Art Is Changing (a) Place
A New Substance of Art
Publication: 17 August 2021
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Each situation is a result of some social process, for example, the fact that we are talking now is a result of some long cultural process. And this is where artists have an enormous role to play.
Anda Rottenberg: We are in a company perceived across Poland as a group of scandalists. I got used to the fact that when a radio, television or press journalist calls me and wants to ask me a question, it always regards some scandal. Media turned me into a specialist in this domain and I think it also concerns you two. You are also perceived in terms of scandal. And this slightly overshadows the essence of what we are engaged in – I as a critic and you, artists, in your art. Perhaps this is because you do not practice gallery art in the classic sense of the word and do not employ traditional techniques, that is what most of the public associates art with. (I think, I do not need to explain that traditional techniques have long ceased to function as relevant categories in art). One more thing you have in common is that you create your art not in an artist’s workshop in the classic sense, where the artist is alone with his material, holding a graver, a brush or a chisel – you are “sculpting” social space. What is more, you are preoccupied with the fringe, which in this space is often, or occasionally, not too visible, for this or that reason. You are interested in areas immersed in a half-shadow or full shadow. But each of you has something different in mind. The subject matter of your work is different and unusual. Perhaps we should start with Katarzyna Kozyra, who, if I may say so, has long been sculpting her own body. Kasia, has it ever occurred to you that there is something wrong with understanding the identity hidden in the human body? For in fact you have been long interested in such a sphere where, as I would call it, you take a costume off the human body, and this costume is the body itself. You create many layers of meaning connected with the notion of human identity – a human, a creature. But you started with showing incomplete bodies. It seems that the first object with which you came out in the street was the lame body of your sister.
Katarzyna Kozyra: At that time I was lame myself, I was simply ill, but in the case of my sister it was visible – she had been born with one leg shorter, while I suffered from Hodgkin’s disease. You ask me when did I notice that not all bodies could fit the official discourse – I think that already at the academy. It was when our model was an anorectic girl and almost no one wanted to sculpt her. It was probably then, in my third year. I was very interested in her, she fascinated me, I made a small model of the act every day and every day something else captured my attention in this body. Sometimes I saw the veins (she had a transparent body), sometimes the bones, sometimes the skin, and once the points of gravity, when she was strangely glued to the plank. It was then that I noticed that an unconventional body is more interesting for me than those from the covers.
A.R.: Theoretically there is a long distance from an interest in an unconventional body to entering a women’s and then a men’s bathhouse. But it seems that when you are interested in something, it shortens this distance. You entered two areas – one is a domain forbidden to women, that is a men’s bathhouse, but earlier you came into a women’s bathhouse and revealed the intimacy of being together, which hides there, above all by showing women, female bodies which, to put it mildly, were very far removed from the catwalk standards. Is it related to the fascination with the anorectic model?
K.K.: Since that time I am interested virtually in everything that transcends some format. You asked about shortcuts?
A.R.: I don’t remember.
K.K.: About shortcuts? That I am acting ruthlessly, with a hidden camera, violating privacy, interfering in the intimate sphere, etc. Is this what you have in mind?
A.R.: I am trying to guess, observing all your movements from Piramida zwierząt (Pyramid of animals) to Casting. We are speaking about imperfection being the substance of art and I thought that in your case I can say, “imperfection of the body.” But you are also interested in the possibility of transformation. First, you showed these imperfect women and then you impersonated a boy in the bathhouse. But you went much further in this, you started to manipulate the image of the human being, not painting it, but impersonating it. Perhaps I will remind you, and everyone else, that some time ago Katarzyna Kozyra, following the concept of the body as a costume – this is how it was in my view – decided that practically everything that is visible as our bodily presence is conventional. And she made such a move that she disguised herself as a drag queen – that is a man pretending to be a woman. Is a woman dressed as a man pretending to be a woman, with all attributes of this disguise, a kind of statement? What was the purpose of this?
K.K.: There are many aspects, but I think you could mention the feminist one too; it is such a broad metaphor that I as a woman – I am speaking about it from today’s perspective – have my raison d’être and move around in a reality constructed by men, and I am welcome only when I accept the rules and put on a costume, which means that I am…
A.R.: …quite similar to them. And this is the perverse aspect, the first stage consisted in pretending that you were a woman among men who did not pretend to be women. The second stage is an attempt to enter the world of men who pretend to be women, but they know – and everyone around them knows – that they are not women. And possessing a penis is a proof of that. There is a competition for the most beautiful drag queen and you are exposed, for your penis is artificial. We are speaking about a very important area of taboo in the discourse about social conventions, about how we got used to certain patterns within which we move around: that a body is a body, it sends signals, messages to other bodies; on the most basic level our sexual identity is such a message.
