Art of Public Possibility
2009, Joanna Rajkowska in Conversation with Artur Żmijewski

Rajkowska: A Political Critique Guide

Originally published in Przewodnik Krytyki Politycznej: Rajkowska

Artur Żmijewski: Once – a long time ago, back in the 1990s – you produced the kind of works I dislike. A good example of this are Librarians in Terra del Fuego, one of those juvenile, narcissistic mistakes virtually every artist makes at the beginning of their career. Then you abandoned this narcissism and became more socially aware. You started meeting people, local officials, residents of the cities you happened to be working in, local community representatives, and began talking to them about their needs and their reactions to your works, which you placed in public spaces around their homes. Here I am particularly referring to the palm tree, Greetings from Jerusalem Avenue, and Oxygenator. When you began engaging with people in this way, it was slowly becoming clear that you are not one of those artists who, say, when invited to Israel pay no attention at all to the war context there. When you find yourself in that sort of scenario, you go straight to the West Bank and spend a couple of weeks living in Jenin, working with Palestinian youths whose lives have been shattered by the occupation. What I’m trying to say is that you’re the opposite of the artist-idiot who is able to create the same kind of generic nonsense regardless of where they find themselves in the world. I think this approach comes from your social and political views, your cultural choices. So let’s start with them – what are your views? Your choices?

Joanna Rajkowska: I think you’re overestimating me a bit. I’m like a dog which, once it has picked up a scent, goes in the right direction and digs up a decent bone. But if I lose the scent, I lose myself completely. In the mid-1990s, when I started developing a more conscious way of working, all the markers led me towards public art. Salt, No Sign of Dying Soon, Let Me Wash Your Hands. But then a couple of personal disasters occurred – a rather serious illness, anxiety, too much alcohol, an attempt to pull myself together in a conventional marriage and then its complete disintegration. Complete abandon. It was a tough five years. I tried to somehow disentangle myself from my mistakes, come to terms with my own sexuality, say goodbye to my dreams about a certain way of life. What you refer to as stupid mistakes were for me a way of talking about, and a mirror of, life, because I was unable to cope with it. The point at which I made some radical personal decisions brought about a revolution. I found that, although I had been fixated for years on my own inabilities, I am primarily a herd animal, a social activist and hands-on artist in one. And that nothing interested me more than communities and how they are organized, that is, how people are with people. In summary, I know now where the bone is buried.

AŻ: Well, you may be working like an animal, but you speak like an intellectual. So I will again ask the question you’re trying to evade: what are your views?

JR: I’m not evading the question. When I was about eight, I was given a pair of sandals. They were very uncomfortable, so I decided to alter them, because my mother was too poor to buy me another pair. I cut off something here, added a buckle there, and only then did I start wearing them. And that rearranged things in my head completely. I don’t see reality as a constant state of affairs I have to accept, no matter how unwillingly. How we organize the world and our being in it depends on us – the residents of the house, the city, the country, the planet…. So, ever since I refashioned those sandals, my political views have swung to the Left (laughs). We must be our own shoemakers. Of course, there are fragments of reality that I’m not engaged in, because I have no specific vision for their reorganization, e.g. economic policies. And, although I represent a rather typical set of leftist views, I don’t do much for the situation to change. There are areas, however, in which my projects can prove a useful tool for identifying important social issues. And from the left side. That’s the case with projects which ask what kind of communities we create and what binds various communities together. Here, I am referring to, in particular, my projects Diary of Dreams, Cruising Around War Island, Oxygenator and Airways. And it is here I return to the issue of the body, to the simplest definition of coexistence that is based on accepting the fact that someone lives next to us. We have the right to live anywhere and not reply to questions like where we are from, why we are here or what we believe in. We are a community, not because some king from eight hundred years ago had six toes on his left foot and died in a battle against the Mongols, but because our neighbour from Vietnam has a successful business, raises his kids here, educates them, and is simply happy.
I see the state’s role as being to sensibly organize our efforts so that no one is cast out. I see it also in responsibility for the common good. The state is an emanation of the needs of the communities living in it and that’s why I believe that its functions should, and probably rather soon will, be changing due to human migrations. A multinational, multicultural state will have different functions than a mono-ethnic country. If we elect our political representatives, let them make sure that everyone, with no exception, who has somehow found their way here, can live happily. The idea of the nation state disgusts me. I dream of a non-national or supranational state, in which everyone is responsible for its organization and for the public good. Complete utopia, a paradise.

