Jakub Woynarowski, Art as Alchemy

Beatrice Smigasiewicz

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What’s in a copy? Rem Koolhaas, curator of the 14th International Architecture Exhibition—Venice Biennale, asked exhibitors to address the theme of “absorbing modernism 1914-2014.” Impossible Objects, an exhibit designed by artist Jakub Woynarowski and Kraków’s Institute of Architecture (Instytut Architektury), featured a replica of an early 1937 baldachin originally made for the Polish leader Marshal Pilsudski. Traditionally used to symbolize power and authority, the baldachin is a roof or canopy-like structure over a throne or an altar. The replica at the biennale focused on the tension between baldachin’s historical function and the replica's modernist form.

When I moved to Kraków this past fall, the biennale replica had just made its way to MOCAK (Museum of Contemporary Art in Kraków), a few miles down the street from its original at Wawel Castle. Woynarowski's and the Institute of Architecture’s decision to position the two baldachins in such close proximity raised questions about how Poland wants to see its own past. Like his contemporaries, the generation of artists and writers born in the 1980s, Woynarowski finds himself in a unique position to address this. Too young to have felt the burdens of the communist regime, he is old enough to have seen the changes brought about by the transformation after its collapse. Stuck between the East and the West, Poland was forced throughout history to choose sides. For Woynarowski, questions about a sense of place are crucial but, unlike his predecessors, he doesn’t pick sides; he plays on the East-West dichotomy to find his place in a larger cultural narrative. Preoccupied with research, he treats history like a catalogue of what he calls his “ready-mades.” He selects materials to reconstruct narratives or creates new ones by changing their context. His research sometimes manifests in projects that can seem like conspiracy theories. That’s not a coincidence. He seems to want to evoke a sense of the mystery and inaccessibility that exists in secret societies—for there is something hermetic about Poland. By creating new or alternative narratives, he destabilizes the narratives that we assume we know. For example, in the series
In the Air, on Land and on Sea (2008), Woynarowski plays on the flagship utopian modernist city of Stalowa Wola by reconstructing its beginnings to reveal a dreary prophecy about its future.

David Czaja wrote in the catalogue essay for
 Impossible Objects that, “from beneath the thin fabric of modernity there showed through, time and again, an under layer of Romanticism.” During an Institute of Architecture event at Manggha Museum last fall, I watched as Woynarowski emerged from backstage like a mourner in his black uniform. He sat down at a table slowly pulling out pieces of paper and signaling like a nineteenth-century scholar at select features with a magnifying glass as the camera projected a blown-up version of what seemed like a visual essay behind him on the wall. Operating in the white gloves of a museum art handler, he engaged in what looked like a public unveiling of a State secret. It was impossible not to see him as a kind of modern day priest initiating a group of nonbelievers—or perhaps not modern at all, but one for whom art must be a kind of alchemy.

In the following interview, Woynarowski discusses
Impossible Objects, In the Air, on Land and on Sea, and a recent exhibition at Bunkier Sztuki, Fiat Lux (2015), touching on the reworking of history and the New Spirituality in Polish art.

I want to start by asking about “Impossible Objects,” your contribution to the 14th International Architecture Exhibition—Venice Biennale. The challenge posed by curator Rem Koolhaas was to address the theme of absorbing modernity. Together with the Institute of Architecture, you decided to reconstruct a 1937 baldachin by Kraków architect Adolf Szyszko-Bohusz—putting Kraków at the heart of the discussion. Why did you feel this was the proper response to the Biennale’s theme?

The original baldachin is at Wawel Castle in a gallery that functions as a mausoleum of relics. It’s attached to the cathedral and hangs over the entryway to Marshal Józef Piłsudski’s crypt. We don’t read it in relation to the contemporary. It’s always in the shadows of the Wawel Castle and many people just don’t notice it. The paradox is that the majority of what we see at Wawel—the interiors—are not archeological findings but what you could call “modernist creations” done by Adolf Szyszko-Bohusz, who worked as a conservator and wanted to radically reconstruct Wawel. He filled the interiors with his own content. Wawel, which is supposed to represent ancient history, is to a certain degree a representation of modernity based on historical narratives prevalent during the reconstitution of Poland during the interwar period.

