Interview

Goshka Macuga


London, August 2021

Part 1

Grant Watson<Where should we start? How far back?

Goshka Macuga<Birth? What a mistake, I want to climb back and reverse. That would be quite good to reverse all of those historical things, as well as your own personal history and start again.

GW< To the big bang!

GM< To the big bang, exactly.

GW< I suppose there’s your growing up in Poland and moving to London.

GM< Yes, I don’t know if you want to know the dates, but I came here in 1989 and I was 21. This was partly to escape Poland—obviously there is a long history of why—but the essential reason was that I didn’t get a place in the university or the academy of arts in Warsaw, twice! From the age of fifteen to twenty, I went to a secondary school with a focus on applied arts and design, but also painting and the technology of painting, all of that. And then at the age of nineteen or twenty, you apply for a BA at an art academy. So, I had a training in arts and design from an early age. And I definitely knew that I wanted to be an artist, but I wasn’t really completely convinced if I wanted to be a fine artist or to do something else. It was more what your best friends want to do. One wanted to go and study the conservation of icons in St. Petersburg. So, the first year I applied to go with her. And then another friend wanted to do something with interiors, so the following year, when I didn’t get into the St. Petersburg program, I applied for that. And on both occasions, I didn’t get a place in the academy. That was like the final thing. I was fed up. I was living with my family and financially dependent on them. And then I had a friend who came to London and really encouraged me to come and visit her. Of course, at the time it was completely impossible because we didn’t have passports. If you wanted to travel, you would have to apply for a passport. We usually could only travel within the Eastern bloc, then on your return to Warsaw you had to give the passport back to the passport office. And then to go to London (or any foreign city, really) was hard financially because you had to convert the weak Polish ztłoty into hard currency then to another currency. That’s partly why people didn’t travel—no one could afford it. I came for two weeks to visit this friend. I had to apply for a visa and do all sorts of things, and was lucky to get one. And then I only had 500 pounds on me, in cash, and I didn’t speak any English. And when I finally got to London, I asked myself, “Am I into being here?” Because before that, I had only travelled to Vienna. And of course the contrast between Vienna and London in the 1980s was stark because Vienna was really rich with luxurious cafes, stuff that you get really drawn to, then you come here and it’s pretty hardcore. It was a recession and the place was slightly apocalyptic.

GW< It was. Were you shocked?

GM< Yeah, I was quite shocked. I think I temporarily stayed somewhere far out of the center, and I didn’t have much money to take public transport, so it felt isolating. But I was lucky enough to end up in Goodge Street. That was one of my first addresses. I lived in someone’s housing association flat, sharing with him and his girlfriend. It was grim, but it was great because then I just walked everywhere. That was already after I made the decision that I’m not going back.

GW< How did you navigate that legally?

GM< So, initially I came here with a Polish passport, and at that time Poland wasn’t part of the EU. You got a visa that allowed you to stay for six months—which I got on the basis of taking some English courses—but if you left for more than two months or something it was void. At the beginning, it was totally fine for me to stay here and study for a few years. I wasn’t entitled to work, but I did, part time. And then I basically started thinking, “oh well, maybe I should apply for an art foundation course.” My biggest fears were always about the language, because I couldn’t speak. Finally, when I did apply to the foundation course at the Whitechapel campus of the Sir John Cass School of Art, I went with some Polish friends who spoke English better than I did. So, we were somehow together in this. And the people who ran the foundation course were really cool, Niki (Nicola Oxley) and Nico de Oliveria, who had the Museum of Installation. I’m still in touch with them. And it somehow inspired me, the stuff that we did. I don’t remember doing anything amazing, but it gave me enough strength to think, “well actually I really enjoy this and maybe I should pursue this more seriously.” So, that was when I knew that I would stay in this country if I could. And once I figure this out, I could be considered a local student. I still had a student loan, but I didn’t have to pay some crazy 10,000 pounds or whatever it was they charged oversees students for a year of BA at Central Saint Martins. That was a whole other path, because then I was in the system of education and I was building up connections with people, and I was enjoying what I was doing. And what I was doing then was still very much connected to what I was interested in in Poland. It was analyzing this whole reality of living in a kind of semi-communist state and in a way looking at the relationships between the Eastern Bloc countries, especially the Soviet Union, and the influence of that culture on our education, which was very much modelled on the Soviet system. We shared a huge amount of references and we all studied Russian—we had to read Russian literature in Russian—plus I am a quarter Russian anyway, on my mom’s side. I was working through all of this, but when I came here in ’89, the principles behind it were already in question, because there was the collapse of the Berlin Wall and perestroika. And it was the beginnings of undoing of all of the seemingly solid structure that we were brought up with.

