Interview with Pawel Althamer

Pawel Althamer is a sculptor, performance artist, action artist, creator of installations and video art. Between 1988 and 1993 Althamer attended classes in the Sculpture Department of the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. In 1991 he exhibited with a number of his colleagues from Kowalski’s studio. The group included Katarzyna Kozyra, Jacek Markiewicz, Jacek Adamas and others, and effectively co-created the phenomenon of “pracownia Kowalskiego” / “Kowalski’s Workshop,” otherwise know as the “Kowalnia” / “Smithery,” which was in its essence one of the leading groups of young Polish artists of the 1990s. In the middle of the 1990s Althamer’s interests shifted to social issues, in particular to reflection upon the role and place of art in large cities. Himself a resident of a vast housing block in the Brodno district of Warsaw, he observed, collected and documented examples of the spontaneous artistic activities of area residents (see the installation-exhibition BRODNO, A.R. Gallery, Warsaw, 1997). Althamer also organized projects in cooperation with his neighbors, including the action BRODNO 2000, during which the residents of his housing block at 13 Krasnobrodzka Street created a vast “2000” sign by turning on lights in specific windows, demonstrating unheard of dedication and discipline in doing so. The artist has been working with Foksal Gallery in Warsaw since the mid 1990s and has had a handful of exhibitions there. His most recent action consisted of living for a time in a house erected within a tree standing opposite the windows of the newly created gallery of the Foksal Gallery Foundation (2001/02). (Source/More information:


Sven Spieker: The first question I wanted to ask you is looking at your work, one has the sense that you’re not afraid of narratives. Much of what you do seems to be about narrative, telling stories. Is that something you would agree with? Is that something you find interesting or important for your work?

Pawel Althamer: Let’s say it’s always interpretations, and narration is like interpreting reality. I like to find the many possibilities, my own strategies, my own interpretations to describe my favorite part of reality. For example, human value is one of the interesting aspects of reality. My self-portrait is the first feature to interpret. Also, other people. Then, the next step is to observe reality around people. I use many possibilities to communicate, to talk about.

It was very important for me to find a school like the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw because my professor quickly discovered that I’m really fond of interpretation. It was especially good there, a good class of people like me, very individual people who are researching their interpretations by art and by differences between us. My professor said that I was an interesting aspect of his class because I was irrational, playing with irrational aspects of reality. I think I still do it and that sometimes looks like a very strange image, like a mixed eclectic image of my sculptures or my actions.

S. S.: When you say this, it sounds very interesting because on the one hand, you make yourself sound as if you were a conceptualist, but on the other hand, when one looks at your work, one has a sense that you are very fond of materials as well. And so, it seems to be that yes, on the one hand you like interpretations, concepts, ideas, but you’re also somebody who’s very fond of working with, as it were, the materials that you choose for your work.

P. A.: I think that it is both possibilities. It is the base of my activities, this kind of schizophrenia, let’s say, which is the most interesting thing. It makes me an artist, or not even an artist, but a person who is discovering for myself that reality still surprises me, and then to communicate that, “Look, it still surprised me, maybe you also.”

To be on the one side a very traditional, handmade artist, and from another side to use just conceptual space for communication is extremely different, but it is interesting to see ideas from both sides. And then maybe for me there is the extremely far possibilities. Like you see the sculpture, which is opposite to yesterday, happening, let’s say invisible. It’s about invisibility.

S. S.: How important is the idea of craft for you? Craft, the ability to do something with one’s hands, like an artisan. To craft something and do it well, of high standards.

P. A.: To feel materials? To feel concrete materials?

S. S.: Yes, and to work with the concrete material in a very professional way. Is that something important for you?

P. A.: Yes, to work physically is to use your animal body as a tool. I like the idea that the tool is maybe imperfect. You still should be like an amateur. You never feel like a master because you’re still researching what’s happened with this material, and then you can observe your relationship, the relation between you and your work. I discovered very early when I was a child that it’s very funny to create something concrete. Video is not concrete enough for me. The concrete is not even stone, but I think natural materials like grass, even glue. Materials like animals, still living and recognized by change as kinds of self-creating materials, which are dried or destroyed by time.

