14 questions Magdalena Ujwa-Gawlik (2021)
1- In recent years, largely due to the activity of the Decolonize This Place movement, the traditional museum, so far taken for granted, has been increasingly questioned. For the first time, its role in the expropriation of colonised peoples, plunder and the maintenance of the hierarchical model in the art world is being discussed. Can we rethink these institutions in separation from their genesis marred by violence and exclusion?
I was always thankful to the ‘Museum’ institution because if there were no museum I probably wouldn’t have had the chance of getting in contact with art, since art played no role in the family I grew up in. Therefore I never understood nor agreed with the common meaning of ‘institutional critique’, simply because to me, the art institution – the Museum – was important and decisive: I encountered art – for the first time – thanks to the museum and thanks to friends who took me there. Therefore, the art institution is the place where I realized that art was addressing me, one to one. I felt implied and understood the huge impact and importance art could have. I never forget this personal and universal experience and, out of loyalty and faithfulness to its decisive dimension, I always refused ‘institutional critique’, too unfair, easy, simple, disembodied, conventional, theoretical and above all, far from reality. Art institutions are what they are; art should not rely or expect anything from them, nor waste its time, insight and energy in opposing them. To me the mission of the Museum of the Future is to create, through contact with art, philosophy and poetry, the conditions for an event, for encounters, and encourage its own transformation as a museum. Such an event, because it happens in a museum’s public space, or within moments of public space in the institution, can lead to a transformation which is universal. This event provokes a displacement: a displacement in time. This displacement is also a displacement of what presence means, within this time. The Museum of the Future will pose the question of presence – the presence of the body, of my body, of our bodies – and the question of time during which such presence of the body operates and creates an event. The Museum of the Future will assert that art – because it’s art – can transform each human being – throughout confrontation, throughout dialog, throughout discussion. The Museum of the Future will show art which has energy, the Museum of the Future will be free and open 24 hours every day without any exceptions.
2- In countries like Poland, opening art to the global market after 1989 seemed the only right thing to do; it held out a promise of freedom and modernisation. This involved the figure of a star artist, charging exorbitant prices for his or her pieces and conquering consecutive markets in the West. Arts education nowadays tends to encourage such attitudes. In recent years, there are more and more voices challenging the paradigm of unceasing competition and commercial success, also among students. You harboured such doubts at the beginning of your artistic career. In your opinion, what is the role of art schools in the crisis of the established models functioning in the art world?
I make the distinction between the ‘Artworld’ which I am part of – whether I want to or not – and ‘Art’ which is to do my work, my problem, my decision, my passion, my mission. Art institutions are neither strengthening nor weakening the critical dimension of art, they are just evaluating it. The question is – and remains – the work itself, the artwork, the form, the body. A critical corpus can only be established by art itself, to the margin, in ‘precariousness’, non-guaranteed, in a movement. A critical corpus doesn’t need to have ‘good’ conditions offered by the art institution, a critical corpus is self-assertive. Neither against, nor ‘for’ the institution. ‘Being critical’ means to be free with what comes from oneself. ‘Being critical’ means asking: Why do I do what I do? Why do I use the instrument, tool or weapon ‘art’?
3- Is it possible to abandon the orientation towards quality in arts education for the benefit of the orientation towards energ
Yes, absolutely, it’s necessary, and it’s urgent. To me, a school-project should be built on something crucial I believe in: ‘Energy’. I know what has energy, I know where there is energy. “Energy: Yes! Quality: No!” is one of my guidelines as an artist. It is an affirmation, it is something constitutive for my work and I have always been faithful to it. “Energy: Yes!” is the assertion that things which have their own energy are important. Energy is what counts, Energy is what I can grasp, Energy is what I can share and Energy is what is Universal. “Energy: Yes!” is a statement for movement, for the dynamic, for invention, for activity, for the activity of thinking. I want to say “Yes” to Energy as such, Energy as the idea of a possible accumulation, as a battery. It is about saying “Yes” to something without establishing an exclusive criterion. I use the term Energy as a positive term because it includes the other, it is beyond good and bad – even bad energy is Energy – and Energy is situated beyond cultural, political, aesthetical habits. “Energy: Yes!” opposes thinking in terms of ‘quality’. I am against the label Quality, everywhere, and also in Art of course. Therefore I propose to follow the guideline “Quality: No!” and oppose it to: “Energy: Yes!”. But, “Quality: No!” is the refusal to be neutralized by the exclusive criteria of Quality. Quality is the luxury reflex to keep a distance with everything which doesn’t have Quality. I don’t know what has Quality, nor where there is Quality. As an artist I refuse to adopt the term Quality for my work and I don’t want to apply it to the work of others. Quality is always a try to establish a scale, to distinguish ‘high quality’ or ‘low quality’, but I don’t know, myself – today – what kind of work has Quality. I use the term ‘quality’ as a negative term, because it excludes others, because it’s only an ‘international thing’ and because it makes the distinction between good and bad. Quality is exclusive, luxurious and based on consumerism. I need another criterion – today. Therefore I propose to follow, as a guideline, “Energy: Yes! Quality: No!”.
