‘how to pass through a door’ : an interview with Marysia Lewandowska
Marysia Lewandowska, a renowned Polish-born and London-based artist whose practice over the past 20 years has explored the public functions of archives, museums and exhibitions, was invited by the Jencks Foundation in October 2021 as its inaugural artist-in-residence. Lewandowska’s artistic research during her residency engaged with the legacy of Maggie Keswick Jencks, and the resulting new work how to pass through a door which opened in October 2022 activates Maggie’s voice by relying on both spoken and written recordings from the archive. In this interview with Jencks Foundation Artistic Director Eszter Steierhoffer, Lewandowska discusses her residency and the resulting site-specific sound installation currently on view at The Cosmic House through September 2023.
Eszter Steierhoffer: how to pass through a door is a site-specific sound installation that we inaugurate at The Cosmic House this autumn. It has been conceived as a tribute to Maggie Keswick Jencks and her little-known contribution to designing their family home with Charles Jencks. This new work is the outcome of your one-year-long research residency, which happened during the formative time when the Jencks Foundation was established and facing some key questions about what constitutes an archive. You, as an artist-in-residence, had a really important role in helping us ask – and often subvert – these crucial questions, just as you had to navigate these intersecting boundaries between the public and the domestic yourself while working in the house, with the archive and with a new institution in formation. Can you talk about this process and how your research and residency has informed your artwork?
Marysia Lewandowska: Initially, I wasn't aware of the scope of the materials that would constitute the future archive. The whole house could be seen as an archive. Before its content has been subjected to a cataloguing process, the status of those objects belongs to the category of life’s stuff. But not every house full of stuff proves to be worth archiving. One of the questions that emerged during my research was what is the difference between The Cosmic House and the Jencks archive, which it contains? My attention turned to the marginal and less visible aspects, beyond the well-rehearsed claim of the Post-Modern manifesto. Although the evidence of Charles Jencks’ activities as a critic, academic and public intellectual is being systematically catalogued (on an ongoing basis), it was not until my very first visit to Portrack in Scotland, where I encountered documents related to Maggie Keswick Jencks, that my understanding of The Cosmic House as a collaborative endeavour was informed. It is there that a large proportion of sketchbooks, letters, slides and drawings have been carefully stored in a dedicated space. Amongst a mountain of other materials I found what turned out to be a unique collection of audio cassettes. As early as the mid-1970s, Charles Jencks began recording informal interviews with architects who were passing through their London house. Many of these amateur recordings give an insight into spontaneous professional exchanges taking place in the relaxed surroundings of a home. At the same time I came across tapes with a radio interview, a conversation, and a lecture by Maggie Keswick delivered in Vancouver in 1987, the year she was diagnosed with cancer. So my first response was to digitise them, ensuring that their invaluable content could in the future become part of the Jencks archive and subsequently find its way into the public domain.
ES: The house was always a convivial place – a place for encounters, exchange of ideas and collaboration. Could you talk about your encounter with its history and in particular with Maggie’s contribution?
ML: As I mentioned, in the very beginning – probably in my first week, when looking through various drawers, cupboards and boxes, I noticed that many of the unopened yellow Kodak processing envelopes were addressed to Mrs. Charles Jencks. That really struck me, not just as an old-fashioned convention and perhaps a sign of the times, but as a way of mobilising the direction that my research residency could take. On reflection, it has signalled a conceptual possibility for identifying and recovering Maggie Keswick Jencks’ role within the decision-making process related to the London house transformation. While it was an important discovery, I needed to keep on researching to gain a more in-depth knowledge as to what her involvement in the planning and execution of the house design was. At the same time I had no interest or intention to employ documentary procedures and to display my findings. This dilemma of how to account for her contribution is a familiar one for many women whose life partners have gained sole recognition for their work. Women have been, and are still, expected to largely perform supportive roles and as such have been omitted from cultural histories when their contributions are not evidenced by materially palpable results. Their immaterial labour becomes marginalised as it is much harder to acknowledge.
Eszter, could you say something about how you approached curating the very first exhibition at The Cosmic House which touches upon this history? How did you navigate this transition that the house went through, from a private habitus, a home which was for people to live in, to a house that is now on public display, and became a museum and archive?