S. S.: So, if I understand you correctly, for you an artist is somebody who looks for encounters with nature.

P. A.: Yes, even if your nature is your mind, for example, and the materials around you. Maybe this is because I spent my childhood in the countryside of Warsaw. It was very interesting to me, something to play…not specially prepared places like I see here in Berlin. Here you have places specially prepared for children…

S. S.: Playgrounds.

P. A.: Playgrounds, yes. I’m not fond of such places because I remember my favorite places were, for example, fields of grass, wild fields, and many parts of destroyed buildings, and especially wild parts of destroyed houses. I was always fond of destruction. I often found old toys or so, and I played with old toys because it’s as if to recognize that it’s disappearing, it’s changed by time, and you can recognize that it’s really concrete. It’s not nothing around you.

S. S.: Do you see art as a process of destruction?

P. A.: Let’s say in my activities I’ve discovered that I like to construct something, but it’s still to observe that it’s kind of…spaces of work. Yes, it’s work because once you’re finished, you see that it’s starting to be destroyed. Even you are older; you are slowly coming down. And I think this process of construction is very interesting. It just changes; it’s just play, just a game with materials. But it’s very important to remember, that it’s only contemporary things. It’s like a signal, like communicating that only interesting things by your work are not existing.

S. S.: It seems to me that it is as if you were discovering your own work, as if you were like a stranger to your own work and you would see it and you would be surprised by it.

P. A.: I think maybe it’s the point of such activities to make things to surprise yourself. Then it will be kind of, if not art, a kind of heavy schizophrenia, because you need self-therapy or self-experimentation. And then the next step in communication is with other people, let’s say the public, generally the public, but sometimes you can meet people with very similar feelings.

S. S.: Compared to other artists, your attitude towards your own work seems very un-cynical, very honest, very serious. You sometimes talk about your work as being a kind of therapy. Could you explain what you mean by that?

P. A.: Let’s use my last exhibition title: Prisoners. Sometimes it’s like the feeling of being imprisoned, and if you are in a prison you can use some possibilities to escape, such as researching other planets, other spaces. One of the possibilities is also to fill your free time. I think that it’s very difficult for me to come into one place, everyday, making similar things. I’ve decided to make different things, maybe even strange things, irrational things because I need to keep a feeling that the world is full of irrational aspects. Even if interpretation of the world is only your mind, you should feel and make your mind hygienic. And to do this, a possibility is to do strange things such as a sculpture, because they are strange, really strange; they are not the most practical things in your life. And to make other communications, other signs like performances, drawings, paintings, and then to still have such feelings, like to be in a kind of prison and to escape, is maybe a good way to perform these kinds of activities.

S. S.: What is your attitude towards virtuality? Everything you say seems to be very much about, as it were, about things that are not virtual, but are real, that are discoverable, that can be touched. One of the most fashionable words today in art is the virtual. Is virtuality important for your work?

P. A.: Maybe it’s as if we return to the very areas of human activity, to construct signs that I was here, and even if I feel that I’m disappearing slowly, it’s so fun to construct the signs. In the end, I’m sure I can continue to have such interpretations of my works, that they are signs. Even this context will be serious because it’s about quiet, about serious themes like dying, a dying body, a dying material world. But, then to touch it is the most attractive feeling, because before you disappear, let’s touch as many things as possible.

S. S.: As an artist you have worked in many different kinds of media. How do you choose your media? Do they play an important role in what you do, or is there an idea, and then the medium comes to you, as it were?

P. A.: I think both. Sometimes I feel that there is no system. It’s like I talk with the secret guy behind me, or inside me, or around me to discuss possibilities. That’s why I use the term “schizophrenia” to describe it; it’s as if to ask which material would be perfect for this impression, how to fix such an impression, how to communicate. And then, sometimes through very irrational means you can find answers, such as ready-mades or traditional sculptures. You are full of possibilities and have no clear strategy on how to fix such emotional pressure, your own pressure to fix something. I think that is one of the interesting things in art for me. When you have no borders for your activities, no systems, then it’s really interesting. Sometimes you can feel like a lost child, like being in a deep forest, but you have freedom to go everywhere.

