AN INDEPENDENT SPIRIT. Marysia Lewandowska is an artist born in Poland in 1955 who has been living and working in London since 1982.
You can listen to the podcast of this interview here.
Marysia Lewandowska, how did you decide to be an artist?
I studied in Poland and grew up under communism. The important event in my life at the time was the “Solidarity” movement in 1981. It brought a different idea of what the country could be socially. I was very young, but already involved with artists who were working in the tradition of conceptual art, something I was always drawn to. My starting point was poetry, writing, literature, philosophy. I published a book of poetry before I ever did anything in the visual arts.
What is your family background?
My academic great grandfather was an incredibly big influence in the family. He was a famous professor who was at the origin of establishing the foundations of the legal system in Poland. He began his career in Poznan just after the First World War and to this day a number of books he wrote are important for the legal profession. He was also interested in ethics and wrote The Ethics of Kindness. My parents and grandparents were intellectuals, and my stepfather was an artist so there was an entry into that world through him.
How was it to be an artist under a communist regime?
The history of communism in Poland is not a homogenous story. It’s very different from ‘45 to ‘53 when Stalin was still alive, and then a period after Stalin died which allowed more freedom within the Eastern Bloc countries. The 1960s was a more relaxed cultural scene. The 1970s was the era of the communist leader Edward Gierek, who introduced a market economy and the market was revitalized, but the country was in crisis through the ‘70s and the strikes and that background is important for how culture could or could not be what you call free or open.
After the introduction of martial law in Poland in the 1980s art went underground?
Martial law was introduced on the 13th of December, 1981. On that day I was on my way to join a workshop of Jerzy Grotowski in Wroclaw, a famous theatre director who also worked in Italy in the ‘60s and ‘70s, and I was stopped by the army tanks at the end of my street. To be a creative person under that regime meant inventing a way of expression that would smuggle certain ideas and meanings without overtly being political. But in fact all art made at that time was political.
“The principal role of an artist is to imagine and to make space for other people to imagine.”
Welcome Kestner Gessellschaft Hannover installation 2 2023
Marysia Lewandowska, was there a community of artists that you were part of?
I was part of a group of artists around a student run gallery called Pracownia Dziekanka, which was attached to the Academy of Fine Art. Once martial law was declared I was in a group of performance artists who were probably ten years older than me and who I had enormous respect for. One of them was a British artist from London called Iain Robertson. He graduated from Slade School of Art and was a collaborator of Stuart Brisley, a very amazing and still alive performance artist. Iain came to Poland in middle of ‘81 during the “Solidarity” era of Lech Walesa when all the leftists wanted to come to Poland to experience this takeover of power by the working class.
Was the influence of the now canonised Polish born Pope John Paul II very strong?
I’m non-religious so it wasn’t important to me, but he was important by providing moral support to the country in political crisis.
Why didn’t you stay in Poland and enjoy this transition?
Everything closed down on the 13th of December, 1981, when General Jaruzelski declared the state of emergency. The official story was that the Soviet tanks were standing on the Polish border about to invade – a very familiar story, exactly what recently happened in Ukraine. His narrative was that to prevent this invasion he made a pact with Moscow that he will declare martial law. So the Polish soldiers and tanks were on the streets, all telephone lines were cut off, all theatres were closed, all cultural institutions shut. I had the possibility of becoming a British citizen through the marriage to Iain Robertson so I packed up all the contents of my house and shipped them to Scotland.
What did you do when you got to London?
I needed time to think, so I applied for a scholarship to the Banff Centre in the Rocky Mountains in Canada. It’s a vibrant community and a wealthy, well-endowed residency place where creative people come to spend time with you in a dedicated way. I got the scholarship and left London in August ‘83 and stayed at the Banff Centre till May the following year. That time really helped me to think of myself as an artist. John Cage came for two weeks and was running workshops. He wanted to stage one of his pieces, Song Books, and he asked the artists to compete to make proposals for an environment for it. I got together with two other people, an Icelandic theatre director and a designer from Budapest, and Cage chose to work with us. I was 25 so can you imagine? It was incredibly inspiring and very exciting.
John Cage was an American avant garde composer. How was it to work with him?
John Cage was not a man of many words, but of very careful words, and because of my interest in poetry we had developed a bond over that. I was so impressed with him that I started recording, recording his voice, recording conversations, recording his readings. Recording acts as an aide memoire that something that we might forget will be recorded, and it also is related to history. My latest project, running right now at the Kunsthalle Baden-Baden, is called Recording 1989. Recording is remembering as well, and making sure that what is being done and said is available to other people through the recording.
