“Interestingly, human bodies still haven’t fully adapted to digest gluten after thousands of years from its discovery and cultivation,” addresses Polish artist Rafał Zajko, who departed from an autobiographical approach to research into the biography of grain. His latest solo exhibition Amber Waves (Bursztynowe Fale) at Public Gallery, in London, explored the symbolism of wheat and grain, while questioning whether this cereal has actually ‘cultivated us’ into our complete societal dependence on it: “I like to think of it as an alien plant.”
Exhibited across the three floors of the Public Gallery, and with the possibility to be virtually visited thanks to 3D technology, the display explored the symbiotic relationship between human life and grain through a series of experimental sculptures, installations and works on archival paper. Zajko mixes different materials, textures and forms, giving as result pieces that resemble ceramic bread and genetically modified food while paying homage to the gallery’s site – a former bakery.
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I am aware that there are many things influencing your work, such as technology, architecture and Japanese ceramics. How would you describe the style you have developed over the years?
I’ve got a huge appreciation for craftsmanship on all possible sides of art and design. I like to think about my practice as the earthworm that filters the warm earth through its body while searching for nutrients. I’m a really hands-on person and I like to learn new techniques and master new materials – with each new show I like to challenge myself and put newly acquired skills into action. Similarly, with my research it’s such a playfield and the influences can come from things as varied as Soviet monuments, Italian design from the sixties and the human digestive system. I treat them all as the building blocks within my practice – in both the physical and theoretical sense.
Your latest exhibition, Amber Waves, reminds me of the documentary Food, Inc (2008), which calls out the grains industry and exposes it as economically and environmentally unsustainable. How do you intend to educate the audience? Is the public ready to hear about the realities behind factory farming and its ecological consequences through art?
I was not trying to take a pedagogic stance with this show. The works came from the crossover between personal biography and research into the biography of grain – from its birth as hostile grass 15,000 years ago to the mega crop it is AD 2021. Interestingly, human bodies still haven’t fully adapted to digest gluten after thousands of years from its discovery and cultivation.
I thought of several alternative futures within this show. One of them envisioned bread as a thing of the past – a fossil. In another, I thought about grains as the cultivators of our humankind that coerced us into complete societal dependence as wheat and its siblings are now ingredients of seventy per cent food production. There is a grain of a fact that those pathways of thinking sprouted from.
I had the chance to experience your exhibition in London from Barcelona thanks to the online 3D tour that Public Gallery offers. I could ‘walk’ around the different areas of the gallery and in between your sculptures. How has technology changed the way we appreciate art? In your opinion, what are the pros and cons of these new forms of display?
Aren’t we all just bored of screens? Aren’t we all yearning to go and see things in the flesh again? Equally – if there was no possibility to access the works online this interview would not be happening, so we have to be grateful for the medium of online viewings of the works. Fundamentally, nothing will beat encountering the sculpture in flesh. The energy that radiates from a different material, light reflection, ability to experience it from different angles, the way it is installed and its relationship with other works around it.
“I like to think about my practice as the earthworm that filters the warm earth through its body while searching for nutrients.”
The spaces where these pieces are exhibited are also crucial to understand the significance of your work, as I understand that Public Gallery’s site is a former bakery. How does this affect or complement the meaning behind Amber Waves?
Amber Waves would not be conceived if it hadn’t been for Public Gallery. After visiting the space, I was excited by the potential of making a show spanning three floors of its premises. I had several ideas that could inhabit those rooms, but it wasn’t until I heard about the story of the building’s past life as a bakery that pushed my brain into overdrive. It was one of those moments when the things just come together and I decided to dwell into the story of the grain and produce the works that could resemble breads. The pandemic has also initiated a renewed interest in the archaic skills of bread making – I thought I could also reflect it in my practice by baking the ceramic ‘breads’ in the kiln.
I was especially drawn by Eartheater, the sculpture that works as a monument to the industry and that contains a blue log that both exhales and inhales smoke, symbolising the ability to cleanse pollution. How did you come up with the concept behind this piece? How long did it take you to produce it?
I have quite a special relationship with this work. I found the tree trunk on the street outside my studio and it somehow reminded me of one of my all-time favourite sculptures; Rock Drill by Jacob Epstein. After lugging it into my studio I spent some weeks chiselling, embellishing it and adding elements like embroidery panels, and wooden buttons. Inserting wheat heads and giving it a ceramic Kaiser roll felt like the final step to bring it alive. It felt like my own Wizard of Oz Tin Man/Frankenstein moment. I wanted to show him on the top floor of the gallery as a kind of chimney/exhaust of the show – both exhaling and inhaling smoke (symbolically both polluting and cleansing). Contained within a bubble he is an antagonist and protagonist at the same time.
You assemble diverse materials in your sculptures, there is also a diversity of textures and forms. Only in Eartheater, you mixed wood with vacuum-formed acrylic, tubes, a pump, carved tree trunk, wheat, ceramic, clay, and more. How do the contexts of the objects and materials you use affect the works in Amber Waves?
I’m interested in mixing different materials to look at certain things from a broader perspective. For example, in the basement of the gallery viewers encountered the ‘filtration chamber.’ On this level, I wanted to focus on human digestion and the fact that wheat is a substance that is still not fully digestible by human bodies.
To do so I wanted to hint on our filtration system which final stage is production of the urine. Across the floor there were three anthropomorphic sculptures that contained blocks of frozen synthetic urine that was slowly melting into the ceramic bladders of the sculptures to be slowly – drop by drop released on the copper plates – chemically oxidising them in the way as real human urine would. Synthetic urine was acquired online from the companies that sell it to people who purchase it to “beat” urinalysis drug tests.
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Is there a connection between your Polish roots and your artistic production? Do you tend to get inspiration from your past or personal experiences?
I come from a Catholic household in Poland. Bialystok, the city I grew up in, belongs to a particular region of Poland (Podlachia) that includes the largest remaining parts of an immense primeval forest that once stretched across the European plain. A connection to the local folklore, superstitions and mythological beliefs were deeply ingrained in me. I was raised in a working-class household with my family either working in the factories or in the field. I was deeply obsessed with the machines that aid the workers in both of these settings, and was always interested in how they operate – which button does what, what would be the result of pulling certain levers etc. I had a bit of a different upbringing to my contemporaries here in the United Kingdom. For example, I didn't have a colour TV until I was 12; and my first computer I purchased myself after moving to the UK and earning enough money to afford one. I’m drawn to technology but I can be a little old fashioned at points and where I can I want to do things by hand. 
We can tell from Amber Waves that symbolism is key in your production. What would you say this exhibition is saying without words, and with the sculptures as a medium?
Care and passion – I love my materials and I love my processes and if you will have a chance to encounter my work in person – I hope that it is the impression that it makes.
What are your future plans in terms of works and further exhibition?
The next big thing worth mentioning would be a large-scale show at Block336 in London in 2022. I’m really excited about this for a number of reasons. Firstly, the core purpose of their programming is to support artists by providing time, space and support to develop ambitious projects. They encourage artists to make new, site-specific work that they may not be able to realise elsewhere. Secondly, the building that Block336 resides in has quite a remarkable history – the rooms of the gallery used to be a cooling chamber for the first-generation computers used by the Coutts Bank in 1970’s. My whole attention is going into exploration of the leftover cooling systems in this particular moment in time when the physical data was becoming digital for the first time.
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