GW< Did you feel that already when you were in Poland?

GM< Of course, we knew that lots of it was complete nonsense and propaganda, and the skepticism towards this from the Polish side has always been there. I mean, the attitudes of Poles towards Russians are very negative and the other way around. But there was a significant place for certain things like art, literature, cinematography. . . the cinematography of the post-Russian Revolution period and all the Soviet movies that we had access to. We knew how to filter through this, what the truth was and wasn’t and how far propaganda was involved. But generally, we’ve always had this relationship of considering the Russians and Germans as oppressors. So, when the system collapsed, it was amazing. But I was also brought up in a family very skeptical towards communism, that was always critical towards it. So I was very surprised when I ended up going to Russia to visit my friend in St. Petersburg, who was doing the restoration of icons course, and I saw that a lot of Russians were completely devastated about the collapse of the system and their livelihoods, and their system of beliefs with it. They were true communists, true believers. I don’t know if you have seen Chris Marker film, The Last Bolshevik [Le Tombeau d’Alexandre, 1992]? That movie somehow touches me so deeply because he talks about this history. He interviews lots of families of Soviet filmmakers, the true communists that wanted to really follow the whole ideology. They came up with this idea of a train that went all around the Soviet Union. And they would film everyday life in those different environments, then on the same day they would develop the film on the train, where they had a lab, and then they would screen it in a cinema on the train. I guess what I discovered for the first time when I went to Russia were these true believers, because I felt that what I had been exposed to was skeptical and completely unengaged, an attitude of everyone waiting for things to collapse rather than ever believing that it would work out. And the biggest skeptic was my father.

From the transition of coming here, to starting my education, to having some kind of reflection on my past, this was the first moment of something forming. And then of course, my attitude towards history. And that is a link with what happened in the nineties. That the whole educational system had to be rewritten almost, especially history. There were many things that were revealed that were always hidden and you were not allowed to talk about, big events that happen in our history. So, everything got somehow reinterpreted. And then, of course to say that history is fluid is a problematic statement, but the subjective interpretation that somehow colors events or colors facts or truth was something that really excited me. But this coincided with other things—artistic activities that came together into the method of work that I’ve developed since. It was about history, about creating a kind of narrative around facts, but it was also about the context. The structuring of the context and the manipulation of this context, which then links to the context of the institution, the gallery, or the space where you present the work. So, these things somehow just came together like a puzzle. The personal path, some reflection through the change of moving here, a reflection of what would it be if I studied, for example, in Russia versus studying at Central Saint Martins, which was probably one of the leading courses in Fine Arts. It was a big gap and somehow, I had to place myself within these parameters.

GW< It’s interesting because when I first met you, I remember the art scene of that time, when I suppose you were formulating your practice. It was post-Goldsmiths in 2000 or 2001. You had been here for ten years already and it was a context of the recession in the early nineties plus a whole DIY generation of artists who were self-organizing.

GM< Exactly, that was essential.

GW< So things were happening in people’s flats and in squatted spaces. And you were developing a practice, which was at that time very much about the scene, about the collective, bringing multiple practices into the frame of your installations; it was curatorial. And I remember the first time we met, I commissioned a piece of that kind for the Austrian Culture Institute, what it was called. . .?

GM< ZOOBOX (2001).

GW< Yes. So maybe you could say a bit about how that period was for you.

