I CAN SAY THAT I ENTERED MY ARTISTIC PATH WALKING ON STILTS.
IT HAPPENED IN LATE 1980”
Ludwika Ogorzelec talks to Jaromir Jedliński
Jaromir Jedliński: You have created a number of installations featuring objects in space to which you refer with the umbrella title of Instruments of Equilibrium but it is the Space Crystallization cycle which seems central to your work. In our recent conversation, you said: “All this belongs in the Space Crystallization.” What is the Space Crystallization cycle about and how it relates to your other interests and areas of activity?
Ludwika Ogorzelec: The Instruments of Equilibrium cycle was first. Realized from 1980, which was my fourth year as a student at the Academy of Fine Arts in Wrocław, it marked the beginning of everything (Later on I will elaborate on how it came about). The Space Crystallization cycle, which I started ten years after the Instruments of Equilibrium had begun, springs from the same core interests. Still close to traditional sculpture, the Instruments of Equilibrium already featured the structural articulation of space with lines.
How did it start? In 1990, I was an artist-in-residence at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown and faced with the task of presenting something that would sum up my experience there, I thought: “Why not let people get into my sculpture?” That would involve creating a large spatial structure which could be physically entered by people. And I did it. I decided to turn the entire gallery space into my sculpture. I used lines to divide the space up completely changing its function and aesthetic. My primary objective was to appeal to the viewer’s “primeval” emotions, not to their rational mind, knowledge, etc.
— So, what do the Instruments and Crystallization cycles have in common and how do they differ? To what kind of reality do they refer?
Neither the Instruments of Equilibrium nor the Space Crystallizations cycle are meant to explore symbols or anecdote: they have no message, no didactic purpose, they are not interpretations of any real phenomena. The idea underlying the Space Crystallization cycle is to free the viewer from the stereotypes and mundane habits of everyday life, to make them pause for a moment and offer them a positive emotional experience. Hopefully, it will remind them that they are unique individuals living in the universe and not just parts of the social mechanism. So, the Space Crystallization cycle is an artistic action which I started in Provincetown in 1990 and have continued ever since in different spaces and locations all over the world.
Talking about my intervening with line into a given space, I think of the experiences and solutions resulting from its multifarious transformations and their effects upon the human psyche. The phrase “Space Crystallization” appeared in my mind a little later in reference to dividing the space placed at my disposal into separate parts, the “crystals”. In my programmatic manifesto written at the time, I declared that these volumes of space (air) were my primeval and prime sculptural material.
The visible and touchable line just marks off this fragment of space from its hitherto undivided entirety. The material of which this line is made – be it wood, metal, glass, plastic, fabric, spandex, paper, or some other material yet unexplored by me – is important for creating some specific aesthetic and hence generating energy which affects the viewer. To me, however, the material of which the line is made of is of secondary importance although it is the first thing the viewer notices as they take for granted that what is not visible does not exist, and that space is but a void, a mere scene upon which the visible enfolds.
But, as an artist, I have and want to know that the allocated fragment of space can be weighed and compressed. We also know that it is the site of invisible physical, chemical, and acoustic phenomena. For example, I can imagine the sound of waves traveling across that space, bouncing off its walls, crossing, interfering, and this is very inspiring. I want to show the invisible.
— How are these concerns and thinking embodied in your realizations?
You mean the process of “crystallization”? How do I go about it? I start with the indepth analysis of the designated space, its specific cultural context. I want to know who my viewer will be (for example, in Costa Rica). I also research the historical context and specific function of the space. Is it a public space (open, outdoor) through which the viewer moves and is surprised by the sculpture’s presence, changing view, and effect? Or is it a dedicated gallery or museum space to which people purposefully come to see an exhibition? A landscape location is yet another kind of space. So, I examine the space’s proportions, aesthetic, extant scenery and materials, weather conditions (for example dominating wind directions and “corridors”, and so on). Then – as I prepare for a specific invitation, for example from Australia – I confront my analysis of the site with photographic material and try to come up with some concept of how I am going to work with the allocated space, what effect may “crystallize” in the process. Usually, I make multiple visualizations for a given project to select the best approach.
The realization of the project is a kind of performance in which I “dance with the line” in the dedicated space. These actions are usually open to the public and integral to the project. At the Nancy Margolis Gallery in New York, we announced that the creation of the piece would be a public act in which the viewers were invited to participate. For me, this time is also an opportunity to study the phenomenon of perception to advance my future work.
— So, let’s return to the beginning of your artistic activity.
OK, I’ll now address your earlier question of how the Instruments of Equilibrium originated and how my work has evolved since then. As I have already mentioned, my adventure with space began in 1980, during my fourth year at the Academy (then State College) of Fine Arts in Wrocław in the sculpture class of Professor Leon Podsiadły.
One of the topics addressed in the class was the widely defined problem of equilibrium. Professor Podsiadły asked the students to prepare a performance using our own bodies to demonstrate our understanding of balance. Approaching the task, I became fascinated with the human body as a mechanism, a mobile sculpture, a spatial object with a multifarious potential for plasticity, transformation, and movement (and consequently the time dimension). With my previous experience with thea$ter and dance, I could have analyzed a select dance routine. But I felt it was not enough. I wanted to elevate my performance – metaphorically and literally – above the ground, to make it unfold in the air rather than on the floor.
The early 1980s was a very difficult time and I had this psychological need to feel weightless (and therefore joyous?). Or perhaps, it was the subconscious manifestation of my life and situation at the time? I was involved in the underground political opposition to communist regime, I met a number of beautiful human beings, developed friendships, learnt the rules of conspiracy, and generally felt that this present moment was important and sublime. In a way, it was dancing on the edge and walking above the ground, in spite of the drab reality of life under the totalitarian system!
And so, I built myself a pair of stilts (I used to walk on stilts as a child) and presented a spectacle centered on the analysis of the phenomenon of the human body. Elevated above the ground, supported on just two pins, my body struggled to maintain balance by constantly readjusting its attitude and arrangement. Stretching my leg would force my head and shoulders to move in the opposite direction to counteract the shift of the body’s center of gravity. I revisited the familiar joy of overcoming the forces of gravitation I had experienced walking on stilts as a child. I moved around the studio quite adroitly. So, I can say that I entered my artistic path walking on stilts. It happened in late 1980.