Szyszko-Bohusz had a vision to connect classical architecture with modernism—which is not unusual— but he is one of the most important architects of that era in our country because of his connection to Marshal Piłsudski during the reconstruction of Poland. If you look closely at the structure of the baldachin, it’s as if someone threw a modernist cloak on a classical architecture piece. It functions as a mirror for our country, where we have constant clashes between modernity and tradition. It was important for us to display the baldachin from an angle from which it could be contemplated outside of its original context, so that it could become a monument, which is what it really is, and not just a functional roof over the entryway of the crypt. The Polish pavilion at the Venice Biennale was a good sterile white space that kept the political subtext. The pavilion itself was important for us. It came into being as a form of reactionary modernism during the interwar period—modernist in form but conservative in content—built by Brenno Del Giudice of Mussolini’s era at a time when fascists took over the biennale. Placing the replica in that pavilion played on that tension.

How did it function in that space?

We decided against any technology or artificial lighting—just natural light without the gadgets or monitors that we saw in other pavilions. It was important to recreate an atmosphere of the crypt, sarcophagus, or mausoleum, to create something like an impression of the sacred. It was during the middle of summer, and many people came to escape the noise and heat. They were surprised by what was taking place in the construction: a kind of hallucination where the top of the structure appeared not to touch the base but to hover just above it. The connection was so subtle that it seemed against the laws of physics. This was the feature that we wanted to bring out in an environment that highlights its relation to modernism rather than its historical past, the space between the classical columns and the heavy modernist top seems to me to be symbolic of the space that Poland finds itself in.

Impossible Objects attracted a lot of international media attention praising the artistic concept of the exhibition. What was the response to this piece in Poland?

Some critics thought that the piece made our national complex too visible to the world. By this I mean the cliché tendency to think that we don’t want to be who we are but that we aspire to be something else, where some say that we should imitate the West and others that we should look to Putin’s Russia: the constant division between the East and the West. I think there is reconciliation between the two but I think that Polish art does not spend enough time on it. It’s important to discuss it without falling into the trappings of the radicalism of appearing too Western or too directed toward the East. I think that’s a topic worth pursuing, because there is a share of critical projects, but what we are missing is a rational debate. Even the discussion about Polish modernism seems very new to me. Ziemowit Szczerek and Fillip Springer are attempting that conversation in Polish literature. Andrzej Szczerski published an interesting book about Polish modernist movements, but Tomasz Kozak is one of the only other artists I know who has made it his main topic of exploration in art.

In the Air, on Land, and in Sea (2008) is, like Impossible Objects, about reworking history, but that of your own hometown. The series of photographs shows an ideal modernist Polish city, but at the same time it reveals the tension that foreshadows the catastrophe of WWII. Can you say more about this project?

In the middle of a forest, a section was cut out and, in a period of two years, an entire city structure arose. Stalowa Wola was supposed to be a utopian garden city, where nature joined with architecture; where one lived in peace and comfort. But the city grew around a center that was not talked about—a large industrial complex for the production of military weapons in preparation for the approaching war. A picnic in the shade of cataclysm, so to speak.

My project was based on found photos from August 1939, right before World War II. They were shot during daytime, and in that bright light of the summer, without any people around, the original photos showed an ideal modernist landscapes: geometric buildings and nature but also streets and lawns without shadows—an existence outside of time.

To bring this out more, I would crop the trees or leave only shadows that gave the impression of something hanging in the air. I have an image of a plaza where the shadows—it's unclear as to what is throwing these shadows—but they look like falling bombs. The oppressiveness is in the architecture of the city, too. For example, a building without windows, or with windows that are only in the shared areas and not in individual apartments.