GM< Yeah. This was related clearly to being at Goldsmith’s. We were fed with all this history of the Young British Artists’ success and how capable they were to cover all the ground, meaning showing the work, selling the work, writing about the work, promoting the work. And of course, there were only a few people probably really capable of doing it, but this was the essence of what I aspired to take from it. Obviously, I didn’t have access to any of the British cultural background of those YBA works. It was something that I couldn’t get into, partly because of the language, partly through my cultural and personal history. The only thing I could get into were the actual dynamics. And it wasn’t just me, it was lots of us because we were somehow trained at the Goldsmiths to succeed or die, even if you’re really good at something, if you couldn’t promote yourself and push, you are already a loser. Lots of people even very, very capable and very interesting artists, they couldn’t go through with it. It was too much, too demanding. And I guess, I probably was one of the students least expected to do well. Everybody thought that I would just be a short-lived artist that gets married and has a baby. But with different people in our year, we had things covered. Some people ran spaces, some people did shows in temporary locations, some people wrote articles about these shows, some people published their own magazines. So there was a whole system of how we could be totally fulfilled within our group without needing to be part of the establishment or going to commercial galleries or even being part of institutional programs. And this worked very well. And it was a very vibrant time because, the rules formed themselves as we went. I always talk about BANK as the most exciting element. The way they did work, and their shows and how they organized, this was for me another world, I loved it so much. It gave you the freedom, that you could basically do whatever you want, wherever you could.

GW< I think there was also something about the materials. Because the YBAs, although very diverse, often ended up working with high-end fabrication. But here artists were using cardboard, bits of fabric, marker pens, and it was often about how with a poverty of materials you could make a magical installation.

GM< And also feeling slightly desperate, to actually get out there and have some audience. I actually decided to do stuff in the flat where I lived with my partner at the time. And this was an interesting thing because we overlaid different parts of the show, and we invited different people to come and go, but we didn’t always delete the works. Even if there were site-specific elements from the previous participants, we layered everything. And then interesting things started happening, where you see that there is a huge difference in having a really multilayered context for a show, rather than having this kind of pure neutral space where you show a work as a very precious object. And I was completely drawn to this messy sort of confused way of seeing things that came out of this exhibition that we called “Show me the money,” with various people taking part in hilarious ways. Then when people wanted to preserve their works, they had to literally rip apart the floor. But because the building was going to be demolished anyway, after we moved out, it wasn’t really a problem.

GW< Painting on floorboards?

GM< Yeah, exactly. And selling it off. So, I remember I sat down, and I thought, “I know exactly what I want to do.” I knew then that it was essential for me to create some sort of narrative within my work and with other people’s work. Of course, it’s with some kind of collective, collaborative element. Later on I realized it’s in a nice way linked to all of those surrealist groups that existed in the UK between the First and Second World War, and after the Second World War. There was a short life to it, but there was a kind of aspiration to somehow together come up with a manifesto that puts you on the map, something not just limited to the UK, but generally on the map of the art world.

And I think that this is what was typical already for my generation, the people who graduated with me from Goldsmiths. We knew that how the YBAs made art wasn’t necessarily the only way that one can make art. And I think initially it was in reaction to the YBAs that it became something very intimate and almost like a hobbyist art working at home with the means and the capacities of what one could afford. Of course, the medium and the scale and everything changed, but from there it went on to a completely different approach, which was much more open to worldly references.

GW< I think part of the shift was the influx of artists from other countries, because the YBA was very British, but your generation started to include many more non-British artists.

GM< Yeah, it was already multinational. And I remember that we hung out in this very diverse group and there were not that many British people being part of it. Then of course we started looking out to the biennales and to documenta, so it was like a process of learning, particularly for me, because of the limitation of being brought up in Poland, where we had almost no exposure to anything. I remember the biggest revelation in my life was a copy of Art in America magazine that somebody gave me, and looking at the cover and seeing the installations of Christo, and I just thought, “this is amazing, how can somebody go and do stuff in the landscape on that scale?” That these things can be considered art and that you can actually make it happen! Even in Poland, I wasn’t particularly exposed to much conceptual art. It was for me a much slower process to get to a point of confidence in terms of how I work, because I had to go through this naturally, more than probably somebody who lived here, who knew it all.

