In Art Dreams Come True, or Katarzyna Kozyra’s conscious Bovarysm
W sztuce marzenia stają się rzeczywistością, czyli Katarzyny Kozyry bowaryzm świadomy

Aleksandra Stelmach

‘Bovarysm is the ability to perceive oneself as different from what one actually is’. The author of this definition, the philosopher Jules de Gaultier, in his research on the phenomenon of Bovarysm and its significance for French society at the time, referred to it as a ‘disease of the soul’ and defined it as a conflict between the internal conditions of a person and the impact of the outside world on his or her personality (1). This disease, as was soon concluded, affects – in a harmless form – practically everyone. Analysing Bovarysm and looking for its signs in Flaubert’s characters, Gaultier states that the condition concerns every human being and – to some extent – is a normal healthy feature, indispensable in the process of learning and development.

The definition itself, as well as the title of one of Gaultier’s key essays: Bovarysm: An Essay on the Power of Imagination (1902), brings to mind a vast area related to the human need for dreams. Very distinct in children, Bovarysm is first related to dreams of the future (‘what will I be when I grow up?’) and the desire to play different roles, formed by the observation of the world of adults and by fairy-tales. If this stage of Bovarysm does not evolve into more mature forms of identification with imagined, dreamed visions of oneself, it might, according to Joseph Lévy-Valensi (2), turn into primitive Bovarysm, construed as mythomania. This type of Bovarysm was treated by French psychiatrists as a pathological condition (3) .

In her project In Art Dreams Come True, Katarzyna Kozyra, a sculptor and visual artist, draws from the world of childhood dreams. Her work, developed in the 1990s, is usually associated with the movement of critical art, contesting and commenting on Polish reality after the decline of Communism. Kozyra, who together with Artur Żmijewski and Paweł Althamer graduated from Kowalnia, the famous Warsaw sculpture studio of Grzegorz Kowalski, is often associated with scandals (4) and shock-provoking actions. Moreover, the artist produces art that is inseparably linked to her own person: she becomes an object of artistic transformation, a protagonist in her own film projects, and a filter through which she channels every experience. All this in order to provoke the viewer to reflect on himself or herself.

Katarzyna Kozyra, The Pyramid of Animals, sculpture and video, 1993, exhibition view, photo Anna Walewska, courtesy of Katarzyna Kozyra Foundation

Focusing exclusively on oneself may be associated with narcissistic tendencies that contemporary psychology defines as social narcissism, related to the dominant approach of one’s personality, subjugating reality to one’s own ‘self’. Yet, it needs to be noted that Kozyra’s art’s immanent feature, stemming from her position of questioning reality, is the critical outlook on her own personality, understood as the personality of a human and of an artist. Kozyra seems to wink at us and, despite the fact that all her projects are carried out with utmost seriousness and engagement, they propose a consciously ironic comment on reality and the viewer, as well as herself.

It is from this perspective that we might read her project, In Art Dreams Come True, namely as an activity which displays features of Bovarysm, yet only if we assume that Kozyra represents a special kind of Bovarysm that I suggest we define as conscious Bovarysm. This time the artist has decided to present the dream of ‘becoming someone else’, shared by all people. Hence, Kozyra’s work confronts not only her own experience, but also forces the viewer to answer the question: ‘who did I become when I grew up?’, and thus to verify one’s own Bovarystic desires.

Being aware that ‘real’ reality will not make her dreams come true, the artist decides to create her own world in the sphere of art: a world where they all can be realised. Thus, placing her project in the sphere of artificiality and creation, she comments on it and invests it with utopian traits. However, if we take a closer look at each part of the project separately, we must realise that the author not only aims to make her own desires come true, but also accepts the failure of this task from the start, being aware of the consequences of attempting to cut the unreal and the imaginary into embodied shapes.

The project In Art Dreams Come True, realised between 2003 and 2008, consists of over a dozen films, four of which – Singing Class (2204-2005), The Winter’s Tale (2005-2006), The Cheerleader (2006) and The Summer Tale (2008) – help illustrate the process of creating new identities and a conscious realising of dreams which, once made real, turn into nightmares.

In Singing Class, Kozyra goes back to the dreams of little girls who imagine themselves in beautiful dresses, in the spotlight, singing opera arias on stage
(5). So she decides to learn how to sing. She is introduced into this world by an opera singer and singing teacher, Maestro Grzegorz Pitułej. On the artist’s website one can read:

The Maestro, always artificial in life just as on stage, is the personification of the world of the opera, of sublimated feelings and emotions expressed in an unrealistic way, imbued with a powerful sense of artifice, in song. The artist [Kozyra – add. AS] has been taking classical singing lessons for a year now in order to acquire the capacity to express feelings in song, coming to master the arias set for her by the Maestro: those of the cherubim from the Marriage of Figaro (during which he is dressed as a woman) and of Marguerite from Gounod's Faust (the aria with the jewels, during which a simple girl is transformed into a coquette) (6) .

