Ewa, you are a painter, a performer, a keelwoman, and a Vistula river activist. A few days ago you were also awarded the Order of the Vistula River Knight1. How do you feel about this distinction?
I was afraid it would impose more responsibilities on me… You know, I am a woman who was not, up until now, treated very seriously by keelmen, despite the fact that I was floating down the Vistula River, I wasn’t considered a “real” keelwoman. Then it turned out that I am, after all, doing what all the other keelmen are doing, that is I travel downstream and upstream, and my idea for the activities on the Vistula is interesting. During the laudation accompanying the presentation of the award my work was appreciated and it was noticed that in this way I popularise contact with nature among the young people. It was all very nice and touching.
…let’s maybe start from the beginning, how and when did your relations with the Vistula River begin?
When I moved to Kraków, my individual artistic practice started to go astray. I was wandering around socially back then. When the moon was full my husband and I held meetings in the Kraków Valleys where we spent the whole nights by the fire or we went on trips to Silesia with artists such as e.g. Henryk Waniek. One day my friend, a printer, called me and asked if I would like to take a trip to Gdańsk down the Vistula River. My first question was: OK, but how much would it cost? He replied: nothing. So I asked: how long would it take? He said: around four weeks. I asked: when would we start? He said: in two weeks, so I replied: OK, let’s go! When I agreed to go I didn’t know at all what I was getting into, but we already had a date, so I took my daughter Gaja who was ten at that time, and we set off. When we reached our starting point it was raining heavily, there was mud everywhere, and there was a small boat waiting for us on the water. The boat was called “galarek ulanowski” [a small scow] and was used for recreational transport lasting up to a few hours, and we had 900 km to make and eleven people on board. I was in high-heeled shoes, a bit unprepared. And so I thought, if Gaja said she wouldn’t get on the scow, then I would have an excuse and we wouldn’t go, but she didn’t say anything. So we set off. When we came back, I devoured all the books on the Vistula River I could get my hands on, starting with, for example, the Vistula River geology, and I fell in love, it was amazing.
How did your cooperation with Luxus influence your commitment? Can you tell me about your previous activities? About the psychoactive magazine “Luxus” and performing social activity as an artistic strategy?
When we started with “Luxus” it was a time when you did not “go out” or “frequent” any places. It was in the 1980s, we lived under martial law, there was no social life, and even our professor was interned, so we decided to take matters into our own hands and we founded a luxurious psychoactive magazine “Luxus”. Nothing was luxurious around us, the magazine was authorial from cover to cover and produced manually, and it was in itself a form of protest against the reality in which we had to live. The first issue was published in the number of ten copies. Everyone did what they could, some knew something about lithography, some – about sheeting, and then we found out that stencil is the best. There was no transparent film back then, so we had to cut forms out of the X-ray films that were quite thick, and this is why everything looked rather coarsely. Incidentally, it turned out that stencils are great on T-shirts that were coming to Poland in aid parcels, and people from the outside started coming to us to decorate their T-shirts in this way. There were no other places to meet so our studio proved to be very attractive, we had some music equipment, because Klaus Mitffoch was rehearsing at our place, there was always music in the background, so the atmosphere in the office was quite relaxed. This is also why the “Luxus” magazine was psychoactive, and obviously also because we were using from time to time. We were a group characterised by the fact that we didn’t drink alcohol, which did not mean that we didn’t use. Mushrooms, among other things, appeared at that time; our friend came from America and brought a mushroom catalogue, so a few of our forester friends leaned over it with interest.
Did these experiences influence your later fascination with the Vistula?
Maybe it has something to do with the Vistula because our activity was always based on social gatherings, and building community, a direct and not an abstract one. Everyone tried to get to know the rest of the people, at least by name. In the 1980s people had more time and they were really interested in one another, out of pure joy and pleasure of being together.
You also involve animals in your understanding of being together, they often appear in your paintings. What does painting animals teach you?
I don’t think it differs very much from painting a human portrait. I used to go to the zoo but it was a very painful experience, I felt sorry for the animals closed behind bars. Even so, I kept going there to look at black panthers. Why? Maybe I wanted to have such fur, so I could walk without any clothes, and I would really like that… You know, this relation between humans and animals is so straightforward, you don’t have to think about any ambiguities, or that it is one way, but it soon can be another, the messages sent are clear. I live with two cats, and cats are very special, they don’t bother you, they have their dignity and are very concrete. During my Vistula River cruises I met especially small animals, those which had no everyday contact with humans and were not scared at all. They approached us, for example a small mouse which sat with us for a moment by the fire, looked at us and went away after a while. Animals are simply curious, they have their own business and their own lives, but they want to socialize. They speak through their presence.
And which animal is the closest to you?
