Woman Artist to Woman Artist
Marta Ostajewska – Jolanta Wagner
Recording the world or harmony in chaos
Marta Ostajewska Today we are visiting a fantastic Łódź artist, Professor Jolanta Wagner, at her home.
Let me ask you a question: What was the beginning of your Census project, in which, using various techniques, you take inventory of cities, houses, objects or thoughts?
Jolanta Wagner I have the impression that I have always been taking the inventory of objects, things, or events, and that, in fact, we, artists, have always done it. The same as it is believed that every artist portrays themselves when portraying someone else, I believe that everything that we record in our paintings, installations or activities is an inventory of our emotions, things, memories, remembered objects. I always do it. I remember when I started calling it an inventory. Twenty years ago, I realised that what I was doing was taking inventory. Taking inventory is a very prosaic, engineering name for writing down, recording various things. I use such a dry name on purpose, so as not to impose my intentions on a viewer and give them a chance to decipher it any way they want. I hope that’s how it works, that everyone reads it differently.
MO When did this formally named series begin? Can you tell me a bit about the works that it includes?
RECORDING THE WORLD
JW Why do I do it, for how long… For as long as I can remember, and I’ve been working for so long that it’s historical. It seems to me that this approach to reality is driven by a certain philosophy. And this philosophy is driven by the fact that I am not happy with the world where I live. I think that this world, our reality, the one that surrounds me, is not perfect. I don’t like many things. I don’t like the fact that the world is filled with chaos, it works in a haphazard way and it brings a lot of evil. What happens around is not optimistic and does not make me feel optimistic about the future. Therefore, I have the impression that if we act in the same way as during the Enlightenment, the era known as the Age of Reason, when it was believed that if we began to look at this world through the prism of our thought, our reason, we would be able to systematise it. In order to find a balance in the chaos, to find harmony in randomness. We can find this harmony only in recording this world, regulating it, so that each thing finds its proper place. This is how we create the acceptable world. I am convinced that if I systematise, record, divide and select this world in the same way as in the Enlightenment, I will find it more friendly, I will be able to accept it and it will be better. Is this a utopia?
MO I hope not.
JW Anyway, I am convinced that even if I don’t order this world in an objective way through systematising all these things in my works, I do it for myself. And then it is easier for me to find my place in the world that I accept. But I am still convinced that everything that happens is not optimistic, does not fill me with optimism and that everything is going in the wrong direction. I try to regulate it, to stop it with my actions, but I’m still waiting for the effects.
MO One of the effects was your work, which was the inventory of cosmetics.
JM Yes, it was.
MO You created very balanced, harmonious objects, installations, pyramids from perfume containers, among other things. How did you create the final object? It contains objects of different shapes, colours. The smell is also a significant element. I wonder how you created this object based on the concept of a census, an inventory. And how did you choose the sites where this installation appeared?
COLOURED SCENTED BOTTLES
JW I didn’t choose the sites. Wherever I was invited, I tried to fit my work into the existing space. So, it was a site-specific activity rather than a situation where I made a work and then looked for a site. But most often the site already exists and we have to fit in it. That’s the joy of it. Each of the works we repeat is different.
However, this was one of the most pleasant works I have ever done. It started unusually, because most of the work I do, which is drawings, are created in solitude. I sit in my studio where my only companion is my thoughts, and I translate them onto paper or any other medium. But here I had to ask a lot of people for help. I announced that I needed help in collecting cosmetics. Because I love cosmetics. I adore those colourful, fragrant bottles, those puffs and creams that you twist off and on. When there is a lot of it, it is just wonderful, joyful. I find it terribly pleasant. I know that many women feel the same. When it turned out that I was collecting boxes, a lot of people were willing to take part in this campaign. Girls brought me things that they had been keeping, just like me, for months because they felt sorry to throw them away. Even though the box was empty, it was so lovely. After all, a lot of design know-how was put into it to tempt us and we all fell for it. No one thought about how much pollution there was in it. This cream could just as well come in a trivial little glass jar with a trivial sticker. It was the triumph of form over substance. Knowing that it was so exaggerated, to the great detriment of our ecology, of recycling, I kept the containers all the more and felt sorry to throw them away. So much energy was put into it and so much trouble. The girls collected them too. I have a whole list of people who took part in the campaign and I even consider them co-authors. Are you a co-author? Did you give me anything?
MO No, I didn’t.
JW You see, that’s a mistake.
MO I throw the packaging away as soon as I use it up, so, unfortunately, I couldn’t share it.