Katarzyna Kozyra, The Winter Tale, video from the series In Art Dreams Come True, 2005-2006, photo Marcin Oliva Soto, courtesy of Katarzyna Kozyra Foundation

For one year the artist engages in rigorous practice that is supposed to adjust her voice and technical skills to the requirements of the stage and expectations of the public (and especially of the Maestro). Kozyra wants to learn how to sing in the best possible way, most professionally, and with the utmost precision of sound. She is very ambitious in her endeavour, which makes her accept all kinds of procedures that are supposed to literally adjust her to the scale of her dreams.

It is not just that Kozyra wants to see herself as different than she is. In Singing class (7) she goes one step forward – she wants to become someone she is not. She takes on the role of singer, even though she knows that she is no material for the kind of level of singing that she aspires to. Florence Jenkins, who in the 1920s and 30s made a stage career, also wanted to become an opera diva, and was deemed by the critics and the public ‘the worst singer in the world’ (8). Known for her lack of rhythm, terrible pitch, and embarrassing diction, she believed in her talent to the extent that she read all negative comments as a sign of jealousy. She always attracted full audiences to her performances, and by the end of her life she even managed to have the historic Carnegie Hall fully booked. The extent of Jenkins’s lack of self-criticism and her exuberant narcissism, which send us straight to Bovarysm, are clear when one listens to one of her performances on YouTube. One of her recorded pieces was titled by the posting user, HappyApostate, as ‘Florence Jenkins massacres Mozart’ (9).

Just like Jenkins, Kozyra tries to make her dream of singing come true. The basic difference between them is that the former nurtured a strong belief in her talent (and the power of her money), while the latter consciously doomed herself to failure. When, after the long period of intense practice, Kozyra enters the stage, all she can experience is humiliation and ridicule. Her singing sounds like a caricature. Aware of the artist’s effort, the public is confused, while she is afraid and embarrassed. The video recording of the concert she gave in Trento is titled Nightmare, fully expressing the result of a desperate attempt to play the role. The dream becomes suffering, and the very meaning of realising it pops like a soap bubble.

A different role, that of a cheerleader singing a pop song, is assumed by Kozyra under the close supervision of Gloria Viagra. Gloria, a Berlin-based drag queen who perfected the art of being a woman, is seen by Kozyra as a symbol of femininity. Gloria is, then, an incarnation of a ‘different self’ on 20-centimetre heels, Bovarysm fulfilled, realised, and happy. Together with the unremarkable, ‘tomboy’ artist, he goes shopping, teaches her how to put on her make-up and how to move:

In both of these worlds reign strong, but very different, stereotypes of femininity and what it means to be a star. Gloria Viagra's main task is to help the artist discover the ‘woman’ inside her, the ideal or incarnation of which is for the artist none other than Gloria herself or, in other words, Michel dressed as a woman. Gloria shows Kozyra the secrets of make-up and costume and picks suitable make up, hairstyle and wigs for her. She also goes shopping with her (10).

Thanks to Gloria, the multiplied realisation of dreams takes on additional dimension and makes In Art… a much deeper and fuller project. In Cheerleader a woman is disguised as a man disguised as a woman. Who is who, actually?

When with Gloria’s assistance Kozyra finally becomes feminine, she tests the way women function in a purely masculine environment: she makes a video for a hit song What are your waiting for in a men’s sports dressing room, among men preoccupied with themselves, ignoring the coquetry and ‘feminine’ actions of Kozyra-cheerleader . This way the artist seems to suggest that taking on the role of a woman and putting on a mask stereotypically assigned to the behaviour of women does not bring the expected results. The mask doesn’t work, and instead of the success projected by shared expectations, the fulfilled dream brings yet another failure.

Katarzyna Kozyra, Cheerleader, music video from the series In Art Dreams Come True, 2006, photo Marcin Oliva Soto, courtesy of Katarzyna Kozyra Foundation

Attempting other tricks in the same video (11), Kozyra puts on a costume that looks like a monstrous naked female body, symbolising the primeval image of the ‘great mother’, or Venus of Willendorf. With this theatrical disguise she manages to gain the respect of the men in the dressing room. However, applause is only expressed when she sticks an artificial penis to her body, and bares it when walking on a catwalk, like a model presenting the best clothing (12). In one of the interviews, asked whether identity is based on gender differences, the artist replies:

I think so. But I don’t know… you see, this is why I do these things, because I’m troubled by such questions. When I’m a man, do I see myself differently and am I seen differently by others? If someone told me that I should be a man from now on, I would probably concentrate on how now, as a man, I should behave not to ridicule myself, not to stand out (13).

