Public, Private, and Political Art

During the Communist era, the governments in East-Central Europe tried to shoehorn art into the category of socialist realism. Artists were reconfigured as cultural workers who ideally created works to advance society in the same way that a steelworker shaped pig iron to advance skyscraper construction. The overlap was often quite direct. Many paintings and sculptures of the time depicted these steelworkers in heroic poses, or similar proletarian themes. Stalin liked to describe writers as “engineers of the human soul.” The same Stalinist definition applied to visual artists, who were supposed to enlighten the masses by reflecting back to them an idealized version of themselves and their society.

Many artists, not surprisingly, refused to play this game. In relatively open societies, like Yugoslavia, the art world produced extraordinary work that blazed trails not only in the region but globally. For instance Marina Abramovic, despite pressure from the state, established a new kind of performance art during her days in Belgrade and Novi Sad in the early 1970s.

But in places like Czechoslovakia, where the political situation after the Soviet invasion of 1968 was tightly controlled, many artists who refused to produce state-sponsored work went underground. In some cases, as curator and art historian Tomas Pospiszyl told me in an interview in Prague last February, it was sometimes difficult to tell whether some of these artists were still doing art.

“Maybe the most famous one is Jiri Kovanda, a conceptual artist who, especially in the last decade, has been discovered worldwide,” Pospiszyl explained. “When he was doing his performances in the 1970s and 1980s, even for some of his friends it was a joke. Even the guy documenting his performances wasn’t sure what was going on, whether it was an art action or not. It’s a coincidence that it was rediscovered. Or there were artists like Vaclav Ambrůz or Vladimír Havlík working in Moravia, who would organize parties for their friends. Sometimes it was difficult to distinguish whether it was a party or a happening or a performance. Or maybe it was a strategy to endure the bad times and find a way to express creativity and build a small niche where one could live under the conditions we had.”

After the fall of Communism, many of these underground artists have been rediscovered. At the same time, the once-official public art with its unfashionable socialist realist style is now hiding in plain sight.

“There are thousands and thousands of sculptures, especially in the housing districts around Prague,” Pospiszyl said. “They’ve become homeless sculptures. They do not belong to anyone. No one sees them, even though they are symbols of their times. It’s not just the people who live there that don’t see them. It’s also art historians! The official art of socialist Czechoslovakia is a subject that no Czech art historians find interesting. How is this possible? What makes us exclude such a huge number of pieces? Why aren’t we being analytical and trying to understand continuities and discontinuities with our totalitarian past?”

In our discussion, we talked about working at the Prague Castle, the emergence of art galleries in unusual spaces like veterinary clinics, and the rise and fall and rise again of political art in the Czech Republic.

 

The Interview

 

Do you remember where you were and what you were thinking when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?

 

Not really. If I remember well, it took some time before the Czechoslovak media put information about it on the TV news. So maybe there was a certain delay. I remember watching those images on my 1970s TV set that I had in my room at that time.

But yes, I was probably realizing that something important was going on. Still, it was quite surprising when November 17 came to Czechoslovakia and all those changes happened so quickly. It seemed at the time as if everything would remain the same forever, and it would take some time before some changes would come. I was aware of the fact that Communist regimes were falling apart in Poland, Hungary, even in East Germany. I’d also travelled to Moscow in late 1980s because I was curious to see perestroika, which was nowhere to be found in Czechoslovakia at the time. I was surprised to find that the Soviet Union was much freer than Czechoslovakia at the time.

 

You were a student at that time.

 

I was studying art history at Charles University.

 

What motivated you to study art history?

 

Since high school I was very much interested in literature, art. I didn’t think there was much other choice than pursuing this type of study.

 

Because of your interests or because of the political situation?

 

Because of my interests.

 

Did you have an idea that you would be teaching art history or that you would be a curator?

 

I had no idea. When you are 19 or 20 you don’t think that far ahead. I probably considered teaching to be the fulfillment of my dreams. That was before I found out that I’m not a naturally gifted teacher. So, actually the dream can sometimes be a nightmare. I had no idea what I would do. I was simply interested in learning more about subjects that were interesting to me.

 

So, a week after the Berlin Wall fell, as you said, the Velvet Revolution started here. Were you involved in those events here as a student?

 

Not before. I remember that on November 17 I was sitting in a university cafe discussing with my friend whether to go to the demonstration or not. We arrived at the decision that it was organized by the Socialist Union of Students so that it didn’t make sense to go there. Still, I was a member of the organization, which only adds to the absurdity of the situation.

Also, at that time, we were organizing a party with David Cerny that would take place the following week and we wanted to rent a particular space. The meeting for that was 6 p.m. that evening. We said that we’d meet with David in front of the building at 6. But he didn’t come. He’d been planning to go to the demonstration. When he didn’t show up, I realized that something wrong might have happened. I walked toward the city center and met people coming from the demonstration, and that’s how I found out what happened. When I got to city center, some student meetings were already taking place and the organization started.

 

Did you get involved after that?

 

Yes, we occupied the university building and I was spending nights there. There were endless meetings at the beginning. The most difficult thing was to say to your teachers, “We don’t want you any more.” Getting into a conflict with them was for me something quite new.

 

Did you say that to all the teachers?

 

Some teachers. I remember the very first meeting with the dean of the school who was very conservative. He asked the students to go home. He threatened that, if we continued with the strike, we would be kicked out. Someone had to say no to him.

