Maurizio cattelan: The first exhibition… you had it in Denmark, right? Not in Denmark… so where did you have it?
Piotr Uklanski: I don’t know what you are talking about.
MC: Well, I’m talking about The Full Burn. I saw the performance in 1998 at the Manifesta 2 exhibition of ‘European’ artists. And then only three years later you were in “The Americans. New Art” at the Barbican Gallery in London. Are you an ‘Old European’ or a ‘New American’?
PU: How about a ‘New European’? Aren’t there Polish — and Italian, by the way — troops stuck in Iraq?
MC: Do you identify yourself as a Polish artist then?
PU: I do. I don’t think there’s a way around it. The place of your origin always stays in you, no matter how you wish to deal with it. At the same time, I find discussing the issues of national identity less and less interesting. It seems that now it has become solely a public relations term. You know, national pavilions, international quotas at biennials, etc. If you master the right nationality, it might prove very beneficial.
MC: So do you think being Polish has helped your work? I mean, has it been good publicity?
PU: Well, I was thinking that if I don’t get more shows soon, I might have to become American.
MC: Is The Nazis (1998) a work about Europe or about Hollywood? Or does it even matter?
MC: Do you like controversy?
MC: When you showed The Nazis in London, The Jewish Press and the Evening Standard protested against the show. In Warsaw, I think one of the Polish actors came to your show and slashed his photograph with a sword as a publicity stunt against you.
PU: Yes, it was a deeply traumatic experience for me, especially since I didn’t think of staging such an act before he actually brandished his sword.
MC: Do you think these kinds of attacks are a form of art criticism?
PU: It’s so hard to decipher the difference between ‘criticism’ and marketing these days.
MC: Speaking of which: for the 2003 Venice Biennale you shot a portrait of the curators [Untitled, 2003]. Was it marketing or criticism? Were any of the curators suspicious about the portraits?
PU: As with the portraits I am commissioned to do, I think that most of the time the sitters know exactly what they are getting. And this is the very reason why they decide to have a portrait taken. It is safe: a portrait where you can hardly recognize the subject. It does not question their own image of themselves.
MC: You made also some self-portraits like Untitled (Tiger, Bursting) or Untitled (Self-portrait with a Mohawk). Are they related to the other portraits or to The Nazis? In a way it is again about constructing identities. Like in that skull picture [Untitled (Skull), 2000], that sort of Playboy meets Dalí photo.
PU: [Laughing] Yes, Hugh Hefner and Dalí, sometimes it is hard to differentiate them. Anyway, I find exploitation, ‘self-ploitation,’ typecasting, or overexposure very potent formats.
MC: So were you also exploiting that French curator on the pages of Artforum in September 2003?
PU: I was doing my best.
MC: Was it also about vanity or about money and compromises? Or just about sex?
PU: It was about the curator’s ass [Untitled (GingerAss), 2003].
MC: Tell me something about sincerity and your work.
PU: I remember a comment about my Wet Floor piece in a review, and the author was rhetorically asking what features distinguish Piotr Uklanski’s jokes from those of Maurizio Cattelan. I am sure it was a compliment.
MC: No, it wasn’t.
PU: Yes, it was.
MC: Let’s talk about images. Your photographs of sunsets, flowers, mountains, city lights, or even the collages of lightning bolts and eclipses: they all look like stock photography. Wouldn’t it be easier to just use existing images?
PU: I am a workaholic. I need labor intensive assignments to pass the time.
MC: That sounds like something Alighiero e Boetti would say. Do you like Boetti? Your collages make me think of Boetti for some reason.
PU: Yeah. My crayon shaving pieces make me think of early Arman, Wet Floor of Lynda Benglis, the Cross-Eye panels of Michael Snow, and the Dancefloor of Carl Andre.
MC: Right. Do you get inspired by other artists’ work? Do you steal from other artists? The skull was after Dalí, right?
PU: If an idea is stolen it does not make the art work automatically bad. It often makes it better. You should know.
MC: No bad conscience?
MC: Speaking of spending time, all of your works are handcrafted, very finished. And then somehow the image you get to is banal — but banal in a good way, I mean.
PU: It comes out of my insecurity. The craft becomes compensation for the consumer having to put up with the banality of the content.
MC: Interesting. That’s nice of you. What else?
PU: … [Coughs]
MC: What’s your work about? Once you said it’s all just about earth, wind and fire. That’s a bit new age, no?
PU: Catholic, actually.
MC: Good. What about the meaning of the work then? Do you care about it? I mean, there is the Dance Floor, which people say is a social sculpture, and then The Nazis, which is about violence, and the collages about banal beauty maybe.
PU: The Nazis about violence?
You know, I don’t invest meanings into the work — that’s the viewer’s job. When you are a kid growing up, you want to be a fireman, doctor, policeman, and a football player — all in the same lifetime. To answer your question, I want to be all of the following: a modernist, a post-minimalist, a pop-conceptualist, a photographer, a dilettante, a painter’s muse, a political artist like Boltanski, and a filmmaker like Roman Polanski.
MC: Speaking of Polanski, there isn’t much sex in your work. I noticed that not many Europeans use sex. We seem to like death more. What do you think?
PU: I don’t think that the sex/death thing is so much about European versus American.
I think it is more about people’s age — confronting midlife crises, etc.
MC: Why did you ask Polanski to write a text on your work? Is he a good writer?
PU: It is not about his writing. It is more about the certain position he represents.
MC: What position, of being a Polish immigrant?
PU: Wait to read the text.
MC: Was the show at Kunsthalle Basel  a retrospective?
PU: No. The show’s structure is color coded in red, blue, yellow, and black and white.
MC: Sounds a bit like the Dance Floor.
MC: Are the Dance Floor or The Nazis in the show?
PU: No, of the ‘older’ work only some photographs have been included.
MC: So you made new works for the show?
MC: Any sculptures? It’s strange you haven’t made more sculptures. I guess works like Cross-Eye, Wet Floor, or Dancefloor count as sculptures, but they are all pretty ‘flat.’
PU: I’m quite a two-dimensional artist. [Slams the phone down]
from Flash Art International, n. 236, 2004
This interview is part of an ongoing project with contemporary artists by Maurizio Cattelan for Flash Art, which started in 2002.
Maurizio Cattelan is an artist based in New York.
Piotr Uklanski was born in 1968 in Warsaw. He lives and works in New York and Warsaw.