"The Best Art In The World"
Alicja Kwade: Silent Matter
February 7 through March 25, 2023
By ANGEL CHEN, February 2023
Transcribed from recording February 8, 2023
ANGEL CHEN: Hi, Alicia, I am pleased to be here with you and enjoyed your show so much, especially in context of LagoAlgo and current environmental issues. I saw your work reflecting schools of thought such as ecosophie, deep ecology and environmental ethics. Is that how you would frame it?
ALICJA KWADE: Yes. It's very simple in a way. It's just about our beings and both the world and why we're here, what it's all about. And this is probably the oldest human question we all have. And there are different ways to approach it. I'm just questioning things. I'm questioning why things are like they are and who's deciding, who's agreeing on it and how we do it, and how we are trying to be here in this spinning sphere in the void.
This is the main source of my thoughts, so you could frame it like that. I'm trying to find what I use as a source of my inspiration. I'm reading a lot of philosophy and sociology and physics. I'm always an absolute non-believer. I don't believe in rules, agreements, countries, nations, races, all of that.
What do you think is the role of the artist in society today?
I feel like you're not deciding to be an artist. So you don't decide to have a role somehow because you are an artist or you're not an artist. And if life is good to you and you are an artist, it'll make it happen for you. But you're not sitting down when you're 18 and you're not saying to yourself, oh, I will become an artist.
But of course, it's super important to interact with society to try to meet people somehow. Cause I think art or culture in general is, you know, it's a base of humanity. This is what we are leaving. Nobody knows exactly how political systems have been like10,000 years ago, but we still can find some paintings on walls. So it's actually what is melting us together. And it's super important to also make it accessible, not just for high society people, but to make people question things, you know, to open up different points of view on the world, or questions, or circumstances.
I agree with that. Definitely the accessibility. And especially if you don't think that you are choosing to be an artist, that you're simply born this way, then, the role is something that's simply given to you. It's almost like a birthright.
Yeah. So it's not something you're choosing, you can't calculate that. It's not a plan. I don't believe that can be planned. But of course from the moment you are getting visible or you have the possibility to show your works, because not every artist is able to do that. So if you're privileged to do that and to make yourself visible, I think the best is to make people question why we do that. Because it’s natural, if you’re an artist. But, you know, even for me, it's even enough if people bump into my works and just question, why is somebody doing that?
Why is somebody putting so much effort to do the things? And this already is opening up somehow. Then probably people start to question where that is coming from. Why. And we do it since the first time we've been looking into the stars. We do our own very different ways. But you do. <laugh>
That's right. From ancient cultures. Your work reflects on nature and culture and their relationship. And what I really love about your work is that in some uses of the rocks and the stones, they feel unmolested. Molested in Spanish means to bother. But in English, to molest a small child is a predatory thing. When you work with your stones, you're not damaging them or inscribing them or doing some sort of decorative thing. It's seeing the inherent value of the material and that was very attractive to me.
So what are your thoughts on the relationship of cultural production to the natural environment?
I get obsessed with stones. I don't like to shape them too much because it is for me, symbolic as well. I mean, a rock, in many cultures has meaning. I'm not trying to press a natural object into another form. Sometimes I do it with the rings, the branch. But, usually I try to leave things as they are. Yeah to make it readable and combine them or to bring them in a different circumstance not to try to change that. I'm not trying to change their characters. I always try to take things as they are, and I try to add as less as I can, and to combine somehow.
That's beautiful. And so it goes back to deep ecology, it's the idea that nature has value, it has an inherent value in and of itself. So it's not simply a resource for humans to take and do with it what one will.
Absolutely. I see everything the same for me. An object is an object, counting as humans and myself, I would take a stone as serious as I would take myself. And we are all made from the same matter. We are made of 24 elements. So for me, it all has the same value.
Yeah. That brings us to your title “Silent Matter.”
It's this double meaning of matter and what matters. Multiple uses of language. This exhibition is very much about the stones, but for me it's a wise matter because those stones are millions of years old and they are witnesses of all the strong forces which have been creating this planet, including us. They’re very wise objects in a compressed time and compressed history of this planet.
