Adam Rzepecki recently took a journey into the heart of the US that culminated in an act of performance. Three other artists (Ignacy Czwartos, Marcin Gierat, Piotr Lutyński) who were also involved in the project, created the works which would be taken by Rzepecki to the Death Valley — one of the hottest places on Earth.
I met with two of those artists — Piotr Lutyński and Marcin Gierat — along with Adam Rzepecki himself to discuss their joint project. Our conversation ventures into the American desert and departs from the restrictive spacees of the unadorned white cubes and public institutions.
Dobromiła Błaszczyk: Two months ago you went to the US and headed for the Death Valley. Amid the sand and in the simmering heat you staged a performance, or perhaps a quasi-exhibition, that seems to have questioned the role of an art gallery. This sort of activity is not exactly unprecedented for you. As a member of the Łódź Kaliska group, you strongly protested against the hermetic art community and its institutions. However, since the group’s activity has settled down, you’ve branched out into yet another subject, nature. Could you walk us through the beginnings of your fascination with nature before we focus on your most recent project?
Adam Rzepecki: A while back, I came across the name Kazimierz Prószyński — who invented a camera and projecting device ahead of the Lumière brothers. He took out a patent for it in London and met with one of the brothers in Paris afterwards. Louis Lumière acknowledged Prószyński’s superiority and admitted that “this man is the one who invented cinematograph. I came second”. I had been engrossed in the subject for a while. I wanted to know how the camera worked and what it looked like after I’d been using it for all these years in my art practice. When I found out that I was going to LA, I decided to make a piece on it, a kind of monument placed strategically near the iconic Hollywood sign, which overlooks the Valley. The famous quote by Lumière and one of four existing frames left of Prószyński’s movie “Skating-rink in the Royal Baths” were put on a sign. I left the assembled piece over there to enable its interaction with common viewers, passers-by and locals who would become curious about this figure….
DB: When did your journey begin?
AR: In 2014. Frequent travels stimulated my interest in nature and its relation to culture, which I still find fascinating. While I was working on my previous project, I offered my cooperation to a few artists I knew pertaining to the art exhibit’s organization in the burning sands of the Death Valley. The Valley itself is magnificent. Its vast area constitutes the lowest point in the North America. Additionally, the place doesn’t seem particularly welcoming due to the relentless blazing heat. The temperature reached 38 °C when I stayed there in spring. The name itself tells you a lot about the place already. My show is perversely called the Life Valley, but it turns out I wasn’t necessarily way off the mark.
Sure, the air is hot and dry. It rains once every two years and therefore the plant seeds fall onto infertile soil. Instead of withering, the seeds are somehow preserved (I’m not sure what’s the opposite of hibernated). Yet, if it rains, the entire desert is in full bloom in less than two days. Surprisingly enough, I found the perfect moment. Many people flocked to the location to take pictures because they were astonished by the sight of flowers in the desert. And thus my abstract title became reality.
DB: As we said, you were not actually on your own… you took the works of Lutyński, Czwartos and Gierat with you that were created especially for this occasion. Do you see a connection between this project and your initial performance in Hollywood?
AR: True, we used to work together, but it was a one-time thing and now it’s over, as is the Hollywood piece that, most importantly, triggered my interest in working on location and with art intervention in space. Before I left the works on sand dunes of the Death Valley desert, I took a tour around the National Park. In my opinion, the two projects are conceptually interconnected.
DB: How long did you stay there?
AR: Ten days. I love the American nature and its National Parks — the landscapes are breathtaking. And I did something back then. For a while now, nature has been subjected to my artistic interventions that juxtapose it with culture, such as copying the outlines of a plant’s shadow. Although I treat them only as souvenirs initially, the stones I collect on my journeys have become the symbols of the places I visit, the pieces of which I can take along with me. Ultimately, the stones serve as tools in my creative practice. I use them, for instance, to press wet paper, or to create objects by joining the stones together or combining them with other materials. The symbolic piece made of stones which came from Israel and Palestine exemplifies the idea.
DB: Still, the projects you’ve mentioned bear a striking similarity to your contributions to the Łódź Kaliska group. Your strongly ironic and jocular works addressed major socio-political issues, challenged stereotypes and fought prejudice. You did not shy away from even portraying yourself and your medium with a touch of humour…
AR: What I am doing right now is reworking my own memories. I am capable of tracing back the origins of every single stone I possess. Additionally, I always take pictures of the stones to be absolutely certain that I don’t forget where they came from.
DB: You took a stone. How many artworks did you give in return?
AR: Every artist was commissioned to produce one work of art. No restrictions were imposed in regard to form and content. Lutyński submitted his piece first, Czwartos was the last.
DB: Piotr Lutyński’s works allude to his Space series. Marcin Gierat, on the other hand, opts for photographs on glass.
AR: In the Valley, you are surrounded only by mountains and the desert and the person who decided to exhibit the works alien to its nature between the two. Gierat’s photographs’ composition rests upon light passing through glass. Other motifs include fish, space and abstraction.
