Antoni Malinowski in conversation with Martin Crimp
MC : Antoni, each of these beautiful and mysterious paintings has the word “oracle” in the title. The meaning of an oracle — whether delivered in words, or through the movement of birds or of leaves — was notoriously ambiguous. Can you say something about what an “oracle” means to you?
AM : The paintings are a kind of spatial construct — and their inner intangible deep space an echo of mythical space — something unknown, forgotten, impossible to retrieve. They are antidotes to the weird and darkly disturbing times we are living through — what Roberto Calasso calls “The Unnamable Present” — namely the superficial one-dimensional layer of pixels that are presented to us by the various media as Reality.
The pandemic altered our perception of time and space. Future stopped. Time stopped. Instability became standard. There was a necessity to establish new base-lines, pointing to a mythic time, outside of individual memory. The layers of brush-strokes excavate (in the Freudian sense) this ambiguous silent space: a presence, a speechless oracle.
Perhaps this spatial entity through some inner reverberation may radiate a glimmer of hope.
MC : Three of these pictures are characterized by the presence of a floating translucent “veil”. You’ve described to me how this part of the painting must be executed at speed and in a state of tension. Tell me something about the physical, technical process of creating this “veil”. How would you describe its function in the work?
AM :Temporal contrasts are as important in my work as chromatic shifts. There is the slow layering of brush-strokes and then a very quick application of a larger patch of colour. In the Oracle paintings, those shapes or veils are painted with an interference pigment. This makes a strong contrast to the background painted with traditional pigments which absorb some and reflect other spectral wavelengths. The interference pigment doesn’t absorb wavelengths – it bends them and scatters in three different directions. My light-sensitive pictorial instability is painted with contemporary materials, but echoes pre-Renaissance gold paintings and mosaics — while new technical possibilities lead to discovering new sonorities, new spaces, new colours.
MC : In the largest painting here, Shimmering Oracle, the viewer is confronted by what might be the ghost of a garden. How did this painting come about?
AM : I was staying in a friend’s house in Puglia and sketching in this ancient garden — strong light-patches, very dark shadows, and stones that resonate with the megalithic past. Pre-history is always present in Apulia, a land of dolmens and menhirs. The idea of a garden as a meditative space where culture and nature unite is itself ancient. The Roman wall painting Il Giardino di Livia is one of my mental talismans.
MC : And wall-drawings — a means of inflecting space — also form part of this exhibition. How does this relate to the paintings?
AM : Wall-drawings take me back to the beginning — the deep past, the unknown.
The painter Giorgio Griffa observed that painting as a discipline is a conversation with 30,000 years of painting history. It always begins on the walls of caves. In his film Cave of Forgotten Dreams Werner Herzog suggests that the paleolithic painters were also inflecting space — they were already conscious of the characteristic of human perception that it constantly shifts between 2D and 3D. This is inherent to our visual perception and cognition of reality.
The inflected space of the wall-drawings questions the painterly spaces of the canvases.
MC : As a dramatist I often see theatre allusions in your work: the frame, the curtain, magic light, and what you yourself call “the performance of space” — and now empty chairs appear, bringing to my mind Eugène Ionesco’s post-war play The Chairs. I believe these chairs have a private cultural significance for you. Am I right?
AM : I come from a chair culture. The chairs around the round table at my parents’ house were very important — as children we played under them, they framed our world. Then, the Warsaw cafés were full of chairs that had to be claimed. There were also the important paintings of Andrzej Wróblewski of people as if nailed to chairs.
At the same time there were the old photographs of café-chairs on Parisian pavements. Chairs in the Tuileries Garden. Café Florian’s chairs on Piazza San Marco. Chairs that signal both presence and absence.
When I first saw Pina Bausch’s Café Müller I was really struck by all those scenes with chairs. Her character was a sleepwalker, and in order to get the right movement-tension, she choreographed a way of walking through the space full of chairs, with her eyes closed, but with her pupils looking straight ahead. This is an extremely difficult and uncomfortable thing to do — normally when we close our eyes the pupils go down. Yet, this tiny alteration so influenced the movement of her entire body that it became uniquely tense and evocative.
In my own work I am searching for those subtle points of tension.
MC : And Ionesco?
AM : Ionesco’s chairs were also present in my mind as were the empty chairs depicted in the 6th century gold shimmering mosaics of the Baptistery of Neon in Ravenna. As in Ionesco’s play, they are still waiting for the final revelation.
* * *
Born in Warsaw in 1955, Antoni Malinowski’s most recent solo shows are Light Triggered (Ragged School Museum, London, 2018) and Almost seen (Assab One, Milan, 2018). His work is in many private and public collections, including London’s Tate Gallery. Architectural commissions include The Mathematical Institute, Oxford; Mosaic at Bryanston Street; and work for the Bush, Donmar, Everyman, and Royal Court theatres.
Martin Crimp (b. 1956) is a UK playwright. His play The Country is currently showing at Théâtre la Scala in Paris. Picture a day like this, a new opera with composer George Benjamin, opens in July at the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence.
The Ragged School Museum, curated by Jenni Lomax
Essays by Erica Davies, Jenni Lomax and Antoni Malinowski
Select from the writers below to read their essay
Transformation, vision and light – Erica Davies
The battered buildings had seen better days, a murky photograph shows every window shattered, brickwork dingy. Nos 46 -50 Copperfield Road were destined for demolition, and in the bomb-damaged streets of East London who cared that another set of derelict warehouses disappeared?
Local activists did, they campaigned for the buildings to be saved and raised funds to buy them. Layer by layer research brought into focus the extraordinary history of the buildings stretching back to 1872; a history where destruction was imminent more than once. Empty and failing as canal side warehouses No 46 was leased by the formidable Thomas Barnardo to become a free school for some of the poorest children in Victorian London. This was one of the largest ragged schools where Barnardo’s vision aimed to transform the prospects ofthousands of pupils through education, training and nourishment.
When the school was extended in 1895 two dramatic staircases were added. They lead us up to the light-filled rooms now transformed by the luminous paintings of Antoni Malinowski. An artist’s eye and sensibility comprehend the transformative effects of light, especially light reflected from the rippling water of the Regent’s Canal. Antoni has brought his profoundunderstanding of the magical effects of light, movement and pigment refractions into view. He shows how a building with the humblest of origins can become and entrancing space for paintings. A new chapter of our history begins.
Botticini Inspired, 2018
Synthetic tempera on polyester
243 x 150 cm
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Light Facing – Jenni Lomax
Facing North – gazing through the café windows onto Camden Arts Centre’s leafy garden. Adjusting focus from the trees beyond to the surface of the window panes, a rhythmic pattern of small green and pink brush strokes reveals itself. Like a ‘murmuration’ of birds, painted marks form and re-form in the shifting light of the room.
This painting on windows by Antoni Malinowski was intended to be a temporary thing, a delicate threshold between inside and out. It was made in the summer of 2014 to converse with the exhibition of works by the late Shelagh Wakely, showing in the galleries and garden at the time – a conversation on ephemeral magic, temporality and the behaviour of light. The exhibition ended in the autumn and the painting remains, though it comes and goes with the changes of the day.
In the intense city sunshine of Milan, fierce light from the South strikes the red painted wall of a building opposite, causing a wash of pink to flood across through the windows of Assab One. In this old printworks turned art space the colour falls on the surface of a painting made directly onto one of its walls. Here Malinowski’s paintings occupy a rectangular room with two solid walls – one very long that is split by flat columns into a series of shallow bays- the other much shorter with a clear run. Seven of the works in this exhibition are stretched canvases placed in a simple and gentle rhythm – two on the short wall and one in each of five bays along the other.
Time spent observing the daily performance of light and its effect on the physicality and substance of the space prefigures Malinowski’s placement of the works; his choreography heightening the spatial relationships, both within each painting and of one to another. Colour and its perception through light are his base material, carried in a mixture of pigment and nanotechnologies that work with the human eye. This alchemic medium is applied with fine brushstrokes in gestures that construct new orders and dimensions of form within space.
The title of the Milan exhibition, Quasi visto – in English ‘Almost seen’ – is the name of a wall painting in three parts, sited at the start of the short wall and at both ends of the long one. The available evening, spring light is playing most intently on the right, the shimmering colours causing the angles and architectural planes within the painting to undermine the certainty of the solid concrete wall.
Looking upwards at the sixteen-section, Renaissance style dome of the Cappella Portinari in Milan’s Basilica di San Eustorgio. The decorated, circular arrangement of feather shaped tessellations that are coloured in the order of the spectrum, starting with red, rising through to violet and then to a point of natural, white light. While the structure is held up high by a joyous dance of terra cotta angels, the gradation of colours and the tricks off the light make it difficult to discern if the form is concave or convex– are these rainbow wings reaching up to touch Heaven or down to brush the Earth?
Sitting in Antoni’s studio in West London, the afternoon sky is grey and though well into spring it is unseasonably cold, yet this room is still full of light. Pinks, golds reds and browns flow across the surface of three recently completed canvasses as the pigments and fading daylight work their magic. Making the billowing shapes seemingly pass from one state to the next.
Here in East London- at the top of the Ragged School Museum building, in a huge, empty room that leads in to another of similar size. Their walls, with dark brown dados giving way to a greenish-blue above, reveal their past purpose, occasional use and one-time neglect – the already unstable colours and surface does away with the need to activate them with wall paintings. For this exhibition Malinowski has thought about the strong architectural qualities of the building and the potent history that is held in its fabric. The structure of the space and movement of light in the rooms will forecast the placing of a series of paintings of varied proportions and sizes, including some shown in Milan and those seen in the studio.
Dawn to dusk, windows on the east side, overhead and on the west catch the daily transept of the mid-summer sun. At times, people can be heard playing in the vibrant green park to the East – from the West the canal reflects ripples of early evening light up into the building – with it a Venetian atmosphere and the memory of Tiepolo’s skies -water birds ruffle their feathers and -almost – there is a feeling of that gentle touch of an angel’s wing.
Almost Described – caput mortuum, 2017
Synthetic tempera on polyester
122 x 177cm
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Light triggered – Antoni Malinowski
And there I found myself at the Fondamenta degli Incurabili. I was commissioned by a Swedish collector to make a wall painting in his Venetian residence. For half a year, almost every day I took the vaporetto from Zattere and often popped in to the nearby Gesuati church to yet again look at the play of light on the magnificent Tiepolo ceiling fresco.
Right in the middle of the vast composition there is a large luminous grey cloud, above it flying putti and angels with piercing white wings touching the as if silk-woven ultramarine ash clouds. On that patch, on some bright days one can see a trembling light reflection that, bounced off the Giudecca canal, animates the subtly painted blue on blue distant clouds. The light vibration touches the large greyness, disperses its particles; the silvery shimmer penetrates the whole fresco.
The other Tiepolo ceiling, at Santa Maria della Pietà, depicts the Coronation of the Virgin. She is perching on top of a light-ultramarine large shape – a cloud or a huge mantle that is slopping down to touch the darker part of the composition. The Pietà church was for centuries attached to the monastery run by nuns called the Consorelle di Santa Maria dell’Umiltà, so beautifully depicted by Gaudi in their eighteenth century gentle and seductive theatricality. This charity focused on raising abandoned children, like the grandfather of my Venetian friend who was found there one foggy morning, in a basket at the Pietà’s steps.
A famous charity-themed painting is Caravaggio’s Seven Works of Mercy in Naples commissioned by the charitable brotherhood who cared for the nearby Hospital for Incurables. The painting depicts the muscular angels with their huge wings crushing down with a breathtaking force, transmitting the grace to humanity that compels them to be merciful. The dramatically lit darkness below reveals the human miseries remedied by charitable acts – typically Caravaggio warts and all.
For over a century overlooked by passers-by, the luminous skies of Tiepolo remained invisible, incompatible with nineteenth century taste. This theatre of clouds, animals and angels was also hardly of any interest to most twentieth century scholars.
Almost Seen – Reflected, 2018
Synthetic tempera on polyester
243 x 150 cm
Written in 1951 by the art historian Roberto Longhi “Dialogo fra il Caravaggio e il Tiepolo” aimed to glorify the naturalistic, “proletarian”, “craving for truth” versus the theatrical, “aristocratic” approach. At a certain moment in the imagined conversation Caravaggio reminds Tiepolo, in indignant tones, how widespread the custom of wearing masks was in Venice. But Tiepolo counters this by remarking that in Venice even beggars wear masks. “Few words, but enough to dismantle and foil his adversary’s heated arguments as well as those of all future authors of proclamations in favour of a reality that is then unfailingly revealed to be so parochial as to be unable to accept even the mask.” – comments Roberto Calasso in his book “Tiepolo Pink”.
Great twentieth century American painter Philip Guston understood and incorporated Tiepolesque theatrical sophistication in his bitter-sweet, often pink and black paintings that last year, juxtaposed with the Venetian light, were radiating truly complex beauty at the Accademia.
As a child, together with my sister we loved playing theatre. We would transform any area of the small Warsaw apartment into an imaginary world. One was under a round table covered on such an occasion with a leaf-patterned deep green and orange linen bedspread.
Normally, on the dark walnut table there was only an ash-tray bought on Murano by my grandparents before the war. It was an elliptically round, asymmetrically flowing shape. A particular cool pink shade, almost lilac at its base; at its widest circumference the colour almost disappeared in order to come back as a warm pink with a strange hue of an almost burned caramel at its rim. In this cool / warm glassy substance there were – as if thrown there to swirl around – small dots of other colours. Transparent vermilion-red that in shadow became almost crimson and the opaque light-grey puntini – in shadow blue-grey but distinctly white in the strong daylight that was coming from the nearby window. The dots were dancing, swirling, coming forward and disappearing. On the ash-tray’s inner base there was a magic silvery reflection – the spectral refractions were making a fairytale world of miniature wonder and enchantment.
The stories hovering around my childhood’s family table included my parents’ memories from Stalin’s prisons where my father had spent eight years. The darker sides were always hidden by the veil of humorous repartee. Other, older stories were from the time before the Russian revolution and the Great War – the world of Mann’s “Magic Mountain” and “Death in Venice”.
Quite miraculously saved from the bomb’s fire, the old sepia photographs were looked at time and time again. On one an elegant man seemed mysteriously distant. Leon Władysław de Lenval, my mother’s great uncle, was a successful industrialist and a great philanthropist. A European par excellence he was born in Russian-occupied Warsaw but later lived mostly in Austria and Belgium. He used to spend the winters in Nice. It is there that in 1888, after the sudden death of his ten year old son, Leon founded a hospital for children. To this day the Fondation Lenval on Avenue de la Californie is a large, working hospital. Before that de Lanval had founded the first clinic in Poland for workers and then another large hospital. After my visit there last year I stepped into Warsaw’s November twilight and began to think about all those Caritas-themed paintings and the iconography of angels, the messengers of light.