4- You have compared art and philosophy to war machines that allow us to stand up to those in power. How is this struggle to be carried out if our weapon eventually becomes part of the order that we are trying to oppose? Even the most radical or revolutionary means may be taken over by the enemy and used to strengthen the established order. Is there a way to escape this appropriation?
I am – as an artist – an activist, too. I am an activist of my own work, I am an activist of my own aesthetic, I am an activist of my own position and I am an activist of my very own understanding of art. As an artist, I need to be free with my own, that is my activity. My passion is doing a work of art, asserting form, giving form. My passion is to establish a critical corpus and my passion is to create a platform for a contact with a ‘non-exclusive audience’ throughout my work. Throughout my work – thanks to my presence and thanks to my production I can learn, because I made an experience. Is there something more beautiful that one can get from art? One of the examples of a beautiful, critical and powerful work is the work of Jean-Luc Godard, because he succeeded in creating a new form of cinema. His films give a form to the artistic question: How can one do – today, in our time – a work which reaches beyond its time, which resists historical facts? How can a work – beyond the cultural, aesthetical, political – to create a truth? And how can this truth become a universal truth? Jean-Luc Godard answers with the affirmation that art stands for absolute resistance. One can take his work and his position as an example. And I do, and therefore when Jean-Luc Godard says: “It’s about making film politically – it’s not about making political films.” it is something essential to me. I want to replace ‘making film politically’ with ‘making art politically’. In my mind it is crucial to understand the difference between ‘working politically’ on one side, and terms such as ‘political art’, ‘political artist’. The trap is to think or declare oneself a leftist, a ‘political artist’, someone who does ‘political work’ because the problem is not about taking over the role and work of politicians and the goal cannot be taking a stand on the ‘good side’. We know there are leftist careerists, leftist opportunists, leftist content-providers . Therefore the real problem is not about content, the real problem is the form. The form must be powerful, critical, untamable, and the form – as such – must resist recuperation and appropriation. If this can be achieved then we can speak about a Form as such. Giving form, giving a leftist form means doing something new, doing something which transgresses, something which creates a breakthrough, something which goes beyond the common habits. I believe that the problem is to give a Form, a critical Form. A critical form is a form that criticizes, but also that can be criticized, that is not established. Therefore the artist has to pay a price for his form, this is what being leftist means: To pay for the Form! The leftist is the one who is ready to pay – as first – for the Form. To pay means to be criticized, to be excluded, not to be invited. If not, it’s the trap of hiding behind a posture or a postulate – and it is easy then to be recuperated or appropriated. I am convinced that what counts – in the very end – is only ‘Form’, and this Form and the work which leads to this Form must be made politically. This means to work politically and to think politically. In this perspective I want to clarify the term ‘working politically’ – and again – not do ‘political work’. To me – what counts, what makes the difference is to start asking oneself the important questions, the real questions, the big questions: “Why do I think what I think? Why do I do what I do (art)? Why do I use the tool or instrument I use? Why do I give the form I give?
5- You gave up graphic design for art. Is the opposition between these two categories: designed objects and found objects the key to what makes these two fields different? In the history of 20th-century art there are countless examples of creative pervasion between the spheres of art and design: Russian constructivists made designs, and such eminent artists as Duchamp or Warhol began as illustrators. What do you think of contemporary design and do you believe that a bi-directional flow of inspiration is possible between design and the art world?
I did not ‘give up’ graphic design for art, I failed to be a graphic designer. After my arrival in Paris in 1983, I tried to integrate ‘Grapus’, the French communist graphic design collective as one of the creative members – but they refused to accept me as such, and only proposed executionary tasks to do for them. This was my first failure in Paris and in this very difficult moment – I can call it a crisis – I had to concentrate on what really counted for me and on what I really loved to do: Collage. But I did not need to be commisioned to make a Collage – I just needed to work, therefore to be a graphic designer became obsolete, and I emancipated myself and cast my Collage work into the field of art. During times of crisis, people often need to look for role models. I read about artists – Joseph Beuys and Andy Warhol in particular. I also read about Otto Freundlich and Piet Mondrian. These were artists who had spent their lives being true to an initial idea. Their work wasn’t just about formal concerns. The best example for me was Andy Warhol. I had seen the exhibition at the Fondation Cartier, Jouy-en-Josas, “Andy Warhol System: Pub, Pop, Rock” (1990). It was then that I understood that throughout his whole life Warhol remained true to what he had been at outset. He never deviated from this initial approach, he keeped truthful to his origin of work. That is why Andy Warhol is so important to me.
