A Riot of Facades:
Rafal Zajko in conversation with Paul O’Kane.
This is an edited conversation between artist/writer/lecturer Paul O’Kane and artist Rafal Zajko using Rafal Zajko’s work as the main point of reference. It took place at the National Theatre café on London’s Southbank, on 11th February 2016
Paul : How does context play its part in your work? I can probably ask about your work in the light of your generation. I teach, so mostly I work with people younger than me. I find it is my job to encourage young artists to open their eyes to what surrounds them, and also to establish some kind of continuity within the history of art – but at the same time I want them to establish their mark – almost independent to the art history.
When I look at your work there is a kind of interplay of these focuses – for example – you do performance, but then there is equally strong reference to painting objects and sort of relief-like sculptural objects, the figure etc. I can see a range of art historical modes represented. Sometimes you seem to be using – a kind of camouflage reference – or an interplay of surfaces – and I wonder if maybe the relationship between object and the context in your work is not the same as previous generations?
Rafal: I was always making physical pieces – but I never had courage to call them sculptures – nor had I courage to call them paintings. It felt like it was a BIG word and I didn’t want my work to operate in this way. They were work, they were ‘props’ and by using this code name I was referencing a more theatrical values than those concerns of contemporary art.
Paul Let’s focus on the objects you make then. When I watch your videos, you never really see the objects in white cube space – you don’t see that sort of simple relationship – for some reason that relationship seems a bit confused or complicated. There is something relating to a kind of camouflage, or chameleon like figures. All that Sterling board, or your use masks to obscures the faces.
Raf: I think the use of Sterling board itself was a really conscious choice while working on my installations. It was the cheapest building material and I was broke. I think at that moment in time it had a strong connection to where the display and design was going. Raw materials weren’t hidden any more. They were upfront. Gentrification, and all those new cafes and places made in that trendy, disheveled look.
Paul: I call that ‘Squat chic!’
Rafal: Yes. But to get to that kind of look is more work than you think.
Paul: What about those items of clothing with faces printed on them? There was a girl in your video standing at the cliff in Dover dressed in your printed outfit.
Rafal: The image on the back of the jacket was a still from a video I made. That work depicted an English woman singing polish song that she memorized phonetically. In my head I have this particular way I think about the moving image - so for me using a jacket with the still from the video becomes quite cinematographic. I question what is the ‘moving image’.
The other week with the group of artists at the Syllabus program we were supposed to summarize our practices during the dinner with a single object – I showed this (takes out a laminated print of the Holy Mary from his wallet and shakes it rapidly in the air).
Paul: So with that sort of printed image, which you put on the cloth, and that you say is moving around in the world, there is also something about your obsession with surfaces.
Andy Warhol and his generation were interested in surfaces. They were less interested in depth. Life was reduced to the exterior. Now there seems to be a revival or extension of that idea. A pervasiveness. Everything today is interconnected continuously via the technologized screen.
Rafal: Those screens, and as you call them “surfaces”, can easily translate one into another. All devices are intertwined.
Paul: I think it’s true. You can connect to your screen and immediately have a print on your desk, then within the 5 minutes you can have a t-shirt and wear it in the street. Someone might photograph it – and it would be on his or her smartphone.
That relates to my point about the Warholian generation. Everything becomes the image. Everything becomes a surface. I wonder if that ‘s why when I look at your body of work I see surfaces within given spaces that are also surfaces, instead of being objects contrasted, juxtaposed with the backdrop of the white cube.
Rafal: I spoke with a fellow artist on the other day about how he spent ages “photoshopping the shit out of” the image of a sculptural work. That’s another interesting thing about translation from the object to the digital form. Do objects loose their substance in the process?
Paul: When I look at your body of work – whether it is a sculptural object, an installation, a costume or a film I feel as though I went through an infinite number of surfaces. I never came up against the classic problem of object/context.
I just wonder if you might acknowledge that as indicative of the work of your generation. We sometimes blame and bemoan technology. Is this something that you are troubled about?
You used a nice word, “substance”, but do you think that, in some of your work, when human figures appear they are no longer superior to the materials and objects by which they are surrounded?
Sometimes the clothing becomes more appealing, or you only see legs, or parts of the body. The rest is concealed by the surface. It doesn’t seem like there is much hierarchy there between humanity and thing.
