Selected Press Links:
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Three Artists On Machines
A Critic's guide
The shock of the Now
Featured exhibition : Song to the Siren
Age of Apocalypse
Elephant Magazine Spring Summer 2022 Issue
London Round up
Amber Waves at Public Gallery
Art Monthly June 2021
CoBo Social 2021
Collected Writings By Artists on Artists
Jonathan Baldock on Rafał Zajko
Three exhibitions to see in London this weekend
Rafał Zajko : Amber Waves
The Art Newspaper
Lucy Springall - Rafal Zajko, Amber Waves (Bursztynowe Fale)
What art has to say about our dietary staple
As the effects of climate change and degradation of the environment become ever more apparent, many artists and authors are turning their critical eyes towards the various global systems at play. For some artists, this criticality is less one of blame but instead explores the antagonist-protagonist dialectic, often raising more questions than giving answers and engaging the imagination to introduce new points of view. In his latest exhibition Amber Waves (Bursztynowe Fale) at PUBLIC Gallery, Rafal Zajko does this to the agricultural system.
Wheat, farming and agriculture are subjects that have been referred to previously in Zajko’s work, but from a personal perspective, reflecting his working-class upbringing in Poland and family history of farming and factory work. Borrowing the title from Amber Waves: The Extraordinary Biography of Wheat by Catherine Zabinski, in this show Zajko departs from his own autobiography to consider instead the story of wheat: how in ten thousand years it has gone from being a hostile plant that was not readily digestible, to one making up 70% of global food energy intake and what the implications have been for human bodies, societies and the environment.
Of course, there are many different types of agriculture - from the earliest cultivation by our hunter gatherer ancestors through to large scale modern industrial monocultures. Zajko does not distinguish between these, or the different cultures and societies that practice them. Instead, he focuses on the enmeshment and entanglement of grain with the human species across cultural, societal and historical boundaries. Some may find this problematic, but I would argue there is value in this species wide approach in that it provides a vantage point showing what Yuval Noah Harari in his book Sapiens calls “the general direction of human history” and indicating where collectively as an ecosystem we may be heading. This view can be debated but that’s a good thing, demonstrating the value of art to provide a site for discussion.
What strikes you first about the exhibition is how sterile the space feels for a show about food. There is a functional and constructivist aesthetic, possibly reflecting Zajko’s eastern european heritage. This sharp contrast to the organic and often messy subject matter brings up ideas around the factory and how disconnected many people have become from the origins of our food in late capitalist society. This disconnection is further accentuated by the 1950s ‘Atompunk’ style of many of the works, which highlights the ability of technology to both empower and estrange and relates to Zajko’s imagining of wheat as an alien force that has been cultivating and domesticating us, rather than the opposite way around.
On entering the gallery your eye is confronted by Prometheus, a vivid green wall sculpture with two glass domes. The smaller glass dome at approximately waist level contains a slowly rating stoneware loaf of bread. This womb-like feature - a humorous take on having ‘a bun in the oven’ - primarily responds to the myth of the Greek God Prometheus who is said to have created humankind from clay. Prometheus then defied the gods by stealing fire and giving it to humanity, bringing knowledge, progress and power into our hands. Parallels can be drawn between this story and the view of agriculture as a major advance for the human species, forming ‘civilisation’ as we know it. Yet today global agricultural production also bears its share of responsibility for many global challenges, from climate change and ecological damage to poverty and public health crises. Another correlation to the sculpture could be made with the so called ‘Promethean attitude’ that many capitalist and communist societies have towards nature - an attitude of dominion over and domination of. The upper glass dome in Prometheus encases an infinity mirror which reflects our image back to us and, along with the mechanisation of the sculpture, prompts us to individually contemplate what civilisation, born from agriculture and these attitudes, has done to us.
Surrounding Prometheus, and responding to PUBLIC’s site as a former bakery, a series of wall sculptures depict various baked breads displayed on aluminium trays as if they had just come out of the oven. On closer examination, these familiar items become unexpectedly strange and bodily: a phallic baguette could be indicative of virility and inserted medicinal labels suggest a link to health and perhaps gluten intolerance. Embedded in the ceramic loaves of Produkt III (Matka) and IV (Peer) are synthetic nipples, one female and one male although you would never know which without the associated references of title and baguette.
