In recognition of the 40th anniversary of fellowships in the Commonwealth, we have been asking artists “what came next,” after their state-funded award. We decided to explore the same topic with Basia, as well as ask about her current work exploring environmental grief and the “penance” of art.
ArtSake: Where were you in your career when you got the news about the Mass Cultural Council Award?
Basia: I received news about my Mass Cultural Council award while contemplating whether or not to apply to grad school. I had been working professionally in somewhat creative positions, but always for a client, and I loved entertaining the idea of spending two years focusing on my own projects and ideas. The boost of confidence that came with the Mass Cultural Council award helped me decide to accept my spot in the MFA program at Rutgers University.
ArtSake: What excites you about the project you’re working on now?
Basia: Since starting grad school, I have shifted my focus from animation to sculpture as it allows for a more tactile and spatial exploration of my interests in ecology and our material culture. My palette these days is made up of colorful, durable and lightweight materials that I find washed up on the beach or in trash and recycling piles. The most exciting moments for me in the studio are those when I successfully redress the value of a material by transforming it from a mundane material into one whose newly-established ambiguity renders it interesting. I like that by re-routing these materials into my studio, I am able to be both creatively fulfilled and environmentally active.
ArtSake: What’s the throughline in your art?
Basia: My work is mainly grief-work. These days, when I visit the beach or forest in search of comfort, I instead experience disheartening landscapes strewn with hazardous materials. Our contemporary vistas are a far cry from the pristine valleys in an Edmund Burke painting. The romance is over, and the only thing left is a mess too big to clean up. Those like me, who still engage in the occasional clean-up effort, are left to deal with the emotional toll that comes with the work. Gathering trash provides ample time to somberly contemplate the damage our species has wrought on this planet.
My sculptures and videos serve to document these meditative janitorial walks that I embark on. With my compulsive collecting of discarded materials, I subvert the tendency to hoard material possessions in our consumption-obsessed culture.
Today, objects of our own making are pressing us out of the spaces we rely on for our material and spiritual sustenance. We are being crowded out by objects. The monumental scale of my sculptures within the gallery setting intends to dwarf our sense of importance in an increasingly-narcissistic culture. These objects remind us of who is really “on top” now.
Swell and Detour are abstract representations of sublime landscapes already conquered and exploited. Synthetic materials have completely overtaken organic ones in a world obsessed with manufactured beauty and single-use conveniences. My sculptures’ cheerful colors attempt to counter, to some degree, the somberness that might overtake those who identify the origins of my materials and their significance. Ultimately, the work aims to bring a sense of normality to the sadness of loss. As Timothy Morton point out in his book, Hyperobjects, we are losing “the fantasy of being immersed in a neutral and benevolent Mother Nature” (196).
In the studio, I untwist marine rope, wrap plastic around wire, and shred plastic bags, among other tasks. Some time ago I learned about the need for ritual within the grieving process. I realized then that these repetitive, meditative gestures were subconsciously appeasing my need for these spiritual rites that help move one through the various stages of grief (denial, anger, depression, and bargaining) and into a space of acceptance. These creative rituals re-establish a sense of meaning despite our loss.
Recently, while cleaning a Brooklyn beach, I was handed a $275 ticket for trespassing. The image of a crumbling wall in Swell and torn fences in Detour, symbolically foreground ideas of land ownership and borders. We are a society in which people rarely take responsibility for anything they do not personally own while the privatization of land leaves little incentive for organized stewardship. Barriers keep us divided so that we fail to pay attention to the decimation of important habitats. Today, only apathy seems to enjoy the freedom of running wild.
In spite of all this, I remain an optimist. I believe art can help produce the level of shock necessary for us to face the ecological trauma of our age, while its production can serve as penance for the damage already done. I think there is hope for us still.
ArtSake: Have you ever revised your work on the spot, during an exhibition (intentionally, I mean)?
Basia: As I gain more experience installing my work in a gallery context, I find myself revising it less on the spot. There are however, many installation decisions that I can only make once I am physically in the gallery; these include lighting decisions and how the work is oriented within the space. For example, after installing the sculptures for my MFA thesis show, I made last minute decisions to fill the entire gallery floor with sand and to add dramatic directional lighting — both significantly impacted the viewing experience.
ArtSake: What’s next?
Basia: This upcoming summer, from June 7th through August 1st, my work will be exhibited as part of the Mid-Manhattan Public Library’s Art in the Windows series. The 3-part exhibition entitled Rainbow Credits for Vacation Penance will include video, installation, and performance elements to problematize ideas of leisure, currency, value, and environmental activism.
See Basia’s title animation for the 40 Years of Fellowships project on Mass Cultural Council’s YouTube Channel.
Images and media: video is excerpt of Basia Goszczynska’s DZIAD I BABA (watch the full film). Images are courtesy of the artist.