BY Jonathan Griffin in Features | 07 JUN 06
Featured in
Issue 100

Goshka Macuga

Books, art history and self-portraits; heaven, hell and purgatory

BY Jonathan Griffin in Features | 07 JUN 06

While Goshka Macuga retreats into the back of her studio to make tea, I take the opportunity to glance through her bookshelves. Alongside weighty surveys of canonical, largely 20th-century artists and smaller, slightly battered volumes on cultural esoterica, she has two ring-bound sheaves of photocopied A4 paper. She explains to me that as a student growing up in late Communist Poland it was nearly impossible to buy the books that she wanted on the open market. Instead, it was common practice to photocopy editions of the books held in libraries and then to bind the A4 sheets oneself. These are her copies of works by Walter Benjamin and Roland Barthes.

In her 2005 installation at Kate MacGarry, London, Macuga obtained heavyweight monographs of five equally heavyweight artists – Francis Picabia, Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol, Sigmar Polke and Martin Kippenberger – and rebound them in her own exquisitely hand-tooled covers. The covers themselves bore faithful re-workings of an aspect of each particular artist’s oeuvre, all slightly unexpected choices that upset the balanced authority of the surveys with the subjectivity of Macuga’s own taste and personal relationship to their work. Her intervention was in fact more about claiming ownership than about sharing information; by representing these artists’ lives’ works in her devotional bindings, she made them, and the history within which they exist, her own.

Her need metaphorically to inscribe her initials on beloved works of art is as much about finding a space for herself in the world as it is about the possession of objects. She fastidiously remade R.B. Kitaj’s In Our Time (1969), a portfolio of prints depicting the covers of a selection of obviously well-loved books, replacing Kitaj’s eclectic choice with her own. Of these, she admits that many are on loan as she cannot afford to buy them herself, and that often it is only the cover that really captivates her; she tends to be disappointed when she delves into the rest of the book. The work exists as a collection of loose prints that, although it has been shown in a gallery, seems to want to be kept in the dark and occasionally handled by loving hands. It is significant that Kitaj made In Our Time soon after his first wife died. The collector’s life is given to a crusade against entropy; although the books themselves may soon be lost or returned to their owners, Macuga’s work will keep them pristine,unread (and unreadable) for at least a few years more.

In this, and in her many other works that bring together found objects and works by other artists, such as Salon (2002) or Picture Room (2003), it seems that Macuga is finding a way to create self-portraits. However, when pressed to identify the logic behind her choices, she claims to be at a loss. Certainly, it is the trust she places in her instinctive and acquisitive eye that allows the things she gathers to become so emphatically her own. As familiarity with her work grows, however, patterns do begin to emerge among her points of reference. She inclines to focus on overlooked narratives within art history, shining a light into dark corners and revelling in the coincidences and anomalies that disturb the neatness of our understanding of the past. She is particularly interested, for obvious reasons, in people who have had an influence on exhibition design, such as Alexander Dorner, who created contextual ‘atmosphere rooms’ in which to display art. Dorner also commissioned El Lissitzky to make the Kabinett der Abstrakten in 1927, a wooden cuboid wunderkammer that Macuga remade for an exhibition at the Bloomberg Space in London in 2003, which contained amongst other found objects two Andy Warhol prints and a dog’s space suit.

For perhaps her most ambitious work to date she is planning a vast installation in a disused industrial building for the Liverpool Biennial later this year. Creating an environment that draws on the tiered Renaissance conceptions of Heaven, Hell and Purgatory, she will develop an architectural structure influenced by the Expressionist sets featured in Robert Wiene’s film The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920). Bringing together a number of existing collections, the piece will include work by Paul Nash and L.S. Lowry alongside contemporaries of Macuga’s such as Matthew Leahy, Olivia Plender and Melvin Moti, as well as collections of Victorian botanical specimens from local museums. Much has been made of Macuga’s collaborations, but it seems to me that she is involved in a far more personal and specific inquiry. While she displays a clear fondness for the material she works with, there is also something slightly dispassionate in the way that she may treat a painting by a close friend and an anonymous painting found in a charity shop, for example, with equal attention. She talks about the point at which interest in other people and other people’s work, however passionate and sincere, will always invariably collapse and return to oneself. ‘Ultimately, this is my gig,’ she says to me, ‘just as writing this piece is yours.’

Jonathan Griffin is a writer based in Los Angeles, USA, and a contributing editor of frieze.