These nipples reflect on gender disparities observed in some early farming communities. In Syria, female skeletons dating to around 13,000 BC display attrition at their elbows and knees from crushing grain kernels against a grindstone using the weight of their own bodies. Such changes in women’s work also had significant implications to child rearing. Research suggests that in hunter-gatherer societies, women would often breast-feed their young for as long as three-four years, and that this functioned as a form of intentional birth control (K. Spielmann, 1989; Winterhalder & Smith, 2000). With the change to a more sedentary lifestyle babies became less burdensome, this along with increased food supply and the need for women to work in the fields meant that weaning occurred earlier. Breast milk was replaced by porridge and gruel and without breastfeeding as a form of birth control birth rates went up. Zajko’s sculpture Matka (meaning mother in English) both implies that bread has become foodstuff as important as mother’s milk and reflects on this post-agricultural population explosion that subsequently solidified the dependence of homo-sapiens on wheat and farming to feed ever more mouths.
In the basement, the anthropomorphic nature of the work continues. Three human-sized structures, Syphon (red, blue and green), allude to the process of mechanical filtration and draw parallels with our own bodily processes. Synthetic urine thaws from frozen casts and collects in ceramic organ imitations beneath before being excreted onto corroding copper panels on the floor, perhaps an homage to Andy Warhol’s ‘piss paintings. Syphon demonstrates how damage, in this case corrosion, is often extended through technology. The industrial feel of the room and the parallel of factory processes with our own bodily systems is further highlighted by several wall based ‘operation manuals’ surrounding Syphon. Kontakt II (Rusty Harvest) is a wall relief sculpture depicting two embracing robotic human characters. It is made largely from terracotta but also significantly includes a variety of natural and man-made materials such as metal, wood, wheat and freehand embroidery. It seemingly refers to the people involved in these industrial processes and alludes to Zajko’s and much of humankind’s heritage as village farmers, crafts people and factory workers.
Many of the wider references in Zajko’s work are often hidden in small details. A good example of this is Emmer, another dome like structure in which a synthetic fleshy ‘spine’ is encased in bread. Whilst the ‘spine’ alludes to how farming, and the agricultural legacy of siloing of work into ever more specialist tasks, has affected human backs and bodies, that is not all that can be read from this sculpture. Underneath the dome there are three ‘buttons’ each significantly made of a different wax (natural beeswax, melted church candles and crystalline wax). The use of beeswax suggests both the importance of bees as pollinators, and also the ways that farming monocultures have led to a sharp decline in their numbers. The melted church candle wax hints to the importance of myth and religion in enabling humans to cooperate in large enough numbers to form civilisations and ever more extensive agricultural systems. The crystalline wax may reflect today’s mechanised and synthetic society. Together they appear to show the progression of material culture away from the organic towards the more synthetic.
While the work in the basement and ground floors of the gallery examines wheat processing and consumption respectively, that of the upper floor looks at the impact of agriculture on the environment. Recent research has shown that agricultural systems contribute to the transgression of four out of nine planetary boundaries as defined by J. Rockstrom et al (2009) to mark a safe operating space for humanity. Although climate change is the most widely recognised, these boundaries also include biosphere integrity (i.e., biodiversity loss), land-system change and biogeochemical flows of elements such as nitrogen and phosphorus (from fertilisers). Eartheater, a large wooden floor sculpture comprising a bright blue log cased within a plastic dome, appears to primarily reference climate change. Every thirty minutes, the log both exhales and inhales smoke, symbolising human breath, life and the ability of the Earth system to cleanse or rebalance itself if allowed to do so. Also in the upper gallery are Chordate I and II, wooden wall sculptures which contain stones, drill bits and embroidered circuitry. These items along with the name are suggestive of the evolution of Homo sapiens as a tool-wielding animal, and together with Eartheater, they raise the question: where do we go from here as a species and as an increasingly globalised society? The Retrofuturist aesthetic common throughout the exhibition also asks us as the viewer to reflect on the past and imagine possible futures. Is this the present that we desired, and what do we want our lives, bodies and planet to look like 50 years from now?
Nostalgia, Interrupted: How Eastern European Artists Are Reshaping Their Cultural Heritage
London-based Polish artist Rafał Zajko borrows motifs from pagan parables, agriculture and Soviet rectilinear architecture for his works. These nostalgic tropes are blown into orbit, inhabiting ambiguous retrofuturistic landscapes that oscillate between dystopia and utopia. An example is Zajko’s human-sized Amber Chamber (2020), a mix between brutalist monument, ancient sarcophagus and sterile cryogenic freezing chamber. This bright totemic structure embodies the harvest as both an economic and spiritual event with a wheat icon carved into its chest. The transparent pod contains the cast of the artist’s own head strapped into a mask with long wheat pieces as the reincarnation of the mischievous straw figure Chochoł, who protects rose bushes from winter frost in the 1901 novel by Polish writer Stanisław Wyspiański. This rebirth chamber portrays life, myth and heritage itself within a synthetic metamorphosis.
