Contemporary Lynx visited an intriguing exhibition – a video screening by an artist from Wrocław, Piotr Skiba, which took place in The Old Truman Brewery in East London, on the 20th February 2014. Magdalena Zięba was the curator of the exhibition. The project was carried out under the patronage of Krzysztof Maruszewski, a collector and the owner of the MAK Gallery in Poznań. The artist Piotr Skiba and the exhibition’s curator Magdalena Zięba talk about exclusion, play on identities and about a „freak”/”preacher” as well as about the reaction of London’s audience.
Contemporary Lynx: Piotr, the story that your video tells is fascinating. In Wrocław in the old square you met an “extraordinary” homeless person… Tell us how it happened?
Piotr Skiba: I first noticed him in 2009. A black man in a white suit walking barefoot through Wrocław’s market square did not need to try hard to catch my attention. He was followed by a group of children who were the audience of his preaching performance (he was usually ignored by passers-by). I lived in the city centre at the time and one of my favourite pastimes was observing and discreetly getting closer to this intriguing negro preacher. He told me that he came to Poland from the Republic of Congo to work as an engineer; he fell ill, was fired and he ended up in the street. In the meantime, he lived in St. Brother Albert shelter.
CL: You had been observing him for two years and you even managed to get close to him… What was the nature of you relation?
PS: We occasionally had some coffee in the EMPIK cafe. I tried to keep a safe distance. I was afraid of friendship. If we had crossed that boundary, I couldn’t have made the film, definitely not in its present form. I tried to help him in such a way that it would not be embarrassing for him.
CL: And what happened next…
PS: His mental illness deepened, although I did not consider his behaviour as insanity in the beginning. Why should a man, who charismatically manifests the need to be accepted in Poland be considered insane?
I sometimes get the impression that I do it myself – this is what we both have in common. He told me himself though that he felt ill. In time, I needed to decide on the nature of our co-operation, whether it would be in a quasi-documentary form or perhaps a prepared recording of his speech. I admit that I was afraid of harming him, the consciousness of his vulnerability caused that I put off my work and then he would disappear, I wasn’t able to find him, I received chaotic pieces of information; Now I can only hope that he’s alive. The work, Man, That Negro Stole My Show! is dedicated directly to him.
CL: The man in the video is you, hidden behind a mask. The facial expression of the masked man reflects the behaviour of the homeless schizophrenic… What was the aim? Did you intent to transfer yourself into his state of mind?
PS: .I like collecting various behaviours, I enjoy observing and often mimicking other people’s gestures and behaviours, perhaps at the expense of losing my identity, but only for a moment. It reminds a story of a Polish emigrant Konrad Zdzierak, who robbed a couple of banks and a pharmacy in Ohio, USA in 2010 wearing a realistically looking mask of a black person. Rusty Slusser, the owner of the company that produced the mask, wrote that he was proud of him.
CL: The video Man, That Negro Stole My Show! is only a part of your project. The video is combined with an event/ performance in one of Wrocław’s housing estates…
PS: The films were shot in Wrocław’s housing estates built in the beginning of the 1990s and in the area of a joint station of fast city tram and a railway station (designed by: architectural design studio Maćków), whose aim would be to provide for large sporting events taking place in the city stadium . That is where the second film was shot, Vulgar Display of Power, which was to a large extend inspired by David Hammons’s film, Phat Free from 1995-1999. The head I kick plays a crucial part here, which is at the same time a mask, a camouflage important in playing the part of the district’s albino-negro – in the gallery the head is lying on the floor in a cotton hood and it is powered by a chrome fan. It is essential to me as a physical consequence of previous work on the film, where latex, put into trembling motion attempts to mechanically imitate movement, becomes an objective margin of my work. This is what interests me the most at the moment. I would like to focus on things seemingly dead that I could possibly attempt to “animate” in an object. The film Man, That Negro Stole My Show! was shot in Wrocław in Kosmonautów housing estate for one day. It is a fairly blurred and, I would say, visually unattractive image, but I wouldn’t call it unprepared. It took a long time to summon up my courage to accost people in this concrete square of hideous architecture ( I have lived here with my family for 4 years). It is surely not easy to watch these 20 minutes of film shot with a hand-held low-parameter Sony camera, but while I was editing the material, it seemed to me that I had managed to capture not only my impersonation into a negro homeless, but also allows to perceive an overall lack of inhibitions caused by having camouflage. Of course, I am interested in this phenomenon in a multicultural surroundings, where a white artist attempts to treat people to a fascination in the only negro homeless person in the city and devotes 2 years of his work to this task. How does it sound for example in the context of the scale of homelessness among black people in New York? – rather idiotic.
CL: Piotr’s activity reminded me of the work of a British artist Marcus Coates, called the shaman of contemporary art. In the project „Journey To the Lower World” (2004) , Coates put on deer leather in order to “solve the problems” of Liverpool’s local community (Liverpool’s Sheil Park estate). Piotr, within this project, was walking around Wrocław’s housing estate wearing a mask, justifying this action with the attempt to insert a virus into this secure environment. What did you want to achieve, Piotr?
PS: I did not have any specific results in mind. The place where I live now is a perfect “terrarium” for an action like mine . I sometimes get the impression that it is inhabited by people who are not interested in what is happening only a kilometre away. It is easier to manipulate this scene as I know these people and their everyday rituals. I didn’t expect to create “a local legend” – this position is occupied by the supporters of Śląsk Wrocław football team. Referring to Marcus Coates, I would also mention Nicolas Provost’s film, Exoticore where a similar issue of exclusion in a multicultural society that is more complex than ours appears.
