Krzysztof Maniak: A Walk is a Kind of Medium
full-width, Krzysztof Maniak:
A Walk is a Kind of Medium, Krzysztof Maniak, ‘Untitled (Hay)‘, as of 25th June 2019, photo: courtesy of the artist, center, krzysztof_maniak_prace_18.jpg
For a decade, this artist’s work has been based mainly on walking in forests and groves around his hometown. Krzysztof Maniak will tell us about art that is more likely to be seen by deer than by people, private rituals in the wilderness, as well as functioning as an artist outside of large cities.
Piotr Policht (PP): You returned to your hometown, Tuchów near Tarnów, while you were still studying. Isn’t it hard to function artistically far away from bigger cities?
Krzysztof Maniak (KM): I don’t think I’m missing anything. Tuchów is not so isolated. Whenever I want, I can go and participate in the artistic life of, for example, Kraków. I am also lucky that Tarnów is really close, and so is the great BWA run by Ewa Łączyńska-Widz, which I visit regularly. Staying in Tuchów results from my character – in larger cities, I simply feel cramped and stifled, and their rhythm prevents me from focusing on my work. I constantly feel shaky. Tuchów, in terms of its quiet rhythm and scale, allows me to really get to know it deeply – it’s perfect for me.
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PP: What about the social landscape of Tuchów? Does it matter to you that this is a town in Lesser Poland Voivodeship and not, for example, in Silesia or Podlasie?
KM: I don’t eagerly explore the cultural, sociological and historical context of this place – they seem to me to be bottomless pits you could devote your entire life to. I focus on being in the terrain – walking, finding smaller and smaller fragments of the surroundings I had previously missed. Despite the fact that I’ve lived here since I was a child, there are still a lot of spaces I have not been to, but have instead only seen from the window of a train or a car – or by hearing about them.
But I’m not glorifying Tuchów, because I am well aware of the fact that there are also unpleasant things happening here that make my hair stand on end, such as the notorious resolution on the ‘LGBT-free zone’, which the local councillors adopted. My local ethos was shaken by this situation – it turned out that I cannot identify with this place one hundred percent. Probably I could work anywhere that would fit my scale – not too large, possible to tame, work out. As long as I could immerse myself in it. If I had to suddenly move elsewhere, I’d be thirty years behind in exploring it, but still, it would be possible.
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I like the local relief very much, the hills and mounds suit me better than the flatlands of the north, but if I was born by the sea, I would probably be attracted to coastal landscapes. I associate Tuchów with nostalgia; I like this perspective. Whenever I’m returning home from some trip, I realise how dear this place is to me.
PP: Your work has been happening in the field for quite some time now. At what point did you decide that the vicinity of Tuchów would become the main material of your art?
KM: I did my first trials about 10 years ago. For me, important rituals in childhood were, for example, mushroom picking with my parents or simply walking around aimlessly – which I recalled later but in an artistic context, in relation to Earth art or performance. Even though I had no name for it at that time, leaving a trace of my presence was the main motive for me. And since it was an open space, on the sidelines, I felt comfortable in it, because I didn’t feel like I was being watched.
So I started to explore these surroundings, working with them on the basis of reinterpreting, evoking, on building new meanings. I didn’t need to go anywhere further away, everything was in place and at hand, and because of this I could keep returning to the same places and study them until I felt they had been exhausted.
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Krzysztof Maniak, ‘Bez Tytułu (Czas i Przestrzeń)’ (Untitled [Time and Space]), HD video, 40 min. 2012-13, film still, photo: courtesy of the artist
PP: You felt good knowing that you were not being watched, yet on the other hand, you put yourself in the works. Why, then, the need to direct the camera not only at the landscape but also at yourself?
KM: Since a while now, I’ve been appearing less and less in front of the lens – my presence is not so direct anymore. More and more often, I am the observer who documents and transfers fallen tree limbs, forms made by other species or weather conditions into the field of art. I abstract them from the environment and then work on them. Sometimes I confabulate, transfer or recreate something in different contexts and places.
