A comparatively short visit to London by Crochet artist Olek for a solo show at Tony’s Gallery turned into a long involuntary stay. Luckily for VNA, photographer and writer NoLionsInEngland was able to get to know Olek well and we are delighted that Olek allowed us to produce an in-depth profile for issue 21 of VNA magazine. The interview is reproduced below and thanks to less space pressure we can provide a greater selection of photographs illustrating the striking visuals and intense colour of Olek’s various art forms.
Words by NoLionsInEngland
Images copyright Olek except NoLionsInEngland where stated.
Olek crocheting Albert Einstein memorial, Washington DC
Flamboyant and colourful, fizzing with energy yet melancholy, Olek the crochet artist sits knees folded sipping a tea outside a Shoreditch cafe. Her skirt rises up her leg revealing an electronic curfew tag, the tangible evidence of Olek’s run-in with the law which is why she has been in London for more than a year. An incident in a bar fending off the unwanted fumblings of a drunk man led to Olek being found guilty in a London court of “Wounding without intent”. From her Spring 2012 solo show at Tony’s Gallery to the charge, the trial and then the sentencing, Olek has been anchored in London as a no-fixed-abode couch nomad for over a year.
More after the drop.
Oh dear. So the scab is easily picked off Olek’s indignation at the punishment she endures for what she justifies as self-defence. Thankfully, Olek’s dark and boisterous humour reveals, over several hook-ups, that her London vitriol is channelled mainly into amusing anecdotes.
Olek is many things. She defines herself as a conceptual artist, her résumé spans costume design, performance art and set design but internationally she is most renowned for crochet swaddling famous landmarks and gargantuan machinery. Her most famous take-over is the Wall Street Charging Bull and she has also taken on other landmark public art such as Fernado Botero’s Cat in Barcelona. She has clad London taxis, excavators, buildings and people with her signature camouflage crochet. She has created full room installations in galleries, crocheted politicised slogans, staged performing art on the street and spent a whole day performing naked on top of a high chair crocheting and unravelling a dress.
Olek’s story starts in Poland and a childhood spent rebelling against art while utilising all manner of household materials to make dresses. Cutting her clothes, bed sheets or any kind of material into small strips and crocheting things was her passion but she very nearly almost avoided a career in art.
“For the first 24 years of my life I was trying to avoid being an artist and running away from that because I had a huge fight with an elementary teacher in 8th grade. A huge fight. She wouldn’t let me go to the art high school after the fight, and I got really pissed and said fuck it, I’m not going to be an artist then.”
The move that radically redefined her life came about at the suggestion of a good friend and former English teacher, who suggested Olek move to New York. Olek moved in 2000 and registered for college in 2001, not telling them she already had a bachelor degree from Poland. She chose a course in fine art which she dismisses as “the easiest thing I could do to ensure I kept my visa”. She turned to costume design to supplement her unsteady income from babysitting and cleaning jobs in order to fund herself through college. Armed with the advice from a costume designer in Poland that “whatever you do, don’t ever, ever tell them that you have never done it before”, New York appeared to believe that Olek had a substantial portfolio under her belt.
So, struggling to pay college fees and unable to afford a sewing machine, Olek turned to the crochet skills of her childhood to produce the costumes and this in turn fed back into her college work. One of her first installations was to cover the surface of the college swimming pool.
“I made gigantic installations from the beginning, like around school I was just transforming it all the time. I was a little bit scared because I didn’t know if people were going to like it, if it was art or if it was not art. People were just questioning it, asking “What are you doing? “What is it?”
Whether working in a swimming pool or outdoors, if Olek’s work gets dirty or damp it just goes into the washing machine and reappears looking bright and fluffy like new.
In 2004, Olek was preparing for her first show in Chelsea (NY) when another of those direction changing fortuities occurred.
“I crocheted a step ladder and I used it as a ladder to install my piece, a really big installation, then I put the step ladder in the corner. Some collectors came, they loved the step ladder and bought it.“
This led to a more pieces commissioned by the collector which he then put into a show and since then, it has been crochet non-stop all the way.
“In April 2005, a bit confused as I was not sure if it was good or not good, I dressed up my friend in this [yarn] piece and performed in a Chelsea hotel and people went nuts. Then I started crocheting like crazy and doing a lot of shows and events, travelling…a residency …2005 was just an explosion of art!”
Olek’s immersion in camouflage reflects her generally preferred style of “off duty” clothing.
“See what I am wearing [wearing orange and white camo]…I have been wearing camouflage for years. I came to the US wearing camouflage and in New York I found that they have camouflage in all possible colours so I [could work with] pink and orange and red and blue and grey.”
