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Rafal Zajko In-Conversation with Mikolaj Sobczak

Rafal: As artists from Poland we actually met online whilst studying abroad - me in London, UK and you whilst in Münster, Germany. It’s been so exciting for me to see how your artwork and career has flourished since then, and how active you are in the Polish art scene. Why was it important for you to move abroad to study? Are you living in Poland now?

 

There were many and varied reasons for moving abroad in 2014. The Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw had a very strong separation of departments back then: if you were studying in the Painting department, you would probably have never seen the computers in the cutting room which belonged to the New Media department. I was always attracted to the concept of Gesamtkunstwerk and painting was not enough, so I applied to study in Germany. I already had friends there (which I had made one semester during an exchange program at UdK in Berlin). I knew the facilities they had there and how open the system is for fine arts education. As emotions were running high (at least at the beginning). It was also when I broke up with my fiancée and came out - I was told that it would be better for everyone if I stayed outside of Poland. Now I am living between Poland and Germany - spending a couple of months here and there. 

 

Mikolaj Sobczak - Fabula (2020)

 

Rafal: My reasons for moving to the UK were slightly different: it was mainly an economical/ social shift. I moved at 19, initially, to earn some money and education came as a by-product from a need for progress and growth. Living in the small eastern city of Białystok - it definitely felt more hostile towards queer folk. I could not imagine myself growing older and feeling threatened constantly or having to be a toned down version of myself. Sometimes I feel like I just needed to run away, which makes me feel guilty - but also really bloody proud. I think it was a mixture of a youthful bravado and luck that helped me to maintain a new life and existence in a completely different country and culture. After being self-westernised It took me a while for the Polish culture and references to emerge in my art work. Perhaps I had been avoiding this for a really long time. I feel like I had this insecurity of being from Eastern Europe and it took me a while to be proud of it as I am now - similar to my sexuality. It is a part of growing and having confidence in all the building blocks that make you - you.

The East and West diaspora is particularly present in your work - but it feels like you are almost exorcising it out by pulling the extremes of the subjects from the spectrum - Uber Polish (Eastern) vs Uber Western. Do you agree?

Mikolaj: That’s a very interesting point about being self-westernised after moving to the UK. Lately, I’ve been thinking about it: how the emigration actually sharpened my view on my own culture - made me see it’s possibilities. While studying in Poland, I was willing to see myself as some Berlin-post-Internet-guy working with the newest Western theories. My dream was to be a perfect product of colonialisation and imperialisation. After leaving my home, I realised; all this heritage I’ve wanted to erase from my works (or even taste), turned out to be the most inspiring - for a non-Polish viewer too. That was a big relief! Finally I was able to embrace everything that I really like. I come from the East - you immediately hear my accent, for example - and I am grown up enough to like myself for that: to make it my very own tool of communication, to find links between us.

So, I agree: I exorcise the dualism by enjoying and embracing all those extremes of East and West - allowing myself to go on full volume.

 

Mikolaj Sobczak & Nicholas Grafia- Milk Tooth - The House of Historical Horrors (2020)

 

Rafal: There’s this romantic notion sang about in so many Polish songs - like Irena Santor’s “You will come back:

“After achieving what you wanted,
Getting what you dreamt of
You will feel the urge to return,
Return to your roots”
 
Like nature calling, perhaps? Personally, I have this weird craving of wanting my motherland to be proud; to pat me on the back for my achievements elsewhere. Maybe because I feel like I should have stayed and somehow tried to dismantle the system there through my work? I didn’t though and that wasn’t my path.

You managed to successfully oscillate between Poland, Germany (and the rest of Europe): how important is it for you to be vocal about the current situation surrounding LGBTQ issues in Poland? Do you think that as a queer artist, it should be our responsibility?

 

Mikolaj: Being vocal about the current politics - or to be more precise - the need for change, is the only thing that keeps me making art with my full engagement. The belief that this is where I can be heard. And being heard is such a privilege nowadays. I would never forgive myself if I gave up the chance to speak up about the situation for sexual and national minorities, not only in Poland, but everywhere we experience phobias (eg. Homophobia). This is something that constantly motivates me to continue - even though my political engagement brought me to the darkest places of my life. But here is where I believe in the “Phoenix Syndrome” - you can only fly out of the fire when you first burn down to ashes all the crap that was blocking you. Starting from ego’s “I should/ I shouldn’t”

I say here: “me, my” but in fact, art is the result of team work and the enormous support of friends. It’s necessary to emphasise this. Our art has no power without extra pairs of eyes.

 

Nicholas Grafia & Mikolaj Sobczak - Milk Tooth-The House of Historical Horrors - 2020

Nicholas Grafia & Mikolaj Sobczak - Milk Tooth-The House of Historical Horrors - 2020

 

Rafal: Absolutely! To have any platform to voice your ideas is such a privilege. I mean, being an artist is a privilege - in the sense of having time to dedicate a life to it and not work another job. However, I wonder how many people with ideologies so different from ours actually listen? I’m thinking about how so many people with phobias don’t engage with contemporary art. How art as a discourse has been so censored in Poland - most recently and shockingly with the appointment of Piotr Bernatowicz as the director of CSW in Warsaw. Do you not feel sometimes that’s it’s preaching in an echo chamber? Do you think it’s important to engage with these issues outside of the art world and explore new ways to be an activist to these important causes?

 

Mikolaj: I recently had a story with Piotr Bernatowicz. I was invited to do a guided tour in the Ujazdowski Castle Contemporary Art Center in Warsaw, where he is the infamous alt-rightwing director. I spoke about queer movements and the history of marriage - what a “traditional family” - the conservatives’ key concept - actually means. At exactly the same time, in the same institution, he had planned his public discussion on gender where he said “In the term ‘LGBT+’, this plus means in.al. zoophilia.” So - I had my visitors, he had his. But that’s their strategy - polarising, segregating. I am completely fed up with it and see it as a reason for the modern cataclysm we can see in politics, ecology and economics. Which is why I don’t have an ambition to talk to those who fundamentally disagree with us. I want to talk to people who simply want to talk. And talking means dialogue - maybe even a hard one; maybe an argument. I desire to know their reasons and to understand. 

That is why I think it is also extremely important to be engaged in all those issues outside of the art world too. Reach new perspectives. Again, one pair of eyes is not enough: but when we look at the world with more and more pairs of eyes, then we can identify a problem and it’s reasons much more efficiently. We can also better protect ourselves by seeing the enemy behind us. I like this vision of activism as creature consisting of multiple eyes. 

 

Mikolaj Sobczak - Snails Riots - 2020

Rafal: And lastly (if we are on the subject of multiplicity), you often collaborate with others: how important is this process for you?

Mikolaj: It is a crucial process for me! I realised this very deeply during lockdown this year. From the first naive enthusiasm of having so much time just for making art, I quickly found that making art alone; without  collaboration, without exchanging ideas, without intellectual stimulation and with an extra financial struggle, is almost impossible! I was getting extremely passive, melancholic, empty minded. And here - I am coming again to this multiple-eyed figure. Without collaboration, my steps are tiny. I get tired and burnt out so quickly. We dare more in the collaboration. Through supporting for example — like discussions and sending inspiring stuff to each other; but also emotionally cheering each other up, sharing responsibility, commenting on new works. Most of all however, just by making works together: we feel much stronger; do much more interesting things than when just being “me, myself and I”. Even my individual works (like paintings) are much richer when other people are involved in the intellectual process of painting them.