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Art Tries to Find its Place

Five years before, than in Gent visitors poured from one “installed” flat to another one (project Chambres des amis, 1986), similar, only perhaps larger crowds walked through Prague Lesser Town and looked into forgotten backyards to find works of art in them. Thus in 1981 art in Prague left galleries and in two other projects, each following after a year, it only accentuated this tendency: namely on the Meeting, which took place in 1982 on tennis courts of Prague Sparta club, and then on symposium, which was held on one of North Bohemian hop-fields in 1983.

All three events had something in common: art in them got released from traditional “world of art”, there were young artists prevailing at them, they were attended by extraordinary interest of public and they represented at that time the most characteristic Czech response to the situation of art at the turn of the seventies and eighties.

While in Germany and Italy the first exhibitions of neo-expressionistic Tran avant-garde were taking place, the Czech artists, who are mentioned here, although often painters too, were devising their response in a rather different way. In their performance we can find both surviving elements of modernism, and numerous features of postmodernism, and even completely new moments. Their work, as we will see later, surprisingly resembles in many respects another distant performance, although it grows up from a rather different tradition.

Certainly, there were also foreign influences effective here from minimal through land-art to conceptual performance, or rather the effort to get beyond them. But certain role was played also by own experience of young people, which has close time relation to events we are interested in. Some time before that some of them tried to make looking curious rooms of one country house in Malechov by their environments (1980, 1981) and others entered with their works into premises of a former Nazi prison in Terezín (1978,1980) and later into debris of a town giving way to coal mining (Most 1981-82). It seems that in this way - partly unconsciously, partly consciously - they linked up with some outcomes of the sixties in Czech art. Expressive pole was then summarized among others by Zdenìk Beran in Rehabilitation ward Dr. Dr. (1971); it is an appalling environment filling all one room, an evocation of barrack premises with iron beds and odd casts of somehow swollen figures on the borderline between banality, horror and black humor). Constructivist pole in a way culminated in Demonstrations by Hugo Demartini (1968), for instance chromium-plated balls, belonging so far among geometrizing structures, have been unexpectedly placed into a ploughed field and they mirror universe; skewers and bands thrown up into air form random structures. Also inheritance of Duchamp-oriented Flux-like trend, represented especially by happenings, events and projects by Milan Knižák and others, has certainly been incentive. All mentioned outcomes of the sixties already have taken art out of a studio; and even though they were not the direct source of inspiration, they created a climate, on which the responses studied here could originate.

1981 : Sculptures, objects and realizations
on Lesser Town backyards

A little theatre in Nerudova Street in Prague, which in the late seventies exhibited many an unofficial artistic performance, became a centre of an excited crowd of young people one summer day. Individuals and whole families with children were coming, in theatre they collected a map of Lesser Town with a list of displaying artists and a plotted location of their works and they set out on their journey. They sighted their town like never before; on a Long-like ramble, on which they were taken by the map-catalog and which itself actually was one of the exhibited works, they looked into corners, where, at some other time, they would find only old junk. At this time they mostly met here with artistic acts, which in cooperation with the found setting created environmental works by no means evoking art, which “sadly hangs on their hooks in galleries and enjoys hopeless esteem of several stray visitors of their graveyard” (Petr Wittlich). It was evident that for this once those great many people feel to be addressed, enchanted by something and that in their quest and devotion to the found objects they are part of this addressing. Also the press gave an appreciating opinion and it was interested, even though it did not hide embarrassment. It is no wonder, Prague has not seen many of the things yet: a sloping ground of irregular pavement of Jánský hill was decorated by dense perpendicular field of white skewers (I. Kafka: Delimitation), a close space of one backyard offered for meditation heaped sand enclosed by stones; on walls texts for reflection (T. Ruller: Stop for a while), from one point high above us, somewhere from the roof, a shining phosphorescent prism of white strips is floating down (P. Michálková: It is raining), under a ladder a fallen figure of wires and breaking plaster after an unsuccessful climb (J. Sozanský: Ladder), ropes at first closely spliced and then having spread into individual ropes are creeping through gaps in Art Nouveau glazing of the gate (J. Fuková: Tree), odd shapes shooting upwards from pressure of tight walls (M. Zöllichová: Breaking in), a chair hewed by axe into above-lifesize is looking down on the town (M. Jetelová: Chair), in the square of skies bones are hovering (È. Suška: Bones) and up there on the balcony some figures are climbing clumsily (K. Gebauer: Figures). On Lesser Town backyards there were not missing also works created in advance in a studio and only subsequently and sometimes without necessary relation placed into chosen settings. But most of the works were created or (in case they had been - as for instance in Jetelová’s case - created in advance) located just with respect for already existing space and complemented that into a new whole.

