GEOGRAPHY OF LOVE by Dorota Szymanska

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Rob Garrett – an independent curator, currently based in Sopot (Poland), originally from Auckland (NZ), with more than 35 years’ practice in the contemporary art sector, including curatorial experience in New Zealand, Poland, Italy, Sweden, France, Turkey, Germany and India. He is currently curator of the 2016 “Immersions: inSPIRACJE Competition for Artists Exhibition” at Muzeum Narodowe w Szczecinie (Poland); New Zealand selector and curator for the 2016 “ENTRE ISLAS / BETWEEN ISLAND International VideoArt Festival”; curator of the 2017 “inSPIRACJE International Visual Arts Festival” in Szczecin (Poland); and founding curator of an international exhibition programme for emerging artists at CORNER Window Gallery in Auckland (New Zealand). In 2015 he curated “New Intimacies: SCAPE Public Art Christchurch Biennial” (New Zealand).

 

Dorota Szymanska talks to Rob Garrett about geography, passion and whatever lies in between…

 

DS: It was late 2012 when a social media, winter photo of you - an Aucklander in Gdansk – Poland, caught my eye. How did it happen you got interested in this country? What was your first experience of Poland?

 

RG: I first came to Poland in the summer of 2005 at the invitation of Zachęta National Gallery of Art (Narodowa Galeria Sztuki) in Warsaw. This was just before I became a freelance curator and I was working for New Zealand’s Arts Council; and I had just finished as sponsoring manager of New Zealand’s official pavilion project at the Venice Contemporary Art Biennale. I decided it take a few weeks of personal time visiting artist friends and other colleagues in Milan, Moscow, Vilnius, Prague, Budapest and Berlin. I traveled down to Warsaw from Vilnius by train with fellow New Zealander Simon Rees, who was then curator at the Contemporary Art Centre in Vilnius; and is now Director of the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery in New Plymouth, NZ. Simon and Zachęta curator Magda Kardasz were working on a major exhibition of Australian and New Zealand art. Zachęta generously hosted my visit to Warsaw for a few days and I spent my time meeting artists, gallerists and curators. I had a great time and found everyone very friendly and informative. I particularly remember a warm and enthusiastic conversation about contemporary Polish art by Jarosław Suchan who was then Director of the Center for Contemporary Art (Centrum Sztuki Współczesnej) in Zamek Ujazdowski as we looked at large parts of the collection then on display. I also enjoyed a very generous summer evening of hospitality with artists and others from the art world in Hanna Wróblewska’s home.

 

A year later I was setting out as an independent curator; and it would be seven years before Poland again drew my intensive interest. In 2012 my curatorial proposal for the 5th edition of the annual “Narracje Installations and Interventions in Public Space” festival in Gdańsk was selected by an independent jury and in January 2013 I returned for Poland for an exciting 2-week research residency to start planning my Narracje Festival programme which would take place the following November. At the outset, when I was devising my concept for the festival, I was attracted to Gdańsk’s rich history and the possibilities for contemporary artists – both Polish and international – to help connect locals with the stories of their own home in new, moving and informative ways. The very old history of the city’s river, canals, grain trade and walled structure with surrounding gardens was fascinating and inspiring to me. My research residency gave me a chance to walk around the Old Town, visit the city’s historic and cultural collections and to meet many individuals, artists and city planners, architects and historians, residents and bar owners, all of whom had stories to tell that made me realise there was a very rich and complex cultural memory residing in the city – but fragmented and inaccessible to ordinary people. The artists I chose found the context similarly inspiring and I think we did a very good job of creating new ‘windows’ onto the past for the 1000s of locals who walked the festival trail during the cold and misty November nights. The Festival provided me with a great opportunity to introduce some New Zealand artists to Poland and for this I was very pleased. Juliette Laird made very strong connections with the Polish community in New Zealand as well as having a very rewarding time during her weeks in the TriCity.

 

DS: I know that “Narracje 2013” was not the only “engagement” that had you stay in Poland longer? That must have been quite a different experience?

 

RG: As luck or fate would have it, I met someone very special during my project in Gdańsk at the end of 2013. Magda, not an artist herself, is friends with some of the local artists I was working with and we met at the opening event of “Narracje.” There was an instant and compelling connection and things developed pretty quickly, with the result that we married in Gdańsk six months after meeting; and that’s how I came to make Sopot my European home. If it hadn’t been for meeting Magda, I would most likely have been based in Berlin. I am very pleased with where I am!

