JOANNA MALINOWSKA SPENDS a lot of her working hours in thought, trying to organize her time, space and materials. Sometimes what the Polish-born, New York-based artist calls “procrastination” works and sometimes it doesn’t, but, as I discovered in following her process for the 2012 Whitney Biennial (which I co-organized with Jay Sanders), she takes the curator on a journey. She might test her ideas out, and if they don’t function the way she wants, she may let them go, or bring them back in another form later on. Sometimes they come together at the very last minute. This open-ended process makes the resulting piece feel very fresh. One sees the rumination, the making and the spontaneity, and then one sees something at the other end.
Born in Gdynia, Poland, in 1972, Malinowska came to the U.S. in 1994. Attending Rutgers University, she majored in art but was also keenly interested in cultural anthropology, which has proved to be important to her subsequent work. After graduating from Rutgers in 1998, she went on to receive her MFA from Yale in 2001. Over the past dozen years, throughout a diverse practice that crosses mediums—from video to monumental sculpture and installation—she has maintained a consistent interest in cultures that are not her own, and in something that we might say is beyond any boundary.
As her work has evolved, Malinowska has brought that otherness into a confrontation with modernist Western art. Sometimes the clash of cultures is palpable, with a touch of the absurd. For an exhibition at her New York gallery, Canada, in 2009, she constructed her own version of the boli, a ritualistic object from Mali, incorporating both traditional materials and shredded items that held a personal signifi- cance for her. In the gallery, she installed the large boli, shaped vaguely like an ox, with a Minimalist-type cube and a canvas resembling a Malevich black painting. She placed similar ingredients in a washing machine that ran during
the course of the NADA fair in Miami in 2011. At the 2012 Whitney Biennial, she contributed a Duchampian bottle rack made of animal tusks, and a video in which Joseph Beuys and Hugo Ball appear to her in a vision brought on by drinking an Amazonian potion.
Malinowska cultivates both the mystical and the musi- cal. For a group show in 2010 she repotted plants she had picked at the gravesites of famous anthropologists, then mounted round-the-clock surveillance cameras in the gallery to watch for apparitions. Her fascination with mid-20th- century European modernism extends to music, particularly that of the French avant-garde composer Olivier Messiaen (1908-1992). In a 2008 video, she cast a character as Jesus Christ listening to the performance of a piece by Messiaen, who had composed it as a religious meditation.
Malinowska and I met this past November as she was contemplating her upcoming show, which will inaugurate Canada’s new space on Broome Street, in Lower Manhattan.
ELISABETH SUSSMAN Did you think of yourself as an artist when you were still in Europe, or was that some- thing that developed after you came to the U.S.?
JOANNA MALINOWSKA I had thought about going to art school and considered doing that in Poland, but I ended up going to Rutgers, which affirmed my interest in becoming an artist. In Poland art education is a little bit different than in America. In order to get into the art academies you have to pass various exams, in drawing, painting, sculpture. In America you apply with a portfolio, and if you’re in a university you can just take art classes and not necessarily plan to become an artist. In my case it was sort of an organic process. I majored in art, but I also took advantage of other possibilities. I really loved anthropology, comparative literature, stuff like that.
SUSSMAN So you never did any of the prep work that you would have if you had attended art school in Poland?
MALINOWSKA I did, but it was very frustrating, and the exams seemed too rigorous. Polish art education is based on the idea that art is a God-given talent, and that if you don’t have it you will never learn, no matter how hard you practice. So it was shocking to me when I came to an American school and found out how open-ended it is.
SUSSMAN Can you describe generally what it was like growing up in Poland?
MALINOWSKA I grew up in Gdynia, on the shores of the Baltic Sea. It was an important place at that time. Gdynia is near Gdansk, where the Solidarity movement started [in 1980], and both cities are known for their ship- yard industries. I was eight years old when the Iron Curtain began to collapse. This was a big part of my childhood. My father worked in one of the shipyards as a designer, and he was involved in the strikes and the riots.
SUSSMAN Did your family remain in Poland?
MALINOWSKA No, my parents moved here and then I came. They insisted that I go to college and study here, because I had second thoughts about going back to Poland.
SUSSMAN When and why did you become interested in anthropology and ethnography?
