Dog Dragon Tiger (closed), gouache on canvas, 100 x 140 cm, 2015
Dog Dragon Tiger (opened), oil on canvas, 100 x 280 cm, 2015
 
 
 

Entirely different, restless dogs

 
 

Text — Sophie Henrot

 
 

The green and blue gleam delicately illuminating the darkness between the stars is a strange one. At first glance, it called to mind some life-giving substance but it could just as well lead to muddy regions – a dangerous, poisonous green.

 

The space built out of paint specks recalls the granularity found in outer space photos, as unique and sandy as that in the images of distant galaxies posted on the NASA website. The space in the immediate vicinity of each star (point of light) appears “drier” or, at least, that’s how I perceive it in relation to the blackness of the surrounding map of the sky. At the painting’s edges the blackness forms dense, silty patches, it reminds me of the deadly and cold abyss in Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin. The three animal constellations are marked on the painting. The brief poem at the beginning of the exhibition guide appears to refer to them:

 

My tiger, dog and dragon / Oh they’re my best friends / My tiger, dog and dragon / Oh, they’re so generous / hey said they’d go, to the sun through snow / but a strong wind blew and the blizzard came / and that’s how begins our endless game.

 

Inside, a landscape that approaches a void, the air running off into the distance. Dignified and slow, it continues to flow, like my impressions of Arvo Pärt’s music: enormous soft layers slowly settling on top of one another – the painting is sheathed in an enormous misty blanket which envelops all and rather gently invites in. We’ve seen similar spaces in various SciFi movie prisons – ideally white, horrifyingly placeless, with no way out – but here, we’re dealing with the opposite situation, the direction and destination are clearly set out. Toward the sun! The sine wave weaving in the center and the two lines at the edges seemingly reaffirm the painting’s Pärt-like rhythms.

 

The characteristic spatial arrangement with a distant vanishing point at the horizon reminds me of the broad perspective landscape in Bjork’s Wanderlust video created by Encyclopedia Pictura. In it, the indefatigable wanderer whispers “Relentlessly, restless…” as she looks at river’s flow. An invitation to embrace a similar journey is related by the diptych painting which opens the exhibition. It suggests a journey on a trail of signs and symbols: from untangling the sense behind the constellations of astronomical objects, through nature’s earthly signs such as lightning and fires and concluding with a search for logic hidden in animal footprints in the snow. Somewhere among these signs, in the arctic landscape, the first semiotic questions straggle by.

 

Eleanor, oil on canvas, 200 x 60 cm, 2014

 

A portrait of a woman, richly illuminated by the cold light of a car’s headlamps. The car’s rear is engulfed in the red-hot glow of the wide tail lamps. The classic American muscle-car silhouette dissolves in the delicate gray tones, a bit like an apparition or a ghost of the machine. What is real are the streaks of light – they build the painting’s horizontal structure which is based on a simple contrast of complementary colors. The cold/warm composition calls to mind the comforting, slightly poetic theory of the car as an eternal manifestation of the contrasting dualism of light. Perhaps this vision would excite the pioneers of French postmodernism? The big-city man – they would write in the first paragraph of their philosophical treatise – with the force of 300 mechanical horses pushes the block of white light with the front bumper, leaving a red ember behind, reclining in the lonely darkness of the speeding car’s cabin…

 

The patches of color are arranged on the canvas in a simple and unrestrained manner – the work is primarily a painter’s exercise for observing how paint behaves in a specific arrangement. The more sensitive viewer might detect an analysis of a synesthetic experience: the grayish-blue tone of the car’s body gives off a deep stony rattle at a low pulse. Sort of like Fever Ray: the brooding thick tonality intersperse with the flashes of Dreijer Andersson’s piercing, drill-like vocals.

 

The atmosphere of the strange and still unexplained ceremony of “illuminating” (?) a Mannerist portrait by the headlights of parked Ford Mustang places the viewer in an unknown and fleeting techno-contemplative bubble. What’s going on in here? Here’s a quick return to Łukasz’s notes:

 

(…) in a key scene of this 1970s movie, the name Eleanor is interwoven with a light-colored American-built muscle car, from that point on, a small ember of a yet to be defined constellation was recorded in my mind. Sometime later, intrigued by the image of the proud lady with a sad glance on the cover of a book on the history of European standards of beauty, I discover Eleanor of Toledo and her blue-cast portrait by Agnolo Bronzino. After this discovery, the portrait seems to appear in a surprising number of places: on posters, online and in newspapers. No more than a week later, I happened to travel to Prague. At the end of my visit at the Museum in Hradčany a strange thing occurred – I noticed the very same Eleanor looking down at me from the wall, from a twin image, also painted by Bronzino, but with the subject dressed in red. An irresistible permanent clash forms in my head. The Ford Mustang Shelby GT 500 and Eleanor of Toledo’s oval face intertwine and bond into a single sign. I’ve seen two other instances of this type of ‘friendships.’

