You came here straight from a meeting with Kuba Banasiak from the Kolonie gallery. Were you helping with the set up for a new exhibition?
No, I made him a bookcase for his apartment. I’m done with artists and galleries. I notified everyone I collaborated with in the past that I will no longer be offering my services to them.
Why? Quite recently you were still investing considerable funds into acquiring increasingly complicated machinery; you even had a quasi-workshop on the premises of the old Raster gallery on Hoża street.
Well, art has disappointed me. But let’s start at the beginning. I come from a family of carpenters – my father, grandfather and probably my great-grandfather were all carpenters. I spent my entire childhood in the workshop. Dad started out making furniture and later switched to renovations.
Jakub Antosz, born 1973 in Puławy, lives and works in Warsaw. Math studies graduate. In 2007-08 he was employed by the Raster gallery as an assistant. He also cooperated with other galleries in Warsaw as a carpenter and technician: Czarna, Foksal Gallery Foundation, Kolonie and with artists on the production of their pieces and exhibitions: Michał Budny, Katarzyna Przezwańska, Paweł Althamer, Mikołaj Grospierre, Anna Okrasko, Zbyszek Rogalski, Oskar Dawicki and others. In 2012 he decided to finish his career.
So you’ve been interested in carpentry ever since you were a little kid?
I spent entire days in the workshop, even though I was constantly getting kicked out. Dad didn’t plan on me becoming a carpenter even though I had the innate ability to solve construction issues – maybe I should have been an engineer. He considered carpentry hard and demanding work. Of course, everything depends on the workload you take on. Dad and grandpa were both true carpenters, and had multiple prestigious commissions in Puławy, Kazimierz Dolny and Warsaw. I’d really like to find these commissions, but unfortunately I can’t ask them about it anymore. Luckily, I’ve been able to find bits and pieces of information in grandpa’s notebooks. I know they did something for the Association of Polish Architects, for the Journalist House, and the Hortex café. Working in Warsaw marked the beginning of the end of grandpa’s career, as pricey equipment was stolen from him during one of these commissions.
Stamps of carpentry business run by Jakub Antosz’s father
and grandfatherSo dad failed to discourage you, seeing as you became the court carpenter of the Warsaw art scene (laughs).
Yeah, but it didn’t happen overnight. For years I’ve been doing things that had my dad’s blessing. I studied mathematics, and was working on a doctorate.
Were you a straight A student in math?
My dad spent all the money he made on books. He came back from the commissions in Warsaw with stacks of popular science books. When I was still in elementary school, I opened one of these books, one on math, and inside I found a photo of a guy sprawled on a couch with the caption: “Mathematician at work.” I liked that. I thought long and hard about a career in science, but I finally realised that I didn’t really have the mind of a mathematician. I can’t just lose myself in only one field. Time passed, I didn’t form any grand ideas so I left the field that was suppose to be my whole life. It was a sort of an intellectual coup d’état (laughs).
Mathematician at work, image from the cover
of Mathematical Tales (1987) by Michał Szurek That’s what landed you a technical gig in a gallery?
No, it took longer than that. At first I kept myself busy by writing for magazines, including Machina (monthly music magazine – ed.), did some copywriting, but I wasn’t serious about it. I dropped that, and it seemed that I made a philosophy out of leaving permanent jobs. I just did not want to embrace specialisation. Maybe I still don’t and that’s the answer to the question about my refusal to work with galleries. That part of my life is over, time to move on to something else.
At what point in time did you find yourself working in a gallery?
It was 2007. A friend from Puławy, the writer Marek Sieprawski, told me that Raster gallery was looking for someone and he thought I’d be right for the job. When I first set foot in Raster, the first thought to hit me was that somebody should clean that place up. And that’s what I ended up doing (laughs).
Did you apply for a carpenter position?
No, they just needed an assistant. My duties included setting the exhibitions up and taking care of the artwork. I packed them, took care of storage, built shipping crates. I was their handyman. A year later I found another job, and working with galleries became a strictly “after hours” gig.
If you like carpentry so much, didn’t you want to establish your own workshop? Why did you end up getting involved in art?
