There is a quote from W.G. Sebald’s Rings of Saturn on the home page of Monika Patuszyńska’s website that sets the perfect note and tone for Orphans and Bastards, a project made possible with the support of the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage of the Republic of Poland.
The making of a fish-hook, manufacture of a china cup, or production of a television program, all depend on the same process of combustion. Like our bodies and like our desires, the machines we have devised are possessed of a heart which is slowly reduced to embers. From the earliest times, human civilization has been no more than a strange luminescence growing more intense by the hour, of which no one can say when it will begin to wane and when it will fade away.
Patuszyńska understands that a factory becomes brain dead the moment the last staff member leaves the building and padlocks the door. But other vital organs survive through transference. The contents of that space immediately begin an incremental process of rebirth via natural mutation. The heart continues to beat and lungs still gasp for air. Oxidation becomes the primary life giver. Mold adds growing patches of green and brown, metals rust, wood splinters and rots, leaking roofs spread water that in turn serves decay. Rats move in, insects thrive. As plaster molds erode, they curiously begin to resemble ancient bones. All of this is evidence that a new, vigorous cycle of life has begun. And given enough time, everything manmade will be either gone or unrecognizable.
At a certain point along this journey, Patuszyńska interrupts the process and rescues what we see might view as a slum or manmade orphans and bastards, just before they are about to meet their end. These marginal entities are plaster molds. She examines hundreds of them, sifting through the muck and seeming desolation to find those that have potential to serve her art. Patuszyńska does not make anything from an aesthetic standpoint, but is an editor of sorts, except when she produces her Bastards; there her input is more intrusive. I will clarify that distinction in a moment.
She reads the concavity of the mould, imagining it afresh in the convex and looks for signs of nature’s fingers, where flow of water or other erosion, has altered the shape of the creamer, plate, mug, bowl, candlestick, or ladle that the mould was manufactured to replicate. Silhouettes change and extraordinary relief engravings appear. When she finds the right candidate, Patuszyńska slipcasts the work, using the original mold, neither adding nor subtracting, and out pops an Orphan ready for the kiln.
Bastards are different in that these are interventions. Here, the artist takes molds and cuts and combines them into new forms, some become Siamese twins in the process and others take on the wings of angels. But even here, she adds nothing from her own hand aside from the act of assemblage, everything remains exactly the same as the molds that gave birth to the individual Bastard, every mark, scar, and flaw remains: nothing added, nothing removed.
The resulting artworks are startlingly beautiful. Nature has a talent for the symmetrical and gravity takes care of balance. They are, at least to this eye, among the most beautiful, evocative, and haunting ceramics of the last few years. And they are almost annoyingly tenacious. Since I first saw them, I have not been able to retire them from my memory. They remain assertive, demanding attention daily through constant visits to my conscious mind, darting around like hyperactive, slipcast bats.
Part of my fascination comes from the fact that these kinds of projects, research based art, often end up being an academic exercise, dry and brittle as a twig. And it is a growing genre, now that more and more European ceramists are enrolling in studio doctorate programs. And it does not take long to sense how Patuszyńska avoided being bogged down in this sand trap. One can detect from the two essays she wrote for the catalog for the project that she works with a refined poetic and literary sensibility and strong empathy. This warms the mechanics of analytics.
While her emotional drive is strongly subjective, she does still use logic as her compass. Metaphors are not thrown into the bag willy nilly, she first parses them for truth.
Patuszyńska accepts the notion of damage and deformity in life, yet largely rejects the vocabulary and symbolism of death; funerals, corpses, ghosts, and coffins, even though this seems, at first glance, the perfect marriage to her art. An accompanying essay explains why abandoned factories should not seen as cemeteries:
Encounters in cemeteries are of interest only if there is a slight chance of awakening the dear dead (preferably to the accompaniment of organ music and a cloud of fog). Fortunately we know that it does not happen. So we do not wait for anything. Stasis is constant here. It is comfortable and expected; whereas willingness for continual transformation and readiness for the emergence of the next flashing and surprising installment becomes the main point for the living and, as a result, the only constant NOW.
