LA JOLLA — Krzysztof Wodiczko can hear buildings speak. When he adds his voice to theirs, he hopes others can hear them, too.
"Architecture has things to say," the Polish-born artist said in an interview in La Jolla this week, "but the particular meaning of architecture is still in the hands of the viewer. It depends on who is using the institution and what is happening around it."
Wodiczko, who now lives and teaches in New York, has been summoned to San Diego by the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art to stage two public projections, events that, as he has written, make explicit what is implicit about buildings. By projecting photographic images culled from the media onto public buildings and monuments on a large scale, Wodiczko hopes to call attention to the architecture's patriarchal presence, its presumed authority and wisdom.
What is important, he says with conviction and a measure of pride, "is to retain a certain level of critical relation to the environment, whether revealing what those buildings are really whispering to each other or forcing them to scream in terms of our own interests."
Wodiczko's projections couch the critical in the spectacular. The images he will project onto the facade and tower of the Museum of Man in Balboa Park tonight (6-11:30) will reach heights of 75 feet. His projection onto the Omnimax dome of the Centro Cultural Tijuana on Saturday night (7:30-midnight) will be even larger. Wodiczko's first ventures into projection assumed a much more modest scale. As part of his gallery installations in Poland in the mid-'70s, Wodiczko projected slides of newspaper and magazine images, in an attempt to bridge his formal experimentation with the outside world.
In 1977, the year he emigrated to Canada, Wodiczko realized that "all of those manipulations with images projected in the gallery were not effective enough, because the architecture of the gallery did not relate to anything, either the building or the street. As an act of desperation, I moved out."
In 1980 he presented his first public projections, and has since staged dozens throughout Europe, Australia, Canada and the United States.
One 1985 projection imposed a single, massive eye onto the pediment of the Parliament building in Bern, Switzerland. Beyond the image's initially surprising and disjunctive presence lurked a more serious message: Wodiczko's exposure of implicit links between political and economic forces. During the course of the projection, the eye shifted its gaze from adjacent bank to adjacent bank and finally to the ground below, containing a national vault filled with gold.
In another recent work, Wodiczko projected a swastika onto the pediment of the South African embassy in London, branding the building with the notorious emblem of legalized repression and discrimination. Though embassy officials eventually aborted the projection (by having the artist arrested as a public nuisance), Wodiczko's statement survived for two hours, and probably much longer in the minds of those who witnessed it.
"It is possible to engage the public in complicated debate that is visual," he says. "I think the public is prepared." Response to a New Year's Eve projection in Boston that transformed a Civil War memorial into a memorial for the homeless reinforced Wodiczko's faith in the public.
When asked their reaction to his work, "Most of the public responded in a very complicated way, understanding the relation between the projected image and the meaning of the memorial, understanding all this in relation to the homeless issue and the politics of the city. The idea that the public has to be treated as a bunch of children who know nothing became a mockery."
The impact of Wodiczko's work relies a great deal on his use of recognizable imagery, and his bestowing of new meaning to known forms. An important influence to him in developing this method of recycling images was John Heartfield, a German photomontagist active in the 1920s and '30s. Heartfield cropped and reassembled photographs of political figures and events from magazines and newspapers to create biting social commentary.
Of the newspapers, magazines and television that he uses as source material, Wodiczko says, "All of this media is already didactic enough to teach the public how to read it. Whether people are fully conscious of why and under what situations particular icons or images were made is another matter, but certainly they do accumulate vocabulary."
Like Heartfield's images, the images of eyes, hands, missiles, crutches and chains adopted by Wodiczko must be altered to serve their new function.
"Confrontation with the monstrous scale of some buildings, their symmetry and all of the bodily metaphors they contain forced me to start photographing these images in a special way. I needed to fragment them so they could reassemble on the surfaces of the buildings according to what those surfaces and parts of the buildings suggested to me."
Wodiczko gave few hints as to the nature of the imagery he will project onto the Museum of Man and Centro Cultural Tijuana this weekend.
"I know more and more why I selected these structures, in terms of my plans for the imagery. I don't want to tell you exactly what will happen, but the fact that we are here on the border increases awareness of particular issues. I would like to relate to this context."
The artist will discuss these works and others in a lecture Tuesday at the La Jolla Museum of Contemporary Art, where an exhibit of photo-enlargements, drawings and slides of his work is on view through March 13. Wodiczko hopes, however, that a certain degree of ambiguity will prevail.
"My works don't work in a direct, didactic way. I have no recipe as to the number of different readings, but I welcome the possibility of more than one."