In Conversation: Mateusz Choróbski
Having recently met at this year’s edition of Warsaw Gallery Weekend and thoroughly impressed by his exhibited work, we speak to Polish-born interdisciplinary artist Mateusz Choróbski for our latest feature.
C-P: What struck me at the Warsaw Gallery Weekend together with the Polish Institute in Stockholm is this sense of grunge that found itself with some of the spaces housed in non-descript locations by a number of the noted galleries, which added to many of the shows I saw. My impressions were very favorable and a number of people independent from each other have dubbed Warsaw “The New Berlin”. What do you make out of the art scene in Warsaw? M.C: With its unique urban tissue and vibrant energy, Warsaw has vast potential. The situation is optimistic, but I have a feeling that there is not enough ferment and pluralism. The language of critique is unified, there are no fresh artistic approaches, and even if such approaches are identified, there is nothing to balance them. For the time being, it’s a bit too well-mannered and safe, but this is changing. Various initiatives appear, some of them fail, but the very fact that they exist is a value. There is also something disturbing in your question – the comparison to Berlin. I’d rather Warsaw generated its own quality instead of trying to emulate or copy solutions from the West. Berlin is an accomplished fact, and in Warsaw you need to come up with dynamic and appropriate reactions to local problems, such as the lack of spaces earmarked for artists’ studios. C-P: While I was there, you were presented alongside artists Justin Morin and Łukasz Sosiński in a presentation (What To Do With Things I Don’t Want To Share?) with Galeria Wschòd in a massive industrial space formerly housing a printing factory. It made for the standout show of the trip. One of two works you presented was a large-scale sculptural work of a copper parabol hanging down from the ceiling. The other one was a three-armed UV-light sculpture of right angles. Tell me about these two works from the show. M.C: At the exhibition, I presented two site-specific objects for a space that was peculiar from the architectural point of view. In formal terms and concept-wise, these works continue the earlier project Nesting, featured at the Asymetria Foundation in April this year, curated by Jakub Śwircz. At Asymetria, the work comprised two sheets of copper and a UVA lamp installed on the terrace of the Functional House in Warsaw, where the foundation is seated. The work was exhibited in a way that allowed the viewers to see it from the street. During the day, the copper sheets reflected light and illuminated the walls of the terrace, akin to a light house that attracted potential viewers. Nesting carried a promise of the new, an invitation to enter. The goal of Nesting was to reveal those expectations and deconstruct them.
At the exhibition you’re asking about: What to Do with Things I Don’t Want to Share?, curated by Piotr Drewko, I extended the scope of my previous investigations and concentrated on the situation after the change from the public to the private and finding out what exactly happens at such moment. I’m intrigued by extreme situations, turning points, which is why this work pursues a much disappointing deconstruction of imagined visions and confronts dispiritedness and the sense of threat. Made of copper, the object Curve descends from the ceiling almost touching the ground. It is electrified and accumulates negative electric charge, while the factory hall and its metal structure – positively charged – serve as a counterbalance. The curve is an anomaly, it disturbs the balance, but it is also visually attractive and changes depending on the angle of view. When you touch it, you can feel a slight electric shock, whereas hands leave traces on the copper sheet due to the properties of this metal. There is a mutual exchange. A work that stands in relation to Curve is Corner, an object consisting of three lines that form a vestigial outline of a three-dimensional figure in space. The angle that they create is the basic preliminary stage of the figure. The lines are determined by UVA light, used in insect killer lamps due to its properties. Combined with their tricky visual attractiveness. It’s not easy to talk about things we don’t want to share.
