Kacper Kowalski | Interview
1605 Collective is happy to announce a release of Event Horizon, a fourth book by the Polish photographer Kacper Kowalski. Event Horizon reveals the most intimate parts of the artist’s soul, showcasing his introspective approach to nature and the discovery of his vulnerability and feelings. “With the beginning of winter, I set out on a journey in search of harmony. Driven by instinct, I ventured farther and farther until I passed the boundaries of rationality,” says Kowalski.
We were happy to receive Kowalski in our office for the interview about his spiritual experience of flying while capturing beautiful and abstract landscapes that carry the intrinsic meaning, for the author as much as for the viewers.
Kacper, you have a background in architecture. How do you think this influenced your work?
Architecture taught me a lot about drawing and transferring flat 2D images into 3D solutions. It also taught me about creating feelings. According to the Polish avant-garde sculptor and architect Katarzyna Kobro, “Architecture is the art of creating feelings for users who move in space of a building/structure.” As an architect, you can inspire a vast palette of emotions using colour, texture, proportions, materials, and their characteristics (such as temperature, light and shadow, and shapes) to prepare the user for the process he will undergo while passing from point A to B.
And as you mentioned in one of your interviews, you are a pilot with an excuse of being a photographer. Antoine de Saint-Exupery once said, “I fly because it releases my mind from the tyranny of petty things.” Why do you fly?
Architecture is a difficult field—like every creative process, it takes a lot of work. Apart from the work, there is a lot of responsibility. At some point, my love for buildings was overpowered by my passion for flying. I only understood this when, instead of imagining the experience of the user of the space I was designing, I was planning my next flight. I realised I needed to go up again when I flew close to a cliff and when I looked into a chimney as I touched the clouds. These experiences made me realise that I could either be an unhappy architect and prisoner of my education, or a very happy pilot. But I needed an excuse to fly, and that is how I encountered photography.
Flying is pure magic. I live for the moments when I spread my wings, turn on the engine and hear its rhythm, feel the wind, and choose a good moment to take off—to run with the engine on my back, and then, finally, feel the air moving dynamically through space with my body, as abstract visions open up within me. When I am in the air, I enter a kind of trance. That’s why I fly. Because when I fly, I feel closer to human nature than on the ground, even though, paradoxically, I have no natural wings.
How do you come up with ideas for your projects? Who/what inspires you to create?
I love flying over the same places over and over again and seeing the different faces of these same places. There are things that have been on my mind since the beginning of my flying adventure—so, for 26 years—but for some reason, I did not pay attention to them. It’s a bit like a composer sitting down at the same piano: I have the whole spectrum at my disposal, yet each time, I choose specific sounds to create something new.
The very mechanism of experiencing space fascinates me. Seeing. The magic that is contained in the moment of pressing the shutter. After all, all the emotions, dynamics, and reasons that lead me to press the shutter are contained in that flat and still image, and it opens up an infinite number of interpretations, worlds, and sensations for the viewer. Sometimes, one picture is worth more than a thousand words. That’s why I try to find inspiration in myself: To search for the truth about mankind in an image.
In OVER, you mention Andrei Tarkovsky’s film, Stalker. I am curious about the impact of cinematography on your projects and about your favourite filmmaker.
I love Paolo Sorrentino and Tomm Moore (from the movie Song of the Sea).
I have to confess something. The original version of OVER mentioned Arkady and Boris Strugatsky’s 1971 book, Roadside Picnic, on which Stalker was based, but since books are not as popular as films, it is not as well-known as Tarkovsky’s screen adaptation.
I relate to the medium of the text myself because it creates room for the imagination. After all, action is imaginative. Books are more developmental whereas movies have more impact. I enjoy reading books about imaginary worlds or magic. It’s fascinating because a very real human experience is described through the imagination of the supernatural; it doesn’t matter if it is Greek Mythology, the Bible, Tao Te Ching, or Harry Potter.
Let’s talk about your projects. You describe Arché as a universal tale of the connection between humans and nature and a reflection on the interconnection between the past and the present that reveals itself not only in our spiritual life but is also expressed in nature itself. Without reading the description of this project, when I open the book, I have no idea what am I looking at…maybe these are traces of Indian ink on soft cotton fabric, or cells under the microscope. What I am saying is that this particular project allows your spectator to create their view of the series. How do you feel about this?
That’s great—that’s exactly the point! In this project, it’s not the nature of ice that is the subject, but the nature of human abstract vision. I started thinking about whether I could see the area that I flew over through the eyes of the first people who explored the neighbourhood.
Humans arrived in Europe some 40,000 years ago. At that time, there were kilometres of ice in my hometown of Gdynia. My landscape was shaped by a glacier that retreated about 12,000 years ago. And that’s when the Baltic Sea was formed. I love to imagine people standing on the edge of a cliff, watching the birds and dreaming of flying. I have been flying at a similar height for 25 years. I am fulfilling the eternal human dream of flying, and I am doing it involuntarily.
The text in Arché doesn’t overwhelm the visual content; it plays a similar role to the booklet that accompanies a music CD. You can listen to the CD without knowing what the composer was going through. Sometimes, this knowledge may be disturbing to the listener. But sometimes, it can help, because some viewers cannot see, feel, or experience without an introduction.
Again, regarding Arché: The project is monochromatic and abstract, unlike your previous works such as OVER and Side Effects. What guided you to this shift of perspective?
