Megalopolis: Interview with Artur Przebindowski. AVANT Avant-Garde Journal of Science and Philosophy. Trends in interdisciplinary studies.

questions prepared by: Przemysław S. Staroń
interview conducted by: Witold Wachowski

Could I ask you to share some details with our readers concerning your technical approach to "Megalopolis", or would doing so violate trade secrets? For example what kinds of paints did you use, in what order were the images of the sequence painted, which specific techniques did you employ...?

 My paintings take shape in stages. Occasionally one of these consists of a time spent away from the work -- but away from it only in appearance. At such times I flip the painting around to face the wall and wait a few days, weeks, or perhaps months, for the right time to come back to it. That's why my studio's constantly home to a dozen-odd works in progress. My craft is firmly rooted in a rigorous discipline, an exact method. I have my own personal 'setup', my own toolkit and 'prerequisites' -- in the form of drawings, photos, notes, albums, books, and records -- without which I'd have a hard time working. Anything which could inspire me to take up work on a painting is vital, a thing I must experiment with. Igniting inspiration is one of the more interesting phases of my work.

During your conversations with Małgorzata I. Niemczyńska, you stated both directly and indirectly, that painting the city tells the story of humanity. Buildings are sometimes more living tissue than just lifeless masses. Flesh and nerves... emanating, without a doubt, a deep sensitivity. So what kinds of feelings and moods are associated with your work? You seem to look beyond buildings' constructions.

An astute observation. They truly are more of a living tissue, part of a nervous system, than just architectural clumps and structures. My city is more than any archituctural construction of formal, logical consistency. It's more of a tissue, a mesh of symbols, fissures, refractions, and bursts - at times mere epidermal scratches; at others deeper and more painful incursions. It's my own personal topography -- a map of my brain, if you will -- marked with my fingerprints, my DNA, and my experience of space and time. I'd rather not go into it too deeply; I feel as if I'm under dissection.

Do you remember the roads to your cities, their origins? Do they stretch far into your past? As a child, for example, did you play with building blocks?

In my childhood, I loved making up maps of imaginary cities, countries, and continents. The cities I dreamt up underwent numerous transformations, formed into empires, and sometimes collapsed. These games were essentially storytelling conquests, about people and cities. The advantage paper & pencil held over building blocks was that the only technical limitation was the format. But I assure you that, with an ordinary sheet of paper, I was able to build a whole empire and fight countless battles.

So, to engage the imagination... are there people living in the homes you paint? Or do you paint ghost towns?

Yes, of course there are people living in them – though, for me, whether they do or not is a bit of a contrived question -- one which people do frequently ask nonetheless. In my opinion, the fact that they aren't visible in no way indicates that they don't exist. For me though, there isn't any symbolic or sociological meaning. My cities, as you mentioned, are reminiscent of "nerve tissue", owing to which their very fiber contains a human element. I consider my paintings deeply humanistic and directly related to humanity. The fact that they don't employ 'staffage' in human form is more a side effect of the concept, the choice of formal technique, composition, and cropping… I don't want my cities to be viewed from a classical standpoint, as mere sets and subsets of elements like roads, residences, and citizens -- that idea holds no interest for me at all. One has to look at them from a different perspective - more cohesively, with an eye for their cosmological and structural qualities.

So are you afraid of voids and emptiness? They're the least 'human' thing one can imagine.

"We don't belong to one another, and we this isn't where we come from." – for me, that's the most astute metaphor for the human condition. St. Peter, in his Epistles, describes it as "life in exile". For me, the most profound alienation and emptiness is the individual, isolated experience of living life. The roles others play in our lives are limited, and we must ultimately face life all on our own. We must go through the harshest experiences and take our most crucial decisions as individuals. It's humans who experience the coldest kind of void. True emptiness and loneliness reside only inside of us. External circumstances and collective experiences are, as viewed from our islands, of mere secondary importance. Not long ago I read the wartime memoirs of a certain woman afflicted with chronic depression. She reflected on the beneficial effect the trauma of war had had on her illness, which subsided almost overnight. The moral is that difficult collective experiences were able to act positively on her psyche. Her instinct of self-preservation prevented her from focusing inwardly, which turned out to be just the medicine she needed. After the war, she again slipped into depression. As someone once observed: we have no unit of measurement for loneliness or suffering; the intensity is known only to the individual. And to God, of course.

