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Leif Podhajský on nature, art, infinity and ‘New Psychedelia’

Posted on 30 Mar 2021

Thames & Hudson author and editor Evie Tarr recently caught up with celebrated artist and album cover designer Leif Podhajský to chat about Leif’s new monograph ‘New Psychedelia’. The pair explored mind-bending artwork, digital rituals, why contemplating death can be comforting, and how 21st century life is its own psychedelic drug.

© Leif Podhajsky / Untitled, 2020

ET: I thought we could start by going right back to the beginning and talking about how we came to divide New Psychedelia into four sections – Nature, Synesthesia, Digital Ritual and the Anthropocene – with the album artwork interleafed between each theme.

It strikes me that those concepts go from a micro to a macro level as the book progresses. They go from your personal experiences with nature and with Synesthesia, and the art that reflects those things at a micro level, and then the book moves towards the more-outward facing artworks that explore and reflect issues in wider society at the moment, including the growth of the digital world and the Anthropocene. So it’s you seeing yourself, the micro, as part of the universe, the macro.

LP: Yeah, the structure really reflects the inner and the outer themes within the book, looking inside and outside. It felt as though those themes grew organically in a way that worked really well to represent that.

ET: There’s definitely a sense of the interchange and cycle between the micro and the macro in your work too. A sense of an endless loop, in that lots of the pieces give the appearance of stretching beyond the confines of their frame – starting from a concentrated point, perhaps, and expanding.

LP: Infinity.

ET: Yeah, infinity. I suppose in some ways the existence of an ending makes things good, because there will inevitably be an ending, and that adds value and a sense of comfort to experience.

LP: I heard this quote, or maybe it was a story, about these two musicians on tour. They played this really long, repetitive song, it lasted for an hour or something and then at the end of this song, the musician just realised it was super scary to him, this idea of infinity. It always resonated with me – the idea of infinity being equally scary and beautiful at the same time. There’s something nice in the repetition. It’s calming and reassuring and you know what’s coming, but it can also be super scary to think that it could keep going forever and ever with no end.

© Leif Podhajsky / Fibonacci Vortex, 2011

ET: It’s interesting to think about this in the context of psychedelics as well, and the ideology of seeing your life in the context of the universe. It could be argued that we understand the whole of our existence because we have this timeline from birth to death, and if you didn’t have that at all, it would be very hard for our minds to conceive of how infinite everything really is.

LP: I also think there’s some inbuilt ability in humans to not think about that, which surprises me because it is so final – you’re born and you die – and it can happen at any second. I think humans need repetition in their lives. We become creatures of habit, I guess, because it helps us to come to terms with how it is out there. You could just walk outside and get hit by a bus or anything can happen any time. But we have to get along somehow. If you stopped and thought about it, I mean, you’d get complete anxiety.

© Leif Podhajsky/ Synesthesia, 2014

ET: I guess this links to some of the elements discussed in the book’s Digital Ritual chapter too. The idea that repetition can be used to analyse behaviour for positive and negative purposes, or be manipulated for a capitalist agenda. There’s high value in predictable behaviour in terms of advertising and consumerism. Do we have freedom, or do we operate within the parameters given to us?

LP: Yeah, we’re dictated by our patterns. But how much? Because we can still break free from that. I think that’s why we’re interested when things do break or a big change like the Black Lives Matter movement occurs and something clicks, and everybody sort of just goes, ‘Okay, that’s enough’. It’s super interesting, because it takes an event to happen and it can change everything instantly.

© Leif Podhajsky / Post_Nature, 2019

ET: Talking about patterns and thinking about your work specifically, I feel like I would describe your work as having quite strong patterns. They’re not measured out or repeated but you’d still somehow think of them as a pattern.

LP: But that’s sort of like nature, isn’t it? Because when you look at nature, you don’t really see a pattern. But when you get up close, you realise, Oh, this is actually a geometric shape. When you get closer, you start to see the patterns. It’s the micro/macro thing again.

ET: So it’s almost like a jigsaw puzzle, where they’re aware of each other.

LP: Exactly.

ET: I think the word puzzle is really interesting, the idea of everything being a piece of everything else. I’m thinking about what you said about your work sometimes kind of having that sense of a pattern. That idea that it could carry on outside the boundaries of the frame. I guess that’s what gives your work that kind of psychedelic quality as well, because you’re thinking of what’s beyond?

LP: It relates to that sort of psychedelic experience. The shapes sort of just keep repeating. It’s like the mandala, fractal stuff. You can just keep zooming in forever. It’s not evidently a pattern but maybe if you look at it for long enough, you can see the patterns within it.

© Leif Podhajsky / Summer flower, 2019

ET: Looking at the work from the nature chapter, and then going onwards from that point, you’ve got quite an organic feel to everything that feels more inward-facing – the micro, personal elements  – and then it kind of goes more to the Anthropocene the digital ritual chapters. It is quite interesting to me that those works perhaps feel less personal and more universal, like a statement or a comment on wider society? What is the difference between a work that’s reflecting on your own experience, and then something that specifically has a viewer in mind?

LP: I don’t think I ever really think about it. Whenever I’m creating something, I go through different phases. Maybe I’m sometimes looking more inward, sometimes more outward. The stuff in the Anthropocene stuff all happened within a very short time, over like a month or something. That style just sort of came out of all the stuff that’s going on, like what we just talked about and that satisfied me most when I was making it. Then it’ll change and I kind of go back to that style. It’s hard – it just flows for a bit and then it stops, which is also hard when people ask for a specific style for a project because sometimes you have to go back and revisit something.

ET: It’s quite an interesting idea that like one thing sort of gives birth to another thing.

LP: Yeah, it’s just a feeling thing for me. I never really think, Okay, I’m gonna make stuff like this now. It’s usually more that I’ll experiment and then when something kind of feels right, it expands outwards, then it changes again, and it’ll be a new thing.

© Leif Podhajsky / I’m In Disarray, 2019

ET: I think in a way it’s quite nice to allow the work to lead to wider discussions as well. Because you call it an illustrated book, don’t you, but this is more illustrated with text. The text came afterwards.

LP: It was a weird way to do it, but it worked really well I think. I think I’ve re-read the book two or three times now, and every time I’m like, it really works. It works as a bigger picture and it also gives different people different things. It’s an introduction to all the stuff and an introduction to my work. It’s like a discovery – whoever’s reading it is also discovering new things.

ET: I think in a way, it’s almost like a sort of conversation between the artwork and the wider picture. I think it’s quite hard to look at psychedelics, necessarily, in terms of modern culture or what people are doing, without really realising it’s derived from that free-thinking kind of psychedelic narrative. I wanted to emphasise in the book that psychedelia is different from taking psychedelic drugs. That is part of it, but music, and the mindfuckery of the internet, and environmental changes – all of these things can also give you those mind-expanding experiences.

LP: Which is good. I think it comes through, and I think it’s probably just becoming more and more evident. I know people are talking about it, but it’s not like it’s quite a wide thing now. It’ll probably just get more and more encompassing. People want more people talking about this stuff as time goes on.

ET: I think New Psychedelia is quite inspirational. Because I think in the beginning, we always wanted this to be a book for young and aspiring designers something they could read and feel inspired, seeing the work that you’ve done. And I think it’s come together really nicely.

LP: The book covers the whole creation process, and my career and how things have developed and changed style-wise. I hope we get it into the hands of the right people, because I think they’ll be excited by it. I’m excited to see what people’s reactions will be.

Discover the book

New Psychedelia

Leif Podhajsky, Evie Tarr