Drawing with Pawel Althamer

Published February 13, 2014

Around noon on Tuesday, the artist PaweÅ? Althamer was on the fourth floor of The New Museum, drawing on the walls and around. Charcoal sticks were strewn about. His focus was on a triangular evil eye, not originally his creation. As he colored it in, he extended lines in curling swirls. Words, figures, and other unidentifiable miscellany proliferated in the background, as visitors sketched leisurely, or sometimes vigorously.

But, though he was amid the art of others, a step back revealed his whole conception: Draftsmen’s Congress, a communal space where all are welcome to draw and paint on the walls, floors, and teepee in the center. Now underway in New York, the first was staged at the 2012 Berlin Biennale. It’s part of the Polish artist’s first major show in the United States, titled “The Neighbors,” which opened this week at The New Museum, taking up the second, third, and fourth floors.

The installation in many ways epitomizes Althamer’s emphasis on community, collaboration, and shared expression. People will draw, see others’ drawings, add on or alter them, and in this way open themselves to each other, strengthening group bonds–at least, this is Althamer’s vision.

On the second floor is The Venetians, a sculpture series created for 2013 Venice Biennale. Made of plastic, these comprise portraits of actual Italians attached to bodies of decomposing cloth and flesh. Explaining the work, Althamer has referred to Earth as a spaceship, and inhabitants its crew (the people portrayed are just a sampling, he has said). Some interact, some smile, though their eyes are closed. Behind The Venetians are several videos, So-Called Waves and Other Phenomena of the Mind (2003-04), following Althamer as he trips on LSD, shrooms, hashish, and more. Between the figures and Althamer’s animated babbling, the space feels, at the same time, psychologically surreal, distant, and vulnerable.

Work on the third floor is grounded in something closer to real life, with several self-portraits. Here, he takes the form of a billy goat, his child self situated in a miniaturized landscape, and a more recent, depressed self, situated in a diorama of a messy apartment. The later two make appearances in the short film Mezalia (2010). A female nude sculpture, Sywlia (2010), is a project with the Nowolipie Group, a Warsaw-based organization for individuals with mental and physical disabilities. Althamer has been working with them since the mid-1990s. Live music from over 50 New York street musicians hand-picked by Althamer will be broadcast on this floor, as they play from downstairs, affecting the mood of the gallery depending on their songs and style.

Growing up in Warsaw, Althamer remembers picking fights with other boys. For him, art became a welcome diversion; he started using performance and scultpural mediums to express thoughts on communities and individual relationships within. His decision to attend the Academy of Fine Arts, Warsaw, he says, helped him find himself.

We met him in Draftmen’s Congress, shortly after the press preview. He invited us to draw with him. We started outlining a tree trunk.

RACHEL SMALL: I drew this spiral earlier, when I was here.

PAWEL ALTHAMER: It’s all connected. And we’re talking about connections. We’re drawing connections, actually.

SMALL: How has your day been today?

ALTHAMER: Intensive. But coming here, [there is a] rhythm of life. I feel like walking a little bit, walking and watching and doing things. It’s a very activating space, this Draftsmen’s Congress space.

SMALL: What are you drawing now?

ALTHAMER: I don’t know. I just continued the drawings of [others]. I discovered there are some messages, left by other artists. I’ve just started to draw, say, to share the visions with them, or to start my own. Which will probably be transformed soon by others.

SMALL: How is this different in New York, versus the Drafsmen’s Congress in Berlin?

ALTHAMER: First, the Draftsmen’s Congress in Berlin was done in a church. Here, we have a temple of modern art. That can be a difference, but a similarity, it’s the same.

SMALL: How do you think Draftsmen’s Congress will turn out in New York?

ALTHAMER: I think it will somehow support the transformation of people communicating better–and to share feelings, and to just know each other, like neighbors. It’s more like a game for a neighborhood, [rather] than a vision to change New York.

SMALL: What’s this teepee for?

ALTHAMER: If there’s a moment you want to draw separately, with some intimacy, [use the teepee]. Or if you want to hide yourself. With kids, they’ll surely want to go inside and leave messages.

SMALL: Are children a big influence on you?

ALTHAMER: I’m a father. The Draftsmen’s Congress comes from father’s activities, playing with kids, asking what they want to draw.

SMALL: How old are your children?

ALTHAMER: All different ages, from 5 to 25. The very young ones–it makes me really impressed, their talents to express themselves, the spontaneous way they say their observations. It’s amazing. It’s like you have a wise man in your room. Kids are magicians. They know precisely, coming here, what they want to do. I’m also talking about my childhood, which was a very happy one.

SMALL: You grew up in Poland, during the Cold War.

ALTHAMER: The most difficult part, for me, was the education system. I survived, with some frustrations. But as soon as I discovered the existence of the Academy of Fine Arts [in Warsaw], I was back.

SMALL: How did it bring you back?

ALTHAMER: I communicate quite well with myself. Since I remember, I was doing what I liked. The most fascinating thing was art. That was a tool to take care of myself, and also to work with the others.

SMALL: I know you started and participated in groups in art school. Growing up, how did you develop your art?

ALTHAMER: Before? Performance. That was my favorite. Like, walking alone, doing crazy things, fighting with my friends. Looking for problems, the boarders of reality, the boarders of the system. Touching the boarders, exploring them, recognizing.

SMALL: What’s an example of something you did?

ALTHAMER: Maybe it’s better not to talk about it.

SMALL: Really? Why?

