Magdalena Kownacka: When watching your performances I always fear that you are bound to finally cross the border which you are balancing on. What do you fear when performing publicly?
Arti Grabowski: The moment when you are standing on a parapet, but you don’t jump is the most interesting. After you have crossed this border the final is obvious and trivial. I have never craved crossing borders. I have never set them for myself. They appear spontaneously during a performance, and the power of improvisation moves them a centimeter or so further. This can be exciting, addictive, it relates to the issue of apprehension or fear. In my performances alcohol used to be often present. It gave me this flare of insanity and the deceptive sense of courage. It was there not only as a stimulant, it brought in content as a symbol of boyishness and national schism. With time it took control. Theatre helped me out.
Because theatre takes control over structure?
It is more interesting to remain a half-amateur. I can’t imagine sacrificing my whole life to become a professional in one discipline. Still, I am pedantic when working. I care for details and the outcome. A professionally prepared artistic product has never been my targeted outcome. It is impossible.
Yes, but most importantly, theatre means common responsibility. Performance is very introversive. An artist is responsible just for him/herself. In theatre you usually work as part of a group which becomes a sort of a family. Each member takes responsibility for others. Doubts and questions can be endless. Are the mechanisms going to work? Or the structure? Is the message going to be clear? Does it have to be clear? Am I going to make it? Am I going to stay convinced that it’s worth doing? And that is what I actually dread most – moments when I lose faith in what I do and I start feeling helpless. And it’s worst when it happens during a performance. Fears and anxieties are abundant. An artist who is calm loses his/her credibility. One has to deal with their inevitable presence in art. There is no use in losing your energy to fight them.
Your performances have often been described as overly theatrical. This was one of those borders. Now you are working intensely with theatre, producing something that again is difficult to describe by theatre critics. You oscillate between two disciplines, not fully committed to any of them. Jerzy Bereś saw the difference between an actor and a performance artist in verity and uniqueness of action. Where do you find the difference?
It is wrong that we try so hard to define everything, forcing it rigidly within the frames of terms, styles, rules or canons. Definitions build walls amongst which we feel safe. But every wall restricts our freedom: in this case creative freedom – and this reduces opportunities to experiment. Mastering a terminology gives one a sense of safety. We are quick to inflict it upon artists and their work to show off our knowledge. Yet having accepted a frame one must fit into it. Kantor, Bereś, Artaud, Burden opposed to existing rules. They suggested a revolt, a novum which they had discovered behind all those walls, frames and fears. Intermedia is a term which took away the necessity to name everything. Dada, Duchamp and Fluxus gave us green light to blend all those separate canons and mindsets. We are a sum of experiences and possibilities. Mine touched many disciplines: painting, sculpture, drawing, theatre, performance art. I really don’t give a damn whether my performance pieces are theatrical or my spectacles are perfumed. I prefer throwing in the towel, confusion, impudence. I would like people to accept the term Arti, that’s it.
You entertain, you often encourage people to feel amused. On the other hand, you can really make it hard for people. Which of these two do you find more difficult?
I am a natural at grotesque, irony, making my audience amused. I sometimes have to restrain myself as I tend to clown about. It is far more difficult to create space for reflection, a pause, a time to think. One cannot overdo, though. Looming on the other end there is pathos which can be amiable. When it is blown to the extreme it becomes funny. And there is sadness waiting at the end. Being aware of such mechanisms allows one to create an emotional amplitude which can serve to toughen up the viewers. However, it is really important to keep the distance, remain self-ironical – this is most difficult for an artist. I try to retain a balance between the tragic and the comical. In each performance the stress is put on a different point, in various situations. Which can be considered successful and which not? I am permanently suspended in a dilemma. I do not know the answer. When starting a performance I often counted on answers coming after it was finished. But they hardly ever did. I guess, one has to deal with the fact that we are bags filled with dilemmas. Dilemmas are great.
What does text mean in your work?