Rafal: I was born in the Polish Peoples Republic. A year later the Berlin wall came down and Poland was exposed to a western world that it had previously been isolated from.
The technological aspect within my work is often very improvised and has a very DIY aesthetic. Despite being born in the digital age, I wasn’t exposed to computers or other forms of technology until much later than my contemporaries.
I think about the elements in my work as equal. I never thought about putting any hierarchy in or differentiation.
Paul: It’s quite exciting, you go through your work and experience the constant flip of the surfaces. There is no hierarchy between human and the material.
Rafal: I always operate more through stories when I speak about my work. I think they are as valid as any theoretical points. At the core of my practice is the story of Catherine the Great and Prince Potemkin. I come back to it rather often. In 1787 Tsar Catherine II decided to inspect lands, which had been connected to Russia four years earlier. Prince Grigorij Alexandrowich Potiompkin prepared a plan of the trip. He knew that the reality clash could be extremely painful for the Tsar but especially for the people in her milieu. That’s why he planned the 76-stop train trip so carefully. Houses were been quickly repaired - mostly from the front, flowers planted and fences fixed. While Catherine II was visiting a particular city or village, massive feasts were happening. Everyone was fed, well dressed and most of all sober.
A bigger part of the Tsar’s trip was following the flow of the river Dniepr. At that point the state genius of Potiompkin reached it’s peak - he imputed moving sets of villages, hiring actors and locals to play exaggerated versions of themselves. It was supposed to
ground Catherine II’s thought about the process of migration into the newly connected territories. Created by Potiompkin subsequent forms of cheat are called after his name. “Potiompkin Villages” was used for a long time after removing the Tsars from of power in Russia.
So, it’s not going to be exaggeration if I would state that Potiompkin and not the brothers Lumiere should be crowned as the founder of cinema. His plan had all the attributes of modern cinematographic mega production. In the center we have the motionless spectator who is absorbing images -like Catherine II from the windows of her carriage. What is seen is totally fake but is treated as real. We have got
stunt men and stunt women playing their own lives, and totally flat architecture. But most of all we have the director/producer who is manipulating our sensation of realness in hope of an adequate profit.
Through thinking about this story in a different moment in my life and my practice I thought about the word ‘disavowal’, which means that you know that something might be not necessarily right or true or real but you pretend you don’t know that you know, and just get on with it. This idea of disavowal makes Catherine the biggest performer of all in the Potiompkin set up!
You used the word surface quite a few times Paul during our conversation – but I rather think about that ‘surface’ as the Façade.
Paul: Yes, it is a slightly more historical way of thinking about it. The surface might be tightly connected with Warhol, but ‘façade’ has a more deceptive understanding, and yes, perhaps even related to disavowal.
But façade is perhaps not always deceptive. Sometimes a façade is very obviously and consciously a façade.
When I spoke about Warhol and his generation I was implying Jean Baudrilliard and his simulations and simulacra. There was a great show a few years back, at Tate Britain, by the British painter Patrick Caulfield. He wasn’t so well respected previously, and it wasn’t such a big show. But I thought it was really beautiful, and I think that he was perhaps more conscious than the other people of his generation about surfaces and simulations. In fact his job, it seemed, was primarily to paint the new surfaces in modern life, and he was clearly excited by them.
But I think your use of this word façade is good and very interesting. When I started looking at your work I saw the video of this peculiar ruin/temple and started thinking about history. Now the Potiompkin story you have told me is also historical, as is the word ‘façade’. It has a sort of architectural and historical gravitas and grandeur about it, whereas ‘surface’ is relatively contemporary and commonplace.
Rafal: The video that you are referring to is footage of me dancing at the steps of the folly in Braunschweig (Germany). While doing research about that place I found out that it was bombarded in the WWII. In this way an artificial ruin became a “real” one. I therefore referred to it in the video in an anthropomorphic way, saying that it “manned up”.
In that video I’m actually quoting you too. I say “… an artist once told me about the moss covered graffiti on walls in the outskirts of Paris”. I found a similar tone in both of these images, the fake ruin that became really ruined, the Parisian graffiti, overgrown with ivy.
Paul: Yes, but what is the tone of ivy covered graffiti, or the tone of this manned up ruin? What is it that connects them, that they share? Is it layers of reality, history, is it pathos, or melancholy? Is it irony, humor, or tragedy?
