Polish artist Karczmarczyk on desire in a post-Communist country, why the Catholic church needs modern art and being mistaken for Lady Gaga.
After seeing Ada Karczmarczyk’s work on the website of the Center for Contemporary Art in Warsaw, I was enticed (if not seduced) to know more about the colorful imagery that illustrates her spiritual journey. At the heart of this quest, as she so adamantly discusses in this interview, is the search for deeper meaning in a world dominated by superficial desires. Much of her work is a reinvention of centuries-old Christian motifs, ones that are now canonical in the history of art, which she uses to attract the attention of viewers who may otherwise be idling away on their smartphones. She is not prostelytizing, but rather creating “attractive bait” that conveys the “important messages connected to the Gospels.” In a long email exchange over the course of two months, Karczmarczyk explained her work in the recent exhibition Testimony (at CCA), the road to conversion, the role of religion in today’s society, and how others have interpreted (and often misinterpreted) her message.
Harry Weil In a brief explanatory text for Testimony, the curator Monika Szewczyk asked if the Catholic Church needs modern art, and if so, for what purpose? What do you think the church would do with modern art?
Ada Karczmarczyk Modern art would be much more appealing to a wider audience and not evoke such negative feelings. It is the mission of the Church to sustain and disseminate the Christian faith, but the problem is that the manner in which it wishes to reach the potential contemporary recipient is not a very effective one. The mentality of our times has changed so much that, in order to encourage someone who is young to believe and deepen his or her faith, it is not sufficient to use traditional methods.
In order to understand the most important notions in this religion, one ought to, first and foremost, activate their faculty of abstract thinking. The first associations that young people have with Catholicism are often statues of saints with funny halos, nails in hands, and a woman in a blue shawl. In order to understand certain transcendent matters, one ought to be able to imagine them. Illustrating motifs from the Bible are important, but what is needed is a new way to visually convey them, a way that is closer to the minds of young people. Think of the films on YouTube, where, when you hear or see suffering or pain, you can automatically escape by turning off your computer. For that very reason, my proposal of accessible and colorful aesthetics for sacred art in Testimony is a model of “attractive bait,” which is to make young people interested in faith, while simultaneously conveying the most important messages connected with the Gospel and the ethics disseminated by the Church.
HW Would you further describe some of the imagery you use in Testimony?
AK The main film, Mass, is a colorful version of Christian liturgy. I wanted to present this ceremony as a rainbow-shaded journey, evoking associations with visions experienced after taking LSD. To accompany that work, I composed music that resembles a cheerful gospel arrangement, intertwined by sounds taken from a computer game. Thanks to this form, viewers can have a mystical experience with the Church that is positive. At a certain point in my career, I started watching music videos, and decided to use the types of visuals I found in them to create modern catechisms. It turned out that people preferred learning about matters of faith while watching my lively and colorful videos because they were closer to their minds, and grabbed their attention. Traditionally, learning catechization meant reading text on suffering and sin, which is not very effective today. What I have created is much more accessible and pleasurable.
There is also the piece Video-Testimony, where I share my memories of the road to conversion and the transformations that my art was undergoing as a result. I was inspired by videos posted on YouTube by Christian converts, as well those by young girls advertising cosmetic products. I used this form of “testimony” to discuss the discoveries connected with my faith. But there is a lot of humor here, as I am changing my clothes (that are always pink) in every scene. It is difficult to ascertain what is more important: what I am talking about or what new clothes I have put on.
HW Why do people prefer learning about matters of faith from your work, rather then, lets say, a traditional icon or Sunday church service?
AK Pope Francis urges the Church to be the impecunious Church. For me, this is not just poor in the material sense, but also that the Church should win over ordinary, average, everyday people. My art does that. The vivid, colorful forms are associated with pleasure, fun, a break from the hardships of everyday life. For those ordinary people who came to the exhibition, this pop form superficially resembled things that surround them every day—TV, newspapers and colorful clothes. But as it turned out, instead of encouraging materialism it encouraged spirituality.
