Michał Maliński: ‘We suppress thinking about the future out of fear of what awaits us’

Melted Teeth, 2023. All images © Michał Maliński

The Ones to Watch cover artist’s Vita Aeterna series unpacks his grandmother’s trust of alternative medicines

Born in 1997, Michał Maliński studied in the faculty of graphic arts at the Kraków Academy of Fine Arts and makes work across various media, including painting and sculpture. He is also co-founder of the Szaber collective and gallery, and the Progrefonik group. A proactive artist, who promotes the work of others as well as creating his own, Maliński puts a similar energy into his photography, drawing on the people closest to him, the spaces he inhabits, and the mundane objects that populate his environment to expose the absurdities of everyday life. “When working on a new photo project I like to think comprehensively, I try to have my head open to find creative ways to express my thoughts,” he explains.

He is fascinated by the dissonance between imagined worlds and reality, and in projects such as his diploma thesis All that have been left – an extension of his Melted Teeth series – he investigated viral videos on social media platforms including TikTok and Instagram. The result is a dissection of contemporary digital culture, influenced by the term ‘near documentary’ (a phrase coined by Jeff Wall in 2002). “We suppress thinking about the future out of fear of what awaits us; absurd videos and memes are a response to the chaos surrounding us,” Maliński says of this work. “While writing my master’s degree, I experienced a pandemic, a global environmental crisis and the Ukrainian war. The desire to hide away in this detached, absurd world of the internet gives a temporary illusion of security.

“Fiction can at some points become the truest reality. By photographing and reconstructing scenes observed on the internet, I create a kind of ‘post near documentary’”

“The longer you stay somewhere, the closer it seems,” he adds. “Fiction can at some points become the truest reality. By photographing and reconstructing scenes observed on the internet, I create a kind of ‘post near documentary’ because it concerns a new, contemporary reality.”

Maliński’s near-sociological interests have also covered the systemic transformation of beliefs in Poland; his series Vita Aeterna was inspired by his late grandmother, for example, and her interest in alternative medicine, from Slavic to traditional Chinese. Navigating the blur between science and fantasy, Maliński sought to understand the motivation behind her choices. “In her case, this imaginary world blurred the real one and, unfortunately, she died,” he explains. “This project was an attempt to get closer to her and understand why she did this, by rejecting conventional treatment.”

Similarly Maliński is inspired by David Cronenberg’s 1996 film Crash (an adaptation of JG Ballard’s 1973 book), in which alienated protagonists seek out an intimate kind of escapism in a mechanised world. For Maliński, their adventures represent an esoteric hunt for meaning. “The film’s characters have a constant need to provide themselves with experiences that they do not fully understand at first,” he says. “I pay attention to first unconscious thoughts and the intuition that follows me during the whole project. I like the metaphor of man as the victim of the image, the inversion of the anthropocentric order in which man dominates all creations.”

Melted Teeth, 2023
Mikolaj Zurek

Cronenberg’s movie is both metaphorically and literally dark, and Maliński’s images have a similar feel. Shooting on medium format and using external flashes, he meticulously crafts each shot, playing with light and shadow to add tension and depth. “In this case, the darkness is that blissful ignorance,” he says, referencing the space beyond ‘enlightenment’.

It is a tension Agnieszka Olszewska picked up on in recommending Maliński as one of BJP’s Ones to Watch. “Michał Maliński’s photographs give me great visual pleasure combined with anxiety,” says Olszewska, who is head of communications, exhibitions and visitor experience at the Museum of Photography in Kraków. “He presents images as impulses, they provide extraordinary satisfaction and surprise us in a moment, but also create a certain nostalgia. His unique style caught my attention, and that has a special value in today’s era of social media flow.”

Penitential Stairs from 'Via Aeterna', 2021