While grounded in the realm of speculation, Zajko’s sculptures also incubate material histories of labour and industry – wheat, steel, drill bits, cement, and wood. His recent exhibitions Filter (2020) at Goldsmiths College and Resuscitation (2020) at Castor Projects present his ongoing research around wheat as a complex symbolic and somatic framework within rural working-class ecosystems and mythologies. The artist himself grew up in the Polish Region of Podlachia, where daily rituals interlink with systems of agricultural production. In this body of work, the nostalgic and real homes intersect through global systems of production and myth that impact both macro-economic infrastructure and personal consciousness.
Hector Campbell, Art Historian, Writer and Curator
For his MFA Degree presentation, Rafal Zajko presents ‘Filter’, the culmination of four years of part-time study. With a triptych of wall-based reliefs and a trio of free-standing sculptures set against a lurid scarlet backdrop, Zajko proffers his allegory of societal self-censoring, the impedance of ecological expiration and the pursuit of harmonious collectivism.
Ceramic circuit boards and measures of wheat, barley grain and flour are interred within transparent domes, the sculptural reliefs serving as an amp visual representation of Zajko’s dual lineage - his family in Białystok, Poland being employed as factory workers and field workers in equal measure. Here the wheat is both literally and metaphorically separated from the chaff, echoing the established refinement methods integral to post-harvest processing. In their adjoining display domes, a similar search for purification is taking place; red, green and blue light can be glimpsed through the vents, ducts and stoma of the indeterminate ceramic switchboards, as they continue their refractive quest to unite and form white light.
Zajko’s preoccupation with the additive primary colours of RGB and human trichromacy is further evidenced by the tricolour structural supports of his totemic sculptures, which near figuration as they stand to attention, close to life-sized. Likewise, a more corporeal distillation is occurring within, as synthetic urine thaws from frozen casts and collects in the ceramic conduits/organ imitations beneath, before being excreted onto copper panels below. Undoubted chemical corrosion occurs and Warhol’s Piss Paintingsare evoked as Zajko’s engraved copper plates are gradually obscured by oxidisation and the resulting copper oxide patina. Just as the innate cyclical nature of agriculture or manufacturing is suggested in the wall-based works, so too are biological bodily systems in the free-standing sculptures, as the urinary simulacrum is repeatedly recollected, remoulded and refrozen allowing the filtration function to recur.
Lastly, art and artifice collide in both series of works, as Zajko hints at deceitful doings through both the depiction of cylindrical forms comparable to countryside crop circles, the hoaxing phenomenon aimed at propounding extraterrestrial existence, and the appropriation of synthetic urine, a semi-illicit substance commonly utilised to ‘beat’ urinalysis drug tests.
Rafal Zajko, Resuscitation
Castor Projects, London
Rafal Zajko: Resuscitation
Review by Laura O’Leary
This is Tomorrow
Breathing and the nature of our bodies as something that air passes through have never been considered so urgently as in this show. Rafal Zajko, a London-based, Polish artist, has been making wall-based works that look like vents for a year–a fact I discovered during a remote conversation with Zajko to discuss his exhibition, ‘Resuscitation’, at Castor Projects in London, which was open for just one day before its closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
At first glance, ‘Resuscitation’ appears as the set for a space-age laboratory in the form of a sculptural installation–we are clearly entering the future, with all the technological advancements that it brings. A large, vibrant orange tomb called ‘Amber Chamber’ (2020) takes centre stage, whilst other sculptures in bright, carefully considered colours are placed at varying levels around the room. Everything looks functional, clinically perfect almost–the words “don’t press the big red button” feel right at home here. The walls are dark green. Zajko lets me know that this colour is at once reminiscent of hospital scrubs, whilst also indicative of arsenic, referring to ideas of both healing and damaging in a binary act that recurs throughout this exhibition.