JW I have a lot of them. Before moving out, I had to throw away some paper stuff, but I took the glass ones because I treat them like a treasure. That great joy I put into collecting all those bottles, or working with my friends who were also collecting them and were eager to see these wonderful little trinkets… Once it was done, I decided to arrange them in a pyramid shape. So that they would be stable and display as much as possible of their dignity, wealth, joy and longevity. The pyramid as a symbol. But, to our, mainly mine, surprise, although this pyramid was colourful, joyful, shiny, there was a lot of gold in it, at the end it very much resembled a tomb.
It turned out to be a bit ambiguous. A mixture of joy, feminine vanity, delight with the charm of a trinket, and in the end – a pyramid in the shape of a huge tomb. Then, unfortunately, I had this ambivalent impression. Which is stronger in your case if you know the work: the joyful side or the sad side?
MO This duality is interesting. The fact that, on the one hand, these is packaging. This pyramid form…, by definition a pyramid is a tomb. So it is, on the one hand, a perfect figure. This triangle, which can be turned in different directions, creates a sense of harmony and balance. But on the other hand, it is a sign of the end. I find the ambiguity of this work interesting. The fact that when you look at it, it’s not just a pretty object, but inside it you can find…
JW …some implications.
MO Various other meanings.
JW Each of these women must have used this perfume. And she used them as a certain ritual. It was a still object, but it contained a movie of the action. I know how to use the cream, the perfume. This is a record of the actions performed by these women, these 120 women who used these perfumes and creams. A record of a ritual that was created over months. The final effect of a story, which is written in it. These creams constantly have a smell. The perfumes too.
MO Exactly. So, it’s not just an aesthetic and visual object, or a narrative-….
JW …it’s definitely multi-sensory. You can’t eat it yet, but you can do everything beyond that.
MO I’ve seen people coming closer to this installation to smell it. It’s a bit of a mystery, whether it still smells or not, whether I can capture the smell.
JW Later on I made a similar pyramid, similar in size, out of medicine wrappers. And then the association with the grave is definitely already there, even though the packaging is very colourful. This is astonishing. I was surprised that pharmaceuticals are manufactured in such packaging as if there were jelly beans, candies, chewing gum. When it was put together, this pyramid was colourful, all the colours of the rainbow. Why are pharmaceuticals packaged in such a colourful way? This packaging is tempting. Why are pharmaceuticals packaged in tempting packaging? Absurd. This work made me realise that it was a mistake. Overproduction of packaging, enticement, getting customers to consume pharmaceuticals. To my mind, this is something that undermines morality of a graphic designer who does it. Since it is immoral.
MO It’s true. Tell me what you do with these objects afterwards? Because you’ve said that they were important to you. Therefore, I understand that you archive them in some way. What does that archiving look like?
JW I keep everything in boxes and I wait for the next opportunity to build a new installation. Every now and then I make a selection because they wear out.
Besides, some objects are lost during exhibitions. I understand this. I think it is cool. It is even nice for me that someone will take one small fragrant element from this installation. Go ahead, I encourage it. New ones will come, no problem.
MO And if you had to choose one of your works that would be most important to you, what would it be?
INVENTORY OF DEFICIENCIES
JW Gosh, that’s a difficult question. I don’t know. I can tell you a bit about the exhibition we took part in together, about PLEXUS. I drew on an old drawing board, a huge one, 3 metres by 2 metres high, a drawing entitled The end of the age of reason and there I drew an inventory. But not an inventory of existing things, but missing ones. Of what was missing. And what was missing in my contemporary world. A bit sad drawing. I don’t have it because I have lent it to one gentleman who has a big office. It hangs somewhere in Łódź in this office. And I expressed these lacks with drawings, but also with words: lack of freedom, tolerance, humanitarianism, solidarity… I think it’s such a sad drawing, but it’s important to me because in it I expressed my negative view of what’s happening in the world today, specifically in this place where we live and where I also don’t like many things.
MO If we’re talking about the place we live in, do you consider yourself a Łódź artist?
JW Not that I consider, I am a Łódź artist. I think Łódź has shaped me and even if I denied it now, it would be impossible to change it. I think Łódź is a fantastic source of inspiration for artists in general. And I have the impression that it is ignored. Because Łódź has a specific character, and works of artists who create in Łódź has a specific character, too. When you look at the national scene, Łódź is in the background, which is strange, because we are very distinctive. Warsaw is always pushed in front, but I feel shaped by the Łódź academy. I am its standard graduate. I admit this with pride. My art is a product of Łódź inspirations.
MO If you were to choose, and I know this is a difficult question, one artist or artist from Łódź whom you met and who inspired you or still inspires you, who would it be?