In other words, the stilts introduced me to the problem of mobile sculpture and consequently to reflection on the essence of space, time, and movement…
— How was the word (idea) made (sculptural) flesh?
The next stage in our project in Professor Podsiadły’s class was to illustrate what we had just experienced during the performance. My fascination with the sensation of being elevated above the ground inspired me to make a sculpture that would “levitate” in space, apparently weightless and mobile, and violate all the “principles” I had learnt so far during my previous three years at the Academy. Specifically, I wanted to break free of the notion of a sculpture as some heavy volume occupying a certain space and designed to be walked around and viewed from the outside, preferably placed on a pedestal to facilitate the perusal. My sculpture was to fill that space as if hindering the potential viewer from comfortably moving around.
Why? Was I arrogant or rebellious? Rather, I needed to transgress and annihilate the boundaries of aesthetic and psychological habits limiting both the artist and the viewer. Then and ever since, my transgressions have consisted in venturing from the familiar into the unknown.
— Over the years, you have used various materials and means of expression. What was your initial approach?
My next dilemma while working on the project was the choice of material(s) to “illustrate” my confrontation with and reflection on the problem of balance. Initially, in pursuit of lightness, I thought of paper but then I decided against it. Paper is a material historically imbued with multiple meanings, the product of a technological process. Over the centuries, it was touched by so many people, used by thousands of artists. So, I thought of wood. A natural material, lightweight, warm, nice to the touch, with an intricate cellular and fibrous structure. It can be carved, sculpted, incised. I rejected all these techniques since they had been used before. I decided to “inflate” the wood, “pump” it with air, and suspend it in the air to make it really light.
I had grown up among trees so I knew a lot about trees and wood. About the tree as a living organism belonging in the objective world of Nature, subsiding on the earthly substances from the soil and on the cosmic energy of light (photosynthesis) and expressing this Earth-Cosmos connection through its vertical form. About wood as a material that can be split along its fibers to reveal lines shaped by nature itself. So, I would use wood in my spatial “treatise” on equilibrium. I started to connect individual wood fibers by gluing their ends together with bone glue to envelop (outline) as much air as possible: the largest possible volume of space.
— How did you visualize this balance problem first in your mind and then through the manual process of working with the material?
Once I had made up my mind on the material, I could focus on the problem of equilibrium and the phenomenon of the human body as a balance-seeking instrument. My motions while walking on stilts, the line and the space-encasing structure defined in the process, all this subject to the laws of mathematics and physics. The force of gravitation was central to my exploration and the creation of the Instruments of Equilibrium. They referred to the idea of structure and the limits of something emerging “in-between”: between existence and non-existence, between the visible and the invisible. They were also about sense and absurd, order and chaos, geometry and randomness; they also addresses the question of the beginning and infinity.
— Within the umbrella framework of the Space Crystallization cycle, you have created multiple realizations of this fundamental conception, in international venues and recently also in Poland, some in open space, others in interiors. What makes any of these particular embodiments of this general idea unique?
As I once wrote in my programmatic manifesto: “[…] in my creations – generally – I draw simultaneously and equally from my intellect, experience, intuition, temperament, as well as my current mental state or disposition.” As I approach a new project, I thoroughly analyze the designated space. I try to grasp the sense of place, its aesthetic and physical aspects: the nature of the terrain, its geology, relief, architecture, building materials and proportions, scale, etc. I study the history of the place and the context of local culture relevant to the viewer. I work in many different countries so I want to know to whom I am addressing my work. Only then can I think how to reach out to the viewer so that they could fully experience my creation. It is also important to consider how that space is used on everyday basis and by whom so I can get the idea of the potential viewer.
The street is a public space where the passerby can be unexpectedly confronted with and surprised by my work. Hopefully, it will make people stop, maybe change their thought process, encourage them to take a break from their externally-imposed everyday routines, and let them experience a positive emotional moment unlike anything hitherto encountered.
The city square functions similarly to the street but there is more space to freely stop and pause. The work installed in a street or square (or any other similar public space) is addressed to all the people who are present there, irrespective of their level of aesthetic initiation. Art in public places educates, involves, and engages
even those seemingly immune and/or ignorant.
The landscape scenery is really special and different. From my perspective, the site’s specific aesthetic context is usually the most important as I experiment with it in order to redefine it and create new (alternative) realities. People present on the site are most often just viewers and only occasionally active participants in the event.
The gallery or museum setting is specifically dedicated to exhibiting works of art. Such venues are for select audiences, for those who purposefully visit them and thus are usually more advanced in their aesthetic initiation. Although exclusive, these are the best venues for my art because they offer spaces usually free of (often illogical) restrictive rules limiting the freedom of artistic expression that often apply to outdoor public spaces. They are also very good “laboratories” for experimenting with people’s emotions and getting them actively – and usually enthusiastically – involved in the event.
— You intervene differently into each of these specific types of venue. What is the nature of these interventions?
The designated site and its defining characteristics provide what I call “existing energy”. Combined with the “introduced energy” of my linear intervention into the space, it amplifies the work’s effect upon human emotions. In addition to the above described process of analyzing the designated site’s multifarious aspects, I also try to get a “feel” of it, a sense of its emotional charge, to decide the conception of my intervention. My objective is to define or “crystallize” the kind of situation in the allocated space in which the viewer will be shaken out of their set ways and liberated from the stereotypes of everyday life. Hopefully, they will experience an autonomous moment of revelation, take off their mask, break free of the externally-imposed role in society. Perhaps, this experience will restore their sense of individual identity and freedom? Make them conscious of their humanity and potential for sublime emotional experience, let them step away for a moment from the crowd pursuing the clockwork routines of modern society?
— And what about the contemporary art scene and its mechanisms? Your approach is resolutely uncompromising but institutional and interpersonal contexts have to be taken into consideration, especially in the kind of art you make: complex, monumental, often installed in public spaces…
Indeed, the process of developing the work’s conception for a particular location is influenced by various conditions and contexts related to the organization of the art event. Like my sculptures which are conceived as site-specific, I also usually try to adapt to the exhibition’s specific circumstances and challenges.