AŻ: Your attitude towards social reality is proactive – you want to engage with it publicly, visibly. So you suggest solutions to the issues you identify, such as the appropriation of decisions by the bureaucratic apparatus, depriving people of the right to decide about the space around them. City halls or housing co-op management teams look sympathetically today at acts of segregation such as gating, selling parks or allotment gardens for development, the expansion of omnipresent advertising, the privatization of urban spaces by business cartels, or intrusive public monuments conveying a nationalistic vision of history. You view the city as a space which should be left to its residents’ discretion. What you erect in it, therefore, are not monuments but ‘question marks’, interpolations aimed at the public. One such interpolation is the palm tree in Warsaw, another one is the planned minaret in Poznań. These are important to the concept of communal living. So how do you define a community? How do you recognize its problems? How do you formulate, propose and negotiate the proposed solutions?

JR: The state of a community is reflected in the places it creates or to which it agrees. What it can get used to and what it finds unacceptable. What I use are scraps of information, but they still very clearly show the connections between people, torn or germinating relations, passions, needs and neglects. I track them down and try not so much to understand them as to allow myself an irrational reaction to these places. Because I view the community as a group of people clustered around a specific location, confronted with the reality it imposes on them.
I react strongly to places that are sick, in which the web of relations is dead or has been replaced by fake relations. My instinctive response is to imagine an almost utopian situation and then to work strenuously to realize that vision with the least possible compromises. I change my plans only when the community involved wants that. And when changes are demanded by the members of those communities who most strongly identify themselves with the given site or sign, conflicts occur. Sometimes it works and such a manifest utopia takes the place of sick space, but usually passivity and general social necrosis prevail. When speaking of sick spaces, I think about Plac Grzybowski in Warsaw. About the groups of Israeli tourists who walk across it, not knowing where they are or what ulica Próżna [the square and the street are on the edge of the Warsaw Ghetto], which leads to the square, really is. About how these Israelis pump up their sense of community with trauma and somebody else’s guilt. I think about the local old ladies watching it all with suspicion, about the dogs shitting everywhere and no one cleaning up after them. About the anti-Semitic stink in which the Patriotic bookshop has enveloped the All Saints Church. I remember the fake Jews with their sidelocks dancing at the Singer Festival on ulica Próżna and the ‘kosher’ pork patties sold in a stall nearby. I see the white-collar workers hurrying across the square to their corporate desks and the Deutsche Bank offices. A pope figure blesses it all from the stairs of the church while scouts lay flowers under one of the stones commemorating successive Polish misfortunes. Oxygenator was to be a kind of oasis radically altering our perception of the place, because you see ulica Próżna differently through the leaves of geranium plants and a cloud of oxygen. It was to be a place taken out of context and at the same time located in its very heart, a bit like the eye of the storm. In that oasis, all relations were to be reset. I wanted to initiate a certain state of public possibility, to unblock the energy that was and is permanently overwhelmed by all the above rituals. I tend not to propose solutions, but rather changes of perspective, a shift in group identification, in the identity of the place, the illusion of change. All that to pave the way for energy that will help people to reset the way their relationships function.

AŻ: Your tactic is to confront people with the fact of the existence of, say, a palm tree in the middle of the De Gaulle roundabout in Warsaw or the Oxygenator pond at Plac Grzybowski. Sometimes people accept it – the palm tree has become one of the city’s symbols, while local residents campaigned for Oxygenator to be preserved. Now you want to convert an old factory chimney in Poznań into a minaret. But this time the dominant public reaction in Poznań is reluctant, even hostile. Yet you don’t give up. Is this you acting against the will of the people? In whose name do you speak, whose voice do you represent?

