Taking care but letting go: A Conversation with Jagoda Dobecka

Where are the worlds that flowers long for? Local Memorial Fest, Bródno Sculpture Park, Warsaw, Kacper Szalecki and Frajda Natychmiast performing The story of two flowers growing on opposite banks of the river, photo by Wojtek Kaniewsk.

By Juliane Foronda

Pansies, friendship bracelets, karaoke, and shared meals all function as gentle tethers into the tender practice of Polish artist Jagoda Dobecka. Based in Wrocław, and a current PhD candidate at the Jan Matejko Academy of Fine Arts in Kraków, Dobecka’s work deals with notions surrounding loss, grief, memory, and nostalgia. With a commitment to gathering being a strong pillar in her work, she often invites the public to join her in planting a garden, sing sad songs, or come and cook nostalgic dishes together.

Jagoda’s practice has this beautiful way of making you laugh just as much as it will make you cry. I often find myself smirking through tears whenever I’m fortunate enough to experience her work in person. The courage to choose the path of vulnerability often goes unacknowledged in a world where softness isn’t always seen as a strength. Her work challenges the norms of hierarchy, patriarchy, accessibility, and most other social conventions in manners that may appear so obvious or simple, but are laced with layers of consideration, comfort, and care the more that the works unfold and let you in.

This conversation sheds light on how much we can learn from our surroundings, the importance of saving others from loneliness, and the necessity of community. Her work is a reminder that much like flowers, strings, songs, and food, we can be something more when we’re united—we are stronger together than we are apart.

Juliane: Can you explain why you make work and what your practice is about?

Jagoda: I am creating or building temporary safe spaces where people can exchange their experiences and emotions. These can be performative events such as dinners, karaoke, or meetings to make a garden together. The important factor of those events is participation and encouraging the guests to take part. Materially, I mostly work with text, food, and plants. This is the framework that I’m using to talk about and share the painful experiences that are connected with loss, grief, nostalgia, and longing. I feel that we can sometimes censor ourselves and we don’t want to share those experiences with other people for different reasons, and I thought that it could be helpful to have that kind of space to talk about stuff and feel a sense of community.

To you, what makes for a safe space?

As the host, I think a lot about the space and its arrangement. I like open spaces such as gardens and parks that often have good connotations and some significance to the project itself. I also consider what guests might expect and what they might be willing to give. I’m just building a frame, which is very easy to build again. For a performative dinner, I bring the table, chairs, and food and invite people to come together. I try to be cautious and observant and to make people who are participating feel comfortable. At some point, I think I’m also trying to be invisible and let visitors hold the space as they are. I’m just starting it, but then other people are kind of doing whatever they want with it. It’s a lot about taking care of the whole situation, but also letting go.

Roots of Community, performative dinner in collaboration with Tomek Pawłowski-Jarmołajew, sessi.space, Brno, photo by Polina Davydenko.

Do you see the guests, in a sense, like materials in your work?

Both yes and no. I started making this type of work quite recently so after almost each event, I interview the people. If I know them already, I can text them afterward and ask questions about their experience and their overall feelings. I’m also trying to be critical and see how people are interacting with the whole situation and get their feedback on it. It’s an important part of my research to listen to people and what they have to say about the whole experience. It’s usually positive stuff, but sometimes people complain or say that they didn’t feel so good when something happened. It’s priceless to have that sort of feedback and to see how I can navigate that next time and consider what to change. During the actual events, I don’t think I have ever seen them as material.

Speaking of research, what do you think the purpose of your artistic research is right now? What are you currently working on, and what has led you to this point?

I was in this moment in life when I felt that everything collapsed, and I really needed some support. Then I realized that there are plenty of people like me out there. I thought that maybe I could somehow create, as I said, this frame, where we can meet and talk about things and just have nice experiences of being together. The events are open to everyone, so whoever comes is welcome to participate and become a part of this temporary community. The range of personas is wide. I know that bonds were created during these events as people got to know each other. I call it temporary, but it doesn’t have to be.

It’s not something special I’m doing. Most of these things happen anyway in life: people already meet and have dinners, sing songs, and read books together. Since I work in the arts, I was also thinking about the institutional and non-institutional context in relation to the types of events I have. Every art institution is talking about care, how they should be more open and more welcoming, and asking a lot of questions about how to do this. I wanted to see if it’s possible to build this space within an institutional context. I’ve made a lot of events myself or worked with artist-run spaces or more independent spaces, but then I also did a few events with art institutions, and I can see the difference. I think that the art institution has stiffness within its structure. It also translates into the events since people are less…open, or less free, or whatever.

Do you see a big difference in the demographic or groups of people that would come to maybe more of an ad-hoc or DIY event versus one that’s run more formally with a museum or another institution?

Yeah, one difference is that I see many more elderly people coming to institutions. I think the reason for this is that many artist-run spaces, especially in Poland, don’t have such a long lifespan. They usually exist for two or three years, and then they die, so these spaces also attract younger people who are usually the ones who are showing in, curating, and creating them.

Friendship bracelet, 2022, photo Piotr Blajerski.

I know you have a background in painting. Can you speak more about how you consider your materials and media in your current practice?

I do have a background in painting, which I think I suppress the more that I focus on other things that I’m more interested in. I can divide my practice into two parts when considering materials. One part is the participatory events. I bring food, karaoke, plants, or texts from books – the meeting is the material. Then there’s this other aspect to my practice where I like to create objects or just interdisciplinary works that could be more traditionally exhibited. For example, I made this huge friendship bracelet, which was three meters long. I wanted to recreate the friendship bracelets that many of us used to make when we were kids as a sort of statement, but also a monument for those relationships that we had when we were young. I got really invested in finding the perfect ropes.

