Interview with Wilhelm Sasnal: Home is where the art is

Wilhelm Sasnal on how his native Poland provides the inspiration for his work on canvas and celluloid


The work of Polish artist Wilhelm Sasnal demonstrates that the discipline of painting pictures is far from dead. His growing prominence in the international art world is affirmed by a major retrospective at London’s Whitechapel Gallery (until 1 January 2012). The show surveys the past 12 years of the artist’s career, highlighting his work as a painter and also as a film-maker.

Born in the small Polish town of Tarnów in 1972, Sasnal went on to study at the Akademia Sztuk Pięknych im Jana Matejki w Krakowie (the Jan Matejko Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków). He rebelled against the school’s conservative approach by setting up an artistic collective called the Ładnie [“pretty”] Group, members of which painted scenes from everyday life, making broad use of pop culture as seen in advertisements and on television.

He left the group in 2001, moving away from “pretty” pictures and towards more weighty subject matter, ranging from the Holocaust to intimate portrayals of his family life. Drawing on politics, art history and topical events, most recently the Japanese tsunami, his work is varied in form and content but always remains recognisably his.

The Art Newspaper: Do you find it anachronistic that people often refer to you as a painter, particularly as you also work in film?

Wilhelm Sasnal: It used to bother me because I had a hangover from my studies. At the academy, there were strict classifications and you were known by the discipline you studied. You weren’t an artist but a painter, a sculptor and so on. I tried to avoid being categorised in this way, but now I’m fine. I even like this anachronism, maybe because I also make films. I am a painter and a film-maker but I am mostly a painter.

What do you find in film that you don’t find in painting?

The main difference is that films have a plot and, compared to painting, can contain numerous thoughts and attitudes. Of course, one can refer to painting in films, and many directors have been inspired by paintings and art. When I work behind the camera, I haven’t given up being a painter. Looking through the viewfinder is a lot like seeing the world as a painter. However, making films is a social activity involving a number of people—you’re not alone in a studio. The interplay between film and music also fascinates me, the way meaning changes when music is added.

I used to think that painting closes you and film opens you up. You suck the image in through the camera, while you bring the image out when you paint. But this is not that clear to me any more. I now have more control of the script and of the set, so it is no longer that opposite.

You tend to be known as a painter, and in exhibitions of your work, your films are often sidelined. Does this bother you?

Yes, and it makes me reluctant to mix painting and film in exhibitions. I prefer to divide these two practices, especially because there aren’t that many intersections between the two.

In the Whitechapel exhibition, however, I thought it was important to include some short films just to fill a certain historical moment. At that particular time, I was making films on Super 8, combining them with music and painting. For me, it was pretty much the same practice. It was like jumping into a stream and going with the flow. As I became more recognised as a painter, I felt I needed the support of the paintings to show the films, which I didn’t like. There are also technical barriers to showing my films in exhibitions. I make films on 16mm [film], and show them from reels through projectors, but this is very stylish and loud. So I am now taking the time to reconsider how I show them and am trying to find the proper balance. Recently, I’ve become more involved in large-scale film production; films that have been transferred onto 35mm, which I show at film festivals and in cinemas. This is an entirely different type of film, not the kind that is only a sideline.

Many Polish artists have moved abroad. Why have you stayed?

The area around my home town continues to be very inspiring to me, so I travel and that’s enough. My recent attempt to move abroad with my family [to Israel] for six months didn’t work out. Within two days, we decided to move back to Poland because I just didn’t find what I was looking for. My career seems to be going at the right pace; I have no need to speed it up. No Berlin, no London, no New York for me.

Works shown at Frieze in 2003 famously inspired your “Metinides” series [photographs by the Mexican artist Enrique Metinides were shown by the Kurimanzutto gallery; its stand was next to that of the Foksal Gallery Foundation, which was exhibiting Sasnal’s work]. Are you hoping to find inspiration at this year’s fair?

Honestly, no. I don’t think you can find inspiration at an art fair—it’s just too crowded. One rather just flows through the corridors among the booths.

I like to be aware of the destination of some of the works that leave my studio and to know what the art world looks like, but I’m not naïve enough to think I can control or change it in any way. Of course, my works form part of this flood of works, and I find it hard to believe that anyone can find inspiration in my work here either. Perhaps if you enter the tent knowing exactly what you are looking for, it may be different. But I’m not interested in art or certain artists enough to do that. I enjoy Frieze as a social event but I don’t think I can be inspired by the works.