So far, a venue distinguished by its critical attitude has been the ArtWall gallery, launched in 2005. It spoke up against corruption (Guma Guar: Collective identity), discrimination of ethnic minorities (Tomáš Rafa: True Patriotism) or sexual violence (Alma Lily Rayner: SomeThings My Father Put Inside My Vagina). The projects completed at ArtWall have always sent a very clear, direct message. Some have even called them blunt.
It may well be a stereotype, but Czech people are usually perceived as good-humoured and somewhat indulgent. As Przemysław Witkowski brilliantly put it, they are hedonistic pragmatics whose culture “is aimed at delivering pleasure in reasonable quantities: weed is legal, beer in taverns is cheap, the food is fatty and caloric”. In Europe’s most secular country the menace of radical nationalism is nowhere near as present as in Poland or Hungary. The clergy here does not attempt to tell everybody how they should live. So, why would one worry?
Over the last decade the more “critical” approach has been largely represented by groups comprising artists born in the seventies and active since around the year 2000. Among such collectives, all of which focus on jokes, irony and hyperbole, we will find Guma Guar, Rafani or Ztohoven. The favourite tool for all of them is humour: their way of applying critical thinking
to the Czech society is mockery. In 2008, when members of Ztohoven managed to hack the broadcast of one of the Czech networks, the audience watching the weather forecast saw a mushroom cloud over the skyline of Krkonoše mountains.
The officials of the Polish city of Bytom did not seem to be able to appreciate Czech humour back in 2005, when Guma Guar group presented their work at the “Bad News” exhibition held by the local centre for contemporary art (CSW Kronika). Their poster entitled “We’re all queers” (Wszyscy jesteśmy ciotami), depicting a smiling pope Benedict triumphantly holding up Elton John’s severed head, outraged some of the councilmen and was eventually taken off the gallery wall. Milan Mikuláštík, one of the group members, has bitter memories of the scandal and of what he saw as an act of censorship by the gallery curators.
Mikuláštík is now head of the supermedia section of the UMPRUM Academy of Art Architecture and Design. I joined him and a group of his students for a short trip to Ústí nad Labem, a small postindustrial town in the northern part of the country. An academy operates there, and interesting exhibitions are frequently held. The Emila Filly gallery is located in the outskirts, inside a red brick industrial complex. In lower storeys workers still mix chemicals, so a peculiar scent wafts in the corridors. During my visit the gallery’s monumental hall housed Recycling Ideology, an exhibition of works of artists interested in various political ideologies. Among the exhibits there were, e.g. the lifestyle magazine and hipster manifesto created by the Black Hole Generation painter group (some of their work was presented in Warsaw at the Leto gallery) or Vladimír Houdk’s painting being a reinterpretation of the Tatlin memorial of The International. The Slovak duo Dávid Demjanovič and Jarmila Mitríková, on the other hand, contributed a series of surrealist works on wood exploring the equally scary and funny aesthetics peculiar to the official art of the previous regime. What is worth mentioning is that young Czech and Slovak artists are much more eager and relaxed when it comes to reinterpreting the communist legacy than their Polish counterparts. For instance, Marx Christmas, one of the works exhibited at the Emila Filly gallery, shows a man wearing a Santa Claus hat seated in the lap
of the author of “Capital”.
The ones who seem the boldest in this respect are the so-called Radical Realists: artists who very seriously support the rehabilitation of both Soviet Art of the first part of the 20th century and socialist realism. They voiced their postulates for the first time at the 1st congress of the Soviet Artists Association, an event held last year at Tranzit.Display. Several people tried to convince me that it was all for real and very serious, but I chose to trust my experience and approached the whole thing with reserve.
“Left, and now right. Left, right, then left…”, slender olive-skinned hands indicate directions and circle around potted plants in an unknown, undefined office space. The voiced-over female narrator sounds decided and somewhat monotonous. The hands shape themselves into more and more forms: they pick up and stretch out an invisible piece of string, the index finger then gently rubs the thumb. “Left, left, left, right, right…”. In the following shots we see a female dancer immersed in a trance moving along the corridors of an empty edifice. Is it a school? A hospital? A state agency of some kind? Certainly, one of the many cogs in the state’s mechanism of controlling the people. The images are accompanied by electronic music.
