Born in Tarnow, Poland, in 1972, Wilhelm Sasnal comes across as an unlikely new star of the contemporary art world. But for the last few years his paintings have beguiled critics, curators, and collectors alike with their peculiar range of imagery and styles. Lately he has also been turning his attention to film, with similar success. His first solo museum exhibition opens in the US in November. Having recently returned from three months on the road, Sasnal spoke from his home in Tarnow.
Craig Garrett: Do you know the author Witold Gombrowicz? Have you read his novel Cosmos?
Wilhelm Sasnal: Yes, I've read it.
CG: When I look at your paintings I can't help thinking of it. Does that sound crazy? The book is full of objects and aesthetic clues that almost fit together, but in the end the logic is elusive, and there's no solution.
WS: I've never thought about it this way, but I think it makes sense. In Gombrowicz everything is related. That's what I like. But his distance to himself as an author, that's what I like the most. Everything is allowed. There is a constructive anarchy. That's what I find inspiring.
CG: How does it feel to be back home in Poland?
WS: It's super nice.
CG: You were gone for a long time. You spent most of your time in Marfa, Texas, for an artist's residency at the Chinati Foundation, right?
WS: Yes. There are five artists a year, and each of them has two months. Actually, I never liked the US a lot, and since Iraq it has seemed worse and worse. So I wanted to experience this shitty Texas village and confirm myself in Bushist stupidity. But Marfa was one of the two cities in Texas that voted against Bush. I had expected it to be a collapsed, ugly village, but it wasn't. I really really loved Marfa. It was a super nice two months.
CG: Where else did you go in America?
WS: We traveled across the whole US by car from New York to Texas, and then to the West Coast, Chicago and then back to New York. Of course we stopped some other places, like the Grand Canyon.
CG: Who were you traveling with?
WS: It was my family. My wife and my son. It was a big pleasure to travel through the country. Everything was pretty easy, except maybe food.
CG: You were disappointed by the food?
WS: Well, when we set off from New York we weren't prepared. We thought there would be something to eat besides McDonalds and KFC, but actually these were the only places [laughs]. I put on weight after these three months in the US.
CG: What's Tarnow like?
WS: It's not big, not small -- 150,000 people. It's industrial but with an old city. There's nothing interesting. It's pretty average, like everywhere in Poland. It's the city where I grew up.
CG: You live in a house with your family?
WS: Actually we have a flat. But I think we are moving back to Krakow in one year because my son is going to start school, and I want him to go to school in Krakow.
CG: How old is your son?
WS: Five. When I was an adolescent, I always wished I lived in a bigger city. There are so many more opportunities. Of course schools are better.
CG: Do you think you're going to miss Tarnow?
WS: All these trips I had, and the residency, have shown me that I can work wherever. So actually it doesn't matter if I live here or, I don't know, Marfa. My work goes the same way.
CG: You don't need special conditions to paint?
WS: No, I never believed in excuses such as "I can't paint because I don't have a studio." No, this is only an excuse. I think the point is that you must also adjust to the circumstances of the space you have.
CG: It seems to me that you must spend a lot of time painting. You've been in quite a few exhibitions in recent months.
WS: Well, yes, I work rather regularly. I paint quite a lot, but not as much as before. Now I'm quite involved in making films.
CG: A friend of mine saw your films in at the Reykjavik Arts Festival a couple weeks ago. He said they were fantastic. He was very impressed.
WS: That's nice. I'm not very experienced with showing 16 mm films, even though I started to make films nearly the same time I started painting. At the beginning I developed all the film myself. That was the magic part -- the image appearing. Of course now I send everything to the lab. But I think it gave me a respect not to waste time or film. When you use video you can be spoiled with the lack of limits, but when you're working with super 8 or 16 you must be more aware of what you're going to do with it.
CG: So you plan everything very carefully before you shoot it?
