While attending art school is seen as a rite of passage for artists working across all mediums, a common experience amongst art students is the feeling of limitation and lack of inspiration that the four walls of a classroom impose. Priority and praise is more often given to artists creating serious work built on classical themes, rather than peculiar, messy projects that lack boundaries and cohesion.
Against the odds, Karolina Wojtas has managed to transform her own experience of feeling stifled at school into a rebellious practice. The artist is no stranger to experimentation and pushing the limits of what we consider photography. Each of her images and exhibitions are built upon a foundation of impulse and chaos, perhaps better representing a genuine thought process than the clean limitations we see in traditional methods. Her series abzgram is a direct commentary on her educational experience, and in her project We Can’t Live Without Each Other, she speaks to the peculiar inner lives of siblings, and the tension that exists in the lifelong dynamic with her next of kin.
In this interview for LensCulture, Wojtas speaks to Cat Lachowskyj about the limitations of arts education, her creative process, and why she thinks it’s important to find beauty in the ugly and banal.
Cat Lachowskyj: When you started exploring your creativity, were you drawn to other mediums and forms, or were you always interested in photography?
Karolina Wojtas: I decided that I wanted to be a photographer when I was 12 years old! To learn about art, I had to attend a specialized high school and gymnasium in my city, where we also learned how to work with other mediums like painting and sculpture. But yes, I have to say that I was always primarily focused on photography, and I hated learning about other techniques and mediums. That might have had more to do with the teachers—they didn’t give us any freedom, and they wanted us to conform to their own vision of art.
Now, I try breaking the rules of straight photography by incorporating as many other mediums as I can. When it comes to photography, I’ve always done whatever I want, but when I revert back to something like painting, I still feel that sense of fear that I had during my time at art school.
CL: That’s sad to hear about education, especially for someone so young. I think that when we create things when we are younger, the beauty of those creations is that they don’t possess boundaries. Instead, we make things for the sake of making them, and that approach is still very present in your work. It’s probably why so many people are drawn to it: you create in ways that adults wish they still could, before they learned the rules. Tell me about your own mental state when you start making a project. What are the guidelines you give yourself, and how much planning is involved? How do you know when to start and stop?
KW: Oh, I never know when it’s time to stop! None of my work is officially finished, because I’m always thinking about new photographs or objects that I need to create for an exhibition. I always try to prepare something new and different. Because of that, I don’t put my images in expensive frames. I prefer to create more temporary forms that I can modify. All of my projects are inspired by my surroundings—usually a banal thing that I see or experience each day. I photograph first, then read books, then photograph again. Once I have some images, I start reading more focused articles and sociology books to help me find other points of view. I also mix staged images with documents.
That said, the most important thing is that I never stop working, and try not to think so much about those first steps. I always try to remain as present as possible. I don’t think I ever grew up from my childish approach—maybe my younger brother helped me with that. I am more childish than him. During family gatherings, I always sit with the children. They’re my best friends. They have these relentless, crazy ideas.
CL: Aside from that early experience, how has your subsequent arts education affected your work?
KW: At school, you’re taught to work on a single project, and it needs to be very serious. It’s very easy to feel afraid and feel blocked. At my school, there were some teachers who didn’t understand my work at all. Sometimes, I would start making work the way they wanted me to, but over time I realized that this way of working wasn’t for me. I started showing my own spontaneous work more and more, but the reaction wasn’t pleasant. I hope arts education continues to change, and that schools are equipped with more understanding lecturers. The most important people for me in art school were my peers—we created, cooked and spent so much time together.
CL: In that same vein, abzgram is an interesting interpretation of the rigidity of education systems. You clearly drew from a repository of inspiration for the project, but when did you realize you wanted to make a photography project about these issues?
KW: At some point, the Polish government decided to change the education system, and wanted to close down the gymnasium where I had taken art lessons as a child. They started reorganizing schools in my town, and decided to turn the gymnasium into a nursery.
