"POZA" curated by Marek Bartelik, the exhibition of Polish Art
Real Art Ways Gallery, Hartford, CT, USA, October 2006
Marek Bartelik: Let's go back to the day of your arrival to The USA. When exactly it happened? What kind of image of America did you bring over?
Jacek Malinowski: I've got to America in September 1995. First I went to Rutgers University for my graduate studies, then I moved to NYC to live and work for next few years. I did not have any particular image of America in my mind beforehand. Though I remember one thing. Back in the late 70-ties, when I was in grade school, I recollect the geography lesson. Somebody have written in school's manual, and I think that was a voice of polish communist propaganda, that in New York City the skyscrapers are so tall that they obscure the sun and cast shadows so severe that people have to walk on the streets in complete darkness even during the day. I was a teenager then and really wanted to see that "natural phenomenon". But seriously, even if the story seams stupid now, from that moment in the past, I started to imagine America as a country where everything is different - particularly its scale. I expected the third way: not the Western or Eastern European - some "new" category - new quality in all terms: culture, architecture, people, life quality, etc. And in many cases I was not disappointed when I finally saw it with my own eyes.
Marek Bartelik: "An image of reality and reality itself are obviously two different things. In a strange way, your "funny" story brings to mind the idea of the Platonic cave. Could you tell more about your experience in the United States: When did you start making art--started "seeing shadows"?
Jacek Malinowski: The beginning was really hard. Everything was taking me forever: opening a banking account took three weeks, learning a decent English still prolongs, recognizing a small culture differences is an ongoing project etc. But I told my friends already that knowing America, realizing how this country operates, gets so fast. Within a year a smart person can tell what are the American values and what to do to survive. Within two years a slow person can learn how to avoid social exclusion or how to maneuver within American consumerism. I've spent almost six years in America (now I am back to Poland), though in The States I was doing much better than in my own country. At least I could learn the rules, and was allowed to apply them to my own life. Now in Poland I am doing not too bad as well, but I never know why.
But - going back to Platonic cave - I was always seeing shadows, I have to say. Seeing light was more difficult to me. I am not a fun person - my personality is rather dark. But in a way, since I remember, I knew the idea of light - I knew there is something like that, something that can keep you alive - doesn't matter how you'll call it - hope, positive thinking or illumination.
There was a moment - I guess November 1995, New Brunswick, NJ - when I though "Yes, I want to be an artist". It wasn't that obvious to me before. In America I never felt like an immigrant. Maybe because I could do "my own things". America gave me the necessary support to be sure that making art is important not only for the artist but also in general. I never heard that in Poland. But then I had to decide on my own what art means: that it is not a "ego massage" neither a competition - even when the surrounding says otherwise. Art is a dark side of life, as you suggested - it is seeing shadows.
And it worked. My first American work was a "sepulchral reminder of the absolute stillness of death... " as somebody described it. It was a life-size black car made of cardboard, wood and covered with tar paper. It had a TV screen instead of one tire. On the screen the tire was spinning back and forward. The whole deal was that the car-installation was caught in the architecture - within the small room. And it expressed the state of my mind at the moment - I felt captivated in the culture of speed and freedom before I could consciously participate in it.
Marek Bartelik: You chose to be, to call yourself, an artist back then. Did you think that you were becoming American artist?
I don't know, I did not think about my artistic nationality. The most important was to make that decision: to do that - to do art. Honestly, we are talking about choosing a certain way of living. I think that making art is one of the most unpredictable occupations one can imagine. It is a long path of stress; risk taking, uncertainty, and the results are never sure. Besides, there is only so much that truly depends on you. Since some time already, art is no longer created by artists. It is decided by curators, institutions and market. That is so visible in the United States. While living in New York I used to be an assistant to the famous American sculptor Alice Aycock. I was in so called the lion's cave (another sort of cave!). I mean by that the ability of participating from within in the American - or rather New York - art scene: galleries, shows, art market, art dealers, etc. On daily basis I was observing "the lights of the ramp" (the foot lights?) and it's shadows. I heard so many great stories and I myself have lived through the good ones as well. And even though I cannot complain, but - let's call it - the Eastern European Assistant Syndrome (the EEA Syndrome) became unbearable to me about the end of my stay. Simply the specific potential had burned out and I was about to enter my own way. Then, partially out of my conscious will, I returned to Poland. I realized, that there is a new context that emerged in Poland when I was out: I could build my own niche, based upon my American experience, but also distance myself from the specific features of Polish art. Now, I feel an outsider, what gives me an overwhelming sense of freedom, which I guess, is the remainder after my American times.