JR: I act in the name of those who can’t be seen. In the case of the palm tree – in the name of the murdered community of pre-War Polish Jews, in the case of Oxygenator – the elderly residents of Plac Grzybowski, excluded from political discourse, in the case of the Minaret – the city’s 1000-strong Muslim community. The president of the regional branch of the Polish Muslim League, Essikh Mohamed Saleh, understood that instantly, saying in an interview: “We support this project because Muslims live, study, go to hospitals when they are ill, and conduct business in Poznań. We do a lot of things in Poland, but we still remain invisible. Perhaps the Minaret would help balance this picture.”
There are places in which a memory, knowledge about the absence of these people is encoded. I try to decode this, to reverse it, that is, to forge absence into presence. There will always be those who don’t want to see these Others, don’t want to be reminded about them. In such cases I have no choice but to confront their reluctance. The most important thing, though, is how you construct the setting of where the confrontation is to happen. With the idea of transforming the chimney into a minaret, it transpires we also need to transform our own Polish self-image and reflect on the nature of our ‘national cultural heritage’. The protection of this heritage is often raised as an objection against the Minaret. We’ve become accustomed to thinking of ourselves as a nation afflicted by historical misfortunes, as victims of political violence, and somehow we’ve missed the fact that we’ve silently become the allies of aggressors and occupiers. We participate or have participated in NATO military operations, such as the mission in Afghanistan or the war in Iraq. We’re an active member of the US-led ‘anti-terror’ coalition, while our participation in the intervention in Iraq in March 2003 was taken by the Israeli government as a token of our loyalty. Prime Minister Tusk said that Poland unconditionally supported Israel in its confrontation with Iran. Military cooperation between the two countries is intensifying. Our intelligence agencies want to share information about terrorist threats. Poland wants to buy Israeli weapons – flying tankers and missiles for tanks and aircraft. The military operations and weapons purchases are financed with our taxes, meaning we are responsible for all that.
In the process of converting that chimney into a symbol of the presence of Muslims in Poland, it has become clear that we need to discuss the comfortable and nostalgic image of the Pole as a victim and, at the same time, a defender of values.

AŻ: What you do is a kind of social praxis that is presented to us in the guise of art. I think you’re one of those people who’ve been wrongly classified as an artist – for the lack of a name for what you do and lack of any other pigeon-hole. In psychology, people working with group conflicts are called facilitators. Are you a facilitator?

JR: What I do differs from a facilitator’s work. A professional facilitator is responsible for a course of group work. What I do is try to turn the members of the given community into facilitators. The issue of shifting responsibility onto them is crucial. I do it by means of a vision that is so powerful people succumb to it, want to succumb to it. That vision usually concerns the body, absorbing the body, working on the level of strong, even physiological needs: the need for breath, warmth, travel, for some kind of interruption. The core of this practice is the reaching of a state where your whole self – your body, the projection of it, its needs – overlap so precisely that you can finally say: “I am. Here and now.” I think that’s the state experienced by people sitting for hours on end around Oxygenator, doing nothing but breathing. Or those who went on a cruise around the Great War Island in Belgrade aboard the Kowin. Or those who slept during the Diary of Dreams. You lie and dream. Probably only half-aware that you are breathing, or perhaps you’re dreaming just now that you’re sailing down a river. But do it together with other people, in a very specific context – the context of collective sleep, in a gallery with huge windows facing the street. You don’t have to explain to anyone why you’re doing this, because others are doing exactly the same. It’s not a trick of any kind, you simply are. In such a state, people feel powerful and are able to make decisions and accept responsibilities they are usually afraid of. And some of them become facilitators for their own community. So I’m nothing more than a midwife for social potential, social possibilities.
You’re right when you say that art is just a guise here. But I think that a vision can only be activated through art – with the performative power of images. This vision usually concerns people’s relations with a place. To transform the place, you need to use art and its techniques.