This way the artist poses the question of the role of the body as a costume, imposed and determining the way a person functions in the society of arbitrary norms. A costume which, as she proves, can be modified at any moment. In the already quoted interview, asked for a reason for her incessant disguises, she replies:

Children who stand out don’t know about it, until they are told. I want to show that these are all costumes. Though, on the other hand, I behave the way I dress; when you’re dressed up, you hide behind a cliché, you know you are not yourself, so you cannot make a fool of yourself.

This statement is proof of the irony with which the artist reworks all the situations she puts herself in, as well as proof of the very honest message of the project as a whole.

Kozyra is fully aware of the identifying gaze that comes from the outside and consciously engages in a chameleonic game, which Cheerleader emphasises with Gwen Stefani’s song, where the singer talks about signing a million-dollar contract and tries to take things into her own hands to realise it. In the case of Kozyra, the motif of an artist in the world of business is very autobiographical, the more so that while recording the song, she used the director and employees of the Zachęta – National Gallery of Art in Warsaw to sing her choirs. Gwen Stefani’s video, on the other hand, is a direct reference to Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland, telling the story of a girl who plunges into the world of fantasy and imagination to escape the boring reality of dos and don’ts.

In a similar fashion, Kozyra, who plays the role of an opera singer and examines various forms of femininity, explores the world of fairy tales in Winter Tale and Summer Tale. In Winter Tale (14), she re-tells in a way the stories of Cinderella and Snow White, princesses mythologised by pop culture. The film begins with a very familiar shot: a close-up of Gloria Viagra’s face – playing the evil stepmother who tortures the protagonist – who, as a conscious, artistic combination of woman and man, checks in front of the mirror whether she is credible as an incarnation of the image of the one she is not. The mirror offers an unambiguous answer: it cracks. This introduction anticipates the entire Winter Tale, addressing the problem of fitting in and meeting expectations we are not able to meet, because in the eyes of the other we are always a clumsy caricature of how we would like to be seen.

The inability to fit in is shown directly when a two-metre-high Gloria Viagra walks through the ridiculously low corridors of a house in Michałowice, surrounded by seven dwarves played by midget-actors for whom everything there seems to big and over the top. A similar crack can be heard when the Maestro, taken out of a trunk and slightly dusted, sits by a completely out-of-tune piano to practice passages with a tunelessly ‘yodelling’ protagonist, preparing her for her evening performance for the judgemental and always dissatisfied Gloria. The sense of characters being out of place is very distinct when Kozyra, reduced in the film to the role of home help, continuously hangs out the washing or sweeps the floors. This way the artist tries to meet the expectations of her ‘stepmother’, who brazenly and viciously throws rubbish on the floor. The only pleasant moment experienced by the protagonist is when she is given a bath by the ‘dwarves’, however dangerous it is due to its erotic subtext.

Katarzyna Kozyra, Summer Tale, video from the series In Art Dreams Come True, 2008, photo Ela Białkowska, courtesy of Katarzyna Kozyra Foundation

One can assume that the life of every persecuted princess looks similar, up to the moment of the arrival of the prince who saves her from her troubles. However, The Winter Tale has no happy ending with an ugly duckling turning into a beautiful swan. The amount of intransgressible hybridity makes the girly dreams dissolve like the smoke nonchalantly puffed by Gloria, which makes the protagonist have a coughing fit after singing Olympia’s aria (15) from Offenbach’s The Tales of Hoffmann.

The solution comes in the final part of the series In Art Dreams Come True, namely in The Summer Tale (16). The extraordinary, fairy-tale-like beauty of the scene and the idyllic landscape filled with charming actresses-dwarves initially frees the viewer from the sense of oppression coming with the observation of Kozyra’s struggles to put her dreams into practice. The peace of the inhabitants of the wooden house hidden in the garden is disturbed by the emergence of two toadstools and one puffball from which the familiar trio from hell pops out: Maestro, Gloria Viagra and Kozyra.

Katarzyna Kozyra, Summer Tale, video from the series In Art Dreams Come True, 2008, photo Ela Białkowska, courtesy of Katarzyna Kozyra Foundation

Like aliens, ‘the teachers’ intrude into the feminised world of the female dwarves and ruin its peaceful atmosphere with their opera noises, enormous heels, and general mess they leave behind in stereotypically masculine situations. They are being punished for it. First, the Maestro, as Sleeping Beauty, is poisoned with wine (he is saved from eternal sleep by Kozyra – the prince?). Next, together with Gloria, whose perfectly hidden masculinity is finally discovered by the dwarves, they are butchered with a cleaver and gardening tools, used by the dwarves to improve the world around them.

