Love, materialism & metaphysics

Keith Gallasch: interview, John Gillies, Witkacy & Malinowski: a cinematic séance in 23 scenes

Tom Herman, Witkacy & Malinowski

Tom Herman, Witkacy & Malinowski

Artist John Gillies, whose choices of form range across and critically integrate performance, moving image, installation, sound and music with a particular focus on the history of film, has recently completed Witkacy & Malinowski: a cinematic séance in 23 scenes. His screen works have included Techno/Dumb/Show (with The Sydney Front; 1991), Armada (video installation; 1998), The Mary Stuart Tapes (1999), My Sister’s Room (2000), The De Quincey Tapes (2001), Divide (2006) and Road Movie (2008). These didn’t prepare me for Witkacy & Malinowski’s historical characterisations, narrative, formal shooting and heightened naturalism, but, as anticipated when coming to a new work by Gillies, not everything is what it seems. It’s an intriguing film, at once accessible and formally disconcerting, invoking the radical spirit of the great Polish playwright Stanislaw Ignacy Witkiewicz, nicknamed Witkacy (1885-1939), an artist who has long fascinated me.


SNO127—John Gillies

Around the time I first saw Witkacy & Malinowski…, I visited SNO Contemporary Art Projects in Sydney’s inner west to see SNO127—John Gillies, curated by fellow artist Ruark Lewis. The selected abstract, non-objective works 1982-present made for engrossing viewing and listening. Dense, scratchy verticals in Scalpel/Wood/Table (1982-2004) soon turn horizontal, white blobs form and mutate behind, and sounds become increasingly train-like in what turns out to be a wonderfully abstracted “view from a fast train” video. In a darkened room six elderly cathode ray tubes noiselessly collaborate to form a barely stable starry night of varying intensities with odd hints of red and blue. In Homage to Gerald Lewers and Margel Hinder (2015), impressive fountains designed by these two Australian modernists are filmed with mesmeric visual and aural musicality, the world beyond banished as the movement of water and light make sense of the artistry of stone and metal. At apparent odds with these works, two large abstract, richly coloured photographs occupy the first room (I’ve left them to last). Golden Horde and Duchess of the Fields (both 2016) continue Gillies’ preoccupation with light, but here, after seeing works that pulse, is light as still life, compelling thoughts of sunset, storm, volcano and the sublime. In terms of scale and colour this feels like quite a departure. As does Witkacy & Malinowski.


Homage to Gerard Lewers & Margel Hinder (2015) SNO 127—John Gillies

Homage to Gerard Lewers & Margel Hinder (2015) SNO 127—John Gillies

Witkacy and Malinowski

Witkacy and Malinowski (1884-1942), friends since childhood, are on a train heading to Toowoomba. After the suicide of Witkacy’s lover, Jadwiga Janczewska (a ghostly presence in the film), Malinowski persuaded the distraught writer to come with him to Australia and on to Papua New Guinea. In later years, Witkacy conducted séances in an attempt to reach Jadwiga—a clue to the significance of the film’s title.

On the trip, news of Russia’s invasion of the Polish part of the Austro-Hungarian empire causes tensions over whether or not return home. It’s impossible for Malinowski, whose response infuriates Witkacy. In fine performances, Tom Herman plays Witkacy with a neurotic intensity against the guarded restraint of Matej Busic’s Malinowski. At the same time, the train’s driver (Craig Meneaud) and his fireman (Richard Hilliar) —both in love with the same woman—conduct a funny, highflown discussion about time and relativity (taken from a 1923 Witkacy play, Crazy Locomotive) while pushing the machine to excessive speeds. At the beginning of the film we see the aftermath of a train accident, towards the end the crash, or do we? In an email exchange I asked Gillies about the film’s sources and his stylistic choices.

What inspired you to take up the Witkacy-Malinowski story?

Witkacy and Malinowski were close friends whose relationship ended tumultuously in Toowoomba, Queensland. They represent two archetypal potentialities, antagonistic but complementary. Malinowski put it rather grandly in his diary, that their split in Australia at the beginning of WW1 was, “like Wagner splitting with Nietzsche.” Their time in Australia was seminal for them personally, but also for their disciplines: the proto-performance artist and painter Witkacy as an inventor of contemporary theatre and Malinowski as a ‘father’ of contemporary anthropology. The two modernists rubbed up against indigenous cultures and colonial society in this new modern world at the edge of empire, altering their work in profound ways.

The story is also the end of the love story between two men and a conflict between materialist and metaphysical thinking, science and art. Everything in this work is based upon or developed from something that was reported or recorded. When I do change and invent, I do so to retain an underlying meaning or image or to extend the metaphor or idea. Also the possibility of linking Toowoomba and St Petersburg in the same sentence could not be ignored, it had to be done!

Australian landscape, Witkacy & Malinowski

Australian landscape, Witkacy & Malinowski

How did you come across the story?

