A Transmedia Journey Through the World of Lech Majewski’s Art

Text published in: City Film/Film City. II International Film Festival Regiofun. Catalogue. Katowice 2011.

As I watched the retrospective exhibition of Lech Majewski’s works in the National Museum in Kraków, it occurred to me I was witnessing the official recognition of an artist who had often been treated with puzzling aloofness by the artistic community, critics, and sometimes, though less frequently, by the art public. His indisputable successes all over the world, particularly in recent years, are truly impressive. Let us only mention the retrospectives in Buenos Aires and Mar del Plata in Argentina (2005), the monographic presentation in Museum of Modern Art in New York (2006), shows in London’s Whitechapel Art Galery, special exhibits of Blood of a Poet at the Film Festival in Berlin (2007) and at the Venice Biennale (2007), where the artist returned in 2011 with his The Mill & the Cross, displays organized across the world – from the United States (Philadelphia, Pittsburg, Washington, Cleveland, Chicago, Berkeley, Portland), Europe (Paris, London, Berlin, Venice, Frankfurt am Main, Rotterdam), through Japan (Nagoya, Tokyo, Kyoto, Sapporo), New Zealand and Taiwan. If to all this we add the fact that his most recent production has already been sold to nearly 50 countries, while its première took place in the Louvre in Paris, then it is clear that Majewski has achieved the distinct position of an artist of a world (in many senses of the word) format.

In Poland, however, this fact has not been recognized and accepted in an obvious manner. When, in the past, I talked to literature experts about his books, they usually replied that Majewski is not so interesting to them, since he was a film director, after all, whose novels (Chestnut Epic 1981, The Pied Piper of New York 1993, Pilgrimage to the Grave of Brigitte Bardot Miraculous 1996, Metaphysics 2002, The Hypnotist 2003), poems (Tales of Thousand Nights And One City 1978, Paradise 1979, Home 1981), essays (Asa Nisi Masa – Magic in Fellini’s 8 1/2 1994, Official Center of the World. Painters, Stars, Cities, Pictures 1998) – is somehow „secondary” to his cinematic work.

When I talked to opera and theater specialists about The Deer’s Room located in the Silesian Opera (1996), The Black Rider (1995) and A Midsummer Night’s Dream (1997) staged in the Heilbronn theater, the opera spectacles Ubu Rex (1993, Lodz Grand Theater), Carmen (1995, the Grand Theater in Warsaw) – I heard the arguments that the artist had ventured into an unknown territory like some kind of a usurper, oblivious to the centuries-old tradition. When writing The Deer’s Room (both the libretto and, with Józef Skrzek, the music), he followed his desire to create a work that transcended the conventions of traditional opera, which unexpectedly won recognition among the respectable members of the International Theater Institute who chose that very spectacle, out of more than 500 projects submitted from all over the world, as one of the world’s 12 best opera shows created in the 1990s, which led to a special show at a workshop in Düsseldorf. Regrettably, this fact, yet again, did not meet with a great deal of sympathy from Polish critics and spectators.

When I talk to contemporary cinema experts these days, I hear more and more often that Lech Majewski can hardly be cassified as a film maker, because his latest realizations – DiVinities (2006), Blood of a Poet (2006), Glass Lips (2007), The Mill & the Cross (2010) as well as the works based on this realization – Exercises from Bruegel (2011) and Bruegel Suite (2011) – go beyond the cinematic formula and become part of a wider context of visual arts. It is a moving picture art related to a traditionally comprehended film spectacle, yet not identical with film. Anyhow, the very notion of film is very problematic nowadays – it is sometimes difficult to decide what qualifies as film at all. Let us, the, stick to the broad and comprehensive term „the art of the moving picture.”

I once described the artist from Katowice (or, more accurately, from Stalingrad, because Majewski was born in „that” city in 1953) as a „nomad with a permanent address.” What I meant was less the territorial nomadicity, so to speak, i.e. the constant mobility from one place to another, where the artist lived an worked (Katowice, Venice, New York, Los Angeles, Buenos Aires), for this is, indeed, a rather common lot of today’s artists, who travel worldwide with their film shows, gallery and museum exhibits, premières, vernissages, lectures, locations for their next works. In this sense the world has shrunk remarkably. What I meant was mostly the „media nomadicity” (one can also use other terms: transmedia, multimedia, intermedia – each of which is partly correct, yet equally insufficient) as a basic creative strategy.