ES: In my view this tension between domestic and public dimensions was inherent to the house from the start, even if, obviously, there’s a clear legal change in its status from the moment when the house was listed and established as a museum. From the outset there was a contrast between the programme of the architecture (and its implied symbolism as a Post-Modern manifesto) and the programme of the domestic space. The life of a family unfolded here, but it was also a semi-public, convivial space where a more public intellectual life evolved. This sense of conviviality and a productive tension between the public and the domestic is something that we aim to preserve through the foundation’s work today, through the residencies and laboratory programme that give different access to audiences and mark different degrees of intimacy and modes of engagement. And artists in residence, like yourself, inhabit those places that once used to be private and now perform a different, more public function as a house museum.
ML: As you know, partly for practical reasons, I didn’t move to live in the house during the course of the year. But the prolonged period of the residency allowed me to inhabit its many intellectual constructions, to imagine but also to ‘read’ the different rooms as one would read the chapters of a novel. The elaborate staging of ‘meaning’ is apparent everywhere you look. As I moved to London in 1982, so around the same time as Charles and Maggie were working on the house, there were certain affinities, in terms of the social dimension, indexed by a collection of Private View invitations. However, these were not exactly reflecting my own collection. My professional life as an artist and foreigner moving from Warsaw under martial law didn’t really resemble that of the Jenckses. It was an era of a different kind of transformation for me. There were certainly different social scenes in the art and architectural world at the time. The house for them was an arena where their private and public lives coincided, and where from the very beginning professional encounters performed at home have fed into published projects via magazine articles, broadcasting and academic work. So the image of the house as a hub of Post-Modern thought was being widely distributed already from 1985. But that also meant that Maggie’s interests, which fell outside these concerns, were not sufficiently acknowledged or recorded. This was precisely the opportunity created by your invitation to try and remedy that.
ES: You started to work with the title of the residency ‘Voicing the Archive’, which is a very beautiful way of putting in words your interest in engaging with and recovering these histories – not in a documentary way, but in a very intimate, personal way. And when you’re describing your relationship to Maggie’s life, that comes across very strongly. I’m also aware that in your own artistic practice you often rely on partnerships and collaborations, and you work in a collaborative, networked way with various communities, practitioners, artists and mostly with women. That was the case in this work as well.
ML: I believe all cultural work is a result of a collaborative process. Some of it is easier to identify and acknowledge, and some is not. In my practice the collaboration takes on different forms, from working with the institution on all aspects of commissioning, contract and outcomes to building relationships with a community of practitioners whose work resonates with my own. And then there is also an elaborate process of turning a particular idea into an experience for the public via the work of art. Here I rely on a dialogue and skills of film and sound editors, graphic designers and architects who I tend to work with over a long period and across several projects. While I was interested in all of the materials related to Maggie, that in itself didn’t suggest what the work would look like or touch upon. That always depends on what is materially available, and how copyright permissions shape what might be possible to be made public. I was very fortunate to have been able to find recordings of Maggie’s voice and to be granted unrestricted access to use them creatively. That generous act led to a decision to offer these materials and invite responses from other practitioners whose work inspires me. By organising the workshop under the theme ‘Voicing the Archive’, I was also referring to voicing as a technique of granting something, like a document or a letter, which until then remains mute, an embodied presence. By inviting Catherine Grant, Karen Di Franco, Jes Ferny and Ella Finer to The Cosmic House workshop to talk about their experiences of working with women artists’ archives and specifically with voice, I used that opportunity to, for the first time, present the idea of including Maggie’s voice found in the archive, in the forthcoming project. Having you and Lily Jencks participating as well created a seminal moment and a turning point in building trust and confidence for the final outcome. It was such a rewarding occasion, confirming how the community of interest activated through the residency helps shape the artwork itself.
ES: Right, and this method of voicing, then, has a dual outcome. One outcome is the work that we’re presenting, how to pass through a door, which builds on Maggie’s different voices: spanning on wide scales, from a formal recorded lecture to written resources that are read out, performed by others, from the very personal and private to the public, from the practical to the more poetic and theoretical. It encompasses a very intimate portrayal of a woman, and her presence in a domestic space. But there is another important aspect to your work, the documentation of your own research, your engagement and meandering through the archive, and the questions that it posed: how to make that archive, how to navigate between the private and the public, or in other words, how to make things public.