C-P: In your artistic statement you address your interest in examining the relationship of the trifecta that is image – viewer – space. I found this to be particularly telling of your B.A. diploma project from the University of Arts in Poznán. A video loop is presented in a nondescript fashion, devoid of narrative; a subject appearing to be walking and rotating in circular motion. The presentation of the work is conditioned by one of three possibilities in spatial arrangement. Your work made me think of a conversation I had with a museum director recently in Stockholm who was stressing to me how artists, galleries and institutions perceive a need to excessively handhold the public through art that is presented. M.C: B.A. diploma is an early project from 2011, when I was studying the dependencies that you’ve mentioned: work – space – viewer. If I remember well, my aim was to build a performative situation that would respond to a specific space. The video installation was presented in a church space in the form of a dark corridor that led the viewers to a large-scale projection. The work has no title, no sound, there is only the movement of figures against a white abstracted background. From the viewers’ perspective, it is impossible to discover the point of reference for the figures that can be seen, and therefore for themselves as observers. Thus, we are confronted with the impossibility of discovering the background-meaning. As the installation is situated in a space with a clearly defined sacral character, terms such as non-knowledge and confusion acquire new connotations. Paradoxically enough, the viewer can observe the figure from all angles. Still, although they can see, they cannot understand. Spaces with different connotations were used in the other two presentations of the work. When I’m thinking about a work, I try to create structures with many layers of meaning, which require concentrating for a longer while. Recently, I’ve been turning towards raw materials in an attempt to situate them within a specific concept by tapping into their properties and meanings – to reach the essence through a reduction and exploration of the material. I’m not interested in simple answers; there are already too many such formal solutions around. I prefer to stop and catch my breath in my encounters with works or architecture. I admire projects that make language helpless, works that speak to you, you can understand and experience them, but still you find yourself all alone, helpless and unable to describe the experience. That’s when a project works, and that’s when it stops being a mere conceptual commentary in the form of an artistic statement, but enters a territory that I’m unable to name.
In turn, “Untitled” (2, Fountain) forms part of a three-channel video installation Diving, which resulted from an experience of incapacity and paralysis during an artistic residency. I approached the block that I suffered as an ongoing process in which limitations became a driving force behind further activities. As I’ve mentioned, I’m intrigued by turning points, disturbances, the willingness to immerse yourself in such states. Such conditions reveal a perspective that cannot be usually seen; it can sometimes give you distance and fresh thoughts, at other times it can drag you down. It’s a game that consists in balancing on the border of your own capacity. C-P: Who may be a few artists you would say however have in one way or another impacted your work? M.C: I don’t have favourite artists and often forget the names of people behind works. I concentrate on selected projects. I’m a graduate of the Studio of Spatial Activities , headed by Mirosław Bałka, an experience that shaped me to a certain extent. I value conversations and meetings with specific people, such as Krzysztof Wodiczko, Adam Nankervis, Marko Stemankovic, David Medalla. These artists are completely engaged in their practice, they are authentic – they make use of artistic gestures in order to respond to the surrounding reality, however old-school this sounds. It takes a certain skill; artists should react to the changes that happen around them, I value such approaches.
C-P: Your work The Draught you’ve described as one of the most crucial and important project in your artistic practice to date. It centers around a short four-minute long video filmed above the city of Lodz for which aircrafts were used flying at low altitude with high speed flying, allowing them to go by incognito but not without sound. It’s a work weighing heavily on the experience of sound, alluding to historical events around WWII. You’ve spoken of the work as a “plead for awakening”. M.C: The Draught has had a double life – as an action in public space and a video footage of that action complete with reference materials, such as a collage, a postcard and more than twenty drawings. The video serves as encouragement for the viewers to explore the other components. The work reveals its concept only when taken in as a whole. Łódź is an extraordinary city on the map of Poland; one of the few in the country that developed in a linear, and not central manner: the oldest part of the city extends along a line – Piotrkowska St., which used to serve as a trading route and currently functions as a pedestrian precinct. What’s more, the city survived World War II undamaged; the buildings have been preserved, but only some of them have found a new modern-day function. When I was wandering around Łódź, observing the urban space and bearing in mind the city’s grim reputation, I was thinking about ways that would allow me to take a holistic effect on the city, to treat it as a sheet of paper to draw on or even to crumple. I needed to find a tool that would ventilate the urban space, pinch the city dwellers, and shake them out of lethargy. I wanted to draw attention to the city’s problem by performing an aggressive and interfering gesture. The aim of my action was to spark a debate. That’s why I chose a jet aeroplane and an aerobatic aircraft. And thus, the jet aeroplane flew over Piotrkowska St. – the oldest street of the city and the starting axis of its linear development – at the height of 200 metres, and when it disappeared, another plane came to leave a line in the air made of smoke, smog; an ephemeral line suspended in the air – the new first line in the urban planner’s sketchbook. C-P: You’ve worked together with your partner, artist Anna Orłowska, for a performance titled The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner which took place in Katowice and saw an African man running in the night wired with apparatus to broadcast his breath and sound through online radio. If I’m not mistaken the project connotes to the lack of diversity in Poland? M.C: Together with Anna, following our several common projects and after the return from New York, we decided to confront the sense of security among Poles. We created the mentioned performance upon the invitation of the BWA Katowice. When it got dark, a black man started to run around the streets. Dressed in a casual way, he did not know the city and was free to choose his route. From the start, his breath was transmitted live to an online radio and to the BWA and Another Vacant Space in Berlin during the Berlin Art Week. We underscored the presence of a man with a different cultural background. We knew that he was somewhere around us, but we could only listen to how his organism worked, which changed in the course of time. The city was working in the background, its intensity faded as hours went by, but the breath – a trace of the presence of the other – became heavier and heavier.
