At the beginning of June, the “Szum” magazine published a review of the exhibition of finalists of the 19th and 20th editions of Hestia’s Artistic Journey, presented at the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw. Looking at attitudes of the youngest generation of Polish artists, Aleksy Wójtowicz emphasizes their strategy of reducing production costs. And although he explains it with the alleged modest financial and housing conditions of novice artists, he also puts forward a cautious hypothesis about their ecological awareness, which requires them to restrain the temptation of creative gigantomania. And this is an issue that I would like to focus on today.
The desire to dazzle with the richness of decorations or the scale of implementation has repeatedly appeared as a goal in art, to recall, for example, Gothic or Baroque. However, there were also times when aesthetics was minimized. In 1908, the Viennese architect Adolf Loos gave a lecture entitled „Ornament and Crime”. His main thesis proved that „the evolution of culture consists in removing ornaments from articles of everyday use”. He considered the decorations to be an expression of degeneration and a crime against humanity, arguing that their production increased the workload and generated additional costs. The views expressed by Loos found a response especially in the architecture of the Bauhaus, Le Corbusier and the International Style, whose forms were limited to the simplest geometric shapes, devoid of decorations.
However, since ideas and fashions in art follow a sinusoidal pattern, postmodernism has brought back a fascination with excess. Let me just give you one example.
In preparation for the Olympic Games in London (2012), the 115-meter-high ArcelorMittal Orbit tower was erected in the British capital to testify to the country’s power and attract tourists. Designed by the world-famous sculptor Anish Kapoor and the engineer Cecil Balmond, it was to be the equivalent of the Paris Eiffel Tower. The form of the flagship building of the capital of France, however, was subordinated to the principles of symmetry and logic of construction. According to Kapoor, the structure erected in London was supposed to give „a feeling of instability”. It has the shape of a loop made of a lattice, composed of eight intertwining strands connected by rings.
The object caused great controversy. Richard Morrison, a journalist of „The Times”, stated that it was part of the history of politics of gigantomania, in which Adolf Hitler, Joseph Stalin and Nicolae Ceaușescu had honorable places of founders of phallic objects. On the other hand, however, it was an expression of its times when, after a period of the global crisis, we eagerly waited for the economy to pick up again. It seemed that the greatest positive that could meet us in the coming future was economic growth.
In parallel, however, there has been a growing awareness of the threat of global warming, which will inevitably lead to catastrophe and the degradation of everything we consider to be the achievements of our civilization. It was expressed in the Kyoto Protocol of 1997, finally signed by (not all) UN countries, obliging the signatories to drastically reduce carbon dioxide emissions. It finally entered into force in 2005, but not always, and not everywhere was taken seriously.
Today, almost a quarter of a century later, there are far fewer skeptics. On September 7 last year, artists Gan Golan and Andrew Boyd installed an electronic clock on a building at Manhattan’s Union Square. It has been set to 7 years, 103 days, 15 hours, 40 minutes, and 7 seconds – the time between us and the global temperature rise to a critical level. After crossing it, the climate on Earth will become a threat to humans. The sociologist Karen O’Brien calls global warming „a transformation that transforms everything”. It is widely discussed that we can no longer live and produce in such a mindless manner as before. We are faced with the necessity to impose serious limitations on ourselves – both at the collective and individual level.
Besides, the tendency to create excess characterizes not only today’s sphere of art production but also how it is presented. From my time at the Laznia Center for Contemporary Art in Gdańsk, I remember the practice of creating specific architecture for every major exhibition. Such a personalized space undoubtedly raised the prestige of the presentation and enriched it with additional values. After the exhibition was finished, a container was pulled up to take the thrown-out materials, which would be enough for a solid renovation of the apartment. This state of affairs has been common in most exhibition institutions. Nobody questioned it. On the contrary, curators fought like lions for the largest possible budgets of the exhibitions they were preparing to enable this type of investment.
The question is, what about the responsibility of art in this situation? I decided to ask the German artist Folke Kӧbberling.
Is art the highest, immanent value that, due to its special status, we can exclude from the obligations and limitations necessary for the preservation of our planet?
I think we have to speak about ethics, about how we use resources in the art world. How we travel endlessly, go from one exhibition to another one. It also concerns the circus of biennales, the international jet-set from one continent to the other one, the shipping of huge artworks, and so on.
I think art should not be perceived beyond the concerns about the planet. Art should respect the world, see the climate crisis. Four years ago, I published a book called “Full Stop”. ‚Full stop’ because we were already then, in 2018, in such a crisis – it was so hot, we had a drought in East Germany where I live. I dreamed that during this time everyone would stay at home and not travel anymore. And all of sudden in 2019 we had coronavirus coming, so it was, in fact, a positive effect of the corona, because we all had to stay at home, and we all had to look for new ideas. You do not come to Berlin to interview me, we do it on Zoom instead, before we used to do it on Skype. 10 years ago, it was fashionable to do conferences or talks on Skype but later on, fast and cheap flights pushed people to travel all over the world.
