The World which Must be Seen. Interview by Igor Stokfiszewski (excerpt)

2010, Originally published in Przewodnik Krytyki Politycznej: Rajkowska

Originally published in Przewodnik Krytyki Politycznej: Rajkowska, pp. 170-182, Warsaw, 2010 Copyright © 2010 by Wydawnictwo Krytyki Politycznej Igor Stokfiszewski: You are considered to be one of the most socially engaged contemporary artists in Poland. I am very interested in the origins of such an approach. I am interested in the choices you made, who your role models were and how you managed to create the style which is now considered to be your calling card. On the cusp of the 1980s and 90s, you were associated with Kraków. You studied history of art at Jagiellonian University and you specialized in painting at the Academy of Arts (ASP) under Prof. Jerzy Nowosielski. What was your attitude then to the contemporary art of the time? What sort of artist did Nowosielski encourage you to be? How would you map your sense of obligation which set your path? Joanna Rajkowska: Your questions suggest that at the ASP they drill artists in social awareness, teach lessons learnt by previous generations of artists and school you in a way which relates to them. However, in the 1990s, neither the university nor the academy in Kraków created artist-citizens or social scientists. These establishments were offering a narrow set of skills and tools, with that completely reproachable dose of conviction that this knowledge was somehow precious and that the place and means of passing it on were the privilege of the few. This was to suffice us. My artistic development was completely shaped by the elderly Professor Nowosielski, whom I did not understand all that well and so I was shaped by years of attempting to understand what he was trying to say, how he behaved and how he reacted. It was a strange trip and so the map you refer to is also strange. But before I tell you about it, I want to point something out with all honesty – that my attitude to contemporary art began forming very late, during my journeys to Switzerland where I usually spent the summer when I was in my twenties. I would hitch-hike and stop at every collection and exhibition I found along the way. I looked at minimalist sculptures, installations and paintings. I admired the clarity and perfection of form. More or less the way you admire well-prepared frozen foods. Nevertheless, it was a sincere fascination with a certain language taken to a perverse degree of perfection – Carl Andre, Sol LeWitt, Richard Long, Mario Merz, Robert Ryman, Lawrence Weiner, Donald Judd, Dan Flavin, Jannis Kounellis. There were many works by Bruce Nauman that I really liked. Now, it probably sounds strange. I would then return to Kraków, where I was being taught typography and where I struggled in the Studio of Spacial Structures. Kraków surprised me only once. Marek Chlanda[1] visited our studio. He ran some sessions with us and took us to Tarnowskie Góry for a one-week open-air workshop that I remember to this day. Marek had a very distinct sculptural language, formulating quite strong but obtuse statements. His language was so physical, so biological, that it was possible to 'position' yourself in front of his installations, feel them in the pit of your stomach, with your arms, through the soles of your feet. He was the first artist I met who tried to translate his experiences using a language of delicate, often organic sculptural elements and the space between them. Sometimes he risked forms which were more narrative, but rarely. What was most convincing for me – now you will probably laugh – was the direct relationship between his body, the experience of sculpture (happening 'here and now') and the language of form. Professor Nowosielski would always arrive at the studio very early in the morning. Before his first sip of alcohol. Aware-unaware, I am certain he saw things very sharply. He would stand over me. Pointing at a still life, he would ask me to become the vase or the apple that I was trying to paint. I think I only began to understand this after a few years. Now, in retrospect, it is easy to talk about overcoming difference, about the techniques of identification. Back then, I simply stared at a given object. And from that staring arose in me the conviction that I will not manage. The only thing I could do was go closer, which was, of course, primitive and helpless. In icons, God materializes in paint, in the painter's work, in the brush strokes. The painter achieves a state of complete immateriality through fasting, prayer and spiritual practices, and so can become an intermediary, a miraculous mediator, who incarnates God in a rectangular image. This is what Nowosielski did with landscapes and nudes. Whatever he painted became a reality. The pre-painting spiritual practice which the professor suggested, was about penetrating reality to the point of complete dissolution. But the barrier that I could not overcome was my body, which did not want to dissolve in anything – separate, defective, completely pathetic somehow, neither this nor that. Thanks to my professor, I took from the school the awareness of my duty to the world which I must see and must identify with. Everything else came later. The sense of obligation regarding the world is a lot to start with. Enough of a foundation on which to build. IS: And yet you somehow evade my question a little, so I will ask it another way. For many of your audience you begin to appear in December 2002, when you install your palm tree on de Gaulle roundabout in Warsaw. With Greetings from Jerusalem Avenue, you enter the order of public space, visuality as territory, in which we stabilize or destabilize meanings that organize collective imagination. I will ask directly: how would you reconstruct your journey from studying under Nowosielski to de Gaulle roundabout? At what point do you realize that 'the obligation regarding the world, which must be seen and with which we must identify' is in fact work in the open space of social agon, and that the role of the artist is not any different to the role of the citizen? JR: I think that was the point, December 2002, or perhaps Diary of Dreams, a year earlier. Though now, when I try