Interview with the artist Mark Požlep was originally published in Slovenian language in the Likovne besede/Art Words magazine [111/2019]. It was recorded in February 2019 and therefore, some of the projects discussed here in future tense have already taken place.
Mark Požlep (1981) is one of those contemporary artists who freely uses diverse artistic media and ways of presentation. He began as a painter but relatively soon in his career started expanding paintings into spatial situations and events. When his ground-breaking video-performance Last Supper of Superheroes (2006) was put on show it was presented as a multimedia installation; later on, he continued to produce spatial mix-media works and performances such as Urban Savage (2008) and Napalm Your Personal Disco (2010-2014). A constant within his practice is a profound interest in socio-political phenomena such as questions of constructing history, collective amnesia and role of public space in society; however, he has addressed these subjects with a sufficient degree of distancing and irony. Since 2012, he has presented a series of projects that are based on travel, interaction with the public and establishing alternative historical narratives, while resorting to different modes of presentation: travelogue, public sculpture, concert tour and theatre production. Some years ago, Požlep moved to Ghent in Belgium where he now lives and works. However, he is still very present in Ljubljana where he regularly produces and presents his works. On this occasion, he came to re-stage two of his recent theatre productions at Glej Theatre in Ljubljana.
Recently two of your process-based and long-term art projects were transformed into theatre productions, Stranger Than Paradise (2014-2016) and Blueprint for Revolution (2017). What is the most crucial difference in the execution of these works when you, instead of working in a gallery, find yourself in a theatre, on the stage, under the spotlights?
The transition to theatre occurred because of the desire for a more comprehensive presentation of my personal experience and better insight in the process of work. The first piece that led me to performance was Whatever Happened to Major Tom (2012) where I, for the first time, conceived and executed a durational performance. This was then documented on video while I, also for the first time, wrote a lengthy text, some sort of a diary of the travel and work process. I did not want to use this text as a voice over in a video; instead, I published in an artist’s book. The exhibition set-up was made out of two photographs, a vitrine with the fragments of the project, video and an artist’s book. The subsequent piece with a similar structure, Stranger Than Paradise (2014-2016), was even more complex and intense from the perspective of activities within the frames of the performance. At that point, I felt that only presenting documentation of the project in a gallery would not be sufficiently communicative. It simply cannot acquaint the audience with the entire context of the project.
The work Stranger Than Paradise included the concert tour in retirement homes which brought you to number of unexpected situations. Is it that you simply were not able to present all these elements by solely visual means?
First, I tried out a multimedia installation that included an LP on a player, with the recordings of seven songs that I performed live; footages from the concerts in retirement homes, making the reactions of the public visible; an artist’s book, which sums up the diary of the tour; documentary photographs; and a poster design for the concerts. However, since most gallery audiences do not read texts at exhibitions they would only be able to partially grasp the message of the piece. In this case, the audience was, above all, confronted with phenomena of ageing and nostalgia. The work, however, is not only about that. My intention was to analyse the socio-political structure of former Yugoslavia by getting in touch with its true protagonists, but to do that, it is not enough to show only images—the text is required as well. At that point, I came to the conclusion that theatre would enable me to stage a more meaningful presentation of this work. In a theatre, I have a limited amount of time, approximately an hour, while theatre audiences are used to having to concentrate their attention in a directed way. Furthermore, in a theatre I have all the creative freedom I need; I can include visuals, I can play a concert and I can use my own text to tell stories about the process and about my own experience.
You say that in Stranger Than Paradise nostalgia is of secondary importance, despite the fact that several elements imply it. You organised a series of concerts for the elderly where you performed songs from their youth.
I decided to develop this project because I was interested in people who, after 1945, established the new state and society from the ruins of war—people who believed in this state and the fact that, despite that, it broke apart after 45 years of existence. That was my initial fascination: how was it possible for a state that functioned as a community, united under the slogan brotherhood and unity, to collapse so lightning quick after so many successful years? People of different cultures, religious beliefs and languages were coexisting solely because of their faith in this (utopian) idea. Therefore, I was interested in how people, who once built this country from the scratch, live now. Because of the specific time frame I was interested in, it turned out that the best way to find this generation of people was to go to retirement homes, which are very specific institutions where it is impossible to enter without prior arrangement. In order for me to find an entry ticket, I needed to make an offer that also interested them. I offered concerts by a two-piece band, voice and piano, that would take the audience back to the time of their youth and to the golden age of Yugoslavia when this utopia was actually taking place.
I was surprised when people reacted to the songs with laughter and tears of joy. But, nobody wanted to talk about the war. None of the seniors wanted to mention the breakup of Yugoslavia; it was as if the war never happened. That really surprised me. The other issue, which I found absurd, was the fact that retirement homes are cheapest in Serbia and that consequently people from the entire former Yugoslavia had moved there as a result. In Jagodina (Serbia), for instance, one can find people from Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Macedonia. I could ironically put it this way: people who at some point might have killed each other, are now waiting to die together.
