In this candid and introspective conversation, Brady Walker of MakersPlace delves into the mind of the enigmatic 3D digital artist Mwan. Born in Poland and later relocating to France, Mwan opens up about his artistic journey, his inspirations, and the intricacies of his mesmerizing art. Reflecting on his early influences, Mwan discusses how filmmakers like Stanley Kubrick and Darren Aronofsky, as well as musicians like Aphex Twin, have shaped his work.
As Mwan delves into his creative process, he reveals how his meticulous approach to his craft has been influenced by his love for cinema, music, and even video games. From the dark and tragic undertones of his piece “WHY,” to the cultural commentary of “Slavic Blood,” Mwan’s multifaceted and unique style is evident.
Join us as we explore the intricate world of Mwan, an artist whose work challenges conventional thinking and invites the viewer to question the mundane in pursuit of beauty and spirituality.
Brady Walker: Let’s start with the first question. Do you have a distinct early memory of your first encounter with “capital A art”?
Mwan: Yes, it’s very clear to me. I was raised in Eastern Poland, so the first thing I saw inside a frame was a religious icon in a church. It was super effective because before that, I basically hadn’t seen anything, even a TV. I think it was the Virgin Mary, but I’m not sure. At least I remember it was in my village.
BW: It doesn’t surprise me that your earliest memory of art was a religious icon. Can you tell me about “Empire of Ash”? We just talked about “Limbo,” which is part one of nine, and the only one that’s been released so far.
M: Yes, “Empire of Ash” is a series of nine that I created with Laurence Fuller. The series is each level, a free interpretation of Dante’s Inferno. I focus more on the scenes. “Limbo” is my interpretation of a place where people who wasted their lives waste eternity. It’s a pretty bad place to be.
As you mentioned, it’s enchanting. I’m happy you noticed that because that’s something I tried to convey from the beginning. Like religion, something can be really scary, but it can also be really beautiful. In the end, what is beauty? Someone who is disfigured can be beautiful if the right amount of chaos happens because they are unique. In my art, you can see gold like scars everywhere on the body. The meaning behind that is that each person has marks that make them beautiful. The cracks that life makes on you make you beautiful. That’s the singularity that every person has. In my case, I tried to amplify those marks and make them beautiful.
It’s like in paintings where you have gemstones, symbols, and gold around religious icons. It’s another way to create something that I can’t find in the actual space or art space. Religion and violence are taboo in the art space because people don’t want to talk about them. Religion is especially tricky because people don’t want to be seen as something they’re not.
I was raised by my grandmother, who took me to church every Wednesday and Sunday. It was impregnated in me strongly, but I wouldn’t leave my kids with a religious dude because I don’t like the church. The whole history of the church has done more evil than good. I prefer to represent those people as gods. I’m getting lost in my thinking, but I hope you understand.
BW: It’s interesting how you describe your use of gold, it reminds me of this Japanese practice called Kintsugi, where they repair ceramics and broken things with gold. It sounds like your use of gold has more to do with mortality than divinity in your symbology. Is that symbolic system something that you came up with while making art or was it a predetermined idea?
M: No, it wasn’t predetermined. Two years ago, when I started with NFTs, I began to see myself as someone who works for themselves because I had worked for other people all my life. NFTs gave me a platform and an audience that listened and interacted with me, which gave me a second life for my work.
Before that, I was doing boring corporate stuff, and even my personal work was just for me and my friends on Facebook. I never thought it could become something real. My technical abilities have grown five times in the past two years compared to all my previous years in my career because I want to satisfy people.
People need a language and references to a language. I decided to keep the two things that I could work with, shadow/light and color. Gold impacted me the most. It’s not like it formed me, but I always look into details, whether it’s in my work or thinking process. It gives me a path to somewhere I’m still yet to discover.
Two years ago, I was doing boring stuff every day, and now, I’m collaborating with American poets. NFTs were like a second birth for me. That wasn’t the question, but I can be intense and passionate about what I do.