I don’t feel that attached to any material or medium. I think that a very strong basis for my work is text. Making notes or writing things that happened to me. I was recently introduced to automatic writing, which is great. After you experience something, you just write for 10 minutes – whatever comes to your head. It’s like a nice source of raw material that you can use.

Where are the worlds that flowers long for? Local Memorial Fest, Bródno Sculpture Park, Warsaw, Wake Karaoke, photo by Wojtek Kaniewski.

It appears the concept tends to inform the material(s). I also wanted to talk about how a lot of your work deals with grief and the themes that surround it. Do you see grief as inspiration, or what’s your relationship with grief in relation to your work?

I think it’s similar to what you asked about the people who are participating in my events, I see grief as both a material and an inspiration.

I experienced grief, and I’m still experiencing it. And I know that every person who is dealing with this topic also has their own experience as well. I know that each experience is very different; it’s not the same for everyone. It really is both the material and inspiration in one since my own experience of it acts as a material in a sense, but I am also inspired by seeing grief in a broader context where I can just see that it is a loss in a more general sense. What’s the difference between grief and longing? I’m just thinking about those things and how it all binds together. I think grief is a material inspiration.

I think one thing I’ve always found quite special about your practice is how you don’t shy away from heavier topics (such as grief), but, at least from my experience of your work – it doesn’t consume it. You pull in quite nostalgic things to offer a different perspective.

Yeah, I feel like this wasn’t a fully conscious decision to use these nostalgic elements, I think it was just purely subconscious.

Then is it a bit of your personal way of coping?

Probably. The thing with nostalgia is that it is also a sort of loss. And I’m very heavy into nostalgia. I’m nostalgic about all the things and it’s sometimes embarrassing, but I’m really that person who remembers things like games and snacks from when we were younger with a deep fondness. Nostalgia is a loss of sorts, but it’s maybe a bit lighter, or at least within a broader recognition of loss. Nostalgia is emotionally lighter than grief so maybe it’s just preparation for the heavier topics. We can first face the nostalgia to see the comfort in loss. As I said, it’s not something that was really intentional, but it might work as this sort of blanket that you’re wearing to feel safer as you see that things are going away.

It could also be about accessibility. I think this sort of juxtaposition of karaoke, for example, which is a really fun activity that we do with friends to have a good time, but then we’re doing grieving karaoke which is all sad songs about dying, loss, and grief. So, we kind of have both because we settle into the party activity, but with those popular songs that are extremely sad and heavy (because I usually use well-known pop songs), so everything feels kind of like a party.

Thinking about accessibility, maybe it also helps to make it a less scary topic than some people could perceive. I interviewed some of the guests taking part in the grieving karaoke and they said that at some point they felt extremely good and safe being surrounded, and they had this desire to do something festive. After they started singing Viva Forever by Spice Girls, they began to cry as they thought about all kinds of teenage memories and other thoughts came back, like losing their first love. They said that it was so strong emotionally, but at the same time, they felt good because they were with people.

For a recent project, I wrote a script for a performance, which is based on a legend with a dragon, witch, and magic potion. It has the framework of a school theater play, which is not too serious. However, it also talks about more difficult things like a tragic death, grief, being stuck in a cluster of cultural expectations, and being in a toxic relationship. I guess I use nostalgia to open up these bigger conversations.

I also see time as a strong thread in your work, both in terms of concept and literal duration.

More recently, my works have become ephemeral. I don’t really care if some of the things that I create will survive over the years. I’m more focused on the process and being with the people right here right now. I guess a good example could be the Grieving Garden, which is a garden with plants that symbolically refer to death, but also to rebirth, grieving, and many elements that could relate to death, like memory. I’ve planted a few of these grieving gardens since, and they were all made in public spaces, so everyone who feels like visiting can spend some time there. So, they exist, but for a limited period of time because eventually, the plants begin to die. Firstly, because some of them are very seasonal plants, and they live only for one season. Sometimes the weather conditions are also quite hard, and some plants might need more water, or more wet surface, or ground, while others don’t.

It’s also very intuitive. I wasn’t thinking about it in a way that part of the installation is that it has to die. It just happened when I did it the first time and then I thought that maybe there’s some sort of beauty in that as well, that it’s something temporary. If people who I planted the garden with want to continue to take care of it, then it’s great, but if not, I’m okay with that. The garden is also a reflection of life because something dies and then something is reborn out of it, like this circle of life.

Grieving Garden, 2021, view from the MeetFactory studio, photo by Richard Hodonicky.

There’s a constant connection to nature in your work. It seems like something that’s also used a lot to talk about life or time spans as well.

I spent my childhood outside because I was raised in a small village, so I was always deeply connected to nature. It was just part of my everyday life, like running around the hills, being in the forest, or swimming in the river. But then I moved to the city, and I forgot about it. When my brother died and I was experiencing that kind of grief for the first time, I felt that I really needed some grounding. I needed some connection with the planet, and I needed to know that I was here for a reason and like this soil was happy to have me here. I found this in nature; it was like an explosion. It was soothing, but then also gave me a lot of energy to go through these very difficult times. I’m grateful for this and that it stayed with me.

I’m also thinking about going back to my roots, where I came from, and why I love it so much. I just started to use that kind of relationship that I have with nature in my artworks and that just became a starting point for considering many important issues for me. I’m interested in my relationship with nature, but also the relationship of nature, humans, and non-human actors that do not project anthropocentric perception. Is it even possible to do or get closer to that state? I think a lot about how we can use some wisdom from nature and apply it to our everyday life.

You can find more of Jagoda Dobecka’s work on her website and Instagram.

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