27.9.2019 – 19.01.202
Pražák Palace, Moravian Gallery, Brno
The Jindřich Chalupecký Award (CJCH), awarded in the Czech Republic to artists under the age of thirty-five, celebrates its thirtieth anniversary this year. During this period, the award has undergone continuous development – the Board of Trustees of the Jindřich Chalupecký Society has changed, as has the organizational team responsible for the practical functioning of the Award (especially the organization of the exhibition, organization of accompanying programs and the publication of the catalog); the nomination system has also changed over time, and the international jury, which selects the five finalists, was regularly replaced. What also changes over time, but follows less from the internal dynamics of the Jindřich Chalupecký Society than from its „lack of anchoring”, is where the annual exhibition of the finalists takes place. In this respect, the history of CJCH can be divided into three periods. In the first one, which lasted until 2001, the finalists’ exhibitions were held regularly at the National Gallery in Prague. The choice of the most important Czech art museum was obvious at the beginning of the Award and was intended to support its prestige and visibility. Shortly after Milan Knížák became the head of the National Gallery, however, the Award had to leave the established address, which launched the second period of virtually the same duration, when the Award first found asylum in House of Arts in Brno and gradually began to alternate between the two largest Czech cities. In Prague, during this period, the Award changed gallery institutions that provided it with the premises, which sometimes led to rather interesting discoveries, but ended in both a certain fatigue and a gradual marginalization of the Award. Since the beginning of this decade, the Award has once again found the necessary stability associated with prestigious museum institutions. In 2013, the Award returned to the Fair Trade Palace of the National Gallery, while the House of Arts was replaced by the Moravian Gallery in 2015.
I visited this year’s CJCH finalists’ exhibition before it began, and it was a bit like being at a theatre with no show. The feeling that I was walking through an abandoned stage was further enhanced by the memories of the last year’s exhibition, which began to emerge gradually as I walked through the exhibition located on the ground floor of the Pražák Palace in the Moravian Gallery in Brno. Baptiste Charneux’s ceramic sculptures, predominantly in pink and blue, reminded me of the installation of Romana Drdová, who not only worked with a similar tonality, but, like Charneux, represented the most formal position of creation throughout the exhibition. The paintings and the blue undulating wall carried by Pavla Malinová‘s small concrete sculptures can be seen in the room, which two years ago “belonged” to hanging paintings and expanded paintings on seating furniture by Viktorie Valocká. The third example of an unintended virtual encounter is the video installation of Marie Lukáčová, whose atmosphere, besides the moving image itself, emanates from a greenish floor and curtains with stylized insect and tapeworm motifs. In the same room, immersed in peri-green light, a video of Dominic Gajarský‘s Equilibrium ran two years ago, with a goose and a snake as the two main protagonists…
Such roughly outlined comparisons may seem inept, but the experience of déjà vu has come to me with a special persistence. The first reaction was simple, “subliminal” comparisons, from among which I found the presentation by Marie Lukáčová to be lacking in appeal. Her video installation MeluZyna Maca contains plenty – of colors, make-up, cuts… However, the cadence of pictures and words is too restless, overwhelming, and thwarts the chance of plunging into an environment of opulent surplus, where we get serious messages through strong sensory experience. Baptiste Charneux and Pavla Malinová did better. She presented a comprehensive set of works that, with their vivid colors and formal stylization, remind us of the early days of CJCH, a period in which painting naturally occupied a central position of the medium, which did not have to defend its right to exist (at the same time being almost the sovereign domain of men). Supports, surfaces by Baptiste Charneux radically insist on their aesthetic autonomy – they reflect the possibilities of materials, the relationships of objects and their relationship to space. They consistently refrain from articulating anything beyond themselves, perhaps besides more than a century of cultivated language of abstraction, which in the end makes it quite different from the aforementioned installation by Romana Drdová, which touches on the aesthetic interface between technology and bodies.