S. S.: And this freedom, of course, is a difficulty as well as a gift?

P. A.: Of course.

S. S.: It’s a gift in the double sense of the word.

P. A.: Both sides of these possibilities. But for me it’s extremely surprising. I feel that even if it’s sometimes difficult for you mentally, it’s still more attractive, more interesting than the recognized paths.

S. S.: Do you see yourself as a loner, a lonely artist, or do you think every artist faces that same problem?

P. A.: I have seen many similarities between us in being artists. Many artists have this problem because it’s really a bleak place, a bleak space.

S. S.: But then again, if I may just continue your thought, when you create something, you also enter a field where there are already different positions taken. In other words, let’s say for example, you make a sculpture. That sculpture enters a field where there are already other sculptures, other artists doing similar things. To what extent does that field, given that it is already filled, give you orientation. You talk about freedom and the difficulty of this wide space, but there already are filled positions. I mean you’re not alone; you’re not the only artist. There are many other artists doing similar work. How does that influence your own work?

P. A.: I like it very much. I have this feeling from when I studied in the Academy, when we used the same place for freedom, and sometimes we even had the same material, but there were still open possibilities to use it. It’s exciting to discover how many interpretations you have, that there are really no borders around you; there are only similarities. It’s so nice to find artists making similar things. Very often they are coming from completely different cultures, you can even say completely different planets.

S. S.: From a more pragmatic point of view, using this same image, this same topic that we’re talking about, do you think an artist should have a strategy? For example – I mean this in a very concrete sense regarding the art market – you know how important it is today, especially for artists from Eastern Europe or from Central Europe, to somehow enter the market. Do you think an artist should have a strategy for entering that field?

P. A.: It’s kind of difficult; it’s like a kind of pressure, but be careful because if you find the best strategy, maybe you’ve already lost. Don’t be ignorant, but don’t forget to be a child. Let’s keep this schizophrenia as your concrete power to be interesting and still be a person who’s discovered something. I think this is very often the question for myself, because if you recognize such strategies you can use them, you can use every possibility, but they should never be for manipulation. Emotion is a very important field of your activity, so keep emotion. Keep the irrational aspect of your activity, as well as strategy, because they are both very interesting.

S. S.: So you acknowledge that, indeed, an artist should have a strategy, but this strategy should be kept apart from the art, in a way. Art and strategy should not be the same. If an artist becomes solely only a strategist, he stops being a good artist, you think?

P. A.: I think so. I’m afraid that so many artists are just playing with strategies. They have lost the secret power to be fascinated, to be surprised by very many things such as observing children, for example, my daughter.

S. S.: Your daughter?

P. A.: Yes. It’s like remaining open to even naïve possibilities to still be surprised, but for children it’s simpler. It’s difficult when you know many things about the art world and about strategies. Then it’s as if you’re asking the questions every time: For what, why, and do I really want to do something or do I just want to play?

S. S.: Remaining a little bit with this notion of strategy, do think that for an artist from Central or Eastern Europe these strategies have to be different than for an artist from the West? Do you see yourself as a universal artist or do you see yourself as an artist from Poland?

P. A.: Hmm. First impression is universal, but universal as, for example, an astronaut. I use this title because it describes my feelings well. You should be universal because you’re also surprised by your own reality; it’s equally exotic, sometimes more exotic than the West, the West’s fields of art, and then the West part of the world. But I think, I saw, I heard that artists are built kind of bordered. We are from completely different cultures, and we hate the strategy of Western European artists.

S. S.: You see them as cynical?

P. A.: Yes, they are depressed because it is said there is no spirit in their art; they’ve lost spirit, they are too smart; they are too funny…

S. S.: Too calculating…

P. A.: Too calculating, too cool; they have lost their real power. But, I think it’s partly true, because I think it’s just more difficult than you can imagine. But, it’s also possibilities because then you have only, let’s say, half a space if you decided that it’s best to play with that…

S. S.: So this is the continuation of our interview after a short interruption, and the last question I had asked was about strategy and whether Eastern European artists should think strategically or not vis-a-vis the art market. I think that was the last question I had asked. I don’t know if you had wanted to comment on anything else.