The depth and quality of Olek’s artistic practice is arguably more apparent from her performance pieces and her gallery work. Olek gave the first actual performance of Yoko Ono’s “Painting To Shake Hands” instruction from her 1964 book Grapefruit. Performers clad in crocheted head-to-toe body suits stood on New York’s sidewalks with their hands thrust through a hole in a framed canvas painting, shaking hands with passersby. The performances attracted a spectrum of amused, bemused and delighted responses from the public, which validates a core element of what Olek holds as a truism, that her art is incomplete without the public’s response and interaction. This is why she takes her performances to the street and why a large portion of her more well known pieces are street based. Coincidently, in 2012, Yoko finally got round to performing this piece herself for video which was subsequently shown at London’s Serpentine Gallery.
In 2009’s “Thank You For Your Visit, Have a Nice Day” for the “Art In Odd Places” festival in Manhattan, Olek took a troupe of crocheted morph-suited friends out on the streets armed with banners showing dry, amusing or ironic signs from other parts of the World (“Pray Hall Please Do Not Enter”, “Left For Men, Right For Women” etc). The message on the signs could be amusingly inappropriate to their location while the crocheted up sign-bearers functioned as guides at locations where guides would not normally be found in NY. For Olek the art wasn’t just in swathing the placard bearers in crochet, it was the response of the public to the combination of incongruous statements and brightly camouflaged sign keepers.
Defiant pride in her creativity is Olek’s hallmark but without doubt you should separate Olek’s intellectual approach to art from the idea of women meeting to knot yarn and drink tea. Her standout street art moments all involve a very positive subversion, she forces us to reconsider and re-invent our attitudes to existing landmarks. Even the novel and the striking can, through repeated encounter, fade into our blindspots, a sort of Repetitive Sighting Injury. Olek wraps them in well fitted neon coloured camouflage crochet and lifts them back into the foreground. Her most famous guerrilla intervention was crochet wrapping Arturo di Modeli’s Charging Bull sculpture on Wall Street, New York in 2010. When Olek explains the careful thinking behind that appropriation you appreciate there is more to this than just lurid wool spot jockeying on someone else’s famous attraction.
“I did the Wall Street bull because [it originally] was also a guerrilla action, it was installed illegally as a kind of feedback or response to the 1987 market crash, …so I did the same thing, I wanted to talk about the [current global]crisis and I also chose Christmas as he also installed it around Christmas time.
Olek provides a compelling rational for the means by which her transformative “take-overs” work.
“The re-creating out of transformations, transforming from old to new and new to old, there is no part which is destroying something, because you are re-creating what you are destroying. I am not creating something new, I am re-creating things or re-discovering things. This whole idea of all of packing something, a gift, the repacking old gift…it’s the opening is the important part of the gift. So those elements really influence who I am as an artist.”
Another spectacular sculptural re-invention took place in 2012 in Barcelona involving cloaking a famous oversize cat sculpture. This nicely establishes a link not just between Olek and the common herd of street artists but in particular, with VNA’s cover star Miss Van.
“Miss Van helped me to do the piece in Barcelona. I stayed in her flat, she fed me, she took me to her chiropractor and then she physically helped me to illegally install the piece in Barcelona. She’s great, she’s amazing, we became really close friends.”
Olek’s street work always provokes a very enthusiastic and indeed engaged reaction from the general passing public, though she rarely hears from the original artists of the sculptural pieces which become clothes-horses for her work. One enthusiastic exception came after Olek visited British sculptor Anthony Gormley’s Another Place installation on the tidal margins of mud flats at the mouth of the River Mersey in Liverpool. Gormley installed 100 cast iron sculptures of his own naked body all standing to attention, facing out to sea and stoutly resisting each incoming tide, drowning, then triumphantly emerging as the ebbing tide recedes. Olek crocheted body suits for two of the now rusted and barnacle encrusted man-statues and the BBC tracked down Gormley who said “I feel that barnacles provide the best cover-up but this is very impressive substitute!”
It is intriguing that Olek has been embraced into the street art genre when her work bears merely a tangential relationship with “conventional” street art. She has many friends who are street artists and has shown in a number of galleries noted for their urban art leanings. Olek suggests that the correlation between her art and traditional street art is not so much that it is on the streets, or that it is ephemeral, it’s the fact that it initially was viewed very sceptically by many who reserved judgement on whether it was art at all.
“One of the people who approached me really quickly was Futura 2000. He saw my pieces in New York, he loved them and said ‘listen, you are doing exactly what we did in the 70s.’ I met him and I met Kenny Sharf as well and Kenny Sharf is also an amazing person and they told me “this is what you are doing” and the connection, I realised myself one day, is that [their] work wasn’t accepted at that time by the mainstream as art.”