Rafal: It’s partially humorous but I think it refers mostly to the human condition in general, the whole spectrum. The Potiompkin villages were employed to perform for Catherine, so participating people knew it was a sham. But the idea of a ‘Potemkin Village’, that form of the cheat, has appeared multiple times in history.
Even in London during the 2012 Olympics, we saw rapidly spruced-up areas that encircle Stratford. On the A12 in Bromley-by-Bow they only renewed the buildings of the estates visible to the crowds and cameras.
I don’t know if you heard about the film called ‘Czech Dream’? It was a documentary following the opening of a huge new supermarket. No one questioned why it was in the middle of a field. In the last scene of the film we see hundreds of people running through the field, through the open doors and realizing that, instead of standing in a swanky new consumerist heaven, they are just standing in the field. The façade wants you in, it wants you to penetrate it. It’s like that Kafkaesque curiosity expressed in the his novel ‘The Castle’.
Paul: If, as in ‘Czech Dream,’ people run through the façade and find themselves in the field they might be shocked but pretty soon they will laugh. It makes me think about what you said when we first met today. That you just had a credit card through the post in the morning, but it was a dummy. It’s supposed to convince you to have the real one. But in consumerism people are quite happy about their façades in a way.
Rafal: Disavowal! Exactly!
Paul: That was the genius of Warhol, to be up-to-speed with consumerism. It seems to me that Warhol got up-to-speed just by saying that he ‘liked’ shopping. He seemed to silently laugh at everything, and he enjoyed the fact that there were no depths in him, or his life, or his environment. He even made death seem superficial by referring to it as “embarassing”.
But it seems to me that this enthusiasm for a loss of depth is redoubled and multiplied in your generation. It’ like a Warholian sense of space. You may have seen those images at the moment which circulate on media in which children, on encountering printed matter try to swipe, click or stroke it, expecting it to change, as would the screen of an iPad etc. They become disinterested with them if they don’t change. If the surface isn’t mobile and alive.
But what about the comic element in your work? When you look at your videos, or some of the more sculptural elements, there is something quite endearing about them. The work often feels soft, comic, and it’s definitely the sort of art that would not only interest but intrigue an audience I think. I mean it doesn’t shock you or frighten you but it challenges you both emotionally and intellectually. As I say there is something quite warm about it.
Rafal: I think that I’m trying to create a certain rhythm. Rhythm and pattern are important to me. I went through a period of time in which I was making an animated sequence and I was using stills from it to cover all the objects in the space. It was supposed to give the viewer an inclusive, immersive feel. It was kind of a slightly absurd ‘cut-out virtual reality’ that surrounds the audience in real time.
Paul: I also note gesture, dance, pose, and posture as important elements. I like this piece you did with a pop group (DR.PEABODY). You seemed to make a sort of flattened down, 2D and still representation of their gig for them. Is that right?
Rafal: During my first solo presentation of my work at ACME Project Space in 2013 I invited the group, DR.PEABODY, to play a gig at the opening. I invited them the night before and the rehearsal was filmed. I asked them as well if they could prepare the cover of a Jennifer Lopez song titled “Don’t be Fooled by the Rocks that I Got” as its lyrics reverberated across other works in the show.
During the set-up on the opening night, and just before the performance, I told them that I would like to make a little twist to the gig. I made life-size cutouts of them drawn from the video I made of their rehearsal the night before. Then I asked them if they would like to put these in front of the instruments and they could retract into the audience and see their own performance on the flat screen incorporated in the staging.
The second part of this show was important too. Curators organizing the show wanted me to move my studio into the gallery space for the duration of the exhibition. I found this premise slightly problematic but I agreed to it under one condition, I asked them to perform in one of the pieces on the opening night.
From that moment we started a dialogue. I made them costumes from digitally printed fabrics which corresponded with physical pieces in the show. In the ongoing dialogue I also convinced them to be choreographed and they learned a polish song phonetically.
Paul: these are great works I think, but can I connect all this back to the concept of the façade then? If the curators inject your studio space into the gallery space they break down a barrier between two realities. But then, when you cover the curators up with your surfaces and choreograph them, or when you make the band look at their own moving image projected on 2D cut outs and screens do you think that you are replacing realities with further façades?
In the end the curators wanted to show the people how the artist works but you turned them into an image. Documentation of the band’s performance seems to be a brilliant image even if you just see the still picture that documents it.