The light-reflecting backgrounds of the new paintings make the paint strokes appear and disappear. This depends on the levels of reflection and refraction within the crystals of the ground mica pigment. The brilliant light pouring down from the 46 Copperfield Road skylights is going to trigger further play of electrons within the micro-structures of the pigments used. What is visible, what remains invisible, may suddenly show itself in a lower (obfuscated) light. Then, with brilliant sunshine, the rhythms of the brush-strokes will realign themselves in unexpected configurations. The stronger or weaker reflection of light will alter the tonal relationships within the canvases’ rectangles. The nano-technology interference pigments will bend spectral wave-lengths and bring to our eyes a colour. This colour is going to reveal its dichromatic alter ego with a perpetually changing London light.
At times the light patches reflected off the moving waters of the Regent’s Canal will pulsate across the Ragged School ceilings.
Botticini Inverted, 2018
Synthetic tempera on polyester
243 x 150 cm
Assab One – Almost Seen
“Light triggers what we see, but what is being seen? And what was seen?
There is the architectural space seen in the changing natural light. Hung on the walls are paintings—they reverberate with this light. They are painted on a light-reflecting mica-based background. Other pigments used, often historic ones, are also highly light refracting. To contrast these I use nano-technology interference pigments that bend the light spectrum wave lengths. The images are therefore deliberately unstable — they shift with the changing light and the viewer’s position in the large ASSAB ONE space. This light-sensitive installation is linked together by the site/light-specific wall drawings. They are in dynamic dialogue with the studio-made paintings — the architectural and the pictorial spaces question each other.
The imagined heavenly architecture in Botticini’s 1475 painting, seen at London’s National Gallery, triggered the larger diptych. When placed in the contrasting 1960s industrial architecture it creates a nuanced, almost perceptible spatial resonance.”
THE ART OF TIME IN SPACE
by Marco Sammicheli
Reaction to space in time by means of art is the formula of 1+1+4 1, the exhibition format invented by Elena Quarestani, who invites three authors to cross paths with each other and with the history and identity of a factory transformed into a cultural laboratory.
But beyond the initial idea of asking an architect, a designer and an artist to make three original installations, the creative process has taken some inner, autonomous paths, in which | can be a witness and narrator, and only in some cases a prompter. Each author has applied his or her research to the space, but has also had to respect its structural constraints, its formal ambushes, through procedural but above all dialectic intentions triggered in the interaction between history and identity, on one side, and poetics and research on the other. The protagonists of this iteration are the American architect Johanna Grawunder, the Swiss designer Christoph Hefti, and the English painter of Polish origin Antoni Malinowski.
ASSAB ONE is not a neutral place, not a reticent space. It is a memory that can be activated, a theatre that can be turned on. This has promptly been understood by the three authors, who have intervened with their works without shying away from the tradition and the imaginary ASSAB ONE brings with it. Grawunder co-
mes to terms with its scale, creating full and empty zones of a pathway through light; the inner perimeter has captured Malinowski, guiding the perception of his painting amidst fields and projections; Hefti, on the other hand, invades the place with a surreal bivouac full of materic stimuli. Natural actions that happen without calling on metaphor, simply entering into the history of a site that continues to experiment with the languages of visual culture.
Johanna Grawunder constructs a void to reflect on the excess of flows and signs in our time. As an architect, she cannot help but attempt to design a solution to this personal and common urgency. Nevertheless, the act of subtraction is in any case an addition, a tangible experience, an immersion in the darkness that is interrupted by two large luminous installations: two spaces to cross, two zones in which to come to grips with the work of art, two epicentres to pass through, where the starting point and the destination are not clear. Even more so, because in the middle there is a great gap, the void that is a strongly desired necessity. The pause between the moments of this itinerary is in fact a reminder of the spaces of existence, the recovery of time, the distance from things, the recouping of a healthy solitude in the scale of values to be reset in order to combat the extreme social milieu to which we are subjected and inured.
Alone Together is the title chosen by Grawunder for this constellation of elements. Inside, Let’s Get Lost, la suspended space in magenta-coloured wood and black lights, and Mandala, the plastic and luminous representation of the universe in Hindu and Buddhist culture, both sculpt the space. Grawunder follows the notes of the syncopated jazz of Chet Baker, a style based on improvisation and counterpoint, not on the unison of musical phrases.
Antoni Malinowski orchestrates an intervention on architectural spaces, a new chapter of his research on the physical and metaphysical dimension of light. The sensitivity and reaction to light typical of his paintings are prompted by a mixture of pigments and nanotechnologies that alter the wavelengths of the visual spectrum of the human eye. The interaction of space, light — both natural and projected — and colour forms the core of the research the artist has conducted over time to investigate the dynamic relationship between pictorial space and designed space. This practice takes the form of wall paintings and works of large size. Malinowski observes the light of a place, distilling its genius loci and creating an interdependency of the immaterial nature of colour, movement and matter. The artist multiplies and changes the visual stimuli of the work, boosting the visual appeal, and above all encouraging prolonged viewing where time creates unity.
In the series of paintings Malinowski presents at ASSAB ONE there is a diptych based on a work from 1476 by Francesco Botticini. The Assumption of the Virgin can be seen at the National Gallery in London, and depicts the architecture of heaven as an order suspended over the Tuscan landscape. Malinowski creates a diptych that is not only a deconstructed inversion in space of that Specific subject, but is also made with a painterly gesture totally bent on the creation of chromatic effects triggered by the refrections of the context. The concept of Almost seen — chosen by Malinowski as the title of the show — returns in the titles of the paintings, even slightly altered in Penumbra-Reflected, Almost described — caput mortuum, Also almost seen and is expressed in the dissolved, implied subject. The suspension, porousness, the passage from state to state, the suggestion of the skies of Tiepolo and Venetian atmospheres profoundly linked to the cinema experience of Death in Venice by Luchino Visconti, surface in the painter’s memory, marking his imaginary world and coming to life in his works.
Christoph Hefti uses material culture and craftsmanship to create a visual landscape made of objects. His background as a designer of fabrics active in the world of fashion emerges in a multisensory theatrical installation. At ASSAB ONE he sets up a surreal scene where rugs, ceramics and signs become opportunities for striking encounters between the author’s fantasy and the visitor’s reaction. The space is a visual, tactile and aural archipelago full of impressions, where the narration of human and animal figures is suggested because the experience is completed in the navigation of the space. Hefti brings his production catalogue into the show, almost entirely focused on the contemporary reinterpretation of traditional methods, from the hand-knotting of carpets in Nepal to the culture of Flemish pottery. A field of experiences with clear spiritual and oneiric overtones.
The installation That horse, slamming doors relies on different media because he is accustomed to using them in his professional work as a designer. Here, however, he removes them from their context and the relationship that connects them is based on the desire to create an immersive, surprising work. Hefti’s mise en scene is a trap for dreamers, a welcoming space that encourages you to linger, to rest, to reawaken an imagination all too often dormant or even atrophied. Hefti is a commuter of creativity, between Zurich and Brussels, by way of Paris and Stockholm. Travel and the traditions of these places, where he experiments with materials and practices crafts, represent an explosive expressive background for him. An action that reminds us of the Cabaret Voltaire in its forms, and of Surrealism in its references. An activity that reflects the inner energy of its maker, and his habit of transforming it into performance.
The architect, painter and designer are the authors of a trilogy that starts from their research to create new works and to take part in the choral history of ASSAB ONE, writing a story in which the arts conquer space.
Mobility of the Line
Dr Ivana Wingham
Published by Birkhauser Verlag
The line is the constitutive element of every drawing and forms the core element of any design – for art, architecture, urban design or design in general. It resists reduction to simple linearity, but rather takes on complex and dynamic forms that attract the viewer in various ways, both consciously and suggestively. Whether analogue or digital, the movements and effects that lines produce are different for each type of line: straight, meandering, interrupted or even invisible. The book is a stimulating celebration of the manifold aspects of line, using unique examples from architecture, design and art, combining interviews with designers and essays by various authors.
Contributors include: Bruce Brown, Ivana Wingham, Alberto Perez-Gomez, Diana Agrest, Gary Garrels, Mark Cousins, Marco Frascari, Ricardo Scofidio, Costas Varotsos, Jeffrey P. Turko, Jenny Lowe, Ivana Wingham, Anthony McCall, Monika Grzymala, Antoni Malinowski, Duncan Bullen, Casey Reas, Angus Leadley-Brown, Roderick J. Lumsden, John Andrews, George Hardie, Andrew Benjamin, Brian Hatton, Gregory Votolato, Teresa Stoppani.
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“In Mobility of the Line: Art Architecture Design Ivana Wingham seduces us with the promiscuity of the line, which she exposes as an unreliable but alluring accomplice. She exposes the diversity of meanings and influences that a line might hold once drawn, while pointing out its subversive tendencies to lead the line’s author astray during the act of drawing. Her book draws on the research of some of the most respected thinkers in the field through a series of conversations and presents examples of by a talented group of practitioners suitably corrupted by the lines they have drawn.”
Professor Nat Chard
University of Brighton, UK
“The originality of the research is in the way it brings together diverse theories and practices to interrogate the line as a constitutive element across art, design and architecture. In this way it positions the line beyond merely being a tool of representation; the line becomes a way of interrogating practice. Architects, students and scholars reading this book will gain exposure to theories and practices they may not have encountered before. At the same time, canonical figures and works are repositioned. The quality of visual material is first rate, and on that basis alone will engage a wide audience, beyond those with specialised knowledge. Overall, Mobility of the Line: Art, Architecture, Design is an excellent outcome of sustained research.”
Professor Charles Rice
Head of School of Art and Design History
Kingston University, London, UK
“By interrogating the drawing’s most basic component, the line, fresh insights into the potential of the drawing emerge. Mobility of the Line: Art Architecture Design sets out a multifaceted discussion of the most basic device in architecture, art and design, one that implies deployment beyond representation. Deepening our understanding of the line’s role and use as a trans-disciplinary critical tool opens up possibilities for the production of new types of work across creative, cultural and critical practices.”
Professor Tom Jefferies
Head of Manchester School of Architecture, UK
Antoni Malinowski: Light Sensitive Refleksions
by A.M. Lesniewska
The reason why we talk about how some meetings are pregnant in their effects is something that happened in 1967 in Lodz, when Italian director Luchino Visconti was travelling across Europe, on a tour which also included Warsaw (Alla Ricerca di Tadzio, 1970). His goal in a long and tiresome search was to find an actor who could embody the blond teenager Tadzio, the slender Polish boy, one of the characters from the Thomas Mann novel “Death in Venice”, who enchants the tired writer, its main hero. (1) The fascination awaken by an accidental meeting with the boy breaks the older man’s creative impasse and becomes the reason for action. For the film director this situation provided the impulse to create an unusual film, an intensely sublimated, densely layered and sophisticated movie.
Among those chosen for the screen test for Tadzio’s role in the Lodz Film School was Antoni Malinowski, who had previously been spotted among the boys of the school on Miodowa street in Warsaw where he was a pupil. This episode, and its associated memories, came alive when the idea emerged of the artist’s show at the Cinematography Museum in Lodz. For Malinowski this Lodz exhibition became a pretext for a mental time travel to the past, which is embodied also in the film that Renee Vaughan Sutherland made about Malinowski’s work, in which the film maker follows with her camera his work in Venice, Warsaw, London and, of course, Lodz.
The uniqueness of this Visconti episode from 45 years ago consists of the meeting between two completely disparate realities: Malinowski’s from drab Communist Poland and the famous film director’s from the affluent and open western world. Indeed this triggered Malinowski’s return to childhood, involving the few surviving pictures, hidden shreds of memories, with which he called back the multiple reflections in the darkened mirrors of the past, where also are glimpsed his ancestors from the world we have lost, now disappeared, now turned to dust and whose after-images stayed only in his memory.
One freezing December morning towards the end of the 1990s Malinowski began his Venetian adventure by tracing the movement of light on the ten-metre long “marmorino” wall in the newly build residence of the Swedish collector who had previously seen the artist’s exhibition at London’s Camden Arts Centre. Then Malinowski spent half a year in Venice. It was a winter and spring that bore fruit in his first big-scale painting located within Venetian architecture. Since then, he often returns to this city in March to admire the unusual white light reflecting in the Laguna’s water, the same light which we see in the paintings and frescoes of Gian Battista Tiepolo.
Venice, the city of cities which seduces and beckons, drawing you into its magical labyrinth of houses, streets and squares, all of which liberate in the artist the desire to look, which in itself is based on a dream to see all and to experience the elusive and deeply felt currents of life in Venice. This place requires you to sharpen your vision and take yet another look into the multiplied reflections which almost brush against the luminous elevations of the buildings. The multiplications and the changeability of experienced visual stimuli raises the eye’s appetite and the necessity of returning again to the same places. “The eye in this city”, writes Josif Brodski in “Watermark”, “acquires an autonomy similar to that of a tear. The only difference is that it doesn’t sever itself from the body but subordinates it totally. After a while — on the third or fourth day here — the body starts to regard itself as merely the eye’s carrier, as a kind of a submarine to its now dilating, now squinting periscope. Of course, for all its targets, its explosions are invariably self-inflicted: it’s your own heart, or else your mind, that sinks; the eye pops up to the surface. This of course relates to a ‘campo’ with a cathedral in the middle of it, barnacled with saints and flaunting its Medusa-like cupolas.”
Returning to Venice the artist always experiences the almost all encompassing feeling of unreality. The ephemeral feeds the imagination, which then can assemble the whole spectacle shown in the consecutive configurations of the observed fragments of the city.
The light sensitive installations which Malinowski creates during the span of many years in different cities and often in quite unusual places is something more than the sum of overlaying images of the spectacle. Time is the dimension which makes the whole, puts together the scattered fragments of the real and the multiplied reflections — time creates the unity. Through the interdependent relations of light, space and time, an ephemeral, intimate atmosphere is created. The activated complex structure of pigments allows visualisation of the phenomenon which according to the artist is “getting closer to the light of place, its Genius Loci”.
The sun’s rays glistening on the water of the Venice Laguna are like the light reflections in a Murano glass mosaic; subtraction of light in the old blackened mirrors becomes an echo of taboo, as touched on in the film about the artist. Malinowski constructs his tale about light, but in truth it is a story about himself which is made out of his own and his family’s life experiences. He perceives light captured both in painted pictures and in film pictures as a vital energy which is a necessary ingredient in making his introspective art. Light has the ability to reveal, uncover, and simultaneously a possibility to be immersed in it and thus to see oneself. The contact with light might be not only the sum of one’s experience and knowledge, but a new quality which becomes a glimmer of illumination. To see light, its constant transformations is to experience illumination — the unmediated contact with reality.
