Everything in this world is cyclic. For centuries, artists have been warning us about the inevitability of this: things are born, peak, then come to an end, only to be reborn again in a different light. But humankind’s fixation for eternity has also tried to disrupt this natural cycle in different ways. Marcin Rusak’s work might seem like it tries to achieve that at first sight because it freezes decaying flowers in time, turning them into beautiful pieces halfway between art and design—decorative vases, coffee tables, etc.
But not at all. In his own words, “My work often goes against the natural cycles of time and decay that inevitably happens in the natural,” however, he doesn’t intent to make time stop but become a part of the cycle. “I prefer to focus on the idea of rebirth and cyclicality that is inherent to nature itself,” he says. If you want to experience his work live, you have the opportunity to do so until June 28 at New York’s Carpenters Workshop Gallery, in a solo show titled Vas Florum: Resina Botanica. Today, we have the opportunity to talk to him and delve into his creative process, the importance of experimentation, hi views on death, and his upcoming retrospective show in October.
Hi Marcin, it’s a pleasure to speak with you. To get to know you better, what does a normal day in your life look like? Are you a routine person, or do you like to improvise?
At the studio, there is a team of 10+ people working from 9 to 5 every day. A routine is vital to create a stable and reliable structure so everybody knows their priorities and what to focus on. For myself, it’s obviously harder to create a routine—my working pattern is constantly intertwining interactions with my team members, conducting meetings online and offline, and finding some peace and quiet for sketching out new ideas and projects.
When working on new pieces, I am always curious about experimenting and exploring new possibilities and alternative solutions, so the end results are quite unexpected. Most recently, when working on a large, 3D-printed outdoor sculpture for an exhibition, I decided to change its appearance completely by charring its surface. It wasn’t almost until the predetermined packing and shipping day that I stopped working on the piece. So to sum up, each day is quite unpredictable, depending on the projects’ new developments and findings.
I wonder, were you always a creative kid? What did you want to be when you grew up, and how did you end up in this path of bridging art and design?
I guess I have always been a curious kid. I believe I have inherited this curiosity and persistence to experiment from my late maternal grandfather. As a kid, I used to play around our family garden and the derelict greenhouses that surrounded our house—this was my playground where I would explore the remaining landscape, constantly building structures with waste materials I found there. I think I have always used my imagination and creativity, but I have also learned to connect that intuitive part with solid academic research. It all clicked for me in London, after a turbulent and intense period of studies in Warsaw and Eindhoven, which I’d always topped up with creative jobs on the side. While at the Royal College of Art, I finally started experimenting, channelling the things I had learned in Eindhoven. It’s in London that I rediscovered flowers as a material and as my heritage, as well.
It’s ironic that your Instagram bio reads “Unnatural Practice,” especially since you work with natural materials like flowers and plants. What about it would you say is unnatural?
Researching the cut flower market made me realise that the plants we buy in flower shops are all heavily engineered and modified in order to become commodified. They are globalised products, adapted to withstand unnatural conditions of fast growth, collection and transportation worldwide. Most cut flowers still come from Holland, but they are bred in different parts of Africa or Latin America. They are engineered to have straight stems, so that they are easier to transport in boxes and carts, and they present themselves better in vases. To achieve a more vibrant colour, they are genetically modified, and lose their scent along the way. My Flowering Transition project aimed at revealing and highlighting all these modifications—for instance, the Monster Flower sculpture gathered all the presumptions about an ideal flower as seen by sellers, breeders and consumers. Its ghost-like, abstract form told a story of our striving for perfection that results in monstrous effects.
“Unnatural Practice” is an umbrella term I use for all my investigations around the perishability and value we perceive not only in flowers, but in human-made creations as well. I use the botanic matter to achieve something entirely unrelated to nature; something that tells us a lot about us, humans—our needs, desires, and obsessions. Our consumerist culture and the way we want to organise, master the world, and protect what we find is the most valuable. Using plants in my work adds so many cultural and symbolic aspects to the narrative. It’s also exciting to come up with new materials and techniques, things that weren’t done before. My work often goes against the natural cycles of time and decay that inevitably happens not only in the natural world, but also – metaphorically – within consumerist culture.
Also, I hint a great sense of humour. Do you consider yourself funny? Do you think humour plays a role in your work despite dealing with themes like death, beauty, and the passage of time?
You should ask my team about it!
Your work is hugely process-based. It takes a lot of time, knowledge, and skills. Could you tell us more about how your practice came to be?
The process is what excites me the most. I build my team around the projects and processes I am currently working on. We do a lot of research, hypothesising, sketching, modelling, rendering, etc. We put a lot of effort into research and development, and contact different specialists and institutions. For instance, for my exhibition at the Horta Museum in 2018, I teamed up with Laboratoire de Chimie Agro-Industrielle and CRT Catar Critt Agro-ressources in Toulouse to create custom ‘incubators’ and develop special sets of enzymes and bacteria that would accelerate the decomposition (or ‘degradation kinetics’) of my pieces made of shellac and waste flowers. Now, for new and upcoming projects, we are looking into new ventures with botanists specialising in orchids, moss and lichens. Visiting botanical gardens and national parks, observing nature in its wild and cultivated states stimulates me and leads my work to new creative avenues.
I guess this exploration and experimentation with new techniques is endless. What are you currently working/experimenting on that you can share with us?
Recently, I have been excited about the possibilities offered by larger-scale projects, implementing our materials and techniques within an architectural and spatial setup, e.g. in garden pavilions, outdoor sculptures and site-specific installations. We have just completed two large sculptures, and I am now venturing into new projects that stem from previous endeavours that entwine real living plants with sculptural and architectural elements. For my Transience Pavilion, I envision a new, sculptural ‘Frankenstein environment’ that, overgrown with different kinds of mosses, lichens and climbing plants, will enable us to observe their vegetative cycles of growth, decay, and regrowth. Over time, I imagine the plants will take over the human-made structure, sustaining themselves independently. The installation will act as a focal point to observe the transience in nature, familiarising us with the plant species that have shaped our sensory ecosystem but have remained unseen, right under our eyes.