Definitions build walls amongst which we feel safe. But every wall restricts our freedom: in this case creative freedom – and this reduces opportunities to experiment. Mastering a terminology gives one a sense of safety. We are quick to inflict it upon artists and their work to show off our knowledge. Yet having accepted a frame one must fit into it. Kantor, Bereś, Artaud, Burden opposed to existing rules.
During my first theatrical experiences I gained confidence in using voice as well as text; before that a complex had not allowed me to do this. At the beginning I was humble, dadaistic. I was learning diction, articulation, and discovering the potential of words by vivisecting them phonetically. I could find hundreds of ways to say yes, no, wow or ouch. I improvised texts from action novels. I performed visually what I was reading (this sort of fits the recently trendy term performative reading). First such performance was based on Tom Clancy’s book The Hunt for Red October where rising pressure is the leading motif. I discovered I could dwell on it endlessly. Practically every text or literary piece has such a motif. One can explore it through physicality and action which is then developed further by the place and time forming the context of each performance. This is how the series Mommy, please, read to me was created. Dada, sonic performance, visual poetry are all interesting fields to work in. However, theatre brings in everything that the abovementioned classics negate – a different skill and awareness. That is why a non-hermetic approach is so important. Theatre has two or more authors: the one who writes the script, the one who translates it, the one who adapts it, and those who stage it. Along the way either a calamity or something very intriguing can come about. With time I gained confidence to write myself. We have just finished working on the spectacle Conditions of Development. Zbigniew Szumski, whose texts I find extraordinary, included some of mine in the spectacle. This is enormously satisfying. Still, this is an area I have just started exploring.
And costumes? Once you showed me yours, you seemed very affectionate …
The eternal performers’ dilemma: What shall I wear? The function of attire in theatre: a costume, artificial skin, it helps with the role, defines a character. Performance artists would like it to be different. It should be neutral, private, transparent, frank – like nudity. It may be a prosthesis or an element of an installation. For some time I performed in white, like Peter Grzybowski and others, a tabula rasa, a baker of possibilities! Then came the fascination with Black Market International, so a black, elegant suit which I could make filthy. A smart shirt which can be deprived of its collar and of a button which can then be sewn to my larynx. I used to scalp collars off with a machete, in a grand gesture; at the end I stood naked, buttoned just with the one button. An outfit is a prop. It can become a citation, you can use its emblems, pockets, cuffs, the label made in China, tags, endless possibilities of creating metaphors. Nudity is a separate issue.
You delivered a beautiful performance about shame at MOCAK. Are you ashamed?
One has to grow mature to nudity, to shameful activities or decisions. I stared out from working on social shame which is culturally and geopolitically imposed. I had to get to the source and find out what I am ashamed of – not only as a Pole, but myself. For a few months I kept on making chronological notes. What was I ashamed of as a kid, a teenager, a grown man? Shame devaluates with time, or to the contrary – it increases. Things you were ashamed of a few years ago seem trivial now, and those that you have belittled come to be a great burden. Factors greatly impacting our sense of shame are: Catholic indoctrination, grandparents’ upbringing and incidental stigmas. At MOCAK I was hanging in a corner for three hours, confessing things which I defined as shame. They had to do with physicality, deception, betrayal, neglect, bad thoughts. Every action, even if at the beginning we are proud of it, devaluates with time, there is always some shameful situation behind it.
Do you read horoscopes?
No, but I am interested in astrology. I have my cosmogram, and I know which planet I am under and in which ascendant.
Once you invited Zbigniew Nowak, the famous hands that cure, to take part in your performance. You say that miracles happen to you every day. You have quite a few non-rational points in your biography which you highlight. You rely on your instincts heavily. How would you define this area?
