Paweł Althamer by Nell McClister

The Polish artist recently mounted a new participatory installation on Hydra Island in Greece, where Nell McClister prompted him to talk about the core of his collaborative projects: community, experimentation, and spirituality.

BOMB 130 Winter 2015
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Paweł Althamer 01

Installation view of The Secret of the Phaistos Disc, 2014, Slaughterhouse Project Space of DESTE Foundation, Greece. Photo by Matthew Montieth. Courtesy of DESTE Foundation for Contemporary Art, Greece.

This past June, the day after the opening of his show, Paweł Althamer and I claimed one of the hundred or so outdoor tables at the Pirate Bar, facing the small but busy harbor of Hydra Town, on Hydra Island in Greece. Almost everyone around us had been at his opening, a seated dinner for 400 at tables placed side by side on the road that leads from the town out to the DESTE Foundation’s project space, the Slaughterhouse, where Althamer had installed The Secret of the Phaistos Disc. Everyone is welcome at these Slaughterhouse openings, and everyone comes; A-list artists, dealers, and curators fresh from Basel mix with local water-taxi drivers, grocery boys, and tourists. In this brief utopia, overlooking the sublime Mediterranean at sunset, Paweł Althamer’s work is right at home. His brand of collaborative art draws on both esoteric source material—from theosophy and acid trips to a mystical Bronze Age tablet called the Phaistos Disk—and, at the other end of the spectrum, a plain we’re-all-in-this-together chumminess that carries him seamlessly from the Venice Biennale to the homeless zones of Vienna.

Talking about his projects, Althamer can be oblique and even circular, and you’re never sure if he’s mostly feinting, so as to drive you to answer your own questions. But his earnestness is unmistakable, and his projects, with their injunction to simply work on something together, engender an experience of basic human cooperation and communion that lingers long after the show has come down.

— Nell McClister

Nell McClister Hydra Island is such a fitting place for you to do a project. It’s a magical setting; the rocky crags, the azure sea, the ancient sites and stories. Plus, your work revolves around the idea of the journey, and most of the people on Hydra are already traveling. It’s easy for your audience here to get into the mode of your work, and to be open to it.

Paweł Althamer I’m amazed how fluently the Greek people read this project. They immediately recognize what I’m doing. For a few years now, I’ve felt very connected to the Greek tradition, starting with the sculpture. I’ve been studying the art, the Greek sense of beauty, harmony, and spirituality. Greece is a good place to look for roots, for connections. Also, yes, Hydra is magical. This harbor is like a portal. It invites people to come back to themselves. 

NM You have created a very intimate space in the Slaughterhouse, where visitors come in and sit on the floor and play with puppets and toys. Or they can rearrange the room, make drawings or little wire sculptures, or just gaze out the doorway at the sea.

PA One thing I have noticed is that wherever you go, all over the world, people get together and sit in a circle—to have a meeting, to exchange, to share. It’s an ancient but very familiar and comfortable ritual, a gentle pleasure. Sometimes you need to travel a great distance to find something very familiar. It’s a joyful moment, being in the here and now. That’s the idea with this project. My oldest son, Bruno, and his girlfriend, artist Diana Grabowska, designed all the dolls, which were produced in the factory of my ex-wife’s brother-in-law. They are sculpted and produced on a 3D printer. They look like wood, but they are resin. The way it started was, Diana was making doll portraits of real people, and then I asked her and Bruno to make portraits of the family. We included our friends Dakis Joannou and his wife, Lietta, as part of the family—people whom we love and trust. We all have our roles that we play, but when you play with the dolls, you can reassign your roles. It’s like therapy. You can change the constellation. I trust the concept that by this very simple ritual, by playing with these figures, we can inspire the world. And speaking of Greece—I think of the dolls as small versions of the gods. They help you to understand who is creating, that you are the creator. The dolls are tools or games that inspire us to get the point: the power comes from us.

NM The Slaughterhouse project has a different feel from the collective painting project you did at the New Museum, the Draftsmen’s Congress. There you could also draw, on the walls, but the tone and the scale felt confrontational, and your Venetians—the cast plastic figures you are best known for—tend to be haunting, sometimes even intimidating.

PA But those works are also about connections. New York is also a place to find roots. New Yorkers are very much connected with the old traditions of the families; they hold onto those social connections, no? They also recognize what it means to be an artist today.

