In a look at the vibrant art scenes of the neighbouring east, The Forumist probes the Romanian-based artist Stefano Calligaro and Polish-born Mateusz Choróbski about their keen interest in provoking the viewer into a multilayered reading of their work.
Your so-called anti-manifesto manifesto entitled Coconut Concoction was so puzzling and cryptic. I decided it must be the work of an ingenious mind. You’ve said that art needs to be pushed beyond its boundaries, so what’s your view of today’s contemporary art and structures?
“It’s an exciting moment. Structures are changing and peripheral realities are rising. Institutional settings are definitely obsolete, the role of artists, together with galleries and other players, is in change and moving more than ever towards hybridity. However, the system still feels the need to classify, confine, find definitions for the indefinable. I prefer to use my work to find ways to liberate what I do from classification, labour and symbolic values.”
Your work has been described as a question mark – “contradictory, eclectic and deliberately resistant to any explanatory approach”. In relation to the viewer, why is that?
“Whenever you approach an ‘artwork’, you expect certain ‘artistic qualities’ from it – skills, clear intellectual ideas, the use of a certain material or technique, narrative components, meanings and so on. I honestly try to keep a distance from all these things. The way I see my work is more as a combination of simple banal thoughts, contradictions and connections working together and against each other. What I wish is to push the viewer to experience and interpret the work in a freer atmosphere and open ways to a new perspective of reading.”
You’re based in the art hub that is Cluj-Napoca in Romania, which is now rightly finding itself in the international spotlight. What’s distinctive about its local art scene right now?
“It’s hard for me to tell. When I came here for the first time, I found a city far from what I’d call an ‘art hub’. It was a curious place, somehow weird and indecipherable, famous for its cabbage rolls, vampires and hunger for paintings. Today it is still indecipherable to me, still famous for its cabbage rolls, no vampires spotted and loads and loads of oil on canvas paintings around.”
Your exhibitions with Rome-based Frutta gallery have been quite spectacular, marked by fun and humour while retaining an aesthetically pleasing context. This year you had pizza boxes, stuffed animals. I like this – I find contemporary art to be too devoid of “humour” in its quest to make sense and position itself as a critique.
“I don’t think of a show as a way to cheer the public up, but whether the result is funny or not, a certain lightness combined with the right amount of irreverence is a good way to open doors to new aesthetic grammars. Many people might still think that art shouldn’t be humorous, but we all know humour can be quite a strong critical tool.
“This exhibition you mentioned, as with most of my shows, was what I like to call a ‘staged masquerade’, set up to inhabit and question the specific context in which it takes place – in this case, Frutta gallery itself and the city where it is located, Rome. I wanted to work on the surface, by taking all the elements that characterise Frutta as a gallery, including visual clichés and stereotypes, and put them together in my show. For example, I pushed myself to paint, to use a style I was unfamiliar with, in order to activate a critical discourse that, in one way or another, was going to highlight and criticise a specific gallery model. The visual result is awkward, pleasant and disturbing all at the same time.”
A recent project of yours was Puddle: The Maverick Art Fair, held in Cluj-Napoca, which was open at odd hours. Exhibitors were not announced until the day they were showing and each photo of the fair that was posted on its Facebook page was an original artwork in an edition of four digital prints. How did it come about?
“I guess it all came out of my interest in the mechanics of the art market. If you think about it, art fairs are everywhere now. They’re bigger than ever, pushing galleries to rethink their structures and role in the game. I thought it could be interesting to start one – a fair, I mean – but I didn’t want it to be like any other art fair. I wanted it to be a ‘maverick’ creative act.
“I found a good location on the small lake in the middle of Central Park in Cluj. I didn’t officially invite galleries, I simply placed them together with their art in these flamingo-/dragon-shaped paddleboats and let them float around the water. The fair also had its own programme of fictional talks, performances, Bateau Rouge family tours, barbecue nights and film screenings over a four-day schedule. It was all documented in a limited series of 12 digital prints, now on sale for a modest luxurious price.”
I know you only recently took to painting – how’s that working out for you?
“Well, as I was saying before, I started painting by chance and for a specific situation, but I can’t say I’m really painting. Most of the painters I know are passionate connoisseurs obsessed with technique, while I don’t even know how to mix colours.”
What’s coming up for you next in 2016-2017?
“Fish ’n’ chips.”
Your presentation at last year’s Warsaw Gallery Weekend in a group show with Galeria Wschód included a giant copper parabola hanging from the ceiling. It was the most interesting art I saw there. What was behind the work you showed at this year’s WGW?