1982: The meeting

Also an exhibition on tennis courts of the Sparta club in Bubeneč continued this tendency. The exhibition itself could last only less than an hour, but there was again mass interest in it, similarly like on backyards, and in fact there was - as far as works located outdoors are concerned - also foreshadowed a one year later Hop-field here; for the works could be created only in friendly cooperation and in industrious neighbourhood. If we want again to stress that tendency, which takes arts out of ateliers and galleries, we must mention above all a number of performances touching an issue of ground works: thus the realization by Kozelka, inventively and contemplatively dividing an area of lawn by ropes, beams and tied stones; the frames by Jiří Beránek evoking primary peasant industry; the track along which T. Ruller transported his boulder reminding thus allegorical, nearly ritual character of his creations; the Merta’s realizations, from which especially the triangular formation of beams dynamically leaning against sloping wooden board was able to evoke tension and foreshadowed also his next realization on the Hop-field. We will further remind ourselves of the monumental sheet by Čestmír Kafka, let down the wall of the club building and successfully transforming his collages Connecting into much huger dimensions; the archetypal shapes by Jasan Zoubek urgently engaging, in a sort of sci-fi situation attacking a wall of the building; then a black wedge wing made of huge cloth sheet by Pavla Michálková; the perforated flags and openings by Sv. Klimeš and the “washing day” by M. Titlová (transparent nylon rectangles with coloured figures, hanging on clothes-lines) and finally the Overshifting by Ivan Kafka giving almost a pre-Columbus impression. It is obvious that art in Bohemia got used to outside-gallery spaces, it is at home in them, and has started to - which can be even dangerous - develop its own traditions. It is remarkable that in connection with this wing of artistic expression also a studio work somehow acquires a new meaning: for instance also sculptures by Olbram Zoubek, realizations by J. Hampl and other works talk to us in a new way in the setting of the sports club. St. Judl has showed the possibility, how to realize a potential social commission without an extraneous museum element being brought into the setting, so strongly attendant on so-called “works for architecture” (a figure of a tennis player intertwined into a high wire fence).

1983: Hop-field

Here the effort at collective artistic work in the open air reaches its climax. In this case it is not an exhibition, the term “symposium” appears already in the title of whole project. As if the joint working on individual works, not perhaps only an opening, and by no means the treatment of all hop-field by artistic means were really the main goal of all that action. If the idea of the Hop-field somewhat reminds of work of medieval stonemason works, it differs from this idea just by the result: in the end there is no cathedral, it is still far away, but there is a set of individual works. Before individual works however one aspect deserves attention: the Hop-field even by its legal documentation background (1) a little reminds of Christo’s Running Fence twenty four and half mile long from 1978, (2) which crossed grass-lands and jumped over roads and in the end it dived into the Pacific. Christo has written: “Just like religion was important for artists of quattrocento, nowadays economy, social problems and politics are the greatest dramas. Knowledge of these fields can be an important part of a work.” Even though the Hop-field had to struggle with far smaller administrative problems, still - similarly like Christo’s Fence - in the end it mirrored ownership and thus also power-ideological relations of its times. It was naturally also a mirror of individual authors. Kurt Gebauer remained faithful to his absurd naturalistic figures (years ago in the catalog of his independent exhibition he even published a pattern for stuffed sculpture of his wife), but which he plaited from hop-plants and let to hover in immense space of the hop-field. Magdalena Jetelová, already earlier archaizing by her carpentry sculptural technique, has built a sort of archaeological reconstruction of palisade of some prehistoric people on one edge of the hop-field. Triad of fields with hammered stakes, above which a nylon covered frame filled with water is hung: in the first stage stakes intact, in the second charred, in the third burning and warming up water in the frame above them, that is the work with archetypal and cosmological implications from hands of Margita Titlová. A motif of journey stressed by a motif of impressing own body, which even suggests myth-creating, is repeated by Tomáš Ruler in the form of path, which he walked through and trod from one end of the hop-field to the other. Even if also here he sticks to his leitmotif of cube, derived from minimalist field (here he wattles the cube from hop-plants as a cover of one spacial module of the hop-field), maybe unintentionally Ivan Kafka here joins archetypally conceived works, because his creation in the end resembles a sort of sanctuary. A number of next works use pendent elements, lines, hanging stones or cloth flags to articulate the space (Klimeš, Hampl, Kozelka) or to dynamize it (Zippe). Vladimír Merta even boosted elements of tension suggested already by the triangle on Sparta courts: he has here a tightened rope, fastened by anchor bar on one side of a ditch in the ground and on the other (after the rope had gone through a dug up heap of soil) in air in a structure of the hop-field construction; as already many times, his work suggests designation “concretized abstract”. If the It is raining by Pavla Michálková on Backyards was lyrical and the sheet on Sparta courts was the first and simple step towards Homeric monumentality, spacial ambiguity of her multi-sheets on the Hop-field is so far the most accomplished materialization of her intentions. A celebration of posts, as we perhaps may call the work by Čestmír Kafka, in which he has treated every hop-field post in different material (of which he has shown even a Beuys-like sense), is again a transformation of his strong flair for material, as it is manifested in other work of his, into areas of the hop-field. So much at least about some realizations on the hop-field. And the Hop-field as a whole? It is a child of its age both by its originating, course, disunion and heterogeneity of individual works, and also by its premature termination. It is a crossroads, parting of ways between modernism and postmodernism, witness on the one hand the geometrical space of the hop-field, perceived as an interference of “the spirit of conceptualism”, “but in particular of its minimalist version” (M. Judlová), and on the other hand possibly archaizing, mythicizing, maybe even ritual connotations of a number of works. Even this basic parable: conceptually delimited space, filled with works tending on the contrary in a way towards postmodernism, reveals the split character of the answer, which is being given not only by the Hop-field, but also by two preceding projects.

