Alicja Patanowska is a young artist and designer who graduated from the London Royal College of Art and from the Academy of Art and Design in Wrocław. Her art installation Plantation received several awards for its design – using hydroponics to grow plants and the upcycling of glass materials. Plantation can be seen in art collections in London, Warsaw and Shanghai. In this exclusive interview with Contemporary Lynx, Alicja talks about her interest in upcycling, her research on food product waste, the revival of ceramic and her roots and education which impact her design.
Sylwia Krasoń: It is difficult to place your work within a single category; whether it’s art, design, or ceramic. Do you consider yourself to be an artist, a designer or a creator of ceramic objects?
Alicja Patanowska: I work across two fields: visual arts and design. These fields often overlap and complement one another in my projects or, as is seen in case of my Plantation project, they are unrestrained and exist parallel to each other. Plantation is an installation which formed part of my graduate project at the Royal College of Art and can now be seen in art collections in London, Warsaw and Shanghai. It received several awards for the design – using hydroponics to grow plants and the upcycling of glass materials- and thanks to these accolades I managed to gather the necessary funds to create a more commercial version of the project – four porcelain elements which allow the growth of plants without any soil.
SK: Plantation attracted widespread interest in Poland and abroad. It is series of hand-thrown ceramic plant pots positioned within old glasses, so that both the roots and the stems of the growing plants are visible to the viewer. The project also earned you the Charlotte Frazer Award at the RCA in 2014. Could you tell us more about how Plantation was developed and where the inspiration for the project came from?
AP: I began noticing all the discarded items on the streets of London. I was astonished to discover that so many truly valuable items are constantly being thrown away. I started collecting discarded glasses from bus stops, kerbs, benches, and underground entrances. [Panatowska is constantly working on this project, not only in London but in other cities as well. The fourth edition of the project is currently under way.] I take a picture of every glassware in the same spot I find it. You can make out the names of the city streets in these photographs. Then, using a potter’s wheel, I create “tailor-made” porcelain elements for every glass, so that the viewer is able to observe the process of the growth of the plants’ stems, as well as their roots. Each porcelain element is different. Every glass is signed and bears a unique number. All these components, along with the pictures taken, make up an installation. Rhythm, “animated” components, references to specific places, and reflections on where our lack of respect for things we possess comes from are of utmost importance for me in these installations.
SK: In your opinion, which aspect of Plantation most appealed to your audience and determined the project’s success at events such as the Design Tech Expo in Hong Kong? I should mention that after this event, Plantation was sold and became part of the permanent collection of the Museum of Glass in Shanghai. How do you describe the public’s reception to your work in Asia? What kind of opinions have come to your attention?
AP: I had many opportunities to witness people’s reaction to my work during exhibitions. I think that Plantation attracted people because its underlying concept is easy to understand, and finding a connection between its topic and the experiences of every individual is easy as well. The first attractive elements are the budding plants with their surprisingly beautiful roots. It’s as simple as that. Secondly, my project allows people to connect to a particular place. Londoners know their city very well and the idea of finding references to familiar places and recalling situations when they found discarded things themselves attracts them with a potent magnetic power.
Plantation’s popularity is also about aesthetic values, which adds the finishing touch to the whole installation. It combines economy with gentleness.
All these aspects make my installation appealing, generally speaking. However, some individuals consider the social aspect of my work as one bearing the greatest value. It is about emphasising the act of wasting goods, discarding things mindlessly, and upcycling.In Shanghai, someone told me that there it’s impossible for such a project to have been created in China. The phenomenon which inspired me – heaps of rubbish in public spaces – does not exist in China, where no discarded items are left in the streets. Everything unnecessary is immediately collected and reused.The aesthetics combined with the idea of growing plants won the hearts of Chinese audiences.
SK: These days we are witnesses to a revival of ceramics. In your opinion, why are ceramics suddenly becoming trendy again?
AP: The reason is really simple. It is very uplifting for me at the same time – not only because I work with this medium myself, but mostly because I firmly believed that interest in it will be reborn.
I think that the revival of ceramics is a result of the public being overwhelmed by mass culture. People have started to feel the need for something extraordinary, something which is not only about the final result, but also about the individual. They miss high quality, unquestionable manual skills and sophisticated technique. That’s what my grandfather meant when he used to say: “It is good to learn a trade”.
SK: Interactions with people and reviving objects through their contact with audiences are integral to your artistic activity. In your projects you often refer to the concept of upcycling – which is about reusing old things and assigning new functions to them. Can you tell us more about it?