 

Sometimes the mind creates unintended compilations of signs. The irrational constellations of associations grow and, for frequently inexplicable reasons, embed themselves in memory, their significance growing with time. This common phenomenon will probably always play some role in driving creative thought.

 

Meanwhile, my personal perception of the Eleanor painting was impacted by George Miller’s latest Mad Max movie. And I’m not even talking about the accidental similarity between the painting’s composition and the blockbuster’s first scene. The mechanical action opera could be brought here by the movie’s archetypal, nearly reverential, attitude toward the machine. It is a fossil-fuel exhaust worship fortified with rituals and juxtaposed with a strong female personality – that of Imperator Furiosa. This pop heroine – a grease-covered warrior with a noble heart appears to be the opposite of Eleanor of Toledo, a representative of the Medici family’s poisonous political plots. In thinking about the this way, their images began to harmonize like the compounds in a complex chemical reaction which produces much smoke and a synthesis… Of course, we shouldn’t spend too much time looking for possible points of contact between Eleanor the painting and the Mad Max movie – the one listed above was enough to fuel my own private reaction: a small (but as significant as all others) bit of painting-film sympathy.

 

Here is Michele Foucault definition of “sympathies”: “Up to the end of the sixteenth century, resemblance played a constructive role in the knowledge of Western culture. (…) [One of the] forms of resemblance is provided by the play of sympathies. And here, no path has been determined in advance, no distance laid down, no links prescribed. Sympathy plays through the depths of the universe in a free state. It can traverse the vastest spaces in an instant: it falls like a thunderbolt from the distant planet upon the man ruled by that planet; on the other hand, it can be brought into being by a simple contact. (…) There exists a sympathy between aconite and our eyes. This unexpected affinity would remain in obscurity if there were not some signature on the plant, some mark, some word, as it were, telling us that it is good for diseases of the eye. This sign is easily legible in its seeds: they are tiny dark globes set in white skin-like coverings. (…) And what other sign is there that two things are linked to one another unless it is that they have a mutual attraction for each other, as do the sun and the sunflower, or water and a cucumber shoot, that there is an affinity and, as it were, a sympathy between them?”

 

Narwhal, oil on canvas, 170 x 170 cm, 2015
N.W. , oil on canvas, 170 x 95 cm, 2015

 

When the Goddard Space Flight Center published the first 4K quality video of the Sun in November 2015, I watched it in awe, for more than half an hour I intently stared at the monitor observing the nearly static images. Finally, the Retina Display was useful for something! Each sequence revealed images recorded of different wavelengths emitted by the Sun. Down to the smallest details. After having seen so many Discovery Channel movies, satellite images and computer animations, I didn’t think that images of our star were able to make any type of an impression on me. However, the ability to observe the movement and details of each layer of activity in this enormous chemical reaction, one after another, undoubtedly caused me to experience something new. A significant jolt to my conscious awareness of the enormous fact – the natural source of light that is closest to Earth.

 

Here, Narwhal is the climax, the show’s highest note. The circle of sunlight burns far beyond the signal-clipping bounds of distortion just like Jack White’s late 1990s riffs. Fuzzy and momentarily gritty. One should look at Narwhal’s the way futurist artists used to look at reflectors: with a wild and joyous satisfaction; a love for the exaggeratedly expressive energy, ignoring dangers and having little regard for negative consequences. One other 1990s comment: explosions in the first video games had a pixelated pseudo-granularity which can be seen here at the edges of orange and red, where the precise lines of the sunrays gradually melt into the oval’s border. The futurist vibes and bitmap joys take me back to a primal, almost childlike mythology of looking at the sun. It remains lively and complements the findings of serious astronomical observatories quite nicely. It seems we should make room for one and the other. In Narwal, the Sun is not the object of scientific study but rather a ball of energy from an ancient Egyptian legend or the ball of lightning called upon by a warrior in a Japanese anime cartoon. Will he use it as a deadly bomb or a dose of life-bolstering power?