AŻ: And what about politics and its techniques? Are you interested in that?

JR: My attention is focused not so much on group identities, which are the basis of all politics, but more on the relations between individuals – between singularities and a place. I focus on what happens between individuals and their locations. Not in us-them relations, but in me-you and me-you-place contexts. Working with a specific site, I reduce these links to physical relations, because all local politics begin with how we situate ourselves relative to each other and how we define our own territory, as well as how we ritualize our mutual behaviour. My recipe is to propose a vision which relates to the body. This vision sweeps up and revolutionizes human behaviour by subjecting people to powerful shared experiences. And also erases all the pre-existing hierarchies and necessitates communication so that these experiences can be collectivized. This vision erases not only hierarchies, but also ritual forms of behaviour, so that being together becomes different and the language of relations has to be created anew. This is precisely what happened with Oxygenator. One of the caretakers from the neighbourhood would go there during breaks between cleaning the staircases of surrounding apartment blocks. She dressed up for the visits. Her relation with ‘her’ residents soon took on the form of a ceremonial meeting. She conversed with them about the ‘pond’, the fish or the healing effect of oxygen, or simply spent time with them by Oxygenator. And in this way her relations with the residents – her employers – changed.

AŻ: So it looks like you create conditions for a vision to materialize, you bring them into being. But can you control the whole thing, is the body such a pliant medium? What about the unconscious work of the imagination?

JR: I don’t know if you remember how, in 2005, I found myself in a hospital in Kraków where they surgically removed a 2.3 cm by 3 cm cyst from my neck. A year earlier, I had visited Auschwitz – for the first time in my life. It was November. I tried to see nothing, hear nothing and keep my emotions in check in order not to feel too much. And indeed, I remember little. I had the impression the air didn’t move at all. I was so cold I couldn’t feel my hands and feet. The following day, I couldn’t swallow anything so I went to a doctor, thinking I had tonsillitis. The doctor diagnosed a tumour. Then it turned out it wasn’t a tumour but a large cyst, which had started an infection the previous day. It took me a year to find the right surgeon – it had to be cut out. I’m talking about this to describe a kind of reaction that directly affects the body. This time it wasn’t me doing a project in Auschwitz. It was Auschwitz working in me.

AŻ: Your main creative tool is your intuition. Polish politicians also like to utilize theirs, but they tend to do it to exclude certain groups or to bring certain social or professional groups into conflict with each other. The turning of a collection of sensitive communities, which we would call a ‘society’, into a chessboard is called political talent. And people who manipulate our emotions and prejudices instead of helping to resolve collective problems are then chosen to become members of the political elites. I guess you, with your practice, support a different model of exploiting social intuition and a different model of political thought. If so, then what kind of model?

JR: I still believe in liberal democracy. Despite all the disappointments. I think, however, that without work on the fundamental matter of responsibility for community and for the places the community creates, democracy will remain plagued by deviations and abuses. That’s why I work not so much on solving social conflicts as on ways of creating situations where people are willing to shoulder responsibility for themselves and the group they’re part of. Then it works like a domino effect – one initiative triggers off another, people start to feel that if they don’t take a stand, they may lose something. But it has to work on an almost instinctive level. I am deeply influenced by the concept of radical democracy and agonic space developed by Chantal Mouffe and Ernesto Laclau. I wanted to propose such a space to the participants of Airways aboard an old Soviet aeroplane, but we experienced serious turbulence. This was in Budapest. The passengers were members of various minorities which live in Hungary – people from Syria, Mongolia, Nigeria, Bulgaria, Russia, Serbia, Britain and China. There was a homeless guy, two Roma men, a Jew, and a lesbian. They represented various political views, including those of the far-right. Some hated Gypsies, others were anti-Semites. They were all to board a 1949 Lisunov Li-2 and take a flight together above Budapest. But as soon as we took off, the plane started being tossed around very hard. Everyone was terribly afraid. What really united us at that moment was the fear of crashing. And that’s probably always the case. Public spaces are inherently unstable, changing in front of our very eyes and the subject of ruthless fights for domination. I don’t think, as Mouffe does, that fighting for hegemony is part of the political discourse only. There are many areas of human life where people fight for hegemony and where our difficult coexistence is negotiated. What is desirable in the attempt to establish an agonic space is not so much harmony as the possibility of multiplicities. The point is for people to be constantly ready to accept the difficult presence of others whom they don’t necessarily understand. Creating the possibility of such readiness is one of the fundamental tasks of art. Such openness is a state of mind, but also a somatic state. I’m convinced that people need neither to negotiate nor to understand the nature of the difference between them. I believe neither in consensus, nor in the need to use verbal language in establishing relations. I think the path towards coexistence leads through the body, through the abandonment of ritual formulas that distort our relations. I am working towards our being together to become – if only for a short while – naked, defenceless, clumsy.

