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An interview with
Joanna Malinowska
by David Coggins
Joanna Malinowska’s work is marked by obsession taken to logical, or illogical, limits. She spies on musicians, hires people to perform on the subway, and treks to the North Pole. Everything is fair game for this artist whose work ranges from performance to installation to sculpture. A Polish-born New Yorker, she is having a breakout year: she won a Guggenheim fellowship, masterminded an elaborate fashion show at Performa (which travels to Nottingham Contemporary), and currently has a solo show at Canada gallery on the Lower East Side.

Malinowska is fascinated by musicians. She has followed the pianist Piotr Anderczewski to many of his performances, even surreptitiously videoing him as he walks out of Carnegie Hall. For her In Search of the Miraculous, Continued, Malinowska completed the trip toward the North Pole that Glenn Gould dreamt of but never made. In homage to the pianist, she attached solar panels to a stereo and set it on a stool. Always in the sun’s rays, it should play Gould’s performance of the Goldberg Variations until it’s destroyed by the elements.

We spoke recently in Williamsburg.

David Coggins: Your current show at Canada is called "Guerrilla Metaphysics." What does that mean?

Joanna Malinowska: I became familiar with this book by Graham Harman. It deals with the idea that an object might possess some sort of power on its own, without any help from humans. In a way, my show is an attempt to test that proposition -- who knows maybe a cosmic collision will happen. Some of these objects are considered dangerous.

DC: Dangerous, how?

JM: I’m interested in the possibility of power hidden in an object. The "boli" is very important for the Bamana culture in West Mali. The dress is important to Native American tribes spread across the plains who were trying to return to a pre-colonial time.

DC: Can you describe your boli, which fills a good portion of the gallery?

JM: It’s a big animal shape made out of plaster, clay, wood, it contains a liter of water from the Bering Strait, and the sweater of the Bolivian president, Eva Morales, that I obtained through diplomatic sources.

DC: And when you say big. . . .

JM: It’s about the size of two cows -- or a small elephant. A boli is an abstract animal, it has four legs and a vague mouth and a torso.  

DC: A lot of your work has anthropological sources.

JM: I’ve been interested in anthropology since before I was making art. I considered the possibility of studying anthropology, but I never thought that I would be a good scientist. Anthropology is a very un-PC field of science, but what I find really thrilling about it or about studying other cultures is getting a sense of relativity of the "cosmic" order of one's own culture, nothing seems definitive.

I remember in college an anthropology of religion class taught by this really intense, very un-PC professor, Warren Shapiro, who kept proving to us that almost any cultural act has its roots in a futile hope to deny the fact that we are simply carnal beings with expiration date, and I often see my work in that way, chasing Anderszewski or building a boli gives me a weird thrill.

DC: When you put a boli in an art gallery are you using it for your own devices -- how do you deal with that?

JM: I try to be respectful in whatever I do.

DC: The Performa piece, Mother Earth Sister Moon,was a collaboration with your partner, Christian Tomaszewski. It was a large tent structure shaped like a prone space suit.

JM: Right, the space suit of Valentina Tereshkova -- the first woman in space -- is like a representation of mother earth. The title is a paraphrase of a Franco Zeffirelli film. It was made out of Tyvek. The suit was big enough to fit 100 people and we did a fashion show inside it.

DC: But the people inside didn’t know exactly what to expect. Models came in from different entrances and there was a bear -- it was quite mysterious.

JM: Yes. The music was important too. It was mixed during the performance. The composer, Masami Tomihisa, who I’ve collaborated with in the past, composed several different melody lines for different instruments and recorded them separately on cassettes. She mixed those different scores during the performance using a Walkman. So it was kind of a chance operation, and different in every performance.

DC: Can you talk about the costumes? It was like an old fashioned version of the future.

JM: Our project began with the feeling that Eastern European science fiction is always very different than Western European science fiction. The most obvious case would be Andrei Tarkovsky, where woman are wearing crocheted dresses. Science fiction in the East is more metaphysical and more pessimistic and less entertaining. It has a religious aspect to it, too. We decided to analyze the differences as if we were preparing a show for the Costume Institute at the Met. Looking for specific examples of things and trying to reconstruct them. In some cases we created outfits based on descriptions in short stories.

DC: So the costumes are based on something you found?

JM: Yes, for example in the movie, Aelita: Queen of Mars. It’s a Russian movie from the ‘20s that was science fiction but at the same time Communist propaganda about a revolution on Mars. The outfits were very elaborate and beautiful. We re-created some of those elements, like a strange mechanical dress. Some things were based on Russian Constructivist sculptures.

