Alicja Gaskon has just returned from an excursion to the border dividing North Korea and South Korea, a No man’s land where she has discovered a reality which reminded her unexpectedly of her European roots and will become an entry point for a new body of installation work. This is one of many excursions Gaskon has experienced and explored in her work. She shares with Art Spiel some of her explorations, the ways she mines her experiences, and her upcoming projects.
AS: You studied in Poland art and architecture, and currently you are residing in NYC. Tell me what brought you to art and to NYC?
Alicja Gaskon: I started being interested in art around the age of 12. That was about the time that I moved from Poland to the USA because my father was a professor of mathematics at a university in the US and I went to school there. In our art class we had this amazing teacher who really noticed my drawings. I started having my first exhibitions and it was amazing, but I never thought of being a professional artist. I come from a family of mathematicians so the closest I thought one can be to being an artist was by becoming an architect or an engineer – a creator. After that, fortunately, I discovered the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw and I went on to study art. It was a real dream come true. I was studying painting and murals and sculpture and animation. It was a time of experimenting and learning.
Architecture is still very important to me and I think you can see the influences in my work today. I love working with space and arranging forms. Recently, I find myself moving more and more towards installations and 3d work. I was still studying when I moved to Switzerland. I first lived in Geneva, then in Lausanne and then finally in Basel. Throughout all this time, I was searching for my own place in the world. I dreamed of living in New York but at that time it seemed out of reach. And then two years ago I had the opportunity to move to New York, a fascinating and unique place, a world within one city. Some people say it’s a great place for looking at art but not necessarily good for creating art. Perhaps that is true and at times I really do feel that way but overall, I find it’s a good place for both creating and looking.
AS: Maps seem to play central role in your work. I guess your personal experience has to do with it in a way. What is your take on that?
Alicja Gaskon: Maps are great storytellers and they remain a way of representing the world. My very first project incorporating maps was about six years ago, back in 2012. At that time, I lived near an urban development called Le Lignon, located in Vernier in the canton of Geneva. It is one of the largest residential complexes in the world and for the longest time it was the tallest building in Switzerland. Le Lignon was built with the capacity to house up to ten thousand people. Actually, even today a significant portion of the residents of Vernier live entirely within this one building complex. In my project, I focused on the immigrants living there and the specificity of the daily life in the Le Lignon. It’s an utopian project of the 1960’s with its own medical center, schools, shops, police station. My work in this project incorporated video art, paintings and photographs, all based on the cartographic representations of the Le Lignon complex.
When working with maps, I highly reduce them by highlighting specific parts, for example the infrastructure related to that space, buildings of interest, main roads, etc. I search for maps in public or university libraries or on the government sites, often using military maps which are harder to come by. Sometimes this strategy changes; it really depends on the project at hand. For instance, in my most recent work I focused on nature so I chose to show only the patches of forest and greenery in the space. I also like working with satellite images and statistical data. I later translate them into more cartographic representations. Maps can tell a lot about the society of a given time and place, revealing social patterns that have been deeply etched into the structure of a space.
AS: In your bio you say that you are “research-based”. Can you give me an example on your approach to research in a recent project?
Alicja Gaskon: Every idea for a project begins with research. I have been working in this way for many years. I am very much into statistics so doing research is not only informative for me but also exciting and engaging. I am constantly trying to learn more about the subject I work on, especially before I dive deeper into the project. After I’ve established what I want to focus on, I get a better picture by watching documentaries, reading books and articles in the newspapers, and by looking through old texts in the archives. This process results in each of my works telling a specific story. For example, when I was working on a project that is based on the sister cities along the US-Mexico border, I found a survey that was done in several of these cities. It was a sort of discovery of a “third nation.”
Many residents on both sides of the border have stated that they feel more connected with each other than with the citizens of their countries. I then decided to focus my work on this connection. It also hit close to home with me as I knew my father had a similar experience when living in a sister city right on the border. Sometimes the project requires a different kind of approach that involves digging deeper into one’s own personal history. For me, that was the case with the Berlin Wall project. I was born behind that wall and I’ve been there when I was a kid and later as an adult. I had old maps at home, which I used, my own memories, and family stories I had heard over the years. I always try to travel to the place about which I am doing a project. It is ideal but not always possible. On-site, I take photographs, talk with residents, capture video footage, which will sometimes turn into a work in their own right and sometimes just help me during my later work in the studio.
AS: In that text you also say that your work is reduced to the use of three main colors: red, black and white. What is the genesis of that? Can you elaborate?
Alicja Gaskon: Maps are already filled with a lot of information. By choosing to reduce the colors I found that the work becomes clearer, more focused. Usually, the black and white create a more dynamic contrast and the red emphasizes a line. I use the ‘red-white-red-white’ color pattern because this is the most universal, globally used color pattern for marking barriers, borders or barricades. Sometimes I use different tones of these colors too but generally I am drawn to a reduced and rigorous palette. I try to keep it simple while at the same time telling a complex story.
AS: You have just returned from a trip to Korea. What would you like to share about your experience there and how did it inform your work?