In my own workshop I’d have to create one object after another. In a gallery, everything was impermanent, we set up exhibitions and then tore them down, recycling the elements for later use. That was the Raster philosophy: processing instead of generation. When they were leaving their premises on Hoża street, I was one of the people responsible for getting rid of a whole lot of stuff that nobody had any use for. Frankly, this was the absolute highlight of my career as technical assistant. I decided that not a single thing would end up in a dumpster and I was this close to achieving that goal. I picked all of it apart, down to the tiniest screws, and some of it I gave to Przemek Matecki, while I recycled the rest in various ways. I even prepared a small compost heap in the gallery, where I dumped plants and other organic trash. The compost ended up fertilising a small garden plot in the courtyard. “Well,” I thought, “that’s how you end a really good run.”
You were also involved in creating multiple works of art.
Well, I wasn’t really planning on collaborating with artists. When one of them needed help with carpentry, they came to me for advice. And because I have certain abilities that allow me to easily troubleshoot similar problems, advice often turned into prolonged collaborative efforts on various projects. I was only a craftsman creating things, but I felt guilty, I felt like a partner in crime.
In crime? What do you mean?
I was listening to an interview with a famous politician not that long ago. When asked what was most important for him in life, he said: “To leave some kind of lasting legacy.” I thought it terribly pretentious and then I realised that leaving precisely no trace of our existence is the ultimate challenge. That’s where my tendency to reuse and recycle everything comes from. I’m fascinated with transformation and the notion that every single thing is a part of a vast circulation of matter. It would be nice to live in a time when folks truly needed objects, because I have a feeling that right now stuff has to be peddled to people that aren’t interested in it.
Is art just a collection of objects, then?
Yes. Imagine how much stuff gets produced around the globe in a single day. And most of it has no real purpose, it won’t change anything. I also know that artists have to make a living, too. But I just don’t want to contribute to that overproduction anymore.
Your attitude towards art seems to have changed. Some time ago you even established a small collection of your own.
Art was appealing to me because I was convinced it can have a real impact on me and on other people. I wasn’t interested in its decorative and intellectual aspects. I was looking for power residing within.
What power are you talking about? Do you mean the deliverance of the world through the power of art?
No, I meant its power to transform me as a person. If you want to change the world, you have to start with yourself.
So, for your collection you picked only the artworks you felt might have the power to change you?
Some of these pieces really impacted me in one way or another. I’m still really attached to most of them. It was never an investment or a rational purchase. I picked the less flashy stuff, things that nobody else wanted. But as the years passed, I grew disillusioned and convinced myself that this nebulous power of art was simply a matter of projection. I heard two interesting statements on art recently. Artur Żmijewski said that engaged art has failed and that we need to find new ways of impacting people. The other statement was made by the representatives of the Abbey House auction house, who claim that art is something to invest in and hang on walls. Well, I think that both of these statements are correct.
Did you like being in direct contact with art, whether as a collector or as a gallery employee?
It was very appealing. The rules were different than in a museum and it transformed art into something more pedestrian. You could touch it with your fingers, there was nobody to stop you. When I didn’t have money for new artwork, I engaged in barter transactions with galleries and artists – I worked for them and was compensated in artwork. That was funny.
Can you list the artists you collaborated with?
I can’t, because I’m certain I’ll forget someone and they’ll be mad. I’d rather list the galleries, because I mostly collaborated with institutions rather than artists. It all began with Raster, later I worked with Foksal Gallery Foundation and Czarna Gallery. The most recent collaboration had me working with Kolonie Gallery.
Paweł Althamer’s draft of the installatin for Frieze Art Fair
in London (2007). Production: Marcin Althamer
and Almech, courtesy of the Foksal Gallery FoundationSo we won’t be talking about working with individual artists? Even about such successful collaborations as the one with Paweł Althamer, the results of which are now displayed in London’s Tate Modern?
My contribution in this particular case was really minute. I wasn’t working with Paweł but with Marcin, his brother, who turns his brother’s ideas into reality. They didn’t have much time and the project was technically challenging, so every pair of hands was precious. That’s all I can tell you.
Wow, I guess I’m kind of a lousy interviewee.