The colour of light, its intensity depends on the relations with other aspects which in this particular case are the exhibits from the Cinematography Museum such as the 19th-century Stereoscope (Fotoplastikon). Its functioning is based on the neuro–optical principle, the relation between the apparatus’s mechanics and the human eye, and this becomes the ideal companion for Malinowski’s installation. The museum’s objects help the artist to further research the phenomenon of light, the natural process of absorption, reflection and penetration of light of particular wavelengths which is then transformed into neuro-impulses in the viewer’s brain, and trigger the seeing of colour. These impressions differ because the individual abilities of the viewer determine the possibility of seeing the colour and then the intensity of its saturation.
The artist set out a precise plan of work for his Lodz installation in which the consecutive elements of his creative process are related to the phenomenon of light. In turn, this is the main axis of his work, becoming also the main thread of the Vaughan Sutherland film, which uses the notation of light effects in the shape of a triptych where the chain of the film’s images forms itself into the stages of the following phenomenon: dispersion, subtraction, refraction.
The best known example of light dispersion is the refraction of the perceived light through a prism. Isaac Newton first explained the essence of the phenomenon of dispersion. His experiments lead him to conclude that light is colour, but the colours of light are not what Malinowski is working with; the artist is working with pure pigments which behave inversely to the light colours. Working with the coloured pigments is based on taking away — subtraction of light. Malinowski creates his wall drawings and painterly interventions mapped by streams of energy in the self-designated space, invoking in the museum’s room a spectrum — the optical after-image, thus analysing light through colour, through light’s penetration into the micro-structure of pigments.
The result of these actions is the dynamic interactions between matter and light through which the artist paradoxically reveals the immateriality of colour.
The colours are achieved by using hand-mixed pigments prepared with the help of almost medieval recipes, then thanks to the variety of ingredients and sometimes even changes triggered in their inner structure, the result is the phenomenon of light refraction, when the light rays become distorted by their travel through diversified layers. The illusion created by the optical changes due to their strength of emission influences other spheres of creation. This phenomenon of nature suggests emotions through the movement of the rhythm of the subconsciously emerging music, metamorphosing into dance of gestures and signs.
Just as Visconti’s “Death in Venice” will for a long time remain an important element of our discourse about culture, history and human nature, so the work of Antoni Malinowski will also remain a constantly fascinating evocation of the light of reality.
1 The hero of Thomas Mann novel, Gustav von Aschenbach, is a writer, but in Visconti’s film he is portrayed as a composer.
Antoni Malinowski – Dulwich Picture Gallery – The Polish Connection
Essays by Ian A.C. Dejardin, Sarah Kent, Paul Hills, Martin Crimp and Anna Maria Lesniewska
Published by Dulwich Picture Gallery 2009
Select from the writers below to read their essay
Anna Maria Lesniewska
Antoni Malinowski – The Polish Connection – Ian A.C. Dejardin
When Antoni Malinowski approached me with the idea of a contemporary installation at Dulwich Picture Gallery linked to historic portraits of King Stanislaw August Poniatowski, I was immediately interested; partly because, in the run-up to the Gallery’s bicentenary in 2011, I was already thinking that it was high time that the story of the historic ‘Polish connection’ should be told again for a new audience, but also because Antoni’s response to that old story was so vivid and interesting. He is, of course, a profoundly spiritual artist – responding in light and colour and thought to the stimulus of 18th century portraits and the fantastic ‘what if’ questions posed by our history. What if Poland had not been partitioned? What if, Poland having been partitioned and the king having abdicated, Francis Bourgeois had not persuaded Noel Desenfans not to sell the collection they had put together? What if Desenfans had been successful in persuading the British government to found a national gallery based on their collection? What if, having failed to do that, the Czars Paul and/ or Alexander had agreed to purchase the collection, thereby honouring Stanislaw’s debt? But, just imagine – if you could travel back in time to, say, 1803, and asked the question: what if – instead of selling off the collection or founding a national gallery – what if Bourgeois were to leave the collection to a sleepy school for boys five miles south of the metropolis ‘for the inspection of the public’? Of all the possible solutions, wouldn’t that have seemed the most bizarre? Yet that is what he did; and in doing so, he achieved the glory that should have been the king of Poland’s.
Antoni’s brilliant approach has been to bring the king to Dulwich – set him up in the form of four of his great state portraits – and then, having dropped the pebble in the pool, so to speak, tune in to the ripples. His work involves direct intervention on to the walls of the Gallery, but makes use of the triumphal implications of the Gallery’s exterior arches also. He is filling the great blind arch at the south end of the east front with a magnificent altarpiece-like painting that seems to adumbrate the presence of royalty inside. Inside, lines and colour echo the king’s gaze and gestures. The result – a profound, and profoundly beautiful, meditation on the great ‘what if’; a meditation which uses words and dance also, saturating the whole site.
My thanks to Antoni for his ‘big idea’ and all his hard work in bringing it to life. I am also extremely grateful to the Adam Mickiewicz Institute for their active involvement as organizers of Polska! Year of which we are proud to be a part, and for hosting my visit to Warsaw where I really began to feel the weight of history behind the project. My thanks to my Polish colleagues at the Royal Castle and the National Museum in Warsaw; and to Paul Hills, Sarah Kent and AM Lesniewska for their enlightening essays in this catalogue. Thanks also to Martin Crimp, whose abstract text provides us with a unique perspective of Antoni’s work. Finally, my own staff: Matthew Cowpe, exhibitions officer, took on the complex challenge of organizing the show at this end, and has done a remarkable job, under the professional eye of Mella Shaw, Head of Exhibitions.
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The Enduring Significance of Ephemeral Gestures – Sarah Kent
For some time the artist, Antoni Malinowski has had his eye on Dulwich Picture Gallery as a potential site for a painting installation. In recent years, he has increasingly turned his attention to large-scale projects created in response to a particular site. For the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square, for instance, he painted a Vermilion Wall; modulations in the deep red were inspired by shifting patterns in the light falling across the curved surface as he worked, while the black marks swarming over the red ground echo the cascades of words poured out on stage during performances. Haworth Tompkins, the architects reponsible for refurbishing the theatre, also invited him to contribute to Coin Street Neighbourhood Centre which they designed for London’s South Bank. Malinowski’s ongoing preoccupation with light, architecture and the interplay between the two inspired him to paint some of the walls with light-reflective pigments that change colour and intensity according to the weather.
His interest in Dulwich Picture Gallery is more personal, though, since the unusual circumstances that led to its conception link London where he has lived for many years with Poland where he was born; they involve a king, whose radical views led to his downfall, and two art dealers who became philanthropists. In 1790 Stanislaw August, king of Poland, commissioned the London-based dealers, Sir Francis Bourgeois and Noël Desenfans to acquire a collection of fine paintings that would enable him to open a gallery for the public in Warsaw.
By the time they had assembled the pictures, though, the king had been deposed and Poland disbanded; but the idea of setting up a public art gallery had fired their imaginations and, subsequently, was to inspire the foundation of the Picture Gallery. Designed by Sir John Soane, the building was completed in 1817, and now houses many of the paintings once intended for Warsaw.
So although Stanislaw August’s reign was cut short, his liberal ideals lived on, and this is what fascinates Malinowski. ‘I’m interested in the enduring power of ephemeral gestures,’ he explains.1 ‘Fragile ideas to do with the love of art and beauty are strongest because economies, political systems and even countries collapse or disappear with time. Only ideas and paintings remain.’ Similar thoughts were expressed recently by New York collector Jose Mugrabi; when asked why he continues to invest in art despite the economic crisis, he replied ‘When the empires fall – Roman, Greek – all that is left is art.’ 2
Nearly two hundred years after the Picture Gallery opened, King Stanislaw August is paying a visit to Dulwich, in the form of four portraits. Most sumptuous is Marcello Bacciarelli’s full-length picture of 1792, which shows the king resplendent in his coronation robes – a tunic of pale grey silk encrusted with gold-thread embroidery beneath a red velvet cape lined with ermine. The painting, which normally hangs in the Marble Room of the Royal Castle in Warsaw, is shaped like an arch.
The East facade of Dulwich Picture Gallery contains two blind niches the same shape as the portrait; one is hidden behind a tree, but the archway to the left of the main doorway is clearly visible and has inspired Malinowski to create a painting that responds physically and metaphorically to its setting and to the king’s portrait hanging in the gallery. ‘The architecture is such a strong presence’, says Malinowski, ‘and an archway is such a loaded shape for a painting. Visually, it can easily split where the rectangle meets the arch – like the main doorway and mullion window above it which you are aware of in peripheral vision. How to relate the two areas is a compositional problem which is very interesting and gives me an enormous buzz!’
The installation is temporary so, rather than painting on the wall, Malinowski has filled the arch with panels of honeycomb fibreglass primed with raw umber to blend in with the brickwork. Over this are laid thin glazes of light-reflective paint whose opalescent sheen resembles the silks of the King’s coronation robes and responds to the ever-changing moods of the English weather. ‘If this were an indoor painting’, he explains, ‘it would be very different, because there’s the sky. Instead of fighting it, I’m trying to catch aspects of it; rather than imposing a narrative, the interaction with the setting becomes the story and allows a multiplicity of readings.’
Along the left hand edge of the niche he has painted a band of opaque vermilion to emphasise the unity of the arch and to echo the deep shadow cast by the sun on fine days; its shape and colour also refer to the temporary pavilions and canopies once erected to welcome visiting monarchs. In Soane’s original design, the archway appears as an opening rather than a blind niche. This has inspired Malinowski to open the space visually and, as it were, dissolve the separation between outdoors and in, again acknowledging the presence of the portrait. Optical illusion and innuendo produce a surface that functions ambiguously in the conceptual terrain between a smokey mirror and a dusty window.
Swarming over the opalescent ground are tiny brushstrokes made of a synthetic pigment that changes colour, like shot silk, according to the light; the particles appear red or creamy white in one direction and green or turquoise in the other. Shoals of these shimmering marks cluster round three rhomboids visible as dark voids floating weightlessly in infinite space. Inevitably we interpret rhomboids as rectangles seen in perspective and Malinowski refers to the spatial twists and turns implied by their presence as ‘sculpting with light… For me its about the negative shapes’, he says. ‘I’m using light, but working with darkness.’
This dark geometry seems as volatile as images glimpsed in the clouds. One can imagine, for instance, the glittering brushmarks changing direction like a shoal of fish or scattering willy nilly to dissolve the elusive shapes whose boundaries they define. This creates a sense of flux and flow that makes the dynamics of the various elements uncertain and the relationships between them ambiguous. The bright cloud surrounding the upper rhomboid like an aura comes to a point at its base. Perhaps it is being sucked into the funnel of darkness leaving the rhomboid below. On the other hand, we might be witnessing its escape from the forcefield of the larger shape. Meanwhile, the small rhomboid at the bottom of the niche has tipped onto one corner, perhaps to provide its companions with a pivotal point of balance, perhaps to spin on its axis or even to slip away unobtrusively.
‘It’s an indeterminate moment’, says Malinowski, ‘in which I freeze a spatial dynamic which is ambiguous and contradictory. I’m trying to deal with certain forces in this loaded classical shape, especially with the relationship between up there and down here.’ The niche is, of course, the same shape as a Renaissance altarpiece in which, typically, a division is created between the upper and lower registers that distinguish the heavenly sphere reserved for the elect from the earthly domain inhabited by mortals.
For me, associations like these are too strong to ignore, especially as Malinowski has divided his painting into three main segments. They put me in mind of Titian’s The Assumption of the Virgin (1518) which hangs over the main altar of the Frari in Venice and is similarly arranged in three layers. God can be seen in the heavens awaiting the arrival of the Virgin while, down on earth, a crowd of disciples gazes upwards at her receding figure; and, born aloft on a bank of cloud, Mary provides a visual and symbolic link between the two realms.
‘One can’t avoid such associations’, says Malinowski, ‘but I’m not really dealing with heavenly and earthly zones. In my painting there is more darkness above and light below; so if one is looking for a theological interpretation, then things are inverted.’ His favourite altarpiece turns out to be Titian’s The Martyrdom of St Lawrence (1548-57), which hangs in a side chapel in the Jesuit church in Venice, which is so badly lit that the nocturnal scene is all but invisible. In the painting, what little light there is emanates from the moon, a few lanterns held aloft by soldiers and the flames of the barbecue on which the hapless saint is being roasted alive.
Malinowski shows me a reproduction of Jacob’s Dream (1710-15), a painting by Arent de Gelder, a pupil of Rembrandt, which hangs in the Dulwich Picture Gallery. It features a diagonal shaft of light shining from a cloud of brilliance in the heavens onto the prone form of the sleeping Jacob. Mid-way between the two realms, an angel hovers on outstretched wings; shaped like a kite, this ethereal being is remarkably similar to the small rhomboids in Malinowski’s composition.
Common to both nocturnal scenes is the importance of light as a poetic and symbolic element in the narrative. Light is also a key ingredient in Malinowski’s work and it is easy to see how pictures like these could have inspired his interest in ‘painting with light, but working with darkness’. Influences are usually much less direct, however, or manifest themselves in mysterious ways and his painting encompasses an extremely diverse frame of reference that includes physics and technology as well as art history. The pigments he uses to harness the transitory effects of light were produced, for instance, with the aid of nanotechnology, while the shifting patterns of tiny brushmarks with which they are deployed might well have been inspired by developments in particle physics, or the night sky as seen through the Hubble Space telescope. The formal aspects of the work, however, direct my attention back to art history.
The floating rhomboids bring to mind the paintings of Kasimir Malevich, in which abstract shapes are similarly suspended in space, except that Malinowski’s shadowy geometry is more tentative and more ethereal. In his determination to establish a new role for art in pre-revolutionary Russia, Malevich purged his paintings of all subject matter that was tainted, by association, with traditional values. His most provocative painting was Black Square (1913), a single square of dense black on a white ground. He hung it in the “icon corner”, a place usually reserved for religious pictures, as though to insist that the new abstraction had a spiritual as well as political dimension and could satisfy the desire for objects of contemplation and veneration.
The optimism embodied in the work was shortlived, though. The Communist Party soon rejected abstraction in favour of socialist realism and Malevich eventually abandoned easel painting for applied arts such as furniture design and architecture. Yet his paintings have outlived the regime that denounced them as elitist and are now enshrined in art history for their beauty, courage and idealism. Once again, art proved more enduring than empire.
Since Malevich rejected the medium, painting has been declared dead many times over, yet it obstinately refuses to die. Malinowski has not abandoned easel painting, but his desire to expand its remit into architectural space suggests frustration with the limitations of paint on canvas, and echoes of this can be found in the picture. Scattered within the central rhomboid are dark strips resembling pieces of wood. ‘They are like a broken stretcher’, he says. ‘Maybe they’re a shadow or a ghost of one. I’m taking issue with the idea that paintings have to be rectangular and hung on walls, and that they are valuable or special.’