MALINOWSKA I don’t know if there’s a precise moment when I suddenly became enlightened [laughs]. Polish culture was very monolithic, very influenced by the Catholic Church. I was trying to escape from it, to find alternatives.
SUSSMAN So did you just start reading popular anthropology?
MALINOWSKA Popular stuff, of course. But my interest also has something to do with [the Polish-born anthropologist] BronisĹ?aw Malinowski [1884-1942]. Malinowska, that’s the feminine form of the same last name. I always had this fantasy that we were related. My father’s father died during World War II. His whole heri- tage is very mysterious. So it was possible for me to build on that fantasy and think that maybe there was some kind of connection. But after reading Malinowski’s biography, I am pretty sure there is no intersection.
SUSSMAN From my first studio visit, I realized that ethnography, which we will get into, and music, were important to you: “primitive” music, modernist music— though maybe it’s not simply music, but music standing in for modernist culture.
MALINOWSKA I don’t think it’s only specifically modernist or primitive music. I’m actually very interested in classical music as well.
SUSSMAN You staged an encounter with an unwit- ting classical pianist in one segment of your three-part video In Search of the Miraculous, Continued . . . .
MALINOWSKA That was the Polish pianist Piotr Anderszewski, who is quite internationally renowned. I wanted the encounter to seem like an accident. The idea was that he would bump into a lady carrying a bag full of oranges near Carnegie Hall, the oranges would roll into the street and he would help her pick them up. This was something very difficult to arrange. I knew roughly what time he was going to come from the rehearsal, but I didn’t know which way he would go. I had two ladies waiting in different places, and we hoped for the best. It took two hours, but he finally came out, and it worked as planned. It was such a miracle.
SUSSMAN In your video Three Gazes Out of Twenty , the pianist and his page-turner are unaware of the real, living Jesus Christ sitting there with them.
MALINOWSKA I am fascinated with Messiaen. There is such a strange juxtaposition between the mod- ernist music he wrote and the fact that he was a religious man. There’s this beautiful but very difficult piece, Vingt regards sur l’enfant-JeĚsus , 20 preludes for solo piano, contemplating the baby Jesus. It was a huge challenge to find someone who was even able to perform it. I was curi- ous about what Jesus would think of this music if he heard it. I mean, Jesus lived in times when not even the harpsi- chord existed [laughs]. After hundreds of years of piano music, the fact that this piece was written in his honor was something very strange . . . sort of a science fiction, from Jesus’s perspective.
SUSSMAN Why is Messiaen so fascinating to you?
MALINOWSKA I love the way his music sounds. That’s the basic answer. I love that he was such a religious person. And I love his obsession with birds.
SUSSMAN At one point you were planning a work based on that.
MALINOWSKA It’s still in process, because it’s very complicated. Messiaen wrote a piece titled Awakening of the Birds , for piano and orchestra, which transcribes the birdcalls of specific species arranged chronologically, based on the sequence in the morning when birds of each species, in a very particular place, begin to make sounds. I would like the birds themselves to perform the piece, reversing Messaien’s extraordinary process.
SUSSMAN: And what of your interest in so-called primitive music?
MALINOWSKA My familiarity with a lot of this music comes from old LP vinyl records. I used music from the upper Amazon in my Biennial video [This Project
Is Not Going to Stop the War, 2012], along with a bit of Beethoven’s Midnight Sonata.
A very interesting figure to me now is Papusza [BronisĹ?aw Wajs, 1908-1987], a Roma poet who lived in Poland. At first she lived a nomadic life. Writing was taboo among the Roma people, but she broke the taboo, writing songs and poems, learning from children she encountered during her travels. She’s just coming to light right now. Her story is very beautiful, although very sad, because she was not allowed to live with her community and had to settle down. She was punished for the fact that she was writing poetry.
SUSSMAN I read that you want to have it performed by various New York musicians.
MALINOWSKA I’m interested in the whole idea of language traveling in certain words and sounds. So I’m thinking about having some of her poems translated. I want to use a very primitive Google translation, because that sometimes generates interesting results. Some musi- cian friends of mine will create music for the poetry and perform it, sometimes in random locations like the subway, where it can just appear.
SUSSMAN Did your studies in ethnography con- tinue at Yale? How did you begin to express this interest in your work?
