West Meets East: Piotr Uklański Interviewed by Osman Can Yerebakan

Repainting a European encounter with the Ottoman Empire.

Part of the Theory + Practice series.

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Piotr Uklański, Untitled (Eastern Promises V), 2018, ink and acrylic on mohair velvet over canvas, 65.25 × 51.25 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Luxembourg & Dayan, New York.

Theory + Practice is a series supported by the Shelley & Donald Rubin Foundation.

Over his two-decade career, Polish artist Piotr Uklański has adopted and subverted various genres, producing works about collective memory, appropriation, truth, and fiction. In his installation, photography, painting, and film, Uklański pushes duration and scope, like his feature-length Polish Western, Summer Love (2006), set in post-Communist Eastern Europe and played by Polish actors—and Val Kilmer—or his photographs of 164 different actors playing Hitler in various films in Uklański’s infamous photo installation, The Nazis (1998).

A jokester and somewhat of a provocateur, Uklański consistently questions historical assumptions, cultural speculations, and personal desires. In Ottomania, his recent series of paintings, he repaints portraits of mostly Slavic nobles from a period between the fifteenth and eighteenth centuries donning Ottoman-inspired attire. The works premiered last month at Istanbul’s Pera Museum as part of the ongoing 16th Istanbul Biennial, The Seventh Continent, and later opened in a namesake exhibition at the New York gallery Luxembourg & Dayan, where he has filled the Upper East Side townhouse with lavish renderings of noble subjects on velvet canvases, some of which are hung upside down. 

Pera Museum is known for its Orientalist painting collection by Ottoman and European painters alike, and is the perfect venue for the paintings’ bridging of West and East. Uklański’s work is presented on a dense purple wall among paintings of men and women with Mona Lisa smiles and turbans on their heads. Uklański substitutes velvet for canvas and coats the surface with loose brushstrokes, unconcerned with precision. This method renders the paintings hazy and unfinished, lacing them with a mist of nostalgia. At Luxembourg & Dayan, a young nobleman, painted upside down, wears a floral caftan, an elaborate head scarf, and has a thin adolescent mustache, posing in front of a purple backdrop that echoes the walls of the Pera Museum. Fittingly, the museum overlooks the old town in Istanbul that once fascinated Uklański’s subjects.

Uklański and I met at his Greenpoint studio populated by paintings receiving their final touches before traveling uptown for his Luxembourg & Dayan show. Rammstein was playing when I arrived, and Uklański lowered the music slightly to answer my questions. He and I talked about appropriation, re-appropriation, and self-fashioning in the light of the Ottomania series, which is accompanied by a book that includes more than two hundred posers from Orientalist tradition. Another catalogue, produced by the gallery, includes an essay penned by fellow painter Sam McKinniss. 

Osman Can Yerebakan How did Ottomania start?

Piotr Uklański Each painting comes from a historical reference—for example, you’ll see a fifteenth-century Polish nobleman with a mohawk-ish haircut, a direct appropriation of an Ottoman hairstyle. At the time, Polish nobility embraced the belief that they came from ancient Iranian Sarmatians. They dressed in Orientalist fashion while Polish kings were increasingly becoming Francophiles during the war with Russia. The nobles rebelled against the rulers with their Eastern fashions in order to maintain autonomy. Poland, as a matter of fact, has maintained similar sentiment toward the Middle East over the centuries. When the country was colonized by Russia and Prussia in 1800s, this iconography was reinvented to help maintain Polish identity under the foreign occupation. Even today, Polish national dress contains Turkish clothing elements.

OCY Velvet is an unexpected choice of surface to paint onto. What attracted you to this lush material?

PU I like the tactility, but also the hotel lobby reference. (laughter)

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Piotr Uklański, Untitled (Łukasz Trzciński), 2019, ink and acrylic on cotton velvet over canvas, 60.25 × 50.25 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Luxembourg & Dayan, New York.

OCY Re-creating existing paintings seems like a conceptual idea as much as a drive to produce. The works look highly traditional—almost like ghosts of the past—which connects with your statement about historical politics and their reflection of the present.

PU I am interested in paintings that have already been painted and in recuperating a visual language, especially concerning culture that we—I mean the West—now somewhat fears. It’s important that none of this is fictitious imagery.

OCY A closer look at the paintings’ surfaces reveals unfinished details. It seems like you abruptly stopped painting. Is this a strategy to remind viewers they have been painted today?

PU There is a fantasy element, I think. I occasionally change the figures, because being faithful to the original is not my intention. Quoting is a good description for my approach.

OCY You use painting not just as a medium or genre but also as a tool to dive into issues of appropriation and the writing of history. How painterly does this project feel?