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Initially, I was focusing on finding myself in this landscape, to make some sort of a gesture towards it, marking it, taking a place in it – even if just for a moment. These were the necessary stages on my way to later and present activities, in which my physical presence is less and less visible or implicit.
PP: Where do you draw the line between an ordinary walk and art? Do you leave the house thinking that you are going to make art outdoors or is it a rather spontaneous decision?
KM: For me, a walk is a kind of medium, a situation in which I open up to certain possibilities. It’s like going to the studio without knowing in advance what will happen there. The work extends practically all the way. It’s hard to deduce when these are artistic activities and when not. Often, the creative act is simply working through all the emotions and perceptions encountered along the way. But the greatest artistic potential comes from just going out without some big goal in mind, hoping for an adventure that might happen or not. It’s best when something surprising happens during it, or I surprise myself with certain decisions towards it.
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Krzysztof Maniak, ‘Bez Tytułu (z serii Spacery)‘ (Untitled [from the Walks series]), 2018, photo: courtesy of the artist
PP: After a few years, is it not becoming increasingly difficult to spot something interesting in the limited landscape of this region’s forests and meadows?
KM: Tuchów has an area of 18 square kilometres, so it really is a rather small area, but often, without even realising it, I travel through areas belonging to neighbouring villages. I go for a walk once or twice a week. I often return to the same place for a long time, and I do that in order to really get to know these places well and to become thoroughly acquainted with them.
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Still, I think it is a space that cannot be fully traversed during a human life, and in addition, it is constantly changing. Recently, while walking along a short stretch of river, I observed newly formed banks – carved by the water. You can really spend a lot of time working with each fragment of a dozen or so square metres.
In the past, many places seemed anonymous – owned by no one. Now they are fenced off, their owners are starting to build on them. So some spaces are shrinking. The very search for new places to work with is terribly laborious and requires a lot of time. The creation of my works often takes a long time. What is shown in a dozen or so photographs sometimes documents a process lasting several years.
PP: When a fence and a building suddenly appear in a location, do you stop being interested in it?
KM: When I know that an investment will be created somewhere, I document this site, although I do not necessarily treat it as an artistic activity, but simply as archiving the space. Sometimes, I look at major changes through the prism of land art – sometimes, someone starts building in the middle of an inclined slope and before they begin building, they flatten the terrain, cutting into the steep slope, making something like a giant step in it. Until a house is built there, it actually looks really nice, like an intervention by Robert Smithson.
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In the past, I was able to work anywhere; now, my awareness has increased, and I know that everything is privately owned or owned by the administrative district. So, I have increasingly more scruples. I camouflage traces of my presence as well as my works from other people if they are created on the basis of physical interventions – for example, in the ground. I also walk around less frequented places. Thus, I narrow down the area of exploration to places that are less accessible or those that have several owners who cannot come to an agreement and regulate it legally, so they are lying fallow or running wild, overgrown with self-seeded forests. Then my small transformations, imprints or excavations do not raise any concerns.
PP: So you work in locations where no one can accuse you of rummaging around on their plot?
KM: Yes, but on the other hand, it’s not really important whether I see these works again, because, for example, they will be washed away by water or I might have limited access to them. For me what counts is the gesture itself, the process and the physical, often manual, work on-site. A special time during which I begin to – in a contemplative way – look at the surroundings and perceive more. These are my secrets, places that only I know about and where I can take someone for an intimate tour. These activities can also be thought of as works for other species – digging a beaver pit or making a mound that will be useful for other creatures, for example, becoming a vantage point for them.
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PP: Do you make your works with specific forest creatures in mind?
KM: So far, more with insects and underground species in mind. For example, working with a huge beech trunk, which I buried underground during the exhibition at BWA Tarnów in the park next to the gallery. My action with a blackthorn field located on my property was also shown at the exhibition in Tarnów, which included Sebastian Cichocki. It is an area of nearly 16 acres on which a few years prior, I planted over a thousand blackthorn bushes and several dozen wild roses so they could grow wild, creating field shrubs that are hard for humans to reach. I gave this area over to the forces of nature and other species, as it deliberately lies fallow – they do well there. For example, deer go there.