MALINOWSKA Well, it’s not like I don’t have ques- tions about ethnography or anthropology as a science. I think it is very questionable politically. In many cases, I use ethnography to stage a confrontation between cultural elements from different parts of the world or history.
SUSSMAN Tell us about the boli.
MALINOWSKA A boli is a ritual object made by the Bamana culture in Mali. It has a vague animal or occasion- ally human shape, and is made out of various organic mate- rials. Traditionally, it was produced by a very special society of blacksmiths and priests. The boli was usually created to maintain a balance. Placed on the altar, it was considered to have special powers.
I became familiar with the boli by going to the Metropolitan Museum, where there is a very beautiful one. Gary Kuehn, my sculpture professor at Rutgers, pointed it out to me and explained how it was different from other works of African art in the same room. At the time, I didn’t know that it would become so appeal- ing to me. But after I read more about it, I became fascinated, and decided to make my own boli. A Polish construction worker from the neighborhood helped me. We had fun. We built the first one together in Wil- liamsburg, in an empty lot. The basic materials were the wood armature of a traditional boli, and the usual clay, plaster, hay, stuff like that. But then there were some special substances that I added—some water from the Bering Strait, for example, a very mystical place, which was shipped to me by a person I met through the Internet. I also included a shredded copy of Spinoza’s Ethics, since I felt like it was good to have a Western philosopher in the mix, and a sweater of Evo Morales, the president of Bolivia, who is from an indigenous Aymara family. The boli is sort of like a Christmas tree or birthday cake. It can be repeated, so I gave myself permission to make a few other ones.
My boli idea actually began with the Large Had- ron Collider in Geneva. I really like the idea of those little particles colliding. It’s pretty advanced physics, of course. But what I like even more is that there are people who are very afraid of the collider. What if it causes some uncontrollable reaction, and the earth turns into a black hole or something? There are irrational rumors surrounding the whole experiment. I thought it would be interesting to make a show that would try to mimic the experiment, but using cultural objects. So instead of parts of atoms, I had the boli and Malevich’s black square and other elements confront each other in one room.
SUSSMAN And your washing machine?
MALINOWSKA That was a later installation, from 2011, but sort of playing on the same idea. I thought that the machine might act like a small collider, with objects in a perpetual spin.
SUSSMAN The list of ingredients includes 15 ounces of dirt from Chichen Itza, and “a handful of nothing” collected in darkness after a performance by Zbigniew Warpechowski.
MALINOWSKA Warpechowski was a 1970s Polish performance artist. Some of his practice has this shamanis- tic element, and I wanted to borrow that.
SUSSMAN “Cartesian doubt” was in the mix. I thought that was a description of a state of mind.
MALINOWSKA I used a written-out formula.
SUSSMAN What else . . . a dead hare—perhaps a reference to Beuys? And hemlock, the poison drunk by Socrates; a book by Leibniz and another by Malinowski. Also “ultra-violet C shortwave.” What’s that?
MALINOWSKA It’s a wavelength that’s very friendly to bacteria. I had the particular lightbulb that produces this kind of wavelength.
SUSSMAN So then you literally ground all these things up?
MALINOWSKA Metaphorically. They were just hit- ting each other.
SUSSMAN You have said that one of your favorite sculptural materials is just pure cultural clash. And that when the work is successful, the whole becomes more than the sum of its parts.
MALINOWSKA I guess.
SUSSMAN One recent work you’ve made is called Self-Portrait as Penis Envy .
MALINOWSKA It is a video of me trying to do the same thing Bruce Nauman did in his photograph Self Portrait as a Fountain [1966-67]. Basically it’s a black-and-white video, sort of the esthetics of Man Ray, document- ing me repeatedly [spitting a stream of water out of my mouth], trying to be a fountain and a penis at the same time. It doesn’t have any sound. I had to practice very hard to maintain the same nice arcing flow of the water.
SUSSMAN Throughout your work you address many major artists, from Meret Oppenheim to Nauman, Robert Morris and Marcel Duchamp. Your sculpture for the Whitney Biennial was a Duchampian bottle rack made of faux tusks [From the Canyons to the Stars, 2012].