You started as a painter. Did painting become insufficiently communicative for your practice at some point? Was that the reason you to expanded your activities beyond that frame?
Painting has always excited me and it still does, especially the creative process of making. It is a living form. There are always new possibilities, spaces and coincidences opening up. My only problem with painting appears when a painting is finished: when it becomes an object that is supposed to end up on some wall. Since I was more excited and interested in the process than in the final product, I started experimenting and at some point started merging static and moving images. In the end, however, I decided to use painting and video separately, according to the context and needs of particular work.
Was the piece Last Supper of Superheroes (2006) your first transition into live painting, tableaux vivant in the form of a video?
I started experimenting even before that. In the work My Purple Valentine I tried to merge painting and video by way of filming the surface of the painting and framing it with the help of narration. However, I used video-documented performance for the first time while making this tableau vivant in Last Supper of Superheroes.
In a number of your works you refer to pop-cultural phenomena which are nowadays inevitably embedded in one’s consciousness, be it superheroes or a deserted island with a palm tree.
I am not completely sure if the examples you mentioned are phenomena of popular culture or maybe social archetypes. I think such images are very transient and their meanings are constantly intertwined. I have always drawn inspiration for my work from my immediate surroundings.
But what does the symbol of a deserted island mean to you? Is it shipwreck, escapism?
For me, the symbol of a deserted island is definitely connected to escapism. In my view, much more with escapism than with shipwreck. In the work Whatever Happened to Major Tom (2012) I was playing with this idea: what happens when a stereotypical image of a paradise, an island with a palm tree, suddenly materialises in front of you? The island where I planted the palm tree during this project is in close proximity to the tourist island of Unije in the North Adriatic. In the work I am asking a simple question; does the materialisation and proximity of „paradise“ present hope, or is it just another cynical image?
Later, you often come back to the sea and vessel motifs. The project Hogshead 733 (2015) initially had a different motif, but it used a similar process. Together with your collaborator Maxime Berthou, you bought a small sailing ship, used it for travel and in the end changed its initial function.
In Hogshead 733 it was all about the transformation of the form and the function of an object. White oak was once used for building sailboats and clippers, but in the course of the Industrial Revolution and after the invention of the steam-powered machine, white oak was no longer used for ship building, instead it was used for its special characteristics: it became the raw material for producing whisky and wine barrels. Together with Maxime Berthou, we managed to find a sailboat, built in 1942, which was partially made out of white oak. Thereafter, we decontaminated it, repaired it and sailed from the port of Trebeurden in France to the Scottish island of Islay. Once there, we dismantled the sailboat, which was by that time soaked with salt and adventures and, with the help of craftsmen, we produced two 250-litre barrels that were filled with 500 litres of 11-year-old single malt whisky at the Bunnahabhain distillery.
How did you showcase this piece to the public?
We organised a launch of the artist’s book together with a whisky tasting session at the City Gallery of Ljubljana and at the Art Club at Palais de Tokyo in Paris. We are in the process of producing a film, which is now at the editing stage. We want to showcase the film independently as a full-length feature film screened in a cinema and in a gallery set-up as a multi-channel video installation, combined with some artefacts and other leftovers of the project.
Was the project developed and realised with institutional sponsorship and commissions?
Initially, we wanted to produce the piece in collaboration with art institutions but it did not work out. We were candidates for the Slovenian pavilion at the Art Biennale in Venice, but were not selected in the end and, consequently, we lost other potential institutional sponsors. We then changed our tactic and started to seek solutions in the commercial realm. We were looking for companies that would be interested in such an endeavour, companies that would be willing to, in return for the story and promotion, finance the production of the project. We eventually found the firm Dugas, a big distributor of alcoholic beverages in France, which was willing to invest money in exchange for a promotional campaign for their products. We also convinced the whisky distillery Bunnahabhain in Scotland to sponsor us, and the management agreed to donate 500 litres of aged whisky in return for promotion; moreover, we were free to use the materials from the trip without strings attached.
At first, the project brought huge publicity to Bunnahabhaim, however, it eventually turned into a huge problem because the distillery did not apply for a permit to produce salty whisky with the Scottish Whisky Association, and they were even threatened with revocation of their license to produce whisky. After several difficulties, we managed a bureaucratic turn and resolve the entire issue legally by adding a written notice on the first page of the book stating that everything had been done according to the rules, which basically meant that the project never happened. However, the book is a document of the project.
Together with Maxime Berthou, you are already preparing the next project based on sailing – this time you are going to sail the Mississippi River. What is behind this forthcoming action and how is the project going to be showcased to the public?
The Mississippi River is extremely important in American history, from colonisation and slavery to industrial farming and the resulting ecological consequences on the environment. With the proceeds from the sale of the whisky from the Hogshead 733 project, we bought a 6-meter steamer. With this vessel, that has historical and symbolic value, we intend to sail along the Mississippi River, picking corn along our journey through ten federal states. The USA is the biggest global producer of corn that, consequently, plays a very significant role in the local economy. It is mostly used for the production of ethanol, which is indispensable to the oil industry. In the period of the Anthropocene, systematic exploitation of soil leads to the systemic collapse of number of ecosystems in the Mississippi River and on its riverbanks. Our journey will begin in early September 2019, it will take a month and a half, and it will conclude in New Orleans. With the help of both the Seven Three distillery and boiler manufacturer Hillbilly Stills, we are going to transform the steamer into a small distillery and produce moonshine from the corn we picked along our way.
