Interdisciplinary artist. Born in 1967 in Warsaw, she lives and works in London. In 2008, she was among the four nominees for the prestigious Turner Prize, awarded each year to the most outstanding young British artist.
Visual artists whose work method is often referred to as cultural archaeology.
Goshka Macuga has worked out a very unique artistic strategy in which she moves beyond the traditionally perceived role of an artist, although in her work, she does also use traditional media, such as sculpture, drawing, painting, photography and film. She creates installations in which she appropriates the work of other artists, archive materials, ready-mades, but also objects of her own making. She communicates using the techniques and tactics of a museum exhibit or an archive (because of this, her art is often compared to that of Marcel Broodthaers). These are methods that are usually ascribed to curators rather than to artists. Macuga herself has said:
I am an artist who is trying to extend my activities by being a curator, a historian, a history-teller, a critic, archivist, exhibition designer, architect, composer, gallerian, sociologist, biologist, film-maker, collector, photographer, performer, magician etc.
Macuga's work method is often referred to as cultural archaeology as well as being compared to detective work. An exhibition is always preceded by archival research, often linked to the institution for which a given project is being created. The installations are constructed using different elements and are based on changing the context, showing coincidences and interrelations that previously went unnoticed, and recalling facts that have either been forgotten or suppressed.
My work alters the context – explains the artist. – I hope that it can create temporary changes in how the viewer perceives certain concrete items, objects, works of art, pictures and stories. History changes over time, our memories change as a result of new experiences and our experience, in turn, influences our memories.
The aim is to create new meanings and to offer the viewers the possibility to re-read the facts and artefacts. Above all, Macuga reveals the political factor in that which is aesthetic and visual. By doing so, she enters fields like art history, ethnology, psychology or esoteric science.
After completing her studies at the Central Saint Martins School of Art, and at Goldsmiths College in London, she embarked on a professional career as an artist. It was towards the end of the ‘90s that Macuga began using the works of other artists. One of the first of such installations was Cave (1999), in which she incorporated the works of artists like Keith Tyson and Dexter Dalwood. In order to present them, she designed a grotto-like space, the walls of which she covered with crumpled brown paper. The installation as a whole constituted a bitter reflection on the nature of works of art and the manner of their presentation. As Michael Wilson wrote:
the structure and style of a cave seemed to be designed first and foremost to protect and preserve these rare jewels, displaying them with some reluctance to be seen by the viewer.
For the Zawody malarskie (Painting Contest) in Bielsko Biała in 2001, Macuga prepared an installation that was similar in message -Pejzaż (Landscape) - she placed the works of other artists on a photo wallpaper, selecting them according to how their themes correspond with aspects of the landscape. Adam Szymczyk, curator of the exhibition, wrote in the catalogue that
Macuga's Landscape can be viewed as an exaggerated model of a thematic exhibition, where the different works relate to the selected theme by way of clinging. (...) Undermining therefore, the alleged naturalness and neutrality of contemporary culture's standard of 'lovely views', which actually has its roots in the tradition of true painting, Macuga also questions the claims of 'true artists' about being original, by inserting examples of extreme artistic individualism inside the frames of a typical, repetitive picture.
In 2002, for her exhibition in the Galeria Foksal Foundation in Warsaw, she displayed other artists' works inside a folk-styled interior of a traditional cottage, their role being reduced to props. In the same year, in the Transmission Gallery in Glasgow, she displayed selected works by local artists in different kinds of cupboards that gave the impression of being old and associated with traditional museum-like displays. The items on display were in stark contrast to such surroundings. In the Gasworks Gallery in London in 2003, Macuga reconstructed the Picture Room from John Soane's London Museum. The famous eighteenth-century architect stored his art collection there, including sketches by Piranesi, and plans of his own project. In reconstructing Soane's interiors, the artist created an exhibition of work by thirty artists. Macuga's first area of interest therefore, became art ontology and its institutional rooting (and the production and property issues arising therein), while, on the other hand, the problem of being original and the possibility of sourcing from an existing store of paintings.
The use of other artists in Macuga's activities takes on other forms. During her exhibition in Kate MacGarry's Gallery in London in 2005, the artist presented five hefty monographs of famous artists (they were: Francis Picabia, Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, Sigmar Polke and Martin Kippenberger) that she covered with a binding of her own design. Each one was based on the artist's unexpected and subjective choice. Her appropriation-based intervention posed questions about ownership, information flow, the possibility of using this information, as well as about the freedom of interpretation when taking advantage of available sources. .