In the tomb, there is an artificial-looking male figure with his eyes closed. Only his head is visible, which is styled with a headpiece embellished with wheat, acting as a barrier, protecting him whilst simultaneously adorning. This is Chochoł (pronounced Hohow), from Stanisław Wyspiański’s 1901 play ‘The Wedding’: a mythological story from the artist’s youth in Poland. In the 1901 version, Chochoł was an anthropomorphic creature–think Cousin Itt from The Addam’s Family. The form of the character was inspired by the sheaves used to protect rose bushes in Polish fields against the winter frost, whilst warding off animals, and often mistaken for human figures. In short, the sheaves were a human intervention to keep something alive, much like the act of resuscitation.
In Rafal’s home province, Podlasia, you can find Bialowieza, the only medieval forest in Europe. Podlasia is also a place that has spiritual healers and herbalists, paganism mixed with religion. Catholicism was embedded in Rafal’s upbringing–he lets me know that the idea of “the breath of life” was a marker in his youthful thinking alongside folklore and mythical stories. Rafal had planned with Castor Projects to include multiple performative elements in the show, where he would breathe and re-breathe into the sculptures through a vape. There is something of a ‘good guy’ and ‘bad guy’ attitude here–breathing new life into these sculptures while emitting a gas that is scientifically unknown, resurfacing questions around the safety of vaping.
We can quickly look to ‘Lazarus’ (2020), a sculpture shaped like a moth that was believed extinct in 1962 until it was rediscovered in 2018. In this show, life is reappearing, much like the character of Chochoł. The costume worn by Chochoł is described by Rafal as ‘biological armour’; a merger of peasant and sports clothes, traditional and modern labour. The costume has wooden-carved abs and a protruding spine–a handmade aesthetic suggestive of how Chochoł was made in the woods.
Before the closure, Zajko performed a piece called ‘Interludium’ (2020). For this, he wore the same costume as the entombed Chochoł; embodying a character whose very matter is rooted in the earth, protecting the harvest. Zajko sung a traditional Polish funeral song; it was sombre, beautiful and filled the space with new meaning. Here, the artist as Chochoł laments the new realm he has entered; even in this futuristic, fictional world, things are not okay. The lyrics of the song speak of saying goodbye to the world and everything around you, welcoming a new planet and the promise it holds…
During Rafal’s performance, a vape sits on the ‘Amber Chamber’–the native gemstone of Poland. We discussed the meaning behind the vape and Zajko revealed how his work often cites the Industrial Revolution, typified by his earlier, concrete structures. The act of vaping is dramatic, like something static suddenly becoming active. Zajko referred to the steam rising from factories, an indication of progress as well as decline as ecosystems are consequently destroyed.
“Returning from the brink,” Zajko explained, was something that really struck him about this work. ‘Resuscitation’ could be seen as a funerary monument to the imagined future of the global eco-crisis, but with the hope that there is potential to return from the brink.
Young Artists in Conversation
Interviewed by Fred Cosci
You told me that you shut down your last exhibition, at Castor Projects in London, because of Covid-19. The exhibition was officially open for one day and you didn’t have an opening either. Would you like to talk about it?
Obviously the Covid-19 pandemic has had a huge impact on every aspect of life as we know. It felt very strange to be installing the show with news of it and its impact unfurling. It was scary. I could have never imagined that it would have caused the show to close completely and not reopen. In this current state of global anxiety I guess I am happy that at least it got to be installed and documented, and I’m hopeful that it will have a different life in another way sometime in the future.
I tried really hard to push myself with this exhibition–to go outside my comfort zone. I felt a need to go really big, and to break free from the confines of the small studio I work from, and not let that limit me. Also, I wanted return to performance, which had played a large part in my work a couple of years prior.
So I’ve been working on these sculptural pieces since we saw each other last summer during the Fotopub festival. I started thinking about them as a kind of extension of my own body, and then I thought: How can I bring them to life? How can I animate them? And then I thought: by using smoke! But I didn’t want to use a smoke machine, because I felt that’s too theatrical. I had this idea of breathing life into something.
Basically the pieces on the wall were animated by me from behind the wall with a vape. I was breathing vape smoke from my own lungs into the works from behind the gallery wall. So, you could see all the works as a kind of extension of me, a kind of prosthetic lung. There is a big red piece called ‘Lazarus’–its shape comes from a moth that scientists thought was extinct, but then discovered it’s not. I filled the glass dome with vape smoke, and then when it was full, I started sucking out the smokey air with my lungs. So, I was kind of polluting it, but also trying to clean it. So I was the protagonist but also the antagonist..
In the show it looks like there is a specific storytelling. Would you like to explain the relationship between the artwork and folklore performance that you do?