Being categorised as a street artist does not irk Olek, she is charmed by the fact that great street artists welcomed and accepted her as a member of the community. If there is one label that does not sit well it is that Olek does not consider herself a “yarn bomber” (loosely understood to be adding crochet cosies to lampposts, trees etc). She is an artist who works in crochet in the gallery, theatre and on the street. She does accept that some of the so called yarn bombers’ work can look like hers. It’s not so much the identification of her work as yarn bombing that peeves Olek, it’s more that the public perception of what this label means does not do justice to the level of art in her work.
“The important thing is that I am a visual artist. Visual is my language but people always want to pigeon hole you somehow and I think it is all done for marketing purposes…
They [“yarn bombers”] are doing such a bad reproduction of it. Nobody there does anything right and good, that’s my problem. If I want to be labelled with a group of people, I want to grouped with these really great artists… The problem I have with the people doing yarn bombing is there is no aesthetic level there, aesthetically it is horribly done, the colour combinations, they way it is sewed together. They sit in a room and drink tea and crochet little pieces and put it together like a hobby, so the other problem is that my work is not a hobby, it’s my life. It’s what I do for a living.“
Olek has not been idle during her prolonged stay in London. Politically energised by feeling herself somewhat a victim of injustice, Olek seized the opportunity to work with Anti Slavery International and created a huge crocheted slogan installation outside the East London venue hosting their centrepiece fundraising event. The beauty of the piece was its resonance with both the Anti Slavery objectives and Olek’s personal circumstances.
“Injustice was very specifically political, it wasn’t just about my situation, my situation is such a tiny problem compared to those that happen globally. Every piece that I’m actually making relates to my private life but it [also] relates to other issues and everybody’s issues in a way. But it is so strong because I put my own tears, my own sweat, my own blood into this piece.”
Certainly Martin Luther’s “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere” quote rendered in street camo crochet was a traffic stopping head turner.
“Reaction is very important, reaction is the completion of my work. My work does not exist without the public. You need that reaction, you need the response to the pieces, especially for those more conceptual pieces like the Injustice Anywhere piece. If you put this in a gallery setting you don’t get the typical passerby who doesn’t have an art education. That’s what I love, people who have this really quick instant reaction to the pieces without being fed “what’s good, what’s not”, what it’s supposed to mean..”
So, at the time of our meetings, Olek’s circumstances were pretty much just Artist-Stuck-In-London. Found guilty of wounding without intent, Olek’s punishments read like a vengeful disciplinarian’s taster menu: a suspended prison sentence, a fine, community service and a three month 9pm curfew. It is the last element which at time of writing impacts Olek most and which seems the most harsh. Olek does not present a serious threat of repeated violence or anti social behaviour.
Olek admits several aspects of her work and life have been impacted by this court case, including missing an opportunity to create a signature outdoor wall mural for the 2012 edition of Miami Art Basel.
“I couldn’t do certain shows because I couldn’t travel… I became homeless and I have to make so much money paying my bills. I had to work a lot to make art to sell. I can’t rent a flat in London with this record. I would love to be in New York working on my show, I need to have my studio and that s the only thing I would change now….
There is one big change. Look at the stitch, look how small it is, that’s what the [stress of the trial and punishment] has done to me. Crocheting is like handwriting, you can really see a personality in the crochet. I have become this person whose stitch is so tight….but also it is much better visually, I like the way it looks.”
And what does the future hold for an ambitious and committed artist like Olek?
On returning to her adopted home in New York?
“I really need a space of my own where I can live and work and nobody bothers me. I miss my studio, I miss having my own space, my own bicycle, my own things ..in my own City.”
Theatre sets and costume design?
“I want to go back to that, one thing is I miss my friend Rachel Cohen, who I work with a lot. I do hope she does, in the next couple of years, the final version of her piece and I am going to create all the costumes for her. We want to create a performance piece, us performing together in the same piece. It will be very visually stimulating and there’s choreography and videos and movement and everything.”
“There’s a few other pieces from [Yoko Ono’s] book that I want to do actually….. I will do them when I get back to New York.”
“I have a solo show ”The End Is Far” with Jonathan Levine gallery in New York opening in February. I am from New York, the show is in New York…and here I am working on it in London.”
Olek is a colourful, flamboyant, charismatic, fun and utterly magnificent character. Her art reflects her personality. She gives a great interview. There are so many other super anecdotes left on the tape simply for lack of space, or perhaps because VNA can’t afford the legal advice we’d probably need! Hopefully Olek will find a strong and positive reason why she has been having this troublesome time in London and with luck, sometime in the future London will once more benefit from her stunning and unique art.