According to the Chinese horoscope, I’m a rat. A rat is an Eastern man of leisure, far-sighted and vigilant, always has to have an alternative, but is also very active, so there are many similarities between us. My daughter Gaja is a buffalo, very strong, active, consistent. I was really impressed by this animal-human symbolism of the East, and, together with my husband, we organised the Lunar New Year Celebration in Kraków, for the first time in 1988. We screened movies unavailable anywhere else in Poland at that time, such as Johnny Rotten’s concert recording, or a movie “Life of Brian”, I organised workshops on making stencils, I may even have a recording somewhere… It was an entirely different audience, of course also visually, but the atmosphere was completely different, it was simply a different era. And the inspiration for all this were animals, those from the Chinese horoscope. I realized they set the world’s pace, and that every person has an animal inside, just like a daemon2 from Pullman’s novel.
Since 2015, together with Agnieszka Brzeżańska, you organise residencies on the Vistula, inviting artists to achieve the state of flow together. Could you elaborate on that state?
The idea for the state of flow started even before my cooperation with Agnieszka. Kola Śliwińska (Koka) was its co-author, and she had this great idea to make a residency on water. I happened to be on my way from Kraków to Orlean on a three-month cruise and it looked like I wouldn’t have many companions on the boat, because so many people decided to resign for some reason. This was when we invited Agnieszka to go with us, and a few more invited artists joined on the way. This was also when Bartek Przybył-Orłowski from the Pamoja Foundation appreciated this idea. Then we decided that the whole project would be called “FLOW/Przepływ”. Agnieszka, who has a lot of artists among her friends, invited several people; Luxus didn’t want to join back then, but in the following year they did… Being on the Vistula is such goodness that it would be a shame not to share this experience, though sometimes I think that maybe people will mess this up, or they won’t know how to behave, but it is always good. People who get on the boat are very mindful and gentle. You know, you can get to know them from their best side. They achieve the state of flow spontaneously and then they think about the river differently, for example they see that the bridge they travel on by car is built over the river, and the river is still there, flowing. When I get off the boat after the season and I wake up in my bed, in a flat, I still have those Vistula landscapes in front of my eyes, they are still inside me. This mental image can then influence the reality after the cruise.
Does the river influence you mentally and hence this flow?
Yes, this is when I feel connected and that I co-create an organism, unfortunately even with those with whom I wouldn’t want to, but there is no escaping it. Eventually, we are all mixed together, we are drinking the same water and breathing the same air after all, it is all passing through us, even the breath of people we don’t like and would rather avoid.
…but still, you invite only selected people to the scow residency, to travel down the river together. So there is always a method of limiting contact with those you would rather stay away from, which cannot be said about the all-embracing climate changes, rivers and lakes drying out, environmental pollution, etc.
Yes, this is happening right now! And this is what I meant when I said that flow includes everything, both pleasant and unpleasant sensations. This is why I value Spinoza’s monism more than all the dualistic concepts talking about the difference between good and evil. I think they are unrealistic. For example, Manichaeans say that evil is good but in a wrong place, and I think this is very accurate. And this is also makes me feel relieved, since it means that evil can be transformed, just like in Buddhism anger can be transformed into love.
Actually, you just answered my question about how to live on a devastated planet and not surrender to the pressures of capitalising everything around, including oneself.
Equally important is the way we talk about the river, not as a resource that can be used, but as a living and sentient being. But I notice this change in people already; we are more and more mindful, we feel and we try to be alert, we want to and we start to understand what is going on and this can really make you happy.
What do feminism and sisterhood mean to you? Do you relate them to your relation with the Vistula?
I don’t really know what feminism means, but I do know about sisterhood. Since a very long time I’ve been addressing my friends: sister, including my male friends. Intuitively I’ve always known that women have a power that is not talked about because it is so obvious – a sense of community, solidarity, mutuality. However, I was once interviewed and I was asked what work looked like in our open Luxus studio at the university. And I was so naïve to say that it was normal, we did our jobs, we were painting, organising events, and at the end Bożenka and I stayed and we cleaned up the place. No one asked us to do this, it just happened. And it turned out that even though women in Luxus have equal artistic rights, they didn’t have equal social rights; it didn’t occur to us that this was a typical gender-based division of roles!
Luckily, cleaning in the times of environmental disaster caused by overproduction is seen as something noble and absolutely desirable.
Yes, and this change in thinking can be called progress. And when on the Vistula we are all Sisters of the Vistula of course, and for this reason we want all the non-human beings, and maybe also humans, for whom the Vistula is a home, to feel there at home, without anyone spoiling their beaver dams, disturbing their swimming against the current to spawn, riding quad bikes over their nests, the Sisters do not like it, sisters don’t play like this.
Do you do magic?