With ‘Resuscitation’, I was reflecting upon this point just before death when something is brought back to life. I was thinking about us as a human species trying to save the planet, protect nature before it crumbles.
In ‘Amber Chamber’ I created a kind of sarcophagus for Chochol, a character from Polish folklore. My thinking was that this character would act as a kind of metaphor for resuscitation. He was a character in a novel called “The Wedding” (1901) by Wyspianski. The author created this character called Chochol who was causing mischief, because people were disrespecting nature. Chochol’s form comes from the shape of the hay stacks that would protect smaller trees in the fields during the winter.
In the performance I was singing a traditional funeral song from my region in North-East Poland. It is a very Catholic area, next to the last remaining bit of primeval forest in Europe. In this region there are a lot of people who are spiritual healers, fortune tellers and older ladies called whisperers. So there’s this really weird mixture of Catholicism/Orthodoxy, that is strangely intertwined with paganism.
The song comes from a traditional way of voice emission called white singing mostly sang by older ladies in choirs at funerals. In the lyrics, a person says goodbye to the world, starting with their material belongings, then family and nature. I liked how the lyrics of that song could also be understood as saying goodbye to the earth, as a planet. I wanted it to be interpreted less about mourning and perhaps more about an expectation of something else. New beginnings.
The performance is really deeply embedded in research I have been doing on Soviet cosmism, and Nicolai Fyordorov–his ideas about how he thought that humankind was only going to find happiness somewhere other than earth.
There is also a piece, ‘Software IV’, which looks different from the others’ artworks...
‘Software IV’, is part of a larger series of works exploring the idea of collaboration and fabrication. Each piece has so far been worked on with different people.
For the initial ‘Software’ (2018) works I produced a series of three embroidery panels that also acted as cryptic pictorial instructions for people (whom I had never met) to complete the artwork.
Each panel was fabricated by a different person from different backgrounds in the gallery’s locality (in Prague) including an architect, a professor at an Art Academy and the gallerist’s father. The only information given to them was that they should be produced in concrete, the precise size and that the directive embroidery panel should be incorporated into the work. The results were varied and exciting.
Each of the works was open to the makers interpretation, and so the ‘Software’ works explored the relationship between artist and maker and stood testament to the huge potential for creative play through artistic collaboration.
With ‘Software IV’ (2020), I worked with prosthetic artist Dalton Desborough. I initiated the work by producing a cast panel with three empty slots, and then asked Dalton to produce three pieces of work to be inserted into them. The result was this vent-like sculpture with flesh like inlays. I had been thinking about skin and it’s connection to ventilation. In recent years we are constantly reminded about the amounts of CO2 produced by our actions. Plane flights, the use of plastic, fast fashion production, the use of internet–even the amounts produced by sending an email! I was thinking about calculating the amount of CO2 produced by a human in their life time by the simple action of breathing. How much CO2 our skin produces through the process of perspiration; how polluting the atmosphere is embedded in our sheer existence.
I was wondering also, what kind of inspiration do you find outside the art world? When we were previously talking, you told me that one of your pieces was inspired by the video-game “The Legend of Zelda”. I can also see a video-game game aesthetic with all those buttons that remind me of a joystick.
Definitely! A computer/video-games game aesthetic is definitely in my work. Specifically the actual physical objects–the plastic controllers etc.. Perhaps it comes from the fact that I come from quite a poor working class family in Poland and I never actually owned a computer myself. I was always going to play video-games on friend’s computers. I actually only got my first computer, after I moved to London, aged 19. I got to play all the games that my friends used to have back in the day, because I wanted to have them for myself for the first time. I guess that more than coveting them I almost kind of fetishised them.
I’d also like to add that the kind of aesthetic I use also was influenced from my family background. Half of my family worked in a fabric factory. I remember going there and seeing these huge machines: strings everywhere creating these fabrics with loads of boxes, and then being allowed to press buttons that were doing different things. The other half of my family, who were working in the fields also used machinery which was covered in buttons and stuff. I presume there’s this connection between this workmanship and my childhood obsessions with technical appliances and then gaming.
I was curious about the objects you take from the ‘real’ world that you place into your works, like the fag butts or wheat. I like the idea of a link between reality and a fiction you create where I don’t expect to find these elements.
The idea for bringing in elements of the real world to some of the sculptural objects is to create a kind of reliquary. Wheat being emblematic of seasonal cycles and nature, working in the fields etc– a motif of the Chochol character. The cigarettes seem to be the perfect reminder of our own mortality. More personally I had just turned 30 and given up smoking for more than 16 years... so they were on my mind–often!
