'Let’s Play Together!': An Interview with Paweł Althamer
#photography & visual arts
default, 'Let’s Play Together!':
An Interview with
Paweł Althamer, Paweł Althamer, 2018, photo: Przemyslav Vezhhovsky / Agencja Gazeta, center, althamer_2018_prw20180609_04.jpg
In a conversation with the renowned Armenian journalist Mark Grigorian, the outstanding sculptor Paweł Althamer claims that any one of us can allow ourselves to be an artist – and within this, find the lost joy of childhood.
Paweł Althamer is a sculptor and avant-gardist. Truly, however, he is not just a sculptor. He is an artist who works in many genres of modern art, such as performance and ‘action’:
Performance is a work of art created for the principle of the ‘here and now’ – that is, in a specific place, at a specific time. And, of course, the artist’s body plays a part in this art, but this part of the work is also a mutual relationship between the performer and the audience. Action is the creation of a work of art where the process itself, not the result, is the most important aspect.
While carrying out his 'actions', Althamer, as a rule, fashions an environment, within which other people create. For example, in one of his performances, Althamer’s neighbours put on golden overalls and walked along the streets of their neighbourhood, conversing with people walking by. In another, they painted an entire Boeing aircraft gold, then boarded the plane – and flew from Warsaw to Brussels to celebrate the twentieth anniversary of democratic elections in Poland.
Althamer has been invited to work in many different countries around the world; his art is famous not only in Poland, but also in the United States, Canada, Germany, Italy, France and Russia… It can certainly be said that he is one of the artists defining both the present and the future of the European avant-garde.
11 Greatest Works of Paweł Althamer
The quest of contemporary artists is characterised by the search for new means of expression, expanding the scope of artistry and stretching beyond the walls of exhibition halls and traditional frameworks. It could be that their audiences don’t like traditional art forms – but the avant-garde is always searching for new pathways in art. And this search is fraught with risk. An artist risks nothing by putting a picture into a frame. But what if the picture is created on the background of an entire city district? That’s how Paweł Althamer works.
A Nativity scene on TV
One of Althamer’s most recent projects looked like this: In front of the Zachęta National Gallery of Art (which has paintings by Picasso, Toulouse-Lautrec, Malevich and many other extraordinary artists on display) lay several enormous logs, from a hundred-year-old sycamore tree that had been sawed into pieces. These pieces were also objects, and anyone who wished was invited to ‘work’ with them. Passersby joined in the activity. About 10 people gathered here on this cold December day.
I've been using my method for many years: inviting others to participate, and now as well. We decided that we’ll conduct a sculptural experiment. We brought these logs here, as this large tree was blown over by a strong wind not far from my studio. Even nature itself took part in my action.
Althamer was surrounded by a group of people who were busy with something or other, not paying attention to people walking by. Someone was cutting pieces out of a large, thin sheet of tin, someone was painting the frame of television set standing there, and others were simply talking with each other, broken into little groups of two or three people.
Rubber - Paweł Althamer
I think that the people who are here understand that we are a collective. A kind of natural collective. We don’t need any leaders. We are playing. Playing like children – not like politicians.
Little by little, all the participants in the activity gathered around the ‘golden television’, bringing the pieces of metal they had just been cutting various figures out of. As it turned out, these depicted Mary and Joseph, baby Jesus in the manger, and the three wise men – Balthazar, Caspar and Melchior. The television became the stage for a Nativity scene which fit into the surrounding ‘organized chaos’, where huge logs portrayed a bust of Mickiewicz, the figure of a nude woman and a ‘bonfire’ of scraps of blazing matter, the metal pieces reminiscent of a pagan altar…
We are outside the Zachęta National Gallery, a trove of valuables created by the masters. And we are doing the opposite. We say: let’s feel like masters. We will own the moment and enjoy the fact that we are artists. And no one ought to be embarrassed if they haven’t received any special artistic education.
Art as a state of happiness
The impression I got from what I saw on the street was two-pronged. On the one hand, I saw a group of enthusiastic people, eagerly doing this and that, creating their own work. On the other – from an artistic point of view, the result of their activity honestly did not impress me that much. Who is the author of the work that was created there? Per Althamer’s concept, all the participants of the project are artists in one way or another.
Paweł Althamer: People don’t consider themselves artists; they assume they don’t have any talent. This is a catastrophic mistake. We lose the great pleasure of being creators, child-like. We may be doing something very well, but then we slowly become critical of ourselves. […] This is what makes us unhappy.
Mark Grigorian: So, art as a way to raise one’s self-esteem?
PA: The best way! And it’s also a stimulus for self-education. I think this is what art is for.