DC: A lot of your work deals with music and musicians. Can you talk about your relationship to music?

JM: My work has a musical component but it’s never really consistent. Sometimes the relationship is to a piece of music, sometimes it’s to a person who makes music.

DC: Like Piotr Andercewski. Can you talk about him?

JM: Anderczewski is a Polish pianist. He plays all over the world, at Carnegie Hall, he’s known for his interpretations of Bach. He doesn’t play much new music but he’s contemporary in his approach to old music. He’s an eccentric, and an exciting figure in the classical music world.

DC: This is not just incidental -- you followed him around, and secretly made films of him.

JM: My interest in following him came from an interview he gave. It was very funny, he was talking about hiding in the concert hall for many hours to spy on one of his heroes, the pianist Sviatoslav Richter. I like the fact that in the Leeds piano competition, he left in the middle of his piece and the jury didn’t even notice that he quit before the end, they thought he had finished -- and he was playing a well-known piece. He’s the kind of person who makes unusual decisions.

DC: And in concert, sometimes he’ll go back and re-play a piece he performed earlier in the concert if he thinks he can play it better.

JM: That too. But I don’t know if I trust him any more with that. It seems like his signature move. He’ll repeat the piece if he was unhappy with his interpretation. I like his unpredictability. He seems like a person who takes his playing very seriously but also makes those kind of non-standard decisions. He’s very uncompromising and amusing.

DC: That unpredictability appeals to you. You’re both Polish -- is there a cultural connection?

JM: I’m not sure. I share his reaction against the homogeneity of Polish culture.

DC: You moved to the U.S. for college.

JM: Right. But I still exhibit a lot in Poland and travel there. There’s a diminishing Polish community where I live in Williamsburg but I still hear people swearing on the street in Polish in the middle of the night.

DC: The final work was four films.

JM: Yes. The main one shows an attractive woman who just drops a bag of oranges in front of him and we see what happens. It was fun because there was spying and informants at Carnegie Hall and we were pretending to be other people. We had two women waiting at different ends of the block, depending on which direction he would go. The project was about chance and we waited for so many hours and we had no idea what would happen. Basically it was like hitting a jackpot.

DC: Because when she dropped the oranges he helped her pick them up.

JM: I wasn’t sure what was going to happen. He was very polite and gave it back to her and he didn’t notice the two people with hidden cameras. I had to stand near Carnegie Hall and ask him a question when he finally came out so the camera people would recognize him. When he came out I asked if David Bowie was rehearsing inside, because there was a Tibet Concert. Of course he didn’t know who David Bowie was.

DC: You had a girl give him a toy rabbit onstage after a concert in Philadelphia.

JM: That was a very passive-aggressive act. To have an innocent looking child give you a bunny, you can’t do anything but be nice.

DC: You’re like a member of the cultural paparazzi.

JM: I really wanted to be like paparazzi -- not that I’m an advocate for that. It was something funny to try to be. It gave me an opportunity to follow somebody I’m interested in, instead of just following what we get in the tabloids. It’s a reaction against tabloid intrusion.

DC: He ultimately found out about the project. You had an exhibition of work based on him at the same time that he was playing in New York.

JM: Right. There were different situations where he came across the work. There was a lot of serendipity. I had an exhibition at the time when he was giving a recital in Poland. A newspaper in Poland wrote an article about my project and of course mentioned him. I learned later that he read about it in the paper while he was flying from Paris. I met him a few weeks later and he was carrying the article in his pocket. He was upset.

DC: Really?

JM: He was annoyed. But when I told him it meant that I like him, that I wasn't making fun of him, then he calmed down. I think he has a great sense of humor and is eccentric and I thought he would appreciate something like that. He’s rents a train car to ride across Poland for his vacation and lives on the train and cooks and has his friends on it and hooks it to different trains. I know he gave away the bunny right away.

DC: There’s an obsessive quality to your work. In the Glenn Gould piece you tried to go to the North Pole -- how far did you actually get?

JM: To Baffin Island. It’s part of Nunavut Territory, it’s autonomous Inuit region. It’s between the main coast of Canada and the coast of Greenland. Glenn Gould was obsessed with the north, he believed that people in the north represented a very particular quality that he valued. 

DC: So you decided to go there.

JM: He traveled to the north a little bit by train. He was afraid of flying or taking boats. Despite the fact that he lived in Canada and had, as a book described, "a boyish passion" for the wilderness -- he never went that far north.

DC: So what did you do when you got there?

JM: I had a boombox powered by a solar battery playing the recording of his famous Goldberg Variations. I installed it in the middle of absolute Arctic nowhere, and it will keep playing until it gets destroyed.