AŻ: But in Poland it’s usually the case of more hierarchies, more division, segregation, exclusion – that’s what we use our differences for. We very rarely look at the Other with interest. Perhaps the effect of all this will be a local hegemony of white Slavs, united under the sign of Christ the King?

JR: I will leave the country then. I’m disgusted by the exclusive monopoly of the white, Catholic and single-dimensional Polishness, the so called ‘normal’ Polishness. I want a Poland with an accent, pulsating, diverse, with a sense of responsibility for what happens in the Middle East, Serbia, Bolivia. I don’t want a provincial Poland, fixated on the power games of the local bigwigs. I want neighbours from Iran, Afghanistan and Yemen, I want them to not to have to know who [nationalist politician] Roman Giertych is. I want Poland to have minarets, mosques, synagogues, Hindu temples, and their congregations. Do you know what we are called in Ukraine? American walonki [Russian felt-and-rubber boots]. I think that’s exactly how it is. And we won’t get far in those walonki.

AŻ: And in order to have the Poland you want – not afraid of Islam, not claiming that Arabs drink religious fanaticism with their mothers’ milk – you proposed to convert an old factory chimney into a minaret. How did it begin – with a vision, as usual?

JR: Yes, with a vision, but a better word here would be ‘delusion’, which suggests the possibility of a mistake, an accident. That’s how it was with the palm tree. I was looking at a postcard we once found in the Old Town in Jerusalem. It showed scorched earth, a hill, a stunted palm tree and the inscription: “Greetings from Hebron.” The image from the postcard somehow overlapped in my mind with the image of the De Gaulle roundabout in Warsaw. Somewhere, in the background, there pulsed the toxic energy of ethnic conflict and my own inability to cope with it, which eventually produced a vision – the Warsaw palm tree. It was a similar case with the minaret. I came to Poznań directly from Jenin, where every day is an attempt to survive the Israeli occupation. And suddenly, instead of an old factory chimney, I saw a tower, stone-lined walls, wrought iron balustrades. Like in Słowacki’s poem following his trip to the Middle East: “The roses, palms, towers, buildings / Are still in front of my eyes…”[1]. Such delusions shouldn’t be ignored. Was the Minaret project conceived because I was thinking at the time about the growing hatred against Muslims, about how easily Polish anti-Semitism had expanded to include Islam as well? Such delusions are, it would seem, so marginal, almost on the verge of consciousness, that they demand alertness. It’s a similar effort to that of trying to remember a dream you have had.

AŻ: Your actions, your interpolations, elicit distinct responses. People gather around the Oxygenator pond and then fight for it not to be demolished. Swedes from a small town in the north want to build a fake volcano with you. Perhaps one day the residents of Poznań, and Poles in general, will be defending the Minaret? How do you manage to be so persuasive? How do you describe the ‘Rajkowska method’?

