Migrants not always successful

An interview with Marta Lisok and Ewa Łączyńska-Widz

in occasion of the exhibition It's Been a Long Way, Baby...
Gallery of Contemporary Art Bunkier Sztuki, curated by Anna Smolak and Magdalena Ujma, Kraków, Poland (2006, solo show)

E.Ł.: You came to Kraków because of your exhibition that just opened in Bunkier Sztuki, which is also the first presentation within the "Transculture" - a new project of Bunkier Sztuki. Have you ever been to Kraków before?

S.E.: This is my second time in Kraków. The first time was a few months ago to discuss the exhibition's details.

M.L.: What is your first impression after the vernissage yesterday? Do you like the final shape of the exhibition? How do you assess working with Polish curators?

S.E.: Basically, Anna and Magda are the only Polish curators I have worked with. They are very professional and international. I really enjoyed working with them. We first met in Berlin, I think two years ago when they mentioned the project. We had been discussing it for over a year. So, the whole idea of the exhibition in Kraków was in my head for a long time, but I gave Anna and Magda a free hand, and they prepared everything very well.

E.Ł.: You and Swiss architect Philipp von Matt run an atelier that helps in arranging architecture exhibitions. Could you tell us more about your work?

S.E.: We are interested in exposing contemporary art, especially new media, in connection with architecture. It's really important to find the right way to present contemporary art, to integrate space, lighting, and artworks, and to provide each work with an individual place. We work as both artists and architects. We are currently involved in a book called "Museum of Future." We are especially interested in ephemeral architecture, which is built for a few days for special art events.

M.L.: Did you find a solution?

S.E.: There is no one universal solution. Every time you have to deal with a specific situation, that’s why it’s a very creating issue.

E.Ł.: What’s about the title “It’s Been a Long Way, Baby…”. Was it your or curators’ idea?

S.E.: I heard this phrase from my friend, who listens to punk music and it originally comes from a song. It makes sense with reference to migration, where we are always in a way. Generally, people who develop themselves, in broad meaning, are always in a way. It takes a long way to achieve something.

M.L: Coming back to transculture. Do you perceive it as chance or danger for the world?

S.E.: For me transculture is a kind of central point of evolution, development and every revolution as well. From prehistorically time every development was connected with movement, with migration. When you move, you are never naked, you always carry your own “luggage”. Migration was one of the main reasons for evolution. For me, transculture is a positive aspect of everyday life. Migration generates new ideas, and new ideas can’t be a danger for human beings. The most danger would be staying in the same point.

E.Ł.: Do you want to make your afraid or show them something?

S.E.: Maybe those figures can scare someone, but it wasn’t my intention. Those guys look like they are. And I’ve tried to look like them, living like them, growing my hair or beard for a few days, few weeks. Trying to be like those guys, feel what they feel. People on the street, for example in Berlin, respect those guys. In the exhibition, for the first time, you are allowed to stare at them as long as you can.

M.L.: Why did you choose, in fact, these figures - Latin guerilla, Balkan gangster, Islamic fundamentalist?

S.E.: Living for so many years in the West, I have a kind of view, which figures seem to look dangerous for Europeans. It’s not what I think about those guys, but I know what the average European thinks about them. Those guys function as clichés. Let’s take Balkan men, nobody treats them like intellectualists (laugh).

E.Ł.: Have you started interested in migration because of your personal experiences as an immigrant or because of observing the surroundings?

S.E.: Of course, observation is one point, but in the beginning, it was my identity and a question “Who I am?”, not “Where I am?”, but “Who I am?”. The question is where the center and periphery are. Living in Iran, the view of where the center is, is completely different than what people in Berlin think about. I’d like to ask the question who I am depending on where I am?

M.L.: You live in Berlin - a very cosmopolitan place. Why did you decide to stay there? Is Berlin a source of your inspiration?

S.E.: All my films were made in Berlin, except the last one, which I did in London. Indeed, Berlin is a very cosmopolitan place but very specific in the same way. There is a big difference between Berlin and London. In Berlin, generally in German, the problem of immigrants is completely different than in Great Britain. Because in German, they’ve never wanted to have immigrants. Immigrants most frequently. Immigrants most frequently just arrive, work, earn money, save money, and return to their countries; they don't integrate into the German community. But in some cases, they can't go back, and a very bad situation is created. Germany is a big issue. After my twenty years in Germany, I can say that Germans never accept foreigners, especially the foreigners I show in my videos. I wanted to make them more visible than they are in the German community, even though there are many of them. They do cleaning and many other jobs, but people don't see them. In London, the situation is a little bit different. There are so many migrants, so many colors, that my little darkness is nothing strange (laughs).

E.Ł.: Why did you choose video as the main medium?

S.E.: Video, for me, is one of the most interesting new mediums. It allows me to depict a problem in a short form. It's very informative, giving a feeling of being somewhere, a feeling of reality. It's also easy to transport and show in different places.

M.L.: How long does it take you to prepare one movie? Who helps you?

S.E.: Actually, the short videos took me more time than the longer ones, like the ones shown in Bunkier Sztuki. I think about a general idea, then I have to change my physicality, which takes me more or less time. Then I have to choose a location and arrange everything.

E.Ł.: Strangers seem like a leitmotif in your works. When did you start to explore this problem?

S.E.: In 2002, actually. I started making art in 2002. I'm really not a young artist (laughs).

M.L.: Irony is an important part of your artistic language. Do you think it's the best way to address serious issues, or is it just your way?