PU I think the Nazis series relates to this work. I realized over time that photography as a medium contains inherent distance, and viewers’ access to the work is built across that gap. Here, you said, for example, that velvet feels tactile, and that’s the intimacy and access I’ve been meaning to attain. I have dealt with appropriation on different levels for a number of years, quoting art itself. My conclusion is that repainting is more interesting than rephotographing paintings, though I see repainting as essentially anti-painting. The quest for perfect rendering puts the quest for perfect representation into a distorted narrative. 

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Piotr Uklański, Untitled (Eastern Promises XI), 2018, ink and acrylic on viscose velvet over canvas, 30 × 22 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Luxembourg & Dayan, New York.

OCY You’ve flirted with different mediums as varied as directing a feature-length film.

PU I am interested in avenues that have been neglected in mainstream art discourse. Few genre films have been made by artists, let alone Westerns. I’ve been working on a coffee-table book that is a collection of photographs with a theme of Poland with certain stereotypes about the country.

OCY The coffee-table book makes me think of your work’s humor, which is accessible for viewers only if they can read it. There is humor beneath a veneer of seriousness. If I approach it as a coffee-table book and flip through it, I will realize it’s a little off. If I dive deeper, I would realize that there is a statement about what you think of Poland, which pokes fun at Polish stereotypes.

PU It’s probably true.

OCY I can approach the Ottomania paintings as just paintings. But then there’s this critical approach to a certain telling or depiction of history, and a critical humor.

PU I’m a contrarian, so that’s why I’m looking for things that are either exploited or dismissed. I mean, coffee-table books are not a critical offering, right? That’s certainly a kind of paradoxical idea. You try to provide a critical statement with a coffee-table book or make a feature-length Western that you can buy a DVD of at Kmart—

OCY Or, yes, making a Polish Western movie …

PU Exactly. Summer Love was made just about when Poland had joined the European Union, and I tried to make a film to over-identify this Polish aspiration to be part of the West, wanting to cross over to the other side where the grass is greener. I chose the genre film as a vehicle for the work knowing it may be a challenge for the viewer. It is perhaps hard to recognize this project as critical since it uses a language of exploitation rather than criticism. But I believe the viewer is smart; so in the end, maybe it’s not so difficult. And even a lot of people who have no relationship or ability to read—let’s say—underlying elements of the work still enjoy it because the work is pretty, so to speak.

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Piotr Uklański, Untitled (Henry), 2019, ink and acrylic on mohair velvet over canvas, 70.5 × 51.25 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Luxembourg & Dayan, New York.

OCY The title Ottomania is a hybrid term, a portmanteau, which reminds me of “Islamophobia.”

PUYou’re right.

OCY You flip associations of fear to a romantic version. “Ottoman,”  this bygone “mystic” culture, and “mania,” about obsession and fascination.

PU Yes, I refer to Ottomania as this romantic term from the times of Lord Byron.

The book we’ve published with Roger Bywater for Ottomania is a selection of European or Anglo-American paintings in Oriental garb. There are images out there in this culture—or cultures—whether it’s Polish, French, British, German, or Romanian. You look at them and realize how schizophrenic they are. British painter John Frederick Lewis who went on a trip to Egypt with other painters made fun of them because they would dress in turbans and Eastern clothing, which were more comfortable to travel in. He bought and brought all these dresses home, and after returning to London, he would only paint himself in the scarves. He would put himself in paintings, which he made in his atelier, into general scenes from the streets of Tangier or Istanbul. So, this story is a sample of how schizophrenic this relationship is. I think in general our relationship, not just as a Western society but as humans to other humans, is a bit schizophrenic. It’s filled with fantasies, projections, fear, and love at the same time.

OCY I wanted to also ask you about fashion and style, because fashion has always appropriated from different cultures, and it’s a recurring discussion whether designers can be inspired by traditional costumes or not. How was it for you to revisit these ideas from a contemporary lens with our current understanding of awareness toward these issues?

PU Going through historical paintings, I realized how inaccurate they were. But, then, should they be mastered, accurate? The problem is that Westerners would call a dress Turkish attire because there’s a turban, but the turban in the end may not be a turban. It’s a piece of scarf wrapped around the head, and it may be a fantasy of the Dutchman, like Michael Sweerts or Rembrandt, or another faraway land. This is when I realized how the Nazis project was close to this series of paintings, this pageantry of men dressing up. While in the Middle East this might have a cultural tradition and significance, Europeans appropriate other cultures, and it becomes a fashion statement, if you will. Now we use dress up as a cultural term.

OCY We spoke earlier about photography’s ability to alter reality. In this case, fashion becomes a way to manipulate the viewer.

PU Exactly.

OCY There’s a stereotype and an archetype. What do you think about the difference between the two?