 

 

DS: I know that you now travel extensively around Poland – what has this included to date and why?

 

RG: As you know, moving to a new country involves its own measure of curiosity. I have been reading a lot; history books of course, but also Polish novels (in English translation), from serious literature (I have fallen in love with the qualities of Olga Tokarczuk and Pawel Huelle’s writing – the latter was born in Gdańsk) to crime fiction (I am now a great fan of Anya Lipska and Zygmunt Miłoszewski!) because, every time, some new aspect of the character of the people and the place is always revealed. But yes, I have been roving around too. So far, not as far as I would like, but I am patient: Toruń, Kraków, Warsaw many times, Szczecin, the whole TriCity area of course, including the beautiful Hel Peninsula and parts of Kashubia (Kaszëbë / Kaszuby). Coming up, there are trips to Janowiec and Zakopane; also to Orońsko to explore the National Sculpture centre there; and Poznań, which I have traveled through several times by train without stopping as I ‘rushed’ to and from Szczecin for the project I curated there this year. Łódź and Wrocław have so far eluded me! I hope to visit them this year too. Some of these trips are to visit exhibitions, meet artists and others in the art world; and to get to know Poland’s fine art academies. Other trips have been simply family-oriented and recreational.

DS: Your passion for contemporary art has, for years now, been taking you around the world, letting you meet very interesting and talented people. What is on your artistic agenda this year?

 

RG: We joked about the ‘Geography of Love’ when talking about this interview, and by now you can probably see that the ‘loves’ that keep me moving around the globe are my attraction to certain art and artists, the love of first-hand encounters and of new experiences… Already this year these loves have rewarded me with surprising experiences; and now based in the Europe, the pleasure and relative ease of spontaneous travel! This last aspect is of course one of the main reasons I moved here from New Zealand!

 

So what about this year. In January I was invited to give a presentation about my experiences curating public art at the LUX Helsinki Light Art Festival in Finland. It was a great sharing of stories, minds and experiences by artists and curators in the depth of the Finnish winter… The great thing about this invitation is that it came from meeting the Director of LUX Helsinki late in 2015 at another small conference I was invited to speak at, in Hildesheim, Germany, also during a Light Art Festival. The Hildesheim festival, “Lichtungen”, and the invitation to speak, came from the wonderful curator Bettina Carter-Pelz who actually founded the “Narracje” festival in Gdańsk and who curated the first 3 editions. We met during my “Narracje” edition in 2015… As you can guess, it’s usually about the people; it’s about the relationships: like-minded people wanting to maintain and extend the conversations, the dialogue, the possibilities of working together. So, Helsinki in 2016 arose from Gdańsk in 2015; plus, in Helsinki there is the wonderful artist duo of Johan Olin and Aamu Song (“COMPANY”) who I worked with in Auckland in 2011 when we created a project for the city’s waterfront public space development in the Wynyard Quarter. Of course we had a great catch-up in Helsinki J

 

Other travel in the first half of the year has taken me to Kraków for the first time (and I am returning again in a few days); to Warsaw and Berlin several times for meetings with artists and to keep up-to-date with major exhibitions; and a thrilling first-time trip to the islands of Malta and Gozo for meetings with artists. Most recently I have just returned from what I would call an art ‘pilgrimage’ of sorts, to see, and in fact to walk on, the latest temporary public art project by the very famous duo Christo and Jeanne-Claude: “The Floating Piers” on Lake Iseo in Lombardy, Italy. The project was only open between June 18 and July 3; and I had to wait until after the opening weekend of my Szczecin project. So with one week before the Christo project ended, I traveled south from Szczecin: Berlin, Basel, Bellinzona, Monza, Bergamo, Brescia, Sulzano. Long hours on several trains, finding places to stay at the last minute, uncertainty about trains running in Italy because the crowds going to Sulzano became a nightmare for authorities, waiting in long lines and thankfully 30-degree heat and Italian skies! It was all more than worth it. The “Floating Piers” experience was fantastic. The ‘artwork’ was a series of wide, saffron orange, fabric-covered floating walkways across the lake and around a small island. It was an experience effervescent with people’s wonder and excitement. Visually stunning and socially joyful. After that I took my time returning home with a few days in Milan and a few more days in Berlin, catching up with friends and making small spontaneous art discoveries, many of which I have shared on social media and now also on my website in my “Seen & admired” series: http://www.robgarrettcfa.com/content/2016/07/10/seen-admired-2016-1