How did your art career then proceed?
My cultural European roots are important to me. I came from an environment of critical thinking, resistance, questioning, constructing something that is independent from the status quo. I was learning more and more about what is this Western idiom, what is freedom, what is capitalism, what is expected of you as an artist, and I felt there was not really a place for me in Canada, so after Banff I went to live in Mexico to immerse myself into something very different. I had $500 and said to myself, I’ll stay there as long as the money lasts. In 1985 $500 gave me three months of travelling. In Mexico City I got interested in the communities where people construct their own homes out of nothing and the city provides sewage and electricity creating a cheap workforce.
“I wanted to establish my voice before anyone else could tell me what my voice should be in order to show and to sell.”
Marysia Lewandowska, then you came back to London?
I came back to London after the scholarship was over and the first person I met up with was Stuart Brisley, and he offered me my first teaching job at the Slade, teaching cultural studies and critical practice in theory. Michael Newman, now a professor at Goldsmiths, was interested in conceptual art and introduced me to artists that were working that way.
What was it like to be an artist in London in 1985?
People were saying, if you want to be an artist you go with your slides to galleries and you leave your slides and your CV. I thought, how humiliating! (Polish people have this incredible pride. Possibly it’s generations of resisting the establishment and also resisting the communist system.) I said, No, that is not wanted to do, but I can start recording conversations with other artists, predominantly women artists, women curators, women writers. I carried an analogue cassette tape recorder everywhere I went, to talks, to lectures, and did that for six years solidly. Then my daughter was born, so in 1989 I became a mother. With different time availability I wasn’t going out so much, so I started the second part of my interest in conversation as a medium, exploring what you can do with it as an artist and what it means to have a conversation.
Why did you explore this?
As a way of navigating what it meant to be an artist, a writer, a creative person, in the system in which I was living in London in the late eighties, a time of feminism and thinkers such as Derrida, Kristeva, Deleuze and Guattari coming to London lecturing and giving seminars. Much later this became the Women’s Audio Archive. I gave it that name to fake an idea that it was an institution or that it was bigger than what it really was, so that people would want to meet with me. Alongside these recordings I was inviting other artists to make special projects and I published three volumes of a book series called Sight Works. I believed in distributing ideas through publications, so was working with Stan Douglas, with Douglas Gordon, people of my generation who I was encountering through being in London. You see, that was my response to this proposal from some people to go and meet the gallerists. I wanted to stay as far away from the galleries as possible, because I wanted to establish my voice before anyone else could tell me what my voice should be in order to show and to sell. That drive to independence is something that has stayed throughout the 40 years of my practice. I’ve been very clear how I want to work, who I want to work with, what are the terms of engagement.
Your first gallery exhibition was in 1988?
My first exhibition was in a commercial gallery in Angel run by Barbara Carlile, a woman who opened the gallery in Angel, London in 1988. I was working with large photographs printed on a transparent film, working with a photograph as an object, and she gave me this first one person show. I sold all the work to the Arts Council collection and two pieces to Anthony Reynolds, who was by then a gallerist too. That first moment that someone has faith in what you do and what you’ve got to say is that moment of giving you the tools to go on. The next show after me was Rachel Whiteread, her first show. Carlile was a not established gallery showing not established artists who then became established artists. I got an invitation for further shows in public galleries and I was working with photography between 1988 and 1993, when my work changed.
In what way?
I met an artist called Neil Cummings through the Carlile Gallery in ‘88 and we had a child. Neil was a student of Antony Gormley, establishing his own career in sculpture. In 1993 I was invited by Public Art Development Trust to develop a project for the London Underground. It became a book of photographs called Lost Property that records one day of everything lost and stored in the Lost Property Office in Baker Street. That was our first collaboration, so from 1993 to 2008 I collaborated with Neil Cummings, and that’s really where the work changed from working with photography to working with institutions.
Invitations came from major institutions?
We worked with Achim Borchardt-Hume on the exhibition called Give and Take at the V&A, related to the show that he did with Hans Hacker at the Serpentine. We worked with Tate Modern on the first artist interventions series curated by Frances Morris, and we presented a project called Capital. The invitations came from public institutions that wanted to learn something about themselves and we became quite well known for this kind of work. The next project was called Free Trade at Manchester City Art Gallery. The moment of establishing a voice was made through that collaboration.