Far from rejecting painting, though, he is seeking to affirm its unique qualities; this is where, alongside his pioneering example, Malevich’s painting technique comes into play. ‘Malevich painted very meticulously’, says Malinowski, ‘using small brushstrokes to create a sense of stasis that produces movement. Its a Byzantine idea; because of the incredibly fine brushmarks used to paint an icon, something optical happens to the edges and the focus. Things appear frozen yet they suggest movement inward and outward, rather than from left to right. So I’m asking a similar question to Malevich about the relevance of painting, but in a different situation. The issue now is to do with technology rather than politics; I’m asking what painting has to offer in the age of photography, video and so on. And the answer is that it deals with a different kind of spatiality, a sense of movement that can only be achieved in a painting.’
Indoors in the gallery where the royal portraits are hung, the artist further explores this potential for achieving a different kind of spatial movement. One wall is painted a dark blue that echoes the sash worn by the king. Prussian blue is a quintessentially eighteenth century colour, argues Malinowski, since its discovery changed the palette available to artists. The blue invades the white of the adjoining wall and, in turn, is infiltrated by it; curving black lines further dissolve the geometry of the interior to create a fluid sense of space, as though to amplify the baroque folds of the king’s abundant cloak. Rather than negating the figurative art of the past as Malevich sought to do, abstraction is brought into a creative dialogue with it that enriches one’s understanding of both.
As well as subverting the rigidity of architectural space, Malinowski is keen to dissolve the boundaries between different art forms. At the opening of the exhibition, Korean choreographer Yong-Min Cho and other dancers will respond to the paintings in a work that translates implied movement into physical gesture, and to a soundscape created by composer Rolf Gehlhaar. Fed into a computer, English and Polish words have been translated into abstract cadences resembling the rippling assonances of a sita, so as to distance them from literal meaning. Trapped forever within the present tense, a painting has no potential to unfold and must always remain ambiguous, but sound and dance develop through time and in space and, thereby, can offer some form of resolution.
To compensate for the temporary absence of the portraits, in Warsaw Malinowski will create an installation in the Kubicki Arcade, a 200 metre corridor along which coaches once processed into the Royal Castle. A series of temporary walls painted with the same pigments used in Dulwich radiate the colours of the spectrum. On an indigo base, the miraculous duotone paint acquires a turquoise sheen; on purple it appears olive green, on vermilion red and on yellow terra cotta. Traversing the panels, fluid black lines conceptually extend the rhythms begun in Dulwich to the homeland of the portraits, where they pay tribute to King Stanislaw August’s visionary ideals which outlived his reign to inspire the foundation of the Picture Gallery.
Antoni Malinowski’s installation wears its scholarship lightly; while responding to its surroundings, it also makes reference to subjects as diverse as royal portraits, altarpieces, icons, pioneering abstraction and the role of painting in a secular society that is saturated with images produced in other, faster media. These all contribute to the many layers of meaning that make the work so rewarding to contemplate. Above all, though, the artist is honouring all those whose fragile ideas or ephemeral gestures have proved longer lasting than countries, economies, empires or dictatorships. Indirectly, of course, he is also celebrating the importance and longevity of art and doing so with a degree of modesty and subtlety that exemplifies the very point he is making.
1 All comments by the artist were made in conversations with the author during February and March 2009
2 Observer Magazine 12.4.09 p33
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Towards Reflections – Paul Hills
There are many reasons why it is timely that the London-based Polish artist Antoni Malinowski has made an installation at Dulwich. Sir John Soane’s gallery, in which paintings live and breathe in light-filled spaces, speaks to Malinowski’s longstanding engagement with light and colour in architecture. He is also an admirer of many paintings in the collection, especially works by Veronese, Tiepolo and Watteau. His art, like theirs, traces trajectories of colour, journeys of light. In the spring of 2009 visitors to Dulwich were fortunate to see the four surviving fragments of the great Petrobelli altarpiece reunited, and to witness how Veronese, like Tiepolo, at once holds his figures a little apart and brings them into communion by the silvery touch of light on an upturned face. Light makes invisible bridges and colour sustains them.
Bridging, not with a weight of masonry but with filaments of line and splinters of colour, is a recurring theme in Malinowksi’s work. The installation at Dulwich, a painting framed in the arch outside and a wall drawing on the space within, may suggest a kind of bridging, perhaps the unfolding of a magic casement. In Venice, in 2004, his drawing was extended through the city itself in an event with dancers, entitled ‘Bridging Lines’. To anyone familiar with Venetian myths, it evoked the ritual marriage with the sea and the ancient Venetian dream of throwing a bridge across the Giudecca Canal. Accompanied by music, the performance moved from interior to exterior and from the solid foundations of the quayside to the gentle rocking of a boat as it crossed the water. The notes of the music floated over the water of the canal, mingling without merging with the splash of the waves and the noises of the city.
Sound, like light, traverses distances. In his paintings and wall drawings it is as if Malinowski translates varying intensities of sound and their spatial resonances into linear rhythm and chromatic harmony. Some of his titles adapt or allude to musical terms, as in Shadow Synchrony of 2002, or Synchrony Carmine, an expansively wide diptych of 1996, where the colours of the two halves echo and answer one another. What ‘synchrony’ might mean is surely ambiguous, but amongst the dictionary definitions of ‘synchronous’ we find, ‘Recurring at the same successive instants of time; having coincident periods, as two sets of vibrations and the like’. In Malinowski’s wall drawings two lines often travel together across floor, wall and ceiling, now moving together, now moving apart, sometimes continuous, sometimes broken into dashes. His notation, whether of black marks on a white field in the wall drawings or of more varied flecks of pigment in his paintings, is essentially musical; therefore it is entirely to be expected that he has worked with musicians and composers – notably Michael Nyman – and that musicians have performed moving amongst his installations and paintings. At the unveiling of Malinowski’s wall painting at the Luxor Theatre in Rotterdam in 2002 trombones resonated against the carmine walls.
It comes as no surprise that one of the artist’s favourite works in the Dulwich Collection is that essentially musical painting, Watteau’s Les Plaisirs du Bal. This painting is musical not only in the obvious sense that its subject is a dance accompanied by musicians, but because this ethereal fête galante is orchestrated with a rhythmic structure of duplications, echoes and reflections. As in Malinowski’s paintings, Watteau’s chromatic space is woven of fine-spun flecks and threads of colour. In this way colour and line do not stand apart as separate elements; rather colour has been almost shredded into lines and line has been imbued with colour.
Watteau’s painting, like so many of Veronese’s, is staged in an architectural space like a portico, which is neither entirely outside nor inside but somewhere between. In a more elusive mode, Malinowski’s wall drawings and his paintings often propose a permeable space between interior and exterior. This fascination with thresholds is one reason why he is drawn to Pompeian wall-painting and its slender illusory structures delineated on fields of white or vermilion. These suggest spaces that are engagingly real but often seem to occupy an ambiguous zone neither exactly behind nor in front of the wall.
Traditional linear perspective moves horizontally into depth following the normal axis of vision, thereby taking priority over the vertical axis of gravity or levitation, the axis of spiritual force, but the Venetian painters, thanks to their familiarity with the great mosaic domes of San Marco hovering above their heads, never quite forgot the vertical axis. In Venetian altarpieces the semi-circle defined by the crowning arch was normally reserved as the zone of the heavenly, the rectangle below furnished the space of the earthly or mundane. When in Venice, Malinowski often goes to see Titian’s Martyrdom of St Lawrence, which stands on the altar of a dark, windowless chapel. Titian set the scene by night, dramatizing the moment when the heavens open and Lawrence raises his hand to acknowledge the burst of light. Malinowski always loved this opening in the darkness, the shape of it, and the journey of light from the opening to the raised hand, but it was only recently that he noticed a faint reflection on the water in the distance, the water of a Venetian canal. ‘He is trying to grasp the reflection’, says Antoni.
Grasping a reflection – not the divine light of Christian salvation breaking in from another world, but something here, now, elusive yet around us every day – might be one way to describe Malinowski’s project of these last fifteen years and more. His work leads us to ask what today might be the event that painting extends or proposes. In the absence of obvious figuration what happens in painting? We may best feel our way towards an answer by considering Malinowski’s interventions in architectural spaces which have been such a compelling feature of his practice. Typically these interventions and collaborations – some permanent, some temporary – involve working on site over an extended period of time. Between 1998 and 2000, at the invitation of the architects Haworth Tompkins, who were refurbishing the Royal Court Theatre, he spent many months painting the exterior drum wall of the auditorium, which faces onto the spaces of the foyer and bars. Unlike a house-painter, he worked with small brushes, slowly covering the great convex ark of wall in a deep and subtly inflected vermilion. Over these months he registered how sunlight by day and car headlights by night tracked across the curved surface, and he distilled these transient lights as parallelograms of pale flecks floating over the vermilion field. By this means inside and outside are linked. By night the red glow of the painted wall, extending over several floors, is visible from Sloane Square through the windows of the theatre’s facade, while inside the foyer spaces visitors may experience – as it were at the margins of their conversations – the slow fade of the rays of the setting sun or the flash of headlights passing over the vermilion. The artist understood perfectly that this was a social space where theatre-goers would drink, talk and move around, and that his expanse of vermilion would not so much be looked at by patrons as accompany them, bathe them in colour, and be glimpsed in fragments between the gaps in the crowd.
More recently, in 2008, Malinowski collaborated with the same architects on the design of Coin Street Community Centre on London’s South Bank. Here he responded to the clear-cut lines of Howarth Tompkins’ building by employing a range of primary hues and a more emphatic geometry for coloured walls flanking windows and light-shafts. The slant of sunlight repeatedly cutting across walls beside the grid of fenestration appears transposed into the angled blocks of colour. Interior lighting has been strategically placed so that after dark the dynamic pattern of slanting shapes in strong colours are visible from outside the building. The effect by day and by night is held in counterpoint.
What Antoni Malinowski achieves with colour in architecture, and his understanding of what happens with colour, is built upon the closest investigation of how pigments respond to light. He has written that ‘pigment is the materiality of colour, the 3d micro structure which reflects and refracts light’. When painting on canvas he binds his pigments in a light acrylic medium believing that this best allows pigments to retain their characteristic molecular structure. Like a tempera painter of the early Renaissance, such as Sassetta, he avoids as far as possible mixtures of several pigments, preferring to keep his tints pure. Since the 1990s his work has been marked by phases in which a single pigment – notably azurite, vermilion, malachite or lapis lazuli – dominates his canvases. More recently he has started to use diachromatic pigments, laying them over a ground of deep umber. These metallic-based pigments are a challenge: when applied the same pigment may shift from a red to a green or from a silvery tone to a purplish dark according to the angle from which they are seen. With fine intelligence and insight Malinowski works with this instability and enlists it as integral to the event of painting.
Yves Klein declared that colour is the link between the material and the immaterial. Pigment is material, usually mineral, but its energy – the light waves it reflects – is immaterial. Malinowski’s paintings, with their flecks of colour hovering in veils, seem to render visible the edge or meeting point between different physical particles or elements. Their distillation of subtle energies invites us – if not to grasp – at least to reach out towards reflections.
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Martin Crimp’s ‘Blue Glimmer’
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Permeating Meanings – Anna Maria Lesniewska
Classical art seems to be pure form. Of course, it is also a creation of the spirit. But this spirit expresses itself completely in the perfection of its own creation and thus remains invisible within it.
This quotation can best be understood as a synthetic explanation of the art of the reign of Stanislaw August Poniatowski, known as the “last king of Poland” (1732–1798). The quest for the communication of the spirit of the age through the forms and symbols adopted by artists, and characterised by a certain essence of the tragic in this monarch’s reign, is still relevant today. As a patron of the arts, this king made his home available for the display and popularisation of artistic ideas. Although his collection of paintings, which form the core of the collection of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, was never displayed at the Royal Castle in Warsaw, and he eventually had to abdicate because Poland was partitioned, the London-based Warsaw-born artist Antoni Malinowski has forged an artistic link between these two European capital cities. The King Stanislaw August whose portraits are present in this exhibition is finally witnessing a project whose origins lie in the past: his “court painter”, Peter Francis Bourgeois, and his “consul general in London”, Noel Desenfans, were among the first to make cultural connections between these two historic countries. Malinowski’s work continues these initiatives and his installation at Dulwich Picture Gallery and at the Royal Castle in Warsaw unite these two noble institutions by means of one artistic vision.
Malinowski’s visual projections can be defined as an attempt at grasping the ephemeral character of light, whilst at the same time using its energy. His ephemeral creations become a way of conveying a range of emotions, and move away from the territory of painting and into the sphere of thinking through light. Working on a light sensitive installation can be compared to the investigations of the old masters, unified with the natural rhythm of the time of day, month, and year. Each creation results from the artist’s dialogue with the surrounding reality. His actions can be defined as a quest for places which are friendly to art as well as a scientific analysis of means which serve to evoke artistic events.
The essence of Malinowski’s ephemeral painting is “an analysis of light through colour”. The artist makes light drawings in the annexed visual sphere, which creates an optical spectrum within a selected space . Defining the dimension of space, he creates its open map based on the “colours of spectrum – from red to purple”. Using natural characteristics of light effects, Malinowski evokes the projection of memory: ‘Light carries the memory of a place’ – says the artist. Through absorbing the rhythms of black lines it creates a particular emotional photography of this clash with architecture. The term “photo-graphy” conveys in the simplest way this relationship between light and memory. The space saturated with light refers to memory, liberates a protective spirit of a concrete place, which constantly fills the tiniest fragments of reality, at the same time carrying the consciousness of the whole in it. It conveys a metaphysical experience which is then consolidated in our minds, agitates our non-sensual sphere to which we refer eagerly in order to find our own personal space, saturated with personal experience. It determines what exists on the borderland of two worlds, visible and invisible.The sunlight-activated pigments trigger the essence of these moving, ever-changing pictures. “Colour is just a dance of electrons awakened by light,” says Malinowski. “In my work I focus on the subtractive colour in relation to the ever-changing daylight.”
It is not accidental that the artist refers to the earliest artistic endeavors of mankind, the birth of awareness when all actions were defined only through light and colour, and which has remained essentially unchanged. Starting work almost from the beginning, from the alphabet of art, was a fully conscious decision which was then pursued to its conclusion. The phenomenon of light, the effects of which we are acquainted with, but cannot explain, constituting an unaccountable, independent quality provides a reason for all artistic experience. The mysterious power of light conveys the ultimate values; it is a sign of divine energy, spiritual immateriality, as well as a symbol of life and happiness. Among numerous interpretations, we make successive differentiations between the light of illumination, conceived of as a source of all inspiration, and reflected light determining rational forms of cognition, awakening discursive reasoning. “Sometimes I think that if I lived 300 years ago, I would be painting frescoes in churches and palaces,” says Malinowski. “It is not only about the dynamic relationship of painting to architectural space but also about the relation between different elements and colours in space.” He recalls the light of the Venice Laguna in which he saw “all harmonies of the colours used by the Venetian painters in the dramatic December sky – Titian’s colours, in the March light – Tiepolo’s white.” He would like to catch the light effects over the Thames as Turner did. He carries this analysis through penetrating the micro-structure of pigments with specific properties of light fission; he chooses colours by composing manually mixed substances. Thanks to the variety of components there are possible experiments and changes resulting from them which take place inside colour matter.
