Joanna Kobyłt talks with Kama Sokolnicka
—magazyn SZUM, Oct 2015
translation from Polish: Judson Hamilton
Joanna Kobyłt: The title of your exhibition, Cultivating Culture, currently held in Strzelecki Park near the BWA Gallery, is ambiguous. What does it refer to?
Kama Sokolnicka: The phrase “cultivating culture” suggests a certain difficulty or effort, it has oppressive potential, because both the recipient and the cultivator may get hurt. It makes people smile but can also cause reluctance due to its old-fashioned feel. The title is a reference to the general assumptions put forth by the Bureaus of Artistic Exhibitions (BAE), institutions that go back to the previous political system in Poland. It is also a reference to the relationship between the BAE in Tarnów and art viewers, which shows that its important who cultivates culture and how it is done. Another element of “cultivation” is the context of the park. Strzelecki Park was one of the first public parks in Poland. It was opened at the end of the 19th century and was not part of a palace or monastery grounds, in which case it would have only been made available to the public, but a fully public municipal park. Next to the park Poland’s first school of horticulture was located, which bred many horticulturalists who worked all over Poland. I was looking to combine the notions of culture and nature, to find a title that would reflect the character of a park and an institution and so I came up with Cultivating Culture.
It is customary of the BAE in Tarnów to organise exhibitions in public areas. Is Cultivating Culture part of the artistic strategy of BAE in Tarnów?
I should think so. In addition to a public space, we are playing with the concept of an English garden that the park in Tarnów was modelled on. However, due to the lack of a landscaping plan, the large number of wild growing plants and general neglect, the park lost its character. English parks were carefully designed to keep the visitors’ minds active at all times. My non-monumental pieces blend in with the green areas and are not easily noticeable to a less attentive visitor. Photosynthesis, which hangs high on an oak trunk, is a brass composition modelled on a chlorophyll cell and the most important biochemical process. I placed it in a sunny place so that the process can take place. Birds and squirrels can watch it as if they were in a gallery.
One must lift their head really high to see it, even though it glitters in the sun. I used brass for the park exhibitions because of its branchy structure. Close-up, it looks like branches of a tree, going in all directions. The Rhapsod, a brass-pipe wind-chime, hangs at a similar height near the fantastic mausoleum of Józef Bem. He was a prominent Polish general who by the end of his life had converted to Islam and could not be buried in Catholic soil. That’s why his body was placed in a sandstone tomb resting on six columns high above the park's pond. I borrowed that height for my installation. The sounds of the six pipes of the chime, corresponding to the six columns of the tomb, are based on the Polish singer Czesław Niemen’s song composed to a poem by Kamil Cyprian Norwid, that is dedicated to Józef Bem.
Goldfinger is an installation of gold-plated thorns of bushes, scattered throughout the park. They’re hard to notice if you don’t know what you're looking for. Goldfinger is also about the effort we put into exploration and the intellectual joy it brings. All these are exercises in attentiveness. Only The Fence is a sculptural quote from Edward Okoń, a Tarnów-based architect. It is a copy of a span from a fence he designed and as such is based on a slightly different premise then the rest of the exhibits. It stands in a visible location on a lawn outside the Strzelecki Palace, right by the entrance to the park. It may look a little absurd but it does blend in with the surroundings as it belongs to the same order as the other elements in the park. It could be a kind of a reference to the BAE Tarnów’s operating methods, i.e. non-ostentatious but quite effective encouragement to participate in culture. I also wanted this de-functionalised, free-standing piece of fence to manifest openness as opposed to the idea of fencing and enclosing, so common in today’s Polish mentality. However, I guess this intention may not be readily identifiable.
Do you like this kind of vagueness? Your art is rarely straightforward.
I do like hard facts but straightforwardness is usually too heavy and impractical to describe the world. Contextual diversity, on the other hand, has great potential. When my work becomes too specific I become nervous and try to soften and blur its meaning. I usually employ the notion of ambivalence and enjoy looking at a thing from different perspectives. This may stem from my reluctance to antagonise and polarise, which is so widespread in politics and the media. In art, I value the process, what comes before the execution, the potentiality. I like it when my art, in its final form, retains the energy of the sketch, the design—when meanings begin to bud. I am finite-averse. I like lightness and hazines—I think they are more valuable than the fairground-attraction expressions that are omnipresent today. I try to avoid being obvious, which may work against me, against my recognisability as an artist. But I still think that “the soft approach” is very important.
It’s hard to accuse you of vagueness when you made it part of your artistic strategy.
I don’t think much about strategy. My work consists in spending my days on doing unspecified things and wondering. I can’t imagine what it’s like to separate what one does from what one thinks. It’s all connected. What we do, what we produce, is influenced by a multitude of stimuli, texts, sources, images, and gestures. I find it hard to specify what it is that impacts my art. With some of my art I can pinpoint the dominant element, I can identify that initial thought, whilst other work is a blend of equally important elements. I’m drawn to the attitudes exhibited by people who nurture what still remains, non-invasive towards anything that is incapable of vocal protests.