The “interferences” between the two not very distant years of the Award slowly gave rise to the feeling of a strange inappropriateness, which persisted in the presentations of another finalist. Communite Fresca, a collective original project of Dana Balážová, Marie Filipová and Marie Štindlová, presents itself in the Pražák Palace in a building set in a walkthrough corner room. Communite Fresca decided not to change the locally specific character of their work and in the months preceding the exhibition, they created murals at five selected addresses in Brno and its surroundings. In the end, however, the laudable gesture of the donated frescoes has been „killed ” with a building that, in its details, tells us something about reciprocity and warmth, which I think is what their work is primarily about, but its scale in the gallery space seems cumbersome, even inappropriate. Also, in the case of Andreas Gajdošík, the focus of the project prepared for the exhibition of CJCH finalists is located outside the gallery – in the online environment, which has repeatedly been his starting point of reflection and source of topics, as well as his destination. Nevertheless, the Inhuman resources in the context of Gajdošík’s subversive, but also self-subversive works, give the impression of a “one-liner” and the chosen form of gallery presentation does not help, either. Reading desks with tablets, where viewers can get acquainted with the versions of news sites belonging to the Czech Prime Minister détournéed in a situationist manner, with their limited functionality (the project is available online in its „full version”), remind us in some ways of similar single-purpose touch-screen desks that we know from vestibules of offices, banks or libraries.
A tour of the CJCH finalists’ exhibition would be incomplete if it left out the part of the installation that foreshadows and aesthetically, and above all semantically, frames this year’s exhibition. Perhaps the most striking artefacts displayed on the ground floor of Pražák Palace are the purpose-located shiny white boxes with green and blue glowing lights. These devices accumulate electricity generated by solar panels located on a nearby concrete-covered construction site (the strange monument of the Janáček Music Hall under construction), and after the transformation they feed it straight to the local power grid. A network of black cables, visibly channelled under the gallery ceiling, is distributed to all exhibition spaces. Solar energy supplies mainly simple ceiling lamps fitted with energy-saving bulbs that light up before dusk (standard gallery lighting is permanently switched off), as well as several devices serving directly the presentation of works of art (projector, tablets, etc.). In the battery room, information on the carbon footprint of the exhibition, or on the energy requirements associated with the production of works and their roughly three-month exposure, is presented and continuously updated.
My first reaction to this fundamental curatorial-architectural intervention in this year’s CJCH finalists’ exhibition was one of a slight embarrassment. On the one hand, I was unable to get rid of the impression that the extra-infrastructure of temporary electrical wiring is too dominant for the gallery space and deflects attention from the works of art, which should be the main focus. At the same time, I felt that the entire complex issue of the environmental or climate crisis had been reduced to one, however important, aspect – the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions – and the more specific issues related to art operations, notably the issue of sustainable development in exhibition design, remained unreflected. Some of these criticisms had to be swept off the table when I got acquainted with more comprehensive overviews of the energy demands of the exhibition and other austerity measures (among other things, the exhibition will not be heated) as well as curatorial text by Karina Kottová and Barbora Ciprová Art Is on Fire. When I read it, it seemed to me that there was perhaps no objection or doubt that the text did not anticipate or admit.
An open reflection of one’s own doubts, coming naturally where the practice wanders off the beaten paths and established patterns, is one of the significant moments of the text. What may be even more interesting about it is the continuation and further development of discourse centered around the (possibilities) of the internal transformation of the Jindřich Chalupecký Award institution itself. In recent years, we have repeatedly witnessed that finalists of various art awards have spoken out against the very principles of these awards – the principle of competition, in which „the winner takes it all”. Thus, they brought the principles of solidarity (Preiss der National Gallery) or collectivity (Oscar Čepan Award) where individuality has so far been emphasized. In the case of the (this year’s) CJCH finalists’ exhibition, we see something a little different – that the principle of competition contained in the CJCH’s “genetic code” is weakened by its own organizational-curatorial team.
The exhibition of CJCH finalists is, in the words of Kottová and Ciprová, conceived as an “experimental laboratory”. It thus includes a layer of communication that clearly reaches outside the individual works on display. The agreement of all finalists that the exhibition will have an overarching environmental narrative in no way reflects whether and how they themselves work with the topic. Their work, however, is inevitably read through this narrative, since it has been projected into the CJCH finals at so many levels (from technical infrastructure, through infographics, to catalogue).
The Jindřich Chalupecký Society ceases to be an invisible operating apparatus behind the exhibition, which is a showcase of artistic individualities, but year after year it becomes a more conscious curator. At the beginning of the year, Karina Kottová, the director of the Society, approached the developments at the core of the Award in a text looking back at the past year and some critical reactions identifying internal contradictions arising from the efforts to shift Jindřich Chalupecký Society and the Award proper towards a feminist art institution. Allow me to quote briefly: “We were wondering […] at the same time how to take advantage of the great media attention the Award naturally attracts, not for competitive rhetoric or shallow scandal gossip, but for the wider public to discover what contemporary art per se has to offer, or what are its most recent forms.”