I’m not sure you could call this magic, but from time to time I perform intuitive rituals that come from the feeling that it would be good. It might be starting a fire and thinking a few thoughts, or biking to a forest, stripping naked and exposing myself to the wind. Sometimes I have those dreams in which I fix something with visualisation… magic is in such situations that happen as if on their own, with no effort directed at achieving a certain goal. I just remembered a story with a catfish that happened on the FLOW a few years ago, it was described, and, if you want me to, I can attach it.
Return of a catfish, a report from the scene
– Buy me hooks! I’d like to go fishing – said A.
We were preparing a shopping list for the next few days and everyone could make a wish. A. wanted hooks that we couldn’t find on our boat because we never fished and we preferred a vegetarian diet. It was, however, stated in our boat’s statue that there were no strict rules and we should adapt to the situation. We came from Gdańsk on a wooden scow, under the flag of the Earth, and stopped near Ciechocinek, on an island called Kępa Zielona. It used to be inhabited by humans, now it is a wild animals’ sanctuary. River banks are overgrown with aspens, willows, and junipers, but the whole interior is a huge, green meadow with some traces of the past orchards and roads. We hunkered down on the brink of the island. There was some sand and a space for tents and a fire, and even a toilet separated from the camp by a drowned poplar whose naked branches were sticking out dramatically towards the sky. A pike, or something else, was living in our toilet, since there were always splashes and noises coming from there.
This island was perfect for a field trip. We invited artists and now they were coming from different directions. At least once every day a boat was running to the left bank to drop someone or pick someone up. There were eleven of us: A., A. and A., E., M., K. i L., as well as B., K., M. and M. We were just picking up another group: B. with a son F., and I. from Kenya who just came to Poland a few hours before.
This is when a man called Devil appeared.
– Would you like to buy a fish? — he asked.
We hesitated but curiosity won, and also we didn’t have hooks.
– It’s a big fish! — he added.
We didn’t think it could be too big for fourteen people. Soon we saw it, it was a catfish, still alive, but it seemed it had no chance to survive. It was carried by the two of them, a rope was dragged across its gills, behind its head. We were shocked. We didn’t think about eating, we only wanted to shorten its suffering. The transaction was made and they threw it on the board. It lay taking all the width of the boat’s beak, around two metres. We didn’t believe it could survive. We sailed back to the island and there, on the boat, we killed it. Blood was flowing and we were wiping the board clean. There was a smell of fresh blood in the air. We were excited, determined, sad. It was a Sacrifice.
An unexpected, enforced Alliance that irreversibly connected us with something… A. felt responsible for the Fish and dedicated herself completely to butchering it. She cut the big body into portions, not without effort. All of our buckets and bowls were filled with the catfish’s meat. We kept vigil until dawn. We communed with the visible and the invisible. We wanted to know everything about it: It was a predator from the top of the food chain, it ate fish, birds, small mammals, and even dogs. Judging from its looks and weight, it must have been quite old, around 20 years old, maybe more. We were eating it for the next three days, in many different ways, and then we travelled further upriver. It was beautiful, as it usually is on the Vistula, and yet deep inside…
A few days later we were passing Wyszogród. This is where I always met E. who lived in an old fisherman’s house next to the harbour. I looked around but he was not there.
Soon he caught up with us on his boat.
“I have something for you” he winked knowingly and he threw… a catfish on our board. This one was young, slim, its eyes were watching, its whiskers were quivering lightly. E. turned back and headed towards the island to continue with the fishing. We put the catfish in the bucket full of water and we sailed further. Without saying anything, we knew what we would do: When we turned, we let it back into the Vistula, phew.
This night we lay around the fire, on a sandy beach. It was the beginning of the first full moon of August. It was good.
In the morning we headed further along the river and after a few days we reached Kozienice. We wanted to examine what was being built across the river there. It was a concrete dam beneath the power plant. We travelled a bit further upriver, to the ferry, because it was close to a shop from there, where we wanted to shop. There was a picture of a catfish painted with a blue paint on a slip. A caption underneath said: SUMA SUMARUM SUMA NIE MA [summa summarum there is no catfish3].
Ewa Ciepielewska, a painter, an author of performative actions in the open air, an activist, a nature lover. She was born in 1960 in Wałbrzych. She lives and works in Kraków.
1 Order Rzeki Wisły [Order of the Vistula River Knight] – an honourable distinction for the most distinguished person devoted to the recreating, development, and popularisation of the keelmen and boatbuilders’ traditions in Poland, awarded for the first time on February 23rd 2018 in the Knight’s Hall in the Royal Castle in Sandomierz.
2 Daemon – in Philip Pullman’s novel His Dark Material daemons are the manifestations of the conscious beings’ souls. In the worlds where they take the material form, they appear outside humans’ bodies and take forms of animals. Their appearance represents the personality of the man whom they are a part of.
3 ”sum” means “catfish” in Polish.