The very spirit in the interior, the ancient wisdom of rocks. You feel their spirits. I think we are very connected to them.
What would you say are your art issues? And how would you frame this in today's larger contemporary issues?
My art issues are very much like my personality. It is what I am, what I think. And so to be honest, I'm never comparing myself, with the art world or something like that. It's more like that I think the best way to approach art, my art is just to be very honest, just to be very clear about what I think.
And just to translate that in my art and how that is put in the all over context. It's more that this is like probably not my role. You know, others are doing that, but it's not your role. My role is to put myself in my art. You know, in a context with the all over art world, because my art is very much my world. And of course I'm putting it out so I'm bringing it out. But I can't say how it is. Almost like to protect, it's like a self protection tunnel. Yeah. So I don't do that, I mean, there's obviously a knowledge that there is an existence.
Something like a shelter. But of course, I’m interested in all things about me. So of course I do things and try not to repeat too much. But still, I think, art is also like language, so you use different, you can use the same letters, but you are creating your own story if you do it honest.
Yes. Great. Language, letters, personal story, materials and forms… How do you view, relate to, and work with raw materials?
It's difficult to use these terms, but starting with a concept of my whole question of myself, I'm choosing the matter of the object. So it's not the other way. It's not that I just work with stone or metal or whatever it's more that there is a concept for me or my question. And it needs a special matter material. Yes. Material. And there's no other which could replace. It's a very clear need, that must be stone or metal or whatever.
The language of the material itself. I think the first works of yours that I saw, that I was struck by were the rocks facing mirrors, it looked so very delicate. So obviously feminine to use the materials in a way that they were balancing and looking at each other, like the rocks and the mirrors were having a relationship.
Yeah, I hate and love mirrors in the art world. And actually what I'm trying to do is avoid them in a way that I make use of them. So they're like a tool to make the object speak to each other. I copy the objects as they are becoming mirror images of themselves. So actually they're doing what the mirror usually is doing, like the obsidian. It is kind of melting together the object and its mirror image and becomes the same thing. And the mirror of this polished surface is a tool which is allowing the dialogue, or it's leading to another world.
Chronologically, did the mirrors lead to the polished obsidian, which led to the lights?
Yes, I always have used mirrors, rocks and lamps in many of my works. And in this way I try to merge that together. And the stone itself becomes the mirror. The lamp for me is a symbol for knowledge, self-awareness, identity. In these pieces they're not lighting up anything.
Yes. It's like being themselves. And it's the concept that that would be enough. That there isn't some wild story that needs to be excavated. That simply the self-knowledge, the self-reflection is the story.
Exactly, those lamps stand for humans with this desire to kind of get knowledge and to light up this unawareness, which we are in, but somehow not being able to do it.
So enlightenment itself.
Yes. So we can just face ourselves in the end. We just see the world as ourselves as a mirror, but it's not allowing us to kind of step behind the mirror. You know, we bounce back with our physical limitations.
So you say you're reading philosophy, what are you reading at the moment?
I'm starting to read a new book by philosopher and social scientist, Elena Esposito, just released with MIT, about picture making information and how we create our world, our process. How we create reality through ourselves. How we learn. How virtual intelligence is trying to create that and how that is bouncing back. But I do really like cross reading, so it's more like about an issue I'm interested in and then I pick different sources to learn more about that.
So the mobiles are new and they weren't always motorized?
The series is quite new, 2020. But the idea is much older because I always wanted to do that, but it's physically not so easy because you can't do it manually. You can't just put stones and then see if it would work or not. It's impossible. I’ve been lucky to get a great new team member, a Canadian-Hong Kong architect.
He is helping me to do these calculations, which are needed to make it happen. It's why it took time to get there. And that's why it's also exciting for me to make them bigger. Cuz it's very much on the physical limits, what you can do, because it has a zero tolerance. If you would put one gram less or more, it will just collapse. So it has this very calm balance, but actually it's under highest tension as well because it has weights, which are not allowing any tolerance to reach this balance status. It's a lot of computer based work and engineering, which you can't see obviously. I tried it myself at the beginning, but there's no way to get it.