My affirmation of the need to see signs, dreams, and memories. After many years, I was seeking some kind of change, a key to a new way of looking at the same thing. It was also a personal challenge to gauge whether I was able to see the world monochromatically while flying. And eventually, I did. The letters, signs, and symbols became the core, and nothing else mattered.
Polish photographer Hubert Humka’s book Death Landscapes questions the events that have occurred in a particular landscape in the past and how knowledge of these events affects our perceptions of the land. You fly above the area of Gdansk in Poland near your hometown. In the past, Poland was the site of several Nazi concentration camps, including Stutthof, near Gdansk. I am curious: When you look at the landscapes below, do you perceive the dark side of humanity in these now empty and serene (if I might say so) landscapes? According to you, to what extent can the absence of atrocity in a photograph depict trauma attached to it?
This is a very interesting observation. In fact, there is an exhibition of the Event Horizon project (perhaps in conjunction with Arché) being prepared for autumn this year at the National Art Gallery in Sopot, Poland, which will be in dialogue with Hubert Humka’s next project.
Sometimes, I think that it would be impossible to tell our ancestors about contemporary problems. After all, even our video conversation would be an ancestor’s dream come true.
I have concluded that the only option for improvement is to raise awareness and reflexivity among people so that they are aware that most problems are contrived and do not affect everyday life.
I know that you are currently working on a new project. Tell us a little more about its concept. What triggered its creation, and how is it different from your previous projects?
This is a very personal project—probably the most intimate of all. At the beginning of the year, I set out to find harmony; therefore, the initial images are calm and balanced. Then, it turned out to be several things at once. I learned that my brain is constructed differently—I have a form of Asperger’s Syndrome, and so, I read emotions and intentions differently. Imagery is a more natural form of communication for me than words, especially when it concerns the order of emotions. I was depressed—I provoked fate and entered the path of madness. I wanted to test and experience the magic.
My project Arché is about the effect of the external landscape on a person. However, Event Horizon is the exact opposite. When things happen within me that I can’t name, I unconsciously reach for clippings of the landscape to describe the spectrum of emotions I’m experiencing. What is interesting again is that the whole project was created in the same places as Arché, but the images do not repeat. Perhaps this project will not have a big description, since it is a set that can be felt more than described with words.
I also know that you have just published a new book with 1605 Collective. I would like to know how important you think it is for an artist to have a published book. Does it change the way you and others perceive your work?
A book is, above all, eternal. It is also a statement. The exhibition can be hung and taken down. In the case of my books, the most important thing so far is that they allow me to make an extension of what I feel up there—they are an invitation on board for all who want to feel it.
My last few books have been self-published, and I am very happy that I realised the project Event Horizon in collaboration with 1605 Collective. I have a feeling that from now on, we will take it to a higher level, enjoying the creative freedom and reflections. I have the impression that, in some aspects, the visual language we use is similar and the way of thinking is the same. That’s how great things are created.
The book Event Horizon has a perfect language of metaphor to explore my inner world. It reveals my spiritual and introspective approach to nature and the discovery of my vulnerability and feelings.
You are now represented by Bildhalle Gallery in Switzerland and the Netherlands. How essential do you think it is for an artist to have official gallery representation? In your opinion, how does the representation of a work in an exhibition differ from its representation in a book? Can these two mediums benefit from each other?
Working with the Bildhalle Gallery is a great honour. Mirjam and Andreas Cavegn and their team are very supportive of the artists and work very hard. They go deep into understanding the creative process and take great care to ensure that the represented artists are able to talk about the value of a work as well as the unique and authentic creative path behind it.
There’s also the business side of things, such as the editions, the price, the circulation of images, and the timeline of building an offer. Then there are fairs, reviews, participation in institutional exhibitions…it is a lot of hard work, and selling is difficult. So, I appreciate that I don’t have to build my strategy alone and that I have the gallery as a partner. I’m very happy to work closely with Bildhalle and build a responsible, predictable path that will provide collectors with investment security. For example, we decided to reduce some editions and limit the number of prints to aim for even more uniqueness. I dream of a time when I can take a flight and return with a single print—one unique print that encapsulates the experience of the entire flight. In addition to such support, cooperation with the gallery provides creative security—the belief that what I do makes sense and that there are people who want to purchase my work.
There is this book by Richard Bach called Jonathan Livingston Seagull, which says, “Most gulls don’t bother to learn more than the simplest facts of flight how to get from shore to food and back again. For most gulls, it is not flying that matters, but eating. For this gull, though, it was not eating that mattered, but flight.” How do you think this quote reflects on your comprehension of life and artistic creation? What kind of seagull do you think you are?
I fly because I want to be free as a bird in flight, so nothing limits me except the physicality of the experience, like the seagull mentioned above. And if something limits me, I try to find out what it is, why, and how I can fight it, and then, I overcome it. Luckily, I am accompanied by photography, which records this experience. Maybe that is why my projects have been so personal.
And regarding birds—why do we reduce them to an algorithm? After all, there’s as old a spark of life burning in every living creature as there is in me. Unspoken for four billion years. Every creature goes about its private business at leisure; their experience is neither better nor worse, just different.
I have been watching birds from a short distance since childhood. When I sat on the seventh floor of a block of flats and watched seagulls gliding over the roofs of other buildings, I wondered what they were doing, where they flew, when they were full, what their private lives and personal affairs were like. The reference to the natural world is very, very important, especially today, when civilisation has domesticated humans and technology gives us the mistaken impression that we are above nature.