Martynka Wawrzyniak

by Elysian Magazine

Conceptual Artist, Editor at Rizzoli New York

Growing up in Poland during the communist revolution profoundly impacted Martynka Wawrzyniak’s life and career as a conceptual artist. Necessities were scarce, and this minimalist way of life is reflected in her work today. She has lived independently since the age of 18, when she moved to New York where she successfully pursued a career as an artist and publisher. She is an editor for Rizzoli New York, an international publishing house, and has exhibited her multimedia work globally. In her practice, Martynka explores issues of femininity, gluttony, violence and nationality in a way that is often visceral and confrontational for the viewer. 

You are of Polish origin?
Yes, I was born and raised in Poland. Because it was communist, we immigrated to New Zealand when I was eight years old. We lived in New Zealand for ten years, and then, 22 years ago, I came to America.

How old were you when Lech Walesa and the revolution were going on?
My whole childhood really. I was so young. We finally left around 1987, toward the end of Communism.

Were you alone when you came to the U.S.?
No, my father came to the United States when I was six. At that time, many Polish fathers left our country to make money. Two years later, my mother, my sister and I moved to New Zealand. My father went back to Poland in 2000, and my brother was born in Warsaw.

And your mother?
She’s in New Zealand. But, I came here where my father was. I just started my own life.

How old were you when you started your own life?
I came to the United States when I was about 18. I didn’t live with my father though; but he lived in New York as well.

So, you have been on your own effectively since you were 18?
Pretty much.

When did you know that you had a gift in art?
I came to New York to be an artist and to work in publishing.

In what ways did your experience in communist Poland impact you?
A lot of my artwork reflects a very minimalist aesthetic because I was raised in a country where everything was without packaging, without colors, without brands. There was not much food. You would go into a store and it was empty. For example, I never leave anything on my plate because I just like feel like you can’t throw away food. It has been that way my whole life. Those attitudes are ingrained in you from childhood. I think many Polish people perceive themselves as victims and have guilt complexes. These are feelings that are deep-rooted in our culture as a result of living in a country that was constantly being invaded and ripped apart. My Polish heritage has significant connection to my art. To illustrate, my last art project was all about immigration. The public art work Ziemia (Earth – in Polish), took the form of a ceramic orb in a native plant meadow installed in McGolrick Park in Greenpoint, Brooklyn. Almost all of my artwork has been somewhat autobiographical. It is something that I want to share with the world; something that we can all connect about and identify with.

Tell us about the Ziemia project.
I wanted to go through a journey of healing. It is always therapeutic when you create art. You hope that other people collaborating can also feel the therapeutic benefits of going through the process. Ziemia is a group portrait of a community made up of immigrants. I wanted everybody to think of places that they had lived in or had memories from or nostalgic connections to . . . I invited them to give me a cup of soil from this place that represented them metaphorically so that it connected us all through something very primal: our connection to earth and nature. We literally come from dirt, and we end up in dirt after we die. And it was a way for all these neighbors that may be prejudiced toward each other, to identify with the fact that we’re all from soil, and end in soil. It does not matter whether you are a migrant from another neighborhood or an immigrant from a faraway country. Many people in the neighborhood are from Poland. So, I went on a pilgrimage to Poland on behalf of a lot of Polish seniors who weren’t able to go back or are too old to travel. I dug up soil from places that used to be their homes or from the special places that they remember but haven’t been to sometimes for 50 years. That whole project was very much connected to my roots.

Which ethnicities are represented in the Ziemia project, and what was the end result?
Polish people are a big part of the Greenpoint community, and I am Polish. The soil came from over 150 different locations, from all over the world. I created an orb that is made out of clay that I also dug up in Greenpoint on Clay Street. The glaze is a mixture of everyone’s soil. So, on the outside of the orb, you can see all the different colored soils. The orb sits in a meadow (all native plants) that I grew in a plot in McGolrick Park. The project connects us back to what the neighborhood looked like back before it was urban… the wilderness that used to be here. I wanted to do something about how I feel as an immigrant. I wanted to connect people that are disconnected and from different cultures that are prejudiced toward each other. What substance connects everyone? Nature and earth, right? I thought, “What can I do with this idea of earth and nature?” I can make an orb that looks like earth made out of clay. The soil will go on the outside, and nature will grow around it. I counted seven different art projects that you have done that are written about quite frequently.

