recto/verso in conversation with Wojciech Puś on his recent show in Bunkier Sztuki in Cracow and his #selfie.
Wojciech Puś is a visual artist, a light director, a filmmaker…?
I don’t think I am a filmmaker. In Poland it is seen as a very serious title, you need to make few long feature films, each at least two hours long… But in the wider context, yes, we can say, a filmmaker. I have a cinematographic education. I am a cameraman. That certainly gave me a background and a platform for further research within a broader field. We can call it the field of film; however it doesn’t only concern this medium, but equally the medium of light. Hence I realized that many of my works feature these elements within them. They are often perceived as aesthetic situations; however, they were not done with this intention.
It is less and less present. Almost directly after Łódź Film School I knew that I wouldn’t work in the film industry. At the time I visited two film sets as an assistant cameraman. They were sets for long feature films, which were screened later in cinemas. I couldn’t stand the ambiance. I was terribly stressed, and in addition, I witnessed the sheer volume of work undertaken during production, which was completely immeasurable with the final result. This impression was certainly influenced by my young age and youthful impatience, and was not an authentic observation. I was 24 and that was it. I therefore fell into theater rather accidentally. There, the result is immediate. That was very satisfying for me. After many years of working within it came another reflection – I was in fact facing the same barriers as before. There are very few moments where I can lose myself in my work or dive straight into the creative process. That is why I appreciated working together with Maja Kleczewska, or last year’s collaboration with Wojtek Blecharz and Ewa Śmigielska on Transcriptum for the National Opera in Warsaw . In most recent years my energy for the theater is getting lost in favour of my own productions and definitive comeback to the genre of film. By now technology has changed, and many things are easily available. This enables the possibility of working together in smaller groups or even alone.
You mentioned the medium of light – how do you understand this concept and how do you use it?
My awareness of light is not related to my education as a cameraman. I’m not one of those individuals who are particularly sensitive to it. Instead, my attention towards it originated in the place I grew up. I lived in the countryside until I was five, where I connected with nature. I have been systematically returning there every year. I now channel these observations on light and nature in my work and theatrical practice. I often try to create an element out of light that is not simply functional, but that can also exist as a singular element in the plot of a play. It becomes an additional character around which the story is woven. Numerous times I have put forward so-called ‘empty scenes’ without the presence of actors. These are moments on stage where changes are made swiftly using only the assistance of light. My films take inspiration from Stan Brakhage’s experimentational style. Not from the material films such as Mothlight (1963), but rather from the aesthetic of Anticipation of the Nights (1958), where people exist as afterimages .
You’ve shown those kind of afterimages – film images removed from the plot as abstractions – in your recent show in Bunkier Sztuki in Cracow …
According to the Bunkier’s assumption, the exhibition was supposed to be inscribed into the architecture of the building. Therefore I decided not to show particular works – my previous projects, video pieces, etc. I began reading the space of this gallery and I came to the realisation that simply hanging work on walls did it an injustice. We cannot underestimate the originality of this building – it is like an inverted sculpture, which you are able to enter. I purposely omitted architectural interventions favoured in recent years, such as letting natural light into the exhibition space through painted luxfers, or furnishing windows. The exterior of the building remains perplexing. I therefore decided to conduct minimalist interventions inside. I did not display works that could be seen from the outside, but rather those that could be experienced within. At no point did I feel any artistic need to boast and show my earlier work.
I must admit that you took a risk. It could have ended up being an exhibition of a set in the middle of a gallery space…
In fact two installations, which appeared in this exhibition, were previously produced for theater performances. First, Better repeat than to think, is a corridor formed of mirrors, which are the same time create a membrane that vibrates with a very low hum. The sources of these sounds were hidden behind the walls of the corridor. The reflection of mirrors, trembling and fluid, were regulated through the noise of a changing frequency. This idea came from my theater experience, simply because I couldn’t afford that kind of experience in my studio. I tried it out in Maja Kleczewska’s Podróż zimowa performance .
The second artwork, a light installation titled Garden, is a video piece of the shadows leaves create when moving in the wind. Screened onto a white curtain, this projection also creates a sort of corridor. The film was shot in 2005, and is screened here in the ratio of 1:1. I once showed it in the theater, and as a result, the label of scenographic aesthetic stuck to it. However the first time this work was displayed was in the Łódź Art Museum, to coincide with Józef Robakowski’s exhibition in 2007. These are the only scenography-like pieces included in the show. In my opinion, aside from when they are in the theater, these installations have lost their scenographic elements, and can now be experienced in a more complete way. They offer the chance to be absorbed, not observed. These are interventions, which one must follow like the stages of montage. They transform the gallery space. They shift the viewer’s manner of thinking into more cinematic one. A rather misty plot is born out of a walk in a gallery. The imprecise nature of these works allows them to be perceived in various ways. For one individual, the work may be pleasant, for another, it may be galling. It depends on the spectator’s personal experience, their memories, their mood, etc.
In Bunkier you also experimented with light?
