CONVERSATIONS Mousse 53
Taxonomies of Knowledge: Goshka Macuga
by Nicolaus Schafhausen
An android resembling the artist’s boyfriend entertains visitors with discourses on humankind mixed with fragments from famous speeches and books (conceived to be delivered in a post-human era): this is one the most iconic images of Goshka Macuga’s exhibition at Fondazione Prada. This interview is a telling introduction to her polymath interest in systems of knowledge and in welcoming other artists’ work into her evocative installations.
NICOLAUS SCHAFHAUSEN: In a society where creativity and individuality have become general requirements, has the role of the artist also changed?
GOSHKA MACUGA: In the same way we are expected to be individual and creative, we can also choose not to be so, and, strangely, no one would care. It’s important to identify where the pressure to be an individual or to be creative is coming from. Is it really coming from some external imperative, or is it coming from us trying to follow the standards of the social group we associate ourselves with? Our context projects only to the standards that we define or accept as our context.
NS: And if anyone can, in principle, make the claim to be an artist, do you believe there is still something like the profession of “artist” in the context of the art world?
GM: Art requires a certain level of professionalism if it is to be related to the Institution of Art and the economy it generates. We—artists—happily perform this professionalism. We are proud to go to the studio in the morning and work until late, often with longer hours than office workers and often on weekends. We are free to regulate our working hours, or so we think. We don’t charge by the hour because we are “the artists” and our work is rarely accounted for by the hour. Some seem to think that we should not be paid at all and that the other people affiliated with the Institution of Art, such as directors of art institutions, curators, critics, or dealers, should be financially rewarded instead of us. But we define ourselves as professional artists, we pay taxes on our professional work, and we affiliate ourselves with dealers, collectors, and other artists who share this outlook. We certainly do not exist on the peripheries of society, where some thinkers in the past have placed us. Our presence can, as we are informed, regenerate parts of the city, for instance the astronomical rise in property prices that has occurred in London over the past few years in areas such as Shoreditch or Hackney.
NS: How does this relate to your own personal experience?
GM: A few years ago I was invited, along with some other artists based in the UK, to 10 Downing Street for an event celebrating the importance of the role of the arts in the regeneration of the country. In 2015 I was asked to donate a work to the Government Art Collection as a “charitable gesture”; this gesture was indirectly responded to with a massive tax bill to pay from my artists’ earnings. The British government is collecting art as well as taxes, it seems. As with other professions, artists are expected to pay taxes on their professional income. There is no flexibility in this or in the amount that is requested, no concession made as if artists somehow occupy a different role or place. Further to this, our value is such that not only do we have to pay our taxes, we also have to donate our work in recognition of the benefits or value that we create for the state. I must therefore be an “artist” and my profession seems to have a recognized purpose and a value. This profession of course does not come without complications, and these complications are only partly related to the actual practicalities of being an artist. These practicalities are overshadowed by a larger ethical question of what art generates in a broader sense. I look up to people who call themselves artists but actually who do not choose to be included in the context I belong to. This does not relate to people who call themselves artists from the creative fields such as music, fashion, or design but rather to people who make art without any expectations to be recognized or even remembered as artists. Of course many of these people have other professions and other networks and support systems. In the majority of European cities and especially in London, living on the edge of society and being creative is almost impossible.
NS: It’s interesting how you bring up networks and support systems. Besides the structure of the institution, which provides the budget for production expenses and engages with the general public through different activities, it can provide a space for contemplating these issues as well as offer feedback from different perspectives. Do you agree with this reflection? What sort of influence would you say the curator or the institution has on an exhibition of yours?
GM: The context of the institution’s history has always been important to me. I have addressed it in many past projects, including Untitled at Zacheta Gallery in Warsaw in 2011, and Lost Forty at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in 2011. I have also collaborated with curators not only in the making of exhibitions but also on the production of individual works. As with any relationship, the best results are dependent on the chemistry and intellectual compatibility between people.
NS: During the last decade or so, several artists started to manage their own shows and/or became part of the curatorial teams for biennales. Would you consider this yourself?
