In Opposition to Contemporary Art

Elīna Zuzāne


“The world perceives me as a visual artist. In many reviews, I am called a “visionary”, but I don’t know what that means. To be honest, I don’t care. It’s not important to me. I write, compose, sculpt and do many other things. The 20th century produced this idiotic division between the arts, between everything. People have lost the bigger picture. I am fascinated by the Renaissance, when an artist could be an architect or a performer. Nobody cared because they were creating. I am a creator. I don’t care which language I’m expressing myself in, as long as this language is necessary to express.”

The name of Lech Majewski, Polish-born film director, writer and poet, has already been paired with many influential art institutions, including the Museum of Modern Art (New York), which held the artist’s comprehensive retrospective in 2007. But today, Lech Majewski is in Riga to prepare for his upcoming exhibition at the Art Museum Riga Bourse, scheduled to take place in the spring of 2013.

What are you planning to
 show in Riga?

The Riga Bourse is a beautiful space. The exhibition is going to stretch amongst four of my major cycles – Bruegel Suite, Blood of a Poet, DiVinities and Roe's Room. They are the four cycles of my life. When I do an exhibition, it usually involves all sorts of activities – photographs, light boxes, sculptures, video pieces, installations, but here in Riga I will only exhibit moving images – my video poems. I am currently working on a new project, and if I manage to finish it, it may also find its way here.

What is this new project about?

It pays tribute to Dante. It’s a contemporary reading on Dante’s Divine Comedy. It will be… well, I don’t like to talk about things I’m working on. When you say too much, it evaporates. I can talk about things that I’ve done, things that I’ve completed.

Regarding your video works, it seems that you can effortlessly transform something that is usually described as “a classic”, and make it contemporary. What do you think makes an artwork contemporary?

In my respect, it’s only the technology. To be honest, I cannot say. I’m very much against contemporary art, so it makes me a very difficult case. (Laughs

How so?

Contemporary art has become terrible. Horrible! It’s now the art of destruction, the art of rubbish, emptiness and plastic. I get nothing out of it. Obviously, there are exceptions. In the 20th century there were a few contemporary artists who I respect, but they are very few. Most of them I consider completely useless. I think the 20th century killed the foundation of art. And I believe that the cruelty of the 20th century was partially influenced by the nonsense that was happening within the art scene – destruction, chopping everything to bits, erasing the human figure.

I remember you once saying, “beauty is very unpopular now”.

That’s true. I first became interested in art through beauty, through the beauty of Venice. I grew up in the industrial part of Poland, in a city called Katowice. With it’s coal and steel mines, it was a very black and white place to live in, but, as my uncle was a professor at the Conservatory of Venice and lived in Milan, during summer holidays (when his apartment was free) my family stayed there. At that time Venice was still accessible. If you knew the Venetian kids, you could run through every palazzo. It was badly protected. We had such a great time playing there. Now it’s all spruced up. Everything is renovated, but it used to be smelly and dirty. It was nice! I think our brain is always creating a landscape and this way of seeing is affected by the views from your childhood. For me it was an unusual hybrid – a little bit of Katowice and Venice.

In Venice I saw the beauty of art, but during the Biennales I also observed the clash between contemporary culture and the art of the past. All of the 20th century contemporary artists were coming to Venice during the Biennales, and they were very accessible. I met Andy Warhol, Roy Lichtenstein, Tom Wesselmann, James Rosenquist. It was a different time, and the art stage was very different. At one point, modern art did appear very impressive, but I couldn’t inhabit it. I couldn’t live inside of these artists’ works. Try to enter Warhol or Lichtenstein. There is nothing there. It is just a surface that has no depth by definition. You can only look at it for a few seconds. It’s easier to go to a park and contemplate a tree than to go to the Museum of Modern Art and contemplate Warhol.

But if you are so much against modern and contemporary art, why did you create the film Basquiat? 

Well, Basquiat was a different case. Funnily enough, the movie was also my reflection on Leonardo da Vinci. I was given a chance to see Leonardo at Windsor Castle, and it left a tremendous impact on me. You could see that he was discovering the world first-hand. He was uncovering a leg of a horse, its joints and the build of it. It made me feel like I was a piece of rubbish! Whatever I was doing seemed like a second, third or fourth hand. Everything had already been done. If I wanted to study horse’s legs, for example, there already was literature for that. I felt that I was living in a time when you could no longer discover the world around you. Half a year later, however, I met Jean-Michel in New York and he, in a very primitive way, proved me wrong.