Indeed, Patuszyńska serves life, rescuing the living from death or, at least, mutation into a different species, seeing her charges as the perfect embodiment of contemporary life and art. Her friend Aleksandra Dobrowolska wryly notes that in art today, “it is better to be a bastard:”
They, the poor bastards, the abandoned orphans, fit perfectly into our expectations. These things and beings are mutable, they are in process; they release us from the need for permanently keeping up, for tracking them; they let us pause because it is they who evolve and change. They are fitted perfectly to a contemporary life style that becomes a series of momentary experiences. As such we are dealing with an ideal species, they are nothing but experience.
An interview with Agnieszka Kurgan, that is also published in this issue of The Weekly, expands on this:
Both Bastards and Orphans come from broken, crippled plaster moulds collected in operating and abandoned ceramic factories. They are descendants of discarded and forgotten styles, mismatched ventures, stale ideas and failed projects – those that went out of fashion, did not have a sufficiently wide appeal or simply ran out of luck.
Bastards are made of borrowed details and processed traditional designs. These are hybrids, cross-breeds of unwanted or outdated styles and forms, kinds of mongrel produced from fragments of found plaster moulds which have been modified and joined to form completely new species.
Orphans are foundlings. The moulds come from where they were abandoned, in the empty halls of closed factories decaying slowly along with the buildings, declining into ruin.
The first episode of the project took place in Poland in the abandoned porcelain factory Ksiaz and was presented as a part of her solo show Bastards & Orphans in Wroclaw, Poland at the Glass & Ceramics Gallery in May through June of 2013. Then it was shown in Amsterdam at the JBK Gallery in August, in the Institute of Design in Kielce, Poland and at the Lodz Design Festival.
The second episode or “operation,” as she likes to call them, took place in Belgium at the abandoned Royal Boch factory site. This was also shown in Kielce as part of the solo show in the Institute of Design in Kielce. Last summer, the British Ceramics Biennial invited Patuszyńska to take part in the Explore Program and the third operation, In Dust We Trust, was based on the moulds found in the Spode factory and was presented as part of last year’s British Ceramics Biennial in Stoke-on-Trent.
New factories have come to her attention and called to her but she is contemplating when to close this door. When I spoke with the artist at the Clay Studio in Philadelphia last month, she described herself as having being “kidnapped” and maintained that the Orphans and Bastards were calling the shots while she did desk work as an unintended director of a growing international orphanage. Selfishly, I hope that this project continues for at least another few operations; the work that emerges is effortlessly both fine art and ceramic art. The ceramic dialogue is entered into and that conversation is rich, layered and evocative, and yet broadly accessible.
Whatever route Patuszyńska takes, the sense of the unexpected that energizes her art will remain. As she writes, “I like to let accidents lead me. I like accidents, feeling that they occur when the world turns a blind eye, loosens vigilance and reveals the truth about itself. Slip casting, Chasing accidents. Always checking what is through the looking glass.”
A sixty-four page hardcover catalog of the Orphans and Bastards project has been published by BWA, Warsaw and Galerie Sztuki Wspolczesne and is an excellent summary. It is almost out of print and CFile is endeavoring to obtain and offer some copies when our store, Ceramics Limited, opens in the next few weeks.
Monika Patuszyńska’s Orphans and Bastards is also explored in this issue of The Weekly with two other posts; an interview with Agnieszka Kurgan and a Foto File portfolio by Grzegorz Stadnik. Links below connect to these posts.
Monika Patuszyńska’s project has been made possible with the support of the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage of the Republic of Poland.
Garth Clark is the Chief Editor of CFile.
Above image: A unique, slipcast ceramic sculpture from “Operation Ksiaz,” the first phase of Monika Patuszyńska’s project, Orphans and Bastards. Courtesy of Patuszyńska. Photograph by Monika Patuszyńska.