S.E.: Being ironic is a kind of enjoyment. I don't want to change the world through art. My intention is to show how the world is, or rather, how I think it is. I try to condense my observations into a short and light form. I think it works better than teaching people what they should do or how to deal with a problem. I care about making art relatively easy to understand. Of course, the perception of art has changed a lot after conceptual art, but it's still important to make art accessible. I don't like art that is too confusing or too intellectual. Language is still a significant barrier in the perception of art. So, I really try to create something like international art that contains important essence wrapped in an accessible form. On the other hand, there is a need to expand art education to cultivate an awareness of art. But art isn't science and should never be.

E.Ł.: Is your intention to fight against stereotypes or to make Europeans aware of their fears of strangers?

S.E.: Strangers are everywhere. There is no place in the world where there are no strangers. It raises the question of who the "other" is. And those who ask the question are always in a better position than those who are labeled as "others." Nobody has to love the world, nobody has to love everybody. But it's really important to accept others. It's important to believe in the idea of freedom, sharing democracy everywhere and for everybody. Let people be who they want to be.

M.L.: How do you feel when you pretend to be different figures, like a Latin guerrilla, Balkan gangster, Islamic fundamentalist, etc.?

S.E.: I feel very well. I always have a lot of fun. In the video, it lasts a few minutes, but in reality, it takes a few days to prepare for a role. So, there's enough time for many funny things to happen. Last time, I stood on a London street holding a sign that said "Paradise," and one passer-by asked me where paradise was. I pointed in a direction, and he went there without saying a word (laughs).

E.Ł.: Do you feel that all those roles can affect your own identity?

S.E.: Probably, sometimes I feel like I have multiple identities (laughs).

M.L.: Do you feel more Iranian or more German? Is nationality still a relevant term nowadays?

S.E.: Nationality is a really problematic issue. What makes you Iranian or German? The idea of borders is especially interesting in relation to history when borders changed, and nationalities changed as well. Why does being 200 kilometers away make you Polish or, let's say, German? I think identity is mostly about education, so cultural identity is more important. What you think, how you think, and what you do. Then, the next issue is political identity - what you think about social matters, laws, etc. Another identity is religious, how you perceive the world and the depth of your beliefs. Gender is another form of identity. So, there isn't one inborn identity; you create your own identity day by day. The interesting thing is something like a temporary identity, how I behave in different situations, like when I'm hungry or cold. Sometimes I find a completely different person within myself.

E.Ł.: Why did you specifically place a big mirror at the entrance to your exhibition? Spectators have to look at themselves and ask the question "Who am I"?

S.E.: In one of my earlier presentations in Berlin, I displayed objects of immigrants like suitcases, suits, and shoes. I used a mirror with lamps around it so the audience could look at themselves and define their identity amidst those objects of strangers. In Bunkier Sztuki, I placed two mirrors. The first one, with lamps around it, is located at the entrance of the exhibition, and the second one - a regular mirror without light - is located at the exit. When you look into the first mirror, you see yourself like a movie star, being who you want to be. After watching the videos with all those strange figures, you look into the regular mirror where you don't look as brilliant. Hopefully, at the exit, you have a chance to look into the first mirror again and confirm your own identity as you had when coming to the exhibition. Also, at the entrance to the exhibition, there is a key point of the whole show - a lightbox that says "Home" - so when you enter the gallery and after visiting, you are at home, a safe place.

M.L.: And where is your home?

S.E.: I'm living in a rented one (laughs).

E.Ł.: You will be working on a project with students from the Fine Arts Academy in Kraków. Could you describe it? Do you enjoy working in groups, with students or other artists?

S.E.: Definitely yes, it's always very inspiring. The whole idea of what we will do tomorrow is related to architecture. We will try to build temporary architecture in front of Bunkier Sztuki. I invited other artists from Kraków to join my project and, in turn, join my exhibition. Since the exhibition is inside the building, I would like to do the second part outside. It has to be a kind of performance, a music concert at the same time, a big art party in general. I had a class with students yesterday; we walked around the city, chose people, and invited them to the Sunday event. Many of them asked surprisingly, "Why me?" We took their pictures, and they gave us permission to come, so we're interested to see how many of them will come on Saturday. All in all, we invited around 100 people, so it's going to be quite a crowd in front of Bunkier. In the Middle East, people believe that a photographer takes their souls when taking their picture. So, we have all the souls of those people, and even if they don't come, they will be with us in some way (laughs).

M.L.: What are your plans for the future? Do you want to continue exploring the same topic of migration?

S.E.: When I finish a project on strangers, I always feel like it's incomplete. I always feel like there's some type of immigrant that should be shown. In fact, the project is still expanding.

E.Ł.: Do you think that transculture is also an important problem nowadays?

S.E.: Migration is a really big issue that entails a lot of other aspects. Especially migration connected with World War II resulted in the current political situation. Migration also raises significant questions about identity, which we have been talking about.

M.L.: Do you think that we live in a world that is full of terrorism?

S.E.: Most of terrorism is media terrorism, shown and partly created by TV, like CNN. In my mind, terrorism is mostly a construct of the media. Personally, I haven't seen terrorism in my entire life. I don't feel afraid.

M.L. and E.Ł.: Thank you for the conversation.

Kraków, 17th November 2006

Dr Marta Lisok, art critic and curator. Teacher at the Department of Theory and History of Art of the Academy of Fine Arts in Katowice. She graduated in philosophy from the Silesian University and in art history from the Jagiellonian University.

Ewa Łączyńska-Widz – (b. 1983) art historian, curator, writes about arts, director of BWA Contemporary Art Galleries in Tarnów.