Macuga's later installations used architecture more often and her exhibitions increasingly turned into expanded narratives. In 2006, for example, together with a group of architects, she constructed a huge architectural installation - Sleep of Urlo, inspired by expressionism and the Italian Renaissance. The layout of the rooms, on the other hand, was reminiscent of the Natural History Museum in Paris. Inside, contemporary artists displayed their works. The participants of the Liverpool Biennial, and Macuga herself, presented, among others, a somnambulist sculpture inspired by the film The Office of Dr Caligari. She expanded this esoteric theme in her installation, What's in a name in 2007 at the Andrew Kreps Gallery, in New York. Using sculptures, photos and other items, as well as archive materials, she connected the story of Helen Blavatsky, co-founder of the Theosophical Society, with that of Giuseppe Tartini, an eighteenth-century Italian composer who maintained that Satan haunted him in his dreams. As Michael Wilson wrote, a dream is a metaphor of the creative process, while an archive is a literal manifestation of artistic influences.
During the Biennale in Sao Paulo in 2006, Macuga constructed a small architectural structure inspired by the projects of Oscar Niemeyer who designed the most famous buildings in Brasil. This structure was contained inside some of the works displayed at the Biennale, but there was also a room in which the artist placed books, prints and documents that she had bought in Brazil. They referred to the country's colonial past, to religion, folk heroes, zoology, as well as to art. In front of it, the artist planted a herb, that - as locals believe - is supposed to ward off evil spirits. According to Michael Wilson 'Mula sem cabeca' embodied the tension between Brazilian modernism and the spiritual beliefs that have survived till this very day, as well as the paradoxical co-existence of modernism with that which is metaphysical, of the concept of progress with that which is archaic.
Macuga often uses art history as a point of reference. When she is working in a given institution, she starts by looking through its archives. When examining the archives of the London Tate, she created the exhibition, Objects in Relation (2007). The archive materials exhibited related mainly to the early-modernist British group, Unit One (and in particular, to Paul Nash), which combined progressive ideas with a return to the world of nature. She placed these documents next to natural forms she had looked for in the natural archives of English forests. She searched for the monsters inside. At the Tate exhibition, following her nomination for the Turner prize in 2008, Macuga referred to the story of two artist couples active in Europe during the 1930s: the British Paul Nash and Eileen Agar, and the Germans, Mies van der Rohe and Lilly Reich.
In her most recent installations, Macuga refers to the sphere of politics in a more uniform way. Her exhibition, I Am Become Death, in Basel in 2009, focused around the problem of the neo-colonial politics of the United States. The artist presented, among others, Aby Warburg's photos of Hop Indians next to photos from the archives of an American Vietnam War veteran. Reconstructions of the sculptures Robert Morris made for his 1971 exhibition in the Tate Gallery dominate this work.
That exhibition – explained the artist – was like a playground, you could climb these sculptures, play inside them, and this released a kind of anarchy or aggression. People ended up in hospital after suffering damage, and five days later, the exhibition was closed. The Vietnam War was still on at the time, and I don't know whether what Morris was exhibiting had any relation to it. However, I am interested not even in why he did it, but its social consequences. It was politically very ambiguous.
Macuga's installation in the Whitechapel Gallery in London (within the framework of The Bloomberg Commission), The Nature of the Beast (2009) focused on similar issues. The artist was interested in that moment of the gallery's history when Pablo Picasso's Guernica served as a stimulus to organize a political manifestation of the communist party, the aim of which was to collect money and shoes for the Republican Army in Spain. This time, an upholstery was placed hanging in the gallery, similar to that which can be found inside the UN headquarters in New York. (This upholstery was much talked about, when, in 2003, it was covered during Colin Powell's speech justifying military intervention in Iraq.) Hence, also, the presence of the bust of the American Secretary of State (ironically, in a cubistic style). In the centre of the gallery, Macuga placed a round table (which was at the same time a display containing archive materials) that was made available to different groups for discussion purposes during the exhibition.
Her first solo show in her native Poland didn't take place until 2011. Untitled filled the space of the Zachęta National Gallery with documentation and reflection on Poland's legacy of censorship during communism and immediately after. Macuga uses archival materials to show how the relationship between art and its audience and the museum space itself has changed. It pokes into the mechanisms of censorship and the limitations it has placed, and continues to place, on the artist's freedom and the channels of communication available. Examining certain situations over the past 20 years of exhibiting in Poland's major art institutions, Macuga illustrates how the fall of communism did not immediately entail the fall of censorship, showing how the works of Piotr Uklański or Mauricio Cattelan were destroyed, how artists, curators and works of art were targeted by both the government and the public itself, long nurtured with the tough gruel of propaganda.