Light sensitive installation is more than a mere sum of superimposing phenomena. Time is a dimension which combines the dispersed fragments of the real, as well as their multiple reflections – creating unity. Through mutual relations between light, space and time, there is formed an ephemeral, intimate atmosphere. Activating the multi-constitutional matter of pigments allows us to visualize a phenomenon which according to the artist is “an association with the light of a place, with its essence, Genius Loci”. Antoni Malinowski determines with light and colour both modern interiors and spaces marked with their own, centuries-long history. Independent of a place of its origin and intentions that accompanied it, each work is unique, inscribed into the description of the artist’s own personal world, which means as much as our participation in it. It is an autonomous communication, a kind of a story about the surrounding reality, an expression of tension, of the emotional state which accompanied its creation. The colours, moving along the designated, gradually fading lines follow the direction of the sun’s rays, make a unique score, through which a sound notation can be communicated, music which is itself an equivalent of changes in the intensity of hues and the energy of moving light. Unfolding, endlessly multiplied and simultaneously unique reflections intensify the effects of the changing light. This natural phenomenon also provokes the expression of emotions through movement in harmony with the rhythms of subconsciously developing music as it mutates into the dance of shadows and signs.
Drawn by the streams of energy, the score of light and painting can be also interpreted as the space of sound. Through its power of emission, optical illusion can activate other spheres of artistic activity; it provides inspiration to musicians and dancers, a stimulus to reach an expression of their own visions. The values of sound cut through space, frequently colliding with the beams of light conveying multi-layered structure of a pigment. This specific interpenetration of energy creates a phenomenon of co-dependent experience and makes us realize a need to get to terms with the place of activity. The fundamental formal factors in Malinowski’s installations are not subjected to changes. Each time a place introduces its message, evokes emotions, and activates creative energy – bringing about a still unknown picture.
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Videos of The Polish Connection at the Dulwich Picture Gallery
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Antoni Malinowski – THRESHOLDscapes
20 September – 19 October
Published by Gimpel Fils 2002
Despite the fact that architects, armed with their plans and tape measures, may tell you otherwise, ‘a room is a fairly malleable space’, wrote the writer Georges Perec. As fast as you can name a room, you can change a room.
Antoni Malinowski’s paintings seem to prove this point. Last summer, his interventions in a kitchen in Berlin transformed a small functional space for cooking into a large and airy space in which to contemplate the play of light and shade, and a window’s ability to bring what is outside in. Enter ‘THRESHOLDscapes’, his installation at Gimpel Fils, and the process has moved along. Malinowski’s lines stalk you as you move around the gallery space. They swarm behind pillars and crouch into corners. The rhythmic dashes and lines sway this way and that, and, like some spatial metronome, appear to mark time, capturing every moment of your movement through the room.
As sunlight passes through the gallery window, Malinowski deconstructs the spectrum: he peels off a wave of red and lets it dance across one wall; he distills a patch of pure blue and allows it to pool onto another. Distortion rather than ornament, the installation acts as an exception to prove a rule: light is the accumulation of colour and space the drips and drops of light.
Malinowski’s work, like all great painting, has a curious ability to inhabit space. In the De la Warr Pavilion at Bexhill on Sea, his massive wall drawings performed like black tattoos, wriggling across the building’s skin, dancing to the flex of an architectural muscle that was itself activated by the electric signals of light and shade. Enter a space that Malinowski has transformed and the trace of light becomes a trace of life. Little wonder that he was called upon to animate the public spaces of theatres in London and Rotterdam.
A story from Malinowski’s own life illuminates his process. He recalls growing up in a small flat in Warsaw. In order to enlarge the area in which he might play, he would walk around with a mirror held out in front of him in order to capture the reflection of the ceiling and then to imagine that he might inhabit that space. Malinowski’s paintings repeat the childhood gesture of capture and release – capturing a moment of colour and light, and then releasing it so that it might become an opening onto another time and space. ‘Nothing is so real to me as the illusions i create with my painting’, wrote the painter Eugene Delacroix. ‘the rest is shifting sand.’ so true does this seem of Malinowski’s work that the painter has allowed his painting to spread beyond the canvas and onto the ‘real world’ of rooms, windows and doors.
And as his work escapes the canvas to cover a building’s walls, Malinowski exploits architecture not as a singular fixed entity, but as a plurality of possible worlds, as an illusory reality, a space of shifting sand. Perhaps in doing this he comes closer than many architects to an understanding what space really is.
© Mark Rappolt
Antoni Malinowski at De la Warr Pavilion
29 July – 16 September
Published by De la Warr Pavilion 2001
The principal ingredient of architecture is the handling of light. everything else is subordinate to that. mass and form and volume mean nothing without light. Function is impossible without light. Serendipitous glimpses of movement or colour, caught through a distant window or doorway, are dependent upon light. The animation of facades is determined by light and shade. Light, and the play of light, is however not something that is necessarily fully understood or fully controlled by architects. It is as if light has its own agenda. It is also as if light was fluid, that it somehow finds its own level. Buildings are repositories of light.
Conventionally more artists than architects are fully alive to the characteristics – the behavioural patterns – of light. Artists traditionally go where the light is good. But there are also artists who are in a sense keepers, or watchers, of light. They observe it patiently through its phases. They note how slight changes in the direction or intensity of light change everything. The same view can be captured a hundred times, each time differently.
And then there are artists who respond to light, to fluid movement, and to the way buildings filter and enrich that experience. Antoni Malinowski is pre-eminently of this school. His abstract canvases seem to yearn for, or derive from, the experience of light thus filtered. It is natural that he should have taken to experimenting directly with the movement of light in buildings, using buildings themselves as the matrix. His work deals not only with intense and beautiful colours as modulated by light and shade and activity, but also accommodates the complex and subtle business of memory. Of a moment captured, perhaps marshalled with other such moments, and then, in a process akin to alchemy, transformed into surface. Which, with all its accumulated meaning, is then further, and continually, refined by the play of light. Malinowski works most fruitfully with mutability and intangibility. He understands.
© Hugh Pearman
The award-winning practice Architekturburo Bolles + Wilson won the competition to design Rotterdam’s New Luxor Theatre in 1997. Among the other participants were OMA and Herman Hertzberger. Located in the docklands district of the Kop van Zuid, the Luxor faces both the Maas River and Rijn Harbour, a context that is thematized in its single wrapping façade. An internalized delivery ramp allows 18-metre-long trucks to park directly beside the first-floor stage. The close packing of the ramp around the symmetrical figure of the auditorium instigates the rotational plan diagram. The auditorium itself houses an audience of 1,500. Red, the traditional colour of the theatre is a theme of the external spiral façade (clad in fibre-cement panels), while the inside of this wrapping is lined in red-orange wood panels. The spacious ascending foyers (with five bars) theatrically orchestrate arrival and intermission rituals, while windows frame specific incidents as interruptions to this internal choreography. An exaggerated shadow line overlapping the external panels creates an effect like scaled-up planks of a wooden boat. This detail in turn allows a vertical curvature in the west elevation and a grading of light tones in the horizontal curves. An ‘anthropomorphic cast’ of five actors from the Luxor archives and a giant Luxor lantern add to the visitor’s immersion in theatre. Construction of the Luxor was completed in 2002.
The text that follows is an exchange of letters between Peter Wilson (ArchitekturbUro Bolles + Wilson) and Antoni Malinowski, a painter whose works bring together aspects of drawing, colour and the experience of space. The Luxor includes a number of interventions by artists, and Wilson, who has collected Malinowski’s work since 1987, instigated an installation by the artist in response to the Luxor’s architecture. Their dialogue reflects a long-standing friendship between an architect and an artist, the overlap between their disciplines, and the unique process and circumstances of their collaboration at the Luxor Theatre.
The cross-disciplinary dialogue was further extended when the composer Michael Nyman, who had previously collaborated with Malinowski, was invited to compose a musical response to the art and architecture at the Luxor. This was performed at the opening of the installations on 29 September 2002. In a new work created for AA Files, the process is reversed as Malinowski responds to Nyman’s score.
It seems that the art project at the Luxor is going ahead. I am waiting to hear about the timing. As I recollect, my involvement with architecture (and the AA) began with your and Julia’s purchase of my roofing felt drawing. The first time I saw it hanging along with the wire sculpture you had installed at the bottom I was, I must admit, slightly shocked. Now, 15 years later. I love it. It takes time to detach oneself from one’s children. I also remember the two paintings of mine that you joined together. I think that I would probably also love that now. What I am getting at is the dynamic relationship between pictorial and architectonic space that is established. I wonder how this will work at the Luxor…
Our dialogue reminds me of I Send You This Cadmium Red, a correspondence and an exchange of colours by John Berger and John Christie. I have it, perversely, in German, with copies of handwritten letters in homely English accompanied each time by a particular colour – a communicative colour – that is never quite pinned down by words.
In this spirit I am sending you here another ‘Maltreated Malinowski’. The subtle graining of your red field painting is wickedly out of focus. At the moment of photographing, the winter sun offers a few compensatory striations. A sympathetic sun, not forgetting that this is the house of architects, also balances a vertical block of light on the polished steel of the neighbouring fireplace.
Further liberties have also been taken with the singularity of your work (remember down is up for us Australians). Is this the sort of thing you mean by dynamic relationship with paintings? This red field is certainly an active player in our domestic landscape. In situ it has a respectful amount of white wall all to itself. Enough for one to focus unhindered on the balance of forces, the myriad brush-stroke vectors, the internal choreography of its pictorial space.
Unframed (i.e. no instruction to change perceptive gear) your painted fields do seem predestined to set up extended vectoral relationships with their less considered surrounds. Here the underside of your red canvas shares a horizontal datum with the upper limit of our folded metal. The ambiguous black hole/object (one hesitates to use the word blob) at the bottom left of the canvas qualifies the positive rotundity of the neighbourly and sometimes illuminated paper lantern. It is a negative-positive discourse that is taken up again by the shadowy depth of the 15mm hole drilled through the adjacent folded steel sheet. Here, as with the lantern, and in architectonic space in general, the presence and form of objects and enclosures is rarely gratuitous. They have first and foremost to justify their existence in terms of practicalities, use or technique. The lantern lights. The drilled hole is to allow for the insertion of a screwdriver to a recessed wall fixing. Architecture, unlike painting, is rarely an exclusive, self-contained statement. It must work for its living. Only thereafter may it aspire to a certain aesthetic ennoblement, even a cohabitation, spatial and temporal, with poignant red fields.
Regarding the 15-year-old roofing felt issue (the wire sculpture was a matt brass rod to hold down the unrolled felt, it did though over time accrue other fragments of daily life), I think we spoke at the time about songlines, landscapes, etc. I very much enjoyed our recent stroll through the interior landscape of the Luxor Theatre and your response to it. The scouting of sites for Malinowski interventions somewhat reverses our previous roles as originator and appropriator. Your planned work in the Luxor is also a curious inversion of the Royal Court: there you brought a red wall to the theatre, here the theatre is in essence one giant spiralling red wall…
Viewing my paintings as fields of time-space is a key factor in their relationship with architecture – a perceptual drift between 20 and 3D instigated by the viewer’s movement in space. Peripatetic perception seems also an essential component in the foyer spaces at the Luxor. They ask one to dance from one viewing point to another, columns tilting, red expanses dematerializing.
Recently, in Torre Annunziata, one of the more scary suburbs of Naples, I was thinking how real (architectural) space triggers imagined (pictorial) space. The ruins of the villa that housed Nero’s wife offer a perfect example of how well the ancients explored this problem. Roman wall paintings never leave the wall, never trip into virtuality; they always accept and coexist with the two-dimensionality of the surface. This is also why I never frame my paintings. I want them to be part of their background. I want painting and background to breathe together. In diptychs (like the Synchrony Carmine suggested for the Luxor South Foyer) the wall becomes an integral part of the painting. The wall surface both separates and bridges the pictorial space – a gap that engenders unity.
Fascinating at the Luxor is the simultaneity of:
1 the time-space of the foyer
2 the time-space of the city beyond, on the horizon
3 the time-space of the performance onstage
The eye and mind continually shift perceptual gears. I hope that my paintings will add another time-space possibility to coexist with any or all of the above: a folding of 4D onto 2D, the compressed dimensions folded, captured but still alive. (I am of course describing successful paintings.)
You referred to the black enigmatic blobs and shapes in my work. They are just denser matter, the attractors and repulsers of gravity, cuts to another spatial situation (homage to Fontana). In Synchrony Carmine the dot is a very dark red painted with cochineal pigment (crushed beetles). A dot with the intensity and presence to balance the remaining 30m2 of the total image. Looking forward to your response.
Many thanks for your black-and-white postcard report on colour scouting in Venice. I shall tuck it between the pages of my Interaction of Colours by Josef Albers. This is a favourite of mine, also printed almost entirely in black and white, with diagrams of empty overlapping numbered boxes and copious ‘German methodic’ descriptions of colour compositions and effects. It seems that colour, like architecture, transports badly. As the alchemy of your pigments is diminished, if not entirely lost in photographic reproductions, so too is the sensorial effect, the peripatetic perception of architectural space eclipsed in magazine photos (the most common mode of receiving architecture these days).
Spaces in the Luxor are best measured by a moving viewer. Such spaces demand a phenomenological reading, the physical presence of the viewer as subject, as register. Photographs of our works are for us drained of something quintessential, not ‘the thing itself’ but a partial reflection, a fragment. Good photographs interpret, set up other and displaced perceptive sequences, they follow their own trajectory, respectfully distancing themselves from the building itself. The Albers book, with its empty squares, also works in this way. It is a question, a trigger for a further chain of causalities left open for the reader to complete. For me, the most successful media reflection of the Luxor was the most ambiguous, a recent contribution to an exhibition of shadows at the Architecture Museum in Frankfurt. Two of our own decidedly unprofessional photographs are collaged together to look out simultaneously from the depths of the foyer in opposing directions. The caption reads:
The transient type of shadow that slips into the arms and folds of relaxed overcoats patiently hanging in theatre wardrobes. A shadow-type that conspires with reflecting floors to invade, in those quiet moments between performances, the interior landscape of the theatre itself. Duration – performances daily. variations hourly. Exposure – only available at source…
Such secret lives of buildings could perhaps be added to your list of time-space permutations. A spatial intimacy upstaged each night. in the case of the Luxor, as an expectant audience trickles, then floods, through the doors and up the choreographed ramps and stairs. An audience focused as much on the evening’s show as on the building itself: the distracted viewer. according to Walter Benjamin, who does not read but intuits the character, the ambience, the aura of architectonic space. Benjamin compares such a perception with that of the concentrated viewer in front of the work of art. An intense and focused relationship, place-specific (site of the artwork) and of limited duration. Such direct encounters short-circuit intellectual or illustrative interpretation, and are most importantly simulation resistive, non tele-transmissible. In the age of spectacle and image hit, your hard-won colour-fields and our spaces are somewhat anachronistic, and because of this all the more essential, all the more necessary. The durable benchmarks in a fluxus of increasing instability. Let’s meet on the scaffold when you start work at the Luxor in August.