Sequences of subtitles on the screen say: This is not politics. This is something else. This is pantomime…
The dancer is Meïmouna Coffi. She is also the author of the choreography. The moves of the hands and the body are based on gestures we make while using touch-screen electronic devices. The music-video-like Shattered Epistemologist is a work of Jiří Žák, a young video artist from Prague. It is the most recent one among his video essays in which he explores film
as a medium, investigating the relations between text, image and sound. This time, on the occasion of collaborating with Coffi, he chose to focus on distribution of information, the language of the media, and the media concepts of “truth” and post-truth. The rhythmic eye-catching form of the video gets more disturbing with every passing minute. Coffi winds, bounces of walls, confuses sides and directions.
One of the rooms in Jeleni galley is divided with white firm fabric. It lets some light through, but impedes you from seeing what is going on on the other side, “behind the wall”. The latter is directly connected to the title Victor Dedek’s exhibition bears: What is behind the Wall.
In the room, on a small wooden table, there are newspapers prepared by the artist. Each day a new one appears: the headlines reflect the current episode of the story. An actor circles the table time and again recapitulating “the news” in a state of agitation. He comes up with new passages and continues until the last visitors leave the gallery. The stories have no punchline, no moral, no pivot points. They just go on, and on, and on. At the very beginning, the reference point for this act was the last one of Scheherazade’s tales, but that context soon ceased to be important. Every day of the exhibition actors make up new stories, often contradicting their own previous statements. And then, those stories of theirs are yet more distorted in the “newspaper
on the table.
Jiří Žák and Victor Dedek are two very different artists. The former does not avoid literality, and gladly reaches for the language of both the media and advertising. He consciously uses the means provided by filming technology. Dedek runs as far as possible from literality. He creates complex, convoluted stories and hides in the universe of fantasy. Each artist has his own approach towards the concept of “post-truth”, arguably the trendiest word of 2016, which does not seem to be losing popularity. If we tried to compare the two artists using one axis, the first one would end up closer to journalism, and the second one: to poetry. Žák has already earned a renown within the local scene: in 2015 he won the prestigious EXIT award. With each new film, as Shattered Epistemologist well proves, he reaches higher levels both as regards concept and form. For Dedek, on the other hand, the exhibition in Jeleni is an individual debut and a major act of appreciation. The artist is now working on his graduation work at Dominik Lang’s studio.
Žák and Dedek are both members of Ateliér bez vedoucího (Studio without a professor), an inter-university initiative bringing together students and graduates of art-related faculties. They meet once a week to discuss and confront their ideas. They talk and learn from one another, transmitting knowledge and skills in a non-hierarchic way. At the moment Ateliér has about ten members who focus on criticism of education and finding new ways for the distribution of knowledge.
Another members of Ateliér bez vedoucího are video artist Marie Lukáčová and painter Martina Smutná. Despite their commitment to changing the world around them they chose to act outside the hermetic reign of the language of art. Together with Eva Svobodova they launched a feminist initiative called Čtvrtá vlna (The fourth wave). Their area of activity is Facebook.
They produce and post short viral videos carrying a feminist message, raising awareness and challenging stereotypes. Their first material, speaking about sexism within artistic faculties, got four hundred thousand hits and generated a major discussion. „In front of everybody in the room he told me I looked like a porn star”, „An opinion about my work: >>only a woman could have came up with something this shitty<<“, ”99% of studios are run by men”, those are some of the captions appearing on screen. The girls from The Fourth Wave quickly became a significant voice within the struggle for gender equality in the artistic circles. The latter, even though the Czech scene seems very modern and conscious, remains an area where a lot needs to be done. This year saw another edition of Zlínský salon mladých (Zlinsky youth salon), an event organised since 1996 and intended as a triennale of contemporary Czech (as of 2005: also Slovak) art.
To say that, apparently, none of the officials here has heard of gender balance would be to say nothing: among the 34 artists invited to take part there was one (!) woman. A2larm and Artalk.cz websites published an open letter in which signatories called on the organisers and the curators to put an end to this display of misogyny. A very sober reaction came form Martin Kohout, who simply withdrew from showing his work at the event. The slot he left free was used for presenting Fourth Wave’s film about the inequalities within the Czech artworld.
During my first visit to the autonomous cultural centre Klinika artist and anarchist Max Máslo gave me one of his slap tags. It showed a smiling cartoon character riding a skateboard with a hammer and a sickle in his hands. That sticker art is a part of Máslo’s bigger project: he is about to investigate if matey skate friendships can be turned into a socialist revolution. In the end, that image seems to me the most accurate metaphor for the young alternative scene I was able to get to know in the Czech Republic: it is about the collective, and albeit done somewhat roughly it happily rides forward for a good cause.