I guess it is a dream of every performer to initiate a situation when a miracle is performed. Don’t you think? The idea to invite Zbigniew Nowak occurred to me when I was feeling unwell physically. I thought that presenting a healer working among a bunch of magicians/ performers/ shamans may be interesting. The most amusing moment of the performance came when after the first part dedicated to me Zbigniew asked if there were other artists present who would also like to benefit from his gift and get injuries they got while performing healed. It was amusing and unexpected because I thought that artists would be skeptical of Zbigniew’s activity and therefore provocative, but it occurred that they all lined up excited, with eyes burning, wanting to experience the healing powers of this professional shaman/healer/performer. That choreography of levitating, healing hands was beautiful.
How can you create a retrospective and a book when holding an opinion that a performance is here and now – the moment it’s finished, it’s gone?
Zbigniew Warpechowski once said that an object is the performer’s extension, something he can write poetry in air with. It is fascinating that performance allows you to sculpt with an object in action. An object can help the performer complete or destroy a certain idea he/she had in mind.
This book is like a stamp album featuring most precious fragments of events, or those which were documented. Documenting performances is extremely hard and artifacts produced during this process become separate pieces that lose some emotional aspects and original content. Instead there comes a sentiment and a concentrate, which are still powerful. Flipping through this book will also be a sort of performance. 20 years looked at in 2 or 20 minutes. You can smile, feel disgust, surprise, disappointment – an album of superficial emotions.
Anything surprised you while looking back?
It surprised me that indeed so much has happened. I noticed that due to my innate curiosity, but also dejection and weariness with same motifs or forms, a sort of artistic ADHD, and oversensitivity I have never managed to stay in one place, never rooted into any specific terminology or environment. It surprised me that I was present in so many places at the same time, geographically and mentally. This makes it a remembrance album.
You are a constructor, an inventor. You build your own props and mechanisms. There is a whole lot of boyish fun to it. One could build a magnificent exhibition of those objects alone.
I owe this to Professor Krystyna Orzech. She opened my eyes to the fact that sculpture does not mean static objects, but something way wider. A sculpture, or more an object, consists of movement, it holds meanings and is impacted by its context. Installation, kinetic, time, social sculpture. I was brought up in the PRL period, in times when you couldn’t buy anything, even hammers had to be stolen from one’s place of employment. We built machine guns and huts of sticks , the rest was imagined. I still hold within me this sentimental longing of a boy to build his own world when materials are scarce. My perception of objects also stems from history that started with Duchamp twisting, transforming objects. I am intrigued by the role of mechanisms, mannequins and Kantor; an object that co-creates, one that functions on the actors’ level. Zbigniew Warpechowski once said that an object is the performer’s extension, something he can write poetry in air with. It is fascinating that performance allows you to sculpt with an object in action. An object can help the performer complete or destroy a certain idea he/she had in mind. I am also fascinated with machines which serve building and destroying at the same time: cement mixers, excavators, tanks, bulldozers. I love creating ridiculous, utopian machines. For the Suspended spectacle I invented a radio-controlled Doric column with a hob installed – the heat shaping an ice cube during the performance. We sacrificed a great deal of time to realize the idea. Krzysztof – a sculptor who I collaborate with constructed the column exactly as I invented it. The object was excluded from the spectacle after the premiere. Not because it didn’t work well, but because a new idea came along. So now I have a column with an electric stove inside for sale. (laughter)
I remember when you were to perform at F.A.I.T. and you wanted to construct a huge sling on a tree in the backyard then shoot yourself out with it. Do you have such a sling on your mind now, any plans for the future?
(laughter) Yes. We can always refer to our dreamland and – paraphrasing Katarzyna Kozyra – legitimize making dreams come true through art. And I am such a lucky guy that all my dreams come true. This catalogue also opened my eyes to that. Maybe music is this new sling shot (which I have only scratched the surface of)? Maybe a motion picture form? In some megalomaniac dream I can see a huge meta-theatrical production realized in full financial and psychological comfort, with a group of crazed people. I long for a situation when a group of people meet, people similarly fixated or fascinated with something: a motif, a topic, some content, form or technique. They are able to put everything aside, in a nearly spiritual manner, just to realize an idea together. I do not want to call this thing I have in mind theatre, it is something that does not fit those labels, therefore it’s difficult to define. Or maybe all these motifs will merge?