I first heard about it from a short documentary about 1914 that Stan Corey made for ABC Radio National many years ago. Corey had produced the radio version of the first Witkacy production in Australia in the 1970s, directed by Algis Butavicius from a translation by Roger Pulvers.

Do you have a particular connection with Witkacy or Polish art and culture more broadly?

My only connections are links with friends and colleagues from the Australian Polish diaspora from the two main migrations, post WWII and the 1980s Solidarity generation and their children, each significant to the arts in Australia. The direct influence of theatre artists like Jerzy Grotowski and Tadeusz Kantor in the development of contemporary performance in Australia from the mid-1970s is also important. I guess as a teenager I was touched by the legacy of Grotowski’s visits in his laboratory phase. I am also impressed by the ability of an artist to work across visual art and theatre, a recent example being visual artist Paulina Olowska’s production of Witkacy’s Mother at Tate Modern (2015), and the use by some in the Polish avant-garde of emotion, which is so often missing from contemporary, experimental and avant-garde art. In Australia visual artists were trained to steer well clear of any association with the ‘falseness’ of theatre. This comes from essentialist ideologies historically around painting.

Eastern European music and cinema in general, and particularly pre-1989, have also been inspiring, especially the sometimes expressive performance style that is at odds with much contemporary screen performance, but also its deep naturalistic strains. I am very interested in how some cultural ideas, developed from the 19th century, played out in Eastern Europe in the 20th century.

I am interested in stories that can affect the future, as the future is in the act of being made from fragments of the past.

Matej Busic, Witkacy & Malinowski

Matej Busic, Witkacy & Malinowski

Why the particular structure: the oscillation between an imagined dialogue between Witkacy and Malinowski and exchanges between the driver and his fireman in the engine cabin just prior to a crash. Obviously it’s metaphorical—a train disaster paralleling a relationship split—but what more’s going on about Witkacy’s psyche and his apparent anti-modernist hostility to, say, mechanisation? What does he have to say to us today?

Witkacy hated metaphor but my work is built of metaphor piled on metaphor, perhaps a bad case of metaphoritis!

Witkacy’s psyche was profoundly modern, multi-faceted, humorous, destructive and restless, fragmented like a montaged cinematic structure. My imagined dialogue between Malinowski and Witkacy is based on their diaries, letters and Witkacy’s plays over a 25-year period. For example my Witkacy, while attacking Malinowski, says “Totems are true, no matter what you scientists write about them,” a line that the ‘bohemian’ Papuan chief says in Witkacy’s Metaphysics of the Two Headed Calf: a Tropical Australian Play (1921).

I knew I had a work when I saw the chemistry between Tom Herman as Witkacy and Matej Busic as Malinowski. Witkacy wrote, “people are ghosts pretending to be people.” My performers are ‘representations’ speaking across time and space, but I also tried to imagine what they might actually have said on 1 September, 1914. Other lines come straight out of the Brisbane newspapers they would have read on that day or just before, for example a story about the developing Great War being great for Australian farmers; as you see parochialism lives on!

As in scenes from Crazy Locomotive, the engine drivers, Mr Tengier and Nicolas (Craig Meneaud and Richard Hilliar), act like a chorus, or the ‘clowns’ in a Shakespeare play. But there’s also a sense that the whole action could be coming out of their heads, from their black and white world into the colour world of Witkacy and Malinowski. The ‘factual’ colour world is not more naturalistic. Its look is closer to a 1950s Hollywood film or even an expressionist painting, whereas the black and white world of the engine drivers is more like a documentary film and shot as such.

If modernism is equated simply with modernity or the naïve idea of progress then Witkacy is anti-modernist, but he was a quintessential modernist artist and thinker, associated with the Formalists in Poland in the 1920s as theorist and artist. Long after his death he became a Polish counter-culture hero. His theatrical works and writings are read as anti-fascist and anti-communist; he knew communism intimately from his first-hand experience of the Russian revolution. They parody and critique bureaucratic society, and predict art brought to an end by a mindless, uniform future society. He said he was writing for the future. He could almost have been writing about Trump’s America in some of his later works.

Pollyanna Nowicki, Witkacy & Malinowski

Pollyanna Nowicki, Witkacy & Malinowski

He was wary of ideology, for example Constructivism and its technological positivism. Crazy Locomotive is often read as critique of Futurism’s fascistic death drive, as the inverse of Marinetti’s foundational story. Marinetti’s Futurist Manifesto begins with a non-fatal car accident whereas Witkacy’s play ends with a catastrophic train crash that kills everyone, like the last scene in Hamlet. There is speculation that the play was also the genesis of Andrei Konchalovsky’s American film Runaway Train (1985). Witkacy is not anti-modernist but profoundly critical of it, a precursor in some ways to Adorno and Horkheimer’s Dialectic of Enlightenment. We could argue that the Futurist death drive is even more dominant in 2016 than it was in 1909. But there is also a counter metaphysical narrative in Crazy Locomotive that sees catastrophe as a portal to a new understanding of reality: “We’ve got to break through all day-to-day relationships, and then everything will become clear and explain itself.”