 

The title Narwal is a unique marine mammal, it takes up the center of the sun’s face while smoothly drifting upward. The animal’s appearance has always been a bit confusing to me. I’m not sure which aspect of its biological incongruity bothers me more: is it the familiar body of the friendly dolphin with a strange and dangerous spear/tusk protruding from its head, or the opposite: the tusk’s beautiful streamlined geometrical shape ruined by the indeterminate noodle-like fish shape attached to it? Either way, it swam onto the canvas, positioned itself against the light and showed off its contours. The closer it gets to the Sun the more it behaves as a sign. It leads us onto the exhibition’s semiotic paths. It poses the question: am I still an animal or have I just become a splotch of paint, an emblem?

 

Narhwal and N.W. apparently form a diptych. It seems that the red sunlight from the neighboring painting reaches N.W. from one side, while a blue glow from an indeterminate source bathes the other. We’ve already seen this combination of colors in Eleanor, but here it is being examined from a centripetal perspective. As a mixture which results in purples and violets while the Mustang did not mix the colors. This type of a reference is a quite welcome addition to the show’s tale, a calculated balance between the painterly challenges posed by the different works.

 

The woman’s silhouette emerging from the study of a violet glow invokes the echoes of familiar photoshoots in early color fashion magazines. Burned, unnaturally oversaturated colors and blobs of paint straight from early printing processes introduce a vaguely sentimental atmosphere of long-gone printing presses. The woman’s silhouette, the narwhal’s compositional alter ego, is submerged in this atmosphere in a frozen yet exuberant dance pose.

 

April 2010. I’m moved by a bizarre story I saw on TV: a boy from the distant future travels in time to the 1960s in order to befriend a horned marine mammal – a narwhal. At the same time, I discover Björk’s Voltaïc. In a bit of a frenzy after listing to the album on repeat, I find myself at a Sinden concert in one of the large clubs in Warsaw’s Powiśle neighborhood. I’m intrigued by an odd figure with graceful yet slightly stop motion movements. While dancing, the figure twists her hands with arms extended high above the head. On her back, an inverted triangle of sweat extends along her light-blue dress. The next night I’m watching Antonioni’s Blowup at the Iluzjon cinema. Compared to the previous night’s dancing vision, Jane Birkin’s scene disappoints. I seem to be looking for a trace of my dance club apparition – not a specific person but rather a specific impression. Finally, I find its echo in a series of nature photographs of plants sizzling in the sand. Photos of the long and wind-smoothed branches of twisted trees growing on arid mountainsides have the biggest effect on me. The branches are stripped of their bark, sometimes their steel gray color resembles the light-blue fabric burned by the club’s strobe light. Finally, I come across a photo of a long tree-trunk twisted around its own axis. The shape of the inverted triangle embeds itself with the vertical gestures of the dance, and somehow with the narwhal’s tusk. The wild and furious dance club jungle melts into the freezing dark depths that are home to the tireless single-horned marine mammals; the final touch: the lazy creaking of a taut thick marine rope.

 

Sketches to “Encounter”, various techniques, 2010
Encounter: the sculpture, mixed media, 200 x 40 x 50 cm, 2011

 

Series of Sketches for „Encounter”. A total of about 30 works in various media: mostly ink on paper, but the exhibition also includes tempera, small oil paintings and experiments with synthetics.

 

While discussing the pharyngeal structure of gibbons, David Attenborough noted that …the human larynx is capable of so much more variety of sound than is required for language. That, to a biologist, would mean that there was a function of the human voice, which preceded language. So that it’s actually singing [that] is more fundamental to us than speaking.

 

While walking in the corridor of the Light Stone Tiger Bull the sketches remind me of the subtle presences of the invaluable experiences of Attenborough’s expeditions: matters of minerals, tribal bonfires and stout plants of the Amazon jungle. The drawings inform us about the human passion for a positive and affirmative desire to capture the organic form. The path explored by these drawings began on Paleolithic cave walls or perhaps even earlier.