MG: You swap the places of the artist and piece of art. We go to a gallery of paintings and admire the artwork that appears to have value separate from the artist. But the important thing for you is the process of creating a piece. And here, the value comes from the artist, the act of creation.
Dreamer – Paweł Althamer
PA: You know, art is a form of communication. Of friendly interaction. You can be a critic, but you are just playing the role of a critic. You get pleasure from it; you are playing, like an actor. Like a free spirit! Free spirit is higher than any ‘religion’ – art, politics, other systems. In my opinion, art is a beautiful method of self-actualization. But at the same time, we have to put reason aside. After all, our brain is a part of these ‘games’ that we can call conflicts, or a constant state of war.
PA: When I start to think too much, my ideas and concepts block my natural feelings, my natural energy, I stop feeling joy. And this is the first step toward a global war that starts in my body. Then, my hands begin to get nervous [he nervously rubs his hands], I get confused by my own ideas, and this, when it happens, it drives me crazy […] But art is the state in which you can overcome this unhappiness. With the help of art, you can overcome very dramatic situations.
MG: The process of creation makes you happy […]. What about the result?
PA: The result as well, but this is a different kind of happiness. You become aware of your own strength, you feel a sense of peace and that so-called inspiration, which spurs you to creation. You follow this feeling, but you’re going after something that might lead you to a completely different result. And you aren’t disappointed, though the result you get is clearly something you weren’t expecting.
How art is created
MG: When you flew your friends to Brussels on the golden airplane, did you want to make them happy?
PA: The basis of this project was actually boredom! Insanity-inducing boredom, like a state of permanent misery. In daily life, people look tired, sullen; they aren’t laughing, they’re uncomfortable. [The project] resembled something like playing with my children: 'Hey, what are we going to do together? Are you ready to do inexplicable things? Don’t ask me why! Either you join me, or you don’t. It’s a game!' No one promises anyone anything, and a happy ending isn’t guaranteed. At this moment, of course, many people begin to wonder: Do they have the courage to participate, or is it safer to stay on the side? I asked them: ‘What do you think? I’m inviting you, so this is what I think! Let’s be together and be a collective! It’s a game – so let’s play together.'
MG: This concept was at work when you brought a singing choir out on the streets of Moscow. The choir sang a song from the film 'Jolly Fellows' that was very famous, so that everyone walking by could join in. What was the game in another of your projects, where the participants simply cleaned the streets together?
Observer – Paweł Althamer
PA: Oh! Street cleaning is like touch. It’s a path to the shamanic roots of touch. Touch can heal. Bring harmony. There is no difference between street cleaning, composing a musical piece or making a painting. In all of these instances, you are giving your inner sense of order to the world. You're sharing your happiness with people. I asked my students: ‘Hey, guys, do you feel like you're making a work of art?’
MG: You often use the colour gold. You’ve dressed your neighbours in gold overalls; you painted a Boeing plane; you had a performance with a gold bus and then a gold television… What’s the reason behind this?
PA: The reason? Symbolism. Gold symbolises something that has great value. It symbolises how highly I value these projects and working with people. But at the same time – it’s nothing. It’s just a costume.
MG: I really enjoyed another project of yours – in the United States, you invited undocumented immigrants to break down the door of the gallery where your exhibit was on display and then repair it.
PA: We spoke about the seeds from which a concept grows. And this was the seed here. I wondered: What game am I playing? Who am I? Why did these people from New York (Massimilliano Gioni and Ali Subotnick, curators of the Wrong Gallery – ed. note) invite me? What do Warsaw and New York have in common? And the main thing – The Wrong Gallery is so small, it’s almost unknown.
Then, I saw this eternal, worldwide game that we call war and peace. First comes a group of creators, who are building a beautiful civilization. But this is followed by another wave – barbarians. They go on to destroy what was built by their ancestors. For them, annihilation is an act of freedom, a creative act of destruction.
Major Paweł Althamer Exhibition in Helsinki
And now, let’s put both worldviews into one bottle. It happens that these two concepts are something like a collective vision, although they are also two antagonistic movements. And I tried to represent this in the performance. The irony lay in the fact that the barbarians and the creators were one and the same people. After all, each of us is both a barbarian and a creator.
PA: The easiest answer to that is: You decide!
contemporary polish visual artists
Polish visual artist
polish visual art
zachęta national gallery in warsaw
Interview conducted by Mark Grigorian, Feb 2019. The renowned Armenian journalist came to Poland to conduct a series of interviews with prominent figures of Polish culture for Public Radio of Armenia by invitation from Culture.pl and the Open Poland programme. Originally written up in Russian, translated by KA, March 2019.