Anna Katarzyna Domejko discusses her most recent series of paintings, the refugee crisis, and the Birmingham art scene with Roma Piotrowska.
Roma Piotrowska: We are surrounded by works making up the From East to West with Love exhibition at the Glassbox Gallery in Coventry, which you are taking part in. Could you explain for us please, the idea behind the show and your work?
Anna Katarzyna Domejko: This is an exhibition of works by artists from Eastern Europe as well as the UK. This exhibition aims to show relationship between Eastern and Western Europe. I spent a few days in the space to create a hand painted wallpaper; the whole work itself is an interactive painting installation that includes four oil paintings of caged ghosts on canvas, as well as a recording of the music played by an ice cream truck, and a domestic standing light, which are both motion-activated.
RP: Is this piece a commission, or a work you had already created?
AKD: I started work on this piece with a different exhibition in mind, before the EU referendum, but I finished it only after the referendum, and aimed to exhibit in this show. I was very much influenced by the ‘legends’ and ‘myths’ told about migrants in the press and mass media during the time: that migrants steal jobs, live only on benefits, and eat swans.
I have made wallpaper in the form of a fence, because we live in a time of intensified wall and barrier making. I am very concerned with the current climate of hatred and fear towards migrants, not only Eastern Europeans but migrants in general. As a result of this, my latest works hang somewhere between dark jokes, and bittersweet entertaining urban legends. I take local disagreements and global clashes and weave them into my own, often dark, fairy tale.
RP: You paint, but your exhibitions go far beyond the traditional idea of painting. Your paintings extend to floors, up walls to the ceiling, and then you add more paintings on canvases on top. What are the relationships between works?
AKD: My canvasses are my actors; the floors, ceilings and walls are my scenery. I intend to leave space for viewers to interpret the works themselves, and rewrite the connections between the works, so everyone can create their own brand new legends.
“I think art can change how we see and understand the world, the same as architecture and design can change the way we use objects and spaces (…)”
RP: Fences were very prominent in your recent solo exhibition Legless Birds of Paradise, at the Coventry Centre for Contemporary Arts also known as The Shed, a space founded by Bob and Roberta Smith.
AKD: Yes, I have produced – as I like to call it – an inside double painting there. I painted the patterns of security fences on the walls as well as the floor of the shed, and hung fourteen canvases on top of them. I am interested in the idea of security, the need of protecting us from the ‘other’ as well as ‘preserving’ – as some people want it – ‘European culture’. We cannot ignore these dangerous tendencies, because as history shows they lead to very bad scenarios. The paintings were representing different legends and objects, like cages for CCTV cameras, headless chicken wearing correction shoes or 9 Breasts Women.
RP: Where does the title Legless Birds of Paradise come from?
AKD: It was inspired by the Birds of Paradise from Papua New Guinea, which were described as animals that never needed to land, or rest, or sleep. The legend persisted till colonial times, and traders brought the dried skins of birds without legs or wings to Europe. The skins were prepared this way for decoration, but it lead to the creation of the myth of legless and wingless birds, suspended in the air.
RP: Mass media seem to be the biggest source and inspiration for you. What do you read, listen to and watch?
AKD: I watch all sort of different programmes ranging from BBC, to Louis Theroux, LBC with James O’Brien, through to Russia Today, Polish TV, Werner Herzog documentaries, and YouTube channels. I like to compare how different programmes represent the same topic, especially focusing on the lack of certain subjects. When I read online I always look up the comments section and I’m amused how people leave comments full of hatred, signing with their real names.
RP: What are the topics you have been concerned with recently?
AKD: I am concerned with wealth distribution, education, global warming, as well as with meat production – the list is long. I have however, recently been preoccupied with the topic of migration, which I’ve experience myself as well as observed in media.
RP: Your interest in political and social issues is quite typical for Polish contemporary art in general. Are you influenced by Polish Critical Art of the 1990s?
AKD: I must have been influenced by it. The Critical Art movement emerged in Poland when I developed my interest in art, but my interest in politically engaged art primarily comes from everyday life and conversations. We cannot escape the impact of politics in our lives.
RP: Do you think that studying at the Lodz Academy of Art was crucial for your development as the artist?
AKD: We had some old school professors at the Academy, who’d smoke in the lecture rooms and throw your work out of a window if it was (according to them) bad, or would sit with us for 2 hours looking over a single composition. There also was a younger generation of tutors from Poland and Lithuania, who travelled a lot to take part in student-led art projects. They were all fantastic people. Some of them were rooted in Critical Art, and definitely impressed that interest on me. We mustn’t forget that the 90s (when I was growing up) was the first decade when people could freely speak without censorship in Poland, and artists used this opportunity to make challenging work. Maybe that’s why I am still interested in this way of working. There was a strong constructivist tradition at the Academy (especially Katarzyna Kobro and Wladyslaw Strzeminski), from which it was hard to escape. I tried to ignore it, but possibly thanks to that influence, my thinking is often based on forms and its tensions.
RP: Why do you paint? Aren’t you tempted to use predominantly new media?
AKD: Painting is not dead (laugh). Radio is old, but we still listen to it. Some things are universal and so is painting. I think with images and it is the most convenient for me to paint them. Unfortunately, nowadays painting has become a luxurious medium for artist due to time and space it takes, the two very expensive things. Time is necessary to develop painting skills, visual sensitivity and language. To be able to paint you also need to have a studio or at least a storage space to store your paintings. You don’t need that when you make video…
RP: You live and work in Birmingham; How is the art scene there?
AKD: I think that with my Polish background and thinking about art, having been thrown into completely different art environment in the UK, has been very interesting for me. The art scene of Birmingham is quite diverse and consists of a few smaller clusters, which work together very well. Important event is Digbeth First Friday where all the independent art spaces stay open late, often with a special performance programme. It’s very stimulating for artists. There are also a lot of cheap studio spaces available, often accompanied by an exhibition space, so it’s not difficult to show your art when you are an artist in Birmingham. I have my studio in an old factory, and there are around 70 other artists working there.
RP: How often do you paint?
AKD: I usually have four days a week in my studio.
RP: Can art change the world?
AKD: I think art can change how we see and understand the world, the same as architecture and design can change the way we use objects and spaces. We are more aware of the refugees’ situation thanks to Ai Weiwei’s instagram feed, but we cannot change what is happening in Greece. Art can give escape from censorship, political correctness and capitalism by creating inner worlds and new languages. Art has the ability to digest local, personal and global issues. It has been with us forever and I think we should not question its purpose anymore.