It’s About Time Venice Biennale 2019 FILM ENCLAVE1
how to pass through a door The Cosmic House London 2022
Recording 1989 Kunsthalle Baden Baden.1 2023
Welcome Kestner Gessellschaft.2 Hannover 2023
Millions Will Thank You
Recording 1989 Kunsthalle Baden Baden.3 2023
“I like working with archives, not in order to present an archive but to learn something and then take that knowledge and say something about now.”
Marysia Lewandowska, how long did your collaboration with Neil Cummings last?
Our personal relationship as well as our professional relationship ended and in 2008 our last work was probably the most important work, a film called Museum Futures Distributed that is now in the collection of Moderna Museet in Stockholm. They were celebrating 50 years of the establishing of the museum in 2008, and Lars Nittve, the then director of the Moderna Museet, invited us to do a project to celebrate their jubilee. Of course, we looked at the history of Moderna Museet, but we decided to construct the future of Moderna Museet for the next 50 years. So it becomes a centenary, looking at 100 years of a museum. It looks at the past, but it constructs the future.
What is the Women’s Audio Archive?
This is the first project after I was no longer working with Neil Cummings. After 15 years of collaboration, I needed to recover my own voice and establish myself as myself and I didn’t know how to do it but there were people who supported me, mainly women curators and women artists. A curator in Sweden called Maria Lind who became the director of the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College came to my studio as I was packing it up and moving away. She noticed these shoeboxes labelled the Women’s Audio Archive and asked me what they were. I told her that these were recordings that I made to orientate myself in London, and she asked me to make an inventory of what was on those tapes. When I gave her the inventory, she said, you’ve got amazing material. I did. I was in the studio of Nan Goldin in 1986 recording her story. I was recording Donald Judd at the Whitechapel. I recorded Allan Kaprow and John Cage at the Bannf Centre in 1985. Maria invited me come to Bard College for a semester. She raised the money so I could turn this collection into a public archive online. With that encouragement that’s exactly what I did. I like working with archives, not in order to present an archive but to learn something and then take that knowledge and say something about now.
How did you come to do Millions Will Thank You?
In 2007 Stephanie Rosenthal, a chief curator at the Hayward, invited three artists of whom I was one to look into the Hayward archive in order to celebrate Hayward’s 50 years. I was invited to produce a new project on the basis of the archive, and my trigger was: Why is the Hayward called the Hayward? No one at the Hayward knew so I decided to find out, and the reason the Hayward Gallery is called the Hayward Gallery is because of Sir Isaac Hayward. He was the leader of the London County Council for 25 years, and at the time when the Hayward was built the architects of the gallery decided that instead of calling it the Southbank Gallery, which it was called, they would name it after him because he made it happen. I was interested that you could be someone who did so much for public culture – the National Theatre was on his watch – and no one remembers your name. I produced a little postcard of a telegram that was sent to him at the time, which said: Millions will thank you. But of course, millions didn’t thank him either.
At the end of the day, what is your mission?
In the 40 years that I’ve been working, it’s very clear that women’s contributions have been marginalised, and the Women’s Audio Archive established for me this train of inquiry, which at the time was not art. What makes me a conceptual artist is that I take something which is a situation of loss, of erasure, of something that is missing, and I insert it into a cultural consciousness. Three projects: It’s About Time, how to pass through a door, and Welcome, are all related to the missing voices of women. This is really what I’m trying to do. The principal role of an artist is to imagine and to make space for other people to imagine.
What about Poland today?
Poland today is a tragic story. Poland is withdrawing its support for Ukraine. It’s manipulating the markets. It’s a fascist government. Artists have to do what I had to do in 1982, resist and construct different narratives. It’s not easy. The institutions have been totally destroyed. At the Museum Sztuki in Lodz and all the major museums, directors have been dismissed. Completely incompetent people have been appointed. It’s probably worse than communism. In communism it was very clear what are the boundaries of who you work with, who you don’t work with, who you collaborate who you don’t collaborate with. Now money and free market and capitalism have confused people. People don’t stick to any moral compass, a very small section of artists have integrity. And for me there is no work. There is no point just producing and producing and producing if you’re not asking yourself and others some important questions: How is this world going to survive the climate emergency, the intellectual emergency, the dumbing down, populism? These are the threats for people like me and other artists, and in Poland it’s a real threat.
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