GM: I recollect artists taking care of their own shows in the 1980s and the 1990s. After graduating with an MA from Goldsmiths College in 1996, I was involved with a generation of artists who curated their own exhibitions and established artist-run spaces. The whole methodology of my artistic practice is closely related to that era. The projects I developed from the late 1990s up to 2000 (such as Show Me the Money, Cave, and Mountain and the Valley) continue to inform my current approach to art making. Artist groups such as Bank were highly influential at the time, and I must say that to this day their work generates a huge excitement in me. Artists then not only curated their own exhibitions, but also published their own art magazines, wrote articles, and in general ran their art world. Around the same time, the popularity and number of curating courses grew. Starting from the RCA, then expanding to other colleges all over the UK (as with the rest of the world), the population of curators grew to the point where the artists, as well as the curators, started to address questions regarding their identity, or what defined them as artists or curators. The process of categorization began, and that’s when my practice also became categorized: sometimes I was simply referred to as an artist but more often as a curator, researcher, collector, and so on.
NS: The inclination to categorize or classify is a symptom of the human condition to make sense of the world, to understand what is what, to label something as this or that. Do you remember when this happened in connection to your own practice?
GM: It’s hard to recall precisely when this began, but I remember that I was already feeling puzzled by this phenomenon in the late 1990s. Referring to a history of practice including Marcel Duchamp’s (Sixteen Miles of String for the First Papers of Surrealism show in New York in 1942, or Twelve Hundred Coal Bags Suspended from the Ceiling Over a Stove for the Exposition internationale du surréalisme, Galerie Beaux-Arts, Paris, in 1938) and El Lissitzky’s (Kabinett der Abstrakten produced for Alexander Dorner’s Atmosphere Room project at the Landesmuseum, Hannover, in 1927), among others, I consider my practice, which often features the inclusion of other artists’ work, as a continuation of a long-standing tradition in art and certainly not innovative in any way. Living in Poland until 1989, I suppose I hadn’t been exposed so much to the idea of the artistic brand as a commercial commodity that was characteristic for many artists living in the West. A “communal” group art-making activity felt more familiar to me than working solo. What people were calling curating, I considered part of my artistic practice, which for me was including my friends in what I did and contextualizing my work with theirs.
NS: How do you feel about the situation now?
GM: My artistic practice continues to be referred to as taking on the role of an artist, curator, collector, researcher, and exhibition designer. It is best to describe these categories, which are often attached to my practice, as “determining my position within, and making me part of, an art historical taxonomy.” I work across a variety of media, including sculpture, installation, photography, architecture, and design as well as performance and video. I attempt to create my own classificatory systems for creating and remembering knowledge. I don’t necessarily project myself into the categories that are attached to my artistic practice, but I recognize the necessity for the process of categorization in attempting to apply a structure or system to the gathering of historical material. Art-making methods are very individual, and artists don’t always try to define their position in history in this way. The classification of artists and their work is an act that is usually performed by critics, curators, and art historians. The current engagement of artists in the management of their work, including the sale of their work, might be a sign of necessary changes taking place that aspire to restructure the existing dynamics of the art world. Artists are quite capable of curating their own exhibitions as well as doing everything else necessary to produce, promote, and contextualize their work, and this is often overlooked.
NS: How can we distinguish the artistic from the curatorial approach, then? It sounds almost competitive.
GM: Sometimes we cannot distinguish them if the maker of an exhibition is an artist or a curator, and often that’s when art is at its best. We are all equally aware of the boundaries projected onto us, and we often try to escape them. This does not need to be a revolutionary act, but rather a gesture toward a belief that humans can still evolve in their thinking and their perception.
NS: Do we still have fixed role models for artistic practice and curating? Do we need them?
GM: Personally, I don’t think we need them. It is hard to generalize what people need. It seems to me to be a very difficult zone or territory to enter at the present time, as it reflects on so many issues related to current political debates going on all around the world. What do we need? “Need” is a very particular term. Do we want to be part of an artistic practice or a curatorial practice? Do we want to be part of the European artistic practice, or a European curatorial practice? Do we want to be part of a global artistic or curatorial practice? A model that demands fixed roles creates problems that reach far beyond what we know and understand.