ML: It is important for me to make a distinction between sources, resources and outcomes. And that would include our conversations that were never recorded, and many others with people who I have consistently met with, especially Lily Jencks. Notations of those are part of my working method, though their trace is not directly accessible. I insist on a separation between research, which I never display, and the artwork, which has been informed by it. What research allows me to do is to trace relationships between archival documents, material artefacts, the existing interpretation claims as well as identifying exclusions. I was committed to trying to make sense of a person’s contribution through the process of re-habituation of the terrain designated by the archive which has not been ‘contaminated’ by interpretation. In the economy of visibility, The Cosmic House has been devoted to a particular narrative in which Maggie’s presence was missing or, put differently, was not sufficiently accounted for.
ES: Well, at that point the narratives around The Cosmic House as a house museum were only in formulation, and the Jencks Foundation did not yet exist as an institution. This was one of the very first projects that we launched, so from my perspective it’s not really a correction of the institutional narrative, but a part of its making. Bringing you in, as the very first artist, was an important gesture, aiming at including various histories and opening up a polyphony of voices and collaborations that have shaped the design and the history of the house.
ML: I realised that early on and appreciated that you, as a curator, have identified my interests and ways of working as being relevant to a wider discussion regarding both building the new institution and addressing an important cultural history. Artists are often invited to step into the situations that carry particular sensitivities around them. The invitation, with its open-endedness, was also acknowledging my recent projects exploring women’s histories. Once again I chose to use the voice not only as a tool in the construction of identity but also as a form of emancipation from the heavily loaded visual environment of the house itself. In this dual relation it allowed me to ‘have a voice’ as an artist and to ‘give a voice’ to another person. Engendering the space with Maggie’s actual voice, as well as ‘voicing’ her detailed involvement in making of The Cosmic House carries a possibility of a change in how it might be experienced from now on. The voice of an artist holds the potential to claim a presence and therefore in some way to channel political agency on behalf of someone else. Finally, I settled on producing an artwork which is distributed across different platforms and gestures. There is a sound installation in two parts strategically situated in the house, with a publication integral to it. In a further connection with the idea of creating a research file that will be made publicly available via the Jencks Foundation website, I have asked Lily to read out Maggie’s letters addressed to her parents. And while it didn’t seem appropriate to include them in the installation itself, the availability of those documents to the visitors of your website, matters. Using opportunities that a long-term project like this allows, we began to discuss having Maggie’s 1987 one-hour long recording of a lecture on Chinese gardens to be staged in a major collecting institution in London. This would constitute another artistic gesture, creating a new context for an existing archival recording in which it can fully resonate and be appreciated by a new audience.
ES: This work continues in the trajectory and a rich history of your artistic engagement with archival practice and the legacy of women’s histories. I was wondering where the value for you, personally, or artistically, lay in this project, and how this last year sat in the context of your own artistic practice.
ML: I would say this was a very unique collaboration for a number of reasons. It also coincided with a moment in my life when I was building my own house. So I was experiencing a similar set of pressures. Having created many projects with different kinds of public institutions and museums, it was the first time I had been confronted with such profound personal sensitivities around the material. The bigger question remains of how private interests feed into a wider culture and whose voice can be heard as part of the public discourse. Limitations arise in every project but how does an artist observe her own ethical boundaries without feeling institutionally restricted? In that respect this was probably one of the most challenging projects situated inside a newly formed public institution that largely relied on developing close relationships with family members and their friends. At the same time I was working inside an incredibly supportive environment, where everyone embraced my inquiries, my desire to get to know and to make known what Maggie’s contribution to The Cosmic House design has been.
In the 24-year-long period between the death of Maggie (1995) and that of Charles (2019) many other lives have been lived there but my focus remained within a specific 1978 - 1983 timeframe when involvement in the house transformation preoccupied them both. I hope that how to pass through a door as a question initially posed by Maggie to herself, can now act as an invitation acknowledging her cultural presence, which will resonate beyond this project.