One of the well-known facts about Gould is that he quit performing, he was very interested in recording technology and radio transmission. Even the weird radio pieces he did about the north, he recorded parts separately -- like Masumi in the Performa piece -- people speaking about the north and he mixed them together in this strange spoken piece, it was kind of like a musical homage to the north. I thought a solar battery powering Glenn Gould’s playing in the north referred to his interest in technology.

DC: There’s a dreamy quality to that piece. A lot of your work deals with devotion -- liking something and carrying it out to an extreme.

JM: I’m not sure about the extreme. Doing these projects, like going to the north, is just very impractical. It makes me feel like I’m defeating biology. Biology has to do with how we’re designed for survival and I’m attracted to things that are pointless and going in the opposite direction.

DC: Does that make you a willful contrarian?

JM: I like to put extra effort into things that are not traditionally understood as profitable. So it has an eccentric value.

DC: Most of what you make you can’t sell.

JM: It has a personal value. I like getting my hands on something. Like the boli -- it’s probably behind some piece of glass at the Metropolitan Museum.

DC: Your work encompasses performance, sculpture, and film, do you make distinctions between media?

JM: I think I use what makes most sense for a particular case.

DC: Your films aren’t documentaries exactly, but they typically show something that’s being carried out.

JM: Mostly they show a situation that I arrange. In the show at Canada I had an idea about the people who live around McCarren Park, which lies between Williamsburg and Greenpoint in Brooklyn, most of them are from Poland. I observed them in the park when I went to the farmer’s market or something. I didn’t really tell them much what to do. The final performance wasn’t really directed by me, it was their interpretation of what I told them.

DC: And they were each planets in the solar system. With the names of the planets in Polish on their back. You drew the orbits in chalk on the ground.

JM: Right. They were walking around the sun to music by Olivier Messiaen. The composer Masami Tomihisa is also there, playing music on a mini-piano.

DC: You like to bring performance to unexpected locations: the park, you did something on the subway.

JM: It’s not always purposeful. I felt that working with those guys in the park was practical because it would be hard to move them somewhere else. I like the fact that they’re Polish and the Empire State Building is in the background, so you can tell they’re kind of dislocated.

DC: But it seems you resist traditional presentation to a lot of your projects.

JM: I’m not sure if that’s intentional. Maybe to some extent. I do keep it a little unpolished. Most of my artworks are residues of things that happened before, like a performance, or what’s left behind after an experience.

DC: There’s more in the show than the boli and the video.

JM: There’s Galina Ustvolskaya, the avant-garde Russian composer. I was amazed by the eccentricity of her music. It was described as coming from the black hole -- there’s a strange spirituality to it. Not only the way the music sounds but in the instruments -- she’ll compose something for eight double basses. One of the compositions I had a chance to hear at a concert that was about music of spirituality -- Liszt, Bach -- was this completely contemporary work that was almost shamanistic. A very traditional orchestra performed the piece, but on top of everything there was a black wooden cube. It has very specific dimensions and served as a percussive instrument. And I liked that there was a visual element to it. For example, she would write that the soprano was supposed to wear black.

So I was interested that this black box, like the boli, could possess some potential power. I wanted to recreate this box so I found the very specific instruction for this instrument and I had it built. I had to find someone to tap it and that’s where Joseph Beuys’ I like America comes in. 

DC: You have a cane surrounded by grey felt moving up and down hitting it. All of these objects have secret histories.

JM: People are given the clues in the press release. For me the show was compiling these things in one place and they might affect the world. I think it all started by reading a column by Gail Collins that was making fun of people who were afraid of the particle collider outside Geneva, who think the world might end.

DC: What do you mean by "affects the world?"

JM: I know it sounds funny -- I don’t really believe my boli can affect the world but I want to give it the benefit of the doubt. There are a group of people who very strongly believe that building a boli with sacred materials that they can control the world.

DC: So you’re attracted to spiritual superstitious objects and ways of thinking?

JM: Well, this is a very difficult thing to talk about. I’m definitely a rational person who doesn’t get into this New Age thing, but I have a certain appreciation for spirituality. I’m interested in different concepts of faith.

The music of Messiaen, for example, was written with biblical themes and really praised the lord in music that is very abstract. I like the contradiction between avant-garde and the religious.

Joanna Malinowska, "Time of Guerrilla Metaphysics," Dec. 10, 2009-Jan. 24, 2010, at Canada, 55 Chrystie Street, New York, N.Y. 10002.

DAVID COGGINS is a New York writer and critic.