EDUCULT Talks: with Monika Piorkowska
Artist Monika Piorkowska, born and raised in Krakow, has been working and living in Vienna since 2003. She holds a degree from the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow, where she graduated with honors in 2003. She then moved to Vienna and studied at the University of Applied Arts, graduating, once again, with honors. Her transmedial works present an artistic interaction between concept art, object art, installation, photography, printing, painting and performance, all of them dedicated to socio-politically relevant issues. In 2010, she was awarded the prize of the art space „Kunsthalle Wien“ for her project „Time Boxes“, which was exhibited several times in Vienna and its surroundings. In her current installation „Liquid Democracy“, which was displayed at Galerie Steinek in Vienna, Monika Piorkowska works with soap as a material and thus creates a multidimensional and multiperspective occupation with the status quo and the transformation of the notion of democracy as well as the thereby changing political awareness.
During an interesting discussion with Educult, Monika Piorkowska will be talking about her personal and artistic background, her career as an artist and her current exhibition. We will also talk about the ongoing process of political change in terms of understanding democracy in Europe, the interpretation and responsibility of the notion of „home“, and how art and culture contribute to shaping socio-political values and topics.
EDUCULT: Thank you for finding time for an interview with EDUCULT! I would like to start with the current political situation in Poland. Polish democracy continues to be threatened at the moment and laws interfering in the jurisdiction are being passed. I know you as a very political artist, how do you feel with this situation?
Monika Piorkowska: To be honest, I’m a bit desperate. I see too little action in Poland, especially by the opposition. There are no actions that reach out to young people. I see a big threat in Poland, which is reflected in right-wing populism, rapidly spreading and winning over young people. And I have been following the demonstrations in Poland during the last days. You could almost say that with the new laws, Poland is moving away from being a constitutional democracy. So, everything is moving towards a Kaczy?ski-regime and a dictatorship. This is why I’m surprised that there aren’t more young people reacting to this. Personally, it worries me. I would have hoped to see more protest by young people.
EDUCULT: If it is not the young people demonstrating, who is?
Monika Piorkowska: The intellectuals, artists, the generation older than 35. I really don’t see much action in the generation around 20 years of age, also the very young people, who have the right to vote. In my opinion, they don’t feel addressed. I’m not sure why. Is it laziness, propaganda, or the feeling that „everything is going to be fine“? I don’t know.
EDUCULT: You said that people interested in culture, artists and intellectuals are demonstrating. But have they lost the connection to young people?
Monika Piorkowska: I think, artists are trying to re-establish this connection, but politicians aren’t. Right now, they don’t have any connection at all. I don’t really understand why, since my generation had a very strong political awareness. I grew up in ex-communist Krakow and when we were young, we knew, what changes were possible in Poland, therefore we were very interested in politics. Of course, the Catholic church in Poland was playing a major role as well. During the transformation, the church presented a very progressive force. During the communist era, there was „Solidarnosz“, whose members longed for freedom and democracy. But right now, essential parts of the Catholic church support the right-wing populists. This is where I also see a big threat, which has a big influence on young people. I believe that the church plays a very formative role, especially in small towns and villages. Propaganda creates major images of the enemy and a group of persons has to be held responsible for young people being unemployed and without apartments, without a perspective, and so on. And this propaganda works outstandingly. Plus, young families really benefit from programs established by the right-wing populist PiS-Party – meaning the Party for Right and Justice. For example, the program called „500 Zloty plus“, in which families receive 500 Zloty (about 120 Euros) per child and per month, without having to do anything for it. Of course, for a family with four children, this is a good reason to support the PiS, because they receive 2000 Zloty per month. And you get used to this. At the same time, the level of culture and educational policy is decreasing, because the Polish government does not support any museums, exhibitions or cultural projects. Massive cuts are being made in this sector. In my opinion, this is a tactical and insolent trick to keep the people ignorant. Lately, Darwin’s evolutionary theory was banned from schoolbooks. For me, the idea of children not learning about Darwin is unbelievable.
EDUCULT: That it is similar to what is happening in Turkey at the moment.
Monika Piorkowska: I am watching these two countries and it seems like Poland has copied a lot from Erdo?an’s regime. All those gifts and benefits for the population, they help in the short term, but at the same time, they repress a lot of other things. The Polish government does not support any free media. The Gazeta Wyborcza, one of the biggest polish newspapers, is struggling to survive. On Polish public television, you will find Kaczy?ski propaganda everywhere, creating mostly enemy images. There are hardly any refugees living in Poland. Despite that, they were made the main subject in Polish propaganda, because they allegedly „threaten the Polish homeland“. Islam is also being politicized, even though there are hardly any Muslims living in Poland.