Another outdoor project, called Nature’s Monument, stems from our conceptual reflection on nature’s memory encapsulated in the plants themselves, their seeds, and their DNA. This, again, will invoke our quest for preserving what we find the most valuable in the natural environment, while simultaneously aiming at creating a decaying artificial structure that has a limited lifespan of its own.
“My work often goes against the natural cycles of time and decay that inevitably happens not only in the natural world, but also – metaphorically – within consumerist culture.”
You’re currently exhibiting Vas Florum: Resina Botanica at NYC’s Carpenters Workshop Gallery. Congratulations! You had presented a similar body of work with the same gallery, only in its Paris space. What’s remained and what’s changed from that show to this one?
The Paris show was a huge success. The previous exhibition was very poetic and introspective, telling the story of the people and situations that contributed to nurturing the person I am today. For the New York presentation, I created new unique Vas Florum sculptures that add a commentary on the themes and techniques that have been continuously developed and implemented in our projects. For instance, the Vas Florum 17 – Aere Involutum captures real flowers preserved in two distinct techniques: in layers of metallised zinc and bronze, and then in cast resin.
Additionally, we introduced new Resina Botanica Coffee Tables, whose shapes were inspired by my trips to the Bieszczady Mountains in southern Poland. With their irregular rims cast in patinated bronze, the shapes of the Brunswick Green and Rust pieces were literally borrowed from stone slabs found in the depths of the Solina River—I took the rocks to my studio in Warsaw, scanned them, and modelled the pieces out of these natural shapes.
By pouring resin and other material, you turn discarded flowers into eternal pieces of art. There is something very poetic about preserving them, of finding beauty in something that others have deemed ugly, useless or pointless. Do you usually find beauty in unexpected places? In objects, people, places, or even situations that others can’t seem to value properly?
Yes, that’s very much so. Growing up, I was confronted with derelict landscapes of closed-down family greenhouses, full of broken glass and metal scraps, and a distinct odour of rust and rotting plants. I think this primed me to search for beauty – or, rather, traces of life – in impermanence. While at the RCA, I was assigned to think of a piece of furniture that sparked an emotional thrill or connection. I instantly thought of this giant wooden Gdańsk wardrobe, or ‘Danziger Schapp’, that stood in my grandfather’s home. Revisiting this typology allowed me to reconnect with my late grandfather, but also, delve deep into our age-long penchant towards floral embellishment.
Visiting London’s flower markets after hours, I was confronted with heaps of flower waste, which instantly reminded me of the familiar landscapes. I literally stole the waste flowers to my studio and started experimenting with the fading, wilting flowers, e.g. pressing them in a laundry mangle to create naturally dyed textiles. Initially, it wasn’t about preservation; rather, it was about observing the decay, alluding to the notion of planned obsolescence. I wanted to create a material that would allow us to observe steady degradation—this is how the Perishable series came to be. Also, these were the origins of the Flora material, with which I intended to observe the gradual evolution of the material while a special set of bacteria injected within was to eat up the botanical matter after ten, twenty, thirty years, leaving voids of light where the flowers used to be.
These days, I find beauty in most simple (or complex?) natural beings: the geological structures and patterns, the textures of plants, the architecture of seeds. But still, what inspires me most is the never-ending cycle of decay and rebirth that I observe in nature.
The objects exhibited are at the crossroads of decoration and utility. Let’s take the coffee table, for example. Is it meant to be used as such? Do you expect the collector to use it as furniture or just as decoration?
The Flora pieces are fully functional, and at the same time, they are unique works of collectable design, aimed to be valued and cared for in the same way as you care for a work of art. I love the idea that a collector is in fact a custodian of such pieces: you buy something not only to fulfil basic functional needs, but to pass it on to future generations. There is a very emotional aspect connected to it.
Flowers are embedded in popular culture—they always have. I can think of Flowers by Miley Cyrus, the floral dress in Ari Aster’s Midsommar, the polemic tulips by Jeff Koons, Lana del Rey’s floral crown in Born to Die or the rose petals falling over Mena Suvari in American Beauty. What are some of your favourite floral moments in recent history?
Honestly, I would go crazy if I followed all these cultural references. For me, the most important is to experience ‘the real stuff’—immerse myself in the fresh air when biking, feel the freezing cold water flowing in the river, warming myself up with a bonfire after hiking all day. However, there are a few references that are very dear to me and that allow me to connect with fellow creatives with whom I work. These include films by Andrei Tarkovsky or Peter Greenaway or Francis Ponge’s poetry. I have recently ‘conversed’ with an AI-generated version of Francis thanks to ChatGPT, to some astonishing results.
As we’ve been discussing, your works deal a lot with ephemerality and the passage of time. Working with discarded flowers must be a constant memento mori. What is your relationship with death like?
I think I prefer to focus on the idea of rebirth and cyclicality that is inherent to nature itself. Our lives are short in comparison to the life of trees, for instance. I am constantly under the influence of the beautiful concept of the dead tree cycle: once a tree approaches the end of its life, other trees in the neighbourhood support it, giving it nutrients. When it eventually dies, it gives nutrients back to the soil, supporting other beings around it. This is a beautiful metaphor I intend to incorporate into my practice.
To finish, I know you’re working on a retrospective show that will take place in London in October. What can you tell us about it?
I am working on a new body of work for this show, but I cannot reveal anything at this stage. You’ll see!