In this mobile, I was noticing that there's a piece of broken glass.
It came by accident because my team started to make them a little bit too beautiful for me, you know, kind of obsessed to find beautiful stones. But for me, it's not about the beauty of the stone, it's more about the physical tension of matter and dance with gravity. Then, I wanted to break that, you know? So I included pieces of glass, but also the stone is the first weapon which we ever used. So this is something you would pick to, let's say revolt. It's like to pick up a stone, just throw it. So I like to have this term revolution, for example. It means a revolution around the sun, but also revolutions against governments.
It's a very brutal human thing to break a bottle and use it as a weapon. It's about rotation, revolution, changing of circumstances, and this very base human feeling. What a revolution does is to turn things around to change things from that to that.
And also trash.
<laugh>. Yeah. Trash. Yes. Physically, yes. Physically it's nothing. That's why I wanted it kind of base and not too elevated there.
Speaking of trash, the fruit peel spirals, are so loaded because we want to eat the fruit and throw out the peel, but nothing is trash. There's no such thing as trash.
Right. That's right. It doesn't go anywhere. Nothing is leaving this atmosphere.
How did you have the impulse to bronze the fruit peel?
It's also more really like a humoristic work. I was cooking at home, you know? In a humoristic way, it refers to the string theory, because it is saying that everything is vibrating spirals, creating matter. But I also see it in a feministic way. We've been meant to cook. And then I say, no, this isn't waste. This is not what I do, but kind of. But I announce it as a sculpture. So I'm saying you are a sculpture and that's why they're in bronze, and they have very classical bronze colors, because it is like really saying, here I am, I'm a bronze sculpture. But in the end, it's waste. And this waste is kind of behaving in the way to connect to the most difficult quantum physical questions, which are there.
And the wood circle, the symbolism of it, the one where it was manipulated.
I do this kind of work where I'm trying to question why we believe in objects and how we also name them. For example, a chair: because I call it a chair because I have a social interaction, which makes me sit on the chair. In the end, it's a piece of wood, so it's a tree. In this case, what I do is I take an original branch from the forest, we 3D scan it, and they are doing this perfect circle in the computer, then I mill it again in the same kind of wood, take away the bark of the original tree, and I'm putting it back on the mill body of the same wood.
So you could say it is still the branch somehow. It is the same matter.
It's the same DNA.
Yeah, the DNA is the same.
Apple sauce is an apple.
Exactly. Yeah. And then it tries to match this impossible, ideal form of a circle, which is human invention because there's no perfect circle existing in nature. But this is our invention, our system, our geometry. And then they're trying to meet each other.
What cultural similarities or differences have you noticed here in Mexico compared to Europe specifically Germany and Poland?
Really the biggest pleasure I have is that I'm able to travel and also to work in different countries because, I don't believe much in differences between humans because we are basically all the same. We are 99.9% all the same. But still, of course, you have cultural differences and you just kind of experience them.
If you meet people in a way where you not observe them, but you work with them because this is now making a dialogue.
I am probably the worst German, because I'm not a German, it's like an immigrant trying to copy a different culture. Polish culture is very different to German as well. I'm super fast, I'm very efficient, typically German. Here it is different. You have to meet the people, you have to talk to them, you have to make them understand why you do that. And then you have to be much more patient, it takes some time and they're happening probably, even better. It's a very different way of working. Germany is like, I never meet my producers, I'm friends with some, but usually I'm sending a schedule to a company, they confirm, it comes back.
It’s much more analytical too that way, because once you are writing, you don't have the human voice.
Yes, exactly. You know, it's much more distanced, than here. But I've been around to all these companies. You need to talk to people. They need to like you to help you because they would not do it if they don't like you. So yeah, it's much more human in a way. But it was good for me also.
It was good also to see that things are also happening differently. There's not a right way to do things or wrong way to do things. It's just to do things in the end.
