Reviewer Martina Poliačková considers 2018’s selection for the Jindřich Chalupecký Award a surprise – one reflecting, among other things, the transformation of the Award itself, which has thus opened its doors to streams of art other than the post-conceptual. This year’s finalists have been connected by an “emphasis on the social body or its emotionality (Lukáš Hofmann), naturalness (Kateřina Olivová), cleansing (Adéla Součková), violence (Tomáš Kajánek), or sensory insufficiency (Alžběta Bačíková)”, as Poliačková has written. Her text expounds on the context of the works shown at the award exhibition, pointing towards their possible interpretations.
This year’s Jindřich Chalupecký Award finalist announcement awakened – even in the harshest of critics – a rather pleasant sense of surprise, bringing hope for the future. Is it possible that the most “prestigious” Czech art prize, sometimes mockingly labelled post-conceptual, is opening up to other artistic positions? While at last year’s exhibition in the Pražák Palace in Brno we observed a deeper interest in technology, the experience of the global consumer, or a turn toward the non-human, this year we have been witness to a certain emphasis on the social body or its emotionality (Lukáš Hofmann), naturalness (Kateřina Olivová), cleansing (Adéla Součková), violence (Tomáš Kajánek), or sensory insufficiency (Alžběta Bačíková). In the case of the first three mentioned above, the strength of the performative gesture or situation is also crucial, so it’s no exaggeration to suggest that the Chalupecký Award lifeblood is in performance. This was also confirmed by this year’s choice of international guest – Romanian artist Alexandra Pirici.
The exhibition shows the need for a return and inclusion of subjectivity and the living body into the exhibiting institution – a need that has so far not been manifested with much distinctiveness on the mainstream Czech gallery circuit. These positions have to do with a bodily felt social framework, built on the interface of a symbolic space (the gallery institution), digital technology, and a physical experience of the everyday.
The relatively small space of the National Gallery’s Corso at the Fair Trade Palace in Prague’s Holešovice district was filled with unfortunately compressed and relatively isolated installations. Tomáš Kajánek placed a duo of black boxes in the centre, in which he played with the paradox of unintentionally viral internet videos and the moral message, unwelcomed by the audience,of the activist Václav Krejza’s, a Roma man, YouTube profile. The second black box contains the most watched Czech video of the past year, in which a banal Facebook stream turned into an online transmission of suffering and death. The aftermath of the car accident captured by a smartphone camera is censured by its deviation from the scene of dramatic action, of which only a sonic recording remains. And so, just like in the work of Alžběta Bačíková, the audience has to make do with their imagination, which, however, unlike Bačíková’s poetic level, develops into a horror film. Krejza’s DIY video essay, originally titled MODLIBA MICHALA (Michal’s Preyer), is composed of lo-fi media images from the tragic emo-package of world problems – war, violence, famine, and diseases, interspersed with cuts from Michael Jackson’s Earth Song. Automated Youtube Click points to the bored and repetitive scrolling and clicking through content we all know (so common in precarised professions), during which an innocent video of sweet kittens can be followed by brutal violence. In both installations, Kajánek opted for a total deskilling – he simply took the videos from the internet and turned them into theatre in equally aggressive boxes covered in fiberglass, making it possible for the installation to get under the skin of even a highly apathetic visitor.
Tomáš Kajánek’s contribution was – for me personally – the most predictable, and in attempting to analyse it further, I cannot avoid the feeling of having been trolled: of having participated in a Duchampian trick with the ready-made, in which media images are to be re-contextualised within the limits of the art institution. I question whether this is enough: two extremes, with the pathos and folk naiveté of Krejza’s “preyer” on the one hand and the documentary naturalism of a specific death and suffering on the other. Perhaps the contrast between the content and context of the stolen videos and the ctrl+c/ctrl+v authorial strategy are not empty gestures of emotional blackmail and statements of apathy. The omnipresent representation of violence in media culture has its dark side in emotional depletion (a user who calls himself FiLiPko. K comments, “Ah well, women at the wheel”), but it also contains a political potential which institutionalised artworks seldom achieve.
