Portrait of I. Gustowska, ‘Virus’, 2020
The 11th issue of the RTV Magazine is dedicated to technology, and as such, the voice of “the first lady of the Polish multimedia art” could hardly be omitted. Izabella Gustowska is the author of graphics, photographic objects, installations, films, and multimedia shows such as “She. Media Story” (2008), or “A Hybrid” shown two years ago in Poznań’s Pavilion. She co-created the first Department of Intermedia in Poland, at the University of Fine Arts in Poznań (UAP), where she has worked until the present day. I remember how, as a student in 2007, I experienced her exhibition “Life is a story”. On the walls of the National Museum – dusty in a noble way – hung cinematic representations of female mouths, singing, whispering, and lips smacking. This was a time of awakening for my feminist consciousness. Existing within a masculinised, minimalist academic environment, I was looking for something that would break the seriousness of the all-knowing silence. In this sensual, Baroque-style media exhibition, I recognised a manifestation of femininity that was rejected by academia. It seemed almost rebellious to me. It showed a joy and splendour, it was unafraid of camp, and so different from the seriousness of the large-format paintings of emptiness and national traumas filtered by male artists, in the form of installations. “Life is a story” was an unashamed and publicly-experienced joy, with undisguised inclinations for experimentation – and, most of all, a way to tell the collective her-stories, which rarely find their place in institutions.
In the middle of July I met Izabella in her house, a hundred-year old villa with two spruces at the entrance. At the gate I was greeted by Rafał Trzaskowski, still smiling – it was still a few days before the presidential election. Iza offered me a strawberry tart with mascarpone.
Documentation of the exhibit ‘Life Is A Story (Art Of Choice)’, National Museum in Poznan, photo: Jarosław Klupś
Let’s start with the present day. Would you tell us about the film you’re currently working on?
To start with, I think I should say that I always wanted to make a film. By taking smaller and bigger steps, I more or less managed to do that. Usually, I made short, low-budget films together with my friends. As part of the Kościuszko scholarship in 2013, and the trip to New York, I received some money from the Adam Mickiewicz Institute, and then I managed to make a film that was quite long by American standards – 50 minutes. It was “Przypadek Josephine H.” [The Case of Josephine H.]. I was inspired by the biography of Josephine Hopper, wife of Edward Hopper, one of the greatest American painters. Josephine was an artist herself, which not everyone is aware of. At the same time, she was harassed by her husband. We know it from diaries she was writing her whole life. These are very painful memories of an unfulfilled artist, living in the shadows of her man, taking care of and archiving his legacy with great precision, but due to this fact, remaining in his shadows. Josephine appeared in many of Edward’s paintings. This story and its film adaptation was quite an experience for me, and this is why, since that time of making the first film, I was searching for opportunities to make another one. In 2018, in a competition for a residency at CK Zamek, I suggested we should make the film at the “Zamek” Culture Centre, and Anna Hryniewicka (the institution’s director) and Jagna Domżalska (curator) both agreed to take up the challenge with me. Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, the project was stopped by an unexpected closure of everything for three months. Now we are slowly getting back into shooting. Working on a film is always teamwork – you can’t just push yourself forward. Sandra Korzeniak plays the main double role. The film, similarly to the exhibition planned in “Zamek” Culture Centre, is called “Bezwzględne cechy podobieństwa” [Absolute Points of Similarity], in contrast with my 1979s series “Względne cechy podobieństwa” [Relative Points of Similarity]. For now, I have given up on the huge scenes – this decision will make the film more intimate and maybe also more psychological. It’s an experiment, a collage, a mix of pictures from different cameras – Arria’s, and cinematographer Zuzanna Kernbach’s, as well as my archived footage from various cameras and a mobile phone. It’s a story of twin sisters, played by a single actress. Antonina is an architect, she’s very focused on her work, which is consistently pushing her forward, and she doesn’t really think about others, whereas Melania, her sister, is an actress who lives hand-to-mouth – she’s a kind of a butterfly, and she also has a daughter. The plot, however, is not the most important point. It’s about the fact that they are both in a maze of different real and virtual spaces, and also in an identity loop. In the spaces of “Zamek” Culture Centre, they pass by and meet each other. This makes shooting some scenes incredibly difficult, since both characters are played by one actress.
Documentation of the exhibition of Izabella Gustowska ‘New York and a Girl’, Art Station Foundation – Poznań, 2015
Izabella Gustowska, ‘Relative similarities, substitute twinship’, 1980
Why are you so interested in duality?
I am one of twins – I have a twin brother.
Me too – but a twin sister.