Alicja Gaskon: I have been planning and organizing this research trip to the Buffer Zone between North and South Korea for a long time. Seeing this border in person was very important for my research and understanding of the subject. When I started working on this project last year, in 2018, I focused mainly on the DMZ line (Demilitarized Military Zone). I was interested in it because of its strong connection to the Iron Curtain in Europe, as a remnant of the Cold War that has not yet been resolved. Later on, I have discovered yet another strong connection that is, surprisingly, the nature that has thrived in these No man’s lands. The buffer zone is 2,5 miles wide, 160 miles long and overall it is a staggering 400 square miles of terrain. Today this area stands in a very stark contrast to both North and South Korea as it became home to thousands of species that are either extinct or endangered everywhere else on the peninsula. It’s really a question of destruction and preservation, or rather, accidental preservation. For example, the Siberian tiger has been spotted in the Zone but no one really knows how many of them live there as only a handful of scientists have been able to go inside the Buffer Zone in the past 66 years and study the wildlife. A very similar thing happened in the Iron Curtain, between Austria and today’s Czech Republic. Today we have two beautiful Nature Parks where you can see a lot of wildlife that has been completely extinct everywhere else in Europe but thrived in these no-men’s lands for years.
During this journey, I was able to see the Buffer Zone from different points, one of which was from the Korean Military Base. It is an indescribable feeling when you see the vastness of that border space. Guarded by one million guards, it is the most heavily protected land in the world. The wilderness inside the Buffer Zone is breathtaking, and yet you know the danger it holds. These sorts of experiences and the information gathered on-site are unique and deeply inform my new work. The results of this research trip will be on view soon. I am currently working on a large-scale installation work that will be reveled in September in Warsaw and a solo exhibition that will follow in November.
AS: In your project “Dividing Lines” you focus on dividing lines such as political borders and social barriers, in both drawings and 3-d work. Can you talk about the relationship between these 2 forms in your work?
Alicja Gaskon: It really depends on the project. For example, in the “Dividing Lines: Borderline” project I used ready-made found pieces. Usually, I will start my work with a drawing, my favorite way of starting the work in the studio. It doesn’t matter if it’s a sketch for a future painting or a more technical in-scale draft for an installation project. I also like to work with scaled models, and that’s another influence of my architectural background. I also work with fabric and recently for instance, I created a large-scale flag for the 16th International Triennial of Tapestry that will take place in October at the Central Museum of Textiles in Lodz, Poland. It is the oldest and largest exhibition in the world of contemporary fiber arts, that had first opened in 1962 in Lausanne, Switzerland and I am excited to be part of it. Sometimes I also work with video and performance, like for example in the “Universal Divides,“ and I enjoy that a lot as well. I usually find myself going across different media in one project.
AS: Where do you see your work in context of contemporary art?
Alicja Gaskon: My work often reflects my own ideas of the world, the concerns and questions I grapple with, and of course it mirrors the contemporary society I live in as well as my experiences of it. By examining the past and the present I look at the long-term consequences of divisions. At the same time, I always search for specific connections that might have been created along the way. The subtext is always political, even when it’s highly personal. I cannot help but be influenced by the stories I read in the newspapers and on social media, or by the things that I hear and see on TV and online.
AS: Tell me about your 2-channel video “End / Beginning” from 2016.
Alicja Gaskon: This 2-channel animation is displayed on two monitors placed opposite each other. It references the two theories for the beginning of the universe. In the first one, which is also the leading theory, the universe was created by a division of one singularity. In other words, ‘the Big Bang’ is how our universe began. At its simplest, it states that the universe as we know it today had started with a small singularity that rapidly expended and then split. The opposite theory, shown on the second monitor, counteracts this notion. Here, in a fantasy simulation, we see a reversed action in which the elements slowly accumulate. They connect and through this connectedness they start to form a single mass, a beginning. This work was created for my solo show at Balzer Projects in Basel, Switzerland in 2016.
AS: Where do you see your work going from here?
Alicja Gaskon: I imagine I will keep on working between Europe and the US. The upcoming time is a very good example of this and it is looking especially busy. Right now, besides working on the large installation piece for the Warsaw Gallery Weekend in September, I will also be continuing my artist residency at the International Studio and Curatorial Program in New York (also in September). After that, I’ll be traveling for the opening of the 16th International Triennial of Tapestry at the Central Museum of Textiles in Lodz. In early November, I will take part in an exhibition entitled” The Principles of Migration” at the New York Foundation for the Arts and then a solo show at the Le Guern Gallery in Warsaw.
AS: It seems like you have been traveling quite extensively. What do you think are the main differences between the art scene in NYC and some of the European cities you have exhibited?
Alicja Gaskon: Here, you can see many different art forms from all over the world in over a hundred museums, galleries and cultural institutions in the five boroughs. European cities have everything but on a smaller scale, perhaps with the exception of London. It has its advantages as well as its drawbacks. In terms of the art scene in general, I think here the art world is perhaps more international. The range and quality of the events in NYC brings people in, so they travel to see exhibitions, art fairs or attend lectures. But, in all honesty, the art world is quite small wherever you are and you tend to bump into the same people you’ve met in Basel, Warsaw, London or Berlin here in New York City.