‘Weapons are not very far from artworks:’ Joanna Rajkowska at l’étrangère

The upcoming exhibition Painkillers at l’étrangère brings into conversation new and existing sculptural works by the renowned Polish artist, Joanna Rajkowska.

Noted for her ambitious interventions in public space, as well as her objects, films, photography, installations and ephemeral actions, Rajkowska’s practice interrogates individual and collective bodies as politicised sites of historical, ideological and psychological conflict. For her inaugural exhibition at l’étrangère, Rajkowska unites two object-based series under the rubric, Painkillers, in order to explore the at times uncomfortable connections between modern warfare, healing systems and the practices of Western science.

I had the chance to talk to Joanna about both her artistic practice and forthcoming exhibition.

Joanna Rajkowska, Uzi submachine gun, 2014 | © Joanna Rajkowska. Courtesy ŻAK | BRANICKA & l’étrangère
Joanna Rajkowska, Uzi submachine gun, 2014 | © Joanna Rajkowska. Courtesy ŻAK | BRANICKA & l’étrangère

How did you become involved in creating art / was there a specific moment that you decided to pursue it as a career?

I grew up in the last stages of the collapse of Communism, when things were no longer stable, the currency was rapidly devaluing, the economy and culture came to a standstill and the overall atmosphere was one of uncertainty, decline and absurdity. It was a time of in-between. You have to find your own niche in such times, a little universe that is self-sufficient and rich enough to feed your various needs. What’s more, art was not an escape for me, it was a means of connecting with the rest of the world, from which I felt I was utterly cut off. I was extremely happy when I would reach this unique state of body awareness, when what you see is being filtered through your senses and your hands are busy re-enacting it.

We still had these fantastic communist Palaces of Culture, where I could spend long afternoons sketching and, in summers, go to the open air painting camps. I had a solid background of practice before I started my adult life as an artist. It was just a way of surviving, a slow and ‘organic’ entry into the arts. It was also an escape from my mother’s mental problems, but that’s a longer story.

It’s interesting that you work in a variety of mediums: interventions in public spaces, objects, films, photography, installations and ephemeral actions – what entices you to utilize these different ways of working?

I am one of those artists who don’t have a language of their own. Since I primarily work in public space, my methodology is to respond, with all my mental and physical capacities to a site; and this is exactly the sensual and intuitive response that I use to create a language for a particular place and consequently a project. I trust my body – I use it a lot – it has powers that I cannot activate while coldly scanning, researching and reasoning. When my body says it feels suffocated, I use oxygen and foggers, when it says it needs to find itself inside a volcano, I am trying to build a domesticated volcano – Or at least a model of it.

The strategy works even in highly volatile political situations. It usually produces an alien element or situation in which people are forced to change their language to describe their problems. And it introduces a plane that only art can create, where things are no longer what they are, but become part of a completely different reality. The point is to make this reality stronger and more appealing than what they have.

Joanna Rajkowska, 5.56 x 45mm NATO cartridge, 7.62 x 39mm M43 cartridge and 9 x 19mm NATO cartridge, 2014 | © Joanna Rajkowska. Courtesy ŻAK | BRANICKA & l’étrangère
Joanna Rajkowska, 5.56 x 45mm NATO cartridge, 7.62 x 39mm M43 cartridge and 9 x 19mm NATO cartridge, 2014 | © Joanna Rajkowska. Courtesy ŻAK | BRANICKA & l’étrangère

Painkillers (2015) seem to continue your on-going interest in the ‘paradoxical interrelation of military weapons and pharmaceuticals’ – when and why did these ideas become an important part of your work?

It’s hard to say really, perhaps because of my horrible headaches. It is an old project. One of the black holes of our culture is obviously the war zone. It is a zone that generates enormous energy and this energy is as much focused on the human body as the field of medicine is. The instruments and substances of war present as much sophistication in terms of penetrating and affecting the human body as medical equipment. Shameless amounts of money go into the research and production of weapons. Humans are deeply perverted in that. So, it is hard to ignore such a black hole in culture.

Being usually commissioned to work in public space, I didn’t have an opportunity to produce anything substantial for a white cube for a long time. Last year, Anda Rottenberg curated this fantastic exhibition in Warsaw Zachęta Gallery, “Hygiene and Progress”. I thought that this could be the right moment and I broadened my research. What is in l’étrangère is a second series of Painkillers.