 

Standing at the Encounter sculpture, I allow myself to fully embrace Attenborough’s perpetual amazement at the world. Let’s see if we can get a closer look at the habits of this mysterious organism – the BBC’s wise old biologist could begin his commentary on Encounter. Its form looks a bit like a fragment of a Scandinavian landscape crystalized in the air. A two meter-long spiral line of tiny gray minerals binds the three massive elements. One of them emits a light – here he would pause for a moment to reflect. Some varieties exotic flowers use fluorescence to attract insects which pollinate them, others use it to lure victims into deadly traps. But here, we’re not even certain if we’re dealing with a plant! Its central core seems to confirm our doubts: it is a spiky-haired stone tube rising into the air at an angle. Smoke begins to seep out of the microscopic openings located between the jagged elements. Certainly not thick clouds of smoke but rather enough to confidently count this object as a geological phenomenon…

 

The sculpture was displayed in a separate darkened space. This encourages visitors to spend a bit more time with it. In me, it launches a stream of associations which unspools long after I leave the exhibition: Snowball Earth, Eyjafjallajökull eruption, Czesław Miłosz’s Esse, space elements, Matthew Barney’s Canopic Chest, Behind the Bushes by The Knife, the boulder from A Single Man, Holzer’s Inflammatory Essays (hard to say why?), Pachyphytum, the last Tasmanian tiger, the lake at Gorely volcano, Treat Me Like Your Mother by The Dead Weather, Twombly’s plant Polaroids, the Aomori Nebuta procession, Colin Delfosse’s Congolese wrestlers, the Cliffs of Moher, volcanic lightning, Nemiroff and Bonnella’s Jupiter, Spanish tradition of Luminarias, Tsingy de Bemaraha, meetings of geniuses, fluorite, AC-130 gunship, road flare in snow, Burns’ drawings, the cloud from Weerasethakul’s Tropical Malady, calcitet, Ryan McGinley’s trees, Thonningia, Jane and Serge, Wong Kar-wai’s Days of Being Wild, dangerous leopards, evening light, Kilauea volcano, Codex Vigilianus, strange biographies, winter in New England, rhodocrosite from Peru, Giovanni di Paolo, Kawauchi’s Ametsuchi, William Blake’s The Tyger, Richard Feynman’s talks, Villa Extramuros, saudade

Leaving the room, I continue reading:

 

June 2010. Beginning to work on my diploma project entitled Spotkanie (Meeting). There will be two figures: the first invoking a mineral shape and the other flower buds. This contrast still feels too abstract – a bit like a definition of an event rather than a specific and engrossing event itself. A paraglider pilot explained the way thermal columns form – they’re the main propulsion behind all engine-less flying objects. If a pilot wants to adjust his elevation he looks for places on land where two features with different temperatures meet. The interaction between a cold lake and a sun-bathed field produce a movement of air capable of lifting a glider up. In March of that year, someone introduced me to their friend at a club on Warsaw’s Nowy Świat street. Her name was Itziar and is from Spain, somewhere around Laredo. According to the dictionary, her Basque given name refers to an ancient sacred stone, her last name is a word for a warm and soft fabric. I’m amused at how little separates the idea behind my sculpture from the friction between the meaning of the two words that have always been used to describe her. Beginning of June – reading Rilke’s notebooks; he lists the weather phenomenons which act as the main reference point in maintaining the cohesiveness of rhythm in his poems. Mostly as a joke, and not concern for the fate of my sculpture I begin to analyze the cloud formations above Warsaw. I’m sitting at the window in my studio, stare at the sun and draw sketches. I don’t think too much about them but eventually decide to use one unusual, sinusoidal, twisted clouds. It contributes a lot to the composition. I move the fundamental elements further away, I stop holding on to the idea of two compact forms and extended their weight so that they melt into a chain based on the sketch of the cloud. The sinusoidal line takes on a consistency of a series of pieces of wood smoothed by the waters of a fast-running stream. The stable crystal-form retains its place on the left. At the center, a new form directly inspired by my brief interaction with Itziar arises. A thermal interaction between these two divergent phenomena takes place so that it makes sense that clouds of steam should arise. The warm, stout figure on the left gets an electrical connection and starts giving off a yellow light.

 

Concert for narwhals (Miron Grzegorkiewicz’s performance), paper/electric installation, 2015

 

I was deeply touched by the installation closing the exhibition: a flock of narwhals gathered around the stage. Only their tusks are visible, the rest of their bodies need to be imagined: submerged beneath the gallery floor. Paper lanterns balance and surround the speakers and the musician’s equipment. The lightest touch or breeze set them into a slow movement.