BW: That’s why I love doing these interviews live, because oftentimes the passion and interests of the artist aren’t fully communicated through just typing. So I appreciate it. When we talk about Empire of Ash, which is a narrative piece and very different from a static painting or looped animation, how do you think about the viewer’s experience? Do you have an installation in mind or an optimal way for someone to view it?
M: In my opinion, NFTs should be moving if they’re pictures because otherwise, you can do photography or learn to paint. I think NFTs must do something that hasn’t been done before. So, my best take on it is based on where I come from and what I like about art.
To me, the best way to view it is to be isolated, and it must essentially be a moving painting. It has to be a good size, not just like a computer screen. Imagine the TV behind you, but in portrait mode and with a nice frame. A frame that could help people understand the project and feel more familiar with the art.
The dematerialization of art and the fact that everything is watched on a screen is a challenge, as people tend to swipe through things quickly. I noticed this when I was making trailers for my pieces, and 90% of people watched less than five seconds.
To truly appreciate the art, you have to be isolated with the piece and have a physical respect for its size, so it looks more singular. The best way, for me, is to be isolated with black velvet curtains, for example, and really immerse yourself for a minute or two. That’s the simplest way, just watching it on a screen but in a more engaging manner.
Of course, you could have VR goggles or explore what could be done in Unreal Engine, which is something I’ve been considering for a year now. I know that it’s going to be essential for people in my field to learn how to use it. To me, the future will be a merger of video games and art. Ideally, I’d love to create a world where people can immerse themselves and explore for as long as they want. There might be games like that on platforms like Steam, where you don’t do much but still get to experience something unique.
BW: Who is the Violence Queen?
M: That’s a key question I haven’t really answered before, but I can now. With all the queens I’ve made, from the start, I think I have two or three, I don’t remember exactly. They essentially represent everyone. So they don’t have a face. You become the queen when you let negative emotions overcome your personality. You become the queen of violence when violence starts to control you, and the queen of pride when your pride starts to control you. It’s a queen, but in a bad place, like a limbo.
BW: Your work seems to involve interesting morality tales, which leads to my next question about the influence of ceremony and mythology. Is there something bigger you’re building? It appears as if a mythological world is gradually taking shape across your work.
M: Yes, it’s building slowly, but I’m discovering it alongside everyone else. The NFT space happened so quickly for me. I have two kids and I’m almost 40, so I wish this had happened when I was 25 because I would have had more time to spend and more thinking time available for this. But sorry, could you please repeat the question? I got a bit lost in my thoughts.
BW: I was just wondering about the mythology you’re building.
M: I noticed it when it started to become noticeable. I don’t create it intentionally, but I know I have to maintain some coherence between things. It’s funny that you mention it because I never asked myself that question. To me, the most interesting worlds I’ve seen, like Dune for instance, allow you to enter and create your own part of it, and it remains relevant and coherent with the rest of the world. You have so many clues about how it should look and feel. I try to follow that route because it inspires me to create these kinds of things. I want people to be more than just spectators; I want them to project themselves into that world and then engage with me in conversation.
BW: It’s interesting that you bring up Dune because while it didn’t occur to me while looking at your work, it now strikes me that artists like Jodorowsky and Moebius both seem somewhat complementary to your practice.
M: I know Moebius, and I was introduced to his work through my ex-girlfriend’s father, who was a big fan of Belgian and French comics. He had all the series, like the Metabarons, which to me, Dune is a bit like. To me, it’s the same way; it’s something that stimulates your imagination, not just staring at something and saying, “Okay, that’s beautiful.” It’s more about asking, “Who’s this guy? What’s this planet? What’s behind this?” That kind of feeling is what I prefer.
BW: Can you tell me about your piece “WHY” and where that fits into your mythology or what mythology it’s inspired by? It reminds me a little bit of Orpheus, a little bit of Romeo and Juliet. I think there’s any number of classical tales that one could probably hit on this piece.
M: This one is specifically inspired by Adam and Eve. If you look closely at the piece, you can see the apple and the snake in the grass. There’s also a shepherd with a staff under the tree in the background, representing God.
