Zorka Wollny is a performer, video and sound artist and also one of the most interesting young artists from Poland. Recently Platán Gallery in Budapest organized her solo exhibition Collaborations.
Jan Elantkowski: Your works have been displayed in Budapest already twice in group exhibitions. This spring, your solo show Collaborations took place in the Platán Gallery of Polish Institute. Works presented there consisted of a selection of your video projects from last 4 years. How this selection looked like, what is the binder connecting those works, and what are those videos about?
Zorka Wollny: For the exhibition in the Platan Gallery I have chosen four video documents from my last performances. Two works are more connected to the theater, others are specific music projects. What connects them all is a method of work, choreography, the way of thinking about space and composition. Moreover – what is the most important thing – they were all made in collaboration, which explains the title of this show.
Ophelias. Iconography of Madness is a theater collage. Eleven actresses who played the role of Ophelia in theatre productions (Shakespeare’s Hamlet) performed the final scene of madness in the empty space of Muzeum Sztuki in Łódź. Since actresses were those who were heroines of the performance, the main element of this work was the process of recollecting and recalling their role, activating body memory and hidden consciousness; at the same time important was reflecting on their own relationship to what personifies character of Ophelia. What was crucial for me was the fact that I have asked actresses to re-play their roles in the museum of art; it somehow became a kind of analytical piece about history of Polish theater as well. The oldest performer was 80 years old (she played Ophelia in the 60’s), the youngest only 24; it was fascinating to observe how the understanding of the role and performance itself has changed through the last decades.
Next video, Forest, which was made for Zachęta National Gallery in Warsaw as a part of the exhibition Freelancer, has a form of a monologue uttered by an actress with support of the male choir. The spoken text is a collage combined from personal thoughts – moments of doubt and artistic hype of Polish contemporary artist which I have researched from letters, interviews, and diaries. The choir guided by Artur Zagajewski was operating on simple sounds – but those almost impossible to elicit, very short tones, or those deep and hard to hold.
Another work was Song at Work, performance made in collaboration with Ania Szwajgier and six workers of Gdańsk shipyard, in their former workplace, which now belongs to Wyspa Institute of Art. It was based on shipyard setting with the use of choreography including heavy metallurgical equipment. I wanted to reflect on what this place use to be before it became place for art, I wanted to open it for a broader context. This is what Wyspa as an art institution is consequently doing: always dealing with political background of the location.
The last piece is Oratorio for Orchestra and Warsaw Citizens’ Choir which I have performed in collaboration with Artur and sixteen nongovernmental organizations who accepted the invitation to work together.
During the special edition of the Warsaw Contemporary Music Festival, which was advocating social participation, I have suggested that the orchestra should be moved from the convenient space of the concert hall to the streets of Warsaw. If we – artists and musicians – want to talk about social engagement, the first thing to do should be working with people who are already deeply involved into political issues. That is why the invitation for collaboration was send to all Warsaw’ NGO-s. The whole text: solo parts (which are very free in character), duos and ensembles were composed out of improvisations made by residents of Warsaw – and also performed by them. Music was written by Artur and played by a philharmonic orchestra. We performed at a popular square located in the center of Warsaw. Text and music are freely intertwined, they complete each other in accentuated key moments; however, they are also going their own way and losing themselves in the street noise. I like to think of the Oratorio as a sort of composed demonstration.
Jan Elantkowski: The exhibition was accompanied by a project specially prepared for the show in the Platán Gallery; you worked together with Hungarian sound artist, Balázs Kovács. A three-day-long workshop took place before exhibition was presented; finally, there was also a concert at the opening of the exhibition. What was the project about, what did you want to achieve, and what was the result?
Zorka Wollny: What the visitor could see in the gallery were video documentations from live performed actions. I thought it was very important to give Hungarian public chance to also experience something in a real time. It was very natural to invite local artists and students for collaboration, to learn about the context of the place where I exhibit, and to build a new temporary understanding zone. I have this strong feeling that people who decide to join my collaborations are my first and the most important public.
I have heard about Balázs Kovács before, I was very interested in his work and I decided to take a chance to meet him and to spend some time exchanging thoughts about art and methods of work. We prepared together a short score to be played in the backyard of Platán Gallery and for the next three days we’ve been working with a group, testing the acoustic possibilities of this space and getting to know each other. In the end we prepared a short music composition for eight performers. Thanks to Balázs it obtained a very nice repetitive rhythm, it was probably the influence of his installations. I would like to thank Tomasz Piars from Platán Gallery, who have made this collaboration possible.
Jan Elantkowski: You often work with Anna Szwajgier and Artur Zagajewski who support you in your projects involving music. How does your cooperation look like? Why is music and dance so important in your works?