But can you now tell me why the ‘Wandering Monument’ title is repeated so many times in your work? Is that a completed body of work now, or are you still working on that series?
Rafal: This phrase just summarized a lot of concerns that I had in my work. So it became a title of many works, with a subtitle followed in the brackets.
For example in ‘Wandering Monument (PPPOstia)’ (2014) I referred to the monument that was built at the death site of Pier Paolo Pasolini. It was erected by his fans in Ostia and deteriorated badly across the years.
This monument depicted a dove flying across the sun. Italian culture and the political set-up of that time refused to acknowledge Pasolini’s achievements, until recently. Then they renewed the site, used better materials to recreate a monument that was originally designed by his fans. They couldn’t decide where exactly it should be located and the whole process of moving the monument around the site took quite a long time to settle. ‘Wandering Monument’ is not only about physical movement, it is about historical changes in ways of thinking about particular places, people and facts.
There was a video that came out on YouTube few years ago and it ‘went viral’ in Poland. It was a film about the holy destination of a pilgrimage. In the video you can see a crowd gathering around four people who are holding a structure with an Icon depicting one of the saints. I was familiar with those structures as I have seen them many times in my life during the Catholic processions. But in this video something unexpected happened. Four people started violently shaking the Icon, throwing it down and twirling around. When I saw this I was like: “What the hell is happening!” While watching the rest of the video things started to connect in my head, and, seeing four groups behaving like this with different Icons I figured it was a kind of choreography. Then I realized what those images were doing, they were actually carried from the local churches, and in this movement those Icons were themselves being allowed to give a tribute to the holy place, the Icons themselves were bowing and scraping.
What was also interesting in the connection with the social media was that the people who posted comments on the video were blaming present and current affairs for these peculiar scenes. They stated that people were getting crazier and crazier these days, they assumed that these kind of rituals are some new thing and that we need to go back to the tradition not realizing that the video shows a centuries-old local Catholic tradition buut one was previously unknown to the YouTube watching masses.
In connection with this I should mention that I like the concept of ‘habitus’, which means not knowing where a certain action originated (like e.g. shaking hands when you meet), but accepting that we just do it, without questioning it as it is a part of our society.
Paul: Something that has been interesting me a lot recently is that I feel lucky that my partner is not British as it enables me to look at history through the prism of another culture. My partner is a Korean artist and Korean tradition seems to be integrated with Korean modernity in a way that is different to the tensions and ruptures between tradition and modernity in Europe and America, even though Seoul is one of the most technologized and ambitiously modern cities in the world.
In Europe, where modernity first arrived, it was as a rejection of tradition. So we have a schism, we have the rupture at the heart of things here. In Seoul the teenagers who are passionate about the Internet, fashion and enthusiastically customizing their faces with surgery, often retain a sense of respect and continuity for the traditional Korean ‘habits’, values and ways of life. I feel that Korea really values its tradition -which is something I grew-up to hate in favour of modernity- and that, for Koreans, tradition is not so remote, so far away or museologised as a mere tourist attraction. I grew up loving modernity and despising tradition. Now I have started seeing those two factors as completely interconnected and even that there isn’t a real or clear distinction between them.
Rafal: What that made me think is about being born in Poland on the cusp of the Berlin wall’s collapse. Being exposed to Western civilization in a completely different manner to that of my British contemporaries. The change was sudden but it still took time for people to accommodate the ‘new’. Now, sometimes when I look at the polish culture of celebrities, it feels like it’s more Western then the West.
Paul: I should recommend you to watch the video/installation piece titled ‘Marxism Today,’ one of my favourite ever artworks, made by Phil Collins.
Rafal: But what about your own use of film, your own moving and till images?
Paul: Well, I always played between technologies and history. I made a lot of images using old cameras. A bit clichéd in a way but I was putting the new films through the old gear. It was important, to try and locate some kind of value. The new films were a bit thicker than the correct fims for the old cameras, so I had to use some force and I was only able to take few shots before the film would completely jam up inside the camera. But the images were beautiful and all the better for being so few. Forcing them through the camera scratched the surface and I enjoyed this evidence of the film actually moving through the camera. There is no clear rupture here between the old and the new, instead there is a creative space, an in-between. Do you want to say something about humanity in art, its end or compromise by new technology?
