In an interview with Joanna Malinowska and C.T. Jasper about Halka/Haiti exhibited at the Venice Biennale, Marta Kowalewska talks about differences between Polish and American art.
Marta Kowalewska: You're representing Poland at the Venice Biennale, although until recently you didn't work in Poland most of the time. Thanks to the Łódź exhibition Związki – Rozwiązki (Relations - Dis-relations) which took place seven weeks prior to the Biennale, we had the chance to get better acquainted with your work. Was that an opportunity to create a dialogue with Polish audiences?
Joanna Malinowska: When Michał Jachuła brought up the idea of a common project, we knew that it would involve the Łódź Art Museum seeing that it is an important place for contemporary Polish art. Initially, we were going to build the exhibition around Georges Perec's book Life a User's Manual. This was a chance to show ourselves together, as a couple. The museum was going to be set up as a strange apartment, half inhabited, half abandoned, and in it we would show half fictional and half authentic recordings of scenes from private life.
We dropped the idea, but the museum has a personality of its own because it is located in the Maurycy Poznański Palace, which has strange rooms, a kitchen, a living room with modernistic furniture, so our initial idea was kept alive. It's a trip, a kaleidoscope and a melting pot of cultures.
In your work you touch upon anthropology, you take elements from different cultures, throw them in the washing machine and end up with humorous works of art full of new meaning. That's the case with W poszukiwaniu pierwotnej materii (In Search of primary matter) by Joanna. Yet, some describe the exhibition as "American". Do you agree with that?
C. T. Jasper: We have been wondering what the word "American" actually means. From the American perspective, Polish art is homogeneous, subject to certain codes. But how can we describe contemporary American art in all its diversity and wealth of artistic attitudes?
JM: Polish art is a reflection of a given moment in culture. The spirit of the time is very apparent here, making it easier to describe it. In our art history it's possible to distinguish artistic milieus which marked their presence and set the scene for future generations. "Kowalnia" at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Art is a good example. There, Professor Grzegorz Kowalski formed brilliant, versatile artists who have a common denominator.
It would be great if there were more such milieus, and if they cooperated. We personally don't see such mutual agreement and diversity, a clear rapport between trends and artistic attitudes, although this is surely changing. Artistic critique seems to have one single voice as well. In Poland, you can see that history seeded rigour. Rigour of content clarification and provision of points of reference.
That goes for art in Europe in general. This attitude can be seen in the work of curators on the old continent. In the United States, opposite artistic attitudes are presented side by side and that creates the feeling that everything is possible in art. It's hard to determine what the leading trend of the moment is, making it hard to unequivocally define early 21st-century American art.
That's why I'm intrigued by the voices that say that our exhibition in ms2 is "American", but I don't exactly understand what that means. Is it meant to be a compliment or a reproach? What's the true meaning behind the allegation? Take my work Ewolucja wiosła for example, I attached two specific objects, manufactured in a concrete place and with a concrete goal, with randomly gathered objects devoid of artistic meaning so as to create something akin to a picture of strange evolution. I think that people in New York are more easy-going when it comes to art than in Europe.
C. T.: Of course, the point is not to compare everything to New York. It's more about drawing attention to the fact that for a European, entering and positioning himself in the middle of this diversity of attitudes is difficult. That goes for both American art and critique where there is no specific code or system to measure oneself against. When coming to the United States, European artists are impressed by the liberty but lost in it at the same time.
It's true that one could have the impression that in Poland art is treated with great seriousness. Your works emanate lightness and freshness of thinking, widening horizons, crossing borders, a play on conventions.
JM: We have been living outside of Poland for a long time, we had to cross many borders. Art is perceived in many different ways in the different countries, and reactions to the same works of art are different, sometimes even conflicting.
C. T.: I do wonder whether we managed to create a dialogue with Polish audiences thanks to this exhibition. Will the works get lost somewhere in warehouses after the end of the exhibition? In conversations with critics we often heard that they liked the exhibition but that we had to do more to find a lasting place in Poland. We wish to have an open artistic dialogue...
The Venice Biennale project is perhaps an attempt at that. On the one hand you refer to Polish traditions, on the other you continue your earlier cycle of work , "crossing borders" not only in the geographical sense.
JM: The Venice project is a consistent continuation of individual artistic attitudes. And we both have our own reasons for that. C. T. has been exploring experimental films for a long time.
C.T.: In Venice we will show a documentary on the staging of Stanisław Moniuszko's Halka in a "natural surrounding", i.e. the Haitian village of Cazale, where the descendants of Polish legionnaires live. The event was documented "here and now" with no retakes. Playing with the cinematic form played an important role. We work with four cameras, we tried to blur the dividing line between the public and the audience, create a 360-degree panorama.
The project itself was inspired by Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo, based on a utopian vision of building an opera house in the heart of the South American jungle. The original idea surfaced 4, 5 years ago. We wanted to build a Drive-in Theatre next to the Transamazonian highway, a road connecting opposite South American coasts and going right through the centre of the jungle. We thought of setting up an institution modelled on the New York avant-garde film archives. The idea didn't pan out for various reasons.
The project revolves around a classical music piece. What did you learn from transferring a piece of music to geographically and socially exotic territories?
C.T.: Exotic is a rather subjective adjective. For the inhabitants of Cazale, the opera Halka and soloists dressed like Noblemen is probably what they call exotic. But coming back to your question – Joanna uses music in many of her projects, like in Kwintet smyczkowy na dwie wiolonczele, dwie altówki i trupa (String Quintet for 2 Cellos, 2 Violas and a Corpse), O obrotach ciał niebieskich (About the Rotation of Celestial Bodies) or W poszukiwaniu cudownego, ciąg dalszy...4:33 (In Search of The Miraculous, Continued). An important performative project of ours, Matka Ziemia Siostra Księżyc (Mother Earth Sister Moon), to a large extent was based on music accompanying the visual part.
JM: The current project is built on several levels of meaning. It provokes reflection. The location is a reference to the times of Napoleon. Fighting for their country's independence, Poles invaded another country and then switched sides. They turned on their own army and formed an army fighting for the liberation of Haiti. And the same time they represented a colonial people. When working on Halka we started to consider the extent to which as Europeans we have the right to enter the lives of people from other cultures and work on an artistic project without invading their privacy. In a nutshell, our project is an attempt at deconstruction by constructing such invasions.
Like many other of our works, Halka/ Haiti talks about a clash. A clash of cultures and different milieus. We got professional singers from the Poznań Teatr Wielki (a hierarchical institution in terms of people and voices) to work with the Port-au-Prince orchestra and amateur dancers from Cazale. We wanted our study to draw attention to the complicated history and ironic destiny. It's not about didacticism but taking a serious look at difficult subjects. We're assuming that we'll come back to Haiti to show this film, to build relations that so far only exist symbolically.
C.T.: We're trying to find ourselves amidst the ideas of national pavilions, the arms race or the Art Olympics, to which this event can be compared. Amidst the call to be represented externally and defining one's culture for someone else.
Interview: Marta Kowalewska
Translaot: MJ 06/05/2015, artwork titles translated by Marta Jazowska