Zorka Wollny: I became interested in music and sound. I think it is always crucial to have professionals from who you can learn, whether it is architecture, choreography, or anything else you are dealing with in your projects. I was lucky to meet Ania, the music theorist, and later Artur – composer, who specializes in industrial sounds and noise, but still in a frame of traditional music compositions.
Ania and me have developed a number of works exploring sounds coming from everyday life – noises made by human body, objects, and those sounds created involuntarily when making more or less casual activities such as: chatting, walking, laughing, munching, sighing, rubbing things against each other. What interest us most is to see how such actions, when made by a group of people, change the quality of sound from obvious into indefinable; how timbre becomes a dominating factor. Our compositions are purely acoustic. My collaboration with Artur began when I started to include orchestra, choir and traditional scores to my art practice. Together we made Oratorio. I wouldn’t dare to make such a monumental piece on my own. Furthermore, there are always volunteers – performers. As a visual artist I have a bit different feeling about working with a group of people than for instance a theater director. I like to think that the group itself is an inspiration, a tool, but also very important contributor in a process of composing. I have learned that not only the skills, but also various personalities of the participants might contribute in a significant way to how the piece will look like.
My attitude is probably more related to the tradition of happening, artistic duos, and group events, but at the same time, after ten years of work and experimenting with very democratic forms of collaboration, I made a decision to work in director-like mode and to take full responsibility of every piece, from the first idea to the final shape.
Jan Elantkowski: In your works critique of the institution, critique of forcibly social behavior appears again and again. What makes you so engaged with this topic?
Zorka Wollny: I just try to be aware of all the contexts we are surrounded by, to be aware of the consequences of decisions we make. I think every single personal choice matters, and I do not believe in the split between political and private. I work with art institutions because it becomes my natural habitat. I started my artistic activity from small pieces about myself, my family, close group of friends, cultural codes in education, feministic issues, and social background. Now here I am as a part of artistic milieu, and sometimes even as a representative of Polish society. I always work with what is already there; I never imply my idea to indifferent background. My works are only critical as a result of all the thoughts I can stimulate in a viewer. It becomes critical for a public if I made them aware of details and contexts of reality we live in. What have to be said, however, is that I don’t use strong opinions as a starting point in my works. Even a result, a consequence of research made for my works, is still more appealing to sensuality then discursive.
Jan Elantkowski: How do you think this issue is reflected in Poland – and to put it into a broader context – in the region of Central Eastern Europe?
Zorka Wollny: Coming from Poland is an amazing background. We have such a rich tradition of critical art, contextual art, revolt, and intellectual reflection. Poland is also a very specific geographical location – between hard reality, the lack of civic and political skills, and a wishful thinking. Seeing that I grew up in a Communist country, a social life – as far as I remember – was always inseparable element of a long night discussions in a close group of friends, which actually was very rarely followed by action. I guess this applies also to all former Soviet countries – not accidentally the best and the most problematic exhibitions I have seen were organized in Central Eastern Europe (and Belgium, to be precise). I appreciate those values even more since I live abroad.
Jan Elantkowski: You are based in Berlin now, but before you lived in Cracow where you prepared your PhD project at the Academy of Fine Arts. Beside your artistic career you also teach at the Academy of Arts in Szczecin, which in a way reflects your artistic attitude – you like to have a contact with people, to talk with them and involve them, actively and passively, into your projects. Could you tell us something about your academic project and about your teaching activity in Szczecin?
Zorka Wollny: I live in Berlin now and it is partly because of my work in Szczecin. Berlin is simply much closer than Cracow. My PhD project is closed, the dissertation concerns relations between music and visual arts – which still remains the main focus of my artistic research. Working on academy suits me much better than finding my way in a crazy art market world. It is a life-style and artistic choice. I like to work with my students; I would like to stay open for different projects, various kinds of energies, ways of thinking and fields of interest. I try to be helpful in my teaching activity, yet, I do not involve students in my works. I am a younger lecturer so far, but in a year or two I was promised to get my own studio. When it will happen the time will come to rethink what I have to offer.
Jan Elantkowski: What are your ongoing projects and plans for the near future? Do you have some plans connected to Central Eastern Europe – projects, exhibitions, travels?
Zorka Wollny: I have just finished my first big project in Berlin in collaboration with Berlin-based musicians. I would say that my art reflects my life strategy in the sense of the way I want to approach people – just like in this piece. We will play a concert in the empty factory in Berlin’s Malzfabrik (District Berlin) on 19th of July. In Berlin I have also met a group of feministic artists called FF and we are planning a big event for November to be performed in Warsaw. I suppose, it will turn into a very interesting exchange of Western and Eastern feministic strategies. I’m even expecting the clash. In the following months I will also participate in an exhibition in Poznań. It will be an institutional critique again, a neo-liberal approach to cultural institutions immersed in a very specific political context. It is quite an issue for Polish culture right now. Next year I am planning to go to Ukraine, staying aware of political and social contexts of art.
Published by Art Guide East, June 2014