Lech Majewski’s „trance” continues to cross various kinds of borders: geographical, genre, formal, aesthetic – the artist seeks a true integration of his interests in literature, painting, sculpture, film and video. For over a decade now he has been constructing – consistently, relentelssly and with considerable self-awareness – his own universe of art. He is far from calculating and thinking in terms of the market, although working in an area heavily dependent on modern technologies, and consequently bound to constantly seek funds for new projects, one necessarily faces „budget dilemmas.” Paradoxically, however, it is precisely the market that is now „buying” Majewski, while he himself determines the rules according to which he can be „bought” (the inverted commas are necessary here, of course). Without compromising his elite artistic stance, Majewski has become a much sought-for contemporary artist.

It is the only way to build one’s position – not by following the art world’s prevailing trends and vogues, but by creating them. Commonplace as this may sound, only a very few artists have actually achieved this status. What it often requires, let us add, is a nexus of various circumstances, some of which are not art-related.

So how is it done? Quite simply, casually, by remaining faithful to oneself, or by calculating laboriously and devising the methods of conquering the world’s museums, galleries, festivals? True art is born through hard, everyday work, but also through respect for the people who will come into contact with it. In November 2010 I met with Lech Majewski in Katowice’s 2B3 club, to talk about his current projects, the expected première of The Mill & the Cross at Sundance and in the Louvre, Dagmara Drzazga’s documentary Lech Majewski. The World According to Breugel (2009), which was being shown to a limited audience at that time and which won the „TV Oscar” (as the Prix Italia award is sometimes referred to) for the best art documentary in Italy in 2010. Majewski arrived during the presentation of that film straight from the set of his latest work Dog Field (I would later see parts of it at the aforementioned exhibition in Kraków’s National Museum), but he was reluctant to talk about it too much. As he was saying his goodbyes to the audience and thanking for their presence, he was also apologizing for not being able to stay longer, since the film crew and the next set were waiting for him. And so the „trance” continues; a trance is the state of artistic elevation, but also that of ordinary and arduous work on the set, with tens of people, a huge production machine that must be coordinated and managed, and hunderds of quick decisions to be made. Anybody who has been at a fim set at least once knows that it is a kind of war. The artist himself talks about it – not without irony and humor – in Dagmara Drzazga’s beautiful film: „Children. Animals. The shooter has sprained his ankle. The horse is sweaty. The cow has shitted. The calf has kittened.” And the director – who actually claims not to be a director in the traditional sense – in the midst of it all, like a commander-in-chief. The art of the moving picture, its creation, requires an exceptional amount of coordination and a combination of countless constituent elements – related to production and postproduction, art and distribution, but what it all comes down to is that moment of rapture, of which both the creators and spectators partake whenever all the elements coincide through some magic. It is probably for such, rather rare, moments that films are worth making and worth watching.

Lech Majewski’s total art legitimates that moment of rapture, making us – spectators – rightful co-creators of the magical spectacle. The moving picture moves our inner imagination, we play (with) our own memory, we make infinite chains of visual and thought associations, we contaminate images and sounds. We are watching our own film that would never have come into existence if it was not for the germinating effect of another artist’s work. After all, we can feel like artists ourselves, and the works presented to us would not exist without us, especially such realizations as multichannel video works (Bloof of a Poet).