For example the project I realized in Spoleto, Italy. It was organized quite spontaneously by artists and art lovers. At the time, Italy was at the bottom of a deep economic crisis and Spoleto was on the edge of bankruptcy. The budget promised by the municipal authorities was seriously reduced which made it too costly to hire a mobile lift platform for installing a monumental form to be suspended above the cloister (chiostro) of the local Church of San Nicolò. The original idea had been for this form to interact with another form created by purposefully dispersed water mist. Their interaction would produce light effects essential for the crystallization of space and production of multisensory and not exclusively visual sensations. What was I to do in this changed situation? Should I say: “That’s too bad, I can’t do it, I won’t realize the project”? I did not want to disappoint my friends! Quite the contrary, this was the kind of challenge which usually sparks my ingenuity and strengthens my resolve. So, I changed the original conception to adapt it to the reduced funding.
During my first visit to the historic Chiostro di San Nicolò, somebody mentioned that working on the project I would likely be watched by a retired art history professor residing on the top floor, the windows of his apartment overlooking the cloister. At this very moment I knew that the sculpture’s concept and composition would be designed for his eyes, that is for the person “looking from above” (the phrase became the piece’s title), of course taking into consideration all relevant aesthetic, legal, and financial aspects. Working ceaselessly nine hours a day for about ten days, in temperatures hitting 35oC,
I constructed the sculpture which was quite enthusiastically received. The professor also admired it but I knew that given more time, I would have made the form
a little more saturated and balanced.
— And how has it worked in Poland?
To realize my Feral Apple Tree I from the Space Crystallization cycle at the Galeria Awangarda in Wrocław in 1994, I was assigned one of the gallery’s exhibition spaces: a large glazed “display case” measuring 8 × 4 × 22 m. The space was generally regarded as very difficult. Even one of my former professors commented: “Ludka, you won’t do anything interesting in this vitrine: the space is but a display case and what can be made of a display case, anyway?” I replied: “Oh, really?”, and challenged myself to achieve the (supposedly) unachievable.
Another motivation that influenced my idea for the piece was the disturbing problem I faced at the time involving the plagiarism of my work (my spatialaesthetic inventions) by a dishonest fellow woman artist whose actions were really harmful. I was forced to confront her and the whole situation was widely commented in the art community in Wrocław, and these comments were not always supportive or just. She was well connected so by exposing her I sort of crossed the local art establishment.
Thus, I decided that my piece would correspondingly cross the designated “vitrine” and the Galeria Awangarda, one of the city’s prime art venues, would become but a fragment of a larger whole – my sculpture. In the room’s principal square corner I placed a monumental pyramid: one of its walls obliquely cut through the vitrine’s space and its glazed window and extended beyond the interior into the street. The pyramid’s tip pierced the internal wall dividing up the gallery space and penetrated into the adjacent room.
The line I used to intervene into the gallery space was the split wood of an old feral apple tree which my brother had removed from his orchard. Preparing the
wood – that is splitting it – I felt for the life of the tree and reflected on its history. The apple tree was planted before World War II in what was then a German territory, survived the war and continued to bear fruit long after Lower Silesia became part of Poland in 1945. Over the years, it gradually turned feral. I decided to give the tree a new life by transforming it into a sculpture and to honor its existence in the work’s title. It was the first edition of The Feral Apple Tree. After the exhibition had ended, I saved the wood and used it again to construct my Feral Apple Tree II at the Center for Contemporary Art at Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw.
— And what about your exhibition at the Galeria Muzalewska in Poznań in the Summer 2013, when we collaborated for the first time?
At the Galeria Muzalewska, I sort of tested the visitors’ reactions and emotions. It was a laboratory!
— Soon afterwards, you completed a very powerful installation from the Space Crystallization cycle at the Library of the University of Warsaw. The place’s character and meanings associated with it combined with the kind of space intervention you effected there, all these factors contributed to the work’s extraordinary expression and intensity. Please tell us more about the project and how it was to realize it in a major library which must have been a very specific location and special challenge.
The Intellectual Tensions exhibition from the Space Crystallization cycle was realized in November 2013 at the University Library in Warsaw. It really was a very special and specific venue. The library’s monumental architecture, its noble color design based on the two-tone accord white and patinated copper green, is articulated with rhythmic vertical columns. I was fascinated by the lofty space filled with books and readers. Its dignified quietude was full of tensions created by the crossing thoughts and ideas, generated by the readers in response to the studied content, the invisible but forceful energy of human mind. This atmosphere inspired me to make these “invisible tensions” visible by introducing the physically stretched transparent line of cellophane which would suggest intellectual effort. Just like human thoughts, the line would penetrate the space, move forward, retract and cross over, occasionally multiplying into clusters and bundles; it would stream to reach its goal but sometimes it may stray and get confused. In order to enhance the dynamism of the cathedral-like nave, dominated by the vertical columns, I decided to counteract them with a slightly oblique form introduced in the center.
— And what about the people in the library?
I did not regard the readers as the gallery-going public but as the project’s integral element: their physical presence, their moving around the space, circulating among the shelves, and of course emitting the invisible thought-lines. By visualizing the invisible phenomenon of the crossing lines of thought, I wanted not only to create an aesthetic object but also to generate special energy that would enable me to reach the “primal sensitivity” of people/readers/viewers by offering them positive emotions stimulating intellectual and creative effort. I invited people to enter my sculpture and thus transform from viewers into participants.
— How did the management of the University Library react to your proposal?
In order to win their support for my project and persuade them to let me work in the central “nave”, I had to guarantee that the construction process would be absolutely clean and neutral (no dust, no dirt, no holes in the walls, etc.). I also had to convince the management that the project’s first stage – the very process of creating the sculpture – would be very interesting for the public to watch. I myself deeply believed – indeed I knew – that it would be based on my past international experience. It had often happened that people would come back repeatedly to see the progress of my sculptures… So, after lengthy negotiations, I was finally allowed to put up the sculpture on condition of no cost to the library related to its construction and presentation. Moreover, I was obliged (and this was a very radical requirement) to pay for a security guard (from the infamous Zubrzycki Agency in Warsaw, notorious for employing former agents of communist secret police) hired specifically to watch me and make sure that I would not steal anything or cause any damage… No matter that in the adjoining lobby several security guards from the same agency had regular night shifts. I declared that I would work during the night, starting just after the closing of the library until its opening in the morning.