 

They give off a delicate, gray-blue light, as if they were submerged in a nighttime glare of a smooth sea. Perhaps that’s where the blue lights complementing the red tones in the N.W. painting are coming from? If that’s the case, than the painting’s dancing protagonist would be captured between a fiery orb and an arctic ocean. Narwhal, N.W. and A concert for narwhals would then form a symbolic triptych…

 

The exhibition’s opening featured an electronic music concert by Maciej Klimko Łepkowski and Miron Grzegorkiewicz. Recordings of the compositions they recorded especially for the animal “listeners” remained at the exhibition.

 

Maciej’s piece was a calm bass guitar ballad, interwoven with elongated chords of pulsating sounds inspired by the underwater vocalizations of traveling right whales. There was a sense that he was trying to enter into a dialogue with them. The homogeneous 10 minute improvisation harmonizes with the performance space’s landscape. Toward the end of the piece, the melody begins to fade out and the whales’ calls multiply into slightly synthesized vibrations.

 

Miron’s composition builds gradually. The light and sparkling repeated samples announce the approaching rapidly accelerating tones. The piece’s rhythm is built upon an ambiguous and soft whistling/organ-like sound. Its waves continue to pile up on each other, leading to ever larger flashes. After a moment of silence, an entirely different sequence of sounds begins: the monotonous melody of hoarse voices loops in an unsettled trance.

 

A concert for narwhals concludes the Light Stone Tiger Bull exhibition, leaving the audience in a tribal atmosphere of ancient rituals.

 

***

 

While visiting the Musée de Cluny in Paris – which is chock full of evidence of the Medieval cult of the unicorn – I have my first opportunity to see a real narwhal’s tusk. My primary impression of it is the idea of driving to the top, which is also strongly marked in Björk’s song Trance, in which the sounds slowly “build-up” from delicate murmurs to thundering trumpets. I’m imagining a stage set for a concert in which a pack of narwhals are gathered just in front of the stage. They used their tusks to punch through the floor (as it turns out the floor is like the Antarctic ice sheet which has an ocean immediately beneath it). They simply surfaced during the concert. Now a forest of narwhal tusks sways gently in front of the musicians who, accompanied by an electronic rhythms and wooden rattles, sing in an ancient Eskimo language:

 

…this atmosphere isn’t seen often/ A narwhal swims straight to the top / His tusk shatters the freezing cover / And pushes on into the red cloud / This atmosphere doesn’t come often / And the narwhal burns at the sun / He accepted red and rejected dark / Like thousands of others before!

 

I have a clear memory of Łukasz’s visit in Paris late in 2012. Sol LeWitt’s Pyramides were being exhibited at the Galerie Marian Goodman. After seeing the exhibition together we sat down at a café in the Marais and talked about our impressions. We were always able to talk with each other about painting. Maybe not even so much about painting but about color; in print, nature, movies – anywhere. Łukasz was complaining that the critics didn’t give enough recognition to the visual aspects of Nicolas Refn’s Drive, which came out around that time. He found the crime thriller’s plot to simply be a rough framework on which the formal symphony of its scenes could unfold. The only thing missing from his stay in Paris was any hint of Matthew Barney, his early artistic idol. In this regard, he was disappointed by both the permanent and temporary exhibitions, and even the massive FIAC International Art Fair held nothing in store for him. Łukasz would joke that at all of the gallery openings and concerts he kept scanning the crowds for people dressed in McQueen’s avant-garde outfits – hoping to get at least a bit of the Cremaster feel. Unfortunately, to no avail.

 

Black and brittle graphite and clear and hard diamonds became the unexpected topic of our conversation for the rest of the evening. The two are but the most extreme forms of the same element: carbon. This isotopic dissonance proved to be a good starting point for our café chatter about the complexity of seemingly simple everyday issues.

 

Even during that conversation, the groundwork for the Light Stone Tiger Bull exhibition was beginning to emerge. Furthermore, the Encounter sculpture was already sitting complete at Łukasz’s Warsaw studio. Apparently two more years had to go by before the lights, signs, mysterious substances, Foucauldian resemblances and youthful sentiments coalesced into a cohesive whole.

 
 
 

Translation — Krzysztof Ścibiorski