ALTHAMER: I was looking for these so-called dark elements of my identity, no? I loved to fight. I was looking for a way to fight. Before I was making drawings, paintings, I was just looking for a way to fight with the boys on the street.

SMALL: How did that lead to drawing and painting?

ALTHAMER: [Drawing and painting is] more exciting, and less painful.

SMALL: That’s true. [looking at the tree drawing] I can’t get the colors quite right on this.

ALTHAMER: No, very nice! It’s mixed. Huh, I will put the roots.

SMALL: I forgot about the roots. I guess my mind stopped at the ground. I’ll draw the sun over here. Downstairs, you have The Venetians. All the people portrayed are Italian. Do you think it makes a difference to show them in New York?

ALTHAMER: We’re just people from everywhere, looking for identity. New York, with the history of freedom, and dreams, and realized dreams, people come to this place like a magnet. You are really coming here to do something that you love. If you lose that idea of yourself, you’re not in the lake, you’re dried out.

SMALL: How did you become interested in the idea of the community?

ALTHAMER: Naturally. Growing up in the neighborhood. Having friends, having family, strong relationship between brothers and sisters, and neighbors. For me, it’s all the time, like a village. I think I recognize the village of New York too.

SMALL: You were saying people come here because of dreams, a lot of aspirations. Is that the strongest part of the New York community?

ALTHAMER: I think, of course. As we know, the balance of the economy of the world, the proportion is crazy. People are probably looking for a balance. The nature pushes people to move from poor and mentally and economically demolished places, from totalitarianism, to places that offer them much more than the fear.

SMALL: Have there been any stories like that, like one person like that you’ve met?

ALTHAMER: I’m a person who’s coming because of the magnetism of the people. I’m not coming because of expectations. I’m coming here because it’s a very natural way of sharing. That’s the reason. And also friends—I love to be with people I [can’t meet] in Warsaw.

SMALL: Do you want to make art that everyone can relate to, and participate in?

ALTHAMER: I think that the most exciting thing is to find a tool, like an art, with an opportunity to share. Real roots [come from] everywhere in the world. Why call is congress? Because it is a congress.

SMALL: I was intrigued by the set for Mezalia, downstairs.

ALTHAMER: We decided to partly to make it as a remake of our childhood, mine and Jacek [Taszakowski] the director.

SMALL: There’s a self-portrait, of you, looking out of your apartment block in Warsaw?

ALTHAMER: That’s my so-called déjà vu. From the moment I was divorced, 10 years ago, my family life was in ruins, I was lonely, I was looking for a way to escape. I decided to represent this moment. That was my block house, that was my apartment, installed in the story, in the animation movie.

SMALL: Why did you choose that moment?

ALTHAMER: Because, from one side, it’s private, dramatic. It’s touching things, it’s speaking with feelings. It’s showing the feelings actually, that they exist. There are some feelings you didn’t expect before. In this case that’s important. It’s something that I want to show others. The neighbors, in my village. I want to except it also.

SMALL: I feel like one of the pitfalls of New York is, you’re around everyone, all the time, and everyone puts on the same face.

ALTHAMER: Ah, I think we have many faces. And I like all of them. Do you like all of them? It’s not to play with them; just to accept them, to let them be.

SMALL: I used to live in Los Angeles, where everyone is in cars all the time. You’re just stuck in cars, and you don’t see each other. And if someone’s showing some emotion, like let’s say someone’s crying, everyone stares. But when I came to New York, and I saw someone crying or something on the street, it’d be normal. I’d leave him or her alone. There’s more emotion, and you can’t take it all in. You sometimes have to block it out, because you see emotion all the time.

ALTHAMER: Seeing emotion, it should be very natural. But I’ve also grown up in many places that not very welcome to that expression–to showing your face when you’re not happy. It’s better to hide yourself. In the school, you don’t want to be recognized as someone who’s not strong enough.

SMALL: Why do you think showing emotion is important?

ALTHAMER: I think, bad tradition, bad rituals. Based on fear, that you shouldn’t show yourself. That you should be really such a big secret, who you are, in front of the others. So mistaken, [this] idea.

SMALL: Why do you think that’s a mistaken idea?

ALTHAMER: Because it’s showing you a vision that you are separated from the rest of the people, which is a basic misunderstanding.

SMALL: What do you think is dangerous about a society where no one shows his or her emotions?

ALTHAMER: Just the idea that you separate yourself from them. It’s unhealthy, when you need to cut yourself from society, or society from yourself.

SMALL: Do you think there are consequences to showing emotion?

ALTHAMER: Sometimes, you can see the consequences. You can really use others to recognize your emotions. Many people, they have no contact with their emotions. They don’t know what’s happening with them. “Why am I afraid? What am I afraid of? Of what?”

SMALL: With Draftsmen’s Congress, as a communal, interactive artistic expression, is that a sort of channel to share emotions?

ALTHAMER: It’s a very good channel. It’s a platform. It’s a space. It’s universal. I think it will be language to everyone.

SMALL: Do you have any artists that you were inspired by at the beginning, or now?

ALTHAMER: Of course! A lot, a lot, a lot. Of course, in history, there is no one I cannot be inspired by. It’s a spectrum.

SMALL: [looking at the drawing of the tree, sun and the roots] I think it’s in a good place.

ALTHAMER: Tomorrow, please join me. Stay as long as you like. 

“PAWEL ALTHAMER: THE NEIGHBORS” WILL BE ON DISPLAY THE NEW MUSEUM THROUGH APRIL 13, 2014.