EDUCULT: You have been living in Austria since 2003, so you are able to compare Austria to Poland. In Austria, the role of the Catholic church was traditionally very strong too. Plus, there are tendencies to a right- or far right-wing position. Which are the similarities and the differences between these two countries?
Monika Piorkowska: Well, I think that a lot of people in Austria are more relaxed after the election of Van der Bellen, because once again a liberal politician won and – at least for a short time – Austria was able of freeing itself a little bit from the hold of right-wing populism. With the upcoming elections in October, I see the dangers of right wing parties seizing power – just like in Poland. There is a short moment of relief now, but the situation could take a sudden turn for the worse at any time. We are witnessing this polarization throughout Europe, in the Netherlands, in France with Le Pen’s party, which was barely stopped. I think, the dissatisfaction of big parts of the population provides dangerous space of action for right-wing populists, they impress many people.
EDUCULT: As an artist, you are quite sensitive to general moods. How do you experience the atmosphere in Austria?
Monika Piorkowska: I hope that after the elections in October, there is not going to be a ÖVP-FPÖ (Austrian People’s Party and Austrian Freedom Party) government. That is what I would like for all Austrians. We will need an open-minded society in the future too, democracy should be stimulated, not restricted.
EDUCULT: When talking to other artists, do you feel that they agree with you? You told me, that in Poland, young people don’t stand up against wrong developments any more. How would you judge the situation in Austria compared to Poland?
Monika Piorkowska: I think the situation is very different in Austria. Young Austrians are more politically active, maybe they have more political awareness. They are not as tired, which gives me hope. So I see a big difference in that. Also a lot of young students and artists try to participate actively and are aware that it is important they vote. Furthermore, artists in Austria support each other, they are much more cooperative.
EDUCULT: You somehow grew up in the midst of a big social transformation process, which, as you said, politicized you. How could the atmosphere in Poland shift from 1989 to the current situation?
Monika Piorkowska: I think, after the euphoric atmosphere of change during the first years, people started to get frustrated. For instance, when I look at the generation of my grandparents, who survived both World War I and II and the huge devastations it brought, as well as communism. They literally had to rebuild Poland from the start: the streets, the houses were destroyed. The fall of communism led to democracy, but also to the cruelty of a capitalistic economy, whose bitter consequences a lot of Polish people couldn’t cope with. That is the reason for all the frustration and why the right-wing party was so successful. There is just too much dissatisfaction.
EDUCULT: According to this interpretation, the big promise of a capitalist dynamic making everyone’s life better, didn’t become true. But there are regions, where the economy is very successful, Silesia, for example, with 10 percent economic growth.
Monika Piorkowska: Having a look at the statistics, it is not like the well-educated and economically successful are less prone to vote for right-wing parties. That’s why I have a hard time explaining why well-educated people would vote for a party that restricts their democratic rights. But unfortunately that’s how it is. That’s also what I find interesting for my work as an artist. That’s why I made the soap-installation „Liquid-Democracy“. You can look at democracy from two sides: liquidization and liquidation. What I find interesting is this particular moment, when a society realizes, what consequences a far right government might have, and history has shown us what this looks like. We are talking about a humanistic decline, about Auschwitz, Hiroshima, etc. There are a lot of examples in history, how propaganda mechanisms work. That’s what I’m personally interested in.
EDUCULT: I have come across your project „Liquid Democracy“ a lot, but for me soap is an expression of washing off something from a surface.
Monika Piorkowska: For me, „Liquid Democracy“ is a multidimensional project. It definitely is about the fact that you can look at democracy superficially and wash your hands superficially. But it is also about the imposed desire of staying „clean“ all the time, which I mean in a cynical way, of course. A lot of people believe that once they have cast their vote, they are done – but for me, they are not. Because politics is linked to private life. They have a mutual impact on each other. That’s why this is a project that tries to raise awareness of the meaning of democracy. Awareness of either standing up for our rights or washing our hands in innocence.
EDUCULT: May I ask a few personal questions too? Why are you here in Austria?
Monika Piorkowska: By coincidence. I was studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in Krakow and wanted to leave Poland. So I applied for an Erasmus exchange program in Barcelona/Spain, but all spots were taken. So I was very upset, I sat on the stairs, smoking a cigarette, when a student from another class passed by and said „Monika don’t be upset. There is a free spot in Vienna!“ I thought of Wittgenstein and Freud – and told myself it couldn’t be too bad, even if I didn’t speak a single word of German at the time. I ended up in the University of Applied Arts in Vienna and attended the painting class, but changed to printmaking later. That was when I decided to stay here.
EDUCULT: Apart from your personal motives, what were the reasons to create an artistic focus here?