What are your future projects?
Because of the current pandemic future exhibitions and projects have kind of been thrown in the air for me. I think it has really made me think about the future of art in these uncertain times, and how I might learn and evolve from it all that is happening. I think how we experience art might change permanently. I have been thinking more about working collaboratively and in a manner that is generous to the viewer and kinder to the environment–and I don’t mean just going digital! I feel kind of excited by this and the challenges it will throw my way.
This year also marks the end of my Masters at Goldsmiths which I have been doing part-time for the last 4 years. All going to plan the degree show will go ahead with an exhibition in September 2020. My hope is that I will be showing some newly evolved breathing wall sculptures.
Interview by Veronica Gisondi
Your recent show Resuscitation at Castor seems to stage an encounter between technology and folklore, science and myth, natural cycles and artifice—spheres that are conventionally treated as opposites. But the process of resuscitation itself is an act that literally breathes life into a human being through physical contact, and so is very corporal. There are several instances where technological apparatuses and organic forms come into contact and overlap within your work. How have you built your perspective on these aspects?
Prior to the show i had been working on the idea of sculptures that could become active through breath or smoke; I was fascinated by the idea of bringing the sculptures to life, so the title “Resucitation” seemed like a perfect fit. I had no idea when i began making the work some 18 months ago of the obvious associations of the word now in the midst of a pandemic, or of the works breathing and expelling smoke. Seeing the work now it is eerily prophetic.
These sculptures could be looked at as extensions of myself, strange prosthetics that perform. My body is embedded in every aspect of the work–they are made physically by me, and then animated by my breathing the vape smoke through them, in a performance.
The idea of breathing life into something is deeply rooted in my past, coming from a catholic household in Poland. Bialystok (the city i grew up in) belongs to a particular region of Poland (Podlachia) that includes the largest remaining parts of an immense primeval forest that once streched across European plain.
A connection to the local folklore, superstitions and mythological beliefs were deeply ingrained in me. I was raised in a working class household with family either working in the factories or on the field. I was deeply obsessed with the machines that aid the workers in both of these settings, and was always interested how they operate–which button does what, what would be the result of pulling certain levers etc.
So to summarise the title “Resuscitation” connects to a range of things. From life-saving equipment in intensive care, to cyclicality of the field work and nature: the winter decay to seeding, bloom and harvest.
Narratives from the past are featured significantly throughout your work. They sometimes appear as nods to science fiction, or as references to folklore and ancient books, all of which are often merging or concurrent in your sculptures. How have they informed your practice? Do you see an affinity connecting the ways different types of storytelling can shape our collective imaginaries and feelings of nostalgia?
I would say this is quite a complex questions but a core belief of mine is that we better understand the present and future by looking at the past. As an artist I get to create my own reaities and weave together many different aspects of my research and interests. I can tell you the reason that i make reference to each and every one in a work or exhibition but it is quite difficult to summarise.
For “Resuscitation” at Castor Projects I looked at the character ‘Chochol’ (pronounced ‘Hohou’) from Polish folklore. He is the personification of a straw structure positioned around rosebushes to protect them from harsh winter conditions. Chochol features in Stanisław Wyspiański’s 1901 novel The Wedding, portrayed as a mischievous character causing havoc when ignored by the wedding guests. You could look at Chochol as both a symbol of necrosis; dying skin and the decay from the winter, and as one of resuscitation; a harvest of vegetation as a means to give us life and the strength to function and grow. Whilst resuscitation and resurrection have crossovers, one is a medical term, the other more mythical. Wheat and barley come to symbolise the rebirth and resurrection, with bread representing the body of Christ during communion.
Within the gallery space sits a large sarcophagus which hosts the Chochol character within, keeping him alive, a familiar science fiction image, where the protagonist is protected during their journey to a new planet. Elsewhere in the space we see a wall-based sculpture outlined in the shape of the moth ‘Parastichtis suspecta’, last seen in the UK in 1962, and thought to be extinct until they were rediscovered in 2018.
I was wondering if you could speak about how your Technological Reliquaries came to be. By definition, a reliquary is a container used to store and preserve something holy. To me the title of these works suggests a proximity of the past and future of technology, perhaps a collapse of the two.
