Ewa Wesolowska is a visual artist that works with sculpture and interactive installation. She received her Masters of Fine Art at the Department of Sculpture from Jan Matejko Academy of Fine Arts in Cracow, Poland, in 2007. In her artistic research, she manages to merge her traditional craft background with the use of technology, exploring different perceptions of time and memory. In her installations, the sculptured elements represent the human desire to leave a trace through history: this concept is enforced by the handprints or footprints that the artist leaves on the artworks, in order to testify her actual presence. The use of light and video projections is meant to create confusion, to generate contradiction, in order to raise awareness amongst the spectators: human existence, as well as memory, are dramatically ephemeral. Her work is an act of meditation on human fragility, but it is also an attempt to visualize immaterial concepts, making them truly perceptible. The “here and now” is evanescent and intangible for Ewa Wesolowska, that’s why she tries to materialise it in vivid forms, that assume the aspect of crystallised memories.
Flavia Rovetta: How did your cultural background and your studies at the Jan Matejko Academy of Fine Arts influence your artistic process?
Ewa Wesolowska: My background and my studies gave me huge respect towards art, considered in a traditional way, and towards the craft, considered as a profession. This allowed me to be very conscious of what I do and how I do it. It also determined the concept of my entire research, as if some sort of humbleness towards the past was at the very heart of my practice. During the whole period of my studies, I worked with clay and the technique of modelling life-size figures. That experience gave me the tools and the language for my following works and it also gave me the comfort to visualise what is on my mind. It can be a challenge to get out of this comfort zone, in which the way of talking can become more important than telling something. Skills and background are important to build the vocabulary, in order to say things or ask questions; I think it’s crucial knowing how to choose or reject words from this vocabulary. There was a moment, a few years after my graduation, I had to stop and rethink what I was doing and why I was doing this. I asked myself why I was so determined to leave the visible trace of my hand on the surface of my sculptures; I understood that this impression of a gesture was the willingness to leave a trace behind to be remembered. Like a mark or a signature, this artist’s gesture was the registration of the creative process, a record of presence. My background taught me one more important thing: I learned to think about art out of the commercial context. Our studios were focused on the creation and no one was having any training in developing any strategies for the future. It gives a lot of freedom, not an easy one but a valuable one.
F.R.: What made you realise that you wanted to work with installation, instead of traditional sculpture?
E.W.: I was always fascinated by minimal art and its calm impression of being into the art piece, where visitors were often faced with artworks that demanded a physical and visual response. I wanted to merge that calm feeling of being into the work, with the trace of gesture, intended as a repetitive sign of presence. It seems to be an attempt to merge the contradictions, but in my mind it all works together. Christian Boltanski, one of the artists I admire the most, calls himself a minimalist-expressionist. He often underlines that the minimalist vocabulary has the effect of tempering something that otherwise would be expressionist. I agree with that. I think installations can indicate the passage of time better than a single sculpture. They give the possibility to show the repetitious circle and the attempt to keep something, unveiling how illusory this attempt is. It also gives the spectators some sort of intimacy, as they walk into the work instead of walking around the sculpture. The interactivity works in a similar way, it makes you more conscious that what you see is only your point of view.
F.R.: Could you describe your process, how it begins and how it evolves?
E.W.: I don’t work on my projects separately, they all come from one another. Literally. There is a moment, while I’m working on a project, when I need to stop and make a decision to develop it and in this timeframe, there could be a new idea coming. New projects are always the continuation of old ones. Sculptures, installations with sculptured elements, light and interactivity; they are all different mediums, pointing out different timeframes but they all hide the same questions and desires behind them. There are some repetitive aspects in my works and a meditative nature in this process, no matter if it’s about leaving a handprint or a footprint on a surface of the sculptural work, or making the same process again and again with different materials and observing the results, or setting up the interactive part of a work and passing through the room, a few more times, in the same pattern. It’s the same action, the same desire and the same concept spread over time. There is an attempt to remake something all over again, to leave traces and some path behind us, no matter if it stays or it diffuses quickly when we disappear.
I collect as much as I can about the processes of perception and memorising. I am fascinated by time, I try to visualise it, to make it perceptible in a material way. In all of this, I’ve discovered the huge importance of a coincidence that happens on the way. It took me some time, but I’ve learned to take advantages of failures, for example when something
breaks, or cracks, or doesn’t work as it is supposed to. I always search for the value and I often find beauty in it.
F.R.: Sculpture has been defined a “dead language”. Is the use of technology meant to give a second life to this medium? What is the purpose of this interaction?
E.W.: Yes and no. For me, the expression “dead language” doesn’t describe the sculpture itself, but rather the expectations we project onto it. I think it is more about the attitude towards the medium, rather than the medium itself. The art experience can be renewed each time we look at something, no matter if it’s about sculpture or any other medium. So, in this sense, my answer would be no. On the other hand, I think we often need stronger stimuli to experience the same amount of emotions than people did one hundred years ago. It’s like a language that changes over time: we domesticate strong words and, as time passes, we don’t find them strong anymore.