My colorful forms differ from the serious nature of the Church. It is important to remember that the Church in Poland is accustomed to thinking that it should be respected, because in the history of our nation its role was important, and the pulpit was used to uplift the hearts. Everything that is associated with it must be taken seriously and every lighter and distanced treatment of something immediately becomes a flashpoint for the next war between the atheists and Catholics. Meanwhile, the fairy tale-cartoon-rainbow styling of the sacral art that I create gives hope, offers hope, that the Church could change its way of thinking about itself, and also other positive changes in the future.
HW Okay, now I see where you are going with this. And it seems very appropriate that we are having this conversation now, especially as John Paul II, the first pope from Poland, and widely popular throughout the world, has just been made a saint.
AK Pope John Paul II was, and still is, a very important figure for me, even though I only knew him in the final years of his time in office, which is different than my parents, who remember him, first and foremost, as a person very much connected with the transformations in our country. Dedication and passion were the most authentic strengths of John Paul. He removed the majority of the barriers, adopting the attitude of the Pope closer to all people, a Pope who was also an apostle.
I am interested in the issue of spiritual leadership in general, not only in Christian religion. Since the moment when I promised to God that I would convey important instructions to the world, I also feel a little bit of being charged with such a mission, and I know what a great responsibility it is to guiding other people forward When I first made my conversion, I thought about becoming a nun, but I arrived at the conclusion that I would attempt to evangelize with my art. It is the best solution, because I am independent of any kinds of hierarchy and orthodox aesthetics.
HW Before we go any further, and I know this can be a very sensitive and personal topic, but would you mind sharing your story of conversation?
AK Certainly. Two years ago, there occurred a situation in my life that turned my thus-far vision of reality upside down. I was going through a tremendous crisis back then because I had to move into the deeper and deeper darkness so as to refresh my art. I was feeling that all around me did not make any sense whatsoever, and my mind was submerged in chaos and anxiety. One day, during this time, someone close to me started to suffocate in front of me. The situation was terrifying. I did not know what to do, I simply fell on my knees and started praying. I asked God to save this person’s life and I promised that in exchange for that I would pass on some important instructions to the world. And suddenly he was fine, a fortunate twist of fate. I was shocked, because this happened on New Year’s Eve 2011—you remember, when the end of the world was being advertised.
Since that time, I started wondering what kind of instructions or message I should carry out. Immediately I chose Christianity. I started reading voraciously about philosophy, psychology, and I became interested in esotericism and the various kinds of spirituality from different cultures. I felt most at home with the ideas of Plato and Aristotle, closely followed by Saint Thomas and Saint Augustine. And after analyzing all the incidents which happened to me in my life, I discovered that wherever I had put the Sign of the Cross, Jesus or Mary in my art, then there was always something good happening to this work of art. All of this is what led me to choose Catholicism, which before this time had given me the creeps, mainly because the Church is treated as an enemy in the artistic milieu. Nevertheless, I understood that a lot of good things can be found in the Church, and that these things are not being promoted appropriately. I had an idea: why not try and ‘renovate’ them and offer them in a modern and cheerful manner? The exhibition Testimony is a testament to that, as I fulfill my promise to God and preach his message.
HW In your Light/Darkness posters that were part of Testimony, there is a mix of sacred and profane images. In one, the photograph of a cathedral is over-laid with uteri made of candy. In another, the image of Christ is silhouetted in bright neon colors that call to mind Lisa Frank. There is a lot of humor here, and despite what you have said so far, they seem to poke fun of the church.
AK I am not making fun of the Church. In the illustration you mention of a kitschy-sweet uterus, I see nothing funny or embarrassing in the fact that it is possible to be a virgin, like I am, and that it is possible to abstain from sexual intercourse until getting married. I did not want the posters to have an excessive display of martyrdom, or of boring, predictable, iconic pictures representing scenes from the Bible. Rather, I wanted them to tell about universal values in a more accessible manner. When Renaissance and Baroque artists painted religious scenes they were interested in the phenomenon and metaphors associated with darkness and light. I was inspired to make my own works based on light. The small, black posters I create warn viewers against taking the wrong direction, and brighter, lighter colored ones show alternative solutions. For example, in one there is an embryo in a garbage bin, and next to it, in contrast, is an embryo with a crown on its head and sits on a throne. Modern art in Poland has been preoccupied with criticizing faith. What I attempt to illustrate with these images is that there are two sides to every coin. I neither criticize nor glorify religion.