As I watched Bruegel Suite in the San Lio church in Venice (Majewski was again invited by the organizers of the Venice Biennale; in 2007 he had presented Blood of a Poet, and earlier The Deer’s Room had been shown in 2002), I contemplated the cruel scenes of racking and crucifiction on the huge screens located on both sides of this beautiful church’s altar. On left-hand side of this naveless temple four plasma displays were installed showing the images created during the realization of The Mill and & Cross, in infinite loops. In this temple contemporary digital technologies meet the heritage of Italian masters: Pietro Lombardo, Titian, Tiepolo are a natural „company” for the moving pictures created by contemporary artisans and artists (or rather artisan-artists), who have had to spend countless hours at their computer sets for the previously photographed pictures to acquire their unique form. I am reminded of the situations frequently recalled by Majewski: when still in high school, he would visit the Giardini and the Arsenal to watch the latest art. All those „avant-garde” works of contemporary demolishers of old aesthetic codes. But he would also go back repeatedly to Gallerie dell’Accademia to admire Giorgione’s La Tempesta.

I have also revisted that museum this year, partly inspired by the author of Wojaczek (1999) and following his footsteps, in order to see that extraordinary painting which I had first seen in 1986. „Regrettably” it was replaced by an Albrecht Dürer canvas (I do nor remember which one, I admit), since The Tempest had been lent to Sankt Petersburg. I was highly disappointed, of course, but only for a moment, not only because I could admire another true master, but also because I resolved to return to dell’Accademia at the nearest possible occasion.

Moving between tradition and modernity is a constant part of my experience, but it is also distinctive for Lech Majewski’s art. New digital techniques of image creation encounter timeless themes of old art. Dialogue, or, better, polilogue, is characteristic of all great art that charts new and unexpected horizons for its contemporaries, but simultaneously closely connected to the past. One can hardly talk of progress here. Techniques, tools and materials do change, of course, but it would be absurd to claim that contemporary pictures created with the help of the most advanced digital technologies, employed also by the author of Angelus (2000), are „better,” „more perfect,” „more advanced” than the pictures painted by Leonardo, Giorgione, Tiepola, Bosch or Bruegel. „Writing” (like the writing of icons and the writing of computer programs for the edition of digital images) with the use of new languages and algorithms opens up new possibilities, but also teaches us to be humble. In fact, the arduous stage of postproduction, the painstaking labor of numerous specialists in computer image editing does not differ significantly from the refining of thousands of details in Breugel’s The Procession to Calvary. The five centuries separating the figures from the Flemish master’s work and its postmodern „audiovisual replica,” or, to be more precise, its original rereading by a contemporary artist assisted by the distinguished expert Michael Francis Gibson, is no more than a short episode in the course of the general history of art.

Indeed – art. Despite a quite widespread devaluation of this notion, Lech Majewski’s artistic strategy is actually very simple – I am an artist, I make mistakes like every other artist, sometimes I lack confidence in the final effect of my work, I am ever full of doubts, but at the same time the most fundamental imperative linked with my belief that what I do is meaningful makes me work on. With persistence and a humble attitude towards what my predecessors have created. I draw strength from their works, but I try to create my own personal story about a world which lacks metaphysics and reflection on matters going beyond the mundane and dispiriting present.

That is why, in spite of all the obvious „inconveniencies” (such as the grave tone, the thought-provoking contents, posing questions rather than giving answers), Lech Majewski’s art is so attractive, at least to a selected audience. And that is right. It is an intellectual, aesthetic, artistic and cognitive challenge, it forces – no, it is better to say it invites – the spectator to travel across a world of images. The old ones as well as the most contemporary (or „modern”) ones.

When the most advanced technology (HD cameras with 4K resolution, composite methods of creating an image from tens or hundreds of layers of superimposed image elements, combining heterogenous realities – those photographed/filmed and those generated by computer graphics) encounters the great tradition of European art, the effect is never predictable. The artist’s work is to procure the unexpected. Unpexpected for the artist himself (what will happen when I „animate” Breugel’s painting, giving it a plot and making it into a story?), but primarily for the spectators. Actually, for each and every spectator. For me. Every image is a puzzle, a surprise, a mystery. I read it as I try to read the various forms of The Mill and the Cross (a film, various forms of a video installation), always anew, always remembering about the infinity of possible interpretations, possible meanings to be decoded, the exegetic (after)images that the creators themselves were unaware of. For when they look at a work which has been derived from their creation, they ask the same simple questions as I do: is it really us that created this? Is it us that have brought into being this strange unrealistic/realistic world, through a range of techniques?

Or was it / is it just a dream…

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