Interview, February 4, 2016
Zofia Cielątkowska: Your higher education started with art history?
ALICJA BIELAWSKA: I know it might be a bit surprising from today’s perspective, but after high school I was just not sure what I wanted to do. Art was always present in my home and surrounding, and it was an important part of my interest, so to study art history was kind of natural choice. Then I got really interested in contemporary art…
…and with a few friends from the Art History department of Warsaw University, you opened a gallery. This was in 2002?
We shared the same interests and ideas; we wanted to be active so we opened and ran the Zakręt gallery [ed. The Turn]. It was a small space situated on the top floor of the Art History Department building. We did it because we felt that there was no connection between the university world and the art world – like there was an invisible wall. For us, the gallery was a space of connection and communication between these worlds, and a place to present contemporary art. A special focus was given to the work of the students in their final year of study at the Academy of Fine Arts, and recent graduates. It was an exciting time; we had the feeling that we had built something together, and this was an important experience.
Was this gallery experience the reason why you wanted to study art in more practical terms?
Well, during the studies I have realized that art theory is actually not the most exciting thing for me, and I started to think about different approaches to art.
And you applied to study Fine Arts there in Warsaw? I ask this specifically, because afterwards, you went on to study at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam, which is famous for it’s approach of working across different artistic fields and departments. Was this approach important for you?
It was crucial! I mean this model of combining different media opens so many possibilities; you are not limited to one path. The other thing is, that all of these different departments are really close to each other, so there is a natural collaboration that occurs between the students of graphics, ceramics, textiles and so on. The school buildings are not that big and it is really easy to move between the buildings.
Is the approach more informal then formal?
It is a very social thing. Also, part of the program at the Rietveld Academie is a so called “basic year” – it is like a ‘try out’ year. Broadly speaking you are at the academy, but you have a wide choice as to the workshops and lectures in which you participate. You try different things and have contact with teachers from all the different departments. This ‘zero year’ helps you to define your path without the feeling that you are losing time on something that you don’t like. It is a first step after which you choose your preferred area.
In your case you chose the fine arts…
Of course [laughter].
I think this kind of – let’s call it – multilayered or multiple approach is very present in your works. Your 3-dimensional objects especially, are combinations of various materials. You also have a sensitivity to words and use poetry. By the way, would you call your works ‘objects’, ‘installations’ or ‘sculptures’?
Most of the time I call them ‘objects’ or ‘sculptures’. For me the term object is more open to different meanings, and this is somehow connected with a sensitivity towards words, poetry, and language in general. Calling a piece ‘an object’ gives the work space (to present itself). And ‘sculpture’…. yes, because they are ‘sculptures’! [laughter]. ‘Sculptures’ with the whole burden of meaning which is attached to this term. I don’t really like it so much, to call them ‘installations’.
Why is that?
In my working process I need to concentrate on singular forms, and take care of their entirety. It is just the way I work. In that sense ‘installation’ for me has too many elements that I would need to control. In the context of an exhibition, my sculptures exist in a dialogue with each other; but for me they don’t form installations. I do appreciate the installations of other artists, as they show a way of thinking that fascinates me. Maybe at some point, my work could develop and grow into installations. I’ll leave that avenue open for now. I see them more as “constellations”.
What about materials? Usually your works are made with every day. Things like textiles, aluminum, steel, modeling clay, synthetic strings, blanket, acrylic thread curtain etc.
I think a lot about what material I use in a particular work – each material carries a really strong message; it has a huge impact on the viewer’s perception of the work. I’m curious of the reaction various kinds of materials provoke. It is a tactile relationship that is very important for me. When I work on a new object, I have to decide about the use of one or another new material and there is this question ”What can a new material bring, and how is it going to work in relation to the viewer and the space?”. I’m always curious how the form can work with another material. In many of my objects, you can find similar forms. There are shapes in drawings and sculptures, which are coming back again and again. It is the act of exercising, analyzing and questioning; ‘Which way can they go?’, ‘What would be a new shape? ‘What can I introduce to this series of objects?’.
Recently, you seem to be using textiles more I think…
That was not only the case with my last work presented in Zachęta for the VIEWS 2015 exhibition. I have been trying to work with both ready-made textiles, like blankets and designed textiles like in the piece: When Things Find Their Place (Blanket) (2013). I would like to have more opportunities to use textiles, and maybe on an even bigger scale. I’m thinking about designing the patterns and textures for fabrics produced specifically for various works and spaces.
When you start working, where do you begin from?
The whole process starts with drawings. Drawing helps me define a shape and, later, a dimension. The two-dimensional nature of a piece of paper is a great field for experimenting with ideas. Then I develop the scale by working with maquettes and deciding about materials. It’s partly an intuitive process. I rarely have ideas that are based on something very precise, specific, or something I can name. I take my inspiration from my memories and observations.
There is one for idea which – on many different levels – keeps returning in your works: a playground. It is visible in so many works, and here I will just give a few examples: …and an indescribable outline (2015), Walking on the Outline (2015), Exercises for Two Lines (2014), Exercises for Lines (2013), Between Lines (Unveiled), (2013), When Things Find Their Place (2013). I listed 3-dimensional works, but the playground motif is also present in your drawings…
I’m usually hesitant to bring the playground motif; I have the feeling that it can be too dominant in how the viewer sees my work. It is present but there is more than that in the works. For me it was a good starting point to analyze shapes and potential functions. Playgrounds carry some important ideas for me: the shapes are based on geometrical forms, they are kept in simple forms, the scale is directly connected with the size of children, the colours are usually primary. Playgrounds are about movement and are open for interpretation. Of course I refer to, let’s call them, “classic playgrounds”, not the prefabricated castles or boats.