GW< But what was interesting I think is what you did know. Because I remember, when we started working together, I was getting interested in the early 2000s in the term “communism” but with no knowledge of lived communism, of course, growing up in a capitalist society in which communist histories had been repressed or misrepresented. We’d just been through Thatcherism. It was the time of “the end of history” and communism had become this sort of impossible term. And my very naive project was about reactivating it, to think it through in the way that I could, which was within the art context and with artists. And at that time we did a series of things together. The first one was the installation Friendship of the Peoples,[1] which was very much in that spirit of DIY mentioned earlier, where we made an edifice out of bits and pieces of materials that included a stage, a pond, and a light display. And the second was the performance you made for the group exhibition “Communism”[2] where you juxtaposed Lenin reading a speech alongside a performance by the Cabaret Voltaire, where you tried to recuperate some of those avant-garde references.

GM< With Friendship of the Peoples, you were clearly working as a curator at Project, and you invited me and Declan as artists, but we actually engaged in a creative process with you as if you were an artist and as if we were the curators as well. And I think that this merging of one’s role was also very much of that time, because this was the time of the birth of the curating courses, so there was also that whole question of is it okay to be an artist and curate your own shows? Or is it okay to be a curator and make art? And I think that may be within this aura our thing became what it was, which was a collaborative project within which we proposed different ideas that were close to us, and then we constructed some sort of symbolic representation of this, which obviously then became the sculpture or an environment. But the value of that whole exchange was probably the richest for us because it wasn’t really something that you could easily translate.

GW< But what’s interesting and what I appreciated is that somehow we managed to collaborate and to step outside of professional roles, but not derail the whole process, so that we ended up making a dog’s dinner. It’s a little the same with the exhibition “Santhal Family: Positions Around an Indian Sculpture,”[3] because that was another collaboration which explored curating and art and installation as a practice and a fluidity between the two. I learned a lot there, because I invited you in at that point to think about curating the archives. It was a project that was looking at a leftist history in India from the first half of the twentieth century, and all of these different cultural practices coming out of the left, and the invitation to you was to think about how to present those archives, which you did, but then you also came up with your own installation.

GM< When was modernism? I am really into this work.

GW< It’s a great work.

GM< It is a work also that with time will represent different things to me, such as modernism or communism within the Indian context versus what I knew from Poland. What is maybe interesting to mention here is that when you did the show at Project, even then, do you remember, we had these conversations where somehow there was a certain kind of discomfort for me to idealize Marxism, because I was so much coming from the applied version of it.

GW< . . .and I was so aspiring to find value in it.

GM< Exactly. And of course, you being brought up in a country where apart from the Civil War, the revolution never really happened, we still have a monarchy, but people also seek that kind of change. So, I can see how for you this was somehow inspirational. And for me, I came from it and I felt that I knew the limitations of it, which made me feel somehow distant, but I was still really interested in working through all of this.

GW< I suppose something coming out of those projects is that one can revisit and compare those histories, as well as imagine and configure new forms of communism even if in an artistic context and on a small scale.

GM< Absolutely. And it is very interesting intellectual material on which you can build so many amazing things. It just didn’t work when it was implemented as a social structure, in that context, time, and place.

GW< Then there’s also the group work element of your practice, not to romanticize it as communist, but it very much emerged from working collectively.

GM< Completely, so it was a small-scale communist experiment with somebody taking the role of leader! Even on the smaller scale, this model resembled the bigger version.

 

[1] Goshka Macuga (with Declan Clarke), “Friendship of the Peoples,” Project Arts Centre, Dublin, 2002.
[2] The group exhibition “Communism,” curated by Grant Watson, was on view at Project Arts Centre, Dublin, January 20–March 12, 2005.
[3] The group exhibition “Santhal Family: Positions Around an Indian Sculpture,” curated by Grant Watson, was on view at MuHKA Museum of Contemporary Art Antwerp, February 1–May 4, 2008.