Do you find contemplative work, similar to a gardener's work, attractive?
I am growing increasingly interested in care and nursing. I have also developed a growing interest in plants. I grew up in a gardening environment. I do believe that plants can ensure one's mental balance. For instance, the process of gold-plating the thorns of the bushes in the park, sitting in those bushes, was pure pleasure for me. It could have been because of the gold, not the plants, though. (laughter)
You often make references to modernism in your work. In this project, you also confront the myth of modernity, both pre-war and post-war. Why is it so important to you?
Modernism was a gigantic project; its repercussions are still felt today. My personal story, as the stories of many other people, happened during its final phase. I’m referring to its local, Central European version—soon we’ll be the last witnesses to still remember those times. What keeps coming back to me are the daily surroundings. Because I come from Wrocław, I have been profoundly exposed to Werkbund’s programme. Urban plans based on Werkbund’s programme as well as urban plans for other locations, such as Gdynia, Mościce, Bata in the Czech Republic or later Nowa Huta, were centred much more around the residents of the housing estates built in cities or near factories than modern-day residential developments are. In Poland, Filip Springer is a person who finally talks about this issue in a vocal and sensible manner.
Gardens played a very important role in that huge project and that included vegetable gardens. Greenery was an important element of daily life.
This political concept was centred around usability, which included green areas and their accessibility. Allotments were an inseparable element of the so-called living space. It seems to me that for a long time inner-city allotments replaced the services of psychiatrists or therapists. War-time and post-war relocation traumas were not dealt with on a larger scale after the war. No one helped those people, often simple folks, to cope with the traumas they can’t get over until today. Digging in the dirt, growing plants, tending to fruit trees, the joy of harvesting one's own crops—all that helped many people stay sane. The flats that were allotted often came with a piece of land and when times got rough—they were the main source of food. During crises people often turn to nature. The British victory gardens, for example, were created during both world wars. Because the state was unable to feed its people and the army, the citizens were encouraged to grow their own vegetables on every available strip of land. This happens spontaneously in many poverty- or conflict-stricken areas. But coming back to Tarnów, the Strzelecki Park also featured a vegetable garden that was run by the school of horticulture.
Cultivating Culture is a project based on nature in its broad sense. Advisor is an installation you made that features a sign reading “Psychic advisor,” placed on two trees leaning over a park alley. It suggests that nature can be the best therapist. Modern trends, such as post-humanism, and theorists, such as Latour, claim that nature is fiction, a man-made construct. What’s your take on that?
I came up with the idea for Advisor when two years ago I was rambling through the very unnatural Manhattan, looking for a green patch on a hot day. In a basement of a small building squashed between two skyscrapers I saw a neon sign reading “Astrology” and a backlit display reading “Psychic advisor.” I wondered whether this place could be attractive to the high-earning employees of nearby banks and corporations, with their names written in brass letters over the entrance. I thought about placing a sign like this among trees, far from buildings, streets and other stress-inducing objects.
Many Tarnów residents came to see Cultivating Culture in September. They were keenly interested in seeing an exhibition in a park. They took photos and shot videos. Many were fifty years old or over. It is not often that we see this kind of involvement in art galleries.
They were certainly not teenagers. They were intrigued by an exhibition hidden among branches, leaves, and grass in a city park. This audience deserves respect; they are very conscious. Not because they are modern art experts but because they know why they have come and what they’re interested in. They are at home, they participated in creating modern-day Tarnów. They have a lot of affection for the city they live in, they care about it. They appreciate things that are not superficial. This makes them different from many younger people and city-dwellers in general, whose attentiveness is continuously tested with an excess of attractions. Audiences aged fifty or more are usually not included in the capitalist race for productivity. That’s why the BAE Tarnów seems to be an exceptional institution. Ewa Łączyńska-Widz and her team are not afraid to leave some space for local activities and contexts among artists and phenomena that are considered to be some of the most interesting countywide—and conversely, on a local scale she’s able to raise the local audience’s interest in larger-scale cultural and artistic events.
However, I've heard that the thorns you gold-plated were stolen from the park.
It was an obvious risk. It’s funny to talk about risk in such a low-risk project. This is the so-called soft risk yet it may turn out to be quite hard for the thief—have you ever got pricked by a rose thorn? I gold-plated the thorns to...
...to make them an easy target for potential thieves?
No! Quite the opposite! I’m not naive, I'm really sensible. Goldfinger was an ungrateful piece of work. I sat in thorny shrubs and locust bushes in the Strzelecki Park, covering the thorns with 24-carat gold. I realised that someone would, no matter how preposterous it may seem, force their way through those rose bushes, crushing them, only to steal shiny thorns. Obviously, this amount of gold will not make anyone rich. It’s true that some thorns disappeared but luckily the bushes were not trampled down. Many people appreciated my work. But more people still will not even notice Goldfinger. My exhibition in the park is subordinated to the rhythm of daytime and night-time—the park lighting system does not reach it, so it sinks into darkness along with the trees and their surroundings. You can light a torch, but owls—like the rest of us—don't like having light shone into their eyes.