to understand my work from the 1990s, I know that it is a capital which I continue to draw upon. So perhaps I should say something more about it. When I arrived in the States on 25th March 1993, it was the start of spring. I was sitting at home, studying English, doing the shopping, discovering new districts. I was living in Borough Park in Brooklyn, in an Orthodox Jewish area with a few Polish immigrants. Culture shock went hand in hand with physical acclimatization. The spring was sweltering and I sweated like a rat. One day, I licked my hand and it was salty. I wiped it on a wall. The next day, I bought a bag of salt, made a solution and rubbed it into the same spot. Things started to erupt, the salt began to crystallize, it was life on its own. I asked my then boyfriend, future husband, Paweł, to cover my naked body in salt, as I stood against the wall. In the next flat we rented, I coated a whole wall with salt, including a broom cupboard. I would walk with my nose against the wall, sniffing. I would wake in the mornings and go to look at the changes which took place in the night. I felt that I was part of these walls[2]. IS: Your works, in which you use iodine, also come from this period... JR: I started to use iodine because I fell ill and doctors often treated me with it. Then, I was invited to take part in a group exhibition in the Sauce Place gallery in Williamsburg. I was stressed, having just finished my studies. Lying on my mattress, I thought about a tray filled with iodine. And lying there, I said to Paweł: “I think I should wash them all in iodine.” And so I did. Perhaps that was the first time I became 'known'. I felt strongly that what I was doing made sense, although I did not yet understand what I was doing. I washed their hands and arms, up to the elbows, carefully washing each finger, sliding my fingers into their palms, and felt that in this absurd act of sterilizing, touch is what is most important. American iodine is dark red, heavy, silky – dipping your hands into it and rubbing it on someone else's skin was so sensual, people would close their eyes[3]. My journey from Nowosielski's studio then gathered momentum. It turned out that instead of becoming a vase, I can touch people, that we experience – they and I – the same thing at the same time, that we experience a certain simultaneity of sensation. And the momentum increased again at the end of the semester when, just before my premature departure to Poland due to lack of funds for medical treatment, I prepared a spectacle. It was on the roof of an office building in Chelsea, in which the university had set up studios for us. I asked my closest friends to participate, and a musician whom I did not know, Frank London[4]. For two months, each morning before work, I would ride down to Manhattan's Lower West Side to spend a few dollars on a pack of frozen animal bones. I would then bring it to the Chelsea studio. After work, I would return to boil them in the gents' toilet, because that was the only room which had an electricity socket. Sometimes at three in the morning, some lost businessmen would appear and then run off after seeing a snoozing figure crouching over a giant pot of boiling, stinking broth. Those bones covered the whole of the roof, my friends were to wash them all in iodine, scrub off the remains of the meat and sterilize them completely. They were wearing masks that I had carved from bones and wax. I placed a tray with iodine in the middle of the roof. Standing in it throughout the performance was Frank London – barefoot, dressed in a well-cut suit. He was playing a trumpet – improvising for over 40 minutes, because that was how long it took to wash the bones – tapping and slapping the trumpet, producing various sounds while the clean bones were stacked at his feet. Right after, as Frank emerged from beneath a pile of bones, security arrived and chased us off the roof. The performance was illegal[5]. And then it was Kraków. I did not feel like going out. Incidentally, destabilizing meanings that organize collective imagination in Kraków is rather difficult (laughs). And so I started to struggle with myself. Asking myself about fundamental issues – sexuality, family life, way of living in general. And I am not particularly good at such issues. Some of my works which came out of this are interesting, but the majority are failures. In Warsaw, where I moved in 1999, my sense of urban collective came alive again. With Satisfaction Guaranteed in CCA Ujazdowski Castle in 2000, the curator, Stach Szablowski, and I agreed that showing this project within the limits of an institution was a mistake. However, we could not get permission from the health and safety authorities to sell the Satisfaction products in shops or supermarkets. This was the first Polish work in which I saw myself in the public dimension. Afterwards, everything went rather quickly. But in order to fully explain the stages of this journey, I have to once again return to the task set me by my professor. However, the question of how we should see the world and how to identify with it is one of those impossible tasks, with no final answer. Even while studying, I tried to do this, constructing works which were receiver-transmitters, usually sculptures with the physical aspects of my body, or which, for example, contained iron oxide which is in our blood. Everything in order to build a bridge between myself and the work, and between the work and the audience. And nothing ever worked, these were imagined bridges. I finally managed to produce an image that was an active point of contact when I left the frame of representation and created a place, a shared space, for example a room. Salt was already that kind of place, although relatively intimate. I produced a similar project in 1992 in Banská Bystrica, where I converted the communication channels and electric installations of the old castle into symbolic bloodlines[6]. So, I had some knowledge from the 1990s regarding both creating an image understood as a shared space and ways of connecting with others. I knew that the only way I was able to identify with the world was my physicality. Which is why Diary of Dreams (2001), when people slept together in