NM Did you feel that the audience in New York recognized the connection back to the story of immigration?

PA Many of them took it as a kind of new vision. But, of course, it’s the old one. (laughter) When Massimiliano Gioni invited me to the New Museum, he wanted to take the institution back to the idea of a public space—a place where people can be together, exchange opinions, be spiritually connected. Massimiliano is more rational than I am, but he also comes back to the idea of the old rituals. He wants to integrate the world! He comes from the Roman tradition, which is inspired by the Greeks. One of the earliest ideas we were talking about was a presentation of totems. I asked him to have one level open to everybody to experience the basic ritual of playing with forms, using brushes, colors, such joyful tools we know from childhood. And we did. Soon I recognized that it’s a new tradition, the power of the art temple, as based on the traditional temples from the past. The idea was to bring back this basic knowledge, the circle, the fire, the group of people meeting to play with problems and to express themselves in a very free way, and recognizing what it means to be so free, to have a chance.

NM I think the art audience is really ready for projects like yours; there’s an excitement about breaking out of the art museum, reaching out, participating, collaborating. But you also work to include very different audiences. For your show at the Vienna Secession in 2009, you specifically invited homeless people to participate; you closed off the museum itself except for a tunnel leading from the front door to the back garden, where people could hang out twenty-four hours a day, with a campfire every night.

PA It was very simple, really just a moment to enjoy the experience of sitting by the fire with others. I really liked using the museum’s galleries as a gate that you pass through. And actually, the basic motive of any exhibition is that there is a power in the collective. It’s very deep, traditional knowledge, that we can collectively create extra power. Of course, art is only one way to tap this power; there are many techniques. The most basic constellation is the integration of mind, soul, and body. Soon you recognize all the other connections. I think everybody experiences this.

​Paweł Althamer 02

Paweł Althamer, Draftsmen’s Congress, 2014, participatory workshop, New Museum, New York. Photo by Benoit Pailley. Courtesy of the New Museum, New York.

NM How do the homeless participants coexist with the rest of the audience, particularly with art-world initiates? These two groups bring out profoundly different aspects of your work.

PA It’s a question I ask myself. Having a home, being localized, that’s part of my identity. But what does it mean to have a home? And what does it mean to be homeless? What is the relationship of the homeless to the so-called system, or to society generally? Are they a part of society, or are they outside it? And then, what is my perception of them? And what is my perception of myself,in contrast to them? If I accept the ancient Greek idea of the common identity of human beings, what does it mean that some of my brothers and sisters are excluded? The message becomes a very serious one. It’s like the daimonion, the silent voice coming from inside yourself. With the question, “Who am I?” comes another question: “Who are we?”

NM Did you get a sense of how the homeless people experienced that project?

PA Ah, that was so brilliant. The illusions that they don’t need me, that I don’t need them, that we are independent of each other, immediately broke down. They were happy to participate, to express themselves in a different way, to be recognized, to be invited. They became like these shining beings. And in including them, I felt myself also included. We became integrated in the whole at the same time.

NM You are the instigator of the project, and you are looking to bring in people who are not included, or not recognized, as you say. Are you also trying to offer them a model for activating themselves? Is it a template for not only recognizing oneself as a part of society but also for reaching out, communicating, as you do?

PA Yes. It’s a practical model of example, let’s say. In my opinion, it’s a very successful model. I experience my own integration during the process of creativity and playing with forms. I can be helpful, and I can be very satisfied, offering myself as an example to them. I am not teaching; I am just integrating myself with them, in a joyful way.

NM It sounds like the Socratic method, an example of questioning as a demonstration of seeking and finding knowledge.

PA Yes, yes. It is to say: I’m with you; you’re with me. We are free to experience ourselves in different states, different variations. We can reconstellate ourselves, because we are free beings. And if we are free, then our situation is not a done deal; it can change.

NM But, of course, the homeless people who participated in Vienna are limited by their economic and social circumstances. They may be invited in, included in a project, shown a model of agency, but how are they going to carry that forward on their own? The freedom to reconstellate oneself is not universal.