— How did the actual work on the project go?
The sculpture was realized over the period of thirteen nights. Luckily, the New Space for Art Foundation in Kielce and private art patrons Mr. and Mrs. Tworek supported the project with a grant of ten thousand zlotys, of which almost four thousand went to pay for the guard… so there was no money left to pay the artist.
— You have realized a number of projects in China and other distant places. Could you tell us more about the challenges involved. I know that you have always liked challenges and you have continued to take up monumental tasks. I am curious about the projects that were particularly radical, also technically and/or logistically, and realized in most unusual, unlikely places…
My site-specific approach to the space crystallization conception requires working in various – and different – places all over the world. The places that would invite me. So far, I have realized over a hundred projects. Each and every one of them is a separate story, an artistic adventure involving encountering people and creatively responding to the site’s specific physical aspect. I could write a novel about each of them.
For example, the monumental sculpture conceived for the Art Museum in Yokohama in 1999 as part of the international exhibition Weaving the World. Contemporary Arts Linear Construction. I was invited to participate alongside such artists as Andy Goldsworthy, Catherine Owens, John McQueen, Martin Puryear, Rosemarie Trockel. Because of the Japanese specific approach to work organization, I had to submit the design for the sculpture to be created in the space assigned by exhibition curator Hideko Numata a year in advance! Equipped with the photograph of the space and some general information, I began thinking. The designated space was the entrance hall opening the whole exhibition. I knew that all visitors would pass through this space, so my proposal should provide some “emotional prelude” and “purification zone” from mundane stereotypes and routines. It should be kind of psychological introduction to the universe of art.
Placing a right rectangle pyramid tip-down, I took the whole structure up, all the corners of its base touching the ceiling. The form, constructed of the nature-made wood line, measured 4 × 6 × 14 meters. We are accustomed to seeing the pyramid with its cardinal corner (tip) up, so my reversing this perceptual habit aesthetically redefined the large but in comparison with the other exhibition rooms proportionally lower entrance hall. My pyramid constructed of visually delightful lightweight threedimensional lace of warm light-colored wood (debarked tree branches and twigs of irregular, undulating forms), would seem counter-logical, challenging the viewer’s expectations and perceptual habits. It would also make the space very dynamic.
Submitting the sculpture’s conception, I also addressed its structural and technical aspect. I envisioned the construction suspended from load-bearing elements attached to the ceiling, with the pyramid’s all-important square-angled tip barely touching the floor… But when I arrived in Yokohama a year later, it transpired that the space featured a dropped cork-lined ceiling hiding wiring and water pipes. Worried and embarrassed, the architect responsible for the construction of exhibitions at the Yokohama Museum of Art told me that there was no way anything could be suspended from it. And that he, whose job it was, had no idea how to solve the problem!
It was not the first time I had to deal with this kind of last-minute revelations challenging me to muster all of my structural creativity and resourcefulness… I was pretty seasoned so I did not panic. I even did not chastise the organizers for not informing me of the situation when my proposal had been submitted a year in advance: in fact, the idea of suspending the sculpture from the ceiling had been accepted with no objections raised! I am not a structural engineer but I have an intuitive grasp of spatial structures, their statics and mechanics.
So, I decided that my reversed pyramid would not be suspended from the ceiling as initially intended but instead it would be supported on its tip. Making a large construction, 14 meters long and 6 meters wide, stable and secure while supported on a single tiny point required a new approach to the space’s structural aspects. I noticed that this delicate dropped ceiling featured a structurally-sound frame surrounding a rectangular opening and against this frame I propped two oblique edges of the pyramid which was later filled with stiff wood lacework. The third, longest edge beam was supported on this lacework whose density increased upwards, with its end just touching the ceiling. The wood structure was heavier on the longer side which secured in position the beams supported on the frame in the ceiling and the point on the floor. Thus, I was able to build my sculpture without suspending it from the ceiling. The architect was very grateful and impressed and also very surprised that a woman artist proved capable of thinking like an experienced structural engineer.
— It is rather interesting that you, a very independent, resolute, and determined person, have just brought up this gender aspect?
Oh, that’s because it has made me think of another woman, exhibition curator Hideko Numata, with whom we met several months before to discuss the project, the materials and generally what would be needed for its realization on the site. She felt she had to photograph all my equipment, piece by piece, to make preparations. When I listed individual tools, she asked me to show them to her to see how they looked like. It was in my studio, so I brought them one by one. A driller was first: she wrote down its name and made a photo. Then followed an axe, a saw for cutting wood, pruning scissors, etc. Her “feminine” ignorance of the tools, techniques and materials of sculpture would cause me many problems during the project’s final stage. Without consulting me, she decided to assign me two male artists as assistants (I did not mind that they were male!) but it did not dwell on her that a painter being a man might not necessarily know how to use woodworking tools to cut, debark and shave tree branches. I fared slightly better with my other assistant, who was a sculptor specializing in miniature forms, but he was used to great precision and therefore worked rather slowly… and I only had a week to process a huge volume of wood to be taken from the forest to the museum as my sculpture material… So, no complaining, I handled three-quarters of woodworking myself. My assistants hired by the well-meaning curator were very nice and they really wanted to help me. They just could not do it.
I have learnt from the experience and now, if the project has a generous budget and it is possible to hire some help, I insist on men skilled in technical and manual jobs, rather than artists, to relieve me of hard physical labor. If the budget is modest – and underfunded projects make up most of my CV – I still do the work myself.
In the end, however, all these difficulties were overcome and the sculpture turned out great. It was enthusiastically reviewed in the press and was also very well received by the museum management and curatorial staff. As I was working on it, many curators and occasionally also the director himself would come and watch me from a distance, apologetically explaining that it was a fascinating opportunity for them to witness the creative process. Usually, they would only see finished pieces delivered to the museum for installation. I have very fond memories of the whole project, the people and the altogether great month spent in Japan.