Rafal: I heard from my friend Eiko about this new underground movement in Tokyo. People organize hangouts where you leave all the technology in special lockers outside and enter the space just to sit around the table and have a good old-fashioned conversation. Even though technology goes ahead and we might be slightly lost in it with the lack of necessary vocabulary to operate, there is this weird opposition, a kind of silent, mutual agreement to retain our humanity, and so the technology may have made us more vigilant about our humanity and our fear of losing it.
Paul: Today when I teach and I use or hear the words ‘facebook’ and ‘Internet’, I feel these words starting to stick in my throat. I don’t even want to use the word ‘facebook’ anymore or the word ‘Internet’, even though my most popular seminar is about the history of technologies and about art and technology today. I really wonder about the real value of it all sometimes. It just feels so banal and hard to curate or represent without a kind of love/hate relationship.
Rafal: The term post-internet art is also banal
Paul: There is a striking example of your work in which there here is a figure photographed reclining…
Rafal: Yes. It’s ‘Reclining figure (after JB, after BH, after HM)’. A photograph sits on a platform on wheels.
Paul: … and you have given it sort of real or 3D sculptural head covered in the Sterling board patterned fabric you use elsewhere. I think this is a really memorable piece of your work, relating several art traditions –re figuration, image, 2D / 3D, moving and still - to the kind of technologized questions facing art today.
In teaching recently we were using the 1965 Donald Judd essay ‘Specific Objects’. There he doesn’t want to use the terms ‘sculpture’ or ‘painting’ anymore. He doesn’t want to use aesthetic terms, as they are not “interesting” for him. He is trying to shrug-off European habits of vocabulary and evaluation. He talks only about “work” or “the new work” and clearly states that thing just have to be “interesting”. It seems to me that a lot of your work operates like that. There is a continuous riot of facades – Ha! I think that could be a good title for this interview. But it plays with the idea that the works never come to the real, to the truth or to an end, they never become ‘monumental’ in the traditional sense.
Those many facades of yours are keep on turning into different configurations, and it seems like your work and the work of some other people of your generation, has this necessity to get beyond the existing terms of art and its vocabulary (as did Judd). To get beyond any existing discourse between object and context, maker and made, 2D and 3D, truth and façade, audience and artist, audience and object, audience and performer. Maybe it can all be synthesized into a constant play, a ‘riot’ of facades.
There was this challenge in the last few years to define the ‘post internet’ art and the work of the emerging generation, but as we said earlier, many references to the Internet and social media have been so banded around, and haven’t got us very far before they have all became quite tiresome. But this perhaps means that the work like yours can start to occupy a place that is dismissive of any technologized distinction between traditions and modernities, allowing art and artists to play across history by skipping and running from façade to façade. If you dismiss all the rhetoric about the spectacular newness of new technology it seems to me that you can then place current and emerging art in a different, richer context. This is partly what my undergraduate seminars, ‘Technologies of Romance’ at CSM, and ‘Uses of History in Contemporary Art, at Chelsea have tried to cover and work with.
Rafal: I think what you stated just now. That description of practice should be the real definition of ‘post internet’ practice. ‘Post internet’ practice should be the one acknowledging the possibility of the medium but not dwelling on it too much and moving on. I’m enjoying the works of my generation if they are made well, and there are many strong voices out there, but I agree that ‘post internet’ as a paradigm can allow artists to get lazy and produce lazy art, and that’s problematic.
Paul: I suppose I was trying to show that your practice is distinct from any sense of a ‘post internet’ movement. When I look at things like the ‘manned-up ruin’, the Potemkin Village reference, or that odd figure reclining between 2 and 3 dimensions on a mobile platform. it’s all really good work and somehow draws the whole history of art and culture into it. We look at reclining figures, nudes, monuments, mobility, mind and body, head and figure, there is a lot in these works.
So ultimately its been a worthwhile venture, trying to pull your work out of any simplistic relation with a given background and context, and aiming instead to clarify the idiosyncrasies of your practice.
We might refer to ‘your generation’s concerns’ but what I think is peculiarly ‘Zajkoian’ maybe a kind of sense of humor that makes the façade a less cynical thing. You and your work rather helps us to look at it the façade as a sign of an endearing, and possibly even redemptive human weakness, a vulnerability that we feel and find and deploy in the disappointing absence of any reliable truth or profundity. We resort and default to the façade, and that’s the best we can do.