Yes, the projection consists of the reflexes of moving light filtrated by plastic water bottles, and is a reference to Kineforms by Pawłowski , and Themerson’s photograms in motion. This work is very DIY, which also reflects Themersons’ practice. The final effect is monumental and cinema-like. This is what I also enjoy about the theater – when you are able to see the technique, as well as the effect it creates.
In this exhibition the viewer is constantly accompanied by sound. Is it an important element to you?
Working with sound is essential to me. In the last three years I have composed a lot of music. I have experimented with sound, played piano, and conducted many field recordings. For Bunkier I wrote a detailed composition, which was later recorded for individual rooms in the exhibition. It was a kind of fugue. Soundtracks merged over and quoted each other. A significant aim of this show was to offer the possibility of returning to certain pieces and seeing them in a new light, emphasized in the title of the first installation,Better to repeat than to think. This particular piece harks back to the corridors created by Bruce Nauman or Monika Sosnowska. I consciously knew that I was treading on thin ice by explicitly referencing these formal elements through the use of neon or within the construction of the corridors. It is difficult to say something new. The title refers to the first impressions of someone, who knows only the most recent history of art. The viewer, who experienced the mirrored corridor without seeing the trembling caused by sound enacted every 30 minutes, can only ask why I did it. Why did I repeat something, why didn’t I think more? At the end of the exhibition, he or she comes across a two-channel film titled Composing an image in time, which depicts that what might have been overlooked. It could trigger a former experience and broaden it.
After this smooth part of the exhibition I was surprised by your work #selfie. After all the pieces based on sensual experience, the viewer is faced with something very brutal. The form of this artwork – a mirror in the dimensions of a film frame – is not drastic in itself. It is rather the title derived from popular culture and the additional sign that reads “Ignorant”, which provokes such an unsettling response. This work seems to be done under the impression of making a critical statement about contemporary reality.
In the context of all the work presented in Bunkier, this piece is very vulgar. It was actually done with this very notion in mind. Whenever I read critical texts in Artforum, Art Review or Frieze, I notice that there exists a certain culture of writing. If something is not interesting for critics, or it is not good, they don’t write about it. That deliberate omission is cruel. I haven’t notice a hint of disrespect, or any intention of writing articles to badmouth anybody in these magazines. It must then surely exist in professional backroom discussions. There is a tendency among journalists in Poland to write about the practice of others in an authoritarian and discrediting manner. This is all the more amplified when one is famous and esteemed. I know that #selfie is crude, and on the level of thought, rather shallow. Being consciously aware of this, I still decided to include the piece. It is not suppose to be a didactic message. I was curious to see how it would work. And I was right. One of the Polish magazines writing on contemporary art published a review of my show in Bunkier. The author glossed over this exhibition, and his comment exists only in that particular moment, failing to translate into future events. It is simply the opinion of one individual, whilst the actions of an artist go further. What remains is distaste. I wonder where the need to write these articles comes from. #selfie is vulgar because it is an image of these behaviours.
In one of the reviews of your exhibition, a rather strongly critical one, the author suggests that work #selfie can be understood as a summary of your show. According to him, you delved into yourself in an egoistic manner, and this piece is visible proof that you are only watching your own reflection. However, if one is to take this view, then the ‘Ignorant’ neon sign does not make sense. It seems that this critic did not understand this work, which is even more interesting in relation to the context you had created it in.
Well, yes. This is rather writing without second thought. Nothing is left behind. I don’t want to contemplate someone’s critical description, because they are not important to me. This sign ‘Ignorant’ overshadows any similar intentions.
The selfie, once it appears in the visual arts, is the object of the critic – direct or formal. Is this also the case in your work?
What was of interest to me was the need to capture this space in the mirror reflection, and to widen it towards the other side. Surely that is what happens there. My intention was to use the format of a film frame in the ratio of 1:1.33, originating from the very beginning of cinema. This seemed to be the most obvious form of representation to me, and also clearly refers to the history of film, one of the motifs carried throughout the exhibition. The neon ‘Ignorant’ sign appeared as a subheading, as the fragment of a dialogue. The composition of the frame should come about in an accidental manner. The man standing in front of the mirror-frame controls a certain fragment of the composition set-up, and this is the selfie-like situation. The author decides how they want to look like in the picture: he or she pulls a face and looks as he or she wants to. Nonetheless, we have no influence on the whole space behind us. It is still a part of reality, but it is not under our control. The wall in our home won’t surprise us with anything, as neither will we surprise ourselves. And maybe that is the source of the ‘ignorant’ idea. A viewer, who quickly skims the exhibition, is ignorant, because he or she did not wait for any events to take place, which would consequently shift his or her perception of the show. So in connection to the selfie, the way I see it is that people do not pay enough attention to what is around them. I do not simply speak about social consciousness, but equally about simply being sensitive to the phenomenon of nature. People are blinded by the sun, rather than look at what kind of light it radiates. Maybe it seems banal, but this is what this work is about. We ignore things that could make our life more interesting. Once we stop we take a selfie, instead of having a look around.
 Podróż zimowa by Elfriede Jelinek,dir. Maja Kleczewska, coproduction Teatr Powrzechny in Łodź and Teatr Polski in Bydgoszcz, 2013.