The reliquaries pay homage to a hero of mine–Paul Thek. Thek’s Technological Reliquaries (1964–1967) (originally titled Meat Pieces), considers isolation from another perspective. In the series we see plaster and wax casts of Thek’s limbs and face alongside weird meaty slabs of unknown origins that sit enclosed in glass or plexiglass vitrines. Similar to Francis Bacon’s Head VI there are visible disfigurations on the subject and both are enclosed from the outside world. They feel contagious, as if the air entrapped inside would be poisonous and unpleasant for our sense of smell. Technological Reliquaries are a direct reference to the relics and traditions in religious material culture, following the catholic tradition where casts and replicas of affected body parts are offered to deities or higher spirits with prayers of hope or gratitude for the healing. The glass structures of Technological Reliquaries keep the viewer outside and imprisons the wax-flesh inside, keeping them enclosed in stasis, just as the body of Vladimir Lenin lies in the St. Basils Cathedral at the Kremlin in Moscow. Although controversial, Russia still defends its existence through public funding, with the corpse preserved in baths by various reagents and solutions to keep it looking as if Lenin and his regime could be awaken again one day.
Paul Thek’s Technological Reliquaries reached their climatic point in 1967 with the piece Tomb. It was made in the period when Thek moved to Europe and stopped producing objects for the Art market. His focus went onto creation of richly detailed immersive environments, mostly large scale and removed from current conceptual discourse. Piece consisted a large 2,5 metre high structure resembling Mesopotamian Ziggurat. It was painted in pale pink colour and inside of it lay a full size meticulously crafted version of Paul Thek. Figure was dressed in denim with blackened tongue sticking out of it’s mouth.
There seems to be a deep link between your sculptures and architectural styles and designs that were led by a fascination with the idea of modernity and tended towards the future, such as soviet architecture, brutalism, and industrial aesthetics. What’s your relationship with architecture?
Being Polish means that i have an obvious connection to this architecture because it was so visible and present to me growing up. I am drawn to the optimism of this architecture and sculpture–the dream of the future as the happy was place. As much as there are dark aspects to how communism existed or how it was applied in eastern Europe it’s premise was fantastic at it’s core. Togetherness and building a bright future for humanity were noble incentives sadly mostly were used only in the propaganda. They ignored and used the people at its centre–the workers.
I’m drawn to the sacrality of the architecture.
Through the use of jesmonite, concrete, steel, bricks, construction materials and embroidery, you seem to place particular attention on the structure and nature of matter. Software, technology and acceleration aesthetics are brought back to a handcrafted, raw dimension that allows the making of your work to emerge. Can you speak about the role of labour in your work?
I love to learn new skills, use unknown materials and master unfamiliar techniques. Its a way of working that keeps my mind active and suits me. For me working with the hands keeps the mind active and allows time to think.
I also like routines–working an 8–9 hour working day, and the feeling of physical exhaustion at the end of it I would describe as total bliss.
Review by Sonja Teszler
The allegory of a Brechtian play seems accurate to describe the various layers of ‘Habitual’ insofar as its experimentation with breaking through the art world’s Fourth Wall, as well as changing the pace and choreography of the exhibition. The play commences as a member of the gallery staff invites the viewer to sit on the bench or simply watch on as they step onto the wooden structure (the ‘stage’) and start pulling out its racks one-by-one, revealing the 5 individually curated storage surfaces. Each of these chapters tells a different story, mixing gallery and non-represented artists. (...) Rafal Zajko’s compact jesmonite sculptures, ‘Otwarcie’ (2020), ‘Vent I’ (2019) and ‘Rebuke’ (2020) are brilliant punchlines with their retro-tech aesthetics, resembling a bird’s-eye view of Soviet buildings or a flattened Gameboy surface. Their blockiness, both robust and somewhat endearing, is a nice contrast to other more ornamental artworks (...).
My tu bylismy/We were here
Text by Janusz Noniewicz
Rafał Zajko titles his exhibition “We were here”. This title, although it most likely exists printed on a poster and other graphical materials prepared for the exhibition; although it is most likely a part of a graphic design and the main typographic element (all of the above is purely speculative, as I write this text before the graphic material are completed), directly references the wild, illegal inscriptions created in public space, very often considered to be acts of vandalism. But this particular sentence–by the virtue of being the official title of the exhibition–was transported into the administrative sphere and no longer retains its rebellious functions. It can be considered their metaphor at best.
However it still expresses the same sentiments as the wall writings: the desire to record oneself, mark one’s own presence; to show the word one’s existence!