The main element of the Bez Tytułu/ Untitled exhibition was an enormous photo of a gobelin, or tapestry, entitled List/ A Letter, which depicts seven postmen carrying an oversized envelope. The letter, addressed to Zachęta – The National Gallery of Art, was made out of fabric and placed on long rods, which were used by the men to hold up the material. On the three postage stamps there is a portrait of Lech Wałęsa as well as a white and red ‘Solidarity’ logo with a Polish flag coming out of the letter ‘N’. The Polish Post issued such stamps on the 25th anniversary of the founding of labour union ‘Solidarity’. Macugaorganised the happening in the autumn of 2011, modelled after Tadeusz Kantor's happening from 1967 of the same title; however, it differed because Kantor's envelope was addressed to Foksal Gallery. The stamps featured dog heads and the postmen were real, unlike in Macuga's work. Apart from A Letter at the Untitled exhibition visitors could see actual letters sent to Zachęta, or more precisely to then-director of the institution, Anda Rottenberg. Posted mostly anonymously, they contained anti-Semitic insults and threats.
2011 is the year of Macuga's artistic debut, not only in Poland, but also in the United States – the artist opened her first individual American exhibition entitled It Broke from Within in the spring of 2011 at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis. As part of the preparation for the exhibition, the artist traced the history of the Walker Art Center and found the institution's association with the wood industry, which she used as an inspiration, transforming the forest into a metaphor of American democracy. The title of the exhibition referred to a brochure which stated, ‘Remember France? It broke from within. That can happen here’. It warned of what a lack of effort to foster relationships and better understanding between different communities could lead to – meaning, disunity and social revolution. That responsibility of uniting the nation lies in the hands of cultural institutionsas well, since they should serve as a platform for encouraging a joint civic discussion. Through her exhibition, Macuga did not offer any ready-made solutions and answers, but rather tried to recall how culture can be the glue that holds a community together.
In 2012, she was one of two Polish artists selected for the 13th edition of the Documenta festival in Kassel, which takes place every five years (since 1955). Next to the Biennale in Venice, it is the most important contemporary art festival – it is aimed at ‘artistic research and forms of imagination that explore commitment, matter, things, embodiment, and active living in connection with, yet not subordinated to, theory’. Her work Of what is, that it is; of what is not, that it is not is takes the form of a huge tapestry embellished with a banquet in a Kabul garden, with the ruins of a palace in the background and a snake in the foreground. It symbolises the Orient as a beautiful illusion in which peace is only a mirage. The second part of the work is found in Kabul itself, as Documenta stretches its borders across the world with projects scattered across Kassel, Kabul, Alexandria, Cairo and Banff.
A year later, GoshkaMacuga and Maria Loboda were invited to take part in the Champs Élysées (2013) exhibition organised at the Palais de Tokyo in Paris, which turned the museum's space into a ‘perfect’ cemetery. The chosen artists – Macuga and Loboda were accompanied by Auguste Rodin and Cindy Sherman – created a magnificent necropolis using tombstones, chrysanthemums, crosses, tears, portraits of the dead and ecological urns as well as less standard measures such as guided tours, black magic sessions, chess tournaments and secret meetings. According to the curators' vision, the exhibition was to analyse the relationship between art and death. While in Western societies religion is gradually disappearing and losing its relevance, cemeteries invariably remain subsidised, therefore becoming a reflection of socio-economic structures. The artists' works on aesthetics and funeral rites at the Palais de Tokyo exhibition were meant to bring the visitors closer to the decorative and performative aspect of funerals and show their multitude and variety.
The Non-consensual Act (in progress) project from 2013, shown by Macuga in Stockholm, goes back to the artist's visits to Afghanistan during her preparations for the Documenta13 exhibition. Back then Goshka Macuga visited the Afghan Film Archive in Kabul, where she was made aware of the risks which archiving during the Taliban regime entailed. Currently, the institution is struggling with lack of funding, which results in an inability to digitise newsreels, feature films and documentary films as well as problems with the technical equipment and grounds maintenance. To support the archive, Macuga decided to buy back fragments of film tapes which were rejected during the digitisation process. Eventually, the artist received a packagefilled with scraps of film roll that depicted censored erotic scenes from Afghan as well as foreign films. Macuga created a new film assembled from the material received, in conjunction with her own experience. The artist juxtaposed Afghan norms of perceiving physical proximity, violence and discrimination on the grounds of sex with Western ones. The entire exhibition in Stockholm was supplemented with the history of obtaining the film rolls.
