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My road to Art Basel 2009: Interview with Alicja Kwade

Alicja Kwade on fleeing Poland, working for other artists and winning prizes

Born in Poland, Alicja Kwade has spent most of her life in Germany. When she was nine, her father loaded his family into a tiny Fiat and escaped the then-communist country, ostensibly going to a wedding in France. “You couldn’t leave Poland just like that then, a whole family was not allowed to go together, so we could take nothing, but we had hidden some gold in the headlights,” she recounts. “He had the second most important private art gallery in Poland, but there were always problems with the State, which often objected to what he was showing—every week the windows were smashed,” she explains. On the way, the family stopped in Hanover, where they eventually stayed on and still live.

After studies at the Berlin Studium der Bildenden Kunst, Kwade ignored her parents’ desire for her to teach or be a designer and launched herself as an artist. While her work is primarily in sculpture, she also makes video and photographs, and prefers to be called simply an “artist” rather than a sculptor—“I try to choose the most honest material to say what I am trying to say,” she says. These are everyday objects—lights, mirrors, painstakingly polished stones or her favoured item, clocks, from which she produces glossy, elegant works that are always precisely and carefully thought-out and arranged. Among the works in her Hamburger Bahnhof show last year was a neat cone, made of pulverised champagne bottles; the same show also featured clocks, still ticking, but their faces mirrored. At Art Basel Statements she has produced Different Condition (State of Aggregation) 2: five bent objects made of different materials—steel, plastic, wood, brass and glass—leaning on a wall as though they were elastic.

The Art Newspaper: When did you realise you wanted to be an artist?

Alicja Kwade: My father ran a gallery in Poland so I was in touch with art from the beginning; he was always pushing me to draw like crazy every day.

TAN: What was your first big break?

AK: The really big step was last year when I won the Piepenbrock sculpture prize [2008] and had a huge, huge show in the Hamburger Bahnhof (“Von Explosionen zu Ikonen”, Hamburger Bahnhof, Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin). It was over 1,000 sq. m, and I had to do it in three months, but it got a lot of attention. That was a big step for me.

TAN: And your worst moment?

AK: After my studies, in the beginning it was hard. I had huge money problems, I had to work for other artists, I didn’t feel I was going forward. But things are much better now.

TAN: If only I had known…

AK: I can’t give much advice as I am only really starting my own career but I think it’s always important to give full power in what you do—it’s important to take every little show really seriously, even if it’s a grubby little event, to give it your maximum.

TAN: What do you think of art fairs?

AK: It’s difficult to make good work for a fair, because you have to deal with a lot of compromise. Of course, the dealer wants to sell, and it’s a very commercial situation, but as an artist I want to find the best way to present myself. It’s much cooler just to be able to make a statement. But on the other hand it’s a big chance and there will be thousands of people there and it makes you much more visible.

TAN: How does a young artist make that jump from art school to Art Basel?

AK: I think it’s important to do a lot of shows, give people the chance to see you, to keep your visibility up. For example, with Johann König we were talking for a long time and I invited him to all my shows before he represented me.

Appeared in Art Basel in Basel, June 2009