But there are other areas in which you, Aśka [Joanna], are functioning. You are not active in the areas connected with sexual identity, but in ones hidden in the shadow of understatement, of sentences not completed and sometimes not even started. One could say that you began with something close to services, that is you placed yourself in a position of a person hired for various services or chores. I would like you to say something more about that, because it is very difficult to understand. In the traditional world or in the traditional community an artist is perceived as exceptional, someone who is either insane or enjoys special privileges. You have turned this order on its head and said: an artist is someone who performs chores for others.
Joanna Rajkowska: Perhaps I will describe a wider context, for it is a fragment of a longer road I travelled. I studied in Krakow, and I emerged from a workshop which was endowed with a mission – the workshop of Professor Nowosielski. Our training did not go in the direction of technique, it was a training in the contact with reality. In all my projects, which developed over the years – I work very slowly and I think slowly, in a sense “I am slowly” – I tried to be equal to the task the Professor had put before me. This task seemed trivial, that is it sounded trivial in terms of painting: he placed before us a still life, an act, anything, and asked us to achieve such a level of unity with the perceived thing that we became this thing. He asked us to become a still life, an apple, an act, this woman, this man posing for us. Of course it was impossible, we, brought up in completely different times, in another cultural and religious reality, were absolutely incapable of it, or at least I felt incapable, and a kind of resistance against this impossible demand was growing inside me. I was a disastrous painter, I am still not very good, I am striving all the time, but without much success. Such a full contact with reality, the annihilation of difference, has not occurred either in sculpture or in installation, but it did come about at the moment when I brutalised the answer to Professor’s demand, I tried to fulfil the task on the level of physical contact with something or someone. And it turned out that the closest, the most direct and the most painful contact is best revealed and manifested in relations with social reality. When I had a group of people at my disposal and attempted to change social rituals, delicately moving various elements, it did happen and I felt with my entire self that it was happening and that it was something important. And so, I have followed this trail, guided by my intuition.
Of course, it began with quite primitive moves – for example when I washed people’s hands in iodine, it was 1994, times long gone, in New York; like Kasia, I had serious health problems and iodine was readily available. I used it to make my own bodily experience a collective one, but on a very small, experimental, limited social field. I started to wash these people’s hands, which turned out a deeply sexual, very pleasant, but also slightly disturbing experience. And then Professor’s demand was in some sense fulfilled, which prompted me to make successive attempts at coming in full, direct, intense contact with reality. Of course, the difference can never be completely overcome.
In the Berlin project I opened a channel of contact with others thanks to the expectation that they would be the authors or choreographers of works or situations, while I would be only their tool. In a sense I forced them into full activity, into taking over the initiative.
A.R.: The choreographing role consisted, for example, in taking someone from one apartment to another. It was hard physical work, you were not given light tasks.
There is one area in which you two in a sense met – not at exhibitions, for that had probably occurred earlier and quite often, but in an area connected with the functioning of the body. Katarzyna was preoccupied with perceiving the outside appearances, while you engaged in analysing the otherwise very feminist act of producing and functioning of the female body as a fetish. You decided that one can go further and create a product line of cosmetics and drinks based on substances produced by the human body. The concept of a product line, of advertising, of course overlaps with the concept of pop-art. One could say that you made products made from human secretions look similar to any other product, for example a nutria cream, that in fact the difference between the animals we use to enhance our looks and health and the human organism is very delicate. This is how I interpreted it. I would rather you said something more on that.
J.R.: You know, I will continue the story from which I started …
A.R.: … Nowosielski again?
J.R.: Yes, it stayed very deeply in me, on many levels. It was the same attempt at looking for contact. It seems to me that when I made a series of soaps from myself, it was not meant as a criticism of the mechanisms of consumer society, but so that someone used me for washing himself or herself, so that I would find myself on someone’s skin, in someone’s gastric tract. Of course assuming the impossibility of the situation. For a great lesson from my time in Nowosielski’s workshop was a respect for impossibility. I start from the fact that I am helpless. Helpless in the face of lack of contact, helpless in a social or political situation. I use this helplessness as a tool, a kind of power and a kind of possibility. This contradiction is contained in the project, which nominally manifested my presence in the product, although in fact this presence was not there. There were no secretions, no organs, no fat in the soap, no saliva in Vaseline. I wanted someone to spread his or her hands or lips with Vaseline, which was supposed to contain saliva, but it did not – and we came full circle. I stated very clearly that it was impossible, I also signalled the direction of my action and desire towards the social body, the people who anonymously bought products made by the hundred and thousand, and then tens of thousands, because that was how it was supposed to work. With full awareness, with an undertone which said, “Use me, use me in a cheap, direct, immediate way, I want to be used, I want to be bought, I want to be yours, I want to be socially useful, I want to be a tool in your hands.”
