Mountain Cosmos Head

processual installation: bread, mould, mould spores, 160 meters of copper tubes, electric oil radiators, salt, temperature Labirynt Gallery, Lublin, PL, 26.01 – 11.02.2018
Exhibition view. The exhibition could only be viewed in facial protective masks for up to ten minutes.
Untitled, photography 60x80cm, 2017. Various species of mould growing on bread

The installation "Mountain/Cosmos/Head" by Przemek Branas comes as a result of the artist’s experiment with a new creative material and his interest in specific historical figures, discoveries and facts. Individual elements of the exhibition – sculptures of a mountain and two heads as well as an object that recreates the shape of a certain constellation – form relations inscribed in the history of Western civilisation. Yet, for the viewer, their mutual dependencies remain a mystery only partly solvable with the help of the wall printouts that accompany the installation. The latter provide a loose register of sources of inspiration and a peculiar record of the creative process, as well as an unconventional footnote to human cognitive activity and expansive nature.

Each of the sculptures features small copper pipes, an eyecatching element of the installation, whose main role, however, consists in conducting heat that encourages the growth of fungi on the bread of which the works are built. Seemingly immobilised in the pervasive smell of mould, the objects undergo constant

transformation. The relations between them are arbitrary; they provide a sketch of the route followed by the artist’s thoughts, rather than a linearly grasped cause and effect relationship. For Branas picks out from reality a motif or a fact that interests him, and then begins to devise its story as a cluster of truth and fiction. Following the chosen route, he keeps and uses only what he finds interesting. Working on selected topics, he leaves them as a prey to imagination and filters through his personal fascinations and experiences. There are therefore three historic figures and events from the history of discoveries that provide the background for the artefacts in the exhibition: a certain chemist beheaded for his convictions during the French Revolution; an astrologist who named a constellation he discovered in honour of that chemist’s invention; and a traveller who gave his own name to an island he discovered in the sea. Those people and facts are united by history seen from the perspective of the victories of the human mind and the pursuit of knowledge, which, ironically enough, is also a history of errors and discredit brought upon thought.

At the conceptual level, the artist developed his slightly mysterious, yet formally clear, work starting from two motifs: bread and a simplified sculptural form of the head, which resulted in a series of bread objects overgrown with mould. Those two motifs largely determined the shape of his work and, at the same time, conveyed certain specific tropes that constantly appear in Branas’s art and crystallise the artist’s formal and content-related priorities.

First of all, the use of bread – basic human foodstuff – as a material results from the artist’s interest in natural “substances” that carry a symbolic charge and economic cultural references, while also being easy to transform within a process that is both natural and strictly controlled and calculated by man. For instance, Branas draws attention to a rather remote, yet highly suggestive, association between mould colonies that devour bread and factories that provide employment involving extreme human exploitation and objectification – forced labour remunerated with the possibility to eat and survive, which at the same time provides the foundation of the lush life lived by others.

The working space where the project Mountain/Cosmos/Head was prepared.

Prior to the presentation at the Labirynt Gallery Plaza, mouldy bread appeared twice in Branas’s projects. In "General Bem Returns Home" (Generał Bem wraca do domu), the artist took a sandwich with him on a symbolic à rebours journey along the route covered in 1929 by the body of General Bem from his original burial site of a Muslim cemetery in the Syrian town of Aleppo to Tarnów in Poland. When after several days of travelling the artist left the sandwich on the Syrian border, it had already been covered with greenish mould. Unsuitable for consumption and thus wasted, the mouldy bread was abandoned on the border of a country ravaged by war. A similar mouldy sandwich as an expression of fear appears in the artist’s photograph titled "In the Fear of the World’s Evil", which features a slice of bread overgrown with a greenish coat against the shiny background of aluminium foil. Both the eponymous sensation and the bread mould are transferred from the image into the Lublin Gallery, where they become amplified by the scale of the new project.