JW You know, I am a student of professor Modzelewski. Although, in retrospect, I now have quite an objective opinion of him. The professor has been dead for many years now. Although I look critically at his ways of teaching, at his art, I think he is a fantastic and outstanding person as an artist and as an educator as well. He is very important to me because he had a great influence on what I did, even if I immediately rejected what he taught me. I think that’s the way it should be. If someone graduates from university and does what they were taught there, I don’t know if that’s such a good thing. I did the opposite. And I encourage students that what they have learnt from us at the academy, that they have learnt it in order to reject it. I have rejected Modzelewski, all his theories. I believe that they were often doctrines, not theories, but I still have great respect for him. I am extremely grateful to him for teaching me the way he taught.
MO And when it comes to women artists?
JW Women artists… In general, I think there are only good women artists in Łódź. The Łódź academy produces more female than male graduates and it is apparent. The girls are fantastic. There are a lot of very talented people. I have to think about who is the most outstanding… I don’t know, I need time to think about which woman I respect out of the female artists… And which one do you respect more than the others?
MO If you talk about Łódź, there is always Kobro somewhere…
JW … can we talk about the dead, too?
MO I thought about Kobro because it was a name which ricocheted from under Strzeminski who strongly appropriated the image of Łódź art…
JW …and Kobro was pushed into the background. If you’re talking about deceased artists, there were more of them, weren’t there? After all, Szapocznikow, another brilliant artist, came from Łódź. Recently, a year before the pandemic, I curated, together with Beata Marcinkowska, an exhibition about Kobro, her influence on her work and activities at the Academy of Fine Arts in Łódź, and I wrote an introduction about her. And indeed, I definitely agree with you. I think she was much better than Strzemiński. She was pushed into the background by her husband and by history.
MO It seems to me that recent years have been paying her…
MO Yes. Although above all not even tribute, but give her space. Because she was largely invisible. And now she appears more prominently than Strzeminski. Maybe it’s because for years she was pushed to a corner and at the moment her works have a chance to resound again.
JW I think she is a fantastic inspiration. I used to draw her sculptures on a board. I have that board, it stands here in the hallway. I’ve also made tags. On these tags, 4 cm wide, I made her portrait and her sculptures. But also on fabric, the only time in my life I managed to do something like that, I embroidered her sculpture with cross-stitch.
MO That’s a fantastic idea.
JW I did it twenty years ago and that cross-stitch is somewhere in a drawer. It was a kind of contrariness. She was a woman who, for art’s sake, painfully divested herself of feminine traits. She tried to be a man because in her times being a woman meant only disadvantages. She didn’t have the advantages that her husband, Strzemiński, had. Her sculptures were a hundred times better than those created by men, but they were very austere, minimalist, thought out in every detail. Suddenly, I thought to myself: maybe I can make a woman’s embroidery, a despised method which is considered not worthy art. Cross-stitch isn’t a respected technique in art. So, I made cross-stitch. And I hope Kobro does not take it against me.
However, I know Agnieszka Mnich. She is an elderly lady, a daughter of Rector Mnich, who was the director of the Museum of Art. Agnieszka knew Nika Strzemińska and I think she knew Kobro. Although she tried to catch up or act professionally like a man in her art, Kobro had distinctive feminine features. I am highly amused by certain stories, for example about dressing her daughter or taking care of animals. Kobro took care of all stray cats at the Montwiłł-Mirecki housing estate, but she also fed rats. And those rats were not afraid of her. She herself had an unhappy life, but she had a lot of empathy.
As for her daughter’s clothes, Agnieszka went to school with Nika Strzemińska. She said that, unfortunately, there was a lot of controversial behaviour of Kobro, because she dressed Nika in a strange way. Once she dressed her in one stocking dyed red and another one dyed blue or green. This is how the girl came to school and was immediately treated badly, they laughed at her, because it was probably the fifties. Once her mother dressed her in such a way that she went to school wearing a fur coat, took off the fur coat, and underneath she wore a swimming costume and stockings. And that was shameful too. The girl was scorned by her peers, teachers, they sent her back home. And her mother had such an artistic soul. Today she would be considered a wonderful, extravagant artist. And then the child endured torment.
MO This is actually a difficult story. The moment you’re a child and you want to blend in….
JW …and you have an artistic mother.
MO Exactly. But I found this thread about animals interesting. You’ve said that Kobro fed stray cats. And this thread can actually be applied to you.
JW I take in cats and I always have too many of them here. But it doesn’t result from art. It comes from a kind of engagement and wondering what’s more important: empathy for other living creatures or art. I would choose living creatures. I cannot understand that some artists can use animals or someone’s suffering to create their art. I would never do that. If I am to spend money on some excess, I spend it on animals, I make donations to various causes, to trusted sources, I donate various things. When it comes to art, I believe that you shouldn’t buy new materials, you should use old ones. And I use old paper.
PAPER FROM GARBAGE
MO It’s just fantastic that old paper you work with have some texture and your work is a dialogue with this texture, with the history of this material. It seems to me that this is artistically more interesting. We don’t start with white, blank paper straight from the shop, but with a material that already has its history…
JW …from a garbage.
