Last year Krzysztof Maniak was awarded the first prize in the Hestia Artistic Journey Competition – a month long Artist Residency Programme in New York. The announcement was made only three months after he graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow. He’s been working as an independent artist for about a year now. It’s high time we looked back and discussed what has changed for him in the last year.
MARTA KUDELSKA: Why don’t we start with the land art tropes you use in your art. Your choice seems rather peculiar considering the attitude of other young Polish artists who largely overlook, dismiss or perhaps find the movement overly challenging. Why did you opt for this medium?
KRZYSZTOF MANIAK: Land art is neither my trope, nor a deliberate choice or recurring motif. It came naturally to me thanks to the evolution that my accumulative works in nature have been subject to. The land art of the 1960s and 1970s seems as to be a great point of reference. However, the fact remains that it is tradition that fades into the background, in a similar way to the blur of the bokeh in photography. The core remains constant. I work outside, which is much more difficult, for instance due to the unpredictability of weather conditions that render my pieces unique, as opposed to ones that would’ve been created in a studio space along with its fixed temperature and lighting. You need to be incredibly patient and focused since things don’t always turn out the way you want them to. And surprisingly enough, that’s perfectly fine.
M. K.: Where do you find your inspiration?
K. M.: Definitely not in art, or the subjects, techniques and works made by other past and present artists. Obviously, I am quite familiar with the goings-on in the art community, but I follow recent events for one reason and one reason only, namely to avoid the unwitting appropriation of others’ themes. When it comes to land art, my inspiration derives from the intrinsic elements of nature, such as the weather, seasons, the mood of the day – in other words, from the physical structure and substance of the earth or landscape. I also draw on the transient side of nature, everything that always disappears only to appear again after a while. The possibility of bringing it to a quasi-standstill, to immortalise it, to preserve and revisit it fascinates me.
M. K.: I presume that it is where your interest in writing as a medium comes from. Your texts and short stories are often integral to your visual art projects. What kind of meaning does this form of expression hold?
K. M.: Personally, I perceive writing as a kind of substitute for a direct encounter with a work of art that we usually know about from its reproductions, descriptions and mentions in reviews or debates stirred up time and time again. A written commentary provides a description of a given work, nothing more, nothing less. Objectively speaking, it’s meaning can’t be lost, unless in translation. It doesn’t disappoint since you are well aware of the fact that what you look at is just an elucidation of the work of art, not an original work of art itself. It requires a greater amount of effort to decipher a piece from its poor reproduction than an unbiased written account. In that case, a viewer reads between the lines and thus a work of art becomes much more accessible.
M. K.: Your works are created in and clearly influenced by Tuchów, your home town, where life is peaceful and free from all the bustle of a big city. A few miles away lies another landscape of forests, meadows and fog, which looms over the vast terrain. It’s absolutely amazing.
K. M.: That’s right. The majority of my works are made in Tuchów. However that is not to say that will always be the case. I’m at this stage in my life now when I have everything I need right here to live and work in a studio. A couple of square kilometers aside from the peripheries is more than enough. But that’s not the point. Right now, I am still absorbing my surroundings, observing the scenery, life, and pondering various concepts and visions. My references to nature are straightforward amid their varying incidences and subtleties. Someday, after I move to a big city I may even end up working on a single tree branch for months. Why bother with keeping a studio then? Providing my experience and skills allow it, I don’t see the reason why Tuchów and its surrounding natural landscape can’t simply remain a memory. My art is not determined by the place where I live and yet, to be fair, it was and certainly will be somehow determined by the town I was born and spent 25 years in. How about you? In what way have the places you’ve lived in affected your life decisions?
M. K.: I’ve lived in Zagłębie Dąbrowskie in the Upper Silesia region for nearly 20 years. I grew up during the political transformation of the 90’s. As I recall, there were railway tracks behind our house. As time passed, little by little, the number of trains transporting coal declined. Nowadays, the area is overgrown with high grass and weeds. Three cemeteries were situated in the vicinity – for those who were Catholic, Jewish and Orthodox. When we were little we used to run around them and pretend to summon ghosts. My maternal grandparents lived behind the cemetery, where stood the mansion my great-great grandfather lost in a card game, as well as the stunning castle in which my other great-great grandfather worked as a housekeeper. I spent my childhood around these places and the collapsing houses sinking into the ground. I’ve never considered the Upper Silesia as the coal-mining region. Its magic, discarded residencies of industrial moguls, ghosts of fair ladies lurking around, and the lost pears of the Duchess named Daisy were all far more appealing to me. I suppose, I must’ve been strongly affected by them since I am still fascinated with ambivalent, obscure, fairy-tale like, oneiric and slightly poetic art. I look for these qualities in the works of artists I select for my exhibitions. Anyway, a year ago we went to New York after you won the Hestia Artistic Journey Competition, which was a new experience for both of us in terms of the staggering scale of the city. What has left the greatest impression on you?
K. M.: I still feel intimidated by urban sprawls. I realized how easy it is for an anonymous person to get lost in them even after a while. The lack of your own connection to the city (e.g. friends) makes you susceptible to mistakes and confusion. And I am speaking as someone who arrived in New York as an adult. This city, which is so intense and vibrant and overwhelming at times, hides emptiness, solitude and chaos underneath it. You need to be determined, audacious and feisty to live, work and survive there.