NS: I agree with what you’re saying, especially on the idea of needs and wants, and its implications.
GM: I think the tendency of Western art institutions, and of curators, is to try to reach new territory, find new blood. To be the first to make the claim that they liberated certain oppressed artists living in a war zone, for example. This narrative is then entertained for the duration of an exhibition before they move on to the next territory. The role models that have to be defined and reformed right now—for curators as well as artists—are more about working ethics rather than how to differentiate between each other.
NS: In many cases perhaps, but of course the search for “newness” goes hand in hand with contemporary practices, with the concept of time, development, or progression. Striving for a better world or better systems that structure our world. That said, don’t get me wrong—I am not disagreeing with all that you have said, especially about ethics. I would say that the heavy terms you use hint at your underlying geopolitical, economic, and social concerns. Our conversation, much like art of today, takes on a serious and critical tone, especially when “territory,” “blood,” and oppression enter the picture, even if only by example or metaphor. Do you mean to point to, among other associations, the bloodthirsty grip of neoliberalism? When is art boring? Or, more importantly, when is art exciting?
GM: Art is boring when nearly identical-looking abstract paintings of the same size hang in every American collector’s house. As a result of this I frequently contemplate ceasing my career as an artist. Art is exciting to me when, after seeing it in an exhibition or someone’s collection, I urgently want to go to the studio and make something. I don’t know if my art is exciting or boring, but I can differentiate some aspects of my artistic practice as more exciting to me than the rest of the process.
NS: Could you please be more concrete? Is art political per se? Though if art is political, then couldn’t it be said that being human is political, as soon as one is able to articulate freely?
GM: I am not sure if all art can be considered political, but if being human is political, then of course all art made by humans by definition is political. But then what about art made by animals, for example: elephants or monkeys? Is it as political as human art, or is it more political than human art? Can the way we articulate ourselves be considered as sophisticated as animals? Art can be political without the artist’s intention to make it political. And art made with the artist’s intention to make it political can indeed often be about politics (like some art that I made in the past), which does not guarantee any particular outcome and does not necessarily make any impact on anyone or anything. At this stage of my existence I question my humanity more than anything else. The question of my freedom comes second, and finally the question of how this is articulated, although sometimes it isn’t, as sometimes there is nothing to say. As we have entered a phase of transition from human to a more mutated version of ourselves, the question of politics has become more complex and the matter of our creativity and its transmission, it seems, is less free.
NS: Going back to how you began your career, for what reasons did you decide to leave Poland and move to London?
GM: I left Poland in 1989 after attempting to be considered for a place in the art academy in Warsaw and later in St. Petersburg. I came to London for two weeks and ended up staying longer. Poland was on the brink of a massive transformation, but I remember feeling claustrophobic and impatient. I wasn’t prepared to wait for the change to take place, so instead I made a change by relocating to a new context and a new country.
NS: During this time, the art scene in London seemed only to focus on artistic positions from within Britain. How did you experience this, and when did the situation change for artists who were not from the UK? I can imagine that this setting produced challenges for gaining visibility as an artist. Do you consider yourself post-YBA?
GM: I had no relationship to the YBAs. I didn’t understand their language, their roots, or more generally the culture they were transmitting through their work when I came to the UK. It all felt a bit too nationalistic to me. The group was connected to a whole network of galleries, critics, art magazines, and collectors. I was never part of it and I think that I would have been considered very uncool for speaking with a Polish accent, not knowing or watching EastEnders, and not even being able to understand what they were saying. By 1996, when I finished Goldsmiths, people were starting to look beyond the British context. There was a limit to this scene and more interesting things were happening in the world that seemed much more exciting than the prospect of contemplating the embodiment of death in formaldehyde-preserved animals. The fascination with the YBAs by international curators was also diminishing to the extent that people didn’t want to work with British artists at all. It seems that the context of the art scene in a country such as the UK has a natural limitation. It survives for only a short stretch of time, partly because of outside influences but also because of the internal politics and hierarchies. I wasn’t considered British, which was quite beneficial most of the time. The players in the Polish art scene equally didn’t consider me as Polish, and that was more disappointing to me, in fact. My first and only exhibition in Poland took place in 2011. My last institutional exhibition in London took place in 2009, but that followed many previous presentations of my work in this country. As the British say: “It’s best not to put all your eggs into one basket.”