JR: I can’t stand how easily people surrender to helplessness, to sweet impossibility. Nothing makes me more angry than social impotence, which always results in mutual dislike and toxicity, because we blame others for how things are. So I want people to want. How do I do it? I try to use shamanic methods to effect social change. I know this sounds pretentious, but when I look soberly at my work, I see that the most effective visions result from working – in a specific place – with my own body. I need to maintain discipline, though, and remember what my objectives are. So I go to a certain place and I try to be awake to my own instinctive reactions. It’s a kind of alertness. You need to listen to your own body. Then I try to recreate the situation so that others can find themselves in it, too. I create a place, build an object or organize a workshop.
Vision may actually not be the best word, because these are various kinds of simulation attempts. Their purpose is always the same – to activate social potency. It’s risky, because, unfortunately, all kinds of forces are activated.

AŻ: For most viewers and critics, art is about asking questions. Okay, but do we artists expect answers? Do we address these questions to specific, defined subjects? You actually have. Your works are questions addressed to local communities and their decision makers – the weak and strong actors of the field of power. What were you asking about and what answers were you receiving?

JR: In most cases I ask about the possibility of taking over a certain area, the area where the project is to be located. Such a request is inherent in public projects, but it’s always a torture for the local decision makers. It results in terrible chaos and attempts to evade responsibility for a potential social initiative triggered off by the ‘transfer’ of the site. Because it’s actually not about taking over, but about transferring the authority over a public space to the artist. The officials in charge of such decisions, e.g. public property administrators, will do anything for public space not to change, to maintain the status quo. When I read the comments of the Union of Polish Architects (SARP) competition jury in Poznań, which thought it fit to comment on the Minaret project, it’s clear that these people are afraid of losing symbolic power. According to the jury, the project: “is culturally alien; interferes with views of the cathedral and the nearby building of a former synagogue; could be interpreted as a religious provocation; could be interpreted as an attempt to ridicule a religious symbol – the minaret – by locating it on an industrial chimney; has no important artistic values related to cultural events in the city of Poznań.” [from an official communiqué issued by the SARP Competition Jury.]
So this is definitely not the kind of response I expect. I want symbolic power to be shared with me. I want to be a partner in a conversation about it. I believe that as a citizen I have the right to that. My duty is to then transfer this power to the local community. Well, that’s the kind of female Robin Hood that I am.
Local decision makers are also afraid to lose their jobs. And I’ve been the source of this fear many times. That was the case, for instance, with Greetings from Jerusalem Avenue. But worst of all are private landlords. Such as Balticgruppen AB, which owns land on the Hamrinsberget hill in Umeå, Sweden. Building a volcano on top of Hamrinsberget could thwart their plans to build a hotel there. So all my efforts to contact the company were futile. No-one talked to me, my letters and emails were never answered. They simply ignored me. Interestingly, the founder of Balticgruppen AB financed the development of a sculpture park in the very same town. Art in a designated, confined area is a like dog on a leash – it can only get as far as the fence, so it won’t bite. This is the fundamental difference between public art and art carrying the sign: “Attention! Art!” When artistic activity sneaks out of the area it’s been assigned to – the gallery, the museum, even a sculpture park – and disturbingly starts to merge with reality, when the limits of its influence become blurry, then art suddenly becomes dangerous.
And the other actors… Well, this may sound surprising, but I often don’t talk to the local residents beforehand. The discussions about what is to be created are usually a nightmare because the project has no form and it’s the form that defines its perception – it lacks shape, colour, scale. People only start to react afterwards. They begin to listen, look, absorb.

AŻ: You often work outside the gallery. You situate your works in public plazas, in rivers, you latch on to existing buildings by changing their function, you lie down on the streets of unfamiliar cities. Such practices turn the street into a gallery and the passers-by into viewers. But is it really enough to stage art in a street for people to see it? Isn’t it so, that in order to see Oxygenator, people had to go to Plac Grzybowski, which was like going to a gallery? Isn’t the gallery simply a means of arranging the viewers’ attention? How do you organize it?