CL: Magda, how do you perceive Piotr’s actions?
Magdalena Zięba: His actions are always intriguing to me – I am fascinated by the tension between the literality of the massage and the play that is happening within them. Piotr first writes to me about his plans, then we talk it over, and finally, when I see the outcome of his work, I know that I would have to familiarize myself and cope with it. He is interested in the realms from which we rather steer away from if we don’t suffer from some kind of psychosis. In fact, I have co-operated with Piotr since 2008, when I wrote a review of his production White Modernism in BWA Studio in Wrocław. I have followed his work since I saw his painting at the 7th Geppert Competition. It is understood that due to my perspective, I see every production as a part of a whole. I think that Piotr has managed to create a characteristic artistic language over the last five years: his videos, paintings as well as performances are filled with a mixture of diabolic sense of humour and an extraordinary sensitivity to everything I would define with a term coined by Rudolf Otto, numinosum. Numinosum is something that repels us, brings out the feeling of fear and anxiety, but at the same time attracts us with its unbelievable force.
CL: During the presentation, I noticed that casual passers-by came into the gallery intrigued, simply enchanted by the large-sized screening. In your opinion, what was the reaction of the audience in London?
PS: I was afraid of the reception in such a large city, but that was, among others, the aim of my work. A black man came up to me and asked if he could put on my mask. I could not have hoped for a stronger reaction.
MZ: The reactions were diverse – from admiration to astonishment mixed with rejection caused by the disturbing structure of the mask-face . However, London’s audience is unusually cultured and rather immune to all kinds of scandal. People are curious about novelty in art, especially if it comes from the East which still remains an interesting area to explore. The public often asked about the context of Piotr’s works and their meaning. All in all, contact with a completely new audience has been an incredibly invigorating experience .
CL: Magda, the curator Piotr Stasiowski, in his text to the catalogue of the “Sausage Hero” exhibition, where you also were a curator in BWA Wroclaw 2012, was the first one to evoke the works of a legendary artist-performer – Joseph Beuys in relation to Piotr’s actions. Beuys was famous for, for example, conversations with a coyote or a lecture on the theory of art dedicated to a hare. The artist often put himself into a state of transition to another “world” in his performances. Could you elaborate on that?
MZ: It is good that you bring out this fragment of the catalogue from the exhibition in Wrocław, as it is rather controversial. I think that Piotrek Stasiowski’s recollection of Joseph Beuys’s performance, I Like America and America Likes Me, is not only crucial in the context of the work Sausage Hero, but it is also universal enough to be a comment on current situation of art in general. Most of all, what I have in mind is commercialization that is at its peak in so called capitals of art, that is New York as well as London. Stasiowski perversely referred to the reality that Beuys found in America in the 1970s. and compared it with totally different conditions that Piotr Skiba found in 2006. In America, Beuys took on the role of a dissenter and a critic of developing capitalist economy that put Native Americans on the sidelines leading to a departure from natural environment . While Beuys still believed in the possibility of change and decided not to touch American soil with his feet, Skiba was presented with a fait accompli – New York emerged in its paradox existence, as a chaotic mirage of affluence and poverty, of various frenzies, and finally art and life. It is surely possible to create a kind of a mental connection here: the themes of exclusion and play on identities, which he initiated in his New York production, are crucial in Skiba’s work shown in London. It’s necessary to stress that his latest project, Man, That Negro Stole My Show!, should not be directly linked to Beuys’s shamanism. What’s important, Skiba clearly refers to the actions of a New Yorker artist David Hammons, who is famous for anti-racist street events. Polish reality from Skiba’s video constitutes an intriguing mirror of Hammons’s actions from twenty years back. On the other hand, its confrontation with English tolerance and political correctness is like an invasion to a foreign territory with a kind of guilty conscience, it is an attempt of conceptual connection of the worlds of the street and the gallery, the reality of those excluded from society and those who take part in the spectacle of its creation. Piotr Skiba is an artist who skilfully maneuvres between those worlds, very often in a very literal way. The exhibition in London was a peculiar provocation – the video screening was a one-day event, an intrusion into local art world, and at the same time it took place outside the “mainstream of events” . Transition into another “world”, which you have mentioned, took place on different levels.
CL: Piotr, what are your next artistic plans? Magda, what are your plans in the role of a curator?
PS: I’m planning to show M.T.N.S.M.S! in a couple of large cities, and at the same time I’m working on a publication concerning latest works together with Piotr Łakomy. I am finishing the preparation of a new work with Dorota Czerner entitled HONKY, and the premiere is expected this year in the Unites States.
MZ: In the near future, I’m planning to move from Oxford to London and, then, in London, I am going to carry out my further plans as a curator . However, for the moment, I’d like to focus on my academic work – I am writing my doctoral dissertation on utopia and spectacle in post-modernist curator’s strategies under the supervision of professor Anna Markowska.
CL: Good luck and thank you for talking to us.
Piotr Skiba (b.1980) Visual artist. He creates films, video-installations ,objects. He lives and works in Wrocław.
Magdalena Anna Zieba (1985) art historian, art critic and curator. A doctoral student at the University of Wrocław, she currently divides her time between Oxford and Wrocław. Editor of LABEL Magazine, she also contributes to SZUM Magazine.