Monika Piorkowska: I was in Vienna on the day of the opening of the museum complex “Museumsquartier”. That was when I thought that I wanted to live in this city. I would like to live in a city that puts so much effort and attention into art. But it is the friction too, which I need as an inspiration. To be honest, I had a very hard time at first, learning German and making new friends.
EDUCULT: Can you interpret the scene you have grown into? How do you see yourself as an immigrant in the world of art? Does this status play any role at all?
Monika Piorkowska: Of course in the beginning, German was the most important thing. If you don’t speak the language, you are excluded. That’s how it is. Not everybody wants to speak English, and language is the world, as Wittgenstein put it. I usually have a hard time learning a new language. But then I saw all these new horizons open up to me. So I discovered philosophy here and in consequence started learning German. I had studied at an academy in Krakow at a time when I had the impression that the professors didn’t know what to do. Then the fall of communism came and consequently the free market. Formerly it was embarrassing to say, artists should sell their works. That was a taboo. For a lot of professors that was something absurd, something that nobody talked about. Here I saw the exact opposite, where artists and students asked in which gallery you were and if you had already sold anything. I was shocked, because here people talked about selling something. That was a huge difference. Also the access to knowledge is very different.
EDUCULT: Do you still follow the Polish art scene? Have the conditions changed in the past 10 to 15 years? Do you still keep track of it?
Monika Piorkowska: Yes, I do, and everything has changed. It is very different from when I was studying at university. It is much more open minded and it has become quite similar to the conditions in Austria. During the past few years, especially after joining the EU, the art scene has developed very quickly. Also the students are very progressive, they move fast, they want to create, there are a lot of private initiatives. To found a gallery together or to create a space, where you can exhibit your work or have a forum for discussion, presents an important momentum in Poland. But actually, this was true until two years ago, when PiS came into power, now there isn’t any state support any more. Without that, these initiatives are not able to survive and everything is decreasing, because the finances and the interest of the government aren’t there anymore.
EDUCULT: Do more people leave Poland now?
Monika Piorkowska: I think so, yes. At least, they are starting to think about it.
EDUCULT: If I may ask a more delicate question: you have been here for a while now and you are part of the Austrian and international art scene. At the same time, you are experiencing an intensification of the public discourse on migration issues. How does this affect you? Do you still feel concerned by that and how does that make you feel?
Monika Piorkowska: I feel concerned every day, because I am a person that is politically aware. And the fact that I am from an Eastern European country doesn’t change anything. When I look at this big debate in Austria, especially promoted by Sebastian Kurz and his new turquoise party, I think that this is a multidimensional issue, which is politicized in order to stay in power. Enemy stereotypes are being created once again: “People from Eastern Europe are using our system, they want to have our wages and exploit us.” The situation in Poland is similar, but the big difference is that Austria accepts refugees, whereas Poland lacks any kind of European solidarity in this matter. I wonder, why countries like Poland or Hungary still get subsidies by the EU. I see the European Union as a community based on mutual commitments and in my opinion, those countries who formerly relied on support from western countries, should at least give back a little bit of that. The current government is not willing to do that and there are no consequences.
In Austria, Islam is highly politicized, and this is where I see a huge threat. I think the discussions about Islam are an instrument for right-wing parties, who come into power, and for politicians who make propaganda and aim to intimidate the population. I’m not claiming that there aren’t any problems. Yes, there are integration problems. But people should look for the right solutions. As Zygmunt Bauman wrote, engaging in a dialogue doesn’t mean exchanging views only with people of the same opinion.
EDUCULT: This reminds me of other artworks of yours, for example with “Time Gates” you stage symbolic dialogues and portraits of people in special situations. You are referring to Zygmunt Bauman, by trying to engage in dialogues with “others”. Could you explain this concept?
Monika Piorkowska: I quoted Zygmunt Bauman, because he described the situation very well. But I don’t only follow Bauman, I include other sociological theses as well. In “Time Gates” I talk to people, who I know or meet by coincidence. During these conversations I take photos, record videos and transcribe the conversations. They are people, who are living in precarious situations on the margins of society and who are no longer connected to society. I dedicate my objects to these people and give a voice to those who are no longer heard in society.
EDUCULT: Do you attach your work to sociopolitical demands? Who is supposed to be heard and why should they be heard?
Monika Piorkowska: I see that private life, as well as politics and social issues are discussed in these conversations. In general it is supposed to be an artistic and open invitation for everyone who is interested. I don’t want to lecture, I’m not saying what is good or bad, I’m just creating an open artwork.
EDUCULT: Would you have these conversations with neo-authoritarians and right-wing extremists as well?
Monika Piorkowska: I recently asked myself the same question, and sent a piece of soap to the president of the PiS-party Jaros?aw Kaczy?ski, but I didn’t get an answer. I sent it to a bunch of other politicians too.