— You have often worked in the Far East, especially in seashore locations…
In 2015, for the Busan Biennale – Sea Art Festival in South Korea, I created a sculpture situated on the rocks emerging from the sea. I went there with a different idea but upon my arrival I realized that the designated site was already crowded with installations. I see this new fashion in some Asian countries to squeeze as many artworks as physically possible into a relatively small area, with no fear – or awareness – of the resulting visual chaos. What is the reason for that? Is this because the young, accustomed to the small screens of their smartphones, can’t see a broader picture or have no need for it? Is their vision hopelessly dominated by detail? As the organizers of art events are usually young, perhaps they have already succumbed to this fragmented perceptual mode typical of their generation, with no desire to take in the whole? Is that the reason behind the visual chaos of Korean modern architecture? Many buildings would have make some aesthetic sense individually but cramped together, they are but a cacophony of disparate creations.
Having changed the location of my project, I had to rethink it. I worked under pressure and against time because the organizers had not taken into consideration that, unlike other featured pieces delivered in modules ready for installation, my site-specific sculpture had to be constructed on site from scratch. So, the ten days I had was really an extremely challenging deadline. Still, I decided to do my best and construct a multi-part sculpture on these rocks sticking out of the sea. The ebbs and flows of the tide created additional constraints limiting my working hours. So, I worked when water receded, in a great hurry and under tremendous pressure.
Also in this case, despite having some assistants assigned, I had to do most of “construction work” myself. I have extensive experience in creating dynamically-balanced structures “woven” of stretched spandex tape but my expertise has been never codified in mathematical formulas or construction drawings so I cannot really sub-contract somebody to do this work for me. I am the only one who knows the right amount of tension to be applied in a given element of the structure, how
much to pull or release my “line”. Also, communicating with some people assigned to help me proved problematic because they did not speak English. Like the other participating artists, I had an interpreter assigned to help but she would stay snug dry on the shore, 50 meters away from the rocks scattered in the sea where we worked wading waist-deep in the water… Yet, despite completing the project within such a short time, I was very much satisfied with the final effect. And compared to what I had done before, the sculpture featured some new elements.
— Again, I would like to ask you about the context, this time perhaps not institutional but physical and geographical – although in your work everything seems interconnected and interrelated…
In Korea, the new spatial context – the rocks, the wind, the vast and volatile expanse of the sea – and also the emotional stress of being forced to make quick decisions – all this mobilized my resources and particularly creativity: its flow was so overwhelming and absorbing that no room was left for routine or drawing from my previous experience.
More recently, constructing the Invisible Tension, another project in the Space Crystallization cycle, at the Jing’an Sculpture Park in Shanghai in 2017 proved an equally radical challenge, technically as well as culturally. I was invited by the Philippe Staib Gallery in Shanghai, which had earlier featured my sculptures at a five-artist exhibition entitled Steel and Wood in New York in 1990, to take part in a major duo show with Chinese painter Feng Xiao-Min. As always, I prepared the visualization of my intended linear intervention into the space of the Sculpture Park’s monumental underground gallery, and submitted it along with my artist’s statement and necessary documentation.
The Jing’an Sculpture Park in Shanghai is a very prestigious venue, well known in China. Unfortunately, in my opinion, its relatively small area is overcrowded with pieces of uneven quality: good sculptures mixed up with mediocre and bad ones, all competing for attention and domination over the site and creating a complete visual chaos. For this reason, I opted for a separate underground gallery as more suitable for my project. But the choice created a different challenge: I had to find a way to encourage the people walking in the park to descend into our underground venue. I decided to build a sculpture seemingly growing out of the underground, penetrating the floors of the Jing’an Park Art Center and “blossoming” on its roof. So I did, and exactly as I predicted, the people were intrigued and wanted to see where the sculpture was growing from… And so I guided them into the underground gallery where they succumbed to the powerful energy of my monumental sculpture (10 × 9 × 8 m) and “crystallized” space. They would also see Feng Xiao-Min’s paintings and discover for themselves this new underground art venue.
— So, how did the whole operation go?
I arrived in Shanghai fifteen days prior to the opening to have enough time to create my sculpture. The Jing’an Art Center is a government institution designed to host exhibitions curated by art galleries and individual artists. Typical of Chinese state institutions, it employs many people whose duty is to watch, oversee and control… And alas, the space designated for my sculpture was under the constant scrutiny of a very scrupulous and unyielding guard whose principal job, role, and indeed his mission – as I soon found out – was to say “no”!
The space itself was rather simple, its architecture neither historic nor artistic. It was built of concrete so I hoped to be able to put in place a simple and logical structural framework for my sculpture by hooking up pulls and steel cables to the concrete walls, floor, and ceiling. That would create a secure and balanced structure abiding by the laws of physics.
As I presented the plan to my assigned team, of course including the guard, and suggested we start from the floor by putting in several 8 mm hooks, I was told: “No way”. So what about the walls? “Absolutely not!” OK, and the ceiling? “Well, maybe…” After lengthy consultations with several high-ranking officials, I was allowed to hook up cables to some protruding steel elements. But what about the other necessary pulls and directions? “Not allowed.”
So, I was working with the people immune to the structural requirements of my sculpture and they controlled the exhibition space. I began to panic but kept thinking. I asked for the permission to put – very carefully and taking all necessary precautions – steel clamping rings around the bases of eight concrete pillars supporting the ceiling. To these rings I could hook up the pulls and cables. After lengthy discussions, the solution was approved… And so, using some hooks in the ceiling and these clamping rings around the pillar bases, I was able to build a new load-bearing structure of steel cables upon which I “wove” my sculpture of translucent spandex tape.
— Knowing you as a rebellious and free spirit but also a very determined and goal-oriented person, I am sure that the final effect was stunning despite all these difficulties which you overcame with aplomb just as you had done that earlier under communism.
Indeed, despite this “structural controversy” the sculpture turned out really great! Some said that it was like a cathedral, its architecture captivatingly lightweight and translucent and at the same time dynamic thanks to the oblique lines of cables attached to the concrete pillars acting as rhythmically arranged anchors. The reception was so enthusiastic that even the guard became my fan.