Then you probably know that having a twin sister is completely different, especially a monozygotic one. I’ve worked with female twins before, on my graphic series “Relative Points of Similarity”, so I took a close look at them – and I think it is an amazing power, kind of a rational and irrational looping, one that is tiring and inspiring. Intuitively, I want to be close to this duality, because I recognize myself in it. When I worked with and looked at female twins, I noticed how difficult and depressing an experience it is – but at the same time, also beautiful. My film producer, Paulina Szymaniak, hired, for example, a couple of female twins from Belarus, whom Jagna Domżalska, a curator of my exhibition at “Zamek” Culture Centre, spotted at a bus stop in Poznań. They study sinology here. They appeared in a “Got Talent” programme, where they heard from the judges they don’t have talent (laughter). But when they sang on the film set, the walls of the “Zamek” were trembling! When we were shooting, I was lucky to be in “Zamek” just when it was undergoing renovation: a time of destruction and collapse. Now, unfortunately (but fortunately for the “Zamek”), everything is renovated and shiny again. And here you can hear Chór Czarownic [The Witches Choir] in the background (your fault, your fault!). This whole castle [“Zamek”] is like a maze – personally, I’m always lost in there. Oh, and here, in Jan Tarasin’s graphic there are dots falling off… a Dalmatian dog.
Fragment of the film by Izabella Gustowska ‘Absolut Points of Similarities’ – making of
What is your motivation for constant experimentation? You started with graphics, you took photographs and turned them into objects, made installations, now you took up video…
I get bored easily. When I was an undergraduate, fields such as colourism in painting, figurativism, or, to a smaller extent, conceptual art, were dominant at university. I was always close to the conceptual movements, but not strictly so. The medium I was using was important to me, but when it comes to graphics, I wasn’t interested in the craftsmanship and skills – be it aquatint or drypoint, I didn’t feel like talking about it. This is why I took up photography, and took it through chemo-graphic and offset plates to graphics, and I flourished immediately, because I felt that there was that moment drawn from from reality – that it wasn’t a fake human, drawn with a drypoint, but his existence was captured in the photograph. In the process of getting a diploma in 1972, I screened a film on the canvas, because I needed movement. What followed were the feminist motives, female bodies, duality… This is how it progressed, without much pain.
Still frames from the film ‘Absolut Points of Similarity’ – making of, 2020
Would you like to tell me more about the female motives? The protagonists of your works are mostly women. I have the impression that they are never depicted alone – they are always accompanied by sisters, friends, partners, and sometimes, their own shadow.
Yes, a shadow is the company you can’t get rid of, and so is a twinship that, in a way, results from the shadow. Even during our first exhibition, “Trzy kobiety” [Three women] in 1978 in Arsenał Gallery in Poznań – which was organized by Krystyna Piotrowska, Ania Bednarczuk, and me working together – there was this duality; multiple depictions and (self-)portraits of women.
I owe a lot to other women. My friends didn’t have to be persuaded to pose for my works, pictures, and films. Actually, I’m still friends with all of them.
Izabella Gustowska ‘I am changing 1 and 2’, 1978
Izabella Gustowska, ‘Victim I and III (Gerda and Erika)’, 1989
So you didn’t treat women as objects of your creative realisations, but rather, their subjectivity was important to you?
Yes. For example, this painting hanging here shows my friend Basia Kaczmarek with her daughter, and over there is an artist, also my friend, Krystyna Piotrowska. Here are lightboxes with my female friends’ mouths. The images of them all were generously bestowed upon me. This photo shows a couple of female friends from Holland. Here, one of them carries another on her back.
They look as if they were fighting with each other.
One of the women was really big, and another one delicate, wispy. So, one of them carries another. And next to them there are sisters, Wichna and Hanka, who appear again in my film – they are the grey-haired ladies from the film we are shooting now. In my works from the 1970s, you can see how I experiment with shadow, with line, with the reflection of their bodies in each other.
Portrait of I.Gustowska with the twins Wichna and Hanka, 2019
And what is your opinion on feminism? I guess you didn’t always want to call your works feminist?
You know, that was such a Polish situation – quite difficult. But it’s not like that now. I am a feminist now. I had to grow up and into this. And now I could say with a clear conscience that I am a feminist – an old feminist (laughter).
Well, it seems that we have a title for the interview!
Let me show you something else I’m working on now. Here is a recording I made with Cezary Ostrowski. For a long time, he tried to convince me to record something with him, with my lyrics and his music. It came out rebellious. Cezary is an intriguing sound designer. Let’s listen.
(in the background: this is not fear, this is rebellion, this is rebellion, this is rebellion)
It just turned out this way. When we were recording, I was thinking about the election, that it won’t end well. I think it will be rigged…
Your approach to technology is fairly affirmative. To you, it has emancipatory potential, doesn’t it? By looking at the works of your students, do you notice a different attitude towards media – perhaps more critical?
My students are immersed in the Web. At the university, when we switched to online teaching due to the pandemic, I invited Martyna Miller and a PhD student, Magdalena Żołędź, who lives in London, to give two lectures, and they did a great job. I could see that the students took it really well. They had been in the pandemic mode – that is, online – for a very long time. Martyna claims she knows no other life, because she’s immersed in ‘the virtual’ since elementary school. Magdalena Żołędź is dealing with social projects. During our classes she suggested that we make a film together, so everyone sent in a part lasting 40 seconds, and we pieced these together. Now we want to show it at the Konteksty [Contexts] festival in Sokołowsko. Another project that is also going to be shown at Konteksty is “Kilimanjaro-Sokołowsko back and forth”, but the students did not approach that very seriously.