DB: You stand in the center of it all — someone who flouts the obsolete institutional model and yet curates his own art show….
AR: Precisely. However, my role is not finished, as opposed to a curator, I don’t have the final word. For instance, my work method entailed photographing a given arrangement of the artworks in a particular setting and subsequently changing their location in order to see them in another context. I left the pieces over there but it is not their final destination… Nature already performs the role of a curator. Human intervention seems inessential.
Piotr Lutyński: Our performance, or exhibition and voyage, is devoted to both nature and culture.
DB: Are you going to continue your project or was it an ephemeral occurrence?
Marcin Gierat: Definitely the latter. If we did decided to participate in an exhibition, we would only show the photographs Rzepecki took at the scene.
DB: Piotr Lutyński’s view on art as a natural phenomenon unaffected by place, connections and institutions seems to correlate perfectly with the concept that underpins your exhibition. The unique event, which occurs in a moment, is based upon the close interaction between the artists, the place and its viewers…
AR: I like his attitude a lot. I would even dare to say that I have championed it from the very beginning, especially when all the connections between institutions pissed me off and I translated it into my artistic practice. Besides, I relish the idea of making art only for those who are genuinely interested in it. Nature is the ideal gallery….
DB: It seems to me that you used to confront the issue of a closed art community head on. You mercilessly ridiculed and exposed socio-political mechanisms. Instead of engaging in hand-to-hand combat, nowadays you prefer to work on and for yourself or to take a step back and deliberately (maybe even ironically) direct your attention at the viewer.
AR: I was a frequent stroller when I stayed at the Hamilton campus in Canada. I walked along the same lanes day in and day out. Once, I noticed the sign “Behave yourself”. The police is watching you”, which spawned my subtle intervention I did just for me. It was barely noticeable. People who were just passing by once were bound to miss it. Nature constituted the main component and subject of those precise interventions. I gathered sticks, branches and various weeds and transformed them into unconventional shapes of site-specific objects. I attached or pinned them to the trees and bushes that grew by the lanes. Passers-by may or may not have spotted them depending on their attention to detail and innate curiosity about their own surroundings. My intention was to express objection against the forced manner in which we contemplate or interact with nature. What does “behave yourself” actually mean?
DB: Why did nature appeal to you at all? A vast majority of viewers associate your works with protest art rooted in a social and political context. You actually do the opposite by focusing on nature…
AR: Kudos to you for the protest! One of my first paintings depicted the Krzemionki hills near Kraków… I’ve always found nature fascinating. As the members of the Łódź Kaliska group drifted apart, I started enquiring into the subjects I’ve always been keen on. If you wish to create something meaningful in collaboration with five artists, you need to compromise and put a part of yourself aside. Everyone’s individuality is at stake. When it was all over, I thought: “I am going to make something I enjoy making regardless of how good or bad, clever or stupid it actually is. I make art for myself”. And this is the reason why the interaction with nature matters a great deal to me. This is the reason why I travel so much, choose nature as my chief motif, copy the outlines of plants’ shadows and hence capture their essence. This journey is my own and I don’t really care what anyone thinks.
DB: Your attitude suggests that even now you dissent from the art community fully intentionally and refuse to be a part of it.
PL: We’ve lately been pondering over the artificiality of the art community and its manifestations, such as exhibitions, bleak white cubes and art fairs, e.g. the ongoing Art Basel. They’re perfect embodiments of the fake, pretentious and overblown art world that has lost touch with reality. It’s a horrendous art mall. The point is to cash in on your assets in the vast space bathed in an intense artificial and distracting light. The pieces are perfectly lined up. What a crime against nature. To even mention culture would be an overstatement. It has nothing to do with culture. Those works are just aesthetically pleasing assembly line products.
AR: Bigger venues mean higher prestige which means a greater possibility of impressing your friend sitting in the adjacent booth. We simply got tired of it. Interventions in nature ensued. I create something that may or may not be noticed, may seem deliberate or coincidental, manufactured or pristine, art untied with nature.
PL: Nature has its laws. Suddenly, you leave your mark on it. You drop an object of such delicacy and ephemerality that it makes people anxious and scared of losing their balance due to the fact that balance is vital in nature. The entire place seems disrupted.
DB: Piotr, the aforementioned project by Rzepecki consisted of elements already existing in nature. On the other hand, the US project entailed placing manufactured artworks in previously untarnished surroundings.
AR: Yes, we imposed some alien components onto the terrain we stumbled onto. Nevertheless, the degree of artificiality is, in my opinion, much higher in case of a gallery’s white cube. We know very well that the objects were left in the desert. We do not, however, know whether anyone sees them or whether they will be covered by sand overnight. Waking up too far inside the desert is deemed ill-judged since a person may easily lose their bearings. Therefore, it’s probable no one will ever see them.