BW: I love how the snake is really blurred in the foreground. It does take a bit of looking, which I appreciate. My gallery viewing is often slow, taking time to observe each piece.
M: One thing I’m proud of is that I’ve always taken the time to craft my work, keeping future improvements in screen quality in mind. People will be able to rewatch my pieces with better quality in the future.
This particular piece was created during a difficult time in my personal life, as a metaphor for a situation with my wife. I tried to make a switch from my previous black and gold, centered compositions to something more reminiscent of classic paintings and with a more tragic feel.
In the foreground, there’s the bitten apple with a black interior. The only black parts are the body of the dead character and the inside of the apple. It might be touchy to equate purity with black and white, but to me, they’re tones rather than colors. I wanted to incorporate that contrast in the piece. I know some people might misinterpret this.
Initially, people thought I was a black woman because I created black female figures. But they were pure black, not ethnically black. It was just my way of representing shadows, and I wanted to clarify that in case someone misinterprets it.
BW: Can you tell me about the piece ANIMUS ILLE CAPTUS with VonDoyle?
M: Yes, that piece came about because VonDoyle was the first French-speaking person I met in the space. We always said we had to collaborate, but the timing was never right for either of us. The idea behind the piece is simple; it’s like we were trapped in the moment of creating it. It’s based on one of my renders, and then VonDoyle added his magic and composed the soundtrack.
BW: And you did the music for Limbo, right?
M: Yes, that’s correct. I used to play guitar, more of a fireplace guitarist. However, it gave me an understanding of how notes follow each other. I created some pieces that conveyed the emotions I wanted with strings. Music has been a major influence in what I do, even before cinema.
BW: Who were your musical influences?
M: In high school, I enjoyed bands that did unconventional things, like Aphex Twin, Pantera for metal and Slipknot. When their first album came out, their drums were unlike anything I’d heard before; it was just insane.
I listen to a wide range of music, but what I like most is when it sounds unique and not derivative. If something has already been done well, it doesn’t make sense to recreate it unless you’re adding something new and interesting. It’s like someone joining a conversation just to say they like eggs and then leaving. It makes no sense.
In music, I like everything as long as it takes me somewhere I haven’t been before or to a place that I enjoy. For example, when I listen to “Strange Fruit” by Nina Simone, even though it’s old, no one did it before, and no one did it after, so it’s worth listening to.
BW: You mentioned the faceless figures in your work. “Slavic Blood” is a very different piece. If it weren’t for a handful of elements like the chair and the skulls, it would feel like it was from a different artist. Can you tell me about where this came from?
M: That’s because it is. It was made for KidEight. I don’t know if you’re familiar with G’EVOL, the diverse collection of ski mask cherubs, which were released around the same time as the burr knives. The project is pretty much dead now.
The idea behind it was a cherub that had fallen from heaven for loving sex, drugs, etc., too much. It made me think of rough kids in Eastern Europe called “Gopniks.” That’s why you can see the character wearing Adidas sweatpants.
When the USSR fell, the state orphanages with kids shut down, and those kids ended up on the streets. Adidas was like Chanel or Dior at that time, and people even got married in tracksuits. Those kids eventually became the Russian mafia. They retained the same taste in clothing and were often seen squatting on the ground.
The reason Slavic people squat is because there wasn’t enough money for handcuffs for everyone, so they were put in that position to prevent them from running away immediately. Additionally, many of the seats were broken or missing, so there was nowhere to sit. That’s where “Slavic Blood” comes from – it represents the Slavic counterpart of the fallen cherub.
BW: How long do you typically spend on a piece? These are pretty involved.
M: It depends. It can range from an afternoon to a month for more complex pieces like Limbo, which involves motion capture and various technical aspects. I’ve decided to make those longer pieces only for one month and spend enough time on them to ensure they are perfectly done. Sometimes, I might spend too much time on certain details, like adding rain to a piece a week before the drop, which requires redoing textures and simulations. As I progress in the NFT space, I realize more people are counting on me, so I try to complete my work as soon as I feel it’s ready.