P. A.: I discussed this at a party, yesterday. My friend suggested that to make a project for the Sony Center is the worse strategy for artists. And I started to discuss the question, why? It’s too commercial, like “made for order.” These frames, they’re always built by such institutions, and not by artists. And I suggested, “But, let’s try to play.” But, he always said no, no corporation, no compromises. I still think that it’s an interesting aspect to make an exhibition in a very, say, nostalgic, pure, provincial gallery, sometimes to check how it works, what the relation is between your activity and a concrete place, but also sometimes in rich places, commercial places because it’s good to have many possibilities.

S. S.: But, do you think it is possible, as your friend seemed to say, for an artist to work outside of institutional frames, whether these institutions are banks, art academies, museums, galleries? Do you think this is possible for an artist or not?

P. A.: It’s possible, but then you should be like, for example, primitives. They are really, let’s say, independent. But, even if they didn’t want to have a public because you have enough pressure from yourself, to do everything with no budget is another level of activity, another condition of art. But, sometimes I… for example this house would be like that, a little bit. Just to follow your idea without compromises, even without timing of exhibitions, just I want to do it, and I do it. Let’s have more possibilities, even to make an order. Sometimes if I feel that it’s interesting enough for me, if it’s not real prostitution, let’s do it.

S. S.: So would you accept a commission to something in the vicinity of the Sony Center, for example?

P. A.: I think now it’s too early because it’s before the meeting. I don’t know enough about what should be happening there, which possibilities I have. But it sounds interesting for me because I know, of course, this place, and I think it’s a quite strong and a recognized place, maybe difficult, but interesting to work with.

S. S.: I would like to come back quickly to another question I had asked you yesterday about universality, whether artists today should take a kind of universal view of what they do. Artists today, you know, exhibit here and they exhibit there, one day in New York, the other day in Berlin. Do you think of your work as this sort of universal application or universal ?

P. A.: I have the impression that what I do is really universal. During my study at the Academy of Fine Art, by education and maybe by some other experiences, just after a few exhibitions outside in Europe, I felt that it was really possible to communicate. The language is universal. It’s so interesting because you can use the deep space of history, art history especially, in such context. Then you can use so many, many possibilities. I think if you are simply educated by an academy program, then you are not prepared to feel the kind universal aspects as an artist. Of course you can decide which part of art history is your favorite one, but even then it’s impossible to be ignorant.

S. S.: Okay, my last question concerns your last work. . . seems your last project, which is three sculptures that you made in Switzerland they are a self portrait, a portrait of you wife, and of your daughter.

P. A.: No, not exactly. In Switzerland, I made only the daughter portrait. The two pictures are from Berlin, from here.

S. S.: Okay. The sculptures are made of stomach lining, or intestinal lining, and they are stuffed with grass, or hay, yes?

P. A.: The construction inside is like middle traditional economical construction, covered by muscles, let’s say, by grass muscles, like anatomy reconstructed by grass, fixed inside.

S. S.: The different pieces, the intestinal sort of skin, if you will, are sown together, and the scars are quite visible. You can see the seams where these pieces have been put together. The sculptures are about life size. I wonder if you could tell me something about this project, about how it came about, and about the process of going about it.

P. A.: To tell you the truth, I’m still surprised. Maybe it’s too early to find a rational description of this idea because it came from this strange level of my mental aspect. It was like following to division, which is about mixed memory from my academy time when I was a traditional sculptor making models, making sculptures from models, and still interested about the process of working. Even the process was more interesting than the finished object. It’s like having a very simple idea (let’s use me and my life as the first models) to see yourself from the outside, to find a kind of distance, and also to show a kind of strange feeling, which is to feel such a distance from myself. The sculpture is this kind of sign, and I used mixed techniques because I feel I’m very mixed, mentally mixed, and by education I’m mixed.

