Breathing and the nature of our bodies as something that air passes through have never been considered so urgently as in this show. Rafal Zajko, a London-based, Polish artist, has been making wall-based works that look like vents for a year - a fact I discovered during a remote conversation with Zajko to discuss his exhibition, ‘Resuscitation’, at Castor Projects in London, which was open for just one day before its closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
At first glance, ‘Resuscitation’ appears as the set for a space-age laboratory in the form of a sculptural installation–we are clearly entering the future, with all the technological advancements that it brings. A large, vibrant orange tomb called ‘Amber Chamber’ (2020) takes centre stage, whilst other sculptures in bright, carefully considered colours are placed at varying levels around the room. Everything looks functional, clinically perfect almost–the words “don’t press the big red button” feel right at home here. The walls are dark green. Zajko lets me know that this colour is at once reminiscent of hospital scrubs, whilst also indicative of arsenic, referring to ideas of both healing and damaging in a binary act that recurs throughout this exhibition.
In the tomb, there is an artificial-looking male figure with his eyes closed. Only his head is visible, which is styled with a headpiece embellished with wheat, acting as a barrier, protecting him whilst simultaneously adorning. This is Chochoł (pronounced Hohow), from Stanisław Wyspiański’s 1901 play ‘The Wedding’: a mythological story from the artist’s youth in Poland. In the 1901 version, Chochoł was an anthropomorphic creature–think Cousin Itt from The Addam’s Family. The form of the character was inspired by the sheaves used to protect rose bushes in Polish fields against the winter frost, whilst warding off animals, and often mistaken for human figures. In short, the sheaves were a human intervention to keep something alive, much like the act of resuscitation.
In Rafal’s home province, Podlasia, you can find Bialowieza, the only medieval forest in Europe. Podlasia is also a place that has spiritual healers and herbalists, paganism mixed with religion. Catholicism was embedded in Rafal’s upbringing–he lets me know that the idea of “the breath of life” was a marker in his youthful thinking alongside folklore and mythical stories. Rafal had planned with Castor Projects to include multiple performative elements in the show, where he would breathe and re-breathe into the sculptures through a vape. There is something of a ‘good guy’ and ‘bad guy’ attitude here–breathing new life into these sculptures while emitting a gas that is scientifically unknown, resurfacing questions around the safety of vaping.
We can quickly look to ‘Lazarus’ (2020), a sculpture shaped like a moth that was believed extinct in 1962 until it was rediscovered in 2018. In this show, life is reappearing, much like the character of Chochoł. The costume worn by Chochoł is described by Rafal as ‘biological armour’; a merger of peasant and sports clothes, traditional and modern labour. The costume has wooden-carved abs and a protruding spine–a handmade aesthetic suggestive of how Chochoł was made in the woods.
Before the closure, Zajko performed a piece called ‘Interludium’ (2020). For this, he wore the same costume as the entombed Chochoł; embodying a character whose very matter is rooted in the earth, protecting the harvest. Zajko sung a traditional Polish funeral song; it was sombre, beautiful and filled the space with new meaning. Here, the artist as Chochoł laments the new realm he has entered; even in this futuristic, fictional world, things are not okay. The lyrics of the song speak of saying goodbye to the world and everything around you, welcoming a new planet and the promise it holds…
During Rafal’s performance, a vape sits on the ‘Amber Chamber’–the native gemstone of Poland. We discussed the meaning behind the vape and Zajko revealed how his work often cites the Industrial Revolution, typified by his earlier, concrete structures. The act of vaping is dramatic, like something static suddenly becoming active. Zajko referred to the steam rising from factories, an indication of progress as well as decline as ecosystems are consequently destroyed.
“Returning from the brink,” Zajko explained, was something that really struck him about this work. ‘Resuscitation’ could be seen as a funerary monument to the imagined future of the global eco-crisis, but with the hope that there is potential to return from the brink.