Just back from Rotterdam. The diptych will be hung in the South Foyer on 28 June – a small performance in itself, considering the 11 metres of wall it occupies. I will be up on the scaffold painting the North Foyer ‘red wall work’ over the summer. Strolling from one to the other of these sites is an exhilarating experience. If the rhythms and complexities of the foyer spaces are, as I see them, an ultracontemporary symphony, then my additions must take on the role of a solo. (One of Michael Nyman’s violins perhaps.)
The hanging performance made me quite nostalgic for the planning and construction phases of the Luxor (first-pile spectacle, banquet on the roof for site workers before the summer break, highest-point fireworks and regular appearances of performers or ballerinas amongst helmeted operatives).
Now, after the first year of public performances, a further phase in the building’s evolution, the theatrical arrival of your theatre-set-sized works. A small but enthusiastic Luxor-gang audience for the white-gloved fine-art lads’ precision handling and hanging, and also, as my seriously unprofessional photos confirm, for your inspired direction.
The diptych wall is a special point in the spiral Luxor plan. The principal tectonic actor – the red wall – entering the building and having sliced curtain-like between harbour and foyerscapes, wraps the auditorium and finally dissolves into a not entirely satisfactory grey-green recess. Exactly that recess now filled and focused by your colour-fields. And it works. Although no skilful theorizing will ever completely explain why, and no photo will come anywhere near capturing what you referred to as a symbiosis of architectural and pictorial space. All the better, buildings and paintings only give up their secrets to those ,who give them time. And who experience them first hand. Lucky Luxor audience rising through the stair chasm below your picture, attracted first to the balcony edge, the twilight harbour panorama and from there about-facing to enter the auditorium, to be confronted with the richest red in this red building, with a depth that anchors your pictures in the mass of the Luxor and an ambiguous radiance answering harbour-reflected light.
Well that’s the upper reaches of the south Rijnhaven Foyer dealt with. Next the upper reaches of the north Maas Foyer. I am looking forward to visiting you on the scaffold.
The Wall Painting in the Maas Foyer
This is the vermilion I used at the Royal Court Theatre. So perhaps my work will be a bridge between one theatre in London and another in Rotterdam. After all, every theatre needs its ghosts, and the ghosts of the Royal Court will now haunt the Luxor.
I remember that in one of your interviews – I think In El Croquis – you mentioned the Roman link to the Luxor architecture. I think it was related to Vitruvius’s description of theatre buildings. The vermIlion pigment is also related to the Romans. They used it in their wall paintings. It was a visit to Pompei and the studies I made of the paintings at the Villa of the Mysteries that made me use this particular pigment in the Royal Court. There is something about red that makes it a space-generating colour. The Greeks believed that red is the only colour uniting the elements of light and darkness, because in full sunlight red appears brightest of all colours while in the dark it looks the darkest.
The black pigment I use really is soot. Consequently it is very light and quite a contrast to the heavy vermilion, which is made of mercury and sulphur. The black is light but appears dark, the vermilion is heavy but appears light. like you, I try to bring what is outside the building In. Where you have broken the building walls in every possible way, I stretch and twist my black lines. In this corner of the building, the dancing movement of the light soot traces in and out of the vermilion and becomes an invitation for the eye to wander along some Imaginary path.
When I was a child, brought up in a small flat in Warsaw, without even a balcony to play on, I used to enlarge my space by playing a game. I would walk with a mirror held out in front of me, so that what I saw was the ceiling. I was walking on the ceiling, inhabiting new, unknown space. I am reminded of that game every day here.
WEEK 1 AT THE LUXOR
After a week here, the perceptual overlay and initial imbalance of placing the diptych in such a powerful and complex space is finding its equilibrium. Maybe this is because architectural and pictorial space are, in the end, animated by the same light: Rotterdam light, reflected off the Rijnhaven, with its slow-barge comings and goings, and looming warehouse silhouettes changing dramatically every few minutes (as Dutch light should). The large window, the wall of glass that filters this light (upward harbour-reflected light accepted, direct sunlight louver-rejected) has very special proportions. Coming up the stairs through this volume of light, the eye registers a bit of the painting’s red as a playful elaboration of the auditorium’s red wall. Then, from halfway up, the full diptych vista is revealed. At that point it takes on an autonomous status, carves out its own space.
Interesting how colour changes. Its experience varies depending on how it enters your field of vision. Approaching the diptych from below, from the stair chasm, the greenish grey wall resonates with its blue areas. A colour attraction that seems to accelerate the ascent, that is until the carmine red takes over and arrests. From the facing bar this red is unforgiving, overwhelming, piercing. Approached from the left, following the red auditorium wall, the eye, already attuned to red, dives softly into the deeper carmine of the painting. Like the view through the glass wall, the painting simply unfolds. Cisca from the Luxor said it’s like the wind. I like this idea of capturing but not depicting elemental forces.
Meanwhile on the other side the scaffolding went up. I began to place the x-ray drawings of the diptych on the opposing Maas Foyer wall. Then the trickier task of picking the lines through the drawings and extending them into the expanse of your building-scale red wall. I am still struggling with them.
I am totally envious of your phantom-of-the-opera status, rattling around the summer closed Luxor. I imagine you taking a break in row 6, wandering to the south side (with diptych detour) for some sun on the terrace, pulling up one of our red corner chairs to whichever window-framed slice of Rotterdam matches your mood, simulating a Swiss ramble on the multiple stairs or doing a few backstage/front-of-house laps around the auditorium. But this is an architect’s reverie, a compensation perhaps for our traumatic exile from our products, our building-site playgrounds, once they take up their planned use. I am forgetting also your struggle with the red wall.
At least you do not have to lock out any curious Popes as did Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. Also, the scaffold which suspends you some 18 metres above the entrance is breathtaking but stable, at least it seemed so when we clambered up for a detailed line inspection. Vasari reports that Michelangelo rejected Bramantes’ design to hang the Sistine scaffold. The problem was a logistic one, how to paint over the rope holes bored through the ceiling once the scaffold was down.
Your work on this particular stretch of the spiral red wall annotates another significant moment in the Luxor plan. The wrapping wall has just passed from outside to inside. just crossed the externally projected proscenium line. the glass of the entrance façade. an interface between the everyday spaces of the city and the internal world of the ‘house of illusion’. Your projections make their appearance just at this point. fluttering deeper into theatre space. across the heightened red of the auditorium wall and across the even more subtle nuances of your two window-like vermilion rectangles. At least this is what I am anticipating.
In combination. your two works – suspended before and painted on the Luxor wall are earmuffs, a symmetrical bracketing of the auditorium, addressing both the north and the south foyers. They qualify the depth of this enclosing wall. which is in fact two walls with stairs and auditorium lobbies buried between. The outer layer is red. the base for your inscriptions. The inner layer is grey-green, the diptych background, an intermediate shadow zone between bright foyer space and the black box of the auditorium.
Your two interventions also highlight the double orientation of the building. A counterpoint to the spectacular views and a conclusion to the audience promenade through the foyer landscape. They also balance the ground-level works by the Rotterdam artist Milou van Ham. Her two-sided text screen responds to the visual connectedness of north and south. Rijnhaven and Maas below the auditorium. Like your pieces. this was the result of a positive dialogue between artist. architect and. of course. the Luxor gang. The second intervention from Milou. just inside the entrance. almost directly below your wall painting will complete the overall north-south. See you on 10 July.
P.S. I like the idea of Michael Nyman composing something on the theme of the Luxor i and your work. It’s only 43 years since Edgar Varese composed the Poeme Electronique – for Le Corbusier’s Phillips Pavilion just down the road in Brussels. Like everything that Le Corbusier did, it was accompanied by a book; an original Dutch copy has pride-of place on my bookshelf.
WEEK 4 AT THE LUXOR
Day changes to night within the surprising window-openings of the Luxor – knee-high late-afternoon shafts on the grand promenade stair. framed rectangles on the red wall. My rectangles of vermilion glaze are. from an oblique angle. lighter than their matt red background. Face-on they reveal a sombre depth – vermilion’s alter ego.
While blacking my lines I became aware of shadows appearing within the surrounding vermilion. Time and light subverting the work. The process of painting directly on a prepared surface, no corrections possible, introduces chance and a certain transparency into my working process. the rhythm of brush strokes recorded live. Real pigments also behave unpredictably. a controlled gamble like the random number puzzle below your Bridge Watchers’ House that I could see from my scaffold. The latter has just come down, like a theatre curtain going up to reveal the finished painting. A tense check to see if my painted lines work without their metal foreground – only a few minor adjustments required.
The next morning the shadows within the vermilion had expanded. a shadow play. ghosts of the theatre. Somebody once compared my paintings to the quick yet (paradoxically) delayed movement of mercury towards a breaking point at which it is immediately replaced by another movement. Here it’s the mercury in vermilion (mercuric sulphide). its alchemical potential to change from light to dark activated by the brilliant July light. Unpredictable. dangerous and full of surprises.
The original skeleton of lines, negative projections of the diptych. are fermenting. These shadows within the vermilion glaze stretch through the history of painting. The alchemical secret of synthetically mixing yellow sulphur and quicksilver arrived in Europe from China in the Middle Ages. Its colour is very special. a pure red (neither bluish nor orangey), absorbing all but the red within the spectrum. Vermilion’s molecular structure is particularly volatile: occasional electrons can be knocked out (seeing colour is seeing electrons at play) causing a change from bright red to black. as noted by Pliny (in relation to the mineral form of vermilion) and visible in many Italian frescos. Here the River Maas is dark with brilliant light reflections. the history of Rotterdam hitting the Luxor wall and setting off these vermilion transformations.
Our midnight stroll through the empty theatre was a revealing first encounter with the finished work. From two floors below you appear to have dissolved the wall into jellyfish like transparent ripples. Front-on you introduce an unexpected intimacy through the changed status of this 20-or-so metres of wall, a dimensional modification of architectural space. Games are played with the light. An elusive sinking in or springing forward, reflectivities activated by the moving viewer. These are qualities that defy the camera, thankfully.
The Sunday afternoon launch, with crowds from Rotterdam. London and Germany levitated though the foyer, from red wall to diptych, by Michael Nyman’s musicians, was an enlightening experience. A synthesis of our discourse, of pictorial and architectural space, of authors and audience, of nuances of red and resonances of cellos. Such moments, such spaces, are today also fated further to resonate in various media incarnations – fragmented refractions in the pages of AA Files. your forthcoming London show. My invitation to this has just arrived, red of course, a fragment of the Luxor wall. Your black painted markings enhanced by the scratches of an over enthusiastic franking machine, and further by a post employee inspired hopefully by the poignant composition passing in range of his wavy stamp. This is where we started: your painting entering into chance relations, a discourse of images; and qualifying, as does a work of architecture, daily life.
Michael Nyman: Music for the Luxor
Do you think there are similarities between creating architecture and composing music?
The composing process tends to deal with the accumulation of small details rather than ~ the big picture – I don’t think I’ve ever sketched a whole piece on the back of an envelope or paper napkin (if that’s what some architects do) and then proceeded to put this vision into tangible form by drawing it up in ever more practical detail. Also, I’ve never had to fit a piece to a particular space. Of course the financial/logistic concerns and the client briefings are very different. I suppose that writing a film score may be comparable but the constraints are tighter than any architect would ever agree to work; with. So – when I’m allowed to be free – the musical ‘construct’ that I make is as free from pre planning as possible. (At least it is these days – in the more constructivist 1980s I guess process/structure was most often predetermined – by me – but the effect of running something as unpredictable as sound through these processes gives a kinetic, emotional and even formal result that is, even at best, not as predictable as a building might be.) Nevertheless, the spatial effect of a brilliant building may be equally revelatory and unpredictable….
What was it about the architecture and painting at the Luxor that inspired you?
I was inspired by the setting and by the looseness of the linear landscape. This allowed and encouraged me – perhaps via a kind of sixth sense – to make something quite lyrical and flowing. But within that, the fast music was very tight and repetitive whilst being asymmetric in feel. It also possibly tapped into Antoni’s and my common (or maybe uncommon!) Polish background.
Is there such a thing as site-specific music?
On the day of the performance at the Luxor I improvised a performance that became site-specific. (To be truthful, for the first time in my life – my music is always site-specific I suppose, but the sites are conventional – the concert hall, the opera house and the cinema.) The string quartet, playing the carefully composed score, were sited against the south window. At first they appeared to be playing quietly to themselves, because the ‘audience’ were in the bar listening to the brass players who were playing music improvised on the spot, taking Antoni’s linear composition as a ‘score’. As the brass players moved, under my instructions, from the bar towards the string quartet they did a number of interconnected things. They drew the audience with them and they progressed from ‘uncomposed’ to composed music (since I gave the players instructions that when they moved to a position where they could actually hear the quartet, so the material they played should derive from what they heard). So they led the audience into an environment in which there was (composed) music that they did not previously. know existed (since it was not audible from the bar – certainly since it was obliterated by the brass players, but also because it was very distant), and in doing so they simultaneously ‘animated’ the north-south axis of the building.
© AA Files
For four long months, artist Antoni Malinowski painstakingly applied layer upon layer of vermilion red paint to a wall in the middle of a building site. His canvas was no mere picture, hut the 86 sq m outside wall of the auditorium drum of the Royal Court Theatre in London’s Sloane Square. Thankfully, his efforts have paid dividends – the installation is the proud centre piece of a £26 million refurbishment of the 112-year-old theatre by architect Haworth Tompkins.
Dark for four years during building work, the theatre is now lit dramatically at night. Malinowski’s subtly decorated vermilion wall glows like a luminous beacon across the square, heralding the theatre’s long-awaited reopening by highlighting the new intervention behind the old facade. It symbolises the intentions of the architect in this complex project: to retain the framework and flavour of the old, but combine it with unabashedly contemporary additions which suit resident company the English Stage Company’s cutting-edge reputation.