I am most curious about Ketchup, Smell Me and Chocolate, which is a video. Tell me about the Ketchup project.
Ketchup, like all my projects, was an experiment. I thought, “Okay, what substance represents American children?” To me, it’s ketchup. It’s the American kid’s food, right? And, also, water guns that they play with in the park when it’s hot. I was inspired by watching my stepson playing in the park on a hot summer afternoon. I began to wonder what would happen if I gave these ten-year-old boys water guns filled with ketchup while I stood blindfolded against the gallery wall. Let’s just see what happens… if my hypothesis of male aggression is correct. It was an experiment. Lo and behold, they started acting like they were playing a video game, and they wanted to murder me. I showed it later in a gallery. We had the footage of me projected on a wall. It looked like a murder scene with dirty clothes on the ground. There was a very loud voiceover of them yelling, “Kill her, kill her, get her in the mouth, kill her.” Little kids giggling . . . it was really creepy . . . like Lord of the Flies. When you see the projection of me blindfolded getting blasted, you don’t really know where the kids are coming from. Six years later, they asked me to reenact the same performance in Poland at a group show with local children. That was really interesting. The Polish children’s behavior was extremely different. They were shy. They were nervous about me asking them to shoot a woman with a gun. They were asking me politely, “Ma’am, is it okay if I stand here. What should I do?” And when I said, “Just do whatever you want” they just stood there. They didn’t even want to shoot the gun because they are programmed differently.

Why the difference? Are Polish men less violent?
I wouldn’t say that Polish men are less violent than American men. There are lots of Polish alcoholic men beating their wives. But, I think that Polish children are raised to respect adults and respect women in a different degree than American children. I am just saying that the difference in reactions was a really strange thing. I was really touched. They did a national radio interview with me, and I shared this discovery.

What conclusion did you draw?
Maybe it takes them a little while longer to turn into that. The Smell Me project and Eu de M fragrance campaign. Can you tell me about that project? I am interested in unconventional media. Smell Me was a feminist statement. I wanted to create a purely visceral self-portrait of a woman, devoid of visual prejudice, because I feel we are judged by our physical appearance. I used my own body as the subject to try to capture my biological essence, or my smell. It also is a little bit metaphorical because chemicals inside your body biologically create your essence. I created a show which you walked into and didn’t see anything except some tiny vials. You went in and experienced inhaling the artist. It is about human beings connecting in this animalistic form of communication, through our pheromones and through smells our bodies emit, like signals. Some people talk about an aura of color around you spiritually, but there also is an aura of chemicals that we emit as we feel and think things. We communicate with our sweat and other elements inside our bodies. I spent two years working with a research team at Hunter College. There, chemistry graduate students helped me to figure out how to bottle the essential oils of my own sweat, my hair and my tears. Later, a renown professional perfumer from the Swiss fragrance house, Givaudan, recreated a synthetic formula so that we could have enough to be diffused in a scent chamber for people to walk in and inhale, as well as on a scent-strip fragrance advertisement Eau de M which appeared in Harper’s Bazaar.

What did the scent chamber look like?
It was completely white. You didn’t even know it was there. You walked in, and there was a circle inside, which was very dimly lit. You had to find the four holes in the wall to smell the diffusions.

What is the smell?
It smells like my sweat, tears and hair.

And you prefer that to something like cologne that a man would wear?
Yes, I would definitely because I feel it’s not the person. I’m not against beautiful smells. I love the smell of flowers. I love the smell of essential oils. I love the smell of many things in the world. What I’m saying is that I would rather a person smell like a person than of the ten different things that they put on their body that day. People are wearing a cocktail at all times. They’re wearing the smell of their shampoo, their laundry powder, their fragrance, their aftershave, their lotion and their makeup. God knows what else they put on. People are not just wearing one smell anymore. They’re wearing 25 different smells, so it gets confusing.

You are just interested in a person’s natural state?
I guess I’m more like a primal animal creature, but they should not smell dirty.

And the Eau de M ad in Harper’s Bazaar?
I actually purchased an ad in Harper’s Bazaar. My collector funded it. The whole purpose of the Eau de M ad was to have the biggest art show I could ever have in one million copies of American Harper’s Bazaar. It would be in Hudson News, doctors’ clinics, the airport and people’s homes. People would be putting on my sweat thinking it is a fragrance. It was olfactory guerrilla terrorism or something, proving that people didn’t realize that they were actually smelling a human. It was a bit of a joke. They were thinking the strip contained fragrance and saying how much they liked it (they were calling Macy’s and Barneys and asking where they could buy it). They didn’t realize it was actually my sweat.

Instead of guerrilla marketing . . .
It was also a guerrilla art show.

Can you tell our readers about your project Lipstick?
It was a collaboration between four female artists. We are all Eastern European, and we decided to use each other as subjects. We had carte blanch to do whatever we wanted. I wanted to make a statement on how to liberate women, including myself. Lipstick is normally representative of vanity, trying to make your face look perfect, looking in a mirror and beautifying yourself. A woman has a lot of insecurity and tries to cover herself up by using makeup as a way to be perfect. When you go wild and get all messy and let the sexual side of you loose, you really feel beautiful, right? You are a mess, and your hair is disheveled, and you no longer care. I wanted to give them this lipstick and say, “Destroy your face because then you’ll really be you, and your true essence will come out.”

Were you shy to be doing that?
No, not at all, but they were. They were all scared to become ugly. But their true personalities and their true beauty came out because they were told to go wild. In the beginning, they were afraid of destroying their faces and looking not beautiful in the camera. I just said, “I don’t care. I want you to just go crazy because I want your true essence to come out.” All my projects have that in common because I think of an idea, and then I think of the substance or the medium.