Another leitmotif of "Mountain/Cosmos/Head" – the head – has had an equally strong presence in Branas’s previous projects. According to the artist’s idea, in this work it is supposed to bring to mind primitive stone sculptures discovered on Easter Island or the Olmec colossal heads. Branas created the heads in two versions: one made of mould, another made of salt with mould rings in the eyes. This motif mostly brings to mind the masks that recur in the artist’s practice: the mysterious erection mask and the ritual mask from the "Hiccup" project, as well as the scent mask made of bananas featured in "Domina(c)tion of Space" (2014) or the silver sound mask whose noise signalised the beginning of Branas’s journey in his project on General Bem. Through the use of masks, the artists incorporates in his works a primitive element, which can be understood in terms of the force of the subconscious, the id, magic, a relation to nature, and a subversive component that carries the potential to tear ossified conventions apart. Branas uses them to bring the sociocultural context into his projects, from conventionalised human behaviour to the sphere of the taboo and symbolic power and violence. Although "Mountain/Cosmos/Head" refers to primitive cultures primarily at the level of documentation, which forms part of the exhibition, they are also clearly echoed in the works through the visual qualities of mould. Mouldy bread objects look as if they were made of stone, rotten, overgrown with moss or picked up from the seabed. The mouldy rings in the eyes of a head made of salt bring to mind various rituals of covering the eyes of the deceased. In the context of the entire project, the main axis of tension consists in juxtaposing the motif of the head as a symbol of reason (with its power and weaknesses) with primitiveness. The human thought develops and collapses under the influence of time and nature – the strongly Romantic trait of this reflection is enhanced by motifs derived from paintings by great Romantics, such as Caspar David Friedrich, whose canvas shows a solitary figure on the edge of a cliff, looking above the world into an endless expanse.

The work "Mountain/Cosmos/Head" combines interesting formal threads that have previously occurred in Branas’s artistic practice, while at the same time it sits comfortably within his series of works developed in collaboration with institutions through a process that usually remains invisible and yet provides an important element of the final work. As a consequence, underpinned to a great extent by the pursuit of experimentation and founded on intuition, the installation combines in an interesting way a truly Romantic form with external requirements and accepted rules pertaining to the display of the work and making it available to the viewers. The artist’s collaboration with institutions may take a varied course and have a decisive impact on the shape of the project. Given the specific character of Branas’s individual projects and his penchant for seeking new forms of expression, this question returns like a boomerang in his artistic practice; it is enough to mention such projects as "Fountain" (2015), "Tress" (2016), "Moonrise" (2017) and "Untitled" (2017). All of them required negotiating the rules of production on the exhibition site, and, therefore, their final shape sometimes differed from the artist’s intention. Branas used those works to test the borders within which he could operate, to check how far he could go on a territory officially protected by institutional immunity. The artist took interest in attempts to locate a platform of common goals beyond ossified rules and limitations, including those of legal character. What was at stake in the case of the work at the Labirynt Plaza Gallery was a large-scale display built of mouldy bread, which could pose a real threat to people and the building. Presentation of the work required consultations with experts, shortening the opening times, air checks, displaying warnings about the quality of air, encouraging the viewers to use masks provided by the organiser, without exceeding the time limit during the visit in the hall and restricted access for children.

Contemporary artists have accustomed us to shocking concepts, strange materials and uncommon artistic practices. Nonetheless, Branas’s goal did not consist merely in joining the ranks of formal revolutionaries. It is the formalised context of art that the artist finds so interesting and provocative a topic that once he addressed it, it became an indispensable part of his research, understanding and perception of art. Hence, the mould mountain – whose prototype somewhere on the Tasman Sea is known as Ball’s Pyramid – “rises” right in the centre of a sterile white gallery, in the place where a pillar stands. And one may assume that it was placed there not only for compositional reasons, but also to provide a commentary on the condition of the so-called art world. After all, Branas has often demonstrated his distance to the surrounding reality, determined by a certain hierarchical and institutionalised configuration of power. It is interesting to examine this thread against the background of romantically grasped history of the struggles that people wage with the world, nature and themselves, represented in the form of mouldy metaphors and symbols related to an alternative unrecognised history of the internal experience of individuals and the play of chance. Thus, upon entering the gallery in a mask, the viewers found themselves in a bright and tidy space with two severed heads looking at a rising mouldy rock which served as an orientation point, while a geometrical indication describing a fragment of the universe hovered in the background.

Curator: Magda Linkowska

Conceptual sketches on the basis of photographs found online: Ball’s Pyramid in 1:15 scale. This drawing and the determined scale provided the basis for an object which grew and became filled with mould throughout the duration of the exhibition. After the end of the show, all objects except for two heads were disposed of.
Exhibition view, object: Fornax constellation (Cosmos).

photos:Bartek Zalewski

photos:Bartek Zalewski

Map of the sky with the Fornax constellation.
Graphic work on the basis of an illustration 
Various species of mould growing on bread
Exhibition view, object: Pyramid Ball (mountain)
Exhibition view, object: Head
Exhibition view, object: Salt Head; made of a single lump of pink salt from the Kłodawa, PL salt mine

Photos: Diana Kołczewska,  Wojciech Pacewicz,  Przemek Branas