Complicated History: Interview with Olaf Brzeski

Olaf Brzeski’s work spans many different media, but his practice is unified by a central sense of iconic situations having gone awry. For Brzeski, the hunter becomes the hunted, the superhero-savior is hideously deformed, the stately bust is bloated and misshapen. Brzeski’s work has been included in solo and group shows throughout Poland and in Prague, Copenhagen, Budapest, and Lille. We met up in Tarnow, Poland, where he was installing work for the citywide exhibition Tarnow: 1000 years of modernity.

Olaf Brzeski, Hunter’s Fiancee, 2006. Ceramics, wood, spray enamel

Bean Gilsdorf: You work with a lot of ethereal, evocative forms: smoke, destroyed objects, things that seem uncanny…

Olaf Brzeski: Uncanny is a good word, yeah.

BG: Tell me about that. What are your feelings toward these objects?

OB: To explain how I feel you need to know that I was born in the south of Poland, in Wroclaw. This city has a complicated history because it’s very near the border and it changed owners: Czech, Polish, then German, now it’s Polish again. Before the war it was a German city, and after WWII the borders were changed and [Poland] got it. The atmosphere there, the architecture of bunkers and tunnels, there’s a constant presence of the fear of war, even in dreams. In my childhood it was so present—my grandparents’ stories, on the television, in propaganda—I didn’t just put that away. So now I use it. Some of my work comes from this kind of sinister premonition of what might happen.

BG: Like the video installed at the Casino [one venue of the exhibition Tarnow: 1000 years of modernity].

OB: Yes, In Memory of Major Josef Moneta.

Olaf Brzeski, In Memory of Major Josef Moneta, 2008. Installation with video and plaque

BG: That work also has an anxiety to it. The visuals are sinister, as you say, and the sound heightens that. How did you come to make this work?

OB: This piece functions as a discovery. There’s the movie, which I made to look like found footage, and there’s a marble plaque attached to the wall with a porcelain medallion, it’s a piece of gravestone. So these two pieces are really like discoveries.

BG: And what is the video about?

OB: The whole situation is taking place in a partisan’s camp in December 1939, just after the war began. And this small group of soldiers is hiding and their leader, Major Josef Moneta, he’s kind of a myth, a legendary person. His face is deformed; he’s monstrous, but he’s also a kind of superhero. In America you have your superheroes and we here in Poland are watching and copying that. And I wanted to create our own Polish superhero, but acting on the border of good and evil. On one side he’s this leader, an officer, but he is scary. His acts are scary, but definitely he is a force, and in bad times his strength will come and save us. He is a savior, but it’s not clear.

BG: It’s a borderline, an ambiguity.

OB: Exactly.

BG: In Memory is not site specific, but a lot of your work is, yes?

OB: Yes, I prefer to work that way. But I like to work site specifically in a way that it looks like it’s real, like it was there for years, that it’s supposed to be there. I really like to work with museums and places with history and a context. The Casino is also quite good for that. I don’t like white cube space.

Olaf Brzeski, A Crash on the Museum Stairs, 2009. Mixed media installation

BG: So you build on the history that’s already there, accentuate it or bring it forward in some way?

OB:  I don’t want the work to be rootless. I make up stories, fictions, and these are the roots of the work. It’s like gossip, you say the words to others and the story begins.

BG: Your work is like science fiction, surreal, a parallel reality.

OB: Yes, I think about making a gap, searching for a gap that you can’t pass over, or name, or categorize. Maybe surreal is an overused term.

BG: Making a gap or finding a gap? Because they are different.

OB: In my case, making a gap. Finding a gap…it sounds more real, because reality is full of gaps. But I don’t find them, I make them, and then I name them. I make stories, to attach roots to the artwork, but I don’t want it to be part of reality. It’s a stretched possibility.

BG: Do you feel that you are a Polish artist specifically? Would you put yourself in a geographical category?

OB: I don’t ever think about it.

BG: But if I asked you…

OB: I don’t know. There is something Polish in this kind of thinking. For example, the uniforms in the movie, or just the atmosphere, but…I don’t know. I went to an exhibition and all the journalists were asking about Communism, that’s what they were interested in, like: How do you feel now, how do you work as an artist? You had this Communist past, are you released from it or does it still have an impact on you?

Olaf Brzeski, Dream – Spontaneous Combustion, 2008. Resin and soot installation

BG: And what was your answer?

OB: No, completely not, I don’t care about that! It doesn’t have any influence on me. I was born in ’75 and my consciousness was forming at the end of Communism, and apart from a couple of details I don’t give a damn about it. Completely. War is more present, more specific. Especially when you grow up in an old German city with this sinister atmosphere. I don’t know if you’ve ever experienced anything like that…

BG: Well, I’ve been to Berlin and seen the old buildings with bullet holes, pockmarked from shelling…

OB: Yes, Wroclaw is full of these remains. But I mean this whole empire, this architecture: that simple, strong, monumental style of that time. Nazi style. There’s a lot of it and it creates this atmosphere of fear. So Wroclaw doesn’t feel like home. I was born there but it doesn’t feel like home. My friends and I admire the city, it’s well planned and green, it’s very easy to live there. But it doesn’t feel like home.

For more information on Olaf Brzeski, you can visit his page on