PU For example, among the paintings now on view in Istanbul, there is a portrait of a German count or duke dressed up in a sort of Oriental garb. There is a portrait of Martin van Meytens, a Swedish painter, who painted himself in a turban. There is a painting of a British man named Thomas—I forget his last name—in Turkey smoking a hookah. There is one of Richard Salwey, a British guy in a dress. That’s when essentially Europeans no longer feared the Ottoman Empire, and they allowed themselves to develop a fetish for it. I think in the end it’s all about reading the imagery.

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Piotr Uklański, Untitled (Amalie of Württemberg, Duchess of Saxe-Altenburg), 2018, ink, acrylic, and oil paint on cotton velvet over canvas, 65.25 × 53 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Luxembourg & Dayan, New York.

OCY In this sense, I wanted to ask you about painting the past with consciousness of the present. When we look at things from even twenty years ago, we encounter problematic depictions. Think of TV shows like Seinfeld or Friends with problematic episodes or of insanely misogynistic ads from the 1950s. Are little accents you’ve implemented, such as the figures’ unfinished parts that look worn off or dotty, a way to pay homage to that consciousness?

PU Painting has to have its own life. With all of this historical background, I’m still making the painting now. I don’t want to choose a material over others, but I think maybe it’s more lush with velvet canvases. It may look cheap, but I find that conceptually attractive. In Istanbul, in numerous historic sites where tourists visit, you can sit in photo booths and put the whole Ottoman dress on and have your photograph taken. These studios allow you to Orientalize yourself. 

OCY There’s also a growing fascination for Ottoman culture in Turkey with the current government, but also the media. There are many soap operas about certain periods of the empire; decorative objects from that era are incredibly popular; and restaurants and cafes use Ottoman-inspired names.

PU So the period is glorified?

OCY In a way, yes, but I am not sure if everyone is doing it purposefully or just following a trend. It all started with these highly popular TV shows. All of a sudden, there were cafés with hookahs and names like Pasha. Their interiors are completely Ottoman influenced. This all happened in the last decade, so there’s an Ottomania in Turkey too, for different reasons.

PU When I was at Pera Museum, where the biennial has my paintings now, I saw a painting by Osman Hamdi Bey.

OCY Yeah, The Tortoise Trainer.

PU Yes. In that room, there’s a plaque with photographs, and in one of them, I think, was a picture of Osman Hamdi Bey dressed as a Bedouin. He was not a Bedouin, right? And the idea was that he was Orientalizing the Bedouin as someone coming from high culture in Istanbul, and then presenting dis-Orientalization in Paris, where he lived for a stretch of time and essentially promoted Ottoman culture. This is interesting because it’s so intertwined, much more complex than one would think. When I was in Istanbul, I went to this Polish village near—

OCY A Polish village?

PU Well, it was originally called Adampol, and it was founded in the 1840s, when Poland had a failed uprising against the colonizing Tsarist Russia. It caused the immigration of freedom fighters from Poland to Turkey via Paris because Poles hoped that Turkey would enter the war with Russia, which it eventually did, and Poles immigrated there to enlist their support. The village is now called Polonezköy. And these are descendants of the immigrants who essentially went there to join the Ottoman military and fight the Russians.

OCY So, there’s like a blond, Polish DNA community there?

PUI wouldn’t go that far. I think there are people, a few buildings, a café with Polish names, selling Polish things; Polish books are on the shelves. 

OCY Like Greenpoint.

PU Exactly. Greenpoint and Polonezköy. I think that the Ottoman Empire had a rather strong tradition of bringing Slavic people from Serbia or Albania. It’s funny, because there are many paintings of Ottoman warriors that are blond, and this is because the empire included so many different nations. Again, it adds to this strange, surprising element.

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Piotr Uklański, Untitled (Balthasar Klossowski de Rola, Balthus), 2017, ink and acrylic on mohair velvet over canvas, 26.25 × 20.25 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Luxembourg & Dayan, New York.

OCY How do you see this past fascination that’s also about fear and looking down. It’s maybe prejudice that later moved onto fear. With everything happening today, how do you understand Islamophobia?

PU I’m in a particular position, because I’m Polish. The Poles never had a colonizing perspective because we were also colonized. Plus, the fascination with Turkey or the Ottoman Empire didn’t come from, let’s say, faraway stories and books. It was because of the border, and the border was hard fought. Now I don’t think we have a better understanding, because I don’t think these Polish noblemen that we discussed had such cultural insights. At the same time, they were rather looking for affinity in the fetish. So, my perspective is very much a coexistence that goes traditionally, culturally.

Polish national dress essentially borrowed elements from Ottoman attire. Classic thinking is that all Slavs or Middle Eastern people are the same. This is a generalization that streamlines perceptions of the other. If you look at my paintings, they are not necessarily about the Middle East, the Ottomans, or the Orient. They often only painted themselves. They didn’t really paint the others, at least the paintings I was looking at. Because of course there’s a whole other genre of painters painting Oriental subjects. But that’s not this project.