M. K.: Let’s go back to Tuchów where for a year you’d been making two projects of yours, namely ‘Ścieżki’ (Paths) and ‘Czas i przestrzeń’ (Time and Space). Why did you commit to these long-term projects?
K. M.: I made the works you’ve mentioned when I studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow. In the Studio of Performance, we were given the assignment to make and record a gesture every week throughout the semester. I decided that every Saturday I would tread paths near my house as I came home for the weekend. The paths lead to the forest, ended abruptly and traversed wild plants growing on the side of a road. At the end of the semester, I spoke with Arti Grabowski, who runs the studio, and decided to pursue the idea for an entire year. Whereas the film ‘Czas i Przestrzeń’ was my final undergraduate art project supervised by Bogdan Achimescu and Mariusz Sołtysik, who run the studio. I dedicated the entire year to the project in order to fully capture the magical and spiritual dimensions of time and space by means of portraying one place during four seasons. I hope it shows.
M. K.: It does. When I first saw these two works, I was struck by their ritual and contemplative nature encapsulated for instance by the scene in which you arrange the rocks. I value your tranquility, meditation and attention to detail. There is no room for coincidence despite the fact that at first glance it may seem otherwise. You notice the precision only after a careful examination of an image. I know you’re a highly organised person. Could you elaborate on the stages in your creative process?
K. M.: Currently, my interests revolve around not only land art and performance, but also filmmaking, photography and the creation of objects. My art is acquiring tangibility. Needless to say, my subsequent creative initiatives originate from my previous experiences and works that are, however, reworked, further developed and simultaneously deconstructed and questioned. Currently, I explore the notions of time and space on a much smaller scale. My films are composed of one scene. My photographs are limited to a single raw image. Still, it is not my intention to adopt minimalism in my approach to a medium. What matters are the traces of my creative process I leave behind. Nowadays, I tend to focus more on writing. The mental and physical space I occupy is getting increasingly smaller and therefore even Tuchów seems too vast. In the commissioned projects or ‘assignments’, I keep investigating and covertly conveying the themes of seclusion, concealment, gesture and ritual.
M. K.: How about your individual works?
K. M.: The footprints and stages in the creative process emerge only in hindsight. Some of the stages I’ve noticed so far include: the tendency for time loops in the case of my short films and photographs; as well as abstract thinking, emphasising a single concept, the amalgamation of experiences, using one shot, steering clear of film editing, and finally concentrating on writing, such as my short story entitled ‘O abstrahowaniu z otoczenia. Wokół prac’ (Observing one’s surrounding: around a work of art). I would argue that my projects are undergoing a kind of ‘Aesthetic Shift’ which is permeated within my former creative pursuits and, as a result, is far from simplistic and contrived. In my opinion, a clear distinction between different stages could be certainly dispensed with. You should allow your art to grow on its own. Take a step back after some time passes and you’ll be able to notice every stage in its development. However one’s determination and expertise in some obscure field are worth admiring. Undoubtedly, subjects are exhausted and departed from, as it was the case with me and my time loops after I realised their pointlessness.
M. K.: The greatest ‘shift’ in your art practice happened as you branched out into the creation of objects, casts and appropriation. There is some literary quality to everything you do, especially ‘Barbara’, which is on display at the BWA Gallery in Tarnów until September. Let us not forget about the evident streak of horror and romance in your work.
K. M.: I still feel drawn to nature in the sense of wilderness, to its oddly dark, terrifying and surreal side depicted in horror movies, fables and folklore tales. The object, which seems out of place, looks so beautiful and ambiguous because it epitomises all the things every single artist seeks, namely narration, story and connotations. A viewer gains an intuitive insight into an object and directs their experience towards it, which instead of leaving more room for interpretation, transports them into another realm. Tree bark becomes an armor. A refined stick becomes a magic wand.
M. K.: I hear you collect strange objects you find on your walks around Tuchów or Krakow and “recycle them”. Why is this method appealing to you? Personally, I’d opt for its analogy to be like writing a novel. You notice an object, breathe new life into it and write an imaginary yet engaging story.
K. M.: I relish in the gesture itself, in simply picking something up ‘from earth’ and restoring it to life, taking care of it and finding (at times a very close) connection. It all may seem extremely random from the outside. However, it’s the matter of my own choice and taste, of what I like and what it means. Behind every object, there is a more or less elaborate story. Besides, these things usually have to be rinsed and repaired like a vintage car. It takes months to make them usable. For instance, I had to toil away for weeks before two fragments of willow bark were shown in the gallery as my work of art entitled ‘Zabawa w Morze’ (Playing the Sea). It was necessary to cut away the decayed bark with a chisel, free it from worms, smooth the surface with several different kinds of sandpaper, treat it with chemicals against insects and fungus, and finally to impregnate it. Several times. It didn’t have to be that way, though. The bark might’ve as well rot, been devoured by beetles and buried under wood shavings. The majority of things we find ultimately fall apart. Rocks are the only exception to the rule.
M. K.: What are you working on now?
K. M.: An installation for the Arteria Festival in Częstochowa and a video for an upcoming exhibition in Łódź. I still want to discover new territories, experiment, explore various spaces and forms of expression, including more traditional ones like sculpture, drawing and painting.