Goshka Macuga, artist
Today I visited Goshka Macuga at her studio in the Rochelle School overlooking Arnold Circus. I was early and as I stood waiting on the iron fire escape in the snow, I spotted Goshka, who hails from Poland originally, walking towards me taking bold strides through the snowy drifts of the Boundary Estate in a long sheepskin coat and gloves, and sporting a multicoloured Peruvian hat. She gave me a cheery wave, grabbed her mail from the box and sprinted up the stairs to greet me. Once we were inside the former schoolroom, that is now her workplace, we had a cup of tea to warm up while Goshka entertained me with dramatic tales of her Christmas adventures on the island of Stromboli, where she went to peer into the active crater of the volcano at the fountains of molten lava. It sounded pretty exciting to me.
I have known Goshka for years but I am always mesmerised by her intense grey eyes and long auburn hair. With feline grace, she tilts and twists her hands to illustrate her spontaneous thoughts, gesturing with slender fingers to indicate the innumerable ideas and artistic possibilities that are constantly at her fingertips. Goshka draws you in to her world. When she laughs, Goshka’s eyes sparkle and she can give a very convincing self-parodic impression of a Polish witch. Talking of her work, she dazzles you with her notions, projecting them into the air with powerful conviction, and yet you know that behind the curtain of that low-cut fringe there is also a quiet rigorous self-questioning intelligence.
Born in 1915, Goshka’s father was an art supplies dealer in Poland who struggled his whole life to retain self-possession and integrity in the face of the institutionalised humiliations that defined life under Communism. No stranger to questions of politics and art, Goshka came to London in 1989 to do her Foundation Course in Fine Art at the Sir John Cass University opposite the Whitechapel Gallery where her current exhibition “The Nature of the Beast” (including the tapestry of Picasso’s Guernica) runs until 18th April.
Perversely, Goshka says she can be described as an artist or as a curator, and that she refuses to commit to any single medium in her work. So you might ask, what does she do? The answer is that she does plenty. In the case of the Whitechapel project, she originated the idea, borrowed the tapestry, designed the table, edited the film shown in the gallery and arranged the space. Goshka realised that she wanted to create an event that would feed into the ongoing history of the gallery. Knowing that the painting of Guernica was shown there as a political gesture at the time of the Spanish Civil War, Goshka displayed the tapestry of Guernica from the UN Building in New York (covered when Colin Powell made his speech claiming Iraq had chemical weapons as the justification for war), as a means to bridge the gap between these different wars. Equally, installing the round table and providing the space to any groups that chose to use it for debate (as hundreds have), was a means to open up the gallery itself as a democratic forum for public discourse.
The day I visited her studio, Goshka was painting portraits in tea of participants in the recent tea party protests in America against Obama, as preparatory work for a show in Boston where the so-called Tea Party that sparked the War of Independence happened. “I am interested in tea drinking as an act of social protest,” she announced and I was just thinking flippantly that this was the style of protest I could ascribe to, when she reminded me sagely that the history of the relationship between Europe and Asia can also be told through tea. Goshka makes inspiring company because her mind is constantly making lateral connections and you never know what direction the conversation will take next.
In the twenty years it took Goshka to cross the Whitechapel Rd from her first art school to her current exhibition, she studied at Goldsmiths and at St Martins School of Art and worked tenaciously to establish an identity for her own particular vein of work, eventually winning recognition on the art scene that resulted in her nomination for the Turner Prize in 2008. It was a long creative journey to travel a short geographical distance. And it is something of a personal triumph for Goshka that she has been able to communicate her elusive approach, succeeding in an ongoing sequence of high-profile commissions.
Finally, I asked about this old enamel sign in Polish above her desk and she told me it translates as “workplace.” Every factory in Poland had them at one time and she rescued this specimen from an abandoned factory post-Communism and brought it here to Arnold Circus – and though she did not say it, I think it serves as a reminder of the journey. This workplace is Goshka’s present tense where she combines things from the past in new ways to imagine possible futures and I admire Goshka’s extraordinary vitality of mind and passionate curiosity about all the things that humanity creates which, through their stories, tell us who we are.