I see also a kind of nostalgia after the carpet hanger… Your works play with geometry and simplicity of shape; if someone wants an art history association, they are close to Bauhaus, geometrical abstraction and constructivism, but I wouldn’t treat it in a very literal way. I think it refers more to the experience of the generations born in the 80s; this experience of lack and poverty was felt on many levels. Quite often there was no playground, but there was always a carpet hanger. It required imagination and creation to play; it was the centre of social life, and from a purely artistic point of view, it was only a simple shape made of rather base steel.
This experience of the carpet hanger was quite common for my generation I think. The same as the experience of reality, which was full of poor materials and lack. And nostalgia… I would prefer to describe it more as an experience rather than a nostalgia. It’s more about fascination with how a simple shape can have different functions. I’m not interested in building narrations. I am interested in paying attention to details.
It’s more about fascination with how a simple shape can have different functions. I’m not interested in building narrations. I am interested in paying attention to details.
Paradoxically, this simplicity of the carpet hanger and it’s use as a space to play, connects directly with the very simple playgrounds of Amsterdam, which were designed in the 40s and 50s.
Yes, this is brilliant! They were all designed by architect Aldo Van Eyck and they are purely functional. They are made from stainless steel with no colors, no decorations, and no ornament. Just shapes; it makes them totally open for the interpretations of children.
The idea of simplicity present in both ‘playgrounds’ had very different origins; on the one hand, there was poverty and a lack of materials. On the other, a decision was reached to make something minimal, with well-thought of materials, and restraint in design.
These two ways of thinking meet in my work: sensitivity for materials and a kind of conceptual approach… But again nostalgia is a really tricky thing… I don’t have any interest in falling into it.
Yes, I think so! There is also an interesting issue partially connected with what has already been said; I think there is a very strong interactive or performative element present in your objects. A kind of invitation for the viewer to act. I see it for example in Mufka na trapezie (2014) and especially in Testflight #1 (2015) – a half scaled constructed cardboard skeleton of an airplane, which was made to take off by a group of people. Maybe it didn’t fly away, but at the end of its airstrip it became a sculpture.
The full title is Vanessa Cardui: testflight #1. It was a collaborative project with American artist R. Armstrong. It took place at the Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart on the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the founding of the residency program. It combined sculptural and performative aspects. The starting point for us, was a found manual to construct the Wright Brothers airplane – the Wright Flyer from 1903. We had to scale down the construction twice because for practical reasons. Still the size was impressive. We both work with different materials in our practices, and it was crucial for us to create not only a technical object but a sculpture. It became a light, almost transparent form. Also, ‘Vanessa Cardui’ is the name of a butterfly species that was involved in the work, introducing the concept motion in a metaphorical sense. We invited a group of people to join us in the takeoff of the plane-sculpture. There were beautiful moments in this joint effort to get the structure in the air. There were a few seconds when the construction was in the air; At the end it collapsed and became a new sculpture. That was a powerful experience, in the sense of being in the middle of the performance.
Do you want the viewer to act, to take part in your works?
Maybe not necessarily the viewer, but rather a performer. I think the performative aspect is present in my work and I’m curious about the effects a performer will have when she/he is also part of the work. For me, it is important to engage the viewer, even though in my own work it might be on a very subtle level, like the size of the object, its shape or the used material. I think the sculpture suggests movement or – in different words – it suggests a posture, a gesture or a very simple action. I also see this performative element as a time for reflection. I’m thinking about how to move the work further, how to show this performative aspect in a more active way.
I’m thinking about how to move the work further, how to show this performative aspect in a more active way.
There is another, equally strong element – colour. Usually you choose vivid, primary colours which you use in a minimalistic way.
Colour for me is like another kind of material. If it comes to choice I don’t really limit myself to primary colours even though they are the ones that are most present. What I find important and playful, is looking for different shades. I think colour can strongly define the shape of the work. Colour stresses the form or breaks it. Very often I use colours as segments, that in a way, they break up the form of an object. The use of colour is also connected with the development of my works. In my early works, colour was not that present; There was a specific moment where I decided to use it. This defining moment was in preparation for an exhibition titled ‘Adopted Shapes’ at the Arsenał Gallery, in Białystok in 2012. I made a series of sculptures and I used colour for some of them. Like the sculpture: Adopted Shapes (Red, Yellow, Green) or Adopted Shapes (Blue), (2012). Since then colour became part of my language.
You usually create works in relation to human scale.
Scale is really meaningful to me. I use everyday objects that are designed with a particular size in mind, to meet the need of the user. These size considerations connect a sculpture with a viewer. It’s also connected to this performative aspect we were talking about.
In a sense that the scale encourages the viewer to act?
I think all of the elements: scale, colour, shape, used materials and a performative element are interconnected. My regular practice consists of taking conclusions from previous works and to learn how to develop them. I’m thinking about pieces which were made especially for exhibitions, which were placed in specific interiors. There is always a question of how they could behave in a different space and what I can do to go further. Very often I analyze this through drawings.
Colour for me is like another kind of material. If it comes to choice I don’t really limit myself to primary colours even though they are the ones that are most present. What I find important and playful, is looking for different shades.
Currently, you are ‘drawing’ a music score?
I’m working on a project that presents a great challenge and also gives great pleasure. I’m writing, or actually drawing, a musical score; I’m interpreting a composed piece of music in a visual way. That is something new to me. Apart from that, I’m continuing my regular practice; taking steps forward from my last works to develop things further.
Interview, February 4, 2016