I had a brilliant assistant, a young man with a very good command of English. He was helpful and thoughtful, and usually I even did not have to ask: he understood me without words, as if reading my mind. He comprehended the task and was able to direct other, less competent assistants. This made it possible to complete the sculpture on time despite the time lost for reworking the original structural design.
— Somehow, you always manage to complete your extremely difficult and complex projects successfully. Do you recall any particularly challenging cases?
Interestingly, the projects which went well, where everything functioned smoothly and people were helpful, are not as vividly imprinted in my memory as those which proved very rough, for example in Legnica in 2007. The local Gallery of Art invited me to have a solo exhibition and from several proposals I submitted, its director selected the most difficult one, requiring a mobile lift platform that would enable me to work ten meters above the street… But the director was not going to provide the necessary equipment, allegedly because of the inadequate funding. I could not comprehend why, being aware of the financial situation, he still chose the variant most challenging technically? Who was supposed to pay for the proposed monumental sculpture in the city’s most prominent public space?… The artist, who was anyway also expected to work for free and feel honored and grateful to be able to show the work under the gallery’s auspices?
Initially, that is until I actually arrived in Legnica to realize the project, the atmosphere was nice. After my long absence – I had lived in Legnica for four years from 1973 to 1977, before enrolling at the Academy of Fine Arts, and this was a rather dark period in my life – I wanted to retrospectively brighten my mental picture of this lovely town. And it did not work out. The location was splendid but putting up my sculpture there proved extremely stressful. The gallery’s director would not keep his word but I could not retract mine. My former acquaintances and old friends, my family, they all waited to see my sculpture here in Legnica. And, most importantly, I felt responsible for my work. I could not compromise on its quality because of some external circumstances beyond my control. The lift platform problem became an almost political hot issue, the talk of the town. My family in Legnica tried to help but there was no way around it: a mobile lift platform was needed to let me work ten meters above the ground. In the end, a fire squad stationed nearby agreed to assist me with their heavy equipment when not otherwise occupied. But, understandably, they were on duty and had to respond to emergencies, often interrupting work on the project and leaving me on the street, looking up woefully to where my sculpture was to emerge ten meters above the street… And in the end it did, in spite of everything!
— How do such situations occurring in Poland compare to similar projects abroad? Are there any general similarities and differences or is every project a different
challenge, escaping generalizations?
Well, I had a peculiar experience in Belgium in 2010. The director of the Centre d’Art Contemporain du Luxembourg belge selected one of my earlier works and decided: “This is the one you are going to make for me!”, as if I were running a shop with ready-made objects rather than specializing in site-specific sculptures. He had no understanding of the concept. Arriving at this charming and secluded place, I had no idea that I would become trapped there and subjected to his whims and flights of temper. The only positive thing was my forced initiation into operating a mobile lift platform: I was provided with the machine but without an operator.
Never before had I operated such equipment by myself: always told that it required a special license, I would not have even dreamt of doing it. And here, they just delivered this self-propelled lift platform. I cried: “Who is going to operate it?”, and the director just shrugged: “You will, of course! It is like a vacuum cleaner, everybody can use it.” He was gone and I faced the beast alone. Once I climbed it and tried to work it out, the beast turned into a children’s toy: it was very easy to operate and very safe too because of the system blocking the machine in reaction to any wrong movement.
I have no driver’s license but I quickly mastered the machine and operating it myself actually proved more efficient: I just lifted myself wherever I needed without losing time for shouting instructions to the operator. Thus, having mastered the machine, I worked quickly and with pleasure. After this experience, I would prefer to operate such equipment myself but in other countries I am always told that the regulations in the European Union are strict and it is not possible. And there,
a state-run institution in Belgium, the very seat of the EU, could not have cared less for these regulations. As they say, the best place to hide is under the radar.
— So I understand there are no rules: in Poland as well as abroad everything depends on the personal relation between the artist and the person(s) representing the inviting institution, their understanding of the artist’s perspective and needs. I have also exhibited all over the world and my experience has been the same…
In Wrocław, Mayor Rafał Dutkiewicz invited me to do some “interventions” into the medieval architecture around Town Square. He thought my sculptures might encourage locals and tourists alike to venture beyond Town Square, with its historic Town Hall and Cloth Hall, into these charming narrow alleys. This artistic challenge delighted me, it was inspiring. But the ensuing cooperation with municipal officers assigned to assist me was not that great. Quite the contrary!
In May 2015, I managed to complete the sculpture with the organizational assistance of some young people whom I got involved. I had to because I was treated as an independent contractor responsible for the whole project. Until then, I had always worked as an independent artist organizationally supported by the inviting institution. In Wrocław, however, I and my team were forced to deal unassisted with the jungle of regulations and to obtain numerous permits from various municipal agencies to realize the sculpture commissioned by the municipality.
— So, who makes these decisions? In Wrocław, for example, whose authority was it to define the conditions of your work in practice (and also formally)?
It was the office (and person) of the Municipal Conservator of Historic Monuments: she had the final say. I obtained her permission under numerous and very specific conditions, first of all forbidding me from drilling a tiniest hole in the walls of historic townhouses. I solemnly promised to respect the walls and instead of suspending my lightweight structures over the streets from hooks I declared I would affix them harmlessly to extant architectural elements. And then the horror started; I had to apply for numerous permissions to attach my structures to individual iron windscreens and other openwork or protruding elements so I could suspend the sculpture over the historic alleys adjoining the Town Hall.
On the first day, municipal police halted work and almost arrested me for my equipment, preparations and actions were allegedly breaking the law and regulations. “What law, what regulations?” – I asked. They could not give me any stating that the road guards required to secure the work area had to specifically be made of metal and/or concrete and not of wood, as mine were.
— Despite the often considerable and piling difficulties, you usually successfully complete your projects. How do you accomplish this?
In the just described situation in Wrocław, I asked the supervisor of municipal police who had halted my work to show me the paragraph forbidding wood guard posts. As he could not find any that specifically read so, he magnanimously consented to the wood ones but categorically forbade any “loose tape fluttering in the wind.” He noticed a long bamboo stick I had wrapped with black-and-yellow tape and ordered substituting the festooned tape with tape-wrapped bamboo sticks. And now everything was legal.
