Marek Wasilewski: When I read texts on your art, I am aware of the perplexities of those writing who do not really know whether they can risk entering the emotional world opening before them at the instance of your art. They do not know whether they should let your symbols speak or whether they should ignore them, whether they should see narration and metaphor in your works or whether they should deny their existence. They are apparently afraid of the traps you seem to be laying for your public. For fear of being the first viewers falling into these traps, the critics take pains to avoid them and as a result, they go round in circles, round the general philosophical and formal issues.Piotr Kurka: I have recently discussed a related problem with Andrzej Szewczyk. We talked about what I was doing, and the word he used was ‘anecdote’, yet in a poetic sense. He said he liked the kind of anecdote present in my works. Then he used the word ‘narration’, and I must say I much preferred the latter, because it suggests an unfinished, open process. Some of my works are received as ironical, often contrary to my intention. This response has made me see this admixture of irony, but I don’t think it much externalised. It may be somewhere deep down, but not in the foreground.MW: I would call it waywardness.PK: It may be waywardness.MW: Your works seem to have two facets at least.
PK: The ‘at least’ should be underlined. I am aware myself of the wealth of threads. There are so many planes of response. I once talked to Mirosław Bałka about a book entitled Dictionary of Symbols and we both came to the conclusion it was a most dangerous book for an artist, especially a young one. It is a book of codes. Sometimes, after completing a work, however, I felt tempted to look up the context in which ‘my’ dog or ‘my’ fish appeared. It turned out that my intuitions usually agreed with the primordial unchanging archetypes, in some cases dating as far as thousands of years ago.MW: So you tell stories after all, don’t you?PK: It is an unfinished process, as in the case of this small sailor. I admit of a number of interpretations; someone has called this an obsession. I visited the marine museum in Karlskrona, Sweden, and I realized that, being more sensitive to the subject, I responded to the museum in a peculiar way, I saw it through my works. Life on a ship, daily life, a seaman operated on – this was represented in miniature scenes … The dolls were primitive. here you have the motif of a doll again. I also took photos of some photographs from the family archives of seamen. I may use them some time in my work.MW: Why did the sailor make his appearance in the first place?PK: By accident. I found my first doll at an antique shop. I found its face rather perplexing, it was not one of an innocent doll. Incidentally, it is characteristic of toys made in the 1920s. I took a series of photos of the doll. depending on the position of its head and changes in lighting, the expression of the face turned out to change from ironical to perverse … This made me realize the whole ambiguity of a doll like this. I saw that it was of a definite sex, that it symbolized the boyish dreams of travelling, freedom, the world, which is likewise sex-determined. Then I was invited to a workshop in Wales and I learnt that only somewhere in Chile was the tide as high as there. I decided to use my little sailor as a symbol of childhood, and the result was a piece that was to fall and rise back thanks to the energy of the tide. Then I decided to magnify the doll to the size of an adult man. I wanted to cross the threshold of magnitude peculiar to dolls. I once saw a film on the Japanese puppet theatre in which the puppeteer and the puppet played equally important roles. My doll was to combine the inertia of a doll with that of a dead body. At the same time, optical objects made their appearance in my work. I have observed that there is some intuitive concordance of elements: when I made a kaleidoscope, it turned out similar to the megaphone through which commands are given on a ship.MW: When you found your sailor, wasn’t it a release of your earlier fascination?PK: I have always been interested in objects connected with childhood. There was the teddy bear cast in bronze. I meant to add to its weight, both in the physical sense and in the sense of significance. The ambiguity of the word ‘weight’ is underlined by the physical qualities of this peculiar object. So there was a teddy bear, a crib, and in New York I made casts of dolls as heavy as a human trunk.MW: The sailor may bear reference to sex. A seaman is a rowdy who visits brothels in the harbour area, who is a blend of the macho type and elements of gay subculture, the latter rather prominent lately. Were these latter references important to you when you decided to use the character?PK: My answer will be metaphorical, and about impulses rather than references, for I don’t want to unveil everything. I believe mystery to be an important part of what we call art. So the impulse behind it … The place is Rizzoli’s bookshop in West Broadway, New York, in the evening. The shop is rather empty. I am walking round in search of something on water eddies, automatically listening to the music played in the shop. At some point I prick my ears, and what I hear is Laurie Anderson, the record is ‘Bright Red’, and the piece is Love among the sailors (much later I made a drawing featuring a swirl and a sailor). I left the bookshop strangely disturbed, and grew even more disturbed by the sudden gust of hot wind which reminded me of the nights in the desert. The words from ‘Bright Red’ reverberated in my ears: ‘And if this is the work of an angry god, I want to look into his angry face.’ In a sequence of associations, I thought about Rimbaud and Verlaine who drifted on their own, ‘looking into that face’ like the sailors from the song. I thought about what it said about ‘a hot wind blowing’ and about the strange Hispano-English blend: hombres, sailors, comrades … Let me stop at this.MW: Your works openly evoke the mood of childhood, and to some extent, they also make one think of fairy tales.PK: So much the better. My work featuring a wolf refers to a fairy tale or to some primordial fears represented by the animal.MW: There is a photograph of you as a child in the catalogue of your ‘Love & Gravity” show in Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw. Does it suggest that you are watching the world through a child’s eyes?PK: It is a metaphor. I wanted an image of myself as a child to go with the doll and the teddy bear. Now I have returned to the subject. On the basis of one of the photos, I intend to make a highly veristic sculpture, my self-portrait as a child.MW: Is your childhood somewhat important to you?PK: I had an ordinary, normal childhood, and hence I would not like my art to be perceived as something rooted in my childhood experience on an exclusive basis. On the other hand, emotionally, it is an exceedingly important period. There was much unrealised fear in it, often archetypal. So certain things have to be looked for in childhood.MW: I have an impression that what you do differs from the prevalent artistic practice, that there is something anachronistic in it, but there is also hidden irony and ambiguity in your works, which makes it difficult to classify them.PK: They are as anachronistic as Woody Allen’s films in black and white. His recent films are in black and white, but they are about something very up-to-date.
MW: Is it not connected with the mood of Poznań, the city in which we live, its homes full of heavy old furniture, mysterious wardrobes and tables? (This is evident in what other Poznań artists do, for instance Mariusz Kruk and Izabella Gustowska.) Are these the ghosts that come out of our aunts’ cupboards? The wolf of your installation seems to have left a cupboard and forced its way into a child’s bedroom.PK: It might have emerged from a dusty cupboard, that’s true. The photos I mentioned also bear a petit bourgeois brand. They were taken by a craftsman photographer. One of them is coloured to suit the binding convention: the mouth and cheeks are coloured red, and the pinafore green because these were the dyes produced at this time. The mood of the photograph has much in common with the cupboards you mentioned, and with my wolf. I also remember the Wolf from the fairy story of the Red Riding Hood. The girl was tiny, and the Wolf was enormous.
MW: Your wolf, though not a copy of a live animal, has a couple of perfectly rendered anatomical details. As a result, if one looks at it in semidarkness, one has an impression it can move any moment.PK: I have learnt it from my artist friend when he was still doing such sculptures. I have noticed that, while sewing his figures, which were much understated as a whole, he took pains to render some details with exceeding precision. If I hadn’t done what you have pointed out, my wolf wouldn’t have been much different from a soft toy wolf in a toy shop. Here we cross the line. The wolf is part of two worlds.MW: I remember your work La maison de poète, or The Poet’s House. I must say that the title knocked me off my feet.PK: It sounds rather ironical, doesn’t it?MW: It knock me off my feet when I think of it, but on the other hand, when I think of the cheek one must have to give such a title to one’s work …PK: I like the ‘cheek’!MW: … it becomes obvious that we are dealing with an act of provocation. A rather risky device.
PK: Certainly. Let me tell you the story of the title. It all started from a picture-postcard and the different meaning given to it. I once got a postcard with a very banal view of Morocco, if I remember rightly. palms, a house, that sort of thing. My friend inscribed the picture with ‘la maison de poète’. The card was not mailed from Morocco but from Cieszyn, Poland, and it was a card of greetings from Andrzej Szewczyk. I was struck how these few inscribed words changed the meaning of what was in the picture. I started to think about one of Genet’s last interviews (he lived in Tangier), and about Rimbaud who had cropped up in my texts before. At this time I was working on a small ship that sailed up the wall and made the strings of a double bass tight. I thought of the strange area between the taut strings and the instrument. A forbidden zone, a no-entry metaphor. Only people like Roland Barthes make the analysis of text absolute. Each word is interpreted in thousands of ways in him. Certainly, each text has a hermetic quality, and no one except the author can cross that. The triangle of my taut strings was for me like the poet’s hermetic home, la maison de poète. I decided to engrave these words in the neck of the instrument. As a result, it could no longer play, it had irrevocably lost its meaning. What happened was a case of transformation: the shape of the instrument was preserved, but it was never to play again. When I use ready-made objects, I feel tempted to alter them a bit, and this is not out of fear of the ready-made.