6- The feature of the current issue of Elements is the “slip of the tongue,” or unintentional distortion of message; what do you think of it? Can we assume that art’s openness to this kind of ‘mistake’ makes it different from designing?
I know – that as an absolute precondition – there are many errors and lacks in my work. My first concern is not about doing a work without errors or without lacks, but about doing an artwork where errors and lacks are not important. I want to do a work which is stronger than its errors and its lacks. When a work is strong enough – if it is strong – it exists beyond these errors and lacks. And resists them, because Art is resistant – because it’s Art – it can reach, include, invite everybody to a dialogue or a confrontation from one to one.
7- Your rather unconcerned attitude to material initially placed your work outside the ‘official’ system of art. This type of distance doesn’t, however, exclude seriousness along with being accountable for one’s own actions. What is, in your opinion, the best proportion between distance and seriousness, enabling the artist to be as effective as possible?
It’s to act in ‘Headlessness’ – that’s what I want. I do take seriously what I am doing, but I do not want to take myself – Me the artist – seriously. As an artist, the notion of ‘Headlessness’ – which is an absolutely positive notion – guides me and drives my work. The term Headless is shared as well by Art and Philosophy. Headless does not mean stupid, silly or without intelligence, Headless does not mean being ignorant, I am not an ignorant artist, because as an artist better not be ignorant! I am and want to be a Headless artist. I want to act in Headlessness – always. I want to make Art in Headlessness, work in a rush and with precipitation. I never want to economize myself and I know that – as the artist – I often feel stupid facing my own work, but I have to stand out for this ridiculousness. If I want to give a new form, I have to do it in Headlessness, and to produce in Headlessness means to be ridiculous and even to be “the stupid one”. I want to rush through the wall, head first, I want to make a breakthrough, I want to cut a hole or a window into the reality of today. I think that in today’s complex, cruel, incomprehensible but also graceful, beautiful and hopeful world, to be static, to “keep the level”, to be for security, for tradition, for identity will definitely lead to loss. I am for movement, for intensity, for exaggeration, I am for Headlessness, for the decision, for insistence, for the offensive, for the dream.
8 – If we generalise a bit, your strategy can be described as ‘bricolage.’ Lately, such an attitude has grown popular, for instance, because of the increasing significance of the ecological idea of recycling. The fashion for bricolage is a question of style, which has been absorbed by the system of art and tends to be multiplied, often in a superficial way. What do you – the artist who has popularised the bricolage style in art – think of this?
I never, ever used the term ‘Bricolage’ and my strategy is not ‘Bricolage’. My strategy is: To do Collage. All my work is based upon Collage, the understanding of using two or more existing elements of the world, to glue them together in order to create a new world. Indeed, I use the term ‘Collage’, this is not ‘style’. It is something fundamental, something essential. I love the collages of John Heartfield, Hannah Höch, Kurt Schwitters and, more than anything, the three-dimensional «Grosses-Plasto-Dio-Dada-Drama» by Johannes Baader. I love to do collage because it is simple to make a collage, and it can be done quickly. It is fun to make a collage and at the same time it arouses suspicion: it is too simple, too fast, not respectable enough. But a collage is resistant, it escapes control, even the control of the one who made it. That is its resistant character. To make a collage always has something to do with headlessness. Precisely that is what interests me because there is no means of expression with such great explosive power. A collage is charged and always remains explosive. That is the associative element of a collage, that almost everybody, sometime in their lives, has tried to make an image of this world. It is something universal, and it is an opening toward a non-exclusive public.
9- Materiality seems very important in your work. Hence the question: what does the virtual sphere mean to you and do you see a place for yourself on the Internet which – especially during the pandemic – is more accessible to viewers than a tangible display taking place at a specific time and place?