EDUCULT: So you sent this soap to policy-makers and asked for a reply?
Monika Piorkowska: No, without asking for anything. To be honest, I didn’t expect any response. It was more about an artistic act than a reply. That is my artistic statement and my form of protest or allusion. The soap is not an insulting project. Everyone can interpret it in his or her own way. I don’t want to insult any politicians or private individuals, I only want to communicate a statement of my interpretation. Who knows, if Kaczy?ski understands it or not. If I were him, I would react to it. He could use it for his own purposes. I experienced this myself, when in the Polish cultural institute they tried to politicize one of my projects and use it for propaganda purposes. As an artist, I then realized that an artwork is always open and free and can be set in a different context, which can be used to serve different interests. A political party can declare the project as a patriotic one and use it for itself. In the case of the soap, I tried to define my statement very clearly, in order to not have the possibility of different interpretations or utilizations. In the Polish cultural institute, I was planning a project, where red and white Piroggi were placed on a table and were supposed to either be eaten there or to be given as a take-out at the opening. In the beginning, the cultural director liked the idea, because he thought, this would be a patriotic act for Poland and the colours reminded him of the national colours of Poland and the Polish flag. Everything was fine, until the curator wanted to convey a different message in her artistic description. That way, it was also possible to interpret the project as non-patriotic and then they cancelled my invitation.
EDUCULT: So in fact your curator’s text was decisive.
Monika Piorkowska: Yes, because as long as the text hadn’t been released, it was possible to sell the project as a patriotic project. I see this as a big threat to all artists, as well as journalists.
EDUCULT: It is interesting, that you mentioned the openness of a piece of art, which can always be quite subversive too.
Monika Piorkowska: After what I have experienced lately, I try adding my statement to the artwork: the soap symbolizes a threat to democracy. Or, in the refugee debate, the borders are within all of us.
EDUCULT: So you are providing an interpretation with your work?
Monika Piorkowska: But I’m aware of the fact that my statement can also be ignored or someone could create something else out of it, which would also be legitimate.
EDUCULT: If you are saying that we are at a political turning point and that Austria could look very different in October, are there any circumstances under which you couldn’t be working as an artist anymore?
Monika Piorkowska: Sure, under censorship. I experienced this lately, when my whole exhibition was censored. I think that artists who claim for an open society, can do nothing in a conservative right-wing regime. So what remains is room for representative art of neo-nationalism. I think, freedom in all respects is the basic condition for my artistic work.
EDUCULT: I guess it is not possible to talk about your country of origin Poland and the place where you live, Austria, without addressing the notion of home. What do you think?
Monika Piorkowska: Sure, we can talk about that. I’m Vienna-based and Polish, and in my home country I was verbally attacked because of my conflict with the cultural institute. But not only in Poland, also in Austria, home and its meaning plays a crucial role. Speaking more generally, for me, home is the personal relationship of an individual to a place. During the past few years, the notion of home has become some kind of a “logo” for right-wing politics. They try to create images of the enemy and make them look like “destroyers of home”, and they are increasingly successful. This way, they link the notion of home with protecting the own language and rejecting of foreigners, immigrants, refugees, etc., because they would allegedly be questioning the inherent. I think it’s interesting, how little is said about home being connected with a feeling. Because, as soon as you see home as diversity of languages or of social cohabitation, it’s a whole different approach. But we don’t discuss this issue in public, since the inclusion of these values comes very natural to a lot of people, who don’t feel the need to address it. However, I find it alarming that a notion of home, which is based on diversity, is no longer natural to a lot of young people. Especially to those, who grow up in small towns, without a perspective for life, a job or for their own security. That’s why, in my opinion, there must be a rethink.
EDUCULT: Do you feel at home in Vienna, in Austria?
Monika Piorkowska: Well, my daughter was born here, which also changed me. I have become more settled with my daughter and my husband. I hope for my daughter to grow up happily here. But I am the kind of person who doesn’t need a home in that sense. I do feel at home, but I like living in three countries at the same time – I need that. I could imagine living six months here, six months there. I need this for my artistic work, at our house, a lot of languages are spoken – sometimes more, sometimes less, depending on which friends come over. And I’m happy for my daughter that she is able to grow up like this. But her world view is in German, of course.
EDUCULT: So you would like for your daughter to find a home here?
Monika Piorkowska: Yes I do, because I realize that even now, at the age of two and a half, she has already made some friends and found some favorite spots in Vienna. She misses these favorite spots and her friends already, because they give her security. The longer you stay in this city, the more you feel connected to it. Just like my husband – he has been living here for 35 years. Through my family I feel more and more at home.
EDUCULT: Monika, thank you very much for taking your time for this interesting talk. We wish you all the best for your work as an artist and your life in Vienna!