“What can contemporary art offer” or “what are its most contemporary forms” are certainly the key questions we should ask in connection with the CJCH finalists’ exhibition. What can result from the growing tension between the inertial need to do the best of art in the best possible conditions and the need of art to reflect the overall framework of its origin (the framework of the raging capitalocene) is equally crucial. While in the texts accompanying the exhibition, these questions are put to the forefront, in the individual exhibited works they are present rather implicitly and successfully overshadowed by the opulent technological gesture with solar panels. Behind it remains hidden one of the possible answers to the above-mentioned questions – that it is not new, greener technologies that can bring a substantial change in the practice of contemporary art, but rather a total change in the approach to creation, namely the change in the view of what it actually means to do contemporary art.
It has to be said that the selection of the international jury reflects the change that takes place at the core of the coming generation quite well (the choice is definitely different from what we saw in Brno just two years ago). For some of this year’s exhibitors, „contemporary art” – the whole infrastructure built to „do the best of art in the best possible conditions” (I quote from the Art Is on Fire) – is somewhat alien, or at least not always primarily sought-after territory. The curatorial body of the Jindřich Chalupecký Society join the movement and say art is elsewhere, but in the end, they do not escape the standard presentation framework of contemporary art (it is certainly not easy to give up a stable institutional connection with two prestigious gallery institutions once again). This elsewhere, and yet here of this year’s exhibitions reflects a deeper internal contradiction. The institutionally committed attitude shared by the jury and the organizational team of the Award bears witness to an attempt to shift the understanding of what the Jindřich Chalupecký Award is about, or what contemporary art is or should be about. However, the expression of this effort is still only the traditional (spectacular) format of the exhibition, which carries with it traditional expectations of the audience. These are betrayed, but not by the exhibitors, who try to meet them inasmuch as they can, but by a curator-driven intervention in the gallery infrastructure.
The strange interference between the years of 2017 and 2019 that I tried to deal with in the introduction to this text reflects the shift that took place just over two years. I will return to this comparison once again. Two years ago, each of the five finalists was given maximum space for their own self-presentation („doing the best of art in the best possible conditions”) while the curatorial narrative was, for all intents and purposes, absent. The result was surprisingly coherent. This year, it is the other way around – we have a big overarching gesture, which, however, has not been able to bridge the differences in the author’s positions that had already been determined by the choice of the candidates. Two years ago, we saw five finalists who (all, with minor differences) spoke the most up-to-date exhibition language, formed by intensively following (or participating in) the institutionally established practice of contemporary art, from large formats of the biennials and fairs to trending offspaces that are being established internationally thanks to flawless photo documentation shared on specialized blogs. This year, behind the unifying infrastructure of black cables (competing for space and recognition with the white cube), there is a polyphony of voices, a testimony to the rich inner segmentation of contemporary artistic practice, but also to the different degree of experience of individual finalists with similar types of exhibition spaces.
While from the perspective of the curator of the Jindřich Chalupecký Society, this year’s edition can be seen as a further step towards turning the Award into an effective tool for shaping discourse about the forms and meaning of contemporary art, it is necessary for the competitors to accept the fact that by participating in the CJCH finals they joined a competition in which more than just a golden relay baton is at stake.
The author: Jan Zálešák (art theoretician and curator)
Translation: Petr Kovařík
Cover image: Andreas Gajdošík, Inhuman resources, installation and website, 2019. Photo: Tomáš Souček
The article was originally written for Artalk.cz with the financial support from Arts and Theatre Institute in Prague.
 This was true from the inception of the Award until last year. This year, the six finalists were selected by the jury, but due to her poor health, Alma Lily Rayner’s participation was later shifted to the next year, and this year, five finalists compete for the Award as before.
 In addition to the Brno Dům umění (House of Arts), which has become a stable venue for more than ten years, the award ceremony took place in gradually established two-year cycles in Galerie hlavního města Prahy (Prague City Gallery), Futura, Dox, while one edition even took place in five independent galleries, some run by artists.