Art and architecture collaborations are not rare but it is unusual to find one quite so central to the building project. Apart from a wall-painting in Venice, Malinowski had never attempted such an architectural installation, while Haworth Tompkins had never worked on a theatre in its nine-year history. Both found the collaboration funded by the RSA Art for Architecture scheme – immensely rewarding.
It has been a labour of love. Before starting on site, Malinowski spent “a few years” finding exactly the right pigment for his vermilion wall. Nicknamed “jam pots” by the workmen on the site because he always had a pot of red paint in his hand, he worked meticulously to create the painting on three levels of the auditorium wall visible through the facade on the ground and first floors and, in the basement level, from the new cafe beneath Sloane Square – applying three, sometimes four layers of paint.
“I thought of vermilion red as a colour which will celebrate the space and also act in a neutral way in that it is neither sad nor happy,” said Malinowski. To animate the surface, he drew inspiration from the movement of sunlight and car headlights across the wall. On the first floor, where the painting is the backdrop to the balcony bar, Malinowski created three large black rectangular shapes across the wall and applied further marks using very small brushes to fill in the panels. In other places he left some of the plaster showing to give a somewhat scuffed look lower down the wall. On the ground floor, where his painting is behind the box-office, the marks are more animated, with the positioning of the rectangular marks suggesting the continuation of the painting upstairs. In the basement section, he concentrated on the area of the wall that gets sunlight and used masking tape to expose small rectangular areas which he then filled in with tiny vertical strokes.
Malinowski is delighted with the result: “It was hard to know how the work would turn out. They had to trust me, and it was very brave of them,” he said. The theatre shares his enthusiasm. “Antoni was an inspirational choice by Haworth Tompkins,” says theatre executive director Vikki Heywood. “He’s created a work of art that’s completely durable. It’s not precious – you can walk up to it and touch it and lean against it. The mapping of the way that the light moves across the wall is fantastic.” Malinowski’s installation played a key role in Haworth Tompkins solution to what in many ways was a worst-case scenario brief. The theatre, confused by piecemeal additions, was in a desperate state and without the £18.8 million lottery grant would have had to close. When it was built, it was a receiving house for plays which, since scenery generally arrived rolled up, had none of the access suitable for modern day sets. These ended up having to be sawn up to get them in and out of the building. Backstage facilities were cramped and unhygenic, and the stage itself was a disaster, saddled with dangerously obsolete technical systems. Twice as much floor space was needed to make the theatre function properly, but the 744 sq m site was severely constrained above-ground and hampered underground by the presence of a main sewer and the Circle Line underground.
Haworth Tompkins’ solution was a new rear extension, cafe facilities in a new area beneath the square and a clever remodelling of the Victorian building. Unable to fundamentally alter the facade of the listed theatre but desperate to create more impact and amenity in the narrow space between the entrance and the auditorium drum, the architect chose to make the facade as permeable as possible and highlight the drum behind to give the building a new, more public, identity. In this way it mirrored the attitude of the theatre company, forward-thinking rather than nostalgic. The drum, rather than the outside of the building, is now the boundary between the theatre and the outside world.
To this end, the architect stripped the BIitz damaged building bare, exposing the Victorian rivetted iron structure, the brickwork around the new staircase to the upper auditorium, the terrazzo entrance floor and retaining traces of change and imperfection. “If we’d replastered the walls slippery and smooth it would have been wrong. It had to feel used and marked. It can’t be pristine,” says Steve Tompkins. “There is an extraordinary resonance in the theatre,” he adds. “You feel a tremendous weight of history. We had to respect that but not sentimentalise it. Otherwise we’d have become paralysed.”
To theatre-goers, the change is far more dramatic in the circulation and front of house facilities than the main auditorium, the Theatre Downstairs, which has retained its dark wood panelling but has been given new scats on reraked tiers and stripped of some of its ornamental additions from the Fifties. The stage has a Jarrah wood floor which, like most of the wood specified by the architect, is reclaimed.
The raw look continues in the basement cafe, bar and bookshop, where Haworth Tompkins specified a cast concrete, polished staircase (a Rachel Whiteread moment, says Tompkins) alongside Venetian stucco.
The most radical change is behind the scenes where everything has been brought up to contemporary standards, with new ‘get-in’ facilities for staging and new wing space for a carpentry workshop and scenery store, as well as an underpinned, reinforced and extended fly tower. In the smaller Theatre Upstairs, the roof has been raised and the scope for lighting and sound improved by the addition of more sockets. Ductwork is now hidden in the roof.
While inside the building it’s hard to tell when you enter the new rear extension for offices and dressing rooms, but it signals itself clearly from the outside, clad in Corten mesh at the side and cedar towards the back which will mellow with age. Actors will be pleased that their new dressing rooms have dimmer switches on the mirror lights, and that they can control the Cor-ten shutters to maintain privacy.
Re-opened in mid-February, it is too soon to gauge audience reaction but the theatre company is clearly delighted with the redesign, which at last gives the building a more public profile. The amount of additional light that goes into the building and the light that’s been given out is a very important aspect of what the building is all about. It’s fulfilling its role as a public building which it never did before,” says the Royal Court Theatre’s Vikki Heywood. “People will be surprised at the raw, basic look. I’m sure some will wish there were more carpets and more comfort but there’s room for lots of different theatres.” She hopes the art and architecture of the new Royal Court as well as the plays will be a memorable experience, so that the theatre will also be a “landmark for the way it looks rather than just the work it does”.
Standing at the Peter Jones store and gazing across Sloane Square to the red beacon shining through from inside the reborn Victorian theatre, it looks like she may be right.
© Blueprint Magazine
Essay by Desa Philippi
Published by Camden Arts Centre 1997
Click to read Sarah Kent’s Time Out review
forgets the snow.
On a summer day you follow the path into the forest. The ground is dappled with sunlight. As you walk along the undergrowth thickens, blackberry bushes and other dark green shrubbery, the smell of moss and mushrooms, an occasional plastic bag, bird song. You can hear the wind rustle in the tree-tops as you move, aware now of the rhythm of your steps because you have stopped talking to your companion. When you reach the point where another path forks off to the right, suddenly you both look up. In the small clearing you can see the sky through a hole in the canopy of branches and leaves. You tilt your heads back and look up through layers of green which are almost black in places, almost white in others, thick or transparent, suffused with light they almost disappear, then again opaque and shadowy. After a moment (just before your neck begins to ache) the whiteness of the sunlight presses the sky down through the branches which move upward, become mobile and float. Suddenly you too are floating; your eyes seem to have become detached from the rest of your body. Still looking up you reach out and grab hold of your companion’s arm. That contact made, you can bear to look a little longer. Later it is difficult to establish what you saw. You try to describe it but what you say is always self-evident or beside the point.
Another time you are walking down a busy street in the city. People hurry along with shopping bags; a traffic warden issues tickets. In the entrance of a closed down shop two homeless youths are sitting on a sleeping bag with a dog lying across their laps. And as you wait to cross the street, preoccupied with calculating how long it will take to pass by the cash machine, go to Boots, and stand in line at the post office, you catch sight of a woman and a young boy. They are on the other side of the street and they are laughing. Each time one of them stops, the other says something (you can’t hear what) and again they burst out laughing. Just now the woman has dropped her handbag. A man picks up the bag and hands it back to her which prompts another fit of laughter and leaves him bewildered, shaking his head.
We all recall incidences when the perception of our surroundings and our place within them is momentarily jolted. For an instant we become aware, often very physically aware, of the outside world as interrupting the seamless integration of our experiences into understanding. Sometimes such interruptions are experienced as pleasurable; more often, we try to avoid what cannot be absorbed into concepts and fitted into causal chains. In short we rationalise, and whenever an experience resists our efforts to transform it into knowledge, it is either simply ignored as meaningless, or it is labelled irrational/mad/out of bounds, which is to say it then fits the definition precisely of misfit. The only institutions where experience as the excess of expression over and above the rules of meaning and sense can be rendered pleasurable, as well as being sanctioned as culturally valuable, are the institutions of art. In the Western tradition at any rate, from romanticism onwards, art has become the proper locus of the imagination.1 Hence the emergence of the relation between art and life as a question and an increasingly consequential problematic in art, a question that would never have occurred to Poussin say,’ or to Chardin. How to formulate this relationship became ever more important once a discontinuity between the experience of art and other kinds of experience was recognised. And to the extent that artists today still attempt to formulate that relation – variously translated in recent decades into happenings, installation art, site-specific work, and performance – they also, knowingly or not, grapple with this romantic legacy.
Since the late nineteenth century, the relation between art and life, the aesthetic and the extra-aesthetic, has been articulated in a number of ways: affirmatively, in the utopian aspirations of the historical avant-gardes and in the celebration of chance; negatively, as an absence of relation in the insistence on a constitutive difference between artistic and other expressions (“Art is art and everything else is everything else,” Ad Reinhardt reminds us); as well as ambiguously and ironically (‘All art is quite useless,” Oscar Wilde famously insisted. Its justification lies alone in the admiration it inspires). What unites these seemingly disparate attitudes is the premise of the irreducibility of aesthetic experience, its difference from everyday experience and scientific experiment. This is particularly obvious when science, philosophy, politics, or the everyday become the subject of art.
The work of Antoni Malinowski relates to this history in a number of ways. When we encounter the large-scale paintings glowing with colour, with shapes hovering on the canvas then sinking into it, or when we follow the intertwining lines of the drawings, their appeal is first of all emotive and to the senses. At the same time, the work does not present us with a subject to be emotional about, in fact it does not present us with any readily discernible subject at all. We respond to something, recognise something, but it is not clear what we respond to – the colour red? the shape of the floor drawing? lines? light? or for that matter what we recognise – a feeling? an experience? At this point the work turns reticent and hermetic. Surely we all recognise feelings; we take this for granted and not only that, we take for granted that the recognition of emotional states implies that we know, even if only partially or unconsciously, what those emotions signify. In his art Malinowski seems to wholeheartedly embrace this assumption; in his paintings the emphasis is overwhelmingly and emphatically on colour, the very element that in the history of European painting has signalled the sensuous and emotive in contrast to the analytical qualities associated with drawing and line. But just as assumptions concerning the relation between recognition and understanding with respect to our emotional responses turn out to be less than straightforward as soon as we pause to examine them, colour quickly emerges as the unspeakable par excellence in painting, unspoken in direct proportion to the countless theories which tirelessly attempt to produce colour as a knowable object. 2 Despite these theories, we still recognise the situation described with irony and wit by Rimbaud when he wrote that “I invented the colour of the vowels! – A black, E white, I red, 0 blue, U green. I regulated the form and movement of each consonant, and with instinctive rhythms, I prided myself on inventing a poetic language accessible some day to all the senses. I reserve translation rights.”3 Nowhere in art does the distance between intuition and understanding, experience and knowledge appear greater than when we begin to attribute meanings to colour, especially in abstract painting.
In his choice of rare pigments, in the use of colour modulation, tones and contrasts Malinowski plays out an entire repertoire of the ‘purely visual.’ His paintings present what we have learned to think of as radically anti-narrative only for as long as we ignore the fact that abstract art, just as any other form of visual representation, sets out and sustains a particular relation to language and to the discourses which formulate the visual.4 Using a painterly vocabulary contiguous to the less geometric kinds of modernist abstraction, contiguity to rather than continuation of those concerns that I have called the romantic legacy characterise Malinowski’s work.
Early Autumn –
rice field, ocean,
For several years now Malinowski has produced what he calls floor drawings alongside his paintings. These ‘drawings’ have been realised in different sites; in a chapel in Bath for instance, and in St Pancras Station in London. Each time, they take as their point of departure the relationship between an architectural structure and light as the intersection of natural and cultural orders. In interior spaces, the floor drawing will typically be placed near a window, the changing conditions of natural light helping to determine the exact shape the piece will take. Elsewhere, corridors and entrances are preferred sites. Once the shape and size of the drawing’ have been decided, Malinowski covers the designated area with small parallel marks, usually in white, directly on the floor. Originally the marks were derived from military maps with their particular symbols for different kinds of terrain, shelters, and fortifications, but increasingly these symbols have given way to bands of parallel brush strokes which suggest the activity of mapping rather than the totalising abstraction of the map. While the floor drawings correspond to the space, they do not represent it.
More clearly than the paintings, these installations emphasise the time element in Malinowski’s work. Even a quick glance at the finished piece prompts us to imagine the artist crouched on the floor for hours on end, repeating the same brush mark thousands of times over to produce a work that will exist only for the duration of the exhibition. This particular marking of the floor in the patient repetition of a single gesture simultaneously registers the time given to making the drawing, and its short-lived existence in the space that contains it. It is both a form of transit – enter a room, occupy it according to its possibilities and leave a temporary trace of that occupation – as well as a form of habitation, a repeatable gesture to inhabit a space, something that can be carried over from one situation to the next: another time, another place. In this we recognise the conditions necessary for an expression – a gesture, a speech act – to become meaningful: a context which contains and limits the potential arbitrariness of the expression, and the fact that the expression can be repeated elsewhere. Malinowski’s work, and particularly the floor drawings, prolong the moment when we experience a situation before we rationalise what that experience consists of. And in the slowing down and drawing out of this moment it becomes clear that recognition has to start with our physical body as it is formed and situated in the encounter of particular situations, and the demands those situations make on our ability to communicate and to remember. Wary of ready-made explanations and pre-established truths, Malinowski’s art seeks to put us in a place where we cannot easily take up the role of the knowing subject which appropriates the object of its gaze. For a while at least, we are left in that peculiar state where physical sensations are felt most acutely precisely because we cannot yet fully integrate them with the image of our own body and its surroundings.
There are many instances where we become aware that in order to experience something as pleasurable, or even to have an experience at all, paradoxically we want to transform it into something else, into something we can know and place in advance. A typical situation: we listen to a piece of music on the radio and immediately want to find out what we are listening to. The very act of listening turns into the anticipation of a movement or a theme we may recognise. And if that doesn’t happen we suddenly can’t wait to hear the announcement at the end of the programme. By the same token, who would go to museums if the exhibits weren’t labelled? Elsewhere labels assume ever greater importance. When it comes to the objects we surround ourselves with, the clothes we wear – consumer items in general. The more sophisticated and anonymous commodity production becomes, the more we need style, design, a look, to identify and appropriate what modern technologies of production and reproduction render monotonous and in-distinguishable.
According to a well rehearsed argument we have become less and less able to communicate our lived experiences; we no longer cultivate forms of expression that would allow us to integrate our own and others’ embodiment in the world into a (self) knowledge that remains close to the experiences from which it arises.6 In the wake of secularisation, the rise of modern science and technology, especially the ever faster dissemination of information, the gap between the reality of discourse and lived reality has widened considerably. We routinely deal with this disjunction by reducing the latter to the former, thus turning the world into a text to be deciphered and lived experience into an act of reading.