At the same time the whole context from art history was present here, of Piero Manzoni’s can of turds; of course it worked in a completely different way, but the cynicism was similar, it registered a presence or an absence in the economic network.
A.R.: You talked about impossibilities, but also about the fact that an attempt to overcome them may be a driving force for an artist. Kasia took lessons in operatic singing, for she had decided that everything is within the scope of human possibilities, it is sufficient to make a decision to sing a Mozart aria – and she did that. Do you have a sense that you have become a singer?
K.K.: For myself yes, I have become a singer to some degree, for others rather not.
A.R.: You made a film showing your failure on stage.
K.K.: Entering the stage was a victory, for I won for myself. And, I am not so sure if others perceived it as a failure. I saw a couple of people who could not believe in what was happening, for they noticed how much I was suffering. But the rest had great fun, so I think it was a great performance and it was not at all about me delighting someone with my beautiful singing. Everybody had great fun.
A.R.: I am not speaking about fun, but about taking such a task upon oneself. Just as later you could dress as a cheerleader and some other figures.
K.K.: My answer would be that if I really wanted to, I would become someone I am not, but this is embarrassing for me, and therefore I cannot act. But I believe in my heart that if I decided to overcome this inhibition, I would become someone else. Or it would seem so.
A.R.: This is obvious, but I am asking a different question. In my view you always build several layers, like in a double-bottomed drawer, one is the statement that in art dreams become reality, and therefore it is just a question of decision who I will become tomorrow or in a week’s time. In recent years you have been showing that you are capable of becoming a boy, a cheerleader, an opera diva and some other people. But in fact, you do not become them – you remain the artist Katarzyna Kozyra, you play these roles only for a while and withdraw from them. In order to show what? And to whom?
K.K.: I am masochistically making a laughing stock of myself. This is what you mean? No? Is this some more complex question which I don’t get?
A.R.: I don’t know. I am only stating that you have shown that you can be this or that persona, everyone has seen it, half the world has seen it. But you did not remain in any of these identities. The question is what is the purpose of this. Are you testing yourself? Just as Aśka tries to identify with, let us say, a still life, you try to confront the barriers you are doomed to – within yourself, defined by your potential – and overcome them. Functioning in the public sphere, at the same time both of you have a quarrel with yourselves. The scandal is external, I am sorry to come back to that, but sometimes they are very radical moves and this is how they are perceived, but you go through dramatic experiences – such is my impression – to overcome certain things in yourself, for which theoretically you are not prepared. For you have been doomed to not being someone – not being a man, not being an opera diva or yet someone else. So I want to ask you if it liberates you?
K.K.: I have to think about it … I don’t like to feel mediocre and I would like to do something sensible in life, and because I am incapable of doing anything other than what I am doing, I am inventing things which provoke me to transcend barriers and possibilities, which I practically don’t have, although everyone should have them and probably everyone has them. And, this is perhaps all that is to it. Other than the fact that many things irritate me and that the things I do not always are completely one-dimensional, I decide to learn to sing, overcome myself and sing something, but this is not the end of the matter. I am confronting the widely accepted images of the woman, I join the battle and fly, observing where this will take me. Generally speaking, we have to compete throughout our lives and it seems to me that even for an opera singer her profession is not exclusively pleasure, but also the ability to sell oneself, which not everybody possesses.
A.R.: It came back to me that already as children we learn the limits of our potential – for example we know from a certain moment that we will not be a ballet dancer or a pianist. Our range of possibilities becomes reduced with age, the older we are, the more we can’t be something. At least, I learned when I was seven or eight that I would not become a pianist. And I still remember the sense that some development opportunity was taken away from me. And another thing in this context: I imagine that when someone is very ill, there comes a moment when she thinks that she may be incapable of becoming anyone in her life. Is it not a moment when you start to dream that when you overcome the illness, you will try to make something out of your life? To at least find out if you will manage to become something other than what you are, something other than Katarzyna Kozyra, a sculptress, or Joanna Rajkowska, programmed by Nowosielski to identify with the world, which she should reflect in her art.
This is very important, for in my view there came a moment when both of you transcended your worlds and entered the realm of social matters. It happened to you, Aśka, at least from the moment when you put a palm tree in the centre of Warsaw – for it was not mere decoration, but a clear sign of protest against forgetting, a signal for the people of Warsaw. Greetings from Aleje Jerozolimskie – a sign which could be read in many ways. A reminder why the street has Jerusalem in its name, which is also connected with your visit in Israel. After your long stay, you understood that the oppressed population in this country are not Israelis, but Palestinians – and this is probably the reason behind your proposal to build a minaret in Poznań. And we have the oxygenator put in Grzybowski Square, close to the church where The Protocols of the Elders of Zion had been sold. Similarly to Kasia, who undertook the issue of sexual minorities, you sided with the weaker or with the Other and attempted to make the ruling majority realise – being the majority, it does not notice it – that other people exist, perhaps needing support or at least understanding for their otherness, their being different. Perhaps I am wrong, and that is why I am asking.