MW: When one looks at your works, one often has an impression of the ready-made. In fact, they are imitation found objects.PK: Yes. I was rather pleased when I saw a similar device in Robert Gober. All the objects that seem to be picked up from the surroundings, Gober has made anew, slightly altering their size. They are sometimes apparently truer to life than their actual designations.MW: Yes, though Gober deals with mass-produced objects of the 1970s and the present while yours seem to come from a different century.PK: What century?MW: It can’t be known for sure. They may be fin-de-siècle objects. Often a title such as La maison de poète makes our imagination shift in time. When I think of your photo as a child, I begin to wonder whether time is not another important material of which you built your works.PK: Timing is inherent the process of creation. I think that art is like an accelerator, however pompous this may sound, and in this accelerator elementary particles are made to move at higher and higher speeds, hopefully unlimited ones. The title of my big exhibition, ‘Love & Gravity”, was a reference to Zizek’s theory, according to which powerful emotions may add to the curvature of space-time …MW: Your concern about the material qualities of your objects often comes to a clash with their mysterious, ambiguous expression and their apparently uncertain origin. I say ‘apparently’ because in this case uncertain origin is mystification. Your precision aims at imprecision. In other words, it seems that you very carefully upset the mechanisms making the navigation through your works safe. Another example which comes to my mind is this: imagine you are in a forest, meet a kind forester who looks trustworthy, and ask him to direct you. Speaking in dead earnest, he directs you to a swamp. You are the forester, obviously.PK: Borges might have said this … I have recently read Cioran’s letter to Fernand Saveter. Cioran writes that if he were to believe in Utopia, it would be one where everyone would be like Borges whom he calls one of the sharpest minds the world has known … Back to the forester, I would like to be a forester (let me repeat this after Heidegger) aware of what I means to find oneself in a forest. There are important words in the book: art makes it possible for truth to erupt; the word ‘erupt’ comes directly from a poem by Hölderlin who says that it is difficult to leave a place near the spring.
MW: Tell me where the inspiration to your works comes from.PK: It is difficult to say. Sometimes the shape of a cloud I see through the window when I get up in the morning may be an inspiration. Or a sentence from a book I have remembered. Water, which plays an enormous role in Zen philosophy, fascinates me. There is something like this in each of us. I have a feeling, however, that I take a very long time to mature. If I live up to Louise Bourgeois’s age, I’ll be doing things that’ll please me. Perhaps Rilke was right when he said that a short poem took a long life. Naturally, his wording was much finer than mine.
MW: Your installation in Białystok features a quotation from the autobiography of the Chinese master Xu Yun. is your concept of artistic practice affected by the philosophy of Zen which played a considerable role in the Conceptual Art of the 1960s?PK: There is no direct influence, but it has taught me a very important thing: that evaluation should be given up (or shifted to another area), but it is a difficult element to give up. As a result, I am not surprised by an artist peeling potatoes in a gallery. I look at it with as much attention as I do at more ‘substantial’ works. I have also learnt not to be overly time-concerned. This is a source of peace, peace close to non-thinking. Also, I like empty galleries, just before and just after an exhibition.MW: Let me go back to my first question. I asked whether you lay ‘traps’ for the public. How do you see relations between the public and the artist? Do you remember any particular reactions to your art?PK: If I lay traps, I do so involuntarily. For instance, in Israel, where I showed a spiral bed covered with black asphalt. Just before the exhibition opening, I was somewhat worried about its aesthetic nature rather than any other. I felt anxious to break the monotony of the black cover. Without much thinking, I picked up some pebbles and put them in the hollows of the bed. During the opening a woman approached me with tears in her eyes and told me of the ancient Jewish custom of putting pebbles on the graves of those dear to the bereft. I do not have to explain the meaning of the black spiral bed. It’s evident.
MW: Finally, a more general question. What is an artist today, a shaman, a magician, an anthropologist or, as Roman Opałka has once told me, one who should give positive references, be solidary with others, with those at odds with the world?PK: I don’t agree with Opałka’s artistic attitude. I rather consider the phenomenon in terms of pathology, not art, and I think that Opałka himself is at odds with the world. More seriously, among the many tasks that life sets artists, they should mark out the path to the future. An artist should be a Hawking looking at himself reflected in Heraclitus’ river, however strained the metaphor may sound. Marking out the path does not imply the role of a guide, master or teacher. Here again Heidegger comes to mind when he writes that art in itself is a puzzle – and that we no longer claim to be able to solve the puzzle; our task is to see it. The same happens in your question in which you see me as the forester. I should not really answer. You have exposed the puzzle, and this should do. But I have let you catch me in your trap and what I feel is not pain but satisfaction. In the East they call it koan. I believe I should bow to you.translated by Joanna Holzman Text originally published in the exhibition catalogue “Piotr Kurka. Konflikt między dobrem a złem jest chorobą umysłu” [Conflict between good and evil is mental illness], Arsenal Gallery in Białystok, 2001