PP: Since you are so absorbed in this landscape, why didn’t you become an entomologist or a geologist, but instead a visual artist?
KM: Maybe I discovered this too late. I was interested in dinosaurs and various excavations, but on the basis of a typical childhood fascination. When I had to take tests at school to check my knowledge on such subjects – I got put off a bit. Dealing with these fields requires a more systematic and research-like nature. With art, you have the liberty of acting more intuitively. But after my intuition prompts a collision with something, I try to gain knowledge about what it is that I have found. It’s the same knowledge – just a matter of using a different way of arriving at it, different tools.
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PP: Do walks in the vicinity of Tuchów look different now than a dozen or so years ago, especially at this time of the year – when snow is seen mainly on Instagram, from the stories of friends who went skiing in the Alps? Are you drawing attention to signs of climate change in your work?
KM: This year’s winter is the first one I remember as being completely snowless. In January and February, I was able to walk outside without a jacket. A radical change has taken place during our short lives – after which our environment may never look or behave the way we remember it from childhood. For some time now, when I am working with basic materials such as stone or wood, I treat them as if they were the last things that will remain from our planet. As if this was the last moment to preserve or learn to summon the scent of unpolluted wet soil, or to collect samples from really big, old trees that are being cut down at an increasing tempo. I collect various such fragments of the world around us, which I keep at home – almost like fetishes. The world is 4.5 billion years old, and we are but an instant – but the vision of losing what we know is all the more overwhelming.
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Krzysztof Maniak, ‘Rzeźba dla Owadów’ (A Sculpture for Insects), as was on 21 September 2019, photo: courtesy of the artist
PP: A lot of ecologically engaged art has recently emerged from this sense of loss.
KM: These are important gestures that can gain strength when they are no longer individual utterances, but spoken by many. Maybe by taking these small steps, we will be able to do something, at least I hope so – that artists can become the driving force for change. Maybe they can even indirectly influence the actions of decision-makers in large global corporations, so that their activities do not degrade our already heavily strained planet.
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PP: Artists often colour this topic with slightly spiritual or even new-age tones. However, your perspective is probably more down-to-earth or scientific.
KM: I really liked Agnieszka Brzeżańska’s last exhibition at Królikarnia, where such magical themes resounded. In my case, it’s perhaps rare, but still – some of my works contain elements of ritual, bewitching reality and private, somewhat shamanic rites. One such ritual-funeral-magical action utilised deer bones – I reconstructed and assembled the skeleton of a deer I found near the forest, and then I moved it around to various places for a year, where I worked with it and photographed it, finally burying it a year later in the place from which I had taken it.
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Krzysztof Maniak, ‘Bez Tytułu (Sarna)‘ (Untitled [Deer]), as was on 16 May 2017, excerpt from a multi-stage action recording, photo: courtesy of the artist
PP: You are currently taking part in the exhibition ‘Z Peryferii’ (From the Periphery) at the Baltic Gallery of Contemporary Art in Słupsk. Do you consider yourself to be one of the spokesmen of the title’s periphery?
KM: Today, in my opinion, it does not really matter where you create or live – it’s a matter of individual preferences. The curators, Edyta Wolska and Roman Lewandowski, invited artists to this exhibition who have consciously decided to work in the places that they come from and are close to their hearts – not the obvious Warsaw or Kraków, where artistic life is concentrated. I do not feel that I am on the periphery, because I can move freely, drive, or visit what and where I want. But the term itself, ‘periphery’, I like a lot. It’s a bit exotic and mysterious – evoking a certain ethos of the periphery.
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It’s a good thing that attention is being paid to the variety of ways in which artists function, because not all of them have to live in big cities. Recently, I have heard that it’s becoming increasingly more common even for designers of great fashion houses to go – at the employer’s expense – to places where they can create in peace, disappear for a few weeks, and then return with ready-made collections. So I treat my periphery in open-air terms – for example, I go to Kraków to the university, and then I return home for a few days’ outdoor session, during which I can work in peace or simply collect energy and ideas for new activities.
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Interview conducted in Polish by Piotr Policht, Mar 2020, translated by Agnes Dudek, Oct 2020