Histoires vraies, exhibition catalogue, MAC VAL, Vitry-sur-Seine, 2023

All of Yan Tomaszewski’s work is underpinned by the same aim: to reconfigure what exists, both materially and intellectually, by pointing out its conditioning and pushing back its limits. This horizon runs through the various fields invoked by the artist, such as mountaineering, archaeology, astronomy or cosmetic surgery, which in his hands become instruments of narrative speculation.

Although speculative, these stories are grounded in facts and real people. For example: Mieczyslaw Szczuka, a Polish Constructivist artist who died in 1927 while climbing in the Tatra Mountains and whose work has almost entirely disappeared; or the Churyumov-Gerasimenko comet, to which a probe was sent in 2004 in the hope of confirming the hypothesis that life on Earth originated with cometary material; finally, Nowa Huta (The New Forge), a Stalinist ideal industrial city built near Krakow, on the site of a Neolithic and Bronze Age settlement. All these subjects give rise to semi-fictional recreations in the form of videos, installations and sculptures, in which the revolutionary ambitions of Constructivism meet the conquest of the peaks, where our earthly condition is rewritten by the stars and alchemy, and where the project of a utopian city seems to be announced by the discovery of prehistoric metal objects. More recently, the artist has been examining a figure who explores the breaking of boundaries in his own flesh. This is Oli London, an English influencer who has undergone multiple plastic surgery operations in order to look like his idol, K-pop star Jimin. In the film Gangnam Beauty (2021), Tomaszewski interweaves the story of this influencer with a thirteenth-century Korean tale about a sculptor who is ordered to produce fourteen masks, unseen by his fellow men, on pain of death, in order to save his village from the wrath of the gods. Oli London plays both himself and the Korean character. The making of the shamanic masks, using a material that is like wax in its extreme lability, brittleness and translucence, resonates with his own process of physical transformation, as if this legend prefigured the plasticity of contemporary identities. At the same time, the tragic end of the young sculptor, who died because he was surprised by his beloved, also echoes the reactions to Oli London on social media; super-liked by some Internet users, he was shot down by others on the grounds of cultural appropriation. From the Korean tale to the life of Oli London, it is all a matter of perspective: those of third parties who have the power of life or death, real or symbolic. This young Briton’s quest for ‘beauty’, wholly fixated on media approval, is threatened by his own downfall in the case of mass dislikes – the new anger of the gods.

Translated from French by Charles Penwarden

Selected texts