That's very good to hear you say. I also noticed that it's very human, and that is exactly the word that I would use. And frankly, when you say that, they have to like you to do it for you, I noticed that. It isn't a culture that's dedicated to income producing work. It’s not like OK you’re paying me I have to do this.
I would say, it's more like an exchange, you give me this, I give you that. But it's not like, I pay you, get it done.
I’ve actually noticed moments where whether you are offering to pay someone or not, they don't want to do it.
Which is nice, yeah.
Easing back into the Polish and German heritage, how do you feel this is related to your childhood?
I'm really not interested in myself so much. So I'm never trying to figure out why things happen to me or why am I doing what I do, I'm not really interested in that. I love people, what they do and what they are, but I don't care the background. Honestly, I’m really not interested in myself that much. I can’t get out of my myself. I can't escape influences of course.
Probably, I mean, the only way I could imagine what must have influenced me, and this is probably reflected in my work, that I'm not a believer. I don't believe in systems. I don't believe in nations. I don't believe in anything basically. I've been thrown from one complete world to another when I was eight years old. So I was raised in a communistic country, and a complete different planet.
And then I ended up in a super capitalistic Germany, everything was completely different. So that probably, was influencing me. And I was raised in a super Catholic country where this was a permanent theme, they always told me to believe in this and that. And I was always trying to escape and to deny that.
I'm not trying to figure out why I do things. It just that I try to be as clear as I can, but always in present tense. Never trying to look why, why it is, why it has been, or why I think this way or the other way. I just try to focus on the moment and to understand, to listen to myself really, and to be 100% honest to myself.
So you are in the being, you're in the doing. You're in the present moment.
I think it's really underestimated how powerful art can be actually. And I think that it's not really visible to most humans that it is everywhere. I mean, houses, treasures, music, you know, it's basically everywhere. I sometimes feel like it's pressed in a box and it should be more like a natural thing, what it is.
And this is also making humans, we would not be humans if we would not think and write. And paint and whatever. So I think that sometimes that is a little bit underestimated. And also just to say it more practically, it is a big important industry. It's not like a fun thing for some people.
It’s a very powerful tool.
Yeah. It is the world for me. We try to describe it, you know, to give our void a voice. Because we are super limited. I mean, we are thrown on this planet, but we have no clue why. And we will never, ever figure out. And this is a very absurd situation we are in. And art is a way to try to help with that.
To understand ourselves. A friend said something to me yesterday, and it's actually someone who acquired a mobile, “the work is so subtle, it almost looks like she didn't do anything.” Which goes back to our initial conversation of the inherent value in the rock. It’s a very fine line. It really is. You know, the question sometimes with painting, when is it finished.
I somehow finish before I start, I know exactly, mostly exactly how the piece will turn out before I even start physically. And then I have to finish, for different reasons. You know, in the beginning I was not always successful, so it was a learning process. But of course I try to do more public sculpture because I truly believe it's super important to do that, and you have to know each detail before you hire a company to do that. You can't just change the shape, it's just not possible.
In collaboration you have to communicate.
And so again we are back at the beginning, acknowledging the material for what it is. Not manipulating it, not decorating it, not forcing it to be something that it isn’t. You see the material’s inherent value and you don't need to do much more to it.
Yeah, in best case, I don't have to do anything or almost anything. Or at least you should not see it. <laugh>.
Okay. I think that sums it up. Thank you so much. It was a pleasure.
Thank you so much. It was real pleasure, <laugh>. WM
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Angel Chen is a Mérida, Yucatán and Joshua Tree, California based artist/writer. Born in Taipei, raised in Los Angeles, she earned a BFA from UCLA, an MFA from Calarts, and also received the Ahmanson award, and distinguished art fellowships from Skowhegan, Atlantic Center for the Arts, and created a 20 foot commission for the Annenberg Foundation. She has written arts coverage on the Venice Biennale, Basel Art Fair, and Shanghai Art Fair. She is currently developing a land art work in the Yucatán. Contact: www.angel-chen.com