“Immigrating to Reality”

WARSAW, POLAND– Marta Kolakowska is one of my all-time favorite gallerists. Not only does she represent some of Poland’s coolest and most interesting young artists, but she is also just a fun, down-to-earth chick. No artsy-fartsy airs, just someone who loves contemporary art and wants to share her enthusiasm for it. So when she sent me an email saying we needed to meet for lunch because she had an intriguing project to tell me about, I was happy to nip off to Warsaw’s Miedzy Nami cafe to meet her.

Kolakowska told me that her gallery, Leto—based at Soho Factory in Warsaw’s Praga district— is one of only two Polish galleries that have been invited to participate in Frieze Art Fair’s inaugural New York show in early May (Warsaw’s Foksal Gallery Foundation is the other). Galeria Leto will be a part of the FOCUS section of the show, which features younger galleries. What is especially interesting about the project –called TransAtlantic—that Kolakowska is taking to New York, is that the works do not exist yet. Two of the artists she represents, Radek Szlaga and Honza Zamojski, will leave from Antwerp on 4 April and head across the Atlantic on a cargo ship and arrive in New York about two weeks later. While they on the boat they will start filming some kind of documentary, they will keep a journal and also work on their own individual projects as well. Once they arrive in New York, they plan on building an oversized bed that will represent aspects of their trip and their experiences.

A few days after our lunch, I popped into Leto on a slushy Sunday morning to meet with the two artists; Szlaga is mostly a painter while Zamojski does more conceptual pieces and also runs Morava, a small book publishing house. Both men have also  recently completed residencies in New York and even turns out Szlaga’s family happens to live about an hour away from where I grew up in Michigan. We discussed their plans and the fact that there is no tangible product—at least not yet—for the Frieze show. Excerpts:

How long have you guys known each other?

Radek Szlaga (RS): We met about eight years ago at the Academy of Fine Arts in Poznan and lived together in London for a year. We also did a show together; we did one show with paintings.

Honza Zamojski (HZ)—It was like a Buddhist place here in Warsaw.

RS—I do not think its still around, but that is how we met Marta and she liked the stuff and gave us a call.

Where did the idea for  boat project come from?

RS-There was a certain moment we were sitting around with Marta thinking what should we do for the Frieze application. We kinda thought, “Let’s go to the US on a boat.”

HZ—When the application came, we thought about what we can present that will a) be cheap b) easy to transport and c) interesting for us–maybe that should be the most important part. So we thought, let’s move ourselves.

honzaBut wasn’t it also motivated—or should I say—inspired by Witold Gombrowicz’s 1953 book “Trans-Atlantyk”?

HZ—Gombrowicz is my favorite author. The book is about his travels to Argentina on a transatlantic cruise and also about the Polish community in Argentina and how the Poles fought each other. Even as immigrants, they brought all these complexes that should have been left at home. Even if you want to escape from your home, you are not really escaping. You are bringing all your personal baggage. I wouldn’t say it was an inspiration but we know someone else did it and looked critically at the whole process of immigration.

RS— The issue of immigration is big in my family and also in Honza’s. My great grandfather immigrated to the US on a boat when Poland was still part of Austro-Hungarian Empire and my grandma also went to the US. My dad, now all my family are living there. So I was kind of shaped by two different environments.

HZ—Half my family is Czech so there is a bilingual family and history. But no one moved to the US. Anyway, America is seen as something of a “Holy Land” for Poles.

RS—A promised land—said in quotations. It is all kind of fake but I am not sure how to explain it. It is this idea that is kind of a joke but kind of real.

HZ—And then the idea of travelling by boat came. We started to make research if it would be possible. It is, of course, on a boat like the Queen Mary and huge cruise liners but they are so expensive

RS—And we did not want to do that.

HZ—Not even because of the money…

RS—But it is a like a massive building in the middle of nowhere.

What will you actually be producing that can be exhibited at Frieze?

HZ—We want to do three pieces—a newspaper, film and a bed. The newspapers will be like a journal or a diary where we document things on the boat, write some things and put it together in the US. A couple thousand copies will be printed so we can give it away during the show. The newspaper is the document of what we did, there will be no metaphors. But then the second thing is the movie, this film, that will be metaphorical, but not so documentary but more…


HZ—I was thinking it could be more like a music video

RS—A soundtrack

HZ—From two perspectives.

And the bed?

RS—There is only one bed in the room so we will have to share it. At first we thought it would be a bunk bed but nope, its one small bed.

HZ—And maybe bedbugs. (Laughs)

RS—We will produce a bed, bigger than the actual bed. So we want to make it look not real.

HZ—We were thinking the bed will be the main project—that half of the bed will be mine and half will be Radek’s. It will be joined in that schizophrenic one piece. Radek is more fussy, shaky and I am more stable, Type A. So it will be like one identity in two.

RS—On the boat we will also bring projects we each want to work on or finish as well. We will bring some raw materials like I am going to bring a printer and do some Photoshop things because it’s hard to paint on a boat probably.

atlantis-radekAny idea what the actual trip will be like?

HZ—Even thinking of boat you have an image, this image of true and false. And the image you have in your mind is true, even though you do not have any idea what it is going to be.

RS—What I like the most, there is something real in it. We are totally shaped by mass media and YouTube and we are going to spend a lot of time on a ship without Wi-Fi. So having to deal with the reality. Immigrating to reality, I would call it that.

HZ—But it’s only like nine days.

RS—Unless the weather is bad.

So I guess that means you can only prepare so much.

HZ—It is fluid. And it is funny in that Frieze said yes to the project. When we wrote that we would be on a boat and produce stuff but no specifics, they were like, “Okay, sure you can do it.” So now we are getting these logistical emails from them asking things like, “Where are you going to put the light, what are you going to show and how much room will you need? Where do you need to put the sockets?” And we do not know because as of now there is nothing. Frieze keeps saying,  “Send us an image” and we are, “What can we send you?” (laughs)


So speaking of logistics, tell me how you got sorted with the boat company?

HZ—Going to Antwerp will be easy part. It’s funny because once you start researching on the internet we found out there is a whole massive tourist community behind these kinds of journeys. There are companies that actually specialize in cargo transatlantic cruises for random people and you can just go on the website and email them and say, “I want to go to NYC on this date, etc.” It is that easy. There will be other people on the boat because we bought the last room.

Who knew…

HZ—Yeah, well if you think about it, everything is possible.  So if going down the Amazon is something you can do on your travels, why not on a cargo ship to cross the Atlantic? I know my grandmother was like the patron of a boat—she christened one.  She was high up in the local administration and so she became like this patron and twice she went on the boat. Once to Iran and to India in the late 1970s and early 1980s. I did a art piece on this a few years ago. But when I was talking to her, she said it is normal that random people are going on a cargo ship. It has always been like this, and now it’s an industry.

Photo one: Radek and Honza (courtesy of Honza Zamojski/photo by Szymon Drabczyk, 2011)

Picture 1 by Honza Zamojski, Picture  two “Atlantis” by  Radek Szlaga