MALINOWSKA I was thinking about the collective unconscious and the idea that certain very similar things pop out in different parts of the world and in different eras. I imagined that something like Duchamp’s bottle rack could have happened in some other part of the world and suddenly it occurred to me that the same structure could be made out of animal tusks. In the video at the Biennial I have Hugo Ball and Joseph Beuys appearing to me in a vision after I drink chicha de yuca, the famous Amazonian moonshine. Maybe certain historical figures are among those cultural ingredients that I like to mix and collide.
SUSSMAN I was struck by your work Speak To Me [in the group show “To Believe,” at La MaMa La Galleria, New York, 2010], with the gravesite plants and photo- graphs of famous dead anthropologists, and the surveillance cameras.
MALINOWSKA I thought it was a wonderful oppor- tunity to make famous anthropologists the subject of an experiment. So I went to their gravesites and picked some plants. Since bodies in graves decompose, I thought per- haps particles of the anthropologists were in those plants. I replanted them in the gallery and we had them under surveillance for weeks, looking for some special signs from the other side. I was interested in whether Malinowski, for example, would come back as a ghost. The plants did well for most of the show—especially Margaret Mead—but towards the end they started dying.
SUSSMAN Could you describe your process a bit?
MALINOWSKA I sometimes procrastinate before I begin to make things. I have to fantasize, and think about my work in the middle of the night, and have all those weird epiphanies. It takes me a long time to actually start something and I tend to do it at the last minute.
SUSSMAN Is that something you were taught in art school? Or does it come from your inner necessity as an artist?
MALINOWSKA It’s part of my inner necessity, absolutely. But I don’t think we were discouraged from doing that at Yale. A few years ago I was talking to [art critic and poet] Barry Schwabsky, who at the time was teaching one of the seminars. He was complaining that the students in my year had had all these big beautiful studios but there were barely any objects in them, because everybody was doing video or performance, thinking about what they wanted to do. It’s funny how we were probably not taking advantage of those fantastic facilities.
The only time I was discouraged from working this way was at Skowhegan, after I finished my MFA. I remember Allen Ruppersberg coming to my studio and telling me that I reminded him of his friend Bas Jan Ader, who always spent time thinking about his work and not doing anything. This is wrong, he said; you should start experimenting with the materials rather than thinking for so long. But I was very pleased that he compared me to Bas Jan Ader. It the biggest compliment I’ve ever gotten in my life.
SUSSMAN Do you see yourself as a member of a generation of artists that is particularly 21st-century?
MALINOWSKA No, I think I am working in ways that were there earlier.
SUSSMAN Yet you probably do lots of research on the Internet.
MALINOWSKA That’s absolutely true. The avail- ability of information sometimes changes the whole idea, because you suddenly find something that takes you somewhere else.
SUSSMAN And your work for your upcoming show?
MALINOWSKA [Among other things,] I’m in correspondence with the wife of Imre KerteĚsz, the Hungarian writer [b. 1929], about his book Kaddish for an Unborn Child . It’s written from the perspective of a writer who refused to have a child. Though mainly a long monologue, it also involves imaginary conversations with people he encounters, and with his ex-wife. In addition, he uses fragments from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. And I’m working with mud cakes, which I am interested in both as a reference to famine-stricken countries and as an abstraction.
SUSSMAN One piece you talked about before the Biennial, and that I hope you’ll still do, is about Glenn Gould playing a piece of music as a tree is being sawed down—something like that, right?
MALINOWSKA Gould had to have a tree removed that was somehow making it impossible for him to play a certain piece of music. I’ve shot the video of the tree, and I think my piece is going to get made. I wasn’t certain about it. I sort of lost my confidence in it.
SUSSMAN I could almost see that piece when you were talking about it, so I was sad when it didn’t get made for the Biennial. But I think curators should be more attuned to the artist’s process, and not be so driven by deadlines and exhibitions. You lose something for one show, you’ll get it for another.
MALINOWSKA That’s a great thing to hear [laughs]. I’m growing to accept myself. It’s not always easy to work in such a way but I find it impossible to change. This is the way I operate and I think I have to be allowed to do so. It’s important for an artist to live with ideas. It’s almost like being a musician . . . not so much a matter of practicing, but of having to live for a substantial time with the work that you are going to perform, in order to have something to say. For me, it’s the same.
COMING SOON A solo show at Canada, New York, planned for this spring.
ELISABETH SUSSMAN is a curator at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York.