Lukáš Hofmann, the youngest award nominee, hid a disparate arrangement of artefacts behind a baggy veil stolen from a construction site: from a recycling bin, through a copy of Braun’s statue of the Prodigal Son, to several glass objects. The use of these elements, however, seems inconsequential within the installation, and indecisive in its complex reference to Hofmann’s own work. It is a shame it was not worked through in more depth in relation to the virtual reality engine, which presents what is perhaps the installation’s best moment. If one happens to come at a time when it is working, it mediates a development of the refined scenographic and performative elements with which Hofmann so often works. Unlike common 3D modelling, he opted for a realistic sensuality, making the experience enthralling, not unlike the use of a high-quality “trip”. VR technology itself reduces the viewer to pure visuality, representing their abandoning of the body, which however returns in a sensual adaptation. Performers in medieval costumes replay motives from the artist’s previous events – raising up a lifeless body, choking one another in a circle, biting hands, kissing (the juiciness of kissing is referred to in the author’s pseudonym, “Saliva”). The visitor stands at the centre, scenes taking place around them as if on a rotating Baroque stage, scenes which – rather than mediating a specific narrative – induce the feeling of living tableaus, heightened through the use of historical references such as Marold’s Panorama or the motif of the pseudo-kunstkammer.
Of all the finalists, Lukáš Hofmann is the most at home in the global artistic community, making him capable of absorbing micro-trends appearing in contemporary art and quickly getting in tune with them. In this case, the phenomenon in question is referred to as the emo-romantic turn, encompassing an emphasis on intimacy, honesty, expression, or fantasy, approaches not dissimilar to those of the romantic movement. Philosopher Timothy Morton points out the romantic interest in drugs as a means of transporting ecstasy and mental travel, which under the current conditions of the institutionalised operation of art can provide a certain element of emancipation from power structures; a particular freedom. Hofmann’s interest in handcrafts, his side project, Houba studios and glass “crack pipes” can all be considered the hybrid tools of today’s flaneur and their specifically experienced economy of collective emotionality. This was perhaps best observed at the grand performance, advertised at the exhibition by a poster created in collaboration with Jan Brož.
Adéla Součková’s contribution to the Corso consisted of a literal stronghold of a ritual character. In it she brings to life the importance and meaning of symbolically charged gestures in a de-sacralised society. Součková covered the yurt in blue-printed motifs, this folk art technique being a constant theme in her work, with unclear, gender hybrid characters that jutted out. This instantly created – at least in the mind of a central European – an analogy to medieval illuminations. The centralised character was underlined by the low “altar”, on which a figure rid of organs lies, reminiscent of the cleansing burial rites of the Egyptian pharaohs. In its symbolic structure, the installation awakens expectations of performative action, a truly crucial element in this piece. The clay, brought over ritually by performers from the nearby island of Štvanice on the day of the opening (organ-shaped masks hung on the walls refer to this transporting act), serves as material for the reconstruction of the new body with organs, which was to be created by the lookers-on in order to return to the earth in this procession. The authorial gesture that comes so naturally to her drawings is here crumbled down into a collective ritual.
Součková uses simple forms to achieve ambiguous meanings, breathing life into the symbolically and spiritually charged gestures suppressed by modernism. We can also recognise references to historical forms in the works of Lukáš Hofmann, but unlike Hofmann, Součková extracts them from a linearly understood flow of time and towards their transformative potential. The “body without organs” can bring to mind Deleuze and Guattari’s Anti-Oedipus as a process of transition and becoming. With its limited number of attributes and movements, each body also has a virtual dimension available to it, in addition to its own large reservoir of potential qualities, connections, affections, and movements. In order for one to become a body without organs, one must experiment with oneself to draw out and activate these virtual potentials. Součková works with an intensification of the present, but not with presentism, typical of late capitalism, but with a certain kind of transgression. Through free manipulation of symbolic (and historical) structures, she pushes the horizon of perception and thought, pointing to the importance of the connection between the individual and the supra-personal, considered today – on the brink of ecological catastrophe – humanity’s most important challenge. But as a contemporary post-ironic audience member, I could not help but feel a certain forced and inappropriate element, an inability to truly “connect” with archetypal symbolism and the mysterious language of the songs emanating from the speakers, mixing with the trance sound of the neighbouring installation.
