Mind As Object: Alicja Kwade Interviewed by Melissa Bianca Amore

A solar system on a rooftop.

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Alicja Kwade. The Roof Garden Commission: Alicja Kwade, ParaPivot. Installation view. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2019. Courtesy of the artist; 303 Gallery, New York; KÖNIG GALERIE, Berlin/London; and kamel mennour, Paris/London. Image credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Hyla Skopitz.

What is the difference between the representation of an object and the object? Is there a distinction in the mode of perceiving the object? Most objects conform to their representation, so who and what is representing? These important questions inform Alicja Kwade’s practice. Engaged with scientific theory and social conventions used to perceive reality, she employs the language of sculpture and architecture to examine the origins of perception and measure how information is transferred to an object or form. Kwade’s formal arrangements manipulate time, interrupt spatial cognition, and conceive the experience of parallel universes, gravity, and the celestial in a harmonious exchange. She activates an object as a material, often denying its primary meaning, to investigate principles found in the discourses of quantum mechanics, physics, and mathematics to create a new type of measurement—a visual theory to be experienced with the body. The complex use of reflections in her work—reflectere is Latin for “bend back”—displaces the viewer’s gaze into a transitory space where the function of the mirror as a reflective apparatus becomes defunct, transforming it into a “window” onto a contrary reality.

Awarded the commission for the Cantor Roof Garden at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, Kwade has created ParaPivot I & II (2019), a monumental structure made from powder-coated steel and natural stones imitating our gravitational solar system. In visual sightline with the Manhattan skyline, each interlacing frame suggests rotational folds and spatial possibilities. Kwade’s preoccupation with our environment as a human construction makes her a great observer of the natural order of things.

—Melissa Bianca Amore


Melissa Bianca Amore I’d like to discuss the recurring prefix “para” used in your exhibition titles ParaPivot I & II and ParaParticular (2019). The concept of “para”—originating from the Greek translation “beside, near, issuing from, against, contrary to”—forms the basis of your practice. Your work discloses a “contrary” or “para” reality, which destabilizes the authenticity of the object under observation.  

Alicja Kwade I use “para” a lot. It’s essentially employed to explain something that you are not describing directly, but it exists. You deny the questioning of the first object, for example in my work Trans-for-Men 11 (Fibonacci) (2019) or Parallelwelt 1 & 2 (2009). It is primarily what my work is about. What reality is and what reality seems like when you look closely at it. 

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Alicja Kwade. The Roof Garden Commission: Alicja Kwade, ParaPivot. Installation view (detail). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2019. Courtesy of the artist; 303 Gallery, New York; KÖNIG GALERIE, Berlin/London; and kamel mennour, Paris/London. Image credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Hyla Skopitz.

MBA Yes, in Trans-for-Men 11 you present eleven stones arranged in a serial succession separated by mirrors. The effect from this mimetic doubling directs the gaze to the copy in transformation, rather than the pure element itself. Here, you’re introducing the concept “that the mirror does not represent reality, it presents reality to us” (M. H. Pirenne, Optics, Painting and Photography, Cambridge University Press, 1970, 11; emphasis in original).  

AK Yes, through this slight transformation the stone is no longer a stone anymore, so when does it start or end? I use a mirror simply as a tool, rather than give it an appearance itself. I struggle with the symbolism of the mirror in art history and philosophy. What I do with the objects is somehow take away their reality and materiality because they are reflected copies of each other. The stones become the mirror, and the mirror is like a transformative window.

MBA What we observe, then, is a transitional in-between or third space containing both representational and real space. This interplay of “transition” is prevalent throughout your work, in particular abarchairisabarchair (2018), which reveals an organic tree structure transforming into a utilitarian object. Why do you expose this “transitional” process?

AK When is the object still the object, and when does it transform into another object? I’m interested in the border between things and how they meet. It is somehow about belief. I don’t believe in God. If we ask, “What is a person?” a person is just matter. It’s atoms that are doing something, going somewhere. If you look closely at the structure of an atom, matter consists mostly of emptiness. There’s not so much to believe in. It is just an agreement in time and space. 