My grandparents used to repair things. They did not even consider throwing them away. They simply respected every object. Sometimes they started using objects for different purposes, thereby changing their meaning.
AP: I think that is where my interest in upcycling stems from. I have been interested in discarded items for many years now, because they clearly show us how we treat the objects we surround ourselves with. I am enchanted with the city streets, which are the real litmus paper, as they indicate the pH levels of our collective moods and attitudes. They tell the truth about us, about our everyday lives. At the moment I am deeply engaged in my research on food product waste. I analyse big supermarkets discarding tonnes of products and us, the consumers, who purchase quantities of food much larger than what we actually need. It is cheaper this way! And after some time we just throw things away without any consideration…
The mass production of goods has made us lose respect for what we have. The very act of careless buying has become more important than owning something. We do not take our time to reflect upon the differences between buying a carrot imported from China and buying it from a local producer. This is what I consider my greatest challenge
When it comes to such social problems, art and design initiatives often prove to be an excellent vehicle which can initiate changes for the better. It is important to emphasise that the way we live, both as individuals and as a society is a combination of small steps. Everyone contributes something to the collective picture.
SK: What is so special about working with ceramics? What is the process of creating your works like?
AP: It really depends on the project. The process is different for commercial projects, products and artistic projects involving this medium. Clay is a wonderful material, which gives me a lot of room to experiment. From a technical point of view, it allows me to create shapes and correct them freely and quickly. While working with clay I am also able to drastically change the shape of the forms I am creating if I think it’s necessary. I am also fascinated by the fact that clay has been used by people for centuries, therefore every individual can relate to it in his or her own way and have his or her own associations with it. It’s a rare occurrence that an object made of clay is a real tabula rasa. In artistic and conceptual works, clay is used in a particular way, showing references to different stories and concepts.
SK: You graduated from two institutions of higher education – the Ceramic and Glass Department at the London Royal College of Art, and the Faculty of Ceramics and Glass at the Academy of Art and Design in Wrocław. How do your experiences of studying in England and Poland compare with each other?
AP: Undoubtedly, the Academy of Art and Design in Wrocław gave me solid technical preparation. The invaluable asset of the Polish academy were the practical classes in factories. You cannot substitute such an experience.
On the other hand, the Royal College of Art is an institution directly connected with the international art and design market. The programmes of study offered are very interdisciplinary. They are also very close to reality (meetings with gallery owners, practicing artists who are at the top of the arts market, business people, designers, entrepreneurs, specialists, scientists, philosophers, etc.).
Since the RCA offers only postgraduate (MA) and PhD programmes, you will not meet anyone who is at the College simply because they did not really know what to do with themselves. The majority of the RCA’s students have already made careers in art and have professional experience. I was really lucky because the group of people who studied with me was truly incredible! We still meet, cooperate and support one another. I have heard that this situation is an exception because rivalry is extremely commonplace in the RCA. I did not experience it myself.
What is different about studying at both institutions is visible in the arrangement of space – in the RCA there are no walls inside department buildings and there are no separate studios. We were all equal; regardless of course or profession, all students worked together. When you see what your colleague sitting next to you is doing, you immediately gain knowledge. The professors occupy one small room and they are available for all students the whole day. There are more visiting professors and artists than regular members of staff. This is what I learned and what became my goal and ambition – cooperation, collective work, and discussion. The luxury of being a part of the RCA is about preparing projects for the real world, not just for the sake of working on them. This imposes additional demands on you, namely (and that is my ambition as well) everything has to be top-notch and based on extensive research. Presentations need to be of supreme quality. This, however, is what I learned in other places as well, and not just in London. It is also important that the strict division between artists and designers does not exist in the RCA. Artists working on commercial projects do not surprise anyone. In contrast, such clear divisions still exist in our country. I, however, am interested in the combination.
SK: You wrote that you spend 40% of your time in England, 40% in Poland and the remaining 20% travelling to different countries. Which other countries will be able to see, buy and admire your projects in future?
AP: There are several exhibitions of my works and commercial projects planned as of February: in Frankfurt, London, Wrocław, and New York. But everyone knows that plans are created in order to be changed! It seems to be their nature (laughs).
In Poland, first of all, I want to oversee and implement Plantation and Mushroom Lab projects. In London (and Wrocław); I am currently working on a new project – it is about rubbish again, as it seems to be my most prominent topic (laughs) – connected with the question of wasting food. I am truly interested in everyday life – in what I can see on the streets, among the passers-by, in courtyards, and of course – in rubbish bins (laughs). There is also a further viewpoint of the question of death in design. But I cannot disclose everything right now…
Edited by: Mannika Mishra and Maggie Kuzan