Marek Bartelik: So moving back to Poland helped you to build your own "niche." Could you tell a little bit more about what that niche is about? Why did you need to move back to create it?
Jacek Malinowski: When I did my first film "HalfAWoman" in 2000, I realized that I found something specific to deal with, sort of content I would like to consider for the further research. I started to deal with the "issue of truth and fake" - or only with the idea of truth and fake. Spontaneously in that first film, I used a sort of "documentary, realistic fiction". I am interested in psychology. I think psychology is the sphere the most vulnerable to manipulation. My "generic truth" or "documentary fiction" - but on psychological and individual level - became my artistic challenge. To explore that "intimate fiction" I invented a set of means of expression based on the illusion of reality and on the imitation of basic emotions.
From that moment on, all the components of my work automatically became fictitious, although always in certain relationship to reality. The important was to keep that documentary character - faking documentary is what I consider most critical aspect of my work. I think today's reality has such a hysterical need to replace itself with something else, to repeat itself in different dimension or mimic itself in order to improve - but still have no tools to do that - high technology is still not enough.
Apart from realistic, documentary-like camera-work, the important components of my films are: credible actors, entirely invented scripts, directing based on the improvising - all trying to show people looking and behaving real. So the question I try to ask is: does our reality miss something? And my answer tends to be: Yes it does - it does miss the real.
Technically my approach depends on looking around, making connections between facts - gathering observations. Then I try to distill the content for my next work out of what I've noticed. It is sort of interpretation of the contemporary. I am very curious of certain aspects of the contemporary: of its way of self-stylizing, of the element of mystification, the self-explaining cynicism and the sort of widely accepted manipulation. I want my works - by pretending to be documentary records - to relate to all these issues.
In other words my "niche" is the woman cut in a half, pretending to be handicapped. It is the girl tamed in the fitness club, who is just an actress realizing film's premise. It is the group of Polish coal miners who talk about the imaginary success of their collegue - choosen to be a coal celebrity. Or it is the self-sufficient quasi-schizophrenic who has alienated himself from the outside world on his own wish.
Marek Bartelik: How do you see your work in relation to work of other Polish artists?
Nobody ever compared me to other Polish artists. I hate to do that myself, though I really need it to happen because, what I do, I always treated as my contribution to the art discourse. It would be great not to be ignored anymore.
Anyway, there are few Polish artists who deal with similar issues as I do. I would mention just the two with whom my work is arguing. The first is Robert Kusmirowski, and the other Artur Zmijewski. Few works of Kusmirowski try to repeat reality, but because he focuses mainly on the space and the details occupying that space - his final output, in my opinion, is too close to the movie set design. When I've seen one of his recent shows in Center of Contemporary Arts Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw I couldn't get anything but an impression of superficiality. The human factor - what always is crucial to my work because it gives that extra dimension - is the most missing in his installations. In Zmijewski's work, I appreciate the compassion, the ability to talk about serious aspects of human condition, but what I cannot accept is the routine he does that and mechanical way of treating his characters. The way he uses people sometimes results in very graphic imagery that is hardly bearable to me as a viewer. Also - what I said above - I think that the necessary ingredient that art has to include is imagination/fiction and Zmijewski's work to me is to close to journalism.
In that light I see my work as talking about taboos that are invisible to today's art practice: I am skeptic to artists' sensibility, I believe that every person has equal potential to intellectual discoveries, I don't believe that using only strong "scandalous" material can prove art quality - I believe that using shadows and midtones can do the job. I don't agree that everything in art has been said and I don't like when the only inspiration an artist gets is from quoting the other ones. And in general, I think reality can be confusing.