My project tried to focus on the problem of the city—that it wasn’t designed for the individual resident but based on statistical quotas, collectives, and categories of a certain mechanized production of qualifying reality. Time and human scale, or time and space, are parameters that try to define reality but one that isn't sewn with the feeling that there is something more. It’s a structure that is unstable from the start, even if we try to protect ourselves from the feeling that there is a kind of black hole in that perfect system, and there is because that’s what I work with; it will work better if I do these discreet operations, like in horror films. The less we show, the stronger the impressions. It works a little bit like that.

How do you see your role as an artist?

An alchemy analogy comes to mind. Not creating something from nothing but by reformulating things that exist already, by using existing elements to bring forth a new phenomenon. I think that in the era that we live in, this overwhelming age of fact, there is an abundance of puzzle pieces, but a lack of a narrative, of a vision that would hold it together. People compensate for this in various ways. We have this renaissance of strong ideologies that comes from this feeling of chaos. Whether it’s political or religious—not just in Poland, but everywhere—we see this turn to fundamentalism: conspiracy theories whose fundamental construction tries to trace and follow one thread to the epicenter of the cause. You could read conspiracy theories as a new form of religiosity, by which I mean as an effort to rationalize the irrational.

This motion of following a thread makes me think of a labyrinth—something that I see as a recurring theme in your work. I’m thinking, for example, of the installation Fiat Lux at Bunkier Sztuki last year that you designed with the collective, Quadratum Nigrum. There is a tendency to control the experience from the top down, to manipulate how viewers move though the space of the exhibition, as if they are being led to the center.

Yes, this is what I am striving towards. In Fiat Lux, there is a strong reference to the labyrinth on the tiles of cathedrals during the Middle Ages that were connected to the ritual of the pilgrimage. A pilgrim had to crawl on his knees through this labyrinth to experience some kind of religious sublime. Meaning he would submerge himself in a structure that’s complicated, opaque, and oppressive in some way to experience a catharsis at the end. A feeling of a higher kind that would somehow give meaning and order, a mystical experience by whatever name we call it. We can call it by a more neutral name: an experience that orders our sense-making.

Don’t you think that this makes the space of your work difficult to enter? One has to play by the rules to be in that space . . . there is no empty, open space.

I would have to know what you mean by that lack of empty space because I understand this metaphorically, in a sense that my work is not “talkative,” but an art where there are many structures, a complex system where there is a lot of geometry that puts everything in order so that there are no empty spaces or cracks in all of that—but there are. I play with the tension between something that seems completely closed and even oppressive, and the feeling that behind it all there is a kind of mystery, something untold, the strange and unexpected. This is something that appears in conspiracy theories as well, that kind of leveling with the unknown. It’s structure that appears closed and complicated but there are elements that are left untold, undefined and theoretically those are spaces through which something else can permeate and by which the structure can fall to pieces.

Do you want to make the viewer feel trapped?

It’s lined with violence, perversion, and so forth, because that’s a hook for the viewer. It’s what helps capture attention, to create a strong image that stays, the kind of image you try to create in politics or religion to force the viewer to look.

A project like Fiat Lux names the taboo. In terms of highlighting that this is how it is: the art world is hermetic. It’s a structure that is impenetrable from the outside. We tightened the screw on the exhibition as much as we could. Not only was everything in Latin—including the posters for the exhibition—the installation was opened only for the duration of the performance, which lasted as long as a Sunday Mass. It was then closed for an hour with bars, and reopened again after an hour. People would congregate by the barred gate like believers in front of a church.

The point was to create an impression that you are encountering a complicated structure with its own codes and workings—something that apparently means something but which we do not have the means to comprehend. In the second room, you had a barrier, a completely dark room with an intense vibrating sound. People were afraid to enter. There were groups of people who refused to enter categorically, and groups who experienced this breaking point when they entered the dark room. There were also audiences for whom this was something that they wanted to engage with right away, for whom this became a place to visit, not to meet but to arrive at—a destination. It became a place of this intense experience. Some people lay down, someone came to meditate, couples came on dates. It started to function as an important point on the social map.