Indeed, the decision to work with a material is important to me. It’s a decision, a political decision, it is the decision for a Form. It is the decision for the reality of ‘Form’ in its materiality. I use common materials, that everyone knows and uses, such as tape, cardboard, wire, coins. These materials are non-permanent. The ‘virtual sphere’ is another tool. I try to use virtuality in order to clarify my position, my thoughts on my work and my vision about art. Therefore: Material = Form. Virtual = Position. But right now, the ‘virtual’ serves the “social distancing”. The art world – and by this I mean artists, art institutions, art academies, art criticism, and the art market must not adopt “social distancing”. Simply because art is without distance – autonomous, universal, absolute and necessary. I think that contact, encounter, exchange, neighbourhood, confrontation, freedom, freedom in bondage, inclusivity, multiplicity, solidarity, equality, creativity are concepts that are more important than ever, because they have been challenged by the forced “social distancing”. Here the artist has a decisive role to play, since concepts such as distance, control, social control, containment, security, guarantee, tracing, repression, exclusivity have nothing to do with the experience of ‘art’. Rather, resistance is needed to combat opportunistic, consumerist and exclusionary tendencies – which have always existed in the art world. I don’t want “social distancing” to triumph in the art world, I want to fight for the experiment of ‘art’. My weapon will be my work. I want to point out – this is my mission as an artist today – what I am prepared to live and work for. “Social Distancing” and “Home Office” are not part of it. It would rather be a mistake to step into this stupid and clumsy – but also tempting – trap. ‘Virtual exhibitions’, ‘virtual artworks’, ‘virtual learning’, ‘virtual exchange’, ‘virtual communication’ are only sham solutions or excuses and they are all the more dangerous because they are desired, encouraged or even required by the state. But nobody – not even the state – can tell me how to work in the future. Therefore, it is essential to be sensitive, critical, alert and attentive to the virtual and the digital – there is no need to hide behind the computer. We have to resist the temptation of ‘staying among ourselves’ and ‘diving into the Internet’ – also in the art world. If we give in to the tendency to “isolate” or “self-isolation”, it would mean giving up the debate, the discussion, the criticism, the conflict – everything that art can create. That’s why I question – as many others – the ‘continuity dogma of distance technologies’.
10- The language you use and have developed is rooted in graphic design. Do you have favourite books the design of which you are especially fond of? Design is based on specific rules, observing them makes the content more accessible. Do any of your favourite books run counter to those rules, taking a more vernacular form, violating some assumptions of design founded on the fascination with the Bauhaus?
I studied at the Kunstgewerbeschule Zürich from 1978 to 1983. At this time there was no proper art department, nor was it a school of applied arts. The educational philosophy was inspired by the principles of the Bauhaus, but in a degenerate and rather deviant version. Of course, it was neither the Bauhaus, nor the Ulm School, yet it adopted the precepts of both. As theorist Thierry de Duve pointed out in his fantastic book Nominalisme Pictural (1984), that the very name ‘Kunstgewerbeschule’ – later ‘Schule für Gestaltung’ – implies these two affiliations both practical and theoretical. Our training positioned us against the advertising industry, but our teachers were Swiss-German graphic designers who had worked in advertising. I was fascinated by Russian revolutionary artists – Malevich, Rodchenko, Rosanova, Oudaltsova, Gontscharova, Tatlin, Klutsis, El Lissitzky, Popova, and Stepanova – who are still very important for me.
11- Viewing your works on the Internet, which rarely gives one an opportunity to delve into their textual layer, it is hard not to be enraptured by them, even if deep insight into them is not possible to be gained and their perception tends to be limited to a great extent. What is the meaning of the word, image, letter, photograph in your work; what is the meaning of form and abstract grid, of structure? Do you consider transferring your pieces into a purely abstract realm?
The images I use in my work are printed matter that had another existence before I put them together : photos or advertisements – always printed – that I take from fashion and political magazines and images printed out from the internet, sometimes enlarged with photocopy. I want to do a two-dimensional work that can be mentally deployed into a third dimension. I want to break the scale, the angles and the perspective – this is my way to abstraction. I want to put everything in, the whole universum. I want to express the complexity and contradiction of the world. Most of these pictures are taken by witnesses and have a status of testimony. Their origin is often unclear and unverifiable, there is no source and this unverifiable provenance reflects today’s uncertainty. This is what I am interested in because I want to affirm the world in which I live and I want to affirm also the negative side of this world. I affirm the world in which negativity is also shown and in which the hard core of reality, of negativity is not bracketed off. I want to show also this hard core. I want to turn towards the negative; I do not want to be cynic or a cunning devil. I do not want to look away. I want to be attentive and I want to create a new world alongside and in the existing world.