You and Martin Kaltwasser started very early working on the issue of the enormous waste of materials that occurs in construction and exhibition work. Much earlier than recycling became obligatory.
We started building with rejected materials because of our status as poor young artists in Berlin. We looked at the streets first to furnish our apartment with the stuff we there. Later we used materials we found from local construction sites to build temporary structures on-site to issue the wastage of our society.
It was a time in Berlin when it was a totally different city than it is now. At the end of the 90s, there was a lot of waste, empty lots, cheap apartments. And all this has changed. Rents for flats have increased incredibly and there is also not so much trash on the streets anymore. But we were using materials that you can find for our art projects, but not only to issue recycling, also to make a point on an art-specific situation we found.
During your and Martin’s artistic residency at the Ujazdowski Castle, you used building elements left after a renovation of the building, right?
At that time Poland was quite different from this ‘throw away mentality’ because I had the impression you people were reusing a lot of materials. You also noticed the value of materials. During the renovation of the Ujazdowski Castle, they had changed windows, so we used them as well as pallets to make a mobile greenhouse. I also worked with the wilderness, weeds from the yard. I did not plant vegetable seedlings in the greenhouse but weeds that were growing wild in the area. And all of sudden these greenhouses were giving the wildflowers home. In that time all the park was renovated so the greenhouses could be moved to different places.
I want to also ask you about your and Martin’s project “Our CenturY”, in the framework of which you built a platform out of pallets from Ruhrtriennale.
It was a material structure of palettes, bulky refuse from the city of Bochum, elements taken from stage sets of the Ruhrtriennale productions, Le Vin herbé, Moses und Aron, and Westwärts and private homes. With the community project „Our CenturY”, Martin and I transformed the area around the Jahrhunderthalle into an urban landscape. The starting point for this architectural transformation was previously unnoticed, selected resources, which throughout the duration of the project gained a new, own life. This temporary entrance to Jahrhunderthalle was erected with the help of around 200 volunteers.
If you work with rejected matter, you do not have this circular material flow anymore. Because the material you find waste is still toxic. So, for four years I have been working with compostable material that is decayable. But it is also called ‘waste’. For example, in Europe, people do not use raw wool or soil anymore. So, I combine raw wool and soil that I find on the spot to create my works.
Raw wool is very interesting because before the reunification of Germany and before globalization it had a special value. Our clothes were made of it. We used it for isolation. And now the price shepherds get for raw wool is so incredibly low that they must get rid of it. They get money from the government for landscape management.
I have tons of raw wool and I do big installations from it now. For example, I am going to Graz this summer to make a 40m2 big building isolation from raw wool. It is also a material that heals, isolates, keeps warm, makes you healthy. It has great acoustic properties. Therefore, I have worked with raw wool for a long time and nowadays I have even sheep because of the sheep demonstration I did in Berlin…
Do you have sheep?! How many?
Five! We have eaten one. One died. But one sheep got just two new lambs. Now we have five sheep. The problem is that they need a lot of land for grazing. We do not have enough, but thru the sheep, we go to know our neighbors in another village with more land.
It is also a social project. In Berlin, I used sheep to occupy streets…
On the internet, I saw a photo of this action. Can you tell me a little bit about it?
It was a competition that I won – about the quarter Hansaviertel. (You know this neighborhood – you visited me there.) It was built for International Building Exhibition (Interbau) in 1957. In that time, it presented the future of living. And I thought the way we live there now, is not temporary anymore if we consider the climate crises, the particulate pollution. We must change our cities. We notice the heat, the notice the traffic, we notice the unlivable cities. We must get rid of motorized individual traffic.
The project “Temporary Neighbors” started with a demonstration of 200 sheep walking from the House of World Cultures to Hansaplatz. The streets were occupied for some time and the atmosphere was different, smooth, people were relaxed walking beside the sheep and also the smell was different. So, sheep went from one green park, eating grass, and later shepherds, because of their precarious situation, made an statement.
The second part of the project was that from 200 sheep five ones stayed in the Hansaviertel. I built a shelter which I covered with the wool of the 200 sheep. It looked very archaic image and formed a contrast to the formalistic architecture.
Neighbors took care of these five sheep. Every morning they were opening a gate and in the evening they were making sure that they were back in the shelter. And the sheep were caring about this green spot in the middle of the city because it was neglected – people did not use it to picnic or to meet. The sheep were to clear it, to eat grass, they brought nutrition to the spot.
The third part of the project involved the neighborhood and the raw wool. It was an interesting project. After its completion, I brought these five sheep to our countryside…