In 2015, Goshka Macuga's individual exhibition entitled To the Son of Man Who Ate the Scroll opened at the Prada Foundation Art Gallery in Milan. The exhibition revolved around the concept of combining the role of an artist, curator, collector, researcher and designer, which is typical for Macuga. In accordance with the idea of pluralism and artistic diversification, the exhibition area also included a mixture of visual arts – installations, objects, sculptures, photographs, and even performances and robots. The artist researched issues related to time, the beginning and the end, as well as death and rebirth. Apart from the 73 oversized bronze heads, the most interesting element of the exhibition was – produced by the Japanese company A-Lab – an android, modelled after of the artist's partner at the time. Moreover, visitors could listen to an Italian artist reciting fragments of Darwin's theory of evolution in Esperanto.
Another important exhibition of Macuga’s is Time as Fabric (2016), exhibited in the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York. The exhibition presented a broad spectrum of the artist's works made over a period of the past 5 years, including her large-scale tapestries, which depict conferences, demonstrations or public gatherings. In these works, the artist checks whether art can be a socio-political tool. In addition to tapestries, Macuga prepared performative works called ‘theatrical environment’.
In 2017, CCA Witte de Wit in Amsterdam invited Goshka Macuga and Ahmet Öğüt to create a joint exhibition based on their shared concerns, ideas and personal stories. The axis of The Show is Over –suggested by Macuga – was the concept of destruction. Theartist asked to what extent it could be a tool of criticism, protest or confrontation within the cultural norms of the modern world. In this project, Goshka Macuga was inspired by a rich heritage of artists who recognised destruction as a subject to explore, which then became a motif in their work. Another source of inspiration for the artist was Russell Ferguson's text 'The Show is Over', after which the exhibition was entitled. As an increasing number of cultural conflicts break out in the world, and right-wing views dominate politics, Ferguson asks: ‘what can be gained by enlisting destruction for social critique but also anarchic, pointless destruction; destruction for the pure pleasure of it?’Macuga and Öğüt tried to go further and answer the question: Can the transformative processes of destruction undermine the stable image of art and its institution and begin reinventing them?
artists of the 21st century
Selected individual exhibitions:
- 2016 – Now this, is this the end… the end of the beginning or the beginning of the end? (part 1), Schinkel Pavilion, INDEX Berlin, Berlin, Germany; Time as Fabric, New Museum, NY; To the Son of Man Who Ate the Scroll, Fondazione Prada, Milan; Political Populism, Kunsthalle Wien, Vienna
- 2014 – Preparatory Notes for a Chicago Comedy, 8th Berlin Biennale, Museen Dahlem, Berlin; Public Address: Goshka Macuga Tapestries, Lunds Konsthall, Sweden; Madness and Ritual, Galerie Rüdiger Schöttle, Munich; Non-consensual Act (in progress), CCA Ujazdowski Castle Video Room, Warsaw
- 2013 – Goshka Macuga: Non–consensual act (in progress), Index, The Swedish Contemporary Art Foundation, Stockholm; Champs Élysées, Palais de Tokyo, Paris
Sexuality of Atoms, Andrew Kreps Gallery, NY
- 2012 – Goshka Macuga, Andrew Kreps, NY; Exhibit A, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago; Goshka Macuga, Kate MacGarry, London; Untitled, Galerie Rüdiger Schöttle, Munich
- 2011 – Untitled – Zachęta National Gallery, Warsaw; It Broke from Within, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis
- 2009 – I Am Become Death – Kunsthalle Basel, Basel; The Bloomberg Commission. The Nature of the Beast – Whitechapel Gallery, London
- 2008 – Goshka Macuga – Galerie Rüdiger Schöttle, Munich; Goshka Macuga – Kunsthalle Basel, Basel, Switzerland
- 2007 – What's in a name – Andrew Kreps Gallery, New York; Objects in Relation. Art Now – Tate Britain, London
- 2006 – Mula sem cabeca – 27th São Paulo Biennial, Brazil; Sleep of Urlo – A Foundation, Liverpool, UK
- 2005 – Goshka Macuga – Kate MacGarry, London
- 2003 – Kabinett der Abstrakten – Bloomberg Space, London; Picture Room – Gasworks Gallery, London
- 2002 – Friendship of the Peoples – The Project, Dublin, Ireland; Galeria Foksal Foundation, Warsaw; Homeless Furniture – Transmission Gallery, Glasgow, UK
- 2000 – Cave – Kunstakuten, Stockholm, Sweden
- 1999 – Cave – Sali Gia, London
Author: Karol Sienkiewicz, July 2009. Updated by HSz April 2020.