A Curious Interview: SALT, Poland and Rainbows
As turkiye.culture.pl, we interviewed November Paynter, Associate Director of Programs and Research at SALT and Sebastian Cichocki, who is the curator of the upcoming exhibition "Rainbow in the Dark" that will take place at SALT Galata in Istanbul between 14 November, 2014 – 17 January, 2015, as a complementary event following the current exhibition, "Into the Country".
“Into the Country” is an inspiring new exhibition that is on view at SALT Ulus in Ankara until 1st November 2014, as part of the cultural programme celebrating the 600th year of Turkish-Polish diplomatic relations. It’s significant not only for its content but also for creating a valuable collaboration between Turkish and Polish artists on a topic that is relevant to both countries.
This exhibition brings together Turkey’s new research and culture institute, SALT, which engages in interpreting and archiving social phenomena, and the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, which promotes contemporary art and artists in Poland.
Interview at SALT Ulus
There are many events and exhibitions taking place in Turkey within the cultural programme for the 600th year of Turkish-Polish relations. Each institution is collaborating with Turkish and/or Polish partners and creating relevant projects/events. How did you make the decision to have "Into the Country" open at SALT? Can you give us a little background story for the exhibition process?
November Paynter: SALT has been familiar with the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw’s program and collection for years and we were keen on working with an established but also experimental and critical institution. In fact, coincidently, we loaned a work from the Museum’s Filmoteka already earlier this year. So, when Sebastian Cichocki and Galit Eilat – the curators of the program, in collaboration with SALT – approached us to ask if we would be eager to work on a project together that dealt with issues we also find pertinent and urgent; we happily agreed. Early on in the conversation, we discussed that rather than focusing on one ‘final’ exhibition project we would be more interested in creating an unfolding program of exhibitions and events. This led to the idea of having a first exhibition at SALT Ulus and then a second exhibition with a program of workshops and events in Istanbul at SALT Galata and Beyoğlu.
Sebastian Cichocki: We have known and admired the curatorial work of Vasif Kortun for many years. SALT, and before, Platform Garanti, have been among the main institutional references in our museum work. We were testing the possibility of working with the SALT team in the current 2014 Polish-Turkish diplomacy framework. Our proposal was accepted, so we applied for the money from the Ministry of Culture and it went through successfully. I approached Galit Eilat, an Israeli curator, with whom I worked before on the Polish Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, and we agreed on working together on the project. Our idea was to investigate the contemporary art from a post-secular perspective and as we wrote: "to challenge the outdated opposition of the religious and secular, while looking for the divine and irrational beyond the horizon of modernity." The concept was then split into two exhibitions, in Ankara and Istanbul.
"Into the Country" is an exhibition that not only references the artistic domain, but also proposes an exploration of a socio-cultural question. In this sense, how would you explain this question?
November Paynter: Into the Country reevaluates the idea that artists need be in the urban environment in order to produce art. It looks at a long history of social change in Poland and across Europe that has seen people migrate from the countryside to the cities; it then turns this on its head by specifically exploring artists who have chosen to turn their practice back to the rural. This project seemed appropriate to be presented in Ankara, because the city shares this history of becoming quickly populated by those who have moved from agricultural areas to the city center in order to find work. This displacement, resettlement and the relationships that exist as a result of the clashes between the rural and the urban are complicated and not always expected.
Sebastian Cichocki: I think, my colleague Łukasz Ronduda, who curated this part of the exhibition answered this question in a very convincing way. He was investigating the fact that rural populations began to move from the countryside to city centers in the aftermath of the industrial revolution, hence exploring how this trajectory was followed by some artists. This tendency began to slightly change in countries like Poland and across Europe, where artists now often choose to return to their childhood villages. Łukasz wrote that "Rejecting patronizing and elitist avant-garde art strategies, ‘modern folk art’ attempts to develop a contemporary formula of rustic art creation. In a similar realm, the artists emphasize their ties to the land, to nature, to specific communities, and to the rhythm of natural seasons – in that sense, their work forms an alternative to the so-called ‘new national art’”. By mentioning “new national art,” he related to the exhibition which we curated together in 2011 on visual culture in the conservative and religious contexts. I think this exhibition is one of the consequences of that previous project, which was back then regarded as a very controversial step, an act of "colonising" the supposedly "exotic" territory.
Do you think that big city life is taking too much from artists and not giving back enough to enrich their artistic endeavors? Would getting rid of social life and urban obligations (traffic, meetings, people, etc.) let a new vision flourish?
November Paynter: This is always a personal question, but it is possible that one can begin to feel caught up by the many commitments, social engagements and the capitalist agenda of urban life. I think, the question is more about how it can be inspiring for an artist with a contemporary practice to engage with the rural and the rural community.
Can you tell us a little about the artists that are taking part in the exhibition? How and why were they chosen? How did the preparation process go?