To go back to this idea of the labyrinth, the pilgrim that you mentioned before, would you say that you are interested in the experience of the sublime in your work?

Probably I move between those realms. I don’t know if you can call it that. It seems that art resists these kinds of labels, “sublime.” In antiquity, the term referenced three particular kinds of work: “the sublime,” one whose name I cannot remember, and the lowest style, which was called “subtle.” The subtle and the sublime have something in common in that they both utilize an element of discomfort that can be connected to the experience of “mystery.” For example, “the mystery of the natural world” that creates the effect of depth. On the other hand, you have the experience of the subtle that operates in a different way: through details, through references that are subtle and difficult to name but also give the impression of something complicated and therefore intriguing. Until we understand the structure, we have the experience of that intrigue. In the experience of the sublime, there is a moment of elation but also something destructive and violent. It seems to me that during the 20th century there was a lot of subtlety and the sublime that intensified the crisis of the beautiful.

You could say that James Turell and Gerhard Richter work from that experience.

Yes, of course; I’m not saying that it doesn’t exist. For example, what Mirosław Bałka did with How It Is, the container with darkness, explores these subjects, but I would not say that this is so obvious, or that it’s mainstream. You can see that language tries to oppose that kind of description of a work of art. You avoid this kind of language—it’s more common to borrow language and constructions from more scientific sources, for example: it’s a project that uses this strategy to accomplish these goals. Like a scientist who tests out a hypothesis, whereas it seems that sometimes we could benefit from a language taken from theological sources to describe a more mystical event. Of course, not to fall into some kind of pathos, but some theories seem to fit this better than a more scientific language. It’s an interesting phenomenon, forms of religiosity in art. Of course, I’m speaking from a certain environment in Poland where Catholic faith dominates. That’s the kind of upbringing I had so this religious instinct is also present somewhere deep within me. I grew up here, and was soaked in this, so I try to use different tools to show this from different perspectives, to find some kind of distance. It’s a constant tension between scholarly distance and working in the sphere of the senses. Fiat Lux works on this kind of religious instinct and a kind of extraction from the everyday to create a space where a transgression is possible. This is something that interests me.

Is there a discussion about spirituality in Polish art?

There is no constructive language in art to discuss themes of religion or nationality. It’s a kind of terra incognita. It may be easier for me to function in an environment we call progressive, but I’m constantly encountering problems. For example, many people can’t find a language to write about it, they don’t know where to put this work, how to categorize it. The themes that I’m working with fall largely under the interests of the so-called “conservative-sector,” I mean for example questions of religion or identity of a place. The problem concerns a certain freedom of expression that seems decidedly larger in progressive or liberal environments. 

The so-called "New Spirituality" in Polish art (Nowa Duchowość) is still a new undertaking and the discussion about it is fairly limited. It requires an engagement with Polish Catholicism and its specifics. A traditional Polish Catholicism is morose: black banners, the sprinkling of heads with ashes. It’s depressing, to put it simply, but because I grew up in it, I am able to see something in it, as a condition of the place, the way things are, and this can be inspiring. This type of aesthetic from the Middle Ages remains a contrast to the currently rampant kitschy “turbo-Baroque.” In this situation I instinctively choose the “conservative” option—if only because of my concern for form and intellectual discipline. I have always been interested in history and it seems to me that it’s there that we will find the source of Polish art: in Catholic churches and Sarmatian tomb portraiture. 

What is missing from the current discussion?

Creating a strong sensual experience and the experience of mystery or sublime, I think is missing from the art world—partly because of the popularization of pseudo-scholarly language when discussing art. We have thrown out language that takes from Romanticism and is drawn from inspired speech and so forth—which is now the worst taboo. We have adopted a language that sounds scholarly: the artist is diagnosing this and that phenomena using so and so method and the effect of these methods and "strategies." This leaves many listeners and art viewers more confused than when they heard about the naked soul and the creative act. It's a problem that we have to take into account.

translated from the Polish by Beatrice Smigasiewicz