NS: You refer to Poland, or the current state of artistic freedom in Poland, in works such as Notice Board (2011). Shall we chat a little bit about the background of this work?
GM: Notice Board was made for my exhibition Untitled at Zacheta Gallery in 2011. Founded in 1860, Zacheta has witnessed several large-scale transformations in Polish history, including the era between the wars, the Second World War, and the postwar (including the Communist) era, up to the fall of the Iron Curtain through to the post-1989 era. The last period was most important to me, as it resonated intensely with my own experience of living in Poland, even though I left around that time.
NS: Pre- and post-1989 relates enormously to my own life growing up in Germany and visiting Poland regularly from the early 1990s, specifically dealing with how these two periods belong together. I’m interested in how you related to this history, considering your distance from Poland?
GM: The exhibition at Zacheta gave me an opportunity to revisit this period of absence and analyze the changes and events that had taken place on the Polish art scene since my departure. Many of the events I’d heard about through the press or via anecdotes passed on to me from artist friends before I even began my research. It was a very personal exhibition for me, but there was also a natural distance, as I hadn’t been living in Poland to witness all of the events that my work was referencing.
NS: What made it so personal? Were there key sources of inspiration?
GM: For me, Letter by Tadeusz Kantor has always seemed to be a sort of device predicting the future which, in its time, predicted both the collapse of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Iron Curtain. Formally Kantor’s Letter worked like a mobile banner or a curtain that was moved through the streets of Warsaw in 1967. When it finally arrived at Foksal Gallery it was attacked and destroyed by the audience in the same way the Berlin Wall was attacked and taken apart by people in 1989.
NS: That’s an extremely powerful analogy. Could you say a little more about how, besides the abstract formal similarities, Kantor’s Letter connects to Notice Board?
GM: Well, the idea of a letter as a format or mode of communication was also the best way to translate the mechanics of communication that took place post-1989, between the public and the art institutions, as well as between the public and artists. In the exhibition at Zacheta I used original examples of written correspondence between members of the public and Anda Rottenberg, as well as other curators who were attacked by the public. The physical presence of these letters, as opposed to the Letter that Kantor offered, leaves little space for poetic interpretation, providing instead an illustration of the harsh reality and conditions that the transformation brought about for the Polish contemporary art scene. Notice Board marks these significant changes in Polish culture post-1989, highlighting the dialogues that ensued around the subject of artistic freedom and national identity by presenting evidence of this moment in the form of the actual letters.
NS: How do you see this, and the topic of censorship, by comparison today?
GM: The exhibition at Zacheta gave a voice to the public, but also placed a mirror to it—giving the public the opportunity to look at itself. Quotations taken from public opinion were the leading voices in my show. In a way, the important questions that surfaced from this exhibition were: What should the term “contemporary” represent in Poland today? And has the period of complete regression and censorship ended?
NS: In relation to this, how important would you say your family background or national identity is for your work?
GM: My national identity and my background obviously have an impact on how I relate to history, and not only the history of my country. Big gaps in the historical narrative of the country are still surfacing in Poland now. My life and my education in Communist Poland taught me that instead of referring to readily available written histories, one needs to search further for some sort of truth.
NS: I’ve noticed that you’ve started to create more large-scale installations lately.
GM: I have actually been working with large-scale installation since the early 1990s. These works might not be as familiar to you, as they have not been presented through the media as were my more recent projects. The Internet was in its early stages then, so there was no alternative platform for young artists to promote their work. I wasn’t in a position to produce any publications on my work at that time, so it has only been recently that people have retrieved fragmented information on my early projects. Most of the archive on these works exists in the form of slides and photographs taken by me. Of course these large-scale early works are typically constructed from affordable materials such as brown paper or cardboard, and frequently featured large quantities of other artists’ works and found objects. I had a very limited budget for making work and had to finance my practice working as a window dresser. My first extra-large installation was called Sleep of Ulro, and it featured in the 2006 Liverpool Biennale as an independent project produced by the A Foundation. Still today this exhibition could be the biggest and most complex show I have ever produced—as big as my current show at Fondazione Prada. Since then I have made some works that are big in scale but not as complicated in terms of production.