JW I’m glad it’s contagious. I infect my students with it. This pro-environmental philosophy is starting to appeal to young people. They are often much wiser and more radical than the older generation. However, my ideas that they should not buy new materials but use rubbish are immediately taken up. I’m very happy that it obtains feedback. First of all, they don’t waste money. They can use it to buy perfume, and when they’ve used it up, they can bring it back to my art. It’s a joke.
Art is very important to me, but in second place. First place, however, belongs to respect for animals and respect or willingness to help animals and not to harm them. There is a well-known, perhaps even trivial, formula that should guide all teachers, and I feel I am a teacher: First do no harm. Also, not to harm these young people when you teach them. Because you can teach things that are, in effect, harmful to them. But also not to harm anything else around us.
MO I agree.
JW You’re working with the body, so you only catch a cold yourself and you do not harm others.
MO I would add that I don’t actually get a cold when I work with my body. I get a cold when I don’t work with it.
JW Are you serious? So, you recharge a kind of internal battery and you become immune.
MO Yes, I think so. Finally, can you tell us what you are working on now?
JW I’m working on the beginning. Klaudia wrote in an email that according to Goethe, every beginning is magical. My beginning is both practical and magical. Half Goethe, half life. I am on a trampoline at the moment, getting ready to jump. But this trampoline is still and I can’t bounce back. A year, maybe six months ago I got two huge stretchers from my favourite Warsaw gallerist, Wojtek Tuleja. He sent them to me by courier. He says there hasn’t been any of my work in the gallery for a long time and he sends them to me to finally do something. I put a special ground on those stretchers and that was the end of it. And I am waiting. I don’t know what to do next. I’m not able to get through. But that’s what you’ve said. Perhaps such clean, fantastic materials, ready-made stretchers, or beautiful, expensive paper, makes us paralysed. If I tore a page out of an old notebook scribbled on one side, it would go easily on the other side. Do you know what I mean?
MO That’s what I feel about existing spaces. The moment I walk into a dirty, decaying factory, I’m immediately able to act.
JW Shyness goes away.
MO It does. But the moment I walk into a clean gallery, my work is very often highly conceptual and lasts much longer than the moment I walk into…
JW …Does it paralyse you?
MO Yes, it does. It’s something that I have to create first of all based on an idea that comes out of my head. The moment I enter this place full of history and various decaying objects, I already have a partner for discussion. So, I don’t really have to think, I just have to respond to what’s there.
JW You are right. I also have the impression that when I take an old semi-transparent paper made by architects or town planners many years ago, with some scrawling, I talk to them while working. Sometimes I have an ambivalent feeling whether what I do is talking to them, adding to it, or whether it’s just stealing. The only thing that justifies me is that these are sheets taken from a garbage, they are already destined for annihilation.
I also intend to draw, record briefly, and I will annihilate them. I dream about it and it is possible that each of these semi-transparent sheets of paper will decompose very quickly in the compost heap.
It is a very interesting idea to complete this archiving series.
JW is it?
MO Yes, it is.
JW Exactly. And your work is also ecologically harmless?
MO I think my work is totally ecologically harmless because I work with objects which I find, so I don’t bring anything to this space except myself, my body and sometimes the frock-coat I work in. And I work with what is there.
JW Exactly, so you are also ecologically positive. I must say that I really like the fact that this feeling in a younger generation not to produce more dirt in our civilization grows larger and sometimes becomes shocking. For example, one of my friends told me how fantastically ecological bread is made at the Żoliborz district. He lives at the Bielany district. He travels every day to buy this bread, because it is super ecological. A young person listens to this story and says: “Well, by driving to buy this bread you create a kind of monstrous carbon footprint. You’d better buy bread in the nearest corner shop which you have in the neighbourhood.” And it’s wonderful that young people are smarter than us, that they won’t go and buy that organic bread, producing a very large carbon footprint.
MO I find it very interesting that both young and older artists get engaged in this issue. The carbon footprint issue is getting more and more important. And twenty years ago nobody thought about it at all.
JW It’s because this threat has become too real. In the past, it was somewhere, maybe subtle, but now it’s extremely real and, unfortunately, it’s not optimistic.
MO Thank you, Jola, for a very interesting conversation.
JW Marta, it was a great pleasure to be invited to this conversation and I don’t know if anything wise comes out of these ragged comments of mine. I don’t expect anything to come out. But I’m glad that I had the chance to say something and I think it’s good that artists have the opportunity, apart from showing their work, to express their opinions on why they do it. Thank you very much.
MO Thank you.
Interlocutors: Marta Ostajewska with Jolanta Wagner
Video and editing: Krzysztof Lewandowski