This irritated me, so I started doing research about the changes. Since my brother was in primary school, the changes hit close to home. And since things were changing so rapidly, many people were negatively affected. The school wasn’t prepared for the switch, affecting both the young students and teachers, who striked for almost three weeks. Schools were closed, and exams were executed in very strange ways.
So, it was—and still is—a strange time for education. Especially now with the pandemic, school is a nightmare. Teachers send a ton of homework to students and perform strange video-exams to prohibit cheating. TV at school used to be fun, but now the most boring, horrible, hellish version of school is viewed on our screens.
CL: Which of your personal experiences shaped the inspiration for the project? Do you have any specific memories that have gone into your work?
KW: Themes surrounding schools have been on my mind for a long time. I hated high school, and the only nice thing about it was that I started photographing everything there: horribly messy rooms, strange places, and my friends at parties or having fun in the classroom. I always felt misunderstood throughout the education process, but I never had a definitive idea about what was wrong. The teachers were meant to be treated like God—like they could do anything. And the children were only meant to listen and be kind.
I have lots of bad memories from school in Poland: teachers saying I was the worst writer, that they had never seen someone write as terribly as me. Now, I hate writing. It takes me days to force myself to answer an email. School is so important, because children spend so much of their time there, and teachers can very easily kill their freedom and creativity.
Similarly, groups of teenagers all start looking the same: the same shoes, the same shirts. School eliminates their creative thinking, and forces them to align with what the authors of books are perpetuating—not what they personally think or feel. Students who are able to quickly learn how to achieve good grades do so as a means of survival. They figure out which teacher never checks homework, or who they know will give a surprise exam. That information helps them pretend to be subordinate, which makes school a factory for producing a new mass of stupid citizens. The government creates a core curriculum, and sometimes schools feel like prisons—there are bars in the windows and doors.
CL: On top of the general visual chaos in your work, there’s an underlying tension coursing through your images. You often focus on subject matter that’s considered gross or ugly. Why are you drawn to this subject matter?
KW: I live in a town where a Colosseum and pyramid were built! It’s so kitschy—we pretend we are rich, but the way we project that never looks good. I grew up in a time when it was fashionable to have glitter in your hair, wear frills, and own a red or green bag with matching shoes. This was the best outfit for formal occasions! I grew up around ugly things, but on the other hand, there is beauty in that ugliness. I love collecting strange materials, as well as bags and shoes.
CL: Your younger brother seems to feature in your work a lot. In your series We Can’t Live Without Each Other, you take your viewers on a visceral journey through the unconditional love and tension that exists in sibling relationships. How did you approach making these visuals? Were there specific moments that inspired certain images?
KW: I was an only child until I was 13 years old. Any time my parents asked me if I wanted siblings, I responded with something like, “I will find an axe, kill the kid and eat them.” But one day, my brother appeared, and our war with each other began.
I use him as a model throughout this project, but in the past I always used to paint him blue, or put a sausage on his face. Last summer, while creating work for the Unseen ING Talent Award, I had to create a new project around the theme ‘Nature of Change.’ Our mentor was Adam Broomberg, and over a number of meetings, each of the artists discussed their projects. I thought about doing something with my brother, and remembered that when I was younger, I never wanted siblings.
Drawing from those memories, I began creating weird and scary torture scenarios. I found a ton of posts on the Internet made by children looking for advice on how to scare or harm their brothers and sisters. Sibling relationships are so strange—they are your closest family members, but are also sometimes your worst enemies, fighting over the love of your parents. But not to scare anyone: all of the images were staged. And I have an excellent relationship with my brother!
CL: How did this project inspire your subsequent work? What are you working on now?
KW: Me and some friends resurrected our student gallery in the Lodz Film School’s dormitory. Because we are in quarantine, we host one-day residencies with different artists on Instagram. Right now we are focused on photography, but over time we will definitely be mixing mediums and techniques. I have to say, during this strange time, I’ve tried to make something, but most of the time I start and cannot finish.