Pigment for Alpha Centauri
Text — Daniel Chmielewski
The 8th floor of a communist-era apartment building on Gagarina Street in Warsaw. I’m entering Łukasz Dybalski’s atelier. I am led into one of the two rooms which make up Łukasz’s home exhibition space. It’s a white-cube set-up: all furniture, books and furnishings have been cleared out. All that’s left is the wooden parquet floor and a ceiling lamp. The lamp’s turned off as it’s daytime and two large windows line one of the walls. It’s an ideal exhibition space, there are no false colors, no spotlights – on this typically overcast day, even the diffused sunlight casts no shadows on the walls. Since the neighboring building is not as tall, standing in the doorway all I see out the windows is the sky above Warsaw.
I look to the side. A horizontal 1 x 1.5 meter painting hangs in the middle of the wall. Navy background. A small circle outlined near its left edge. Most of the canvas is taken up by a pyramid lying sideways. Its apex touches a point on the outlined circle while the square base assertively fills the painting’s right half. I approach the canvas, noticing a strange and delicate mark at the pyramid’s base: it’s a second circle, much smaller than the first one. The connotations fly by right away: the navy background is outer space, the small circle is Earth, the tiny one is the moon. But what’s the pyramid supposed to be?
I turn to the opposite wall. On it, a similarly-sized canvas. A cuboid on a mahogany background. One of the faces has two panels glued onto it. This shape, red at its base, progressively lightens reaching a cream-yellow tint at its top. It reminds me of molten metal in a metallurgical furnace or the making of castings. Then, thinking about the negative of the shape represented on the canvas I realize what it is: the “two panels” are the negatives of the two windows in the room. Looking closely, beneath them there’s a notch in the cuboid – that’s the window sill.
Now, facing away from the windows I notice the next piece of this puzzle, the painting on the final wall. Hanging in the middle is a uniformly red square painting (less than 50 cm a side) with a neutral birch frame.
At this point it all comes together. The red from the central paining fills the entire room (the painting with the mahogany background), then spills out of it through the windows and takes off. The pyramid shape on the navy-colored canvas isn’t a physical object but rather a representation of red’s flight from a point on the small circle (the apartment I’m standing in), through the moon (the tiny circle on the canvas) and beyond out into outer space. Standing in the room, a stream of liberated photons washes over me!
I approach the window sill, ready to look for the photon waves in the sky, imagining that if I concentrate enough, reality will gain a filter which will reveal to me all that is (invisibly) going on around me. Of course, imagination and will power can’t quite muster this sort of a miracle. ….However, I do notice a small booklet on the window sill. Is it the exhibition’s catalogue?
I page through. Reproduction’s of Łukasz’s lively, oil and gouache paintings are juxtaposed with their coolly scientific descriptions written in a sans-serif font. The large paintings are simply described as ‘Figure A’ and ‘Figure B.’ Only the smallest painting has a proper title: ‘Red.” My speculations are confirmed by the footnotes to the paintings: “Red photons fill the room in approximately 0.00000001 seconds (Figure.A)”.
The following pages feature quotes by Newton and Goethe about physics and symbolism of color, a partial etymology of the word “red.” For now, I’m simply jotting down leads. We could look at the booklet as a user’s manual but that would simply reduce the depth of meaning contained in the paintings hanging in the room. The booklet sends out a signal that that this part of the exhibition is JUST about the small red painting, and HOW MUCH is hidden within this blend of paint and canvas.
Leafing ahead I reach two blank pages.with the word “GOLD” (ZŁOTO) in capital letters. This must refer to the works in the next room – I close the booklet and go on to see for myself.
A corner room with windows along two of its walls. Paintings hang on the two other two. On the the shorter wall hangs a painting with same dimensions as the all-red canvas from the previous room. It is covered with gold flakes which create a uniform surface that, because of the material used, appears to be slightly dirty. It has a wooden frame.
On the longer wall there’s a large painting (about 2×2 meters). The cobalt-blue background resembles a peaceful early-evening sky – a radiant white and yellow fan-shape pops out . The intense color cannot be contained within the quarter circle figure and bursts out beyond the hand fan’s edges into the surrounding sky with an orange-violet glow.
The “red room” provided me with suggestions for interpreting the installation. In the corner room, the gold painting must be the centerpiece, the other acts as a visual representation of its physical impact. The fan-shape must be a bird’s eye view of a city, a map where all the buildings and streets have been erased. All that’s left is the expanding wave of photons.
I’m standing on top of a lighthouse which sends out its red and yellow light out into the world. And that’s when I look out the window onto the surrounding buildings. The multicolored waves emitted by the objects and furniture within the buildings’ interiors must also be coming in through these windows. Once again I open the booklet: “Gold emits photons which travel the distance to the Sun in 8 minutes and 19 seconds.” The guide began with information about a real space (a specific room) and a completely abstract unit of time (0.00000001 seconds). While I’m able to contextualize eight minutes, the distance from the earth to the Sun eludes all comparisons, it becomes an abstraction. These two examples lead us to another significant issue brought forth by the exhibition: color is not just a space covered with a pigment, it is also a motion in time, an endless war over the real space through which photons travel, pass each other, affect atoms and unleash further waves of photons.