“Last year we were trying to make a statement. This time, we decided to make a modest gesture of organising an exhibition within the space of our studio, inside which we put a large artificial rock. The light that illuminated the other works nearby was produced by my work Long day’s journey into the night, which consisted of objects made of glow tubes and glass acquired from the facade of the already-nonexistent Polish mint.
“Those objects were part of my recent solo show, The Languid Fall of a Journey, where they replaced all the lights within the gallery space. This way, the light was coming through the broken glass, while the gallery was partly in the dark, which obscured vision but also revealed the materiality of the crushed facade.”
You have previously rejected the suggestion that Warsaw is “the new Berlin”. What’s your take on the present state of the art scene in Warsaw?
“One could say that everything is great, that Warsaw is developing with its new events, initiatives, energy, dynamics, etc, but at the same time there is the new conservative government, no support for artists, no new spaces for rent. This issue is much too complex for an immediate answer. Certainly, to people from the outside, Warsaw seems like something new but familiar, like Berlin. Such comparisons are easy and don’t require finding and naming anything “new”. They are merely based on the repetition of modes of thinking and expectations. As locals, we struggle with other problems, which are hidden from view and are invisible at first.”
Regarding your method of working, you’ve said before that you’re interested in creating many layers of meaning, distancing yourself from merely simple answers.
“It is still valid, yet I would like to note that this is my method of work, rather than an expected outcome. I’m fond of works that involve many layers, that converse with space or sometimes even appropriate it in a violent way. This was the case with my project The Draught, where I organised a symbolic ventilation of the city of Łódź by means of a jet and acrobatic plane, which flew 200 metres over Piotrkowska Street, the main artery that marked the starting point for the linear development of Łódź.
“What seems interesting to me is the dispersion of narrative and the possibility of moving freely. I’m thinking of the postulations of the Situationist International and Guy Debord’s insistence on the necessity of inventing new games. The Situationists saw space as a spectacle, as scenography that invited the dérive, in other words getting lost and creating. Those games could be conceived as setting cognitive traps for the viewer, the participant of the spectacle. Instead of negating the established conditions one by one, perhaps it is better to introduce ambiguous ferment into the urban fabric – the ferment that would allow the viewers to succumb to the dérive, rather than impose anything on them. As a result, forms and situations become dispersed, diverse and free from any imposed narrative.”
It seems that a recurring element in your body of work is an emphasis on the perception of the viewer, for instance presenting works that allude to what is widely overlooked by the eye or, as with your recent project Nice to meet, turning the focus on speech and sound.
“Nice to meet is a project that sets traps for the viewer. Let’s imagine an event in which an art institution focuses on the idea of sound for an indeterminate time. Artists and composers have been invited. Some parts of the project come into being while others are being dismantled, as though the classic exhibition structure has been prolonged in time and deprived of its compositional continuity. Meanwhile, institutional workers are replaced, some of them stutter. Some come, some go. Viewers encounter accumulation when all stutterers are present – on another day they don’t, because nobody stutters. It’s impossible to predict the described event. It eludes any institutional conventions, it functions autonomously and hinges on the stutterers. In this way, the medium and its makers become free.”
You previously did a project that arose from listening to the audiobook of Swedish novelist Sven Lindqvist’s Exterminate All the Brutes. The project centred around the contemporary mechanisms of “extermination”, which is very thought-provoking.
“That was a modest work inspired by my own experience as an immigrant, when I worked at a hat factory in the fashion district of New York. I was the only white person, but we all worked illegally. [For this project,] we designed and produced a series of hats styled like those with ‘Moly’ or ‘Fuck’ written on them, but these had the text ‘Exterminate All the Brutes’ on them instead.
“I have an impression that mechanisms of extermination have taken on a new form, they are now more cunning and discreet – they act through the lack of access to education or healthcare, despite everyone, regardless of their status, having the right to dignity. What is also quite overwhelming is that we somehow participate in this. It’s easy to donate some money once a year, but who would give up their daily comforts for the sake of others?”
Finally, what’s next for you in 2016-2017?
“Next month, together with Wschód, I’m going to DAMA art fair in Turin, which will take place in a medieval palace, an interesting space. In January we will be working in Belgium and then in Paris. But, frankly, I’d really like to travel to some unknown place. And quit my job at a legal corporation, where I use my holidays mainly to install exhibitions.”
Interviews by Ashik Zaman