Iza Tarasewicz
Physics, God, and Nothingness

Under the spell of elementary particles: Iza Tarasewicz’s latest installation “TURBA, TURBO” was inspired by chaos theory and by the Large Hadron Collider at CERN near Geneva. Now, the young artist has won the most important prize for contemporary Polish art—the Views Award, which was initiated jointly by Deutsche Bank and the Zachęta Nationalgalerie in 2003. Karol Sienkiewicz immersed himself in Tarasewicz’s mysterious artistic cosmos.
This autumn in Warsaw belongs to Iza Tarasewicz. As the new season started, she was featured in major exhibitions in the Zachęta National Art Gallery and the Centre for Contemporary Art in Ujazdowski Castle. She was nominated to the "Views 2015 - Deutsche Bank Award" sponsored by Deutsche Bank, which she later won. And it didn’t come as a surprise to the Polish art world. It was, however, almost a historic event, as she was the first female artist to win the Views Award since the prize was established in 2003, when it went to Elżbieta Jabłońska. For over a decade, this biannual art competition was dominated by male figures; the list of previous laureates includes Wojciech Bąkowski (2009), Konrad Smoleński (2011), and Łukasz Jastrubczak (2013). Although she was a member of the same artistic group as Bąkowski and Smoleński—Penerstwo, established by the graduates of the Fine Arts Academy in Poznań—Tarasewicz doesn’t have to prove she knows how to wear pants.

Her sculpture TURBA TURBO, created for the Views Award exhibition, hangs from the ceiling on a network of barely visible wires, floating just above the floor. Its major part resembles a skeleton or a scaffolding in the shape of a pipe. Repetitive metal circles are connected by geometrical shelves. The tubular structure forms a complicated display mechanism, an alchemist’s laboratory, or even a kind of organism. What at first seems quite sturdy reveals its fragile nature when examined more closely. The structure is inhabited by a group of small sculptural objects and micro-installations composed of pigments, rocks, and specimens. Titanium white, hemp fiber, resin, asphalt, plant glue, cement, ash. One doesn’t know if these forms were abandoned a long time ago, or if it’s a newly set up experiment. It seems, however, that somebody could easily breathe life into it. Hovering above TURBA TURBO is Arena, a black rope of hemp fiber and rubber that creates a closed circuit, like an afterimage: a large question mark or Moebius strip. The spirit.

As Tarasewicz has explained, the circular structural elements repeat the shape of a design piece, a modernist flower stand from the 1930s, while the round shell was inspired by the Large Hadron Collider at CERN near Geneva, the largest machine and experimental facility on Earth, where scientists study the elementary particles that hold matter and thus the entire universe together. The first analogy that came to mind as I approached the sculpture was even more otherworldly. The circular and gravity tensions within the sculpture reminded me of the topsy-turvy living compartment of a spaceship sent on the Jupiter mission in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey. In the famous scene, commander David Bowman jogs around the spinning drum centrifuge, whose forces provided the crew with artificial gravity. Only later does he learn the mission’s true goal, which was to examine life on other planets. He survives the deadly instincts of the computer HAL-9000 and returns in a psychedelic trip to the origins of being.

We are long past 2001. We know more about the universe now than in 1968, the year Kubrick’s film was made. And in contrast to the people of that time, we no longer feel the looming danger of nuclear conflict, which defined the decades of the Cold War. Despite this, in the face of global humanitarian and ecological crises, what exists perhaps more than ever is an antediluvian fear that development and evolution may turn into destruction, a fear that most of Tarasewicz’s works seem to embody in one way or another as they pose the question of what will survive. In this sense, her works also show what remains of progress, of the great attempts to explain the world: piles of material, models, tools.

Before she studied sculpture, Tarasewicz spent a year studying medicine, and the notions of animate and inanimate matter informed her early works to a great extent. She created a series of sculptures using materials such as leather, animal fat, paraffin wax, and yeast, with a little help from a taxidermist. These abject forms seemed to expand like fungi or mutate into scary forms. Take her Wounds (2008), for example, bloody objects made of pork intestines.