PA Exactly, yes. It’s an experience of freedom within a structure that is a prison. I call it a game, but it’s life. Society has become disintegrated. This disintegration informs our perception of who we are. There’s a complex of possibilities, but there are also very radically painful and frustrated versions of people who are blocked, or stuck in a kind of bad dream. I get such a sense of depression coming from the state of mind of: Why are we in prison? As an artist, you can’t think about manipulating them. That would be oppressive and dangerous. But if you feel you can inspire them, I think it’s not manipulation. Everybody is looking for a free state of mind; it’s our nature. And all inspirations lead us toward a state of freedom. Nobody can tell you what your freedom is. That’s the most beautiful part of the collective experience—we have the power to decide what it means for us.

Paweł Althamer 03

Paweł Althamer, The Venetians, 2013, cast plastic, extruded plastic ribbon, fifty figures. Photo by Benoit Pailley. Courtesy of the New Museum.

NM How do you key your approach to your various audiences in different ways?

PA Mostly, when I’m working in such a context, I’m following my intuition and my feelings, because rationally sometimes I’m totally lost. I don’t know what I can say to them! 

In Vienna, when I started working with the homeless people, I met a guy they called Günter Südtirolerplatz. They called him that because his name is Günter and he was selling the street newspaper, Augustin, in the central square Südtiroler Platz. He was one of the leaders of the homeless people in Vienna. He was smart. He died a few weeks ago. I spent a few days with him in 2008. I would go out walking with him and his friends and drink wine with them; I experienced the life of the homeless people there. I soon discovered that even in this society, there is such a—not a hierarchy, but a spectrum of states, of consciousness, from the philosophers to the prisoners. There are people who are trying to escape from the system and they end up as heavily addicted prisoners, totally out of consciousness, in a permanent state of bad trip. But they are all seeking. Their goal is to get in. From in you can see out.

NM Did you get a sense of what they gained from meeting you?

PA That’s something else I discovered. I can give them money for drugs, for vodka, and I respect their freedom to buy these things, and feel empathy for them. But sometimes what they need even more is your curiosity, your time, your perception.

NM This paying attention, or respecting, is what you mean by “recognizing.”

PA It has happened to me many times that I have met people on the street or on a bus and they want to say something. They need somebody to listen. The moment we’re talking about is a moment of not ignoring each other. Respecting each other, actually. Like a family. There is this beautiful tradition in Greece, to exchange basic energy in your greeting. “Hello. How are you?” Not automatically, but really being present in the moment, really recognizing each other.

NM Do you see your social education as starting with your upbringing in Poland? You grew up under Communism and then watched it collapse. American audiences of your work might not take the same social connections for granted: the family as a microcosm of the neighborhood, which is a microcosm of society; reliance on others as fundamental to society. I think Americans tend to be more individualistic. Do you see a cultural difference?

PA Communism was a big influence on me in terms of figuring out what is wrong with the system. Why doesn’t it work? And what is the way for us to express that we are free? There are many different models of social systems, but surely there are also some basic similarities. Maybe it’s a moment to try to find similarities, to find the common level of communication, the basic one. I had such a beautiful childhood; I was such a free child.

NM Was that in the countryside or in the city?

PA It was the “cityside,” between the city and the countryside, in a suburb of Warsaw. My first years, I remember, the farms and fields transformed into the city, step by step. Back then I experienced the basic pleasure of sitting by the fire, the magic of being part of a circle around the fire. I learned what it means to respect the elders, the hierarchy of the stronger versus the weaker, and the children immediately recognized each other’s power, in a very natural way. As a young person, every summer, I traveled to summer camp; we called it a colony. We have a colony tradition. There were children from everywhere, different ages, different social levels, and we had to maintain a certain discipline. It was a kind of semi-military service.

NM Like a youth village.

PA Yes. When Fabio Cavallucci, the director of Ujazdowski Castle, the Centre for Contemporary Art in Warsaw, invited Artur Zmijewski and me last year to propose a project, we asked him to let us use the museum for such a model of a summer camp, an experience of freedom and democracy within an institution. We called it Winter Holiday Camp, and it involved everyone, from visiting artists to the museum workers. The idea was to offer an experimental program in an art institution, instead of an exhibition.

NM The experience of freedom within the institution, as within the prison of society.

PA Yes.

NM I know that you were educated at the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts in the model of Open Form, in which students and teachers had equal status; all processes were cooperative; there was to be unfettered creativity; and viewers played an integral role as participants. Oskar Hansen pioneered the concept, which has been very influential for artists, especially in Poland, where he taught for many years.