S. S.: You mean by mixed, confused?

P. A.: No, I mean mixed eclectically. Before education there was also sculpture, but not educated, maybe even more wide. The sculpture is a kind of eclectic visible aspect of this mixed situation when I used my art education. There is the very typical motif of Adam and Eve as to figurative sculptures and paintings. And then your private story, which is contemporary, which is really fresh, which is just finished, but which is also impossible to fix, to stop because it’s still happening. Then, I think that the first quite depressing impression is to see in the sculpture two dead persons standing, like sculpting, trying to fix the living person, but without success.

S. S.: One can say that to some extent all sculptures are about death, but it seems these sculptures have a more immediate, direct way of relating to death. They make you think of it immediately, the minute you see them. You know, they remind you of mummies, they remind you of… Is that something you can relate to?

P. A.: It’s like collecting impressions from the ethnographical aspect of art, archaeological, but also the creative aspects, experimental aspects.

S. S.: Which also brings you to another dimension, which is that of science. One is also reminded, I suppose, of scientific experiments, medical experiments, where as you know often dead bodies are used, and one imagines the dead bodies in an anatomy theater might look quite similar with stitches and scars, and they’ve been taken apart and then put together again.

P. A.: It’s also important to remember that it’s a self portrait, it’s my interpretation of myself and of my life because even now, if I observe this portrait, I feel that it’s not mine, it’s something that doesn’t belong to me. I participated in the process, but it’s not only mine, and this is the thing which always fascinated me, to work in the process which is a kind of mystery, always.

S. S.: If you had to imagine a viewer for this piece, what kind of viewer would you imagine?

P. A.: I can imagine a big wide space, maybe a wide cube, and a ten meter long distance between the observer, maybe me, and this feature, and they are observing something which is outside.

S. S.: And what kind of observer do you imagine? What would that be, that person, that spectator? What would his reaction be?

P. A.: I think maybe surprised people just crossing this place and finding, recognizing these strange objects without description. It would even be good to have no title, no description as an outer.

S. S.: Where do you go from here? What would be the continuation for you of this piece? Where does it lead to, or is it more like a finished point from which there is no, as it were, continuation? Do you see yourself continuing?

P. A.: For these two sculptures?

S. S.: Yes, but within your thinking, within your work. I mean is there something that you think you can continue? Is it like something that opened up and began, something from where you can take it elsewhere, or is more like a finished thing from which there is no continuation?

P. A.: I feel that it is full of impressions from such a technique in this context, this mixed technique, and I will probably return to traditional wooden sculpture because I still want to do it. It will be, of course, not traditional, not completely traditional, but partly.

S. S.: But, do you think that this sculpture made a difference? Would it make a differenceon how you would work with wood, for example?

P. A.: Yes, I can imagine it’s always like finding the first move, finding the exact wood for you. It’s a little bit like the Pinocchio story because it should be an interesting story to find the wood. It’s not just let’s go to the shop, buy the wood and start to sculpt. No, everything should be like interesting, private stories, but it’s also to wait for the precise impression that now is the time to make a wooden sculpture. And then, I also continued the other activities, which are a little bit different, with other materials. I would also like very much to work with people, in a context very similar to making a movie, or to organizing theater, but it’s always like having my own interpretation of these traditional aspects.

S. S.: I want to ask one last question about the sculpture. That man on the right-hand side has a camera in his hand that he’s holding up against his face, and he appears to be filming something. The woman on the left has a mobile phone in her hand, and both work so you can actually call someone with the mobile phone and the camera appears to be recording something. Can you comment on that? Why is it important for you to make these things functional?

P. A.: I think it’s similar to the technique because the technique is also working. It’s still drying; it’s changing by time, by insects, or other things. And the same as with the camera, it should be working as long as possible. It’s more contemporary; it’s not only a finished idea; it’s really something that is still working with you and with future observers.

June 2002

Sven Spieker
Sven Spieker is a founding editor of ARTMargins. He specializes in European modernism, with an emphasis on the Eastern European avant-gardes, postwar and contemporary literature and art, especially in Eastern and Central Europe. Spieker's book publications include The Big Archive: Art from Bureaucracy (2008; Korean translation, 2013); Destruction (ed., 2017); Art as Demonstration: A Revolutionary Recasting of Knowledge (forthcoming, MIT Press). He teaches at the University of California, Santa Barbara (USA) and lives in Los Angeles and Berlin.