 75-year-old artist told DW.
“No matter how damaged and flawed ‘the before time’ was, its days and nights of doing errands, going to work, and having dinner with friends feel like a shimmering fever dream compared to today’s disease, dread, and isolation.”