Do you know how Australia’s aborigines take possession of stones? They put the stones in their hands, spit on them and leave a palm print. It means that they have acquired that space. So, when Jean-Michel was walking around Manhattan, writing his little graffiti lines, his own haiku poems on the city’s industrial objects, he was doing the same. His messages were always surreal and absurd, and he was always placing them in strategic spaces to be seen by many. So, when you read “a kangaroo woman brings the rain”, it surprised you, but it also made you think. It threw a hook into your memory and opened your field of poetry. Jean-Michel was crawling about, describing the world around him as if the whole culture hadn’t existed before him. I liked that. He taught me that there is a world to be discovered all the time. When Jean-Michel died, I thought he deserved a story, he deserved a film. 

A story of the meteoric rise of youthful artist Jean-Michel Basquiat

But the process of making this movie wasn’t as easy as you would have hoped.

I interviewed more than 70 people who had been around him, and today many of them are well-known artists – Keith Haring, Francesco Clemente, Julian Schnabel, etc. Through this process, Julian actually became a friend of mine and got involved with the writing process. But, despite the fact that everybody loved the screenplay and we even had a lot of stars willing to be in the movie, we couldn’t get the project off the ground. The distributors didn’t like the idea of a black guy being suicidal, and they said – no. It was too dark and dangerous for their taste. I left the project with Julian and he tried his luck with it for another four years before finally putting his own money in. That’s how the film happened. But the reason I paid tribute to Basquiat was because he gave me the strength to describe my own world, on my own terms. 

Do you still live by this lesson?

(Thinks for a moment) Today I’m paying my respects and debts to the people who have given me something. I owe a huge debt to Bruegel. He opened my mind. I consider him the greatest philosopher amongst the artists.

One of Bruegel’s major lessons was to hide the obvious, to hide the main hero. He was smart enough to cover up his main characters with crowds of people mingling about. You have to travel with your eyes in order to find the Christ fallen under the tree in The Way to Calvary. Bruegel tells us “look at my heroes, they are all fallen down and they are going to die, but at the same time, they are the heroes of our civilisation.” There are so many people who are pushed to being heroes, the focus of the media’s attention, but they mean nothing. Time will wash them away. They will become sand and ashes, but these destroyed beings are becoming heroes. That’s a miracle, and Bruegel is painting it.

The Mill and the Cross,
A visual voyage through Pieter Bruegel’s masterpiece The Way to Calvary

Did you rediscover the world through working on Bruegel’s film as well?

I think so. In Bruegel’s painting, The Way to Calvary, there is only a quarter of a tree, but, in order to include it in the film, I had to imagine the rest of it. I had to learn Bruegel’s technique of painting, but the animator had to break down all the branches, twigs and leaves to have them animated, moving in the wind. However, when we tried to do the animation, it didn’t look right. You would imagine that everybody in the world knows how a tree moves in the wind. It’s a common view. We discovered that it’s not so obvious, after all. We had to go out and look at the trees to see how the wind animates them. It was amazing for us, because for the first time in our lives, we saw what was happening. It goes back to Leonardo, about everything being discovered… it’s not necessarily so.

In the movie, there is also a moment when Bruegel is nudging a spider in a web with a stick, which made us think about which leg does the spider start its movement with. We had no idea and, as it later turned out, even the professors didn’t know the answer to this question. Only after we had filmed spiders with a slow motion camera did we get our answer. Do you know what we discovered during the screening? Every spider starts its movement with a different leg. (Laughs) We were discovering the world. Leonardo from the past was again telling me that I have to look again and again. I love that. A film gives you the opportunity to do that. Modern art doesn’t. Most modern artists are just regurgitating things that have already been done – all the shocking things were done by Marcel Duchamp and the Dadaists; conceptual art was done in the 1960s. But contemporary artists just keep doing the same thing, and it’s so boring. 

Regarding your debts to artists, what is your debt to Dante? 