In the evening of that first day on the “battlefield”, I attended Stanisław Srokowski’s literary evening at the Konspira and there, among my Fighting Solidarity friends, I complained about the mistreatment I had suffered earlier that day at the hands of municipal police. The following day, a miracle happened. Not a single municipal police patrol approached me! Presumably, one of the guests attending the literary evening must have intervened with the municipal authorities on my behalf to stop them from harassing the artist working for them, under their auspices…?
— What kind of difficulties are the hardest to overcome?
The kind of problems I had in Warsaw in 2013, which I already mentioned in our conversation, or with the project in the south of France this year. I was first very respectfully invited by the Villa Datris Foundation and then unexpectedly removed from the planned exhibition. Why? The argument that my sculptures would be too big for their gardens was unfounded as my creations are always site-specific. Rather, it was a diplomatic disguise to hide their fear that my original works would create an uncomfortable situation for another internationally established artist, likewise invited to participate. She has recently ventured into the kind of art I have been pursuing for almost thirty years now in my Space Crystallization.
The projects marred with unnecessary difficulties and bad aura are vividly imprinted in my memory. This is unfortunate because they poison my creative joy but they are also instructive. They give me firsthand experience of the negative phenomena and mechanisms governing the international art market. They teach me not to be naïve and how to ascertain the attitudes and deeds of fellow artists. They set apart truth from lies. Every time, they force me to fine-tune my definition of art versus craft, reinforce my choice of honesty over opportunism, further enlighten me about the art market. And they also make me reflect on the nature of art in general and what it means to me personally. Why am I an artist, why am I devoting my life to art?
— Finally, I think we have to address the problem of plagiarism which causes much pain to you and to the admirers of your art; the plagiarism of your work by crafty opportunists well connected in the art world who have repeatedly stolen your ideas, conceptions, and solutions. We have to talk about their feeding on your labor and creativity to advance their own careers. What is the situation in Poland and on the international scene? Are you hapless or can you do anything about these dishonest practices?
Generally, contemporary culture is quite infantile in this respect: artists and intellectuals childishly believe that it is OK to take somebody else’s “toys” and use them. But there is also the culture of sincerity and courage you represent. Is this sincere approach destined to lose in confrontation with the infantile and irresponsible practices that seem dominant today? And generally, how do you see your present place on the contemporary art scene today?
Thank you for asking this question! I am relieved to be able to address the issue and also, however strange it may sound, I feel a degree of satisfaction despite the problem being so difficult and painful. Over the years, it has evolved and hurt my career. As a result, always an original artist and for many years solitary in my pursuits, I have now become a mere follower in the eyes of some. My original and pioneering art is often being substituted by replicas and remakes signed with names of other artists who are mere copycats but want to pass for original creators.
— Could you specifically name any culprits guilty of such dishonest practices?
Alas, I do not have adequate funds to sue those who plagiarize my art and I do not want to put the institutions supporting the publication of this monograph at risk of legal action against them for my naming the culprits, so I am forced to censor myself and withhold the names of these dishonest people. The first one was a woman artist who visited my Paris studio in the late 1980s and had an opportunity to get a close look at my work. I was helping her to exhibit her glass pictures very much inspired by the style of a well-known Wrocław artist. Upon her return from Paris, she decided to take advantage of my living abroad: Poland was isolated and the local art community was thus unfamiliar with my current work. In Wrocław, she had opinion-forming friends and decided to take my place and promote herself at my expense. Invited to exhibit at the National Museum in Wrocław alongside wellknown graphic artists, she showed her structures which looked exactly like mine
but were made of glass. She immediately became a star!
She was dispatched to The Kosciuszko Foundation in New York where she approached a certain art critic who wrote an enthusiastic review. He exalted her work as new and never seen before and saw her destined for a great future. He wrote what had earlier been written of my work. The article circulated internationally and when I was recommended by the renowned glass artist Czesław Zuber to the Clara Scremini Gallery in Paris, Clara was initially delighted. She mentioned that she had already read an article in Glass Magazine about the kind of work I was doing. And she asked me just to confirm that my name was […]. Feeling a little dizzy and my eyes going black, I replied that no, my name was Ludwika Ogorzelec… And then she accused me of plagiarism!
— For many years now, you have been operating globally but mostly as an independent artist with no institutional backup. I see this as your autonomous choice and admire your courage and perseverance but I also think that it makes you more vulnerable. I guess that abroad, beyond Poland and Europe in particular, you may be even more exposed to this kind of abuse…
I would have never thought that this would be the outcome of my confrontation with the world, the confrontation I wished for when I brought my creative concept from Poland to Paris many years ago. It is true that at the time I had no chance for artistic self-realization in Poland. I put my faith in this mythical West, the beautiful world beyond the iron curtain, which we Poles idealized and for which we longed in our isolated, drab country destroyed by the decades of communist regime. There, I saw a chance for my art.
I bought my plane ticket to Paris for the money I got for my three graduation pieces purchased by the Museum of Art in Łódź. I went to France with no financial assistance (nobody could have supported me anyway) but, accustomed to dealing with difficulties, I did not perceive this situation as unfair. I had left home at the age of fifteen so I was used to taking care of myself… It had not even occurred to me to ask for support and anyway I was too proud to ask. My reason for going
there was not to improve my living standards but to be an artist.
And Paris welcomed me enthusiastically. This was the time of great enthusiasm for Poland’s anti-communist struggle and for Solidarity. The great César himself invited me to his studio at the Academy of Fine Arts in Paris and showed my work to students as an example of true creativity and original aesthetic, pioneering, something which had not been done before. The art salons of Paris opened to me… and this was really great for my work and creativity. I did not complain about the challenges of my everyday existence, this aspect was not so important to me. Later, as I began my international activity, I would continue to do so individually, without any institutional support from Poland despite representing and working for Polish culture. Poland was formally liberated from communism, thanks among others to the people like my friends and myself, but for years it would struggle economically and the influence of former communists, disguised and reinstalled in many government institutions, would linger.