The Chocolate video?
Chocolate represents the feeling of drowning in excess and gluttony, consumerism and pleasure and suffocation, all that. It’s chocolate. It also looks like oil, an oil spill and materialism. Chocolate syrup is abstract black lava. It is nine-and-a-half minutes long. I thought of that idea, and then I thought of me drowning because I wanted to communicate that feeling. It is always the idea first.

Who do you process all this with? You come up with this idea, and it’s always inside your own head?
Sometimes it’s on paper, but it’s usually inside my head. It’s like starting as a little seed and then growing and growing, and there are little stops and starts and wrong ways to do it. Then you go back and fix it and rewind, and maybe it goes in a totally different direction.

What  advice would you give a new artist “artist to artist”?
Start with the idea . . . what do you want to communicate, and why is this important to you. That is where you start. Then figure out how to communicate it. Don’t start thinking of the packaging before you have the product. What I’m thinking and feeling is what I want to share with the world. What is important to me is a message. As an artist, you are sending that message to one or more people. Whatever you create, it needs to be an idea and a message you feel strongly about. Later, think of what medium and format you want to use to communicate the idea. Is it a video, a painting, a performance or a substance? I’m a very conceptual artist. I think that a lot of these kids in art school think, “I am going to be a painter or a sculptor,” but they have no idea behind what they’re actually doing. What is the idea behind this physical medium? Is it just an object? It is empty otherwise.

You also work in the publishing house Rizzoli in a senior position. What do you do as editor?
Some people think that being an editor is like a copy editor. I am more of an acquisition editor, the producer or creative editor of the book. I conceptualize the book from the very beginning. When I have an idea, a vision for a book, I find the right photographer, and I creatively direct and edit the whole process. At other times, a book already has a team, and it is packaged together. Then, I am more of a producer that just makes sure it looks good and that everything’s in order.

Of all the projects that you’ve worked on in publishing, which was your favorite?
That is so hard to answer. I’ve been here for over 15 years, so it is like choosing a child. I don’t know. I guess the ones that I am more invested in are always the most exciting. I recently did a book on rock climbing. I am a rock climber, and it was a very special personal project to do a photography monograph of rock climbing areas around America. I created the concept for all the other people that love rock climbing in these beautiful areas. That book was very much from the heart. A book  I’m working on right now is also quite exciting. I’m sitting with Kim Gordon, going through the archive of images of her from the time she was a little girl until now, her artworks, her writings, her art theory and her song lyrics. It is a book on the essence of Kim Gordon. So, that’s fun.

When did you begin rock climbing?
It is a recent thing. I began rock climbing two years ago.

The last place you climbed?
The Adirondacks.

Are you strong?
I would say so. My entire body has changed in the last two years.

And you enjoy it because?
It is an incredibly meditative and empowering sport. It makes you so completely present. Other than taking yoga for almost 20 years, I was never really an athletic person. I used to be scared of heights, and rock climbing breaks all fear barriers. I love being in nature. Climbing is just you and nature, no cell phone reception, on a wall, with your two hands and your two feet. It doesn’t matter what is going on because it is just you and the rock. You have to think and control yourself and just forget about everything except the present and what to do next. It’s healing. In today’s world of chaos, many people are gravitating towards rock climbing. I push myself in a physical and mental way that I have never done before because there is a lot of fear management when you’re high up on a cliff and don’t want to fall.

You are afraid of heights, and you rock climb?
I still have a fear of heights, but it is awesome to be in a place where you just have to forget your fears.

Do you meditate?
I used to. Not so much anymore. I feel like climbing is meditating, especially when you’re on a big mountain all by yourself, waiting for your partner, because you’re always about a hundred feet apart.

Have you ever free soloed?
No, I am not interested in free soloing. That’s like playing with death. Rock climbing itself is empowering to me. I was passionate about this book and all the people I’ve met while publishing it. Sharing and giving back to the community was amazing. People who rock climb are a very special tribe. We gravitate towards the same thing, and like family, we have something in common.

What does work as an editor at Rizzoli entail?
My work at any given point really depends on the project . . . if I have to look at proofs, meet with the publisher or have meetings. My projects dictate my work. I have four books transmitting to print right now. I have four transmitting for spring and four starting for the fall. While some are literally finishing and I need to just oversee proofs, others are developing. And some projects I am creating new.

How do you interface with the publisher, Charles Miers, who heads editorial?
Sometimes, Charles will find a project, or someone will bring him a project, and he might ask me to edit it because he feels I would be the right editor for the book. When it is my own idea, like the rock-climbing book, I pitch the project to Charles, and then I work to make the entire book happen. The Kim Gordon book was also my idea. I’m an acquisition editor meaning I acquire titles. Charles brings some titles to me, and people often contact me directly with book ideas.

Does God exist?
I believe in more of a Buddhist approach to God. I feel like we are all God, or God is around us, and the sun is God.

What is your purpose?
That’s a really hard one. I hope to be able to give something back to this world, not in a charity way, but through kindness towards a person, or growing a flower so that the bees can be happy or creating something that people can feel inspired by. I don’t know.


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