We wanted the viewers to be able to experience the work in the comfort of their homes, in private. We wanted to disturb their sense of security. Towards this end, we did not manifest the figure of the other, but treated the stranger as a figure that represents a broader problem – our lack of knowledge and ignorance. Ultimately, we were forced to finish the performance before the planned end. The gallery director insisted on finishing out of care for the runner who might have collapsed. Thus, he deprived the stranger of the right to choose, claiming he knew better what was good for him. The Loneliness... was created a few months before the Middle-Eastern crisis. It’s turned out that some Poles do not need to see strangers or encounter them to deny them human status and perceive them in most derogatory categories. This might result from the already mentioned lack of knowledge, lack of refinement, hermetic thinking or sense of threat to one’s own values, which could reveal their deficiency when confronted with different perspectives. Instead of unilaterally safe care, we should develop and rely on tools that would allow us to co-exist with the other and approach strangers on equal terms.
C-P: You’ve also done interesting work inspired by Sven Lindqvist’s book Exterminate all the brutes; addressing the existence of contemporary mechanisms of “extermination”. I find it admirable working with such touchy subjects. M.C: My intention when I worked on that project was not to identify the contemporary mechanisms of extermination. I was not in possession of tools that would allow me to name them. Now, in hindsight and in the context of the previous question, I’d find it easier to define them. Hate speech is one example. I created the objects when I was working at a cap sewing plant in New York’s Fashion District. A very strange factory located in a skyscraper, where a doorman would greet me at the entrance. But when the doors of the lift opened on the third floor, you walked into a small manufacturing plant. It was as if that contrast was supposed to lend some extra value to being employed there. There were no white physical workers there, only immmigrant workers from Latin America and black boys. We were paid on a per piece basis: $2 for one cap, while the retail price was $150. While making the caps, I was listening to an audiobook of Sven Linquist’s Exterminate all the Brutes. The saturation of this book is terrifying. When you realise the background that the world was built on, you no longer feel proud about modern-day progress and hygiene. But you’re still there working in NYC for next to nothing. You leave work happy whenever you can afford to buy coffee or food. I designed the letters, someone in the sewing plant cut them out, and then we made three series of caps together. The letters on the entire collection of caps form an inscription, but taken separately, each garment is merely a stub of the actual content, words pulled out of their context. The gesture of deciphering is connected with understanding. For me, those caps were like symptoms – once you recognise them and connect the dots, they reveal the hidden meaning.
C-P: Lastly, what’s next in store for you and coming up in 2016? M.C: Diversity, I hope. Several individual shows and smaller projects. At this age, you simply have too many ideas to be able to put everything into practice. Apart from that, I’d like to go for at least a year’s artistic residency or to go back to NYC for some time. C-print would especially like to thank the Polish Institute in Stockholm with whom we travelled to Warsaw in September. Images (Courtesy of the artist): 1) “Diving”, video still, 2010. 2) “Curve”, 2015, site specific installation, from the group exhibition “What to do with things I don’t want to share?”. Organizer: Griffin Art Space. Partner: Wschód 3) “B.A. diploma”, 2011, documentation, the Jesuits Gallery. 4) Portrait from the solo exhibition “Blue Bird”, 2015, Zona Sztuki Aktualnej. 5) “Untitled” (2, Fountain), 2010, video still. 6) “The Draught”, 2013, video still. 7) “Hats”, 2014. Work based on the book Exterminate all the brutes by Sven Lindqvist. 8) “Corner”, 2015, from the group exhibition “What to do with things I don’t want to share?”. Organizer: Griffin Art Space. Partner: Wschód. To learn more about Mateusz Choróbski, visit: www.mateuszchorobski.com