Joanna Rajkowska, M4A1 carbine, 2014 | © Joanna Rajkowska. Courtesy ŻAK | BRANICKA & l’étrangère
Joanna Rajkowska, M4A1 carbine, 2014 | © Joanna Rajkowska. Courtesy ŻAK | BRANICKA & l’étrangère

Having seen some of the works in your up-coming exhibition ‘Painkillers’ at l’étrangère (particularly the life-size casts created using powdered analgesic and polyurethane resin), I was compelled by their serene aesthetic and had to remind myself these were deadly weapons – was this an intentional result?

Yes. Weapons are not very far from artworks. All I had to do was to cast them in analgesic and polyurethane resin. If you think about the scope for the Mosin-Nagant rifle and how many people in the history of Soviet wars were aiming at other people through it, how many lives were ended, how much ‘intimacy’ was involved in killing…they are well designed for the bodies of both, the perpetrators and the victims. We feel it when we look at them, and the sexiness and violence is there, too.
Not to mention a mysterious link to modern sculpture. Have a closer look at the model of the Israeli nuclear weapon core. A perfect form…

Joanna Rajkowska, Model of Israeli nuclear weapon core as photographed by Mordechai Vanunu in 1985, 2015 | © Joanna Rajkowska. Courtesy ŻAK | BRANICKA & l’étrangère
Joanna Rajkowska, Model of Israeli nuclear weapon core as photographed by Mordechai Vanunu in 1985, 2015 | © Joanna Rajkowska. Courtesy ŻAK | BRANICKA & l’étrangère

In the back of the gallery there is a multi-chambered crystal formation (mobile chakra), a found piece of art, entitled Soon Everything Will Change (2014) – how did you come across it and how does it relate to the rest of the works?

I worked on a project in Brazil in 2013. My curator took me to Vale do Amanhecer (Valley of Dawn) near Brasilia, a community founded by the medium and ex-truck driver Tia Neiva in 1969. It is a curious place where people practice a complex religious syncretism. They serve a whole variety of powers, from flying saucers and Christian saints, to Afro-Brazilian, pre-Columbian and ancient Egyptian spirits. They have a UFO landing site and a pyramid, in which there is a huge crystal hanging from the ceiling. Water was dripping out of it and I was given a glass of it to drink. This crystal was so… perfect. Soon after that, I was commissioned for a project in the outskirts of Birmingham. Well, there is nothing sicker than post-industrial English suburbs. So, I thought, the ‘healing’ power of a huge crystal – this must be an answer to this bleached place. It looked insignificant there, but people’s curiosity generated a lot of really fantastic situations. People would spend an hour by the amethyst, dangling their bare feet into it to soak up lots of good vibes, Queti, a local shopkeeper, told me it worked.

Obviously, this was a completely different potentiality. Still, beyond any ethical positions, both crystals and instruments of war are about sublimity (ideal crystalline organisation of atoms!), the accumulation of energy and the perfect affect on the human body. I also found very tempting the juxtaposition of different temporalities, something that is beyond any human timescale – a chemical precipitation that takes millions of years to become a proper crystal formation and the very human immediacy of weapons, with its imminent destruction.

Joanna Rajkowska, Soon Everything Will Change, 2014 | © Joanna Rajkowska. Courtesy ŻAK | BRANICKA & l’étrangère
Joanna Rajkowska, Soon Everything Will Change, 2014 | © Joanna Rajkowska. Courtesy ŻAK | BRANICKA & l’étrangère
Joanna Rajkowska, Soon Everything Will Change (detail ) | © Joanna Rajkowska. Courtesy ŻAK | BRANICKA & l’étrangère
Joanna Rajkowska, Soon Everything Will Change (detail ) | © Joanna Rajkowska. Courtesy ŻAK | BRANICKA & l’étrangère

Have you got any future projects / plans lined up?

I would love to continue with the Painkillers. I dream about casting Little Boy with the same technique and re-creating a death chamber with its irreducible surgical table holding the three drugs that are the components of a lethal injection. But both dreams are expensive.

– Harry Dougall

Joanna Rajkowska Painkillers opens at l’étrangère on 17 September and will be on view until 24 October; 44a Charlotte Road, London, EC2A 3PD; Tuesday – Saturday 11am – 6pm; Admission: FREE

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