Marysia Lewandowska and Catherine Grant
Histories Without a Voice: Marysia Lewandowska and Catherine Grant conversation
‘Marysia Lewandowska: Histories Without a Voice’, transcript of an artist talk at The Courtauld Institute of Art, London, 11 May 2023 presenting her research residency at The Cosmic House. After Lewandowska presented her slideshow, she discussed her work with Catherine Grant, Reader in Modern and Contemporary Art at the Courtauld Institution.
Catherine Grant (CG): What does the act of voicing mean to you?
Marysia Lewandowska (ML): Voicing for me is related to the body. No matter whether your voice is archived or not, in the end what matters is whether it's heard. That is an important aspect of mining Maggie’s archive: it’s the ear that commands the story, not the person who speaks.
CG: When did you decide to pare down the archival material to kind of promote the voicing and the reformation of the lectures. Did that happen quite early on? was that seems here before journey through so much material and then distilled it in very small sections from the archive.
ML: I welcome projects that allow a lot of time for research, especially when working with materials that belong to other people. That is what an archive is – other people’s property. I never decide anything until very late in a project, so I tend to be patient while trying to build a better understanding of the context. This kind of work is about understanding how history is made:what values survive, and why they survive. These questions need to be asked before I make decisions on how to approach making something visible and relevant. The idea of voicing that particular notebook came very late, after the second visit to Portrack. On the other hand,Maggie’s lecture recording was available to me early on, and I listened to it many times, but it only occurred to me nine months later how I could use it. It's very different to have an idea and to make that idea work in an artwork. For this particular piece to work, you need to experience the house as a whole, and you may begin to connect through your own listening to the wider implications of placing the voice as part of this experience.
CG: Is this something you've learned over the course of various projects? That is quite a scary technique – if I try to translate it into my idiom of writing – to introduce something at a late stage. I'd be panicking. I’m also thinking here about your interest in the Dao or ‘the way’ and this meditative approach. Has this developed for you over working with archives over a period of time?
ML: To some extent yes, although I must stress the one thing that I don't care that much about is archives as such. It’s just that the materials you find there have not yet been curated, they are free of interpretation and are available to everyone. I wanted to bring something of the spirit of a person in this work. I looked up the meaning of the word spirit. In Greek it means ‘breath’, so voicing as a way of releasing the breath recalls the person. Working with archives is not just an artistic means or method, it’s more than that. I keep on doing it and being scared that it won't work. Taking a risk every time is important, but I also experience failure, which leads to self-questioning.
CG: Could you talk about all the different kinds of materials that are in Maggie’s archive? Seeing all that material in the archive room really brought it home how much material you had to go through. It looked like you were looking through recordings, photographs, films, notebooks, as well as her research. How did that influence your working process? I presume that at the beginning you didn't necessarily have a picture of what you're going to be looking at. But when you started the project, did you walk into it very open or did you have a sense of what you thought you might find?
ML: Maggie’s daughter Lily readily guided me through questions as we used to meet every other week. In the beginning I had a lot of questions which were quite standard, just helping to orientate myself through such disparate materials. Will there be anything I can use? What does it mean to use something? Most of my time was spent in conversations with Lily and with people I was inviting almost every week. There were people who studied with Maggie, who worked with her, who helped design the kitchen. Looking itself is never sufficient, so I needed to talk to people who could provide an understanding, shed light, bring things or words or drawings to life by illuminating the context.
CG: In your presentation, the image of the cup which belongs to your family archive encapsulated your relationship to history. You have in your work an ability to kind of not be faithful to an archival research process, but instead both be aware of preciousness – like with the clock chiming – but also not kind of have to be a slave to looking for every single representative bit to try and capture something of this aliveness that we feel in that cup. That image encapsulates so much about your own relationship to time.
I am going to ask you one more question before we open up to the audience. Could you say something about the title, how to pass through a door?
ML: Coming across Maggie’s notebook by chance was a special gift. That notebook, apart from containing everything to do with the conceptual and material transformation of the house in Lansdowne Walk, also contains notes from a trip to France. Maggie was very meticulous in making notes of what she was seeing and experiencing, and ‘how to pass through a door’ is something she wrote across a page next to a drawing. It is like a placeholder: a way of marking a state of mind or reflecting a Daoist philosophy. When recording the reading with Ella Finer, she pointed out the sentence, and it immediately felt like a good way of naming the project. It’s not the kind of question that needs answering. The title borrows the question lacking the question mark, giving it an affirmative direction as it hovers across the page. And it's a bit like what I've done with the sound installation. I placed Maggie’s voice to simply be there in the house, which she co-created and occupied.
CG: I think The Cosmic House itself feels like a portal. It’s such an incredible space and you’ve given it a new dimension with these sound works.