JR: The gallery is a peculiar way of organizing perception. But this isn’t about a choice of location – I go to a gallery or I go to Plac Grzybowski. It’s a fundamentally different kind of experience. The gallery is a space where the contexts are dulled, as if someone’s pressed the ‘mute’ button. There is nothing – everyone’s waiting for the artist’s message and the opus resounds in full voice in the complete silence. There’s no distorting noise at all. Public space, in turn, is noise, full of competing voices, accidental sounds, resonances, echoes, noises, bongs, beats and beeps. If you decide to enter a space like that, you behave like a clumsy orchestra conductor, an experimental music dilettante. The only thing you can do is try to harmonize and make it all converse. So it’s a different kind of music, a different kind of story. However, I think one cannot exist without the other, without the soloists we won’t understand those trying to organize the background sounds. And vice versa.

AŻ: Let me ask again: how do you focus the viewers’ attention so that they can see all these things? And let me elaborate on it: you once did a show called Force of Things. So, with the force of things, you can work effectively – how do you do it?

JR: The objects I use or construct are not important in themselves. Their essence resides in how they exist in relation to other things. How they affect the visual, aural and olfactory ambience. I use them as props so that, let’s say, a fragment of the city becomes the setting for a short ‘film’. What I mean by ‘film’ is our perception of the given place, altered now by their presence. Then these things become artistic fetishes, acquiring new meanings. The basic principle of their existence is their differentness, the fact that, quite simply, they are fundamentally different from everything else around them. And that’s why they are so visible. Their differentness, however, is exotic rather than strange. What I present as a project appears strange to audiences, but once it has materialized, it becomes exotic. It’s likely to be the same with Minaret, which is now in the ‘strangeness phase’. You ask about effectiveness, so it’s precisely this process in the course of which the strange becomes desirable.

AŻ: I think you sometimes employ the well-known language of kitsch. And conformist kitsch at that. That was the case with Oxygenator – an idyllic little pond, the benches, the plants. I think it’s an effective language – kitsch is an aesthetic probably known to everyone, a kind of Esperanto. Oxygenator was supposed to seduce and it did. So, can conformism be helpful? Can it be a viable artistic strategy?

JR: It is certainly a way of seducing people. My love of kitsch is infinite. But I have a worse affliction – I like things that are in bad taste. Because they are helpless and often reveal the nature of their owners. Unlike ‘cool’ things, which are usually just a smart cover for human faults, tasteless objects are unable to hide anything. Palm trees, spittoons, chariots, bamboos, bats, gold, silver, oysters, ponds and volcanoes, the whole imaginarium originates in the bourgeois town house. These are projections of dreams about a better life, about travelling to exotic places, reality incantations, dubious status symbols. I have a terrible weakness for that. But only when I manage to really make public and democratize these dusty knick-knacks, when they start to function as vehicles for collective dreams and when we can suddenly find ourselves together under a palm tree or a volcano. Don’t forget, I come from a mixed-background family – my father was a well-to-do dentist, my mother a low-income intellectual. My mother would have thrown it all out of the window, but I came to love it because our father left us. Every visit to my grandparents’ home – touching a piece of oak furniture or an ivory palm tree ornament – was a profound experience. Stories about a high-spending grand-grandfather, his trips to Majorca and roulette-playing in Monte Carlo, were part of my childhood, a part I was eventually cut off from. I use it as wastefully now as my grand-grandfather wasted money on poker. I don’t need to bend over backwards to use kitsch. It’s in me.

AŻ: In 1945, Picasso issued a statement that said, in part: “What do you think an artist is? An imbecile who has only his eyes if he is a painter, or his ears if a musician, or a lyre at every level of his heart if he is a poet, or, if he is merely a boxer, only his muscles? On the contrary, he is at the same time a political being, constantly alert to the heart-rending, burning, or happy events in the world, moulding himself in their likeness. How could it be possible to feel no interest in other people and, because of an ivory-tower indifference, detach yourself from the life they bring with such open hands?” What do you think an artist is?

