10 Minutes with Rafal Zajko

Rafał Zajko (b. 1988, Białystok PL) is an artist working in sculpture, performance and costume. His work deals with themes of architecture ,monuments and the relationship between body, technology and folklore. Zajko was born in the Polish People’s Republic a year before the collapse of the Berlin Wall.

Recent exhibitions include Bold Tendencies (2020); Castor Gallery (London,UK); Ashes/Ashes (New York , US); Exile (Vienna, Austria), Galleria Im. Slendzinskich (Bialystok, PL) amongst others

Rafał Zajko lives and works in London.

For the 6th edition of “10 Minute Interviews” Huma Kabakcı interviews Rafal Zajko on his work, influences, challenges, what he likes to do in his free time and more.

How has your practice evolved based on where you come from and where you are living now? What has influenced your work the most?  

I was brought up in a working-class household in Poland and raised by my grandparents who both worked in factories all their life. Their hopes for my future were that I would become a doctor – their aspirations for a better life imparted on me, and I think I shared this dream until I became a teenager. As a young gay man, I was always aware of a hostility towards the LGBTQI community – it ingrained a deep sense of otherness in me that perhaps played a big part in me wanting to leave and explore the world outside.  I moved to London in 2007 at the age of 19 and enrolled in an Art Foundation course at Central St Martin’s soon after, and I guess you could say the rest is history. So many things influence my work – technology, architecture and Japanese ceramics – to Polish folklore, body functions and prosthetics. I’m a craftsman at heart – I love materials and learning new techniques. I have tried to make my practice a space in which I can combine all of these elements. 

Technological Reliquary II (3-Kolor), 2018
Jesmonite, free-hand embroidery, steel, push button, ice

What has been your biggest challenge?  

Making art is like oxygen to me. The challenge is affording the time to do it. I have no familiar wealth, and no savings etc. so I only have myself to rely on. I have always worked and supported myself through art school and still do. This has enforced a steely determination in myself to do what I love and be in the studio. There is not enough transparency in the art world about this. I think there should be more support for people from poor backgrounds. 

What does diversity mean to you? 

Something the art world should strive for. 

What do you love to do in your free time?  

“Pebbling” (a term I have coined myself for beach combing) – I am obsessed with going to beaches and looking for peculiar pebbles such as adder stones, mermaid’s tears (sea glass) and sea pottery, for me this is like treasure hunting. One of my favourite places is Dungeness – one of the largest stretches of shingle in Europe. 

Pebbling, courtesy of Rafal Zajko

If you could collaborate with anyone living or deceased, who would it be? 

It would be Lee Bontecou. She is a prominent artist who developed her distinctive practice in New York of the 60’s and 70’s. Her eerie machine-like abstract forms are set side by side with natural forms. I had a chance to see her works for the first time in flesh last year in September in New York – after years of being a huge fan of her practice – it was a dream come true.

Lee Bontecou Studio
Source : Guggenheim New York

Right before the pandemic you had a solo exhibition at Castor Gallery and currently your installation is being exhibited at Bold Tendencies. You also recently had a screening of your work at Piccadilly Circus as a part of Circa.art. Can you talk a bit about your experience and the production process? 

“Resuscitation” at Castor Gallery was produced in the weeks leading up to the lockdown. It felt like fighting against time with finishing the work while the world around started to crumble and disintegrate. The show sadly didn’t have an opening and it only officially opened to the public for one day before it closed. The Bold Tendencies opportunity arose 2 months ago – with Charlie Mills (Bold Tendencies / Hannah Barry) contacting me about it. We thought it would be nice to give one of the works from the “Resuscitation” show another life on the roof of the Peckham car park and chose “Amber Chamber” – a work reminiscent of a sarcophagus – with a figure of Chochol entombed inside of it. Piece speaks about the decay and rebirth – cyclicality of seasons and connects to the region I’m coming from in Poland. Podlachia – the place where archaic, pagan beliefs mix together with 2 sides of Christianity: Catholicism and Eastern Orthodox church.  

The Piccadilly Circus opportunity was a bit bonkers. How often do you get a chance to show your work on the largest advertising screen in Europe? Thanks to Aindrea Emelife it happened to me this August. I decided to show the footage from the “Resuscitation” show – snippets of video showing my smoking sculptures and parts of the performance that I did in Castor Gallery.  

I feel like both opportunities made the premature closure of my show at Castor Gallery less painful. It gave the works another life on two amazing platforms for which I’m Grateful to Aindrea and Charlie for. 

What are you working on at the moment? 

My Master’s degree show. I have been studying at Goldsmiths MFA for the last four years. It’s the only University in London that allows postgraduate students to complete their course part-time, which was the only way for me to afford it. A positive aspect of this has been that it gave me a lot of time to learn through making supported by amazing sculpture tutors from various technical workshops.  

With the pandemic I had thought that the degree show would go online only, but luckily, two weeks ago we heard that the show will go ahead in real life, with an opening scheduled for 1st of October. Pop by!