PA Yes, Oskar Hansen was an architect, and he recognized the idea of Open Form as a connection: your state of mind is connected to the universe. As you play with forms, just remember that everything is connected with everything else. Don’t “design” discrete visions and put them into the world. He taught a lot of students, and one of them was my professor, Grzegorz Kowalski, who initiated an amazing ritual that should be the international model for any school, not only art schools. He called it Common Space, Individual Space. Every year, at the Academy of Fine Arts, he invited students to express themselves in a studio using any forms, tools, and ways to communicate. You would start out in Individual Space and then enter Common Space, so you were very aware of the difference between the two. For him, the body was an important tool. We all know on a very deep level that the body is the place where you are located. The idea was to come back to the body, find yourself there, and be illuminated. Because when you explore your body, you have to ask the questions: Who is the explorer? Who is living in this body?

NM You also read and appreciate Rudolf Steiner, who established the Waldorf school as a model of freedom and experimentation in the educational setting.

PA Rudolf Steiner was a very wise person, a visionary. The basic message coming from the adults’ generation to the kids was to ask the question, “Who am I?” But this was soon modified into a kind of religion in many Waldorf schools. Practically, they are still learning: What does it mean to be a part of the group? What is your relationship to your family, to your friends, to nature? But the school became a system, and as I know myself, as a child who was educated in a system, when you are following a system, you lose the freedom of decision, because you are following the model. The most beautiful model—and the one we can modify, for education—is asking children for their own models.

NM And that’s something that you can’t really translate into a system of schools?

PA No. It’s up to the constellation of the students, their characters. I think we can start from some traditions of Rudolf Steiner, but I am more interested in using and connecting old forms, very useful forms, like, for instance, the simple practice of handcraft lessons. When you are training your mind, body, and soul, you integrate them. It’s like the Freemason tradition—as you are building a house, at the same time, you are building yourself.

NM Do you see the point of artists who work in the studio alone, creating objects to show in a gallery?

PA What they’re showing is the experience they had: “Take a look at what a good experience I had.” And the people are coming and saying, “Oh, what a good experience he had, yes.” Instead of this model, we can offer the experience itself.

NM Hence projects like this one in Hydra. The show is called The Secret of the Phaistos Disc. What is the disc, and what’s the secret?

PA I remember, as a child, I played with objects, with forms; I designed them, and I gave them stories. Children can really get lost in stories, and in playing with others, they gravitate toward those who tell good stories or design nice games. These are shamanistic roots that every person has. The Phaistos Disc is like a secret message, but it’s completed where we are, in the here and now, and its meaning depends on how we read it. We make up the interpretation ourselves, or we can do it together. The process is the goal. It’s a model of life. How will it be completed? It’s up to us. We each have our own way; we are creative beings. It’s not for studying; it’s for joy. You can read it, play with it, activate it. And in the spiral, you can see the movement; everything is connected. You don’t need teachers for this. One of my first strong drug experiences, with LSD, took place in a forest near Warsaw. I had the experience that there were two of us, one asking the questions, and the other answering them. I realized then that I could answer basic questions myself, without any teachers.

NM You stepped outside yourself to see yourself.

PA Yes. It’s like, in order to see a sculpture, you have to walk around it. One of the most beautiful and amazing teachers living now on our planet is Eckhart Tolle. He has such a brilliant mind. He explains the simplicity of the secret: there is basic knowledge that we can get very early, but it is absolutely not popular to educate this way. There are no spiritual teachers, actually, in our system of education. We have religious education, which is not spiritual, as we know, and we have practical education, which is about competition and is built on hierarchy. All without the basic question, “Who are we?” I experienced such freedom, but it was immediately questioned and criticized by my rational perception, by my mind. Then I saw that the system around us is disconnecting us—for the system, it is best if I have no knowledge that the mind and I are not the same. In the system, as soon as you are no longer a child, you lose your basic voice, your basic identity, and you become an educated citizen—educated in the system.

NM A very important part of that realization can be to recognize that you are not your circumstances, either; you are not defined by the limits that are imposed on you.

PA Yes.

Paweł Althamer 04

Paweł Althamer, Queen Mother of Reality, 2014, Socrates Sculpture Park, Queens. Photo by Tom Powel. Courtesy of the artist; Performa 13; Foksal Gallery Foundation, Warsaw; neugeriemschneider, Berlin.