NS: What is your relationship to performance art, and what advantages does it offer you as a medium?
GM: Performance, as well as other forms of artistic production, appears inconsistently throughout my practice. I am not particularly committed to any form of art making, nor do I desire to be. During my education in the UK I had a moment when I imagined myself as a romantic artist devoted to my craft, repeating the same gesture daily until I die. At that time I was constructing a tower out of thousands of matchsticks my mother kindly sent to me from Poland. After three months of dedicated activity, solely focused on gluing these matchsticks together, I gave up and moved on to making a movie using a super-8 camera. The movie featured the matchstick tower, accompanied by a little figure made out of wire that I later animated to become the action hero of the film. This small character climbs to the pinnacle of the tower, before raising his arms in the air to mark his own triumph as well as marking the end of my journey with process art. The remains of the tower still stand in my studio as a reminder of my lack of commitment to a medium and perhaps as a monument commemorating my failure as a romantic. This is symbolic of my relationship to the idea of the medium. Performance art, for me, doesn’t offer any advantage over other ways of art making. It can be just as effective or just as weak. It requires the commitment of more than just the maker, and it’s only worth taking on if you are willing to wholeheartedly commit to it, as the presence of the element of life is essential. My biggest undertaking in the field of performance resulted in the production of a play in 2014 called Preparatory Notes performed at the Berlin Biennale. I made it as a play purely because the original source material that I based it on existed in the form of a script. Previous to that I worked on a performance with Marvin Gaye Chetwynd for the project Spiegelgasse / Cabaret Voltaire and Opportunism and the Collapse of the Second International by V. Lenin, Zurich, 1916, presented at Project in Dublin in 2005. Again this work had to function as a performance purely because of what it was referring to. I use performance when it feels appropriate, but not because it offers a special advantage. I have had a strong fascination with theater and opera from an early age but I don’t think that this really motivated me to move my work toward performance.
NS: Are you interested in art history and theory in general, or are your points of reference—like Aby Warburg, for example—chosen for purposes of artistic research?
GM: I came across Aby Warburg while researching another project. I had been interested in his Lecture on the Serpent Ritual before I discovered a huge range of other references that have reemerged through several different works over the past ten years or so. Warburg interests me not only as an art historian but also as an individual with a particular approach to study and the organization of knowledge. The subjective manner with which he organizes his collection of images and books, often to follow his personal interests and intellectual growth, is something that feels very familiar, meaningful, and reassuring to me. I treat knowledge in a similar way. Art history or theory informs aspects of my thinking, but not through a consistent logic and not in a conventional way. Nevertheless, the process of learning and the accumulation of information and knowledge is the main focus of my work, before the actual process of making. This relates to both the content and the materials used for different projects, as well as the knowledge associated with the experimentation with different mediums of artistic production.
NS: You are currently exhibiting at the Prada Foundation in Milan. Would you say that there is a significant difference between a public and a privately funded venue?
GM: There is a difference each time one produces a show with a new institution, regardless if it’s private or public. At the end of the day, the success lies in mutual respect, support, and hard work.
NS: About the definition of success we will talk another time! Thank you, Goshka.
Nicolaus Schafhausen born in Düsseldorf, is the Director of Kunsthalle Wien.
Goshka Macuga was born in Warsaw and lives in London. She works across a variety of media including sculpture, installation, photography, architecture and design. Her artistic practice is often referred to as taking on the roles of an artist, curator, collector, researcher and exhibition designer. Her recent solo shows include To the Son of Man Who Ate the Scroll at Fondazione Prada, Milan (2016). In April 2016 the New Museum in New York will present a solo show devoted to her work, curated by Margot Norton and Massimiliano Gioni.
Originally published on Mousse 53 (April–May 2016)