OCY Yeah. There’s another genre of Western painters’ gaze into Ottoman life.

PU Gérôme, Ingres … That in itself has its own complexity, but I am looking at something else.

OCY Also speaking of being Slavic or Polish, let’s talk about how Poland is also on the periphery of Europe, an identity that’s been pushed aside by a western European presence. It’s associated with labor and immigration. One reason Brexit happened was because England didn’t want the Poles to come and take all the plumbing jobs.

PU Or waitressing jobs.

OCY Poland is also associated with the other within Europe. It’s one of the poorest and most conservative countries in the European Union. It’s not a dominant culture, as you said. If you were French, German, or British, would this be a different kind of approach and work in the end?

PU Yes, Poland belongs to the East. Essentially, there has been a very strong philosophical and intellectual movement in Poland over the centuries as a reaction to our aspirations to be Western. We want to be part of the West, but we’re trailing, and we should instead join the East. Poland, like other European countries, was pagan until Christianity spread. The country had a choice to take this on or not. Christianity in Poland came around not by force; it was taken on voluntarily from the Czechs. Some people think of it as a mistake, and I entertain this idea. I don’t agree on this dichotomy that the West is richer, better, and the East trails behind. Over the centuries, it was the other way around. This concept of wanting to belong to Western society is actually not that old; it’s maybe four hundred or five hundred years old. Before that there was a very different perspective; the center was elsewhere.

OCY The word “Slavic” comes from “slave” and has an association with the slave trade.

PU Yeah, with slaves or slave traders. It’s not determined whether the Slavs were basically the slaves or were trading slaves of their own.

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Piotr Uklański, Untitled (Self-portrait as Leonora Frederique Henriette Schmidt-Salomonson), 2018, ink and acrylic on mohair velvet over canvas, 38.25 × 38.25 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Luxembourg & Dayan, New York.

OCY I was also thinking about Edward Said’s book, Orientalism, and how we’re looking at art history again now. Museums are taking down Picassos or Matisses and opening up space for work by artists of color and women. Art history is trying to rewrite itself. Maybe what’s been written or taught in schools for years can’t be changed, but we are trying to reinterpret it. How do you look at Said’s text today in the context of this show?

PU First of all, it was a very important text at the time to bring attention to the Orientalist genre and look at it in a critical way. I particularly responded to the reading of Said that pointed out how he smeared all of Orientalists with the same black paint. His argument seemed to be: “Oriental subject matter should not be looked at if it’s executed by the Western artist.” It is pretty exclusive and excluding. I actually think Orientalist art as a genre had much more to it than one would think. In my undertaking I was not interested in the history of a Western painter going to Egypt or Morocco alongside the Napoleonic military to paint what he encounters. There were Dutch painters who had never been to the so-called Orient or the Middle East. What do you make of their “Orientalist” paintings? Was it a Western fantasy of the other? I believe they sought to portray not the strikingly different but the oddly familiar. This is what interests me. It’s really complex; plus, as we both know, the Ottoman Empire was not the same as Morocco. It was a rich state that actually hired painters, whether Polish or Italian, to come to the court and paint.

I don’t think my project is about a Western painter going to Istanbul or Morocco to paint. It’s about a Western painter or artist having a fantasy of the other. And I don’t think Said was talking about this. I don’t think that is covered. He was particularly interested in the power dynamics of somebody going there and painting, whether it’s somebody on the street or a subject, but essentially the colonizer and the colonized.

OCY Pera Museum in Istanbul has a large collection of Oriental-themed paintings by European and Turkish painters. Showing the paintings among these referential works must feel like the cherry on top.

PU I think it’s a very fortunate situation because it echoes everything. My offering is a different perspective; but in the end, there wouldn’t be any place better than Pera. The paintings they have are amazing.

OCY Did you select the site, or did the curator, Nicholas Bourriaud, approach you specifically to exhibit there?

PU I understood that the Istanbul Biennial has a tradition of showing works there. He gave me a choice of a few places, but it was a no-brainer. It just seemed so tailored.

Piotr Ulański’s Ottomania project can be seen at the 16th Istanbul Biennial until November 10 and at Luxembourg & Dayan in New York City until November 16.

Osman Can Yerebakan is a curator and art writer based in New York. His writing has appeared in T: The New York Times Style Magazine, Paris Review, Artforum, Brooklyn Rail, BOMB, Observer, Vulture, New York Magazine, Wallpaper*, Elephant, ArtAsiaPacific, Village Voice, Harper’s Bazaar Arabia, L’Officiel, Flaunt, Galerie Magazine, Cultured, and elsewhere.

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