Art is obviously perfectly suitable for this role. Zajko himself is certainly in an advantageous position–he does not have to secretly and illegally record his presence, as an artist, he has at his disposal a public space in a prestigious part of the city. He could write “I was here” on gallery’s white walls, prepared especially for him, and he would meet with his audience’s approval. But he does not say “I was here”, instead he says “We were here”. He doesn’t want to record only his presence; he wants to force us to record our presence along with him.
But who are “we”? In what “we” does the artist want to dissolve himself? What kind of collectiveness does he want to become part of, or what kind of collectiveness does he think he belongs to?
Rafał Zajko fills the walls and the entire space of the gallery with the objects he has created–works of art. Objects, which represent his own artistic language. Objects which present his, so to speak, handwriting. Zajko is an artist with a very particular aesthetic style and as such can be “easily recognizable”. This type of aesthetic consequence is a form of personal signature in the world of art. We could call this a signature, but we could as well (please, let me mention Derrida, without him my texts look as if they are not mine) follow Jaques Derrida’s example and call it “signature”–all that attests to individuality (as this term is translated by Derrida’s Polish exegete, Michał Paweł Markowski). Therefore it is nothing else than affixing a signature without using one’s own name.
But already in these individual works the artist refers to the collectivity. One that is not yet named, but already expressed. We could say that it is a community of oppression. The aesthetics of Zajko’s individual works in a sense questions the individuality. His bas-reliefs resemble pre-fabricated elements, seemingly not created by an artist, but rather a collective of workers; people without their own names, human tools. The dominating motif are the graphically simplified symbols resembling hands and/or workshop wrenches. Brought together by an embrace (both people and tools) start to resemble each other. And it becomes hard to determine who assembles whom.
Zajko strips the human hand from its power of individual signature. Hand impression is often and individual sign. A symbol of inimitable individuality. It is a common knowledge among the pop-culture celebrities, who keep leaving their hands impressed in various star alleys. In the quasi-industrial, technical aesthetics of Zajko’s works, tool-like hands and hand-like tools do not have an individual character. They grasp each other, link together to form a chain (or perhaps a labyrinth), forming a hybrid and community. Zajko calls it “unity”, clearly pointing towards the objective nature of collectivity.
These patterns of hands and tools can be a sign of community once formed by the female and male workers of the “Fasty” Białystok Textile Industry Plants. The artist’s ancestors were members of this community, and objects with “Fasty” logo (did they even use the word ‘logo’ back then?) filled the world in which he was raised. He now recreates the logo in the exhibition as a sign of memory. Thanks to him the words “we were here” can be uttered not only by his grandparents, but all workers of “Fasty”–a once great industrial combine, which was defeated by the political transformation, and brought to ruin by the economic changes of 1990s. That is why he chooses to create his post-industrial rendering of the logo in ice. Just like the logo of “Metro” club–Białystok music venue, which is a legend of Polish electronic music scene. This is another world in which the subject is also the individuality-forming collectivity. The club, which gained a national fame, formed its own alternative community, which was a source of formative strength. This community allowed people to create their own identity and find their identification. This experience was shared by the author himself. Hence the reconstruction of the club’s logo in ice. “We were here”–these words are uttered by the signs of the past and they become past themselves before our very eyes.
But there are other signs being born before us. Zajko not only reaches into the past, but also designs future memories. He initiates collectivities. The entire space of the completed exhibition is painted over by a group of invited graffiti artists. They tag their presence completely independently. In their own way. They say “we were here” and leave. But I think that there is no chance that some of them tried to return one day.
Rafał Zajko, born in Białystok, is using this exhibition as an attempt to return. To retrieve. Not so much what has been lost, but what has been left behind. It is not about acquiring. About possession or exclusive rights. Its is about a signature. About an inscription. A mark. About writing oneself into the memory of this place. About going for cream-pies after the matura exams. (Karol Wojtyła’s famous viral speech in Wadowice was nothing else but tagging the place of return: “here was the house”, “here was the school”, “and here was the bakery”). We return to see how much of what we have created in our memory is actually left. We return to experience our lives in ruin. Not the metaphoric ruin, meaning that something collapsed or failed. The literal ruin–resulting from gradual passing of time.
Our memory does not recall past images. It manufactures them. Therefore each reconstruction is in fact a construction. Something totally contemporary. Searching for what is remembered, we are looking for what has never existed outside of our memory. So in order for the image of memory to be real, we have to interfere with the reality. Tag it. Chisel words into stone.