One day you got the idea that you would run marathons, and in a quite short time you achieved it. Do you consider yourself a sportsman?
I am a natural at grotesque, irony, making my audience amused. I sometimes have to restrain myself as I tend to clown about. It is far more difficult to create space for reflection, a pause, a time to think. One cannot overdo, though. […] Being aware of such mechanisms allows one to create an emotional amplitude which can serve to toughen up the viewers.
There are a few artistic disciplines that are close to sport because they require you to keep fit. Long ago I compared sculpture to a sort of artistic PE. It’s like a sports discipline combined with mathematical thinking and construction skill. A sculptor has to be hefty in arm muscle. Janusz Bałdyga once said that a performer has to look well: take advantage of his/her possibilities or dysfunctions to the limit. My performances are physically straining, good shape is their motor. Such combination of three elements is interesting – sport, physical effort connected with art and concurring distances. It is a beautiful way to live. One can keep the work on our body and psychic in balance. Most of my ideas come to me when I am running, I can see more, notice more then. I can run into peripheries, outside the area restricted by tourism. It is there, in the peripheries, where real life is going on. Art and sport have walked hand in hand in my life for a long time. Running also helped me out of addictions. It is addictive itself, but this addiction is constructive and it substitutes all other. I love running in the mountains. I got all my injuries on flat asphalt, and I treated them with running in the Tatra Mountains. You can run through them in one day and even meat a bear! This gives you power. There is no monotonous rhythm. You make each step differently, each stabilizes a different cell in your body, each adds up to the rhythm of your mantra. I also love running in the mountains at night. It develops perception, makes it more flexible. You can see, hear and sense more. Our daily life is over-stimulated and schematic in its stagnating rituals. Running tears me out of this lethargy. Now it is purely reactive and spiritual. I do not consider myself a sportsman.
Does it mean you are not interested in obtaining professional level in any discipline?
As they say: you shouldn’t bite off more than you can chew. And knowing this makes you noble, it helps find your place in the row. There will always be someone better and someone worse than you. It is more interesting to remain a half-amateur. I can’t imagine sacrificing my whole life to become a professional in one discipline. Still, I am pedantic when working. I care for details and the outcome. A professionally prepared artistic product has never been my targeted outcome. It is impossible. This way I gain the necessary distance, never disappointing myself or my viewers (laughter). The process is something very different from the product. I exercise my pedantry in processual work. I like and respect it greatly. Satisfaction comes with sweat – in the process, in motion. One shouldn’t restrict the process to a framework of any profession, on this stage it’s not important anyway, though it can be disappointing.
Being pedantic is a specific state of mind. When something goes wrong, what makes you angry?
Sometimes I lose my distance, I lack reflection. Through pedantry you turn into a hamster in a spinning wheel. It’s good to try and jump out or stop the wheel spinning in order to allow some reflection thanks to which you might eliminate whatever is wrong in the process. I am annoyed with my maniac stubbornness – that I sometimes have to get this Doric column on stage before the premiere to see that it is unnecessary or stupid, or that it is simply wrong. Fortunately, in such instant I can laugh in my own face. I am actually amused by how often those instants happen. Once I used to believe I was infallible. Now I can be wrong every day, and that’s wonderful. I also take joy in reflecting and drawing conclusions from what I have observed while looking at my works exhibited here, or going through this book.
The text comes from the catalogue Graboski Arti. Fuksy 2000-2020 published by Państwowa Galeria Sztuki w Sopocie
|Title||Graboski Arti. Fuksy 2000-2020|
|Publisher||Państwowa Galeria Sztuki w Sopocie|
|Index||Arti Grabowski Magdalena Kownacka PGS Gallery|