I also printed these posters in the form of playing cards, which resemble the kind of postcards you find at pubs and clubs announcing events or dance parties. During Easter, I set the cards I made on a table and asked my family to match them into the appropriately contrasting pairs. All started to comment on them, and what the illustrations might mean. It was incredible! A boring family lunch turned into a brainstorming session, a discussion between generations concerning values and the activation of abstract thinking by looking for associations with certain motifs. There were so many emotions, so many jokes and so much satisfaction with well-matched cards that my family did not want to stop! The film that resulted from this is the portrait of the modern Catholic family that does not merely thoughtlessly repeat platitudes in a church, but shares their observations concerning the traditions.
HW When discussing a series of videos called My Sweet Sixteen, you explain that it speaks to a generation “brought up in the reality of consumerism.” Is there a divide in Poland between those who lived under communism and those, as you say, “do not know how it is not to celebrate a birthday at McDonald’s, not to drink Coke during break, or not to go to a disco every weekend”?
AK I think that there is a visible difference between the generation of my parents living in the communist times, and my generation brought up in the world ruled by consumerism. For that very reason, our parents generation is the one most preoccupied with consumption in our country, and such an infatuation with consumerism is the side effect of the contemporary possibility of fulfilling all these desires that it was impossible to fulfill in the times of communism. For me, as a person brought up surrounded by these material goods, they are no more the source of excitement. My generation wants to move forward and look for alternatives to this consumer life, when, at the same time, the elderly are getting carried away in a boat of TV shows, markets and colorful leaflets. However, my impression is that this younger generation actually isn’t much different from the older people, just in a different disguise—a little bit more lifestyle-based and hipster. Nevertheless, I’ve observed the beginnings of the formation of new religious movements in Poland; these movements are certainly nothing new in America. I have acquaintances that are the members of such communities and I frequently attend such meditations and meetings as a guest. I can see, thanks to them, that there is a need for spirituality being born in our generation, and not everyone is so superficial or narcissistic.
HW And in a work like Litany, you don’t seem to have a positive opinion of your generation. You talk about superfluous things, and our desires for them. Do you think we have become such a superficial society?
AK As a matter of fact, I was one such an empty girl, who perceived reality in just this way. When I was at school at the Academy of Fine Arts, I experienced a crisis and I felt than there was nothing that was worth devoting my art to. I thought that the best art was about life. I resolved to make a film about what I like and, when I had made a list of what I liked, then I felt frightened because all of these things were superficial. But after my conversion, I looked around and it seemed to me that, after all, my acquaintances liked vastly different things. I am much more interested in metaphysical and transcendent issues, but often there was no one I could talk with about that. For that very reason, Sweet Sixteen and American Girl are the last works of mine to deal with my conversion. In them, I reached a certain limit—I could not possibly move any further into emptiness. That does not mean at all that these works of art are not important for me because they show the significant stages of my development.
HW Speaking of American Girl, what did it mean for you to imitate the lifestyle and attitudes of Americans? How was it getting to work in America? Was life here what you expected it to be? Or was it very different?
AK American Girl is a series of short films that I made in the course of my stay in New York in 2010. I impersonated a girl who arrives in the big city having known it only from dreams and things seen in TV or in the movies. This is a story of her attempt adjust to the picture conjured up in her own imagination, the picture which does not quite reflect the reality of the place. I had many different adventures in the process: When I was making one of the films in Manhattan, a group of boys started shouting “Lady Gaga! Lady Gaga!” when they saw me. It was great to have this sort of experience. In the city, I liked it very much, but sometimes I felt as everything was stretched and enlarged—just two times bigger. The packaging items of products were bigger (informational boards as well), and even barriers always had a larger diameter. Perhaps, this result is caused by the fact that I am a very small and fragile person, so I notice such details quickly. But, quite apart from that, I saw a lot of interesting places and I met kind-hearted people, so my memories are pleasant.
For more on Ada Karczmarczyk, visit her website.
Harry J. Weil is a PhD candidate in the Department of Art at Stony Brook University with a focus on Performance Art and Theory.