NM Your latest participatory project, The Queen Mother of Reality, is another example of offering a model of empowerment to others. The construction was part of Performa 13, and the sculpture itself was situated in New York’s Socrates Sculpture Park last summer. It’s based on a real person, Delois Blakely, who carries the titles of Community Mayor of Harlem and Goodwill Ambassador to Africa at the United Nations. How did you meet her?

PA We were looking for a model. Who should we portraitize? I know Noah Fischer from the Occupy Museums movement, and he was supporting Queen Mother in some administrative things, and he was very excited to introduce her to us. Queen Mother is a shaman. She feels the connections. She knows we are children. She is taking care of us; she feels responsible. These are the roots of Queen Mother. When we met for the first time, we immediately recognized each other.

NM Have you participated in the Occupy Museums movement?

PA No, it’s not my technique to occupy, but I like them. They’re looking for transformation, but they have a different vision. They are expressing themselves politically, and I think it’s just not broad enough. I think we will be much stronger if we work together. It all goes back to communication. I have read that in so-called primitive times, when the way of life changed from small groups to big ones, people started losing the ability to communicate. The relations started to break down, and then shamans emerged as connectors. In each group, you had somebody who got special, deep feelings, and felt all the relations—someone really oversensitive. You could call them crazy, no? But people respected them because they could feel that they were right. I know about this not just because of knowledge but experience. I got hypnotized once and I felt that I was climbing mountains, and felt free. My people, my family and friends, they don’t remember what it means to be free, to feel power. They had it once, and they lost it, and they feel disintegrated. They get sad; they get sick. They don’t know how to understand everything around them. Reason, the ego, became too important. Instead of living, they began to calculate. They lost the feeling that it’s great here. They started to think, “It will be great here if we … ” And that became a craziness.

NM When you say they lost that state of freedom, do you mean since childhood?

PA We can call it a previous life. When I was hypnotized, my feeling was, I am not Paweł Althamer, I am a guy who is climbing mountains to come back with this feeling of: Ah, welcome. We are here. It’s enough if I smile at you. You might think I’m crazy, but I’m bringing you good news.

NM How do you communicate this experience to other people?

PA It is important to share it. Because the system is already the way it is, partly demolished, or cut off from natural power, the first movement is to create the natural connection. Art is a very beautiful example: you can experience making a drawing or a painting, and wow! You can choose the color, the line, the time it takes; you can direct the experience yourself. It’s up to you. It’s a moment to respect all of these activities that can bring us pleasure. You can get the feeling that joyful moments can be a permanent state of mind. I started my life in the Catholic tradition, and it was kind of sad. I never believed in it, but they promised me: “It’s difficult now, my young son. There are a lot of crazy things around you, but soon, if you just do this, this, and this”—and the things they asked me to do were totally irrational. To pray! What does it mean to pray? I got it years later, without church! (laughter) It’s simply saying thank you. These basic techniques, we are not taught in any schools. Why? We’re creating a self-killing system. A generation raised on fear, not on independence and creativity. Instead of creativity, there is safety. What a mistake.

NM Your technique, in opposition to that, is—

PA It’s up to you!

NM You invite people to make something.

PA To experience it for themselves. There are many ways. If I may ask visitors for something, it is: “Please, be inspired by this peaceful, joyful meeting in the circle, to inspire others; because there are many people who don’t know the technique to get peace.” Like, there are so many soldiers looking for peace, in such a strange way. Politicians, they don’t know how to get it. Let’s make art as a good model of working together to address conflicts. The technique is: working together, being inspired on your own, being motivated on your own, doing what you like, experiencing your joyful creativity. That’s the basic technique. It’s the most natural political act you can imagine.

Special thanks to Tommaso Speretta.

Nell McClister is an independent editor in Philadelphia. Recent projects include Tom Finkelpearl’s What We Made: Conversations on Art and Social Cooperation; Paul Chan’s New New Testament; and Anthony McCall: Notebooks and Conversations. A contributing editor of BOMB, where she has written on William Kentridge, Jennifer Levonian, D-L Alvarez, and others, McClister also reviews Philadelphia exhibitions for Artforum, including recently Ruffneck Constructivists at the ICA, curated by Kara Walker.

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Originally published in

BOMB 130, Winter 2015

Featuring interviews with Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, Theaster Gates, Martin Wilner, Paola Prestini, A.G. Porta, Pierre Guyotat, Paweł Althamer, and Eugéne Green.

Read the issue
130 Cover