Art, especially sculpture, needs some time and reflection. These two things seem to be not only a challenge but also a great privilege nowadays. The experience of an art piece should last in time and, for me, it should be an individual experience. Technology, making an object change or last in time, forces us to contemplate it. Inside the installation, we have to move through the room to see it all, as we are not able to have a full vision of it from one place. Interactivity can pull the spectator inside. I would say that technology, used in the artistic process, forces you to spend time with the piece. But I think art always refers to a few old familiar questions and even when the language changes, these questions remain the same, as well as in the fields of science and philosophy.
F.R.: Memory and human consciousness are the main themes of your works. Have you asked yourself how technology might interfere with them? Do you believe that technology gives essential support, or is it rather a dangerous contestant?
E.W.: I would not call technology a contestant. Well, not yet. I would consider it a tool that could be used in a dangerous way, for sure. In everyday life, I am optimistic about human nature. Unfortunately, I become more pessimistic when I think about it from a wider perspective; people have talent for using new discoveries in a bad way. Nowadays, it’s very important to ask ourselves how we use technology. Let us take the example of Artificial Intelligence or Big Data; I have a feeling it’s evolving so fast that we are a little late with the systematisation of it in an ontological sense. I think we should not be afraid of A.I. itself. We should be rather aware of how people in power use it to control and manipulate us, in hidden and unexpected ways. For example, let’s think about behavioural targeting on the internet and all of those annoying ads; they open a huge range of possibility for manipulation.
I think Big Data is also making us a little lazy. There was one episode in the Black Mirror series in which most people had “grains” that remembered everything on behalf of them, allowing them to play back their memories in front of their eyes, or on a screen. We already google everything. The huge amount of data we collect is never recalled in our memories, it’s just researched on our devices if needed and this habit influences us a lot. I am interested in analysing it, but more in an ontological, not axiological sense. I don’t know if it’s good or bad, as an artist, I prefer to ask questions about it rather than value it. There is always a human aspect in the use of technology. It is a great tool and it’s up to us how we use it.
F.R.: Human beings are at the centre of your artistic research: is this the reason why the spectators have a primary role in your works?
E.W.: One of my professors used to repeat that we wouldn’t know what the world looked like, if no one looked at it. I think these words had a big impact on my practice. The etymology of the word look is uncertain, but it probably comes from the old Breton word lagud, meaning “the eye”. The human eye. There is no experience of art without the spectator, even if the only spectator is the artist. My work is about the consciousness that we are not able to objectively see the world as it is, and that we only rely on the image of it that we already have in our minds. As Roman Opałka said, “If there is a sense in our existence, it is just an attempt to understand what our existence is”.
F.R.: Could you explain in detail your installation It’s just a matter of time?
E.W.: This show consisted of a few illuminated glass-cases with small-scale sculptures and an object in the middle of a room, with a cubic metre space, filled with fog and interactive video projections. The artwork was about juxtaposing different structures, referring to different temporal scales. On the one hand, there were ephemeral forms dynamically generated by the visitors’ movements and on the other hand, there were objects inspired by biological neuron-like structures and carved handprints. I wanted to display the objects in the way the artefacts and the ancient traces are presented at the archaeological museums. The interactive projection on the fog was inspired by the process of tracing particles. The visibility of the projections was different from different corners of the room and the traces themselves were changing while someone was moving around the box. Those were very delicate changes, not very obvious, so the visitors had to spend some time next to the work to figure it out. Even for me it wasn’t so evident sometimes, as there was no repetitive pattern in it. The projection was not only influenced by the spectators, but also by its own movement on the fog, an aspect I realised after setting up the show. Even when there was nobody in the room, it was somehow reacting to itself. It was a nice surprise for me, I saw a stronger message in it: it is not possible to keep anything, no matter how much we try.
F.R.: What is your perception of time, in general? And what is your perspective on present time?
E.W.: Einstein said, “Time is just something we invented to make motion seem simple”. I understand time as a duration of moments or feelings, coming one after another. I don’t see it as changing slides, but rather as some connected bubbles that we affect, and that depends on the context we are in. How we perceive it, it’s a matter of subjectivity. I think it’s influenced not only by emotions and different circumstances, but also by the individual state of knowledge. I have this very strong desire to visualise its tissue, how we move through it, how we perceive it, and how our actions affect its perception. It is challenging, as we can only move in one direction through it. Feeling “now” is utopia for me. A dream good to have, good to try and worth trying to feel, but unreachable. My practice investigates traces of presence as it’s all we have access to. Due to a failure of our senses, everything we can consciously perceive is somehow already a memory. A very recent one, but still a memory. How conscious we are of it, it’s just a matter of scales and points of reference.
F.R.: Your use of technology reveals that it is still at the service of art. What is the role of the work of art in the digital age?
E.W.: I think it hasn’t really changed. The definition of art is as difficult as it was. The human curiosity remains the same. The further we go, the more questions we have, but the fundamental questions stay the same. We now add those about the role of technology, Big Data and other things we have around us now, but the End, Beginning, and Vanitas are still there.