Dobromiła Błaszczyk: The “Wild at Heart. Portrait and Self-portrait in Poland after 1989” exhibition at the Zachęta – National Gallery of Art in Warsaw, you have curated consists mainly of works collected by the ING Polish Art Foundation. Could you tell us a little bit more about this collection and its underlying concept? Could you also tell us about how you came about making the choices as to which works will be presented and which constitute the foundations for your narration? Which works are featured and what is the exact period during which they were created?
Sylwia Serafinowicz: The ING Polish Art Foundation collection includes a diverse body of works by living artists created after 1990 and executed in different media: photography, painting, video. I decided to tell a story based on portraits and self-portraits.
DB: Could you list the main topics around which the collection is developed?
SS: I wouldn’t want to answer for those who are directly involved in developing this collection. It’s multidimensional. The exhibition showcases only a modest part of it.
DB: While working on this exhibition, you focused not only on works from the collection but also expanded your narration using borrowed works from different countries, texts from the press and movie posters. I find the idea of incorporating materials from the media interesting because the portrait is at the core of the exhibition. It’s intriguing because we are partially shaped, diagnosed and described by the media (press, movies), the economy and politics of the country that we live in.
SS: Precisely. I wanted to present how the experiences of travel and emigration can influence the ways in which we see ourselves, how the perception can be shaped by confrontation with presuppositions, expressed both directly , as well as via media: radio, television, press, hence the newspaper clippings on Polish emigrants included in the show.
DB: You are a nomad and a traveller, you live in London. When I tried to analyse the themes included in your exhibition, I noticed that it’s your personal journey through the history of Polish art, but also in search of the image of a Polish immigrant, and his/her place. Furthermore, the project presents the history of an individual’s feeling of being lost and forgotten by those who stayed behind, for example, the story of the artists who left Poland and were no longer remembered and recognised in their home country.
SS: Every exhibition which I am curated was to some extent personal, focused on topics I considered important. This particular exhibition focuses on the experience of travellers, emigrants and immigrants encapsulated in portrait and self-portraits. Portrait here is defined not only as a way to present human body but also an emotional landscape. My interest in portrait goes back to the time of my studies at the Department of the History of Art at the University of Warsaw. I was fascinated then by works of Tadeusz Kantor and Maria Jarema, which were created just after the end of the Second World War. They made me aware of the act of deconstructing the image of human body with intention for inventing it anew. Such need followed the terrible experience of the Second World War, the Holocaust, which discredited a positive perspective oh humans as beings. Later on, my idea of a portrait was formed by Italian Neorealism films. Famous directors such as Michelangelo Antonioni would for instance use an image of rough, stormy seas to channel the emotions of the characters (L’Aventura). I refer to the idea of using a landscape to depict an emotional state in the text accompanying the exhibition. Finally, I was also inspired by Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s philosophical works and their idea of a ‘body without organs’ as well as Deleuze’s thesis that painting is the best medium to depict corporeal nature of human beings and their emotions. According to the French philosopher, painting can also free up the body from its social restraints. I wanted to explore those concepts.
DB: Works in the first two rooms show a story of humans perceived in the context of their surroundings and external environment. The last room is quite different, with the central theme inspired by Witold Gombrowicz. The focus here is on our personal portrait, namely the one that is inside us, which appears in our dreams and which sometimes becomes surreal. It begs the question; what are we really like? What is the contemporary image of man? Are we still “wild” deep inside, even though we are constantly bombarded with social norms and expectations, and controlled by those externally imposed patterns? Does this wild part of our nature coerce us to break barriers, both psychological, as well as physical?
SS: The third room of my exhibition, where Gombrowicz’s words are quoted: I was halfway down the path of my life when I found myself in a dark forest. But this forest worse luck, was green. (Witold Gombrowicz, Ferdydurke (1937), trans. Danuta Borchardt, 2000) is intended to work as a site where you can freely take a deep breath and distance yourself from the social expectations. It is an oasis which allows to reflect upon how you want to tell your story to others, what language you want to use for this narration, whether you wish to remain a part of the chain of producing and consuming goods, showed in the previous rooms, or maybe you would prefer to follow an alternative path. Forest is here a figure of such alternative. It’s not by accident that Radek Szlaga depicts the rebels in the forest (the work entitled “Survivors”). Alex Urban uses a similar setting as a background for depiction of her strong females, almost goddesses.
DB: I was lucky enough to take part in a guided tour of your exhibition. During this tour, I heard you saying that: “Artists exist so that we can look at ourselves through the eyes of others.” So, what is the role of art? Is it still a window onto the world? Does it present a parallel reality or does it show our reality in a distorting mirror?
SS: Is it exactly what I said? I think what I had in mind at that moment was that artists give us an opportunity to find ourselves reflected in their works and to notice new aspects of our surrounds. I hope that my exhibition and the works that are presented provide a space for reflection and give the visitors a chance to take a breath and think freely about self-identification.