12- Poland’s ruling coalition has provoked numerous social conflicts, leading to mass strikes for equality, women’s rights and judicial independence of Polish judges. All this sometimes made the impression of a grand mass performance with such props as text, banners, visual messages. These activities enter art galleries, institutions. Is this the moment when protest and rebellion are noted or appropriated?
I just can tell you what I want: I want to struggle with the factual reality affecting me. I want to act, I refuse the role of a commentator, of a journalist, or of an observer. I want take each chance or opportunity – in and toward my work – to affirm Equality. Yes, I believe in art and I have faith in art. I think that art is an absolute inclusive movement – art includes the “Non-exclusive audience”, the Other, the neighbour, the passer-by, the unknown, the stranger, the uninterested one. Art does never act in resentment or negativity, art is always and in all circumstances against racism and exclusion, and there is no place for any discrimination in art. Art affirms Truth. Truth is not the verifiable fact or a ‘true information’. I want to resist the tendency of reducing myself – and all of us – to objects in our unequal world, I do not pretend to know it better, to do it better but I pretend to give form to my interrogations, my thoughts, my questions. As an artist, I know that Art – all Art of all times and all places – crosses the lines. That Art – all Art of all times and all places – addresses a non-exclusive audience in all circumstances. That Art – all Art of all times and all places – never builds walls, never establishes borders or imagines separations. There I see my mission as artist.
13- You live in Paris – a city known for its glamour but, on the other hand, also troubled by social tensions. When I think about Paris, its structure including the underground, the metro, the canals, I feel that it has found a strong reflection in your works, especially the spatial ones, environments. Are you inspired by the city? What interests you in Paris?
I’ve been living in Paris for thirty-eight years now. I came to Paris for work, to encounter and find my own measure. I did not come to Paris for a quality of life, for calm, for glamour, for luxury, or for style. I did not come to Paris for culture, and I did not come to be an artist. But this city gave me time, the anonymity, the measure, the encounters – with intelligent and sensitive people – which helped me develop my work, which helped me emancipate myself and which helped me invent my work. Here in Paris – in isolation for years – I understood how important it is to reach to my sources, to put my work into the field of Art and I decided that History of Art will judge my work. This is why, as an artist now, I can stay in Paris. Paris is a very big city, a metropole, a city with tensions, with contradictions, with complexities, with problematics, with a lot of unresolved things. I think it is a good place to work and I love the ordinary, normal, everyday life in Paris.
14- Is your creative work based on revolt and the need to question? Can revolt be seen as a permanent state, an unceasing need? Has this attitude evolved in your work? Is it your choice to stay within the studio and art galleries, or do also you wish to go out into the streets, integrate yourself into the crowd and demonstrate your disagreement in a direct way, by having your say and being present?
I am an an artist, I am a worker, I am a soldier. To do my work, to assert it, to fight for it, and to pay the price for it- this is my ‘demonstration’! I decided to think, to work, to act and to fight in the field of art – because I love it, because it’s art that helped me emancipate myself and because it’s in the field of art that I can put my work. And as an artist – I am ready to pay the price for this decision. But why do I do what I do – art? I understand art as a mission, a mission to accomplish – beyond success and beyond failure. To think in terms of “success” or “failure” in art makes no sense, art can be an experience that doesn’t function, that doesn’t work. I learned from doing art that I can’t be the “disappointed” one, and have no right to be, and accepting such an unforceful discourse is obviously and definitely too easy. Doing artwork is not an escape or a dream. Equality is not given – I must fight for it and can’t avoid the battle under the pretext of circumstance or today’s context. In order to stand up against inequality I must allow myself Equality, I must authorize myself to assert being equal. Art enables me to assert and give a form to my own logic in a movement of self-authorization. Therefore to me, doing art is an emancipatory act and as such, a necessity – if I work in this dynamic I am working politically. And the other question is: Why do I use the tool or the instrument I use? Working – as an artist – means understanding art as a tool, an instrument or a weapon to confront reality. I use the tool “art” to encounter the world I am living in. I use the tool “art” to live within the time I am living. I use the tool “art” because it allows resisting the historical fact. I want to use the tool “art” precisely because it allows me to do an a-historical work within the chaos and complexity of the moment. I want to use art as a tool to establish a contact with the Other – this is a necessity – and I am convinced that the only possible contact with the Other happens “One to One”, as equal. I want to do a work that gives form to the affirmation: The Other is included in “me” and in “I”. To love doing my work is already working politically, because the power comes – and must come – from Love. Art is a tool to keep the concentration focused on what counts to me, on what is essential – this means to work politically.