Initially, I expected to interact with aesthetic objects, perhaps a deeper thought, but I did not suspected that I’d be forced to recall the scattered remnants of knowledge from my high school physics and chemistry classes. But, gold is not simply a color, it is a chemical element, a chemical element with a specific color. I continue reading: Gold is one of the products of neutron start collisions. It reached Earth on a meteorite and if we were to create a solid cube out of all of the gold we’ve gathered throughout human history, its sides would only measure 20.5 meters.
Physics infiltrates aesthetics, visual stimuli can have political dimensions. All that I am confronted with in this eight floor apartment on Gagarina Street challenges my school-based categorization of knowledge where facts were thoughtlessly filed away in separate drawers.
At the same time, the exhibition carefully stays with its specific theme – an invitation to ponder the issue of color. There are countless ways to think about color, the conclusions rising from these thoughts can deepen our understanding of the world and heighten our sensitivity. Instead of looking at reality in an atomized manner, as a collection of facts, tasks to carry out, consisting of ‘work’ and ‘free time’, as the ‘here’ and the ‘there’, we can look at it as a delicate network of relations which shape us while we shape it. This reflection provides some comfort, I feel that I can control and model my environment physically by existing within it and mentally through the act of perceiving.
When I was little I loved reading the multi-volume “Childcraft” anthology, a children’s encyclopedia. The carefully arranged photographs accompanying its articles had a deep impact on my imagination. In the volume on hand-made toys, dolls would live in cardboard homes placed in the forest. In the volume on scientific experiments, each chapter began with a scene where wood and wire robots tinkered with beautifully illuminated machines. I would longingly study these photos for hours on end, hoping to enter into their reality which was both tangible (actually created and photographed) and highly surrealistic. As a teenager, I became captivated by cinema and watching movies at home became one of my rituals. The room had to be dark. Food was not allowed. The only tolerated distraction was an occasional cigarette. With each minute, the rectangular screen would draw more and more of my attention to the point where I would forget
This desire for comprehensive experiences, the drive to become embedded in a different world, not just through visual perception but with all of my senses has stayed with me to this day.
I met Łukasz at university and, quite quickly, we had a deep intellectual bond. At the same time, our approaches to fundamental issues were fundamentally opposite. My searchings led me to struggle against values which I viewed as man-made creations. Łukasz, on the other hand, believed and continues to believe in the objective value of painting. I attempted to find a way to separate content from form. Meanwhile, Łukasz focused on perfecting his painting craft. For a long time, I was convinced that Critical Art was the one true path and with the boastful naiveté of a twenty-something year-old true believer I proclaimed that ‘painting was dead’. I celebrated Łukasz’s installations, experiments with holograms and his ‘smoking’ sculptures which reminded me of the surrealist tangibility of the photographs from the “Childcraft” series.
However, this exhibition made me realize just how much we have in common and why we are able to understand each other so well. While my works are almost exclusively comics where each frame is sequentially dependent on the previous one, I have long believed that linearity is an enormous obstacle in describing the world. An action as simple as the movement of the eyes from one point to another generates so many simultaneous bodily processes that even an attempt to depict two people talking becomes an impossible task.
The scene with two people can be depicted as an interaction of forms, a social process, the conversation can be based on a psychological footing or presented as symbolic of a larger theme such as a clash of civilizations.
Art is the ability to depict an issue, whether it is the ‘behavior of colors’ or ‘interaction between people’ in a way which draws the viewer in, makes him part of the creative process, provides tools which allow him to look at reality in a different way and perhaps reach surprising conclusions. I am certain that Łukasz was able to do just that.
There are three BILLY bookcases in my apartment. Overflowing with books, they appear to be multicolored plinths waiting for appropriate statues to be placed on top. I’ve placed Łukasz’s monochromatic, 40 cm x 40 cm square painting on one. Burnt sienna. I found out that this color fills a room in 0.00000001 seconds (as fast as the red), goes through the windows and reaches the Alpha Centauri B star in about 4.4 light years.
But can this painting stand on its own? Without all the science, without the context of the exhibition? As I look at it, I think of early autumn – my favorite time of the year, of Caravaggio who would add brown pigment to his paintings with fast and forceful strikes of the brush. The calm exuded by this canvas is in contrast to the Italian painter’s violence, to the force of the howling wind and the crunch of brown leaves under the shoes. But this contrast generates an inspiring vibration, one that is as invisible as the ray of photons traveling to Alpha Centauri B, but one just as real and significant.
Translation — Krzysztof Ścibiorski