Sebastian Cichocki: The selection of artists in the exhibition comes from in-depth research, which we undertook with Łukasz Ronduda in 2013 on the Polish contemporary art scene. We curated an exhibition, As You Can See. The exhibition was created with a broad audience interested in contemporary culture in mind. It focuses on a specific time and place, and is being held at a rather specific moment: several years after Polish art stabilised its position internationally, and the process of Polish artistic institutions becoming professionalised and rather radical. We traced the current moment in the Polish art scene by grouping artworks into a series of narrations. One of them was the issue of "contemporary folk art", which we considered as a repercussion of recent debates focusing on the Polish society’s rural pedigree. Most of the artists shown at SALT Ulus, after graduating from school, returned to the rural regions of their childhood, engaging in artistic activities, as often as not managing the rural context in a variety of ways. Generally, contemporary art is regarded as an urban phenomenon with its own institutional infrastructure, clubs, bars, art magazines etc. Those artists show a completely different approach to socially-oriented art practices. All the artists from Poland which we included in the show participated in As You Can See, so this is an evolution of a certain motif that was delineated during that show. We picked this thread as a perfect theme for the Turkish audience, knowing the history of the big cities in Turkey and its rural issues. The works by Fatma Bucak are a very strong link with the local context and a more universal thinking about the rural and the conservative.
This exhibition will be complemented with a number of events at SALT Galata and SALT Beyoğlu in Istanbul, including the exhibition titled, "Rainbow in the Dark". Can you tell us a bit about the accompanying events and the exhibition?
November Paynter: Rainbow in the Dark delves more into how artists respond to ideas and questions around theology and religious practices, as well as to the rise of conservatism in Poland and many other countries, including those in this region of the world. The exhibition will include a number of works from the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw, as well as a selection of other works, some of which will be specifically acquired for the collection. In total, the exhibition at SALT Galata involves around 18 artists and additionally Pawel Althamer will be in Istanbul to realise his “Draftsman’s Congress” for one week in the Forum at SALT Beyoglu. The congress will involve a series of workshops and there will be also a film program on view at the cinema.
Sebastian Cichocki: Our project consists of two exhibitions and a series of collateral events: a film programme on religion at SALT Beyoglu, some lectures and artists' talks. We are planning also a new edition of the so-called "draughtmen's congress" by the Polish artist Pawel Althamer. This is a unique event - a non-verbal session involving different groups: activists, graffiti artists, designers, children etc. Instead of discussing different themes, arguing or having a debate, they use only non-verbal, artistic tools: drawing, painting splattering the paint all around. This is a parliament-meets-kindergarten sort of an event.
How do the events and the two exhibitions complete one another?
Sebastian Cichocki: Rainbow in the Dark exhibition is the final chapter of our project. It's quite a big show with artists from several countries and carefully selected artworks dealing with questions of spirituality, faith and religious symbols. As the core of the exhibition, Galit Eilat and I selected works from the collection of the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw. We researched such historical facts as the unexpected alliance between the Roman-Catholic Church and avant-garde artists from the Martial Law period in Poland in the 80s. Most of the artists come from Poland and Turkey, but we included also some works from such countries as Egypt, the United States or Algeria. The interesting thing about this exhibition is that we have invited some real believers among contemporary artists; a rather rare case in this circle, which is commonly regarded as anti-religious and provocative towards the institutionalised forms of faith. Such artists as Paweł Kwiek or Wael Shawky represent a very complex approach toward art as a way of believing, praying or experiencing the irrational.
November Paynter, you have been living and working in Turkey for a long time now. How did your relations with Turkey begin and what is it like to live here as a foreign curator?
November Paynter: I moved to Istanbul in 2003 to work as a curator with Vasif Kortun at Platform. I don’t think that my experience shares similarities or references to the angle of “Into the Country”, but I can tell you that in the UK there has been a similar movement of artists creating their own hubs outside of the city centres - for example in Whitstable, to some extent Brighton, then there are the smaller cities that have flourished like Glasgow; and then of course there is the hugely successful Grizedale project.
SALT is a new kind of artistic and cultural space in Turkey. How did SALT come into existence and what's the idea behind this institution? What does SALT, as a space, stand for?
November Paynter: Established as an autonomous not-for-profit institution in 2011, SALT’s activities involve contemporary art, architecture, and design, as well as historical, economic, and social research. It hosts exhibitions, organizes talks, lectures, workshops, educational programs, and video/film screenings, and has its own e-publishing output. At the heart of SALT’s mission lie research, experimentation, and not being afraid of making mistakes. With its publications, archives, and library, SALT Research is one of the most invaluable resources in Istanbul for researchers in the cultural and social field. It also provides services to the whole world through its website. At SALT, “research” does not only mean providing resources, but also engaging directly in its own research.
SALT is an institution that, rather than following existing models, prefers to initiate innovative and participatory ideas, to share knowledge without limiting it to the framework of a single discipline, to renew itself without falling into repetition, and to interpret new issues together with its users. This may be its contribution to the establishment of an open, democratic, and critical culture, together with the improvement of the instruments that foster social belonging.
Organized on the occasion of the 150th anniversary of the abolition of serfdom in Poland, Into the Country is the first event in a four-month collaboration between the Museum of Modern Art in Warsaw and SALT in Istanbul and Ankara. The project is co-financed by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage of the Republic of Poland, as part of the cultural program of the celebration of the 600th anniversary of the Polish-Turkish diplomatic relations throughout 2014.
Interview by: Serdar Paktin
Edited. E.M. 13/10/2014