During a residency in Georgia in 2011, Tarasewicz radicalized her visual language, paradoxically finding a freedom of creation through limiting herself to raw materials and more abstract forms. She later called this a “breakthrough.” This new approach found its climax with the Clinamen solo show at the Królikarnia in Warsaw in 2013, curated by Post Brothers, where she composed her sculptures in alliance with objects from the museum’s collection and archives, such as sculptor’s tools, documentary photographs, and damaged sculptures.

The title of the show was borrowed from Lucretius’s De rerum natura. In his didactic poem, the Roman philosopher defined “clinamen” as a spontaneous and unpredictable deviation in the motion of atoms. According to Lucretius, the universe is guided by Fortuna, chance. This type of surprising parallel between the humanities and today’s natural sciences has become a paradigm of Tarasewicz’s works of the past several years. In her own way, she began to research the original nature of matter—to search for whatever it is that holds the world together, just as the scientists at CERN do.

After graduation from the Fine Arts Academy in Poznań, Tarasewicz returned to where she grew up, the Podlaskie region in eastern Poland. She lives and works in the small village of Kolonia Koplany, a few kilometers from Białystok, the region’s capital. “What was necessity at first,” she admits, “turned out very helpful and inspiring. I like to work somewhere on the sidelines.” For generations, her family used to run a farm here. And it is always Kolonia Koplany she comes back to from her many travels. Tarasewicz works close to nature, plant cultivation and husbandry, the rhythms of sowing and reaping, an incessant macro-metabolism.

Her studio, however, calls to mind a laboratory or even an alchemist’s hideout. It’s wallpapered with scientific diagrams and formulas. She examines how different materials behave, as if she were looking for the philosopher’s stone. Whereas her installations are conceived as cute miniature models. Tarasewicz’s latest exhibitions orbit around the ideas of chance encounters. She develops modules and display systems that serve as the vocabulary and grammar of her visual language. Reconfigurable elements can be composed in various constellations that expand or shrink and change quality, depending on the space and context. Sometimes they resemble graceful display cabinets, sometimes convoluted metal cobwebs or systems of lianas. Her installations are organic in a way architecture is organic when it copies certain aspects of nature.

Tarasewicz’s sculptural recycling stems from her interest in philosophy, the natural sciences, and chaos theory, which holds that within complex systems and experiments, even the tiniest changes can exert a large, unpredictable influence—like the legendary butterfly that can cause a hurricane somewhere far away with a single beat of its wing. When she talks about her works, she often delves into scientific fascinations that are not always easy to follow. Her sculptures, however, offer an instantaneous visceral reaction and reveal a more holistic approach. She says: “I am inspired by the mixed scale of great and small perspectives. Reading about the origins of the universe, I can imagine it more or less awkwardly, but I think people understand this beginning in various ways. For some it is God, for others simply Nothing, and for others still it is physics.”

And this mixed scale is what characterizes her more recent interventions. At the recent show Dust at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Warsaw, for instance, Tarasewicz made the simplest gesture possible by scattering ochre—a yellowish, earthy pigment—in different places inside the exhibition space. She even marked the windowpanes with ochre stains. The particles of color were reminiscent of ashes, but also spores out of which new life can arise. On the other hand, for the exhibition Gardens at the Zachęta, she conceived a room-sized installation in which she took over a staircase usually closed off to viewers and created an assemblage of various metal elements, ropes, and facilities for growing reishi mushrooms. These bizarre, eccentric organisms have been used in Chinese medicine for over two thousand years and are called “mushroom of immortality” and “herb of spiritual power.” Climbing the stairs, one entered a kind of secret garden of primeval life forms, leftovers of a long extinct ecosystem.

What is tempting in Tarasewicz’s work is exactly this step backwards that she sometimes takes, as though she were observing our world from another planet. The pigments and other simple elements in her installations evoke basic chemical reactions, the primordial soup that life began in on this planet. And the fear that one day we will have to render the computer inoperative, and that it will say its last words, much like HAL-9000, “killed” by Commander Bowman: “Dave, stop. I’m afraid, Dave. My mind is going. I can feel it.”