[Featured Image: “gods” by Paweł Kuczyński / Polish translation coming soon]
Paweł Kuczyński is multifaceted: scathing satirist, cartoonist, philosopher, and social critic. He has a keen eye for displacing and displaying absurdities, technological alienation and political oppression. Targeting the far-right revolution currently sweeping the US and Europe, epitomized in Donald “Tweeter-in-Chief” Trump to Poland’s ruling Law and Justice Party (PiS) his work is contra the status quo without coming across as agitprop.
Reflecting how many in the US felt after the 2016 presidential election, Kuczyński says, “After [the] Polish elections and high support for the current [far-right] ruling party, I have come to the conclusion that I do not understand this country.” In fact, he states that his work is often better known and received outside of Poland. Born 41 years ago in the far west of Poland, in the city of Szczecin, Kuczyński went on to study at the Academy of Fine Arts in Poznań. I asked him how his career as a known artist began, “I’ve always been interested in illustrations. Then my focus became more towards satirical drawings and cartoons. A colleague I met in Poznań persuaded me to take part in a competition for a satirical cartoons. It was in 2004. I received my first prize, a distinction at the Aydin Dogan Cartoon Contest in Istanbul, Turkey.” Since then he’s received over 130 awards, among them the Silver Plate Award at the Salon of Antiwar Cartoons in Serbia (2013).
While he doesn’t remember his first exhibition, this is likely because he prefers to avoid them. The gallery and exhibition scene isn’t, for Kuczyński, the right place to present his work. Perhaps he doesn’t like the immediacy of reviews that come from exhibitions; when asked about them, he replied, “When there are questions [from exhibitions] about the interpretation of my work, I always feel tired and sad. This means that the job is not good enough, that it needs my help.” However, I tend to disagree; I think his work is so open-ended and thoughtful that any questions actually add to the work.
When I ask him about works like Perfect Garden, a scathing reminder of social alienation within hyper-tech societies, he gives an elided answer, “New technologies are wonderful achievements of humanity. I’m only worried that we turned them into the new idols. But I’m ‘old-fashioned.’ I was born long ago and my mind was formed in the old times. The world is moving forward.”
Surrealism seems embedded in his work, and I ask about his connection with Magritte. He responds that his work is an investigation into what he calls “the surreal reality that surrounds us.”
Indeed many of his works are scathing criticisms of the major social networking and media platforms. Ironically he is just embedded as the rest of us. He acknowledges this, “I am often accused of being anti-tech in my work. But I enjoy using these novelties, and I use them in everyday life. I cannot imagine life without Internet! And this gives me the right (because I experience it personally) to express/show in my work what concerns me about the internet, new technologies, etc. In fact, I try to discuss topics that interest me, those that get my attention. Usually these are ‘difficult topics’ that bother me somehow and usually there is no definite/one answer. There is no single answer to the internet. So, in my work, I try to illustrate a problem in order to get the viewer’s attention so the subject later evolves through the interpretations of the audience and the work begins to live its own life.”
A definite critical sadness resonates throughout Kuczyński’s oeuvre. Given the wide-ranging topics he addresses, from Brexit to war, from technology moguls as gods, from psychosocial loneliness in an ever “connected” age, from injustices under Poland’s retrogressive ruling party, I am curious about how he works. I asked about his daily schedule. “The most important part of the work and the most exhaustive is the first step: finding an idea and drawing it out (drawing sketches). In my work I do not use text, and [although] text makes it easier to convey the meaning/context … [it] limits the aspect of ambiguity, and retaining ambiguity is important for me. In my work I focus on well-prepared composition with appropriate emphasis on particular elements of work.” Morning or night person? “Well, I get up very early in the morning and draw while there is daylight. The creative process for one piece takes about 1-2 days. My technique is watercolor and color crayons on paper. My evenings are left for work at the computer, preparing ideas, sketches for the next day and mailing.”
This “most important part of the work and the most exhaustive” is that first step, that drawing out, which in English has two definitions: one, actually creating the line, etc, and two the pulling forth from somewhere an idea. Kuczyński finds the idea, yet he must then pull it out; form from formlessness. The pulling out or drawing out an idea is indeed linked with finding and idea, although they are not the same. He is literally mining realities, “However, in my case, [unlike Magritte or the surrealists] the aims to stress, expose, clarify, and define the real world rather than attempting to escape to other dimensions.” While the surrealists used strikingly similar art to move beyond banality, Kuczyński finds reality surreal enough to pull/draw from it.
I think he does both: transcends banal reality by pulling form out the nebulous circuit-board that is techno-capitalism. The result, his work, demonstrates an adroit sophistication. “I do not try to ‘wake up’ anyone or show them the ‘right way.’ I myself am often curious what reactions it will evoke and how my work will be interpreted. Contemporary art talks about similar problems as my work. But the language it uses is understandable only to the initiates and insiders. I, as a craftsman of an old school, try to make my work visually attractive and meaningful to a wide audience.”
And with over half a million followers on the platform he regularly satirizes, Facebook, it seems his audience is quite wide, and growing.