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Alicja Kwade. The Roof Garden Commission: Alicja Kwade, ParaPivot. Installation view (detail). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2019. Courtesy of the artist; 303 Gallery, New York; KÖNIG GALERIE, Berlin/London; and kamel mennour, Paris/London. Image credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Hyla Skopitz.

MBA If reality or matter per se originate from pure emptiness, what does this loaded term “reality” mean for you?

AK Firstly, we need to define reality, and there is no reality. Reality is just a term—a construction. There are only descriptions that relate to our reality. Nobody knows what reality means, and there are different ways to understand it. It’s not like a chair, where we give meaning through language. We are trying to find a way to live together. If we describe the table you are sitting near, we could define it as a tree, a piece of wood, something made of atoms or of emptiness. This is too much information, and we couldn’t describe it as such, as we would not be able to survive. That’s why we reduce it to things we identify or can describe like a table, or that it is something you can sit on. Reality is an abstract term we feed with definitions we agree on in order to live together. It’s like the measurement, weight, or value system—it’s all invented.

MBA It seems that you’re reexamining the origins of perception and the preconditioning that generally occurs during early stages of cognition when we learn “how to see” by associating meaning and a semiotic categorization to objects? To paraphrase Ludwig Wittgenstein: “knowing” (something) “means only being able to describe it” (Rudolf Arnheim, Visual Thinking, University of California Press, 1969, 194).

AK Yes, and Wittgenstein was also discussing feelings in this way. If we don’t have words or a term to describe a feeling, they do not exist. If there were no words for “love” or “hate,” they would not exist. But, then, we have this basic structure, like color, or millimeters, degrees of pressure of speed and heat, for example, that makes it possible to communicate the circumstances around us.

MBA The examination of time and measurement, as invented systems framing our perception, is central to your hypothesis. Additionally, you suggest that these creations are necessary to experience the reality we share. Do you agree with Immanuel Kant’s theory that time and space are a priori conditions for experience?

AK I’m always afraid that people have a romantic idea of time. For me, it’s just a measurement. Time is not more special than any other measurement. We’re limited in time; that’s why it’s referenced in film and art. I see human beings, including myself, as a co-accidental happening in time and space. It is easier to understand a meter than an hour. Time is not much more poetic than gravity. There is so much focus given to time, because we’re limited. It’s a natural force that is equal to gravity. Our bodies have a natural structure, a beginning and an end, so we are trying to give time a past, present, and future; but I don’t think it exists, and even physicists proclaim it doesn’t exist. It is something, but we don’t know what it is. All we know is that we are appearing and disappearing, and something is happening to our bodies. There is no direction in time, but we need it to structure our reality. But it’s always connected to the human, and to be limited to our sixty or eighty years is why we give it a direction that relates to our biological system. 

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Alicja Kwade. The Roof Garden Commission: Alicja Kwade, ParaPivot. Installation view. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2019. Courtesy of the artist; 303 Gallery, New York; KÖNIG GALERIE, Berlin/London; and kamel mennour, Paris/London. Image credit: The Metropolitan Museum of Art. Photo by Hyla Skopitz.

MBA Let’s return to ParaPivot I & II as it relates to cyclical rotation. On the Met’s rooftop, you’ve created a structure imitating the cosmos. It’s a powerful paradox: the famous Manhattan skyline—representing the image of capitalism—in conversation with the celestial, which is something beyond our comprehension of space and time, and beyond our concrete corporeal reality.  

AK What’s also interesting is that the Met is collecting “human time” and culture. We have this iconic rooftop and under it over five thousand years of human history. As you move closer to the top, you have contemporary human civilization, which is seen in the capitalist skyscrapers. The roof is somehow in between that, and I felt I needed to react to this. The Met and New York City are like two icons and almost two caricatures—an idea of a museum and a city. It’s like how you would imagine a city if you don’t know what it looks like, which makes it a little melancholic as it’s changing. And I hope people understand that you are inside one of the most important museums in the world, and in one of the most famous cities in the world, yet you are standing on a spinning rock.

Alicja Kwade: ParaPivot is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City until October 27. 

Melissa Bianca Amore is an art critic, curator, and independent scholar based in New York. She is the co-founding director of the nonprofit organization Re-Sited, dedicated to examining the intersections of sculpture, space, and architecture.

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