What is moonshine, actually?
It is a fresh, non-aged alcohol that is made by distilling corn, though sugar cane is sometimes added also. The production of moonshine began in the time of prohibition in the USA, in the 1920s, because its production was significantly cheaper than that of whiskey; however, consequently, also the quality is usually extremely low. It is also very telling that moonshine was actually prohibited until 2012, while it is now seen as an emblem and part of American history.
The history of the USA is also the subject of the project Blueprint for Revolution in which you circled Manhattan on the water, in a canoe, in order to explore secret histories of the place. What did you find out about it?
Since I am born in 1981, I spent my early childhood living in Yugoslavia where the idea of America (USA), at least in my surroundings, was pretty much romanticised. America stood for democracy, freedom of speech and equality. My first encounter with the so-called wild west and Native Americans came with the stories of Winnetou, the fictional chief of the Apache tribe, and his blood brother Old Shatterhand, which were written by German writer Karl May in the 1880s and 1890s, two decades before he visited the USA himself. When I decided to circle Manhattan in a canoe, I wanted to explore and expose the real image of the USA and the status of Native Americans today.
The island of Manhattan (island of many hills) was initially populated by the Lenape tribe as the mouth of the river was fairly rich in natural resources. In 1626, Dutch colonisers bought the entire island of Manhattan from the Lenape tribe for 60 guldens; translated to today’s currency that would be around 1000 American dollars. The next step in my process was to find descendants of this tribe. I found them in New Jersey where they bought a piece of land, on the spot where their ancestors had a ritual camping ground. Later on, I also went to North Dakota, to Standing Rock, which was, in 2016 and 2017, the centre of Native Americans’ rebellion against the attempt to construct an oil pipeline under the Missouri River. [The Trump administration later executed the project despite widespread protest.] In this process, I tried to follow my own assumptions about America and its native populations, the notions that I acquired in my childhood, and to draw comparisons between my idealised views and the harsh reality on the ground.
What was your working process, from field research to theatre production?
On the one hand, I was collecting personal stories of different protagonists, but on the other hand, I also conducted extensive historical research. However, the text that is part of the performance was written later, with the help of a dramaturgist and other collaborators. The story summarises the romantic idea about America we had been presented with in this part of the world. I was thinking about how popular culture can shape the mind of an individual and, for that reason, I wanted to directly confront it with reality, which is very different and very much less spectacular.
You were also testing the boundaries of escapism in your project entitled Island (2016), which took place in the urban area of the city of Antwerp where you spent five days on a small raft in the middle of the canal. What was the impulse for this action?
I wanted to create a situation where I deliberately excluded myself from the social environment. I built a raft with a living space measuring 2×2 meters which I named Island. I anchored the raft at the Napoleon Dock in the centre of the city where the quadrangular water surface is surrounded by piers on all sides. I positioned myself at the centre of events, but at the same time my movement and life were completely restrained. My gesture could be understood as a deliberate removal from the system, or as a metaphor for how society excludes people from its midst. The first interaction occurred on the first night. A police patrol, fire brigade and ambulance arrived at the dock and they demanded that I come ashore, despite the fact that I had all the permits needed; in fact, I was collecting them for more than three months. Since I did not want to do come ashore, they came to get me instead. They towed my island to the shore with a motor boat, they came to the raft, checked the documents and when they realised that I had all the permits they simply towed me and the island back to the middle of the bay.
You also built a monumental public sculpture in Antwerp that is composed of shipping containers. What does this sculpture represent and how does it connects to the city?
The sculpture is placed at the junction of two city districts, Brederode and Markgrave, which could not be more different. The former is a classic Flemish district, while the latter is a migrant quarter and, as a result, they do not communicate very well with each other. In between, there is some kind of a buffer zone, a huge green surface which recently acquired the status of a park. It was important for me to place this symbolic sculpture on that exact spot in order to mark this place and to initiate a point of gathering. I therefore entitled it Agora (2018). It was constructed in the manner of Native American Tipi, which has a very simple structure made out of three pillars that, through their structure, support each other. I used shipping containers because they graphically represent the core of contemporary society and global trade and because the second largest port in Europe is in very close proximity, which, in many aspects, characterises the local environment. The sculpture is a symbol of possible community and coexistence.
I could conclude that in almost all your works you strive to reach deep into the social fabric by using non-violent methods. Does art thus possess this power?
Maybe it sounds very utopian, but yes, I believe that art possesses this power; if it does not have direct facility to change things, it at least possesses the possibility to non-violently intervene in the social fabric, to remind and to raise awareness.
© Miha Colner, April 2020 / proof reading Ana Cavic