Paweł Wojtasik was born in Łódź, Poland. He spent three years in Tunisia before coming to the United States as a refugee in 1972. Wojtasik received an MFA from Yale University in 1996. From 1998 until 2000 he was a resident at Dai Bosatsu Zendo Buddhist monastery in the Catskill mountains of New York State. In his films and large-scale installations Wojtasik creates poetic reflections on cultures and ecosystems. His investigations into the overlooked corners of the environment have led him to pig farms, sewage treatment plants, wrecking yards, autopsy rooms and cremation sites.
Wojtasik's work has been shown at festivals such as Berlinale, New York Film Festival, and Hong Kong International Film Festival where his film Pigs won the grand Prize in the short film category in 2011. Wojtasik was a featured filmmaker in the 2009 Flaherty Film Seminar. Paweł's installation work includes the immersive 360° Below Sea level, about post-Katrina New Orleans, exhibited at MASS MoCA and included in Prospect.2 Biennial; as well as Single Stream, (co-directed with Toby Lee and Ernst Karel), shown at the Museum of the Moving Image in New York. The cinema version of Single Stream was presented at the 2014 Whitney Biennial, at Ann Arbor Film Festival, Locarno International Film Festival, and other venues.
Wojtasik's first feature film End of Life (portraying five individuals nearing the end of their lives, co-directed with John Bruce) premiered at DocLisboa in 2017 and had its US premiere at the 2018 New York Film Festival. Paweł's most recent feature film Every Pulse of the Heart Is Work, on the theme of labor, shot in Benares and Kerala, India, had its NYC premiere at The Museum of Modern Art as part of 2020 Doc Fortnight.
Roughly speaking, Wojtasik has produced two kinds of video work: short pieces on unusual topics—sewage treatment, naked mole rats, pigs, autopsy—and large-scale gallery installations about particular places. Nearly always shot with a tripod and on digital video, and with a rigorously formal compositional sense, Wojtasik’s imagery is often simultaneously beautiful and disconcerting: the elegance of the imagery at the beginning of “Dark Sun Squeeze” (2003), for example, belies the fact that we are looking at human waste in a sewage treatment plant.
For Wojtasik, making art is about facing fear—the fear of death, of pain, of loss, even the fear of seeing certain kinds of imagery on screen—and challenging taboos. Nowhere is this more obvious than in “Pigs” (like most of Wojtasik’s work, “Pigs” has existed in several versions, the most recent was finished in 2010), which upends the convention in nature film that animals should be represented in a way that is not disgusting. The pigsty in “Pigs” is a pigsty, and the feeding frenzy, a horror. His most recent work, “Nine Gates” (2011), on the other hand, pays homage to what Apollinaire called the nine gates to a lover’s body, in a work that is a glorious addition to an avant-garde mini-tradition that includes Willard Maas’s “Geography of the Body” (1943) and Yoko Ono’s “Fly” (1970).
Wojtasik’s more publicly oriented work is more directly polemical. “The Aquarium” (2006) focuses on how aquariums contribute to the illusion that environmental damage to the world’s oceans is of minor importance. “Below Sea Level” (2009), the 360-degree panoramic film created for the MASS MoCA (Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art) exhibition called “These Days—Elegies for Modern Times” and recreated in New Orleans for Prospect.2 Biennial (and on view through January 29, 2012), honors New Orleans in the wake of Katrina, emphasizing the continued survival of a region that has been living on the edge for decades. The five-screen video “At the Still Point” (2010) is an evocation of the collision of the old and new and of life and death in India, focusing on Varanasi, where the bodies of the dead are burned next to the Ganges, on the ship-breaking industry in Alang, and on a giant traditional laundry in the shadows of modern skyscrapers in Bombay.
Paweł Wojtasik's critical, and at points documentary-style video work foregrounds the means by which material waste, including that produced by the human body, is processed and eliminated. A culture of increasingly rapid consumption does not often permit glimpses into how its refuse is handled. While we have a vague idea what happens after items are thrown away, visceral experiences of these activities are scarce. Wojtasik takes us behind the scenes, and the results are unexpectedly beautiful and horrific.
Exploring numerous sites of waste treatment, Wojtasik has chronicled methods used at such diverse locations as a supermarket, a garbage transfer station, a car junkyard, and an individual's own home. Employing slow-motion imagery and clear, crisp ambient sound recorded on-site, each piece reveals an open-ended narrative that encourages genuine inquiry into what these endless processes mean for our physical and ideological world. Crush (2005) begins with close-cropped, nearly abstracted shots of mechanical actions; taken out of context, it is unclear what greater activity they denote. Gradually, Wojtasik's camera pulls away, divulging the full length of a car as it is flattened by a massive vise. More startling than this new, unexpected image is the realization that it is but a microcosm of a far vaster effort.
Dark Sun Squeeze (2003-2004), shot at a sewage treatment plant, can be viewed as a single or three-channel projection piece. In a reversal of the technique used in Crush, the camerawork consists of fairly long shots that slowly give way to graphic close-ups. Seen from afar, the vats of sewage glitter and bubble, creating the illusion of a generative force. Continents seem to form on the surface of this life-giving spring. Wonder turns to disgust as chunks of human excrement become visible with an insider's perspective on the mechanisms used to filter the contamination. Tracing a contradictory trajectory from the seemingly pure to the manifestly impure, Dark Sun Squeeze can be perceived as an examination of the vicious cycle of industrial progress burgeoning production, gross consumption, and hence, overproduction of functionless matter.
—Sarah Kessler, MoMA/PS1