He was a visionary. Everybody has a debt with Dante. So many things were affected by his vision. He was a fantastic artist. What I like in the art of the past is people being capable of describing the entirety of their world. You enter the world of Dante, and you have everything there – the low and the high, the spirit and the crime, God and the dark side of human nature. Dante was able to describe local human activities in metaphorical ways. He punished those who he didn’t like, and he was able to honour those that he did. Look at the power of this. Now compare it with modern art. It only deals with misery, little pieces and crumbs. Nobody can write and describe the world anymore. We are lost. Dante could do it all in a very thin book. Unbelievable. Today, authors write 5000 pages and only describe something little. When you look at Bruegel’s paintings, at Hans Memling – you see the entire universe.

So, do you try to capture the universe in your artworks as well?

I don’t know. I can’t talk about my own films. Let the others talk.

Aren’t you the best judge of your own work?

No, I’m the worst judge. You cannot judge your own work. I can only judge it in the realms of whether it is true to myself or not; whether I am pushing myself from my angle, or from an artificial one. I can judge that. Most likely. Those are the only things that I can actually evaluate. Luther believed that we are good judges of ourselves, but I think he was wrong. We are very sympathetic judges towards ourselves, and very cruel judges towards others.

Is it important for you to tell a story through a film?

I don’t believe in telling stories. A story is an artificial creation. Particularly, I don’t believe in action stories. I don’t find life experience comparable to an action story. Life is combined from ideas, thoughts and separate events. Some of them create something else, but some of them are lost forever. After watching a movie, people remember faces, scenes, gestures, or some funny lines, but not the story. That’s because a story is a straight line or an effort to put the chaotic experience of life onto a straight line. This is actually one of the human desires – to clean, to simplify. It gives us an illusion of organising ourselves. It’s a symbolic act of overpowering the chaos of life. But life creeps in and breaks it. Today, people want to abandon their own world. They want to escape. That’s where you can make the most money – providing people with an escape from themselves.

But isn’t any movie a form of escape?

No. Some movies are mirrors. They put a mirror in front of you and bring you back to yourself. When you leave a cinema, you know that you are going to meet yourself. Most people, however, are afraid of that. Nothing is scarier than being with yourself. Many people will do anything not to be with themselves.

Is that what you aim to do with your films – to create a mirror?

I don’t know. I certainly do it for myself.

What do you think will happen in the future of contemporary art?

The future is the future and it’s beyond me.

How would you want to see it?

I don’t want to think about something that is beyond me to experience. The fact that Bruegel Suite was purchased by 55 countries was a complete shock to me. I thought that only a very limited audience would take notice of it. These artworks were originally commissioned by museums and, of course, I knew that these institutions – the Smithsonian, the Washington and the Louvre – do give an artist a huge stamp, but I couldn’t imagine this. I didn’t bend a finger to make it easier for me or more accessible for others. And yet, there is an audience for it all over the world. I believe that if you do your own thing, you will find the audience. Your job is to work. Don’t put happiness in other people’s hands. But if you do it right, other people might get happiness out of it. There is also a saying – watch out for the guys who want to make you happy, because they will regulate your life. Behind every totalitarian war, you will find that the ideas were great – they were aimed to help human kind. (Laughs).

Do you still believe that art needs oppression?

You don’t need it, but it helps. Dante had a very harsh situation and he became who he was because of it. When everything is possible, nothing is important. This was actually part of a conversation I had with Werner Herzog in the 1990s. He asked me what was happening with Polish cinema – we had gotten the freedom, but the films were very weak. After my question of where does he think good cinema will appear next, he prophetically said – in China and Iran. And a few years later, the Chinese won every film award there was. He foretold things that would happen. I was shocked.

Are you saying that political freedom doesn’t benefit the contemporary art scene? 

The jury is still out on that. We are still considering what the right answer should be. (Laughs) But some oppression certainly helps. I can say that when Poland was oppressed, people certainly had a much higher spiritual level. We were reading better books. We were avidly reading. The programme in cinemas was also much better. Obviously, we were devoid of certain political films, but when I later caught up with them in the Western world, they were not that important. The censors did a great job. They selected all the masterpieces. We had Bergman, Fellini, Antonioni and Tarkovsky. Contemporary filmmakers are much less interesting.