This time the protagonist cannot do anything, for she observes the crime tied to a chair and gagged. Femininity, which does not need a man in its perfect world, incapacitates the doll-like femininity, dominates it and thus cleanses reality from the unnecessary, masculine, norm-imposing dirt. One of the dwarves explains to Kozyra this macabre act of killing: ‘Don’t cry, dear, they are evil. They are men!’. If the film finished at this moment, it could be read as a rebellion against male domination that showed the protagonist the models to which to aspire: the model of a woman, and the model of a star. After all the suffering she’s been through, this kind of conclusion with a return to an idyllic world inhabited only by women living in harmony, could seem justified and fortunate.

Yet, Kozyra planned a different, more ambivalent ending for her project. In the final scene, from the window of the wooden house – being taller than the dwarves – she sprinkles magic powder over them and turns them into toadstools. Is it an act of revenge? Is it supposed to suggest that without established points of reference (even those established by men) it is impossible to say what one is, and hence it is impossible to dream of being someone else?

One might use as a peculiar comment on the problems posed in the above-mentioned work the artist’s earlier photo and video project entitled Olympia (1996) (17), where she showed her struggle against cancer. Using a clear reference to Titian’s Venus of Urbino and its 19th-century controversial rendition by Manet (Olympia from 1863), Kozyra confronts the viewer with the view of an ill, degraded, and tormented body, whose suffering does not serve the purpose of achieving success and perfect appearance. Here, the only goal and dream of Kozyra-the-woman is to survive, while Kozyra-the-artist wants to show that illness and ageing (18) should not be pushed to the margin of society’s interest. Recreating the scene from the famous painting, she elevates an ugly body and poses a question on the shared cult of beauty as humanity’s main dream.

Katarzyna Kozyra, Olympia, 1996, photographic installation, private collection of Barbara Kabala-Bonarska and Andrzej Bonarski, Warsaw, deposit at the National Museum in Krakow,
courtesy of Katarzyna Kozyra Foundation

One might say that in her project In Art Dreams Come True, Katarzyna Kozyra engages in a completely conscious game with Bovarysm. She has taken on the role of Emma Bovary, dreaming of the impossible and forcefully trying to realise all her wishes. However, from the very start, the artist is convinced that there can only be one ending. Consistently and consciously, she subjects herself to the identities she designs and realises her dreams only to immediately deconstruct them and show how dangerous the entire process is. On the one hand, she is safe in her action, protected by artistic immunity (or, like Emma, by that of a literary figure), on the other, she places herself openly for public judgement. Fortunately, she emphasises that everything takes place in the realm of artificiality, for it is the only place, more than the ‘real’ reality, where any kind of fulfilment is possible.

In view of the fact that the crucial problem addressed by Kozyra is the confrontation between reality and various aspects of ‘femininity’, her work can be easily used for further confrontation with chauvinistic theories of Bovarysm, which see women as especially prone to excessive imagination, and with its themes that transgress gender and sexuality boundaries – also as a reflection from the perspective of gender and queer theories.


(1) J. de Gaultier, Le bovarysme: psychologie dans l’œuvre de Flaubert, Éd. du Sandre, Paris, 2008; Le bovarysme: essaie sur le pouvoir de l’imaginaire, PUPS, Paris, 2006.
(2) Joseph Lévy-Valensi stated that all kinds of mental illnesses are a form of Bovarysm. See , J. Lévy-Valensi, Bovarysme et constitution mentale, in: ”Journal de psychologie normale et pathologique”, Paris, Alcan, 1930.
(3) Bovarysm as a form of mental illness was accepted only by French medical circles.
(4) This word was used to assess her first artistic piece, a video work and installation called The Pyramid of Animals (1993), aiming to confront human approach of brutally dominating the world of animals and disguising the problem of death in society.
(5) Nowadays, it is probably less about the arias, and more about the spotlight.
(7) The film available at:; accessed: 26.05.2013.
(11) Fragments available at:
(12) The costume of the naked singer and the naked man disguise were taken from Kozyra’s previous works: Lord of Dance and Men’s Bathhouse. In this case, they are Kozyra’s own ‘creations’.
(15) The aria of a doll that the protagonist falls in love with is selected by the Maestro on purpose, thus adding to the creative, artistic (that is: artificial) dimension of the entire project, investing it with more meanings.
action=view/object&objid=990&fraza=opowie%C5%9B%C4%87%20letnia; accessed: 27.05.2013.
(17); accessed: 28.05.2013.
(18) The project consists of three pictures: Kozyra on a hospital bed, Kozyra posed as Olympia, and a portrait of an old, naked woman sitting on a bed, with a black velvet ribbon on her neck.

Proofreading: Robin Gill