JOANNA MALINOWSKA Not a Metaphorical Forestby Parker Henry
CANADA GALLERY | FEBRUARY 4 – MARCH 12, 2017
Just hours before the opening her new show, Not a Metaphorical Forest, Joanna Malinowska was making changes to one of her sculptures. “I was just walking by a food shop, and saw this potato,” she said. “I thought it fit into the theme of throwing things at people.” The theme is present in one her works, Weapons of Mass Destruction (2017), which consists of a small arsenal of unsophisticated weapons molded out of clay, and now a potato. “I was interested in Albert Einstein’s thought that, in the Fourth World War, we will use rocks to fight each other,” she said. Anticipating Trump’s presidency over the summer while working in Maine, Malinowska constructed the show around the idea of human vulnerability to cultural devastation.
Malinowska’s art shows the consequences of immense catastrophe on a modest scale, and with a playful irony. She tends toward to the aesthetics of remains. “I like to think of my work as the residue of something larger that happened before it,” she said. “I’m interested in what is left over after a thing is destroyed. But it’s also a bit funny. I think humor is the best way to deal with trauma.” Her work Tunguska (2017), a tiny watercolor on paper, is based on a “strange disturbance that happened in a sparsely populated region of Siberia in 1908, where countless trees collapsed over this huge area.” The disturbance to which Malinowska refers is the Tunguska Event, the biggest explosion in documented history. It is generally believed that a giant fireball caused the blast, which resulted in the flattening of about eighty million trees. “I have slowly become obsessed with trees,” Malinowska said. “And the idea of fallen trees.” Fallen trees, for Malinowska, are natural and indirect reminders of the mortality of institutions, and of the mutability of things and ideas.
The tree preoccupation lingers throughout the show. One of the main sculptures is constructed from the branches of discarded Christmas pines that Malinowska collected “in a kind of guerrilla fashion,” around Brooklyn. The sculpture is meant to resemble a beaver’s handiwork, in which Malinowska sees both “haphazardness” and “splendor.” “When I was building the beaver dam, I was worried that it was starting to look too intentional,” Malinowska said. “So then I turned around and threw branches blindly at the pile. And it started working better.” There is another tree-based sculpture nearby: a single, leafless tree lying in the middle of the gallery. “I like the sculptures that are more vulnerable, or the ones that can collapse or break,” she said.
Besides obsessing over trees and beaver dams, Malinowska makes frequent references in her work to the Canadian pianist Glenn Gould. In 2006, Malinowska and her husband, artist C.T. Jasper, travelled to the North Pole, where they blasted excerpts of Gould performing Bach’s Goldberg Variations. “We took a solar-powered boombox to the arctic desert and played Gould’s Bach for a week,” she said. “I guess you could say I’m a bit obsessed.” Gould comes up again in this show, though less directly, and with a convenient interconnectedness to a tree and to destruction. “I’ve always been fascinated by Thomas Bernhard’s novel, The Loser, particularly the part where Glenn Gould becomes frustrated with a tree outside his window. He thinks it’s impeding his ability to play the piano, so he storms outside and cuts it down.” Malinowska has long been captivated by Gould’s irrational fixation with this tree: that a thing so innocuous and so utterly unrelated to the problem at hand could become the source of such frustration and perceived blameworthiness. “It is political,” Malinowska explained, pacing somberly as she spoke.
Malinowska initially thought of creating a video work of this tale. “I actually met a pianist who looked like Glenn Gould on Craigslist,” she said. “I was very excited. We went upstate together so I could video-record him literally cutting down a tree. The poor man ended up really hurting his hands.” Malinowska didn’t like the way the video looked and rendered the story in a series of watercolors instead, calling it His Worshippers Worship a Phantom.
In the corner of the gallery is a miniature watercolor of an army of tiny men, covered in branches, running to the foreground. “I became obsessed with the prophecy given to Macbeth—that his enemies won’t defeat him until the forest, Birnam Wood, gets up and moves. Macbeth finds this laughable: “Who can impress the forest, bid the tree / Unfix his earthbound root?” Later in the play, men disguised in branches from the forest come to attack Macbeth, occasioning his prophesied demise. “I think it is important never to be sure of anything,” Malinowska mused. “Anything is subject to change, even trees with roots deep in the ground. Perhaps it’s a bit silly,” she said, “but, as of lately, it feels true.”