J.R.: I don’t want to take care of the weak, people who are in a statistical minority, the oppressed, this is the least important of my intentions. I simply construct a situation to which they will react or not, and if they take up the initiative, if they find the necessary power in themselves, they will claim this situation for themselves and use it for their political purposes. This is always a kind of trial, very small and very local social experiments, but I think that it is not the role of an artist to take care of the oppressed, really.
A.R.: I am not speaking about taking care of the oppressed, but about your pointing to the existence of some problem.
J.R.: Yes, of course, but you know, in the case of the palm tree it was a long process and it ended with the impossibility of understanding the complexity of the conflict. Even on the linguistic level, a palm tree is an expression of the impossibility to comprehend, understand, take a side – it was telling that most journalists invoked this unfortunate Polish idiom (palma odbiła [she went crazy]), which points to the impossibility of understanding the whole situation. Israel became for me an image of the world in general – of a profound, crucial conflict showing all facets of human nature and the policy we conduct. The palm tree has also become a project which like a chameleon changed into our history, into our political reality. Of course, initially the project represented the memory of the absent, the void after the Holocaust, and than the protesting nurses were turning the top of the scaffolding around the tree into a nurse’s cap. Recently, some activists wrapped the trunk with a keffiyeh as a sign of solidarity with all Arab revolts happening now, but it was also a very specific gesture of protest against the visit of the Polish government in Israel (in my opinion the visit was a political mistake, for it expressed an acceptance for the whole range of violations of human rights by Israel). Luckily, the project has its further instalments, over which I – also luckily – have no control. I prefer to be on the sidelines of these projects, I believe they should be taken over by the local communities, used, modified, destroyed. And I am not preoccupied with my own role, I am only a hidden mechanism putting the whole thing in motion, but there is a moment when this initiating role ends. Therefore, the projects are not signed, there are no plaques, they are left as open histories, so that further chapters could be written and so that the works could ultimately be in some sense destroyed. And they are destroyed, the oxygen booster was destroyed by the policy of the Warsaw authorities, the minaret has never been built, for Poznań is not ready for that, we are not ready for that, the knowledge of what is happening in the world, and especially in the Middle East, is pathetic, which means that as a society we are not ready for such a project. The protest against my idea was strong and intense enough for me to give up. You could say that my projects are prepared for destructive actions. I am also prepared for my actions being in some sense nullified.
A.R.: In that case, what does your role as artists consist in? How are artists perceived today? Perhaps it is a trivial question, but I don’t have a clear answer to it.
K.K.: It is difficult to say who a contemporary artist is. For me, everyone who acts in a creative way, for example a physician who doesn’t treat me as just another patient in the queue, is an artist. The thing is to escape formatting and try to look at the world differently than it is shown to us. Every person attempting to promote alternative points of view could in fact be called an artist. A physicist is an artist when he discovers something brilliant. And what is my role? Perhaps exactly that of showing that you can break away from the daily routine, that you can try to go in a different direction; even if not everything is possible, just striving at something makes life enormously richer. The role of an artist is perhaps to show variety in every aspect of life. Perhaps.
J.R.: I agree with Kasia, it is an extremely difficult question. There comes a moment in life when you realise that everything depends on you. Each situation is a result of some social process, for example, the fact that we are talking now is a result of some long cultural process. And this is where artists have an enormous role to play – our task is to move the building blocks around to modify situations. I am thinking mostly about moments when we are in some kind of relation as a group of people, but in fact I am focused on individual relations, that is how I am to face another human, how we can arrange ourselves, also our bodies, how we can knock down, modify and tamper with social rituals. This is extremely important for me, here the role of an artist is based on our extraordinary ability to exploit visual images, which stems from our education. Only we are trained in this direction, politicians aren’t, although they perhaps should.
K.K.: Everyone should. Simply everyone. For this is something that was taken away from us, Poles.
J.R.: Yes, this is what I think. And we should offer these abilities in various fields: political, social, in each possible field, and use the abilities that were given to us mostly in supra-artistic domains, for this is the place where the building blocks I spoke of should be moved around, their arrangement modified. And, I think that in the face of all these transgressions you mentioned it starts to be effective. This is our role – exploring the limits of this field, transcending them and doing things beyond them. In a sense we simply should be made use of and that is all.
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