You've mentioned before certain cities which you've found particularly inspirating. To what extent can a given place inpire you? Some people have compared your "Megalopolis" to the ghost-town of Prypiat in Ukraine, which was evacuated after the disaster in Chernobyl.

But comparisons to that town are on the wrong track. I'd completely forgotten about it until you mentioned it just now... Of course I do understand how such associations might occur to people. There is kind of monumental void in my paintings, but that doesn't mean they're ghost towns. I never thought of them that way -- it'd be too obvious and cliché. A classical tragedy acted out in broad daylight: Camus' protagonists experienced existential abyss in sunny weather on the Turkish Medditeranean. The greatest tragedies are acted out in obscurity, amidst the drama of our whirling planet's bright pageant. Do you remember Bosch's "Christ Carrying the Cross"? Commoners and hecklers surrounded Jesus. Why such pathos and gloominess all of a sudden? Because these paintings affirm life, capture its fragility and fleetingness, and yet they are optimistic. Where can you find paintings these days with so much harmony and beauty? Why not see the cities depicted in these paintings as the salons of Walter Benjamin's flâneur? The city as the "interior design" of our environment. The city as a collision of hierarchies: the institutional, with the its mandates and prohibitions, and the spontaneous, formed dynamically by citizens themselves. The unhurried hours of the siesta, wandering villages of the Meditteranean coast -- this resonates more strongly with me than the post-apocalyptic Prypiat.

Last year an interesting thing happened to me. My friend sent me some photos of a town in Southern Italy. One of them fascinated me to such a degree that it become the basis for a "Megalopolis" painting. It turned out to be the beginning of one of the best images in the series. As an expression of awe for this city which, I thought to myself, I simply must visit if I ever find myself near it. And the opportunity presented itself only a few months later. I shot a series of photographs there and naively imagined` they would lead to a new series of paintings. But so far it hasn't happened. Imagination as aided by photography proved to be more inspiring for me than my real-life encounter with the city. That's a kind of paradox in my work. In a certain way, all of my cities, despite their many differences, are in fact a single, universal city of the imagination. Even when I have drawn inspiration from some specific city, I've tended, often unconsciously, to obscure the qualities which might have corresponded to anything specific. A pervasive "nervous tissue" has replaced them, almost obsessive in its rhythmic pattern. A new, universal city has taken shape. I want each successive painting to be its own universe, drawing its uniqueness from reality, yes, but simultaneously creating the latest chapter in the phenomenon I've named "Megalopolis". This phenomenon is the subject, rather than any concrete place. My work also entails a careful attention to a special kind of visual communication -- my anatomical testimony to the cities' "absurdly utopian abundance" (borrowing Stanisław Tabisz's phrase from his introduction to the catalog of my exhibition last year). There's no place in them for any "oneiric exaltation"; there is however a kind of realistic, muted monumentalism. Additionally, I'm becoming ever more keenly aware that the subject of my work is the visual phenomenon of the world, and my amazement for it. That's another paradox: lately I've begun painting almost abstract images, yet their creation derives from observation of the real world. In seeking out motifs for paintings, and especially in deciding how to crop them, I've ended up getting more and more abstract. The art of painting is immune to idle speculation. You can't just make a painting up out of nowhere. It seems to me that painters who employ cold speculation and 'visions' they think up get lost quickly in a jumble of prototypical solutions. Life exceeds the imagination, and emotions beat speculation and theory. That's why I stick mainly to the visual phenomenon of the real world and why I'm so emotionally addicted to it. Only our observations of reality can bring us to sheer amazement. Amazement, together with a perception of harmony, is more universal than some æsthetic category. It's a feeling of oneness with the cosmos and the order of the universe. When I look up into the blue night sky, for example, and gaze at the stars and the moon, I have no doubts that things are just the way they should be. I experience a feeling of oneness with the absolute.

Indeed, we feel the same. We wanted an image for the cover which would radiate energy, rather than absorb it. Final question: speaking in your capacity as a 'cover' artist, don't you feel somehow exploited by the use of your images on covers?

Absolutely not. It's great in fact, as it allows my art and its viewers to describe an ever greater circle.

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