BW: What do you hope people feel when they look at your art?
M: I hope they forget mediocrity. Since the ’60s, the art space has been filled with works that disrespect and destroy something that took thousands of years to build. To me, beauty and spirituality are not outdated concepts.
People are moving too fast, and platforms like TikTok are an example of that. You can find cool stuff there, but it’s mostly shallow content that gets millions of likes, while talented individuals struggle to gain attention. I think if you give people sugar, they will eat it, so you have to offer them some salt or vegetables occasionally to keep their brains healthy.
Being insensitive to beauty is like having fat around your heart. The state of the world today shows that people are accumulating more and more “fat” around their brains and hearts, so I try to create art that makes them feel and takes them out of that mindset.
BW: Who are your cultural vegetables that keep you from getting fat around your brain and heart?
M: I watch movies and listen to music. When I listen to music, movies play in my head. I have deep respect for directors like Kubrick who can take hundreds or tens of people and remain focused for weeks or months. The way he did things was almost as interesting as the final product. He collaborated with Zeiss and NASA to create lenses that allowed him to film only with candlelight, making a lens that captures more light than the human eye. To me, he’s a real genius.
As for specific artists, I really admire Kanye West, not for his controversial statements, but for his belief in his work. Despite criticism, he pursued his vision, and his artistic production is impressive. He’s not just a pop artist; he’s a real artist, even though he has problems in his personal life.
BW: Which artists have had the biggest impact on your work?
M: Filmmakers like Chris Cunningham, an ad and music video director, who worked with Aphex Twin and made music videos for Bjork and Madonna. That was the best period for music videos, with directors like Michel Gondry and Spike Jonze.
Stanley Kubrick also had a huge impact on me. He was manic about details and would go deep into his stories, forcing everyone to make his vision a reality. His movies, like The Shining, are incredible. He must have been a real pain to work with, but the end result was amazing.
I discovered Kubrick a bit late. The first director who truly impacted me was Darren Aronofsky. When I saw his first movie, Pi, it was a shock. The movie, made during his school years, was in black and white and had an insane story about the name of God being a mathematical formula, with Orthodox Jews and secret agents involved. The music was from Aphex Twin and others, which really opened a door for me. Then there was Requiem for a Dream, which sealed the deal.
I remember watching it on DVD at a friend’s house. By the end, I noticed that the cigarette in my mouth had almost entirely consumed itself. I was stunned. That was the nail in the coffin for me.
BW: Would you say that Empire of Ash is your first film in a manner of speaking?
M: Oh no, not exactly. It might be the start of something, but to call it that, not yet. I’m not ready for that. I think the job of a director is way too stressful for me. It wouldn’t be possible for me to manage so many people and have such a financial weight on my shoulders.
BW: With the combination of things like Unreal Engine and artificial intelligence, it seems possible that it could be a one-person job or maybe a five-person job in the next two to three years.
M: One might be a bit optimistic, but maybe like a 10-person job. You still have to have a lot more money than the usual enthusiast to think that. If it’s purely CG, you can do stuff at home if you have time and a good machine. But it’s going to come. For me, the real future is in interactive tools because they are advancing so quickly. It’s only a matter of time before interactive technology catches up with pre-rendered content.
BW: If you could collaborate with anybody, who would it be?
M: Dead? Alive?
BW: Both, either/or. Up to you.
M: Dead is Kubrick. Alive is Aronofsky. Just to close the loop.
BW: If you could give your 20-year-old self any advice on creativity, what would you tell yourself?
M: Don’t waste time, go deep. Always try to be productive and stay focused on what you want to achieve. I always wanted to do what I’m doing now, and it took me a bit too long because I wasted much time due to substance abuse, depression, and other factors. When you’re in certain environments, people can give you free drugs, and you always go to parties with free alcohol. You can get trapped in that lifestyle, thinking you’re doing stuff when in reality, you’re just getting drunk each week. You can waste a few years like that, so don’t waste time.