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"Flight" by Roman Stańczak, Polish Pavilion at the 58th International Art Exhibition — la Biennale di Venezia, 2019, photo by Weronika Wysocka

No. 18

Matter in Which I Can Leave My Trace

Roman Stańczak talks to Łukasz Mojsak and Łukasz Ronduda

While waiting for the opening of Sculpture in Search of a Place exhibition, this issue is devoted to… sculpture. We begin with an interview with Roman Stańczak about the his Venice Biennale project – Flight.

Your project in Venice involves turning a plane inside out. You’re using the same strategy that you used in the 1990s. Earlier, you focused on single objects with a small, individual scale, such as a wall unit, a kettle or bathtub. Now you’re turning inside out an aircraft, associated with a collective body, a group of people, the social body.
I’m looking for a form that will, as a rule, express my time, but also the absurdity of human exploration, the existential limitation, when I discover that there is still something else, but I cannot prove it. For me, sculpture is no longer just a form of building a new reality, but rather an explanation of the one that surrounds me. Matter as a hope of finding some answers.

You once talked about the works you created by chewing on Kinder Surprise toys. In a way, those small, dramatic sculptures came into being as a result of an act of violence, but also thanks to the bodily, physiological activity that is chewing. The aircraft sculpture will also have a very strong, brutal expression, resulting from the contact between your body and the object. Is the power of expression in sculpture important to you?
Yes, it’s very important. It’s important to note down the life energy, the creative energy. Many works of art in history tell us about the potency of a given time, people, about their power, strengths, desperation. The construction of pyramids, cathedrals and other giant buildings. Such energy and mobilisation stays in these human achievements. In my works, I try to penetrate matter because what is visible, what is outside, does not fully express my emotions, feelings, or thoughts; they remain elusive, and they concern hope, a sense of life. It’s difficult to discover this, because I only use what’s available to me, that is, matter — regardless of whether it’s stone, wood, gold, an aircraft, or other things. It’s always some kind of matter out of which I can compose something, I can express something thanks to it, leave my trace in it: my body, my action, a certain motion, time.

You transform existing objects created by someone else, they are the material of your art. You do not work with wood or stone, or unprocessed substances.
Yes, but for me it is only a matter of a shift in the naming, because matter itself never changes, it just transforms into a rock, a tree, a different shape or an object.
In my sculptures, I try to hold a dialogue between art and craft, situating them next to each other. I distinguish craftsmanship from art and I strive to situate my art in the artistic field, and not the sphere that is utilitarian, mastered, mechanical, thoughtless; I try to enrich the product of craftsmanship with some kind of poetry.
I’m simplifying things a little, because the reality is more brutal; there is an enormous rebellion in me and anger at all the unnecessary things that creep into art, like craftsmanship or ideology.

Is craftsmanship unnecessary? After all, you’re a sculptor, so you have mastered a craft.
It’s unnecessary. If I already know a method, I try to reject craftsmanship absolutely, and to constantly discover new things that surprise me. Rejecting the skill of imitating nature, of representing it. It’s beautiful, but…

But despite it all, you don’t want to give up sculpture.
It’s impossible. It’s still the only value that I can somehow hold on to in my life.

Sculpture is your most important medium. It is accompanied by drawings, performance is also connected with sculpture.

So it’s actually about the body confronting the world at the very basic level.
You could generalise it that way. In sculpture, as in life, we are constantly confronted with matter. We have to cross the street, walk down the stairs, touch a new door handle, stand in front of an opening door.

So this process of immersion in matter, contact, collision with it is closely connected with sculpture for you?
Yes, it’s inevitable. This border of touch in matter. You could say that each of us sculpts by simply living our lives. I talked about it with Grzegorz Kowalski. I came to the conclusion that everyone is a sculptor, but he claimed that not everyone can be one.

Grzegorz Kowalski was also very interested in themes related to spirituality, a different dimension in sculpture. Were you on the same wavelength with him on these issues?
Yes, in a way, but we rather talked by means of forms. Besides, the problem of spirituality has frequently appeared at various stages of my life, because since my childhood I have been in contact with sacral art, and later, already at the Antoni Kenar School of Art in Zakopane, with the work of such artists as Tadeusz Brzozowski and Władysław Hasior. In these explorations I tried to slip beyond matter.

Did Hasior have any influence on you?
He was certainly an inspiration.

Like Hasior, you use found objects and process them in a similarly surreal way. Did you encounter his art in Zakopane?
I met him in person in the 1980s. He inspired me, motivated me to create. He lived next to the school, I would go to his studio for private visits, but he also organised soirées where more people were invited. He showed the contents of a large collection of slides he made himself while riding a motorcycle around Europe, and at the same time, he told comic stories over tea about giant State Agricultural Farm potatoes, welcome signs and folk art, various curiosities.

Did you like his sculptures at the time?
I first encountered Hasior probably through my mother, when I was a few years old. She showed me his baby pram with crosses. That made perhaps the greatest impression on me, but when I met him in person, I already considered it history. At that time, I opened myself up to a search for new things. I found the topics of politics and war shocking, but in fact they didn’t really concern me that much. If anything, I was moved by his dialogue with religion and his strategy of using various goods from market stalls or parish fairs, devotional items, his anxiety, his courage — because it was already on the verge of sacrilege or usurping certain symbols. Hasior’s art seemed to be a bit too ethnographic, it didn’t touch despair or fear. For me, all these things were just banners.

Marek Kijewski, with whom you were friends in the early nineties, was also very interested in everyday objects of posttransformation reality, he created works out of LEGO blocks, artificial materials.
Yes, he used candies and biscuits.

This is also close to you — the search for new material associated with a new reality.
Yes, we were all searching at the time. We wanted a slightly different expression of the world and its flavour, we certainly weren’t afraid of experiments or risks. It was downright extreme — I also think that Kijewski’s death was actually one of the effects of sculpting like that. Because that is the price you pay. We lived on the edge — Zbigniew Libera and others, and me too. Besides, I was closer to Marek Kijewski, to Filon [Mirosław Filonik], we created a kind of group. I was closer to them than to Kowalnia.

Why is sculpture so extreme?
Because it is a search for truth, but also for the form and expression of our times. Those were interesting times — political changes, Communism, the Pope, and the fear, but also hope that new generations will be able to express something new, new technology was emerging. At that time, political transformations were taking place in Poland and other countries, everything was extremely strong. That turbulence made us feel that we could do even more; you’re exhausted, but maybe keep on going, look for something more.

In your case it all broke down at some point.
It broke down mainly for artistic reasons because when I started to create those objects, I noticed that they would appear at various exhibitions with strange titles, to which I was invited with other people; they showed their objects, which I didn’t understand. They seemed to result not from discoveries, but from appropriation. I missed the spiritual dimension, so important for me, in art, which became an institutional game. I didn’t want to be part of it anymore, of that spate of all sorts of ideas. I couldn’t stand it. I really thought that I’d rather cut myself off from that kitsch and start earning a living in a different way, because what was happening was basically a betrayal of values.

The interview was first published in the Zachęta Magazine. March, April, May 2019.