You want the interview to go bad?
We’re constantly approaching limits I don’t want to cross. It’s not that I’m bound by secrecy, it’s just that I don’t want to reveal any details that might infringe upon people’s private lives or the inner workings of galleries. My work is based on my invisibility, I do my job and disappear, I’m not present in the artwork, and my ideas are also invisible in the end.
Does that mean that for you the artist is a divine creator who creates finite works of art?
Artists often have trouble accepting the fact that somebody does their job for them, even though it’s often the case that they throw ideas around and people like me do the dirty work.
On the other hand modern art is mostly based on the idea of process, on exposing the innards and the imperfect nature of the artwork. Concept has been more important than execution for a few decades now.
That might be true, but it has never been explicitly stated in the general narrative. It seems that the participation of third parties is still taboo. Very often an idea turns out to be impossible to turn into reality already in the production stage and the project can come to fruition only under the care of an appropriate expert. That’s when the work of an artist overlaps with the work of a craftsman. Unfortunately, I can’t tell you about the influence I had on the creation of artworks. Or whether the creative process was especially painful. I guess these details lose importance when the artwork is complete. It’s done and that’s that.
Are you trying to say that discretion is crucial in your profession?
Yes. Artists can be very difficult people. There are some whose work I appreciate but would never want to collaborate with, some I wouldn’t even want to meet. Often such introductions end up being disappointing for both parties. I try to analyse my past mistakes. One of them is not being assertive enough.
Not assertive enough?
That’s right. Artists often came to me for help after being previously rejected. And I only decided to help them if I saw the tiniest chance of success. I just wanted to help out a friend. Many of them changed their ideas or minds when work was already under way. For example, one installation started out enormous but ended up tiny and possible to sell. In another one, plants were supposed to wither and die naturally in the course of the installation, but the idea eventually changed and the plants were supposed to survive. Usually, I was barely able to cover my expenses on the job.
How did you make a living?
I lead a very humble existence; I don’t have extravagant needs. It’s only recently that I decided to rent an apartment, up until now I was living in a sublet. And like I said, after working for Raster for a year I switched to a day job and kept working for artists and galleries only as a side gig.
If that was just a side gig, why did you keep investing in carpentry tools?
The tools were simply necessary for doing the more complicated and demanding jobs I received. As a result all the cash I was able to net from doing these gigs I quickly invested in equipment.
Can you elaborate a bit on setting up exhibitions?
When I started working at Raster, they decided on a simpler, cleaner image and we had to work to keep it that way. The entire gallery was painted white, and it was notorious for its wild colours, holes in the walls, and scribbles covering every surface. And my job was to patch all of that up. I liked to keep that place clean, to paint it, doing maintenance on all those things that are basically imperceptible to the average person.
It all looks very simple.
And it is. But it’s mostly done with no time to spare, the key decisions are made the night or even an hour before the exhibition.
Did you like racing against time?
Yes, it was very captivating to think that I’ll manage to do everything against all odds.
Did you manage everything by yourself?
At first I needed a lot of explaining, but when that was done I just went to the gallery at night and prepared everything with the paintings leaning against the walls.
Did you try to influence the overall design of the exhibitions?
No, that just wasn’t my job. I didn’t interfere with the vision employed by curators and artists. I just tried to make that vision a reality to the best of my abilities. I pulled all-nighters if I had to, there were times when I didn’t sleep for three nights straight.
And after all of that you got up and went to your day job? How did you do it? Did adrenaline keep you running?
Yes, and candy bars washed down with Coca-Cola. To this day, when someone calls me saying: “Listen, we need to open an exhibition tomorrow and we’re nowhere with the set up,” I’ll just swing by and help. I’m the local 911 for carpentry. (laughs)
We’re finishing up, so tell me who’s your favourite artist?
Maciej Sieńczyk. I always wanted to work with him. We even came up with a project once, I was very eager to make it happen. But there’s just one snag – we’re too similar and we end up pushing each other away.
You’re like the protagonist from one of his comics.
Yeah, there might be some truth in that. I think he feels the same way about it (laughs).
translated by Jan Szelągiewicz