Walter Benjamin famously regards literary modernism as a creative response to, and expression of, the shock that results from the inability to integrate experience into a lived continuum. Where consciousness once worked to transform experience into the more or less coherent narrative of ‘a life,’ its function has changed to that of a screen against stimuli, “the more efficiently it does so, the less do these impressions enter experience (Erfahrung), tending to remain in the sphere of a certain hour of one’s life (Erlebnis),” he writes.7 The logical consequence of this argument is that access to communicable lived experience would entail an interruption of consciousness, a respite from knowledge. This is what we find when the argument is considered in the context of the history of philosophy. “Anyone proposing to recover traditional experience today would encounter a paradoxical situation. For they would have to begin first of all with a cessation of experience, a suspension of knowledge,” Giorgio Agamben elaborates on Benjamin’s thesis.8
Benjamin and his commentators regard this paradox as historical, and this historical view helps us to understand why certain forms of Eastern thought and practice, Zen Buddhism and Yoga prominent among them, are not merely becoming more popular in the West, but also hold considerable attraction for certain contemporary artists. The basis of these practices lies in detachment, in developing a meditative concentration that begins with a suspension of experience and knowledge to develop a relation to the world which is not primarily governed by the pressures of immediate sensation, and the rationalising reflexes of the self. From the work of John Cage and Nam June Paik to that of Marina Abramovic, Wolfgang Laib, Antoni Malinowski and others, we recognise a desire to engage with sense perception in ways that allow expressions of wonder and openness towards experience rather than the anxious policing of the borders where knowledge may falter. Unlike the historical argument about the destruction of experience, the work of these artists seems to indicate that the kinds of experience called traditional may still be accessible to us. Malinowski’s work certainly suggests that perception produces meanings which remain irreducible to the discourses of art, history, psychology, and so on. It puts us in a situation where instead of matching what we see with the conventions of what we know, we start with the work as “hole in the plenum of the world” as Merleau-Ponty puts it, a place where perception can become a “primary operation which first constitutes signs as signs.”9
a whitefish, with an
inch of whiteness.
Many of Malinowski’s recent large-scale paintings take the form of diptychs. In each of them, two canvases complement and complete each other by means of the empty space left between them. This space both bridges and separates; it produces a single vision by means of a gap between the component elements. The diptych not only sets out a particular kind of formal organisation, it also calls attention to a tradition usually associated with religious painting. In fact the format of the diptych can be traced back to the writing tablets of antiquity. Originally made as secular objects for daily use, the tablets consisted of two panels which were hinged together and had their inner surfaces recessed to hold a wax coating. These diptychs were made of wood, metal, or ivory. A shift from utilitarian to symbolic use occurred in late antiquity when ivory diptychs were used by Roman consuls to commemorate the commencement of their term in office. The carvings on these diptychs included images along with the text. Like other secular objects diptychs, and the more elaborate three and five part derivations, were adapted for ecclesiastical use. What is interesting about this history is that the diptych links the format of the book with that of the painting. Medieval altar pieces and smaller devotional diptychs are still hinged together and can be opened and closed. Images are combined with writing. Historically, the diptych is both looked at and read. In its original secular and early devotional forms it is a mobile format, a travelling picture that can be taken from place to place like a book. In later centuries diptychs get larger and become stationary. The hinges are replaced by fixed frames until the frames too disappear. From a utilitarian object for writing it has changed into a format of visual art, from the religious context it has returned to a secular one.
Malinowski’s work relates to this past as a living tradition rather than as a historical format that is simply quoted. The diptych in its present form still evokes its history because in the changes – in scale, and into a horizontal format – it participates in and continues that history.
Religious diptychs represent biblical scenes – the annunciation is often shown in that format – or they refer to particular narratives such as the life of the saints depicted and named in the pictures. In this tradition the visual and the written go hand in hand, and the format of the diptych underlines their reciprocity. One of the questions that arises when we look at Malinowski’s transformation of the diptych into enormous abstract canvases is how we may think that reciprocity once it is removed from the iconography of attributes and symbols.
When we look at the paintings, especially the large red diptych at the centre of the present exhibition, we notice first of all a glowing red shape that seems to sink down from the top part of the canvases towards the bottom. In the canvas on the right it has already moved down a little further, the gap having turned into the interval between its two ‘states.’ The other elements have shifted accordingly. But such a looking is already a particular reading that proposes a movement from left to right as in a book. It also assumes that the red shape is somehow heavier than its pink ‘background,’ that in fact we are dealing with foregrounds and backgrounds, figures, shadows and so on. Immediately we begin to order the visual field into some kind of composition. But nothing in the work itself suggests that what we see as part of a round red shape moving downwards is any such thing, or that the blue elements are related by anything other than their colour. And what about the darker red, and the intersection of the different planes? However we attempt to explain these paintings, whether we imagine the hugely enlarged detail under a-microscope, the distant view of a planet, or simply the arrangements of different colour planes, we project our own patterns of interpretation onto the work. As soon as this is realised, it no longer makes much sense to start by assuming a configuration which we relate to previously seen configurations, and yet by looking at this work we become aware that this is invariably where we start and cannot help starting. We see and we correlate, not because this work in particular demands it, but because it is the way we make sense of ourselves and our surroundings: we look, listen, touch, smell and correlate our perceptions with what we know. We can do so because we have language and we speak. When Merleau-Ponty considers perception as a primary operation which first constitutes signs as signs, he does not mean that perception arises ex nihilo. As human beings we are born into language and into a linguistic community, and we have learned to speak. Only on that basis can perception be privileged as primary, as that which enables us to first relate signifiers to signifieds. “Like the visual field, an individual’s linguistic field ends in vagueness, because speaking is not having at one’s disposal a certain number of signs. Speaking is possessing. Language as a principle of distinction, whatever number of signs it permits us to specify,” Merleau-Ponty writes.
Malinowski’s work relates to language as a principle of distinction that allows us to privilege the process whereby perception constitutes signs as signs. In his paintings we see different kinds of marks, washes of colour, fields made up of small parallel brush strokes, painted lines. These elements are set in spatial and temporal relations to each other but we cannot specify these relations with any certainty. To start with, we cannot establish the depth of the pictorial space in front of us, and consequently we cannot be sure whether what looks small in relation to a larger shape is in fact small or, on the contrary, a large element seen at a great distance. Equally we do not know whether what we look at is a frontal view or something seen from the back, from above or below. Do the elements we see in the paintings exist in the same moment, or could the small red dot on the canvas on the left be identical with the large red shape across the two paintings? We are presented with a whole range of possible temporal and spatial relations – before, after, in, on, over, under, near, distant, etc. – which are simultaneously given like words in a dictionary.
Linguistically, prepositions bridge the gap and specify the relation between other classes of words such as nouns and pronouns. Like personal pronouns they do not refer to lexical entities but mark the transition that occurs in any speech act, any expression, from language as the potential to form meanings to meaning as it is made manifest in the use of language. Unlike ‘house’ or ‘mountain,’ ‘I’ or ‘before’ depend entirely on somebody saying I and specifying an A before B.
Language has been understood by artists and writers as well as by linguists and philosophers in terms of a division within language. It allows us to express our experiences but also to transcend them. It is both human and beyond the human. Merleau-Ponty reminds us that “there can be speech (and in the end personality) only for an ‘I’ which contains the germ of a depersonalisation.”
The library described by Borges is a place with multiple centres and an inaccessible circumference. Presented with the possibility that” books signify nothing in themselves,” the reader gets lost as s/he tries to find a place within that dimension of language where “for every sensible line of straightforward statement, there are leagues of senseless cacophonies, verbal jumbles and incoherences.”10
Saussure thought the separation which constitutes language as language lay in the relation between its synchronic and diachronic dimensions, langue and parole. In the wake of Saussure this thesis has been elaborated in different directions. Merleau-Ponty distinguishes between sedimented language and speech, Le langage parlé et Le langage parlant; Emile Benveniste differentiates between the semiotic and the semantic. In the arts, this structuralist heritage is put to use but its emphasis has shifted as artists refigure the embodiment of cultural and personal memories and traditions. Malinowski’s diptychs are titled Synchrony, but synchrony here cannot be reduced to the understanding of the term in structuralist linguistics. Like the images, the title points in a certain direction, towards a condition or a ground which propels us towards meaning. This condition forms part of our experience, but whatever name we give it we are put in a place where the name remains close to the nameless from which it issues. Instead of an abstract totality that cannot be experienced, synchrony in the diptychs emphasises the timeless movement of expression from the potential to mean towards signification. “Language leads us to the things themselves to the precise extent that it is signification before having a signification,” Merleau-Ponty reminds us.
No hat, and cold
rain falling –
In her poem ‘Conversation with a Stone,’ Wislawa Szymborska imagines an encounter with something both commonplace and radically different from the curious and enquiring human mind, a stone.11 It is an encounter with what the philosopher might call, following Kant, das Ding an sich (the thing in itself). Except that in this instance, the (well chosen) thing “BURSTING WITH LAUGHTER, YES, LAUGHTER, VAST LAUGHTER, ALTHOUGH I DON’T KNOW HOW TO LAUGH,” leads us to the bedrock of poetry. Needless to say, things look rather different there. The poem takes us through a series of failed attempts to enter into the reality of the object. The stone resists, it is matter-of-fact alterity through and through.
GO AWAY,” SAYS THE STONE.
I AM SHUT TIGHT.
EVEN IF YOU BREAK ME TO PIECES,
WE’LL ALL STILL BE CLOSED.
YOU CAN GRIND US TO SAND,
WE STILL WON’T LET YOU IN.”
In alternate stanzas the poet pleads and the stone refuses. The poet admits her human weaknesses; she is curious, she is mortal. The stone in turn displays stoniness.
I’M MADE OF STONE,” SAYS THE STONE,
“AND MUST THEREFORE KEEP A STRAIGHT FACE…”
But the poet doesn’t give up easily. She hasn’t come to take anything away from the stone, she says. She doesn’t want to stay with the stone either, doesn’t seek refuge.
… AND MY PROOF I WAS THERE
WILL BE ONLY WORDS,
WHICH NO ONE WILL BELIEVE.”
The stone remains unconvinced but in its severe and stony manner it does concede that the poet may gain some knowledge even though that knowledge will never be thorough. And this is because:
“YOU LACK THE SENSE OF TAKING PART.
NO OTHER SENSE CAN MAKE UP FOR YOUR MISSING SENSE OF TAKING PART.
EVEN SIGHT HEIGHTENED TO BECOME ALL-SEEING
WILL DO YOU NO GOOD WITHOUT A SENSE OF TAKING PART.
YOU SHALL NOT ENTER, YOU HAVE ONLY A SENSE OF WHAT THAT SENSE SHOULD BE,
ONLY ITS SEED, IMAGINATION.”
The poem tells us that we can take the stone apart but that we cannot take part in it, at least not as a subject defining an object. The reason for this is made perfectly clear. It is assumed that the stone’s essential’ stoniness’ can be examined and known, given the right circumstances. But in order for that exploration to be possible, an image of the stone has to be already in place, an image that understands the object in terms of something else, a house with an inside and outside and, most importantly, with a door linking the two. “I KNOCK AT THE STONE’S FRONT DOOR,” is the line which situates the poet’s speech each time she addresses the stone and finally, after much to-ing and fro-ing, the stone comes up with the perfectly obvious answer: “I DON’T HAVE A DOOR.”
In its own way Antoni Malinowski’s work stages this rather comical dilemma. In fact his art suggests, as does Szymborska’s poetry, that this dilemma is part of what makes us human with all the horrors and pleasures that entails. In these works, imagination may indeed be the seed of a sense we cannot know because it draws us towards taking part in the world rather than surveying it from a distance. Certain experiences of art but also other kinds of encounters may enable us to relate to and to cultivate an awareness of the limits of our understanding in ways that do not automatically register as indifference, loss, or powerlessness. On the contrary, they may intimate a sense of taking part in a world which is part of us without being introjected into the interior of our minds and projected onto the screens of our consciousness.
A farmer’s child
Arrests his hands
To look at the moon.
© Desa Philippi
The Haiku poems throughout the text are by Matsuo Basho (1644-94), selected from two collections of his poetry in English, The Narrow Road to the Deep North, trans. Nobuyuki Yuaso, Penguin Classics, London 1966, and On Love and Barley, trans. Lucien Stryk, Penguin Classics, London 1985.
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1 It should be noted that the concept of the imagination itself had changed by that time, From a broader notion of human inventiveness that both aids and hampers people in dealing with the tribulations of their everyday existence, it was elevated to the idea of creative imagination which finds expression first and foremost in the arts. Montaigne, for instance, was perfectly happy to write one of his essays ‘On the power of the imagination’ without mentioning art once. Instead, the essay addresses issues of the physical body: how to counter impotence, how to deal with various sorts of ailments and imaginary illnesses, and so on. By the late eighteenth century this would have been unthinkable.
2 The number of studies of colour, primarily in the fields of physiology, physics and psychology is mind boggling. The particular idea that colours relate directly to emotional states became fashionable with romanticism and was fully articulated in Goethe’s Colour Theory in Part VI ‘Sensual and Moral Effects of Colour,’ where he states that “colours excite particular states of feeling,” and goes on to specify which feelings are produced by certain colours, e.g. yellow-red: vigorous, convulsive; blue: cold. These ideas have proved amazingly persuasive, not only in art but more generally. Colours are still frequently described as being warm or cold, cheerful or neutral.
3 ‘Une soison en enfer’ in Rimbaud Complete Works, Selected Letters, trans. Wallace Fawlie with introduction and notes, University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London, 1966, p.193.
4 For a discussion of the narratives which represent abstract painting in terms of pure visuality see WJT Mitchell, Picture Theory, The University of Chicago Press, Chicago and London 1994, chapter 7.
5 These installations were part of two group shows: Present Continuous, Both 1991, and Northern Adventures, London 1992.
6 This argument is often associated with the work of the Frankfurt School and in particular the writings of Walter Benjamin. Relevant texts by Benjamin include ‘Theses on the Philosophy of History,’ ‘On same Motifs in Baudelaire,’ and ‘The Storyteller’ in Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn, ed. with an introduction by Hannah Arendt, London 1970.
7 ‘On some Motifs in Baudelaire: ibid., p.165.
8 Giorgio Agamben, Infancy & History Essays on the Destruction of Experience, trans. Liz Heron, Verso, London 1993, p.23.
9 All the quotes from Merleau-Ponty are from Maurice Merleau-Ponty, The Prose of the World, trans. John O’Neill, ed. Claude Lefort, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, 1973.
10 Jorge Luis Borges, ‘The Library of Babel’ in Labyrinths, New Directions Books, New York 1962.
11 I quote the English translation in Wislowa Szymborska, View with a Grain of Sand, trans. Stonislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh, Faber and Faber, London 1996, pp.30-32.