For many, Kateřina Olivová was the surprise finalist of this year’s award. Her glittery, colourful, and direct performances are better known on the Brno scene. She created a kids’ corner in the Corso, in which she presented documentation of two performances, both adequately exhibited at the height of a child’s eyes. In her installation, she continued developing her feminist approach towards the female body’s emancipation and naturalism (particularly in maternity), all this with the hyperbole and humour so typical of her. She responded to the institutional character of the National Gallery, subversively filling a large glass panel looking out onto the street with her corpulent reclining body as a critique of the repetitive prototype of the fetishised female body as seen in the history of art. In the kids’ corner, this same body was divided into small pillows / uncovered bodily fragments. These, however, were no longer to be the “rich man’s plaything”, but rather playthings for the innocent eyes of children. The avant-garde demand for a unity of art and life is agreeable in its honesty, directness, and accessibility (an accompanying event provides cost-free babysitting for parents), but it has been rehashed so many times as to become boring, in a certain sense balancing on the edge of a mere attraction. The current operation of art institutions and their borders regarding provocation through nudity have shifted considerably. The topic of female body positivity has gained traction even in pop culture, as observed in music (trap) or fashion (the Chromat brand).
Alžběta Bačíková cleverly hid her installation in two separate wings in which she played with the perspective of the spectator. The communication which began with a sound recording of Terezie, who is blind, connects and gradually transforms into the point of view of the deaf-mute youth Mac in a silent video, reminiscent of Diderot’s conversation of the “deaf with the dumb”. It becomes a study into forms of communication, into the nature of language and gesture. The absence of sight or hearing is not seen as a deficiency, but as a challenge to cooperate, to search for a common language. In many ways, this can put one in mind of Ingo Niermann’s “Army of Love”, which he recently presented at AVU’s Class of Interpretation. The duo finds understanding through embodiment, through the gentle dynamics of movement. It also draws out the function of technologies, which can become truly productive extensions of one’s body, rather than merely a fetish producing various kinds of fiction. Typical of Bačíková’s work is an interest in the documentary approach. She experiments with it, inserting fictional narration and thus unmasking the genre as a form of construction which is always subject to a certain form of bias. Today, in the era of post-truth, this aspect is a crucial critical instrument in the struggle against ideological manipulation.
Without unnecessary moralising, Bačíková productively foregrounds topics that are often neglected by art institutions. When entering the Corso, our “guide” Mac welcomes us in sign language. This interest in the form of institutionalised care and accessibility is the focus of the Feminist Institution, created in 2017 after a critical seminar held in Tranzit. The Jindřich Chalupecký Society is one of the signatories of its codex. Is the commission’s selection the result of an attempt by the Award to open itself up to social responsibility (Alžběta Bačíková), accessibility (Kateřina Olivová), or shared space (performance), or is this merely a chance meeting of portfolios? Can we even think of the Award within the framework of the feminist institution, if it is – by its very nature – based on competitiveness? There will be no answer without dialogue and the courage to shift the current outlooks.
Martina Poliačková is an art historian and critic.
Jindřich Chalupecký Award: 2018 Final / finalists of the 29th edition: Alžběta Bačíková, Lukáš Hofmann, Tomáš Kajánek, Kateřina Olivová, and Adéla Součková, guest: Alexandra Pirici / curator: Tereza Jindrová / National Gallery in Prague – Trade Fair Palace / Prague / 14. 11. 2018 – 6. 1. 2019
Photography: Peter Fabo