Here is an interesting part of our “Kilimanjaro…” , it’s Dominika Hoyle’s. Dominika is a girl who finished undergraduate studies in England, came to Poznań, and is doing great things. I’m happy when I look at her works because there is some unusually good energy and intuition in them.
So the ‘online mode’ of education in the pandemic turned out to be quite an inspiring experience for you?
Yes, it was an inspiring experience – but only after some time. It was difficult at the beginning. Many people were struggling, and they just stayed under the covers. After some time, something just clicked, and we also had an aim – that is, making our film.
We mixed all of the works we received, cutting them a bit. I wonder what students will say to that now (laughter). Personally, I think the more of a collage it is, the better. Here are some 3D inserts by Mateusz Bratkowski, and here you can see a girl who’s a really good writer, Barbara Gryczan. She wrote a kind of ‘pandemic diary’. Of all my students, I think that Justyna Górowska, a PhD student, is doing great things. She is probably the most courageous in her exploration of the world of virtual reality (VR).
Actually, when I think about techno-phile artists, I am moved the most by those who, on the one hand, combine motives drawn from nature and myths, and on the other hand, are deeply immersed in the virtual world. Martyna Miller has been working on something like that recently, a work with Japanese red carp – creatures that, in Japan, are almost sacred. Here in Poland, carp are eaten – and before that, suffocated.
Martyny Miller, still frame ‘Memory Carp’
An interesting phenomenon is the emergence of artistic duos. Sometimes they are couples, like Ula Lucińska and Michał Knychaus, and sometimes they are people who work on a specific project together, or people who cooperate for many years following that. Iza Sitarska and Agata Konarska is a duo I find intriguing. They are working on a film in Sicily, which refers to the myth of St. Agatha.
And how do you personally perceive media today? Aren’t you a bit tired of that multiplied, mediated, omnipresent image of a human?
No, I still find it fascinating. It’s like talking to oneself, to a sort of twin sibling who lives in the Web. And I’m not tired. I’m a half-analogue and half-digital person; I use the digital half to achieve certain goals. I don’t use social media too frequently, I comment on some things from time to time, but usually I just browse and I’m happy that people are so creative in these spaces. I’m fascinated by it, but also frustrated, because I don’t have enough time to get to know all the tools that also change so quickly. I get terribly irritated when there are updates. It’s not about being tired or bored, it’s about being angry at myself for not knowing something.
Isn’t it being angry at something – or someone – wanting something from you, again and again? Why exactly do you feel one should be updated all the time?
I’m angry because I don’t think there is such a need. I get used to some functions, and then suddenly something is changed. So it’s more like anger – but I’m trying to accept, somehow, that there are some things I won’t learn anymore. That is when I take the help of other people. Anyway, it’s a pleasure to work on projects in collectives, e.g. “Love stories”, where there are six girls and I. We started that project in 2018, and we still can’t finish it. I am working on it together with Katarzyna Wojtczak, Martyna Miller, Weronika Wronecka, Joanna Piotrowicz, Maria Słubczyńska, and Maja Ziarkowska (Okamgnienie). We came to the conclusion that it’s going to be love stories told through the motifs from songs played by Radio Pogoda. Some of the oldies, you know? I think it’s really funny.
I forgot to mention the Subczyńskie sisters, Jadwiga, who’s had her solo exhibition in SKALA Gallery recently, and about Maria – they are both great. They both examine the subjects related to fungi, each of them in her own way. They are amazing girls! Maria is really into mushrooms!
Still frames from the film ‘Love Stories’, making of, 2020
In the previous issue of RTV Magazine concerning magic, I had the pleasure to work with Maria – she made a beautiful video and visual essay.
Look how much potential there is in these women, how many of them we mentioned already – and each one of them is utterly interesting.
Yes – currently in Arsenał Gallery we have, for example, a residency of the collective SANDRA Gallery, which is co-created by approximately twenty young female artists.
I think there is power in women. I know my colleagues don’t love such opinions, but art colleges are finally making some progress. Iwona Demko was running for the position of the rector of the Fine Arts Academy in Kraków. In Poznań, we also have a female rector at the Adam Mickiewicz University, in Białystok a woman was elected a rector of the Technical University. I think that women generally have more to say than men.
Documentation of the performance of Izabella Gustowska ‘Hybrid; part II (Poison)’, 2018, Pawilon, photo: M. Zakrzewski
Are you inspired by other artists? Do you seek inspiration in, for example, women’s literature?
I am immersed in literature. I write quite a lot, and I think this is my background. Books give me some clues, that are then hard to put into film language – but it’s a world I like. I’m not really looking for inspiration, but sometimes I do find it. For example, I like Siri Hustvedt. She wrote “The Blazing World”, about the New York’s crypto-real art scene, and she is herself an art historian. In my film, which I screened in Poznań’s Scena Robocza [Working Stage] “16 media story…” I drew a lot from literature. I quoted a lot of book passages, from Rebecca Solnit, Susan Sontag, and Virginia Woolf for example. However, at the moment I’m reading mostly male authors.