In France, where I had the official resident status, I was still regarded as a stranger, a foreigner, despite contributing to French culture (over the years I participated in over forty exhibitions), so I had no institutional and financial support. And for a long time I regarded this as normal although working on many projects I would see artists from other countries benefiting from the strong financial backing of their respective governments and state cultural institutions. Over time, however, I began to perceive my situation differently. I saw them equipped with tools I did not even know existed, represented by agents and promoted by museum curators, assisted by teams of specialists… And I would be competing with them equipped with a ladder and simplest makeshift tools. But armed with my talent, inventiveness, and courage to take up challenges, I kept creating sublime sculptures that captivated the public and grabbed the attention of the media.
A little better equipped, I would have been able to make my constructed “spaces” even more impressive. Also, I would have been spared the humiliation of confronting my impoverished circumstances with the spending power of my better-off colleagues while participating in group events. Having experienced the problem of plagiarism and copycats prying on my creativity, I now know that had I been supported by the state or some powerful cultural institution, I would not have been so defenseless and hapless.
With this kind of support, I would have also been more interesting to museums and prestigious institutions and thus my art and name would have become an established value – valeur sȗre – on the international art market. And I would not have been robbed by the dishonest large production companies of artists internationally and commercially successful thanks to stealing my ideas. With this kind of support, I could have hired lawyers to go after the thieves and liars who operate uninterrupted robbing me of opportunities to show my continuously evolving original art. They also rob me of any prospect of financial stability after the forty years of my international activity in the field of sculpture.
The aforementioned dishonest Wrocław artist was the first one whose mean actions hurt me, painfully testing my faith in people and the moral order of the world, but exploring the niche medium of studio glass she has proven not the most dangerous. The most threatening to my career have been the great plagiarists operating on the world scene! Supported by museums and powerful institutions. […] is a Belgian artist of a younger generation who has taken my earlier works in wood as his model. Supported by the world of design and fashion, he has filled the collections of many museums with wood sculptures identical to mine but painted red! Invited to the Jing’an Sculpture Park in Shanghai last year, I was “not original” because he had already been recommended there by his powerful protectors. Japanese artist […] intervenes into space with the black line in the same way I have been doing for years in white. Assured by her growing success (she already exhibited at the Venice Biennale) that her art solely dominates on the international arena, she no longer uses other colors as disguise so there is no visible difference between our works.
Perhaps, (as suggested by many who do not want to risk using the term “theft of intellectual property” in reference to the practice affecting me so adversely) since my idea has been so popular, I should be proud of what I invented in 1981.
— What about the situation with the Palais de Tokyo? It is a very important venue in Paris, the city which has been your principal place of residence and work for the last thirty years…
Asked by the former director of the Staib Gallery in New York why he exhibited a plagiarism instead of the original art of Ludwika Ogorzelec, the director of the Palais de Tokyo answered apologetically that he did not know Ludwika Ogorzelec! He doesn’t know me after my thirty three years of artistic activity in Paris and some forty exhibitions in France… He does not know me although my studio is located just several kilometers from his institution… Four years after the Palais de Tokyo showed the controversial piece by […], it is like nothing has ever happened! Despite the fact that I have felt an increasingly negative impact on my situation of their exhibition having been staged at this prestigious venue. Despite my efforts, I have since not been able to find a space for showing my work in Paris. The single invitation from the Villa Datris Foundation I received early this year was cancelled on the pretext that my site-specific pieces would be too big for the venue although […], whom they also invited, assisted by her team makes her/my forms even bigger. I also feel isolated in my personal contacts with people who have known my work for years because I am stigmatized as an “artist with a problem”.
The young French female lawyers I hired four years ago enthusiastically took on my case hoping that the conflict between an individual artist and such a powerful institution as the Palais de Tokyo in Paris might become their legal firm’s vehicle to fame. I agreed because I had no money to pay them. Initially, their work on my behalf was financed from the minuscule state fund for those who could not afford legal representation. They worked on the case for some time… and then I have lost contact with them. They have ceased to communicate with me! They would not take my phone calls or answer my e-mails.
— I can sense bitterness in your words but I know that it reflects your painful experience of feeling robbed of your intellectual property…
In time, the feeling of bitterness has subsided. Fortunately, I have been stronger than its destructive power. I continue with my art and take it to distant countries, far removed from the centers of the Old World, where they still want me and where my art can evolve in new spatial contexts. I even joke that as a person responsible for the state of world art, I have to press forward because those following in my footsteps are waiting for new ideas to appropriate and fill galleries and museums with their products. And it would have worked even better, had their powerful promoters not been their worst enemy by limiting, through their decisions and media policy, my opportunities to show my new inventions to their “stars”. I am sort of puzzled that they do not mind that their “stars”, cut off from new ideas, begin to wither, wane, and… pale? But how am I to feed them if I can’t show them what to do next?
Is it not suspicious that they find the presence of my original art disturbing? For eight years now, I have had no chance to show my work in Paris. The city where I have been living for thirty three years, where my studio is full of my now historic pieces, where over the years I participated in over forty exhibitions.
On a more somber note, the problem of plagiarism, so detrimental to my career and the quality of culture in general, poses some fundamental questions. Could culture – which is to enrich, educate, and improve humanity, to keep the universe harmonious and balanced – be built on lies? Why is this problem so difficult, why are the people confronted about theft of intellectual property so often inclined to blame the victim rather than the perpetrator?
Why does uttering the word “plagiarism” often hurt not the copycat but the original artist who dares speak the truth?
Confronting French, Japanese or renowned English plagiarists of my art, it is me who has to explain and prove that I was the first one, many years before them, that there is evidence of that in the press… And still, there is no positive outcome for me. Oftentimes, people just shrug and the discussion is cut off short without any effort to remedy the problem. Another and I think fundamental aspect is public tolerance for theft of intellectual property which is not even called theft. Most often it is referred to as “inspiration” which renders it permissible and even positive.
— The artist’s monograph, solidly researched and documenting the timeline of her or his work, may become an instrument to fight this abuse. Such monograph is now a project in progress. Our conversation will hopefully also contribute to creating an honest picture of your art and your attitude, your moral, life, and artistic choices…
I do hope that the monograph we are working on will provide a balanced and comprehensive picture of my work and its place in the history of art.