Polish artist Alicja Dobrucka on Concrete Mushrooms
22 dec 2014 by Milda Batakyte
Curiosity, earnest research, led the artist to Albania and for her Salon Alicja Dobrucka could put on display her series of photography Concrete Mushrooms. In this series are photographs of mushroom-shaped objects residing in different spots throughout Albania. Although the objects are not among the most beautiful architectural monuments, they certainly have an interesting story, which the artist was capable of revealing through artistic media.
A solid number of 40-so years of Enver Hoxha’s dictatorship in Albania is more than enough to mould and shape the society as a soft piece of clay. Not focusing on the fact that this gentleman literally put the country into economical stagnation and the people into a state of mere existence, he also sowed a fear in society with his ‘divide et impera’ kind of motto – which to the people meant a long-term imprisonment or a prolific use of the death penalty. Despite all of this, these concrete mushrooms were actually growing on account of the paranoid fear of Hoxha himself: a fear that the other countries might threaten his hold on Albania.
The bunkers now are nothing more than a residue of these bygone times. Yet, to Albanians it remains the Achilles’ heel that they prefer either to demolish or completely change its’ purpose without leaving any trace of the past. Alicja contributes to this change with her aesthetic photography; the look of an outsider who sees these bunkers as non-military structures but as a meeting point for lovers and families, toilets, cafes, or supports for growing trees in the forests.
The complete oeuvre of Alicja is closely related to the analysis of individuality and the organism of society, with its peculiarities and cultures. Even though the artist reasons that her works and ideas are not and will never be conveyed to everyone, the exchange of information of that kind still adds to the development of our general understanding about the human world, making us sensitive to the environment, while at the same time attributing to the continuous process of cultural formation. In this whole flow of information, one of the most important tools to spread these sagacious reflections and observations for Alicja is her camera.
On this occasion Alicja’s ideas, interests, sparks of inspiration, the story of Concrete Mushrooms and the upshot of the project Artist Salons chez Ligne Roset will be presented not only in her photography but also in a short interview.
MB: How did you decide to choose these mushroom-shaped bunkers as your main character of the photography?
AD: I won the Sotiri Award in Albania and hence I had an opportunity to travel to one of the beaches in the south. I was very surprised to see all of these concrete structures that stood out in the landscape. I was completely taken aback by the shape and the ‘eyes’ of these bunkers that would stare at me from all over the place.
MB: Do you think that the demolition of these now historical monuments would make any change in the life of the local society? Would it really help to erase the memories related to the hard-times they were living in? It is after all a part of the history, which actually might serve as a reminder of the events that should be avoided in the future, would you agree with that?
AD: There were 750,000 of these structures built, which means that one bunker supposed to serve four people. I believe it is a very natural thing and it is mainly for economical reasons that these structures are now being destroyed on a mass scale. They were very expensive to produce, as the materials used were concrete and a large amount of steel, which had a very detrimental impact, or rather ruined Albania’s economy.
MB: You are coming from the post-Soviet country Poland. Do you recall any similar cases, where people would like to demolish monuments related to the past? The eagerness to destroy in order to build something new seems to be very similar in many countries; only the circumstances and things that happened in each, and the monuments, or buildings, are different.
AD: Yes, definitely Albania is not the only example and I believe that these occurrences are not rare. Here, I would like to recall an example of the Katowice train station, which was completed in 1972. The building is believed to be the best example of Brutalist architecture in Poland. The architects employed a very modern and impressive mining technology, namely using very large concrete cups, which is quite difficult to do. The building was demolished and fell into disrepair in 2010 despite the protests of the inhabitants.
MB: These bunkers are re-used, what was the most interesting case of utilisation of these 'mushrooms' to you?
AD: Only very few of the bunkers are being reused. I am quite fond of using them as wine cellars! Elian Stefa together with Gyler Mydyti wrote a book, offering many solutions of how to imbue these structures for the second life, e.g. how they could become tourist attractions.
MB: Do you think your photography and the theme that is exposed in it could also make an impact on the life in other societies? What do you think about this cross-cultural share of ideas and information?
AD: Quite a bit has been done on the special situation in Albania. I believe that I cannot change the state of things; I can have a small impact on the public awareness nonetheless, which may later influence the state of things. I think we, as nations and groups of collective memory, always tend to not appreciate what we have and take if for granted until it disappears.It is just human nature.
MB: Was it difficult to achieve aesthetically pleasant result of the photography of these weird and in itself not very attractive, abandoned/or not objects?
AD: (Laughs) Thank you! I guess it is, but I am quite fond of their unique shapes and the way they correspond to the landscape. There is also something fascinating and at the same time disconcerting about the hole/the eye that follows you as you move through the country.
MB: What are the things that always fascinate you, trigger your imagination and inspire you to create?
AD: I am very interested in topics concerning cultural identity and cultural transfer, where cultures meet, merge and create something new out of such encounters. Hmmm… the inspiration can come from pretty much anywhere, depending where I happen to be and what I happen to be surrounded by, or it might be caused by events. Like in the case of I like you, I like you a lot: it initially was my way of working through my younger brother’s death and later focusing on his closest group of friends, who were very inspired by the ideal of the ‘hero’ soldier propagated through American cinema. They used to wear the American Army uniforms and carry replicas of Kalashnikov rifles around the little town in the southwest of Poland. Because of that, the police would often stop them.
It also comes from my immediate surroundings, like in the case of Concrete Mushrooms, sometimes I can be inspired by an advert in a newspaper, like for the Life is on a New High work, which focuses on the new construction in the financial capital of India – Mumbai. There is definitely something to be said about my passion for architecture.
MB: Could you tell us briefly about your experience with art:i:curate and how the projects, such as Artist Salons chez Ligne Roset, contribute to the young artist's practice?
AD: I have worked with art:i:curate for a few years now. We have done many successful shows, artist talks and salons. I feel that this rather unique business model of showing work outside the conventional gallery space is effective: invites new audiences and creates interesting connections for the artists that are very beneficial for everyone. Showing work with them always gives to the artists a great exposure and encounters with visitors, curators, writers, collectors as well as other artists, which is always brilliant and provides a lot of constructive feedback. Nur and Irina, the founders of art:i:curate, are hard working and I am convinced that there will be many exciting things they will surprise us with in 2015.
MB: Are you working on something new at the moment? And could you reveal a little bit about it to the art:i:curate readers?
AD: I have just completed the residency at the Zentrum für Kunst und Urbanistik in Berlin, where I was working on a new body of work, which I am now editing.
Berlin is constantly reinventing itself. At the residency at the ZKU, I have been investigating the urban landscape, in particular temporary structures, be they ruins or buildings under constructions – small pieces of history in suspension. This urban landscape is temporary but somehow appears permanent; some of the buildings have been veiled for more than 10 years. In this series of works I am trying to preserve a bit of that ephemeral state.
I am also finalising the work, which I started at the residency in Ramallah (Palestine), the Al-Mahatta Gallery.
When it comes to the shows and other events: I am currently preparing for the exhibition of the series Life is on a New High at the South Kiosk Gallery in London which opens on the 15th of January 2015, and to which I would like to invite you all, as well as the London Art Fair, and a very prestigious event organised by Plat(t)form at the Winterthur Museum of Photography in Switzerland.
The new year ought to be busy as I will also be a part of Mumbai Photography Festival with the Life is on a New High body of work and the Encounters series at the Tarq Gallery in Mumbai. I look forward to seeing how the Indian audience will receive the work. The series will be shown as a whole for the first time in a few exhibitions throughout India.
These are just some of the things, I am sure there will be more than that, which might also be a surprise to me too.