WS: Of course not. Recently I've been using super 8 as a tool to record everyday life and all my trips, like in Texas, where I went to ranches where they were castrating bulls. It may still take me a couple years to complete all the films and edit them and put them into one film and make something like a video clip out of them. It's a long-term project, and now I'm collecting Super 8 reels because there are rumors that they're going to give up producing Super 8. Maybe it will be the natural end of this technique, which might make it the proper time to finish this work. When I use 16 mm I'd rather have a scenario or script, a clear project, but Super 8 is for recording everything -- although still with this respect for time.
CG: It must be very different from painting, where time isn't the same factor.
WS: Yes, but actually my interest in painting came out of music. I used to listen a lot when I was younger, and I still do, but not as much as before. I also wanted to be a video clip maker.
CG: What bands did you want to make videos for back then?
WS: When I started I was fan of metal music. Then I listened to a lot of punk and new wave music. But actually all these bands don't exist anymore, except for a few, like Sonic Youth.
CG: So what were some of the punk and metal bands you liked back then?
WS: I still like Slayer a lot, and I recently got a couple of the albums they released when I was a kid.
CG: Like Reign in Blood?
WS: Yeah. And South of Heaven and Hell Awaits. But yesterday I was listening to Jesus and Mary Chain while I watched some of the Super 8 I shot in Texas, and even though I already used Jesus and Mary Chain for one of these films in Iceland, it pretty much fit the footage.
CG: Did you go to Iceland for the exhibition?
WS: Yes, I did. I rented a car for two days, and I drove all the way around Iceland. It took me only two days.
CG: Gosh, you must really like to drive.
WS: There's a main road around Iceland, and at one point I drove off of this road and onto one of these northern peninsulas. I saw drifting icebergs. They were super big. First I couldn't recognize what they were. I think one of them was the size of a small village.
CG: It didn't make you nervous to be out there? There aren't many people on the north coast of Iceland. Or gas stations.
WS: Actually it wasn't as bad as Texas. We got stuck in the middle of the road in Texas because we didn't buy enough fuel. In Iceland it's not so bad.
CG: Did you like the landscape?
WS: Oh, of course, it was fabulous, but also spooky. That was the place where I could really sense the end of the world. I could imagine there was nothing beyond. You can feel the curvature of the earth -- maybe because of the permanent day.
CG: I forgot to ask you how your Anton Kern exhibition went last week in New York.
WS: I was quite pleased with the show. I painted all the works (except one big painting) in Marfa. I was pretty interested in the books I bought in Marfa. American stuff.
CG: What were they?
WS: One is called Lawless Decade. It's about 1920s America and prohibition. I also bought a book about American birds and another about cacti.
CG: How do you feel when you're at the opening of your own exhibition?
WS: I must say, it's not such a comfortable feeling. It's quite an oppressive situation. But now I think I've gotten used to it. I'm trying to be relaxed. But anyway it's difficult.
CG: Everyone wants your attention.
WS: Yeah, exactly. And there's this feeling that maybe one person might feel you're ignoring him. It's never comfortable.
CG: Do you get a lot of attention at home in Poland?
WS: No, fortunately not. In my city I'm really an anonymous person. I'm the same boy that I was when I left Tarnow fifteen years ago, and people find me the same way, which is quite nice. So, no, I don't need to play anyone except who I am.
CG: Do you ever show your paintings in Tarnow?
WS: No, I never did. This is also about the city. It gave me quite a lot -- not in terms of support, but I think it gave me this silence or privacy. Or intimacy.
CG: You have an exhibition in California soon, at the Berkeley Art Museum.
WS: Yes, it's in November. We are going for one month, the family.
CG: Are you going to show films or paintings?
WS: I'm thinking of a film. I bought a book in Berkeley a year ago. It's a very long poem about the Mississippi, full of pathos. And I'm going to ask a couple bands to sing this poem, and I'll make a film out of it, out of this book and the songs they sing.
CG: That sounds good. Are you going to get bands from California or from Poland?
WS: Actually I got this CD from Jack Hanley some time ago [Frisco Styles, released in 2003 by Jack Hanley Gallery and Deitch Projects]. He's in touch with a lot of bands, and it's a really nice CD, so I hope he may help me.
by Craig Garrett
[originally published in Purple Fashion no. 4 (fall-winter 2005-06)]