A refugee in a forest in eastern Poland trapped between Nazi and Soviet armies, Witkacy committed suicide on 18 September, 1939. Perhaps the decision was justified given what was happening around him; after all he had grown up not that far from Auschwitz.

Your filming in Witkacy & Malinowski… appears unusually straightforward and theatrical—reverse field dialogue, cutaways to the engine, rails, landscape and with a reinforcing score. But there are very tight close-ups, some straight-to-camera gazes, bluntly cut newspaper advertisements, the extended and escalating carriage buffer close-ups and Jadwiga, the ghost of Witkacy’s lover, speaking all the final dialogue. There is also the early and unexplained aftermath of the train crash and the switching between colour and black and white. The viewer is prepared for the unexpected even if the film’s rhythms are secure. Is it an attempt to play off the unexpected against the conventional?

A friend viewing said the work was like a 1960s film, which for me is a great compliment. It is open and sometimes ambiguous, at times self-reflexive, like the Crazy Locomotive text. For example Nicolas says, “I’ve always dreamt of something extraordinary happening, like in a film!” It’s a complex work. I want to create a space for reflection and thought; to find a constantly shifting emotional and intellectual space. So while there are moments of naturalism and naturalistic acting it will suddenly switch and become the opposite. I use switching devices in many of my works from Techno/Dumb/Show (1991) with The Sydney Front onward. I play off the expected or conventional against the unexpected and un-conventional in much of my work.

My structures are deliberately dialectical. Yes, they are actors and they are acting, but I hope that there is a sense that they are inside and outside of the dialogue at the same time. The Jadwiga Janczewska presence (Pollyanna Nowicki) functions like one of Witkacy’s casually resurrected corpses. She is even more of a meta-character, speaking lines uttered by other characters in the film, direct to camera. It is as though she has been observing everything that has come before. Perhaps we see everything through her eyes? I also call on iconic performers from the Sydney contemporary performance scene (Clare Grant, Katia Molino, Christopher Ryan). I am attempting to produce an amalgam of performance styles.

Film editing can symbolically expose the new spatial and temporal speculations that the engine drivers discuss in Crazy Locomotive. Film editing expresses the contradiction of a seemingly unstable system that can be perceived as stable and ‘real.’ It is not unsurprising that film montage appeared around the time Witkacy was writing, in Einstein’s new theories. We accept it as a continuous reality even though it is made of discontinuities similar to how our experience of reality is created.

Richard Hillier, Witkacy & Malinowski

Richard Hillier, Witkacy & Malinowski

What role have Poland and Polish artists played in the film’s development?

The Polish-Australian actor and theatre director Lech Mackiewicz was consulting producer and one of the translators of my text and Witkacy’s texts from Polish and French, including a new translation of Crazy Locomotive. Lech’s contribution was absolutely essential to the development of this project.

In Warsaw I met Witkacy’s great-niece Agnieszka Zawadowska who, in a sense, gave me the ‘permission’ I needed to create this work. This experience is so different from what happens with the Beckett estate. In Zakopane I shot part of the snow scene close to where Witkacy and Malinowski would have played as children, and the rest in the Kosciusko National Park much closer to home, as this is also a work about absurd spatial dislocation.

The film was invited to screen at the Grotowski Institute in Wroclaw and also via the Museum of Middle Pomerania in Slupsk, which has the largest collection of Witkacy’s portrait paintings in Poland as well as examples of his Australian landscape pastels.

What are your plans for the work as film and as installation?

In the installation version of the work for the gallery, audience members become train passengers. The film is displayed at one end of a white-walled construction that mimics the space and dimensions of a train carriage complete with cut-out ‘windows.’ They will be seated like a cinema audience in the ‘carriage’ while other people in the gallery can see them as ‘passengers.’ In a sense we are all passengers, though sometimes we might rebel and attempt to make contact with the front of the train and confront the engine drivers. We can see the runaway train through the prism of technological ‘progress,’ the First World War and the breakdown of a relationship, but we don’t necessarily see that we are also on a real runaway train. That is one reason aspects of Witkacy’s texts seem so relevant today. Perhaps Witkacy is one of the first writers of the Anthropocene?

I am continuing to show the work overseas but we are also looking for the right museum or gallery in Australia to present the installation version as well as screenings of the film. I would love to borrow Fright by Witkacy from the Art Gallery of NSW to show alongside my work.

SNO127—John Gillies, curator Ruark Lewis, SNO Contemporary Art Projects, Marrickville, Sydney, 15 Oct-13 Nov

Witkacy & Malinowski: a cinematic séance in 23 scenes, script, adaptation, mise en scène, direction, John Gillies, music GhanTracks, composer, conductor Jon Rose; 40 mins, 5.1 sound; 2016

RealTime issue #136 Dec-Jan 2016

© Keith Gallasch; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

14 December 2016