Interview with Alizah Salario

Kasia Ozga is a Polish-American sculptor with degrees from Tufts & the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, the Academy of Fine Arts in Cracow, Poland, and the University of Paris. She returned to Chicago from France for her first solo show on her home turf in the Mission Gallery’s Sub-Mission Project Space. The work was informed by her experiences living abroad, but it’s a microcosm of a lot of the issues that Chicago is dealing with on large and small scales including immigration, pollution, sustainable living, and shrinking natural resources,.

Ozga and I discussed the motivation behind her work, art’s role in affecting social change, and what the Paris-based artist misses most about Chicago.

1) You use a lot of found objects in this show. Is that intentional?

I’ve used found objects on and off throughout the years and it really depends on the specific intent behind each piece. Internal Frontier, the series of chest x-ray cut-outs shown in military light boxes, depicts images of international borders throughout the world. The actual x-rays were donated by immigrants who live in France, and who were required to obtain the x-rays in order to submit their Carte de Séjour (residency permit) applications. If I had used another material for the cut-outs, or even if the x-rays came from medical sources unconnected to immigration, the work wouldn’t convey the same meaning.

2) What was the motivation behind projecting such a large-scale fingerprint? How did you go about finding a source?

I’ve made art installations using my own fingerprint before, as a reaction to government surveillance. I’m interested in how biometric data is now used to monitor people and to prevent them from accessing public spaces. The fingerprint wall drawings made from duct-tape and packaging tape claim otherwise “neutral” exhibition spaces and extend out into the floors and ceilings of the rooms in which they’re shown. The Chicago version of the piece involved a collaboration with Andrea R., a local undocumented college graduate, who was involved in the Dreamer movement. Rather than continuing to use my own fingerprint, I wanted to tie it to a pressing political concern that affects everyone in our society, whether we are citizens or not.

3) You have a series of modified maps. How did you choose the specific locations?

I wanted to link the most abundant metal on earth, Aluminum, to the history of its’ production and distribution. While I was on a residency at ACRE (Artists’ Cooperative Residency and Exhibitions) last year, I researched different conflict zones related to aluminum production. I decided to focus on Ajka, Veszprém County, Hungary (where an industrial accident caused a toxic sludge spill of alkaline mud), the Saint Lawrence River in Massena, NY (where Superfund site exists in the place of a former Alcoa smelting operation), and the Simandou Mountain Range, Guinea (where Bauxite mining concessions were sold to BSGR through corruption involving one of the ex-dictator’s wives ). I created wax relief maps of these sites that incorporated geographic features cast from rubber molds of crushed aluminum cans. The maps were then cast in Aluminum in a local Chicago foundry.

4) In what ways do you feel your art creates space or opens discussions about the issues it addresses? Did you find those dialogues happened at the opening?

I create work that asks questions that are answered with questions. My goal is to stimulate dialogue and action, but not to provide a ready response to social and environmental issues. As far as the opening goes, I got a great turnout, especially from the Polish community in Chicago and it has been great to get reactions from people who have gone to see the show since!

5) Who were your biggest artistic influences for your pieces? Where do you draw inspiration?

I’m influenced by many artists who use specific materials to look at human presence within a larger social and environmental context. I’m inspired by artists such as Ann Hamilton, Dario Robleto, Juan Muñoz, Michel Blazy, Subodh Gupta, Cildo Mireiles, Marc Quinn, Monika Sosnowska and Agnes Denes, to name a few.

6) What do you think about having your work in a gallery as opposed to a public viewing?

I think that gallery shows and public spaces are suited for different kinds of artwork. I also believe that an artwork isn’t an object; it’s an experience that happens between the physical piece, the viewer, and the site, so changing the site will change how the artwork is perceived and reflected on.

7) You’re an international artist, with roots in Chicago, Paris and Warsaw. How do you see your multicultural background as shaping your work?

I wanted to show pieces that dealt with these issues for my first show in Chicago, which after having grown up in the Chicagoland area, I still consider my hometown. I was very fortunate to be able to immigrate to the US at a time when I could easily get citizenship. Today, a young person in the same situation wouldn’t have the same opportunities, especially if they came here from the Middle East or the Global South. My own background has enabled me to travel freely and has made me especially aware that this ability to “pass” in different cultural contexts is a privilege. While I grew up in the Midwest, I moved abroad after graduating from college and have spent many years in Poland and France. As my environment changed, physically and culturally, I remained committed to making art that explored the relationship between that environment and the bodies within it. All of my work remains grounded in some aspect of the body, which I see as the first medium through which we experience and affect the world around us, wherever we may be.

8) What do you miss most about living in Chicago?

I love the strong sense of community and collaboration among artists in town; the support networks and the apartment galleries, the music scene, deep dish and Mexican food, and summer movies and concerts in the parks! I miss the friendly and casual vibe to the city, the can-do attitude of my friends and family here, and the ease with which people share resources and information to support social change!

9) What are you working on now? Anything we can look out for soon?

I’m currently finishing up a residency at the Kimmel Harding Nelson Center in Nebraska City, where I’ve been working on a site-specific sculpture and art/industry collaboration with a local manufacturer. This Fall, I will also have another show of my work with a performance component at Rooms Gallery in Pilsen!

For now, I’m looking forward to the continuing the discussion about my exhibition during my artist’s talk at Mission Gallery on Thursday, June 12th.

LAND GRAB at THE MISSION CHICAGO, 1431 W. Chicago Ave. May 2 – Jun 14, 2014

Alizah Salario‘s reporting, essays and criticism have appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, Racked, Slate, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. She’s currently the education & careers editor at Metro U.S. A graduate of the Columbia School of Journalism and Pitzer College, Alizah lives in Brooklyn.