Now on this place it would be necessary to analyze accepted and defensible definitions of modernism and postmodernism and in general to clarify ourselves, whether to adopt a lay-out of thinking forced by this contradiction. However there is neither place nor time for that in this short information, and so we will proceed from the assumption that the quoted contradiction roughly corresponds to the boundary, which we feel as a caesura between arts becoming silent in connoisseurs’ and isolated conceptual expression, where art already got rid of its form perceivable by senses and tried to remain pure and thus hardly graspable idea, and between following effort to overcome this silence by almost precipitous talkativeness, narrativeness availing itself in nomadic way (understand eclectically) of all art history, whose fragments it got used to put together into a neo-Expressionistic, neo-pop and lastly neo-abstractionist montage, along with the accentuating of an irrational, archetypal, subconscious approach to creation.

Heritage of modernism can be at our three events seen especially in obstinate contempt of official exhibition and gallery spaces and thus of market, be this market controlled by money directly, or mediately, ideologically. Modernistic however is also many a gesture of the realized works: intense and tragic spiritual heroism of avant-garde can be felt for instance in Merta’s “minimalisms”, although they are realized in non-minimal, natural materials. (For that matter live tradition of land-art itself involves indecision of transition between rigorous and rational minimalism and irrational majesty of nature itself.) On the contrary, for instance mobilization of the collective subconscious is drawn from repertory of postmodernism, as it is manifested in tending towards ritual, in archaeological implications or suggestions of primitive cultures, let us say it directly, in their quotations. Also narrativeness, talkativeness of many works and their sudden and close identification with audience, as well as their playful simplicity (recall for instance washing day by M. Titlová or also little moles by N. Rawová) suggest that art is trying to find and maybe it has found the way out from its ivory tower. Unlike modernism this art does not set before itself the tormenting contradiction of dream and reality; it does not want to remove sins of the world, on the contrary it wants to accept this world, whatever it may be like, and most likely it wants to understand its secret. At that it rather resembles Sisyphus by Albert Camus, who - hundred times over climbs down the hill after a fallen boulder to start rolling it up hundred and one times over - is happy, because he has accepted his lot. Modernistic and postmodernistic elements, then, are mixed here and it may be possibly said, that rather than being contrary, the former generates the latter. This art also constantly uses new materials, before that felt as non-artistic (nylon foil, cotton, stuffed shapes, branches, soil, truck sheets, stakes), and lastly also very old materials, which however disappeared from artistic use centuries ago (fire, water). Even in this sense, then, it is nomadic- eclectic expression.

Let us remind ourselves of the fact that all this was happening at the beginning of the eighties, in the period when authors themselves did not realize the described crossroads, which often goes through their particular individual works. In this context it is remarkable that formulation of their basic gesture resembles more the parallel pathway of some artists expressing themselves in a plastic way, especially as far as new materials, tending towards process character, reviving of myths, entrance into urban environment and into nature itself are concerned (here I have particularly Michael Singer in mind, who of course would not exist without Penone and Zorius, and further I mean Charles Simonds), than the pathway formulated by painters of German or Italian Tran avant-garde.

More profound analysis of semantic expression, differentiation of developmental distinctness extent of particular works and social-critical classification of whole trend must stay apart for this moment. It can be mentioned only generally that we still have been observing crisis situation in the relation of art to society, when art, being ousted nearly towards triviality of decorative or ideological fetish, being placed at the very periphery of society, accepts in the end this situation, walks out of commercial “world of art”. This once it is followed also by an audience.

Written in 1987.

(1)At first there had to be concluded a contract between theorist of art Dr. M. Judlová, representing artists, and cooperative farm Druzba Mutejovice about the fact that co-op farm will lend gratis a hop-field near Mutìjovice, further that it will provide artists with accommodation in a hostel for hop-pickers and that artists will duly care for the consigned co-op property. There also exists a written permission by the local authority in Mutìjovice of all project and written statement by a cultural department of the district authority in Rakovník saying that they have no objections to the art symposium and that they agree with the exhibiting of works in exterior. Still on 6th October 1983 a district newspaper in Rakovník The Rozvoj in a brief announcement invite, so that people would come to see, as “ the deserted hop-field has changed into a work of art”. But a letter by the district authority in Rakovník from 4th October 1983 however already calls on removal of the created works on the hop-field in Mutìjovice saying that: “The exhibits lost their intended meaning by force of weather influences and for the reason that the hop-field will be cultivated by local cooperative farm.” Originally the symposium had been permitted for period from 15th September to 16th October 1983.

(2)Its realization demanded 24 months - Christo needed permission for going through 59 ranches, he had to get through 18 public sessions and 3 sessions of the Supreme Court of the state of California.

Received on 2003-07-15


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