Sometimes an interview comes easily, and sometimes not: Rafał Bujnowski needed convincing. We smoked a cigarette together in Tarnow, Poland, where he was exhibiting work in Tarnow: 1000 years of modernity. I enthused about his work. He agreed to do it if I would email him the questions, and I gently refused. He claimed a poor grasp of English. I denied it. We smoked another cigarette. Just when I was about to give up, he relented. Below is an excerpt from our conversation.
Bujnowski’s work has been called flat, but I don’t think that’s quite right. Like the artist himself, the work is unassuming but hides a conceptual—and sometimes emotional—depth. He is concerned with thinking his way through many projects, from painting as a psychological protection from ubiquitous icons to the reuse of rejected works as a way to talk about failure. Bujnowski’s work has been exhibited internationally at venues such as the Neuer Kunstverein Wien (Vienna), the Rubell Family Collection (Miami), and Sprüeth Magers (Berlin).
Bean Gilsdorf: Tell me about the work you created for this exhibition.
Rafał Bujnowski: This piece is a memorial dedicated to Jan Gluszak Dagarama.
BG: The futurist architect…
RB: Yes. I learned about this guy from Dawid Radziewski [one of the curators]. He showed me Dagarama’s sketches and drawings, and he asked me to do something to commemorate him. So I decided to do a very normal memorial plaque that hangs on the wall in the town center.
BG: In public space…
RB: Yes, looking very normal like many others, like you’d find for generals, philosophers, writers, etc. But it has a hidden part, a thermometer and a temperature control so that it stays at 37.5 degrees Celsius, which is the temperature of a sick body. It’s a metaphor for the work Dagarama did, because his projects came from a fevered imagination. It’s a very simple metaphor. But it’s the only monument for him in the world, and otherwise a monument to him might never exist.
BG: Do you feel like this work connects to the other work that you’ve done, the modernist canvases and the delicate fog paintings and so on?
RB: The connection is tradition and a historical way of thinking. But I’m not really a fan of any period in history, or even any music band! It’s not in my nature to be a fan of anything specific. There’s always both good and bad. It’s easier to be an expert…it’s easier to be a fan.
BG: And you choose the difficult way?
RB: It’s not my choice. It’s a consequence of how I think… Right now I’m working on these stained glass panels [exhibited in the Frieze Art Fair, London, 2011]. They’re like a window when someone has thrown a stone at it. The project is about how to repair this window with art tools and art materials, art thinking and strategies. I thought it would be funny to do the classic stained glass technique on a broken window. And after I started this work I heard about the London riots, and on the internet every second picture of the riots was a broken window. So now they are commentary. I’m playing with the technique of old masters and using it now. But in general I’m not very reflective about my work, it’s more intuition. I look for links between one thing and another.
BG: With this country’s religious architecture, and all the stained glass windows in the churches, I might think that you were making a statement about the religious culture of Poland.
RB: Because for you the stained glass represents church culture, Catholic culture…maybe that’s right.
BG: And some of your other work takes religion as a subject, like How to Draw the Pope. Do you consider yourself to be a Polish artist? Do you think about your national identity as an artist?
RB: No, I’m not a Polish artist beyond the literal. Maybe I’m sensitive for the things that are in my homeland, but it’s hard to be blind to your own neighborhood, yeah? How to Draw the Pope came about because I was working in Wadowice, the town where the pope was born.
BG: So you’re very affected by your environment?
RB: I had to do it! It was like it was attacking me, every store window had a pope accent, a pope poster, a pope gadget. It’s like a living museum. It was self-defense! Put any artist in Wadowice and he would react in some way…or move out! So it’s not my strategy.
BG: And a lot of your work is black, white, and gray, a limited palette, very somber. Is that also intuition?
RB: I don’t have a feeling for color. It’s too big a responsibility for me. But I’m addicted to buying color oil paints, I have a huge box, they’re waiting for the proper moment. It’s like an obsession. Maybe someday I will open them.