a gallery, became possible. However, the palm tree was something which, as I have often stressed, completely outgrew me emotionally and politically. In some sense this project created me, because I had to confront the consequences it brought, and I learnt to understand them. And so you are right, saying that that was when I arrived in the world. IS: Would you agree with the intuitive suggestion that what was happening with the palm tree was a reflection of your own artistic position, which evolved from destabilizing humour and irony to openly taking sides in the argument over the shape of the world? JR: Yes and no (laughs). Perhaps I should first say, why not. Because this humour and irony that you mention are indeed the deconstructive power of the project. One the one hand, you shouldn't defend a public project from any sort of appropriating misdefinitions, because the nature of public space is open, and art in public space should be only a screen and the possibility of public discourse, a free screen without control. But we shouldn't forget that a work of art has its inner logic, has certain characteristics which are almost individual. Therefore, talking about appropriating definitions, I meant the attempts to unequivocally channel meanings. Irony saved the palm tree many times, enabling play with meanings, retaining of openness in the face of many interpretations and other attempts at hijacking. The palm tree really taught me about the logic and dynamics of public space. IS: Your trip to Palestine in 2008 resulted in the film Camping Jenin and a blog. An additional context was theatre – first as a place in which you ran your workshops with Palestinian youths, and secondly as a method (in your workshop practice we can observe influences of theatrical counter-culture). Would you agree if I said that the Palestinian project has turned you into an artist who moves freely between art disciplines which fundamentally share identity? JR: For me, these divisions do not exist. A public project produces a very specifically understood social and political spectacle. This is a scenography for a twenty-four hour street 'film'. The nature of this spectacle is such that it absorbs every occurrence within its visual reach. I am talking about it to outline the whole spectrum of possible events or situations, which become art within the boundaries of the project. But perhaps it is completely different, the project is absorbed by life, swallowed by it, pips and all, so that there is nothing left of art itself. I prefer the first idea. Since we have this endlessly functioning Gesamtkunstwerk, the question about crossing lines between art genres no longer apply. All we have left is a choice of tools or gestures which have to be adjusted to the existing state of things, to the problem and its context. The theatre in Jenin was a massive public project, which sought to change the lives of teenagers. My project was just one of a whole series of events there. I had to adjust my project to the acting abilities of the teenagers, who were familiar with theatre. Although it is also true that this project was the descendant of Oxygenator, prepared in an almost complete form for Plac Grzybowski, and was a result of observations of people sitting by the pond. IS: Could you elaborate? It is hard to instantly see any connection between these two projects. JR: Oxygenator was a testing ground of group behaviour in a post-traumatic situation. I would not say this with such conviction if I hadn't spoken to people during the archaeological digs which preceded the project. The trauma of the War and the ghetto are still present there. Distorted by time, by toxic memories and years of communism spent living in fear and humiliation. With Oxygenator, I had the chance to see how people behave in relation to others who sit or lie next to them in an uncomfortable physical proximity. This was happening in the context of the ghetto and a temporary cemetery that was there in 1939, as well as the stigma of a place designated for memorials. This did not help release tension. And yet people were able to experience that memory in different ways – without arguing over who had denounced who and where blood had been spilt. They were next to one another rather than together, and yet with the full awareness that they were a group. There was no need for talking. Verbal communication was limited to the minimum – people were quiet or dozing. For me, this was a discovery. An unexpected confirmation of my distrust of verbal communication in the situation of a group dealing with difficult collective memory or simply building a group situation at all. I also found confirmation of my intuition regarding the role of the body in these kinds of processes. I decided to transplant this approach to the West Bank, where the ghetto is happening now and where the most recent massacres took place six years ago. During the workshops, I forbade the boys in my theatrical group from retelling stories of the Israeli invasion, and asked them to convey the same information with gestures, body positions and non-articulated sounds. Everyone had to create their own language, their own code. I was a bit like a surgeon extracting bullets from wounds. In order to extract them, you have to reach the bullet, which hurts. I was convinced, however, that they had told those stories so many times that their memory had frozen over in ritual sets of verbs and nouns. But that memory was still in the flesh. Untouched. 
 1. Marek Chlanda (b.1954), a Polish sculptor and artist focused on the issue of the process, combining drawing, sculpture, installation with performance, dance and sound. 2. Salt, 1994, situation, New York, USA. 3. Let Me Wash Your Hands, 1994, situation, Sauce Place, New York, USA. 4. Frank London, a New York City-based trumpeter, bandleader, and composer active in klezmer and world music. Best known for his role in The Klezmatics. He is also a member of Hasidic New Wave and leads Frank London's Klezmer Brass Allstars. He was a co-founder of both Les Misérables Brass Band and the Klezmer Conservatory Band. 5. No Sign of Dying Soon, 1995, situation, SUNY, New York, USA. 6. Artery, 1992, installation, Banská Bystrica, Slovakia.