 

Coming up, I have further trips to Szczecin to plan my “inSPIRACJE” programme for 2017 and getting around the Polish cities I previously mentioned. Plus, I want to get across to Braunschweig in Lower Saxony, Germany, to see a major exhibition by Matthew Cowan, a New Zealand artist I have been working with who now lives in Berlin and studies in Helsinki. Beyond that, where will serendipity take me? I don’t know yet, but I’m anticipating good things!

 

DS: Your SCAPE 8 Public Art event in 2015 assisted in linking the city of SOPOT (Poland) and CHRISTCHURCH – there is now Polish ‘accent’ by Avon River as a result - tell us more about this?

 

RG: Well this project was already well underway before I was invited to curate the SCAPE 8 Biennial of Art in Public Places, so I cannot take any credit for that particular bridge between Poland and New Zealand, even though German artist Mischa Kuball and I had known each other for many years prior to this moment. Kuball’s project “Solidarity Grid” had the inspired aim of linking post-earthquake Christchurch to various places around the world through an avenue of street lamps, with each lamp being gifted by a different city, one of those being my new hometown Sopot. It just so happened that Kuball’s project reached a significant milestone, or critical mass of completed lamp posts, at the time that my SCAPE 8 programme was opening, so the “Solidarity Grid” project became part of the wider celebration of public art in Christchurch.

 

DS: You currently reside in Poland permanently. How do you tackle not the easiest language in the world?

 

RG: Yes… I am very fortunate that Poland has so far considered me an acceptable migrant. I have my 3-year residency card and after this I home to become a permanent resident. As for the language, well I have some and everyday a little more. My Polish comprehension is not bad and now I really have to work on getting great speaking proficiency. Funnily enough, I learned a lot about Polish grammar almost by accident in the American Elementary School in Gdynia where I teach English Conversation classes three days a week: many of the 7, 8 and 9-year old Polish children I teach were using Polish grammatical structures when speaking in English and after a while I realised this had jump-started my Polish comprehension! I’ve now reached the stage where I need to find a good teacher to help me. J

 

DS: Judging by your regular photos on social media (exquisite I must add) you are quite fond of polish cuisine. Your best taste of Poland?

 

RG: Oh without a doubt there are a few really distinctive Polish tastes which have become real favourites:

Really good pierogi, with silky, delicate cases made from flour and water dough, are, though very different in taste and texture, for me, just as good as the best Italian ravioli. There are of course many Polish soups, but I have two personal favourites: the mildly spicy fish soup which is a specialty of Bar Przystań on the beach at Sopot (http://www.barprzystan.pl/category-article-4-17.html) and Żurek soup (a sour ryemeal soup) which is sometimes served in a hollowed-out round loaf of rye bread. Talking of fish, I love pickled herring – with raw onion of course! – the local pstrąg (Baltic trout) – and sielawa (a small ‘whitefish’ from local lakes usually cooked whole). Finally, two strictly seasonal favourites are local forest mushrooms, including Porcini; and the antonówka variety of apples – the flesh has a slightly fluffy soft texture and goes brown as soon as you bite it, but the sweet-sour taste of the apple and the juice made from it is wonderful!

 

DS: “The best of Poland for me is………”

 

RG: Well, three things immediately come to mind. Right from the beginning of my Polish experience in 2005, I have been attracted to the unfailingly warm, generous, honest and thoughtful character of the people I have met socially and worked alongside. Basing my European adventure in Poland has its practical advantages because it is a relatively inexpensive place to live – this is great for a new migrant like me who is ‘starting over’ in a sense! Finally, it is the forest and beach of my new hometown that gives my soul as deep sense of connection: people often ask why I left the New Zealand paradise, but I point to the great good fortune of living in the forest, 5 minutes bike ride from the beautiful white-sand beaches of the baltic coast; and I say that I have simply substituted one paradise for another.

 

DS: Dziekuje i do zobaczenia!

 

RG: Proszę bardzo i do zobaczenia !

 
 
 
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