PL: Besides, we are curious about the interpretation of the artistic signs. Abstraction has more universal connotations which are shared by various cultures. For instance, paintings by Jerzy Nowosielski feature the motifs of Buddhism and resemble the monks’ style. Every single human being, no matter where he or she came from, responds to this repertoire of signs in the exact same way, because their energy comes from the universe. These signs are not so much comprehended as “felt”.
AR: Enough with the mysticism…
MG: In other words, we wanted to check if the meaning of our abstract works would be decipherable in a different part of the world.
PL: Apparently, an Aborigines’ shaman makes one single painting dedicated to every tribe member. I find the whole idea and the reasons behind it very compelling. After their hunt is over, young men visit a shaman who creates a singular painting while listening to them recounting their experience. Young men are supposed to hide this painting in a jungle, e.g. on a tree. They come and see it only once in a while in order to channel the incredible amount of energy and power it generates. Losing your painting is regarded as identical to losing a part of your soul.
AR: Such a beautiful concept…
PL: Almost as beautiful as having someone who cares about you.
AR: Well, I have the stone that bursts with energy and brings back memories.
PL: I believe every work we finish shields our own energy.
DB: Did you consider that by leaving your works behind you were also leaving your mark, dispensing your energy?
PL: Our work has taken on a life of its own. The pieces are displayed in an unfamiliar space. Our viewers represent a distinct worldview, culture and energy. The expansion of our private space was also of great significance. A piece of ourselves is out there. Their fate is our fate too.
AR: Initially, we wanted to toy with nature and culture a little bit. The actual place exceeded all expectations — despite the fact that I’d seen it in photographs. Direct contact with nature, feeling the sand, its texture and heat, is an unrivalled experience. Similarly, works of art demand a direct contact with their viewer. The combination of art and nature yields extraordinary results. At first, our works belong to us, but after some time they begin to belong to the desert. Someone could discover them a thousand years from now. We have absolutely no intention of retrieving them, anyway.
DB: You mounted the show on the grounds of the National Park. Is that not against the rules?
AR: Sure, it is. But rules are meant to be broken.
DB: Did you label them?
AR: Yes. Only Ignacy Czwartos’ label reads “Poland”… he left a trace…
PL: Is it wrong, though? The project was implemented in the US and the US citizens take a great pride in their nation, American symbols and ideals. On the other hand, nothing else matters when you come face to face with such greatness, vastness and dauntless nature. Nevertheless, the place we were born and grew up in did affect our character, which manifests itself in a feeling of anxiety when we are away from home rather than patriotic statements.
DB: You could call the USA your second home…
Coming back to the main point, when I think about the manner in which you talk about nature, sharing pieces of yourselves and connection with viewers, Piotr’s bus project KR 736EJ comes to mind. The bus evokes life on the road, search for unconventional form of expression and a way of getting through to the audience that doesn’t involve ‘fake’ gallery openings. Forget white walls and galleries. Your performances and concerts capture the moment and respond to it, which enables you to establish a close and direct relationship with the people who draw on your energy.
PL: We form a close-knit group of friends who understand each other. Sharing is a way of living and making art while remaining independent.
MG: American scientists have conducted extensive research into the definition of happiness. After 71 years, they announced that only two factors influence our well-being, namely friends and loved ones. They make you feel happy and safe. Everything else is secondary.
PL: We deem art and life inseparable. You have to commit yourself to it fully if you wish to have any impact on the world. Furthermore, the exchange of ideas results in a creative dialogue through art which is intrinsic to all of us, our nature and microcosm. It’s inescapable. And thus we naturally go back to where we came from.
MG: To the Death Valley.
AR: Unfortunately, in reality it takes years to reach that conclusion…at the risk of sounding pretentious, I would say that an artist would need to mature first since their heads are usually filled with solo shows, networking with curators and being represented by some renowned gallery.
PL: The principle behind the Open Studio Workshop we are engaged in was a foundation of an association of artists eager to work and interact with each other rather than with some alternate gallery. Why do people form associations, anyway? To launch joint projects…you can’t suddenly profess you’re an individual who occasionally participates in a few group showsit doesn’t work like that.
AR: Collaborative art projects require forsaking one’s individuality. You have to be prepared to make some sacrifices in order to reap benefits (and I don’t necessarily mean the financial ones). For this reason, I extended the offer of cooperation to them.
PL: I have a friend who is a geologist specializing in particle physics. For a while now, he’s been probing into the question of the point where humans and objects end. Am I just myself? Where do I stop being just myself? What if I am you and you are me due to the fact that we stay in the same room, breathe the same air and drink the same tea? Is this tea a part of me and vice versa? People often say “You are what you eat” etc. Do I end at my fingertips? The electromagnetic signals generated by the heart travel up to 2.5 meters. Hence, we sit here and permeate each other. That idea is extremely powerful, if you think about it. After you realize that, you change the way you perceive things. Not only people, your close environment and nature, but also art.