JR: An artist is a seismograph. And a shaman, if she can do it.

AŻ: Well, you won’t weasel out like that, though I know it’s a tough question. A seismograph I can accept, but a shaman? The shamans, true, had the ability to cure or heal. But they lived at the fringes of their community, often outside the village, begging for alms, they were often sick or handicapped, despised. They were used at times of crisis when the community encountered events it was unable to cope with such as natural disasters, sudden breaks in the weather, droughts, epidemics, animal diseases. Then the shamans would be left to their fate again. So I don’t like this shamanic comparison when it comes to artists, because I don’t like the isolation and distance it implies. I prefer other concepts, more strongly anchored in Western rationality. Perhaps the work of an artist is a kind of short-term therapy – perhaps art helps people to work on an unconscious level on issues they are as yet unable to deal with on the conscious one. The language you use to describe your work is not very shamanic. So?

JR: Forget therapy. If we are to use medical metaphors, then my job is to arouse fevers, bring on the state in which an organism begins to defend itself. It isn’t so that we only have two planes for dealing with issues – a conscious one and an unconscious one. If that was the case, humanity would be incredibly poor. But on the other hand it doesn’t mean that I believe in the animated nature of objects, in earth, stone or river spirits, fiery snakes, kobolds, goblins or trolls. I use a non-shamanic language when trying to understand what I do, but what I do is not a result of rational reflection.
Our knowledge of the world stems partly from sources we don’t completely understand. You are standing on ulica Żelazna in Warsaw, for instance, looking at the apartment blocks and ghetto monadnocks in front of you, and you absorb it with your whole self, all your possible senses, your whole body, your memory is activated, also the memory you have no control over – afterimages, shreds of impressions, conversations, images. All this is suddenly released, as if at the touch of a button. This is not just the subconscious. Memory is also in the body, in your arms and legs, in the stomach. I think shamanism can also mean the ability to react to this kind of state. You can start inspecting it delicately, drawing from a power once activated. It’s also important to channel it rationally.
So I use the word ‘shaman’ as a metaphor. Every community needs a shaman, otherwise it becomes sick. The shaman is at the very centre of the group. Even if they are an outsider, they enjoy a high social standing. And as for the fact that communities leave their shamans to manage alone? Well, that’s just how things have always been.

AŻ: Tell me please about the film you made in Świecie by the Vistula. Your mother spent some time in a hospital there – she died a couple of years ago. You visited the place and walked around town dressed like her. Someone stopped you, called an ambulance, you were taken to the psychiatric hospital, the same one in which your mother had once been hospitalized. You didn’t look well. What happened to you there?

JR: I turned myself inside out… I had to do it. My mother remained self-aware for a couple of days after being brought to the hospital. Her smart, suspicious eyes were still there. I’ll never forget the sight – I entered the room and she stood there, skinny, in oversized pyjamas, clutching her purse tightly to her chest. There was already something completely strange about her, the disease was demonic, depriving her of her identity cell by cell. Around were women with a Virgin Mary syndrome, with a triple personality – a hell.
My mother wanted out. She was tearing armchairs apart, dismantling tables. She was doing to the things around her what the disease was doing to her, and in a state of horrible loneliness. Because, you know, a mental disease is above all an unimaginable loneliness. Especially when you know that a moment earlier you were someone else, you have no control over yourself but you still retain some shreds of consciousness. That was the state in which my mother was brought to Świecie.
So it was necessary to leave that hell. Until I stood in front of the hospital pavilion, it was bad – it’s not in the film. She wasn’t there! I had no hole in myself through which my mother could enter. So I had to make one. When I walked into the river, I knew it had begun, that I was just a container, that she taken hold of me completely.
And that’s about it.

Liverpool – London – Jersey – Sheffield – Warsaw

November 2009 – January 2010

[1] Juliusz Słowacki (1809-1849), From a Letter to a Bookseller (1837).