with Inês Costa
‘Within my work, I’m questioning whether humanity’s footprint on our planet has really sunk too deep … I’m looking through the examples of yesterday’s optimisms and signs of progress, and how they can be reassessed in our dystopic age today.’
Listen to the full interview here:
My name is Rafał Zajko, and I am a Polish artist based in London. My work revolves around the industrial past and its environmental impact in relation to working-class heritage and queer identities. My sculptural practice incorporates diverse materials and processes, including ceramic, ventilation systems, prosthetics and performance as a means to examine Polish folklore, science fiction and also queer technoscience.
Within my work, I’m questioning whether humanity’s footprint on our planet has really sunk too deep. And have the scars caused by the towering chimneys of the industrial revolution left a wound that will not heal? I’m looking through the examples of yesterday’s optimisms and signs of progress, and how they can be reassessed in our dystopic age today.
What are you showing as part of The London Open 2022?
There are four works, Lazarus II, III, IV (2020) and Prometheus (2021). They oscillate around the ideas of global food production, marrying the grammar of design technology with agriculture.
I think I’ve been using the symbolism of wheat in my work for quite a while as a residue of a post-USSR aesthetic which I was trying to exercise out. With these new works, I was interested in shifting the focus from my personal biography and heritage, and instead focus on the biography of wheat. I wanted to make work which is less Eastern European centric, for the work to resonate globally. What better subject than food production? Within this work I was questioning whether we domesticated wheat, or whether the grains themselves used humankind to give it the status they hold. It’s impressive to know that gluten makes up 70% of global food production, while our bodies still can’t fully digest it.
I like to think about grains perhaps like alien plants that are keeping our humanity in their grasp. For example, in Prometheus, the vivid green wall sculpture has two glass domes. The smaller dome contains a slowly rotating stoneware Kaiser bread roll, which is womb-like. I’m referencing Prometheus, who defied the gods by stealing fire and giving it to humanity, bringing knowledge, progress and power into our hands. There is a parallel there with the idea of developing agriculture, a major advance for our human species, forming civilisation as we know it.
Works in the exhibition:
Lazarus II, III, IV, 2020
Valchromat, glazed ceramics, lights, acrylic domes, bolts, acrylic tube, dyed wheat, barley, flour
110 x 56 x 22 cm (each)
Velchromat, vacuum formed acrylic, terracotta, lights, motor, ceramic, tube, extension cord,
120 x 160 x 31 cm
Rafal Zajko (1988, Białystok, Poland)
2020 MFA, Goldsmiths, University of London
2012 BA (Hons) Fine Art, Chelsea College of Art and Design, London
2009 Foundation Diploma in Art and Design, Central Saint Martins, University of the Arts, London
Selected exhibitions: Song to the Siren, Cooke Latham Gallery, London (solo) (2022); Amber Waves (Bursztynowe Fale), Public Gallery, London (solo) (2021); Not Painting, Copperfield, London (2021); New Contemporaries, South London Gallery, London and Firstsite, Colchester (2021); Resuscitation, Castor Projects; London (solo) (2020); Bold Tendencies, London (2020); ‘4 |14 26 Degrees East, Wiels Annex, Brussels (2020); Age of Ephemerality, X Museum, Beijing (2020); If it’s not meant to last, then its Performance, VITRINE, Basel (2019)
What makes London’s art scene so vibrant? What are the concerns of the next generation of artists? What insight does their work offer in challenging times?
This triennial exhibition showcases a cross-section of the most dynamic artistic talent from across the capital. Established in 1932, this much-celebrated open submission show features 46 London-based artists working across painting, sculpture, moving image, installation and performance.
Since the last London Open in 2018, the city has experienced the COVID-19 pandemic, the UK’s withdrawal from the EU, demonstrations demanding racial and climate justice, and widespread questioning of institutions and their structures.
The London Open 2022 traces the ways in which artists have witnessed and responded to these events with resilience and heart. In times of hardship and crisis, and when exhibitions were cancelled and moved online, these artists experimented with new sites of production and means of dissemination, from the kitchen table to the back garden.
The exhibition is loosely structured as a journey from the personal to the social, moving from individual to collective concerns, the cathartic to the poetic, the political and the environmental.
The artists were selected from over 2,600 entries by a panel of experts including collector Maria Bukhtoyarova, artist Shezad Dawood, curator and art historian Christine Eyene, gallerist Stephan Tanbin Sastrawidjaja, with Whitechapel Gallery curators Emily Butler, lnês Costa and Wells Fray-Smith.
Gallery 1, Downstairs
The relationship between our bodies and the material world kickstarts the exhibition. Rafał Zajko’s wall-based reliefs appear like hybrid beings, processing the gluten found in wheat and barley flour, leaving us unsure if this is for machine or human consumption.Likewise, Madeleine Pledge’s stretched fabrics and ceramic boots imply absent bodies and their physical role in manufacturing.
Materiality and belief systems intersect in Candida Powell-Williams’ handmade objects. A unicorn and swing inspired by medieval tapestries are fenced off by a trellis, prompting questions about the divisions between what is mythical and real. Alicia Reyes McNamara’s paintings feature non-binary, shapeshifting figures drawn from various mythologies, from Meso-America to Ancient Egypt, to consider alternative notions of time and embodiment.
Gallery 9, Upstairs
This gallery features works that delve into the impact of technology, algorithms and quantification on our lives. In his series The Spectre of a World Which Could Be Free 2019, Ben Yau looks at the parallel rise of Neoliberalism and the CIA’s role in sabotaging the socialist government of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973, bringing together both economic data and declassified documents.
Set in a parallel present reminiscent of sci-fi films such as Blade Runner, The Underlying by Ami Clarke considers the implicit role of capitalism in environmental disaster.
Meanwhile, Rory Cahill and George Mackness offer a walk through a dystopian, corrupted digital landscape of the future, with an immersive soundtrack. They consider: what does a digital wasteland look like, what happens there and what is its afterlife?
Gallery 8, Upstairs
The artworks in this gallery reflect on family, identity and community. Seema Khalique travelled to Bangladesh to photograph two communities of transgender people called hijras. In this behind-the-scenes series, she questions the prejudices they face, revealing the economic hardships they endure alongside the strong network of mentorship and care they create.
Pioneering photographer, curator and writer Sunil Gupta took photographs of his neighbourhood on Walworth Road during lockdown. This work celebrates the increased relevance of our localities during the pandemic, as well as reflecting on the processes involved in created photographic images.
On three vintage TV monitors, Hussina Raja’s short narrative films look at the subject of migration to the UK from post-Partition India, tracing the continued experiences of displacement and exploring nuanced notions of identity.
The works in the last part of the show focus on our relationship to and impact on the environment. In Agrilogistics (2022), Gerard Ortin Castellvi films in an automated greenhouse, in which the growth of tomatoes, tulips and chrysanthemums is controlled by cameras and sensors, in order to question the future of food production.
Having spent lockdown excavating her back garden, Maria Roy Deulofeu meticulously records each layer of soil like an archaeologist, collecting artefacts and ecofacts, before assembling a kiln to fire hand-thrown urns with the different layers of clay. The process is recorded in a video shown alongside the objects. Finally, a flock of parakeets cast in lead are scattered on the ground in Patrick Goddard’s Blue Sky Thinking (2019).The parakeet exemplifies a non-native species increasingly common in London parks and hints at a mass extinction event, highlighting mankind’s role in the impending climate disaster.
See the full list of works here.
An illustrated catalogue is available to purchase from the bookshop.
Artists have generously made limited editions to coincide with the exhibition to support the Gallery’s education programme.