 

I interviewed a medical student at that time who said that they left their classes for several months to travel around the countryside and spread the word about what was going on in Prague. Did that also happen with your faculty?

 

Yes. But I didn’t go to any exotic location. First we made handmade posters. Then we were in touch with the film school where VHS tapes were copied with actual footage from the demonstration, which we distributed. But I wasn’t at any big rallies speaking as a member of the student body.

 

When your classes resumed, how different were they?

 

I don’t think anyone really left the art history department. They were very good teachers. My later disappointment with the department came from a very different direction. There were no Communists there that we wanted to get rid of. At the faculty level there were classes connected to Communist ideology, like the history of the workers’ movement, that were cancelled. From today’s perspective, it was not so bad to learn something about that subject.

Military service at that time was mandatory, so we had military classes at the university, which was a great source of conflict. In summer 1989, for instance, we had maneuvers where we were in the field for six weeks driving tanks. These military classes were one of the instruments the regime used to break us. The military guys who were teaching us were all assholes. They enjoyed showing us philosophy students that they were in charge. It was a big relief when those classes were cancelled. This is something I remembered only recently. I read in a book that it took several months before the classes were cancelled. But I’m pretty sure that students ignored the classes during that time. Only in the summer of 1990 were the classes discontinued.

 

You said you were upset with the department for different reasons. What were those reasons?

 

I was very interested at the time in contemporary art. The department at that time was almost transplanted from 19th-century Vienna. We had to learn different features of Gothic architecture, memorize all these dates. Then I had a chance to help with the exhibition program at the Prague Castle. That was the immediate chance to leave. So I never actually finished my studies at the art history department.

 

Tell me about the opportunity at Prague Castle. Who invited you?

 

It was a time of miracles. We had opportunities that are hard to imagine for today’s generation. One day, an old friend of mine from high school, who later went to law school, called me up because she’d been hired by the Prague Castle in the service department. She knew that the exhibition department was looking for a manager. She remembered from high school that I was interested in art. I came for an interview and was hired the next day.

I spent a little more than a year working for the Office of the President, helping with the exhibitions there, which were quite progressive. It was a dream job for me. I was in touch with different contemporary artists and helping with their installations there.

 

Havel wrote in his memoir about bringing in different cultural elements to the Castle, like contemporary music. Diplomats would file into this great hall expecting 16th-century Baroque music in such a grand hall and be hit instead by this very modern music.

 

Definitely. And working for the Office of the President had great power. I was helping to build an installation for Jannis Kounellis, an artist living in Italy. He works with ordinary materials like coal and burlap sacks. He builds walls with burlap sacks that he folds into huge structures. My goal was to find thousands of burlap sacks, so I had to call different agriculture coops.

“Hello, I am Tomas Pospiszyl, calling from Office of the President, and I urgently need 2,000 burlap sacks.”

And the person would say, “Okay, even I could trust you are who you say you are, we don’t have that many burlap sacks.”

We’d drive to the coop in the Castle Mercedes and pick up all the sacks they had and drive back.

Prague Castle was opening all these new spaces, and everything in society was changing. When you are 22 or 23, you are ultrasensitive to all these things. Maybe we didn’t appreciate it enough, but everything was possible.

 

Did you have conversations with the president about contemporary art?

 

No, I was too low in the hierarchy. But I’d sometimes meet his wife and his dog in the garden in the morning.

 

Was there a point when those kinds of initiatives began to dissipate and this period of time when everything seemed possible came to an end?

 

I don’t know, or I wasn’t part of it. After that year and a half, I was totally burned out and I had to quit. I had a chance to study in grad school in the United States, so I left at the peak of the program. Only a few more exhibitions of contemporary art happened. Fortunately I wasn’t part of the decay of the program.

 

How long were you in the United States?

 

Almost four years. First I went there in 1994 simply because my girlfriend was American and I followed her there. I was doing some odd jobs and applied to graduate school and studied from 1995-7. Then I had to go back to the Czech Republic because I was a Fulbright and had to return. Then I had a fellowship from the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) and could come back to the States.

 

In the 1960s, even in the 1950s, there was a tremendous amount of avant-garde art in Yugoslavia. Of course, at one point Tito said contemporary art was a waste of money. But by the 1960s, the trend seemed irrevocable, and it wasn’t just art but also film and literature, and it has continued to this day. But here it seemed to be discontinuous, with an abortive start in the 1960s, and then came 1968 and “normalization” after the Soviet invasion.

 

Yes, it’s curious that these discontinuities are different in each of the countries of the eastern bloc. In Poland, they had a terrible time in the 1960s, then a better situation in the 1970s, then terrible times in the 1980s. It very much depended on local conditions. But in the late 1980s, I remember that it was very difficult to get information about contemporary art or even 20th-century art. Unlike Yugoslavia, which was developed in every sense of the word, there was almost no conceptual art here at all, just a few individuals. Or the one that did exist, as we are learning now, were not connected to each other. Their art practice was closer to a lifestyle than art. Sometimes in Yugoslavia it was the same, like the Gorgona Group, who were official artists or art historians but no one really knew what they were doing in their own homes. There are a lot of examples of 1980s artists in Czechoslovakia who were doing things only for themselves and their friends.

 

Can you give an example of one of those artists that you particularly like?

 

I can’t say that I particularly like it!

 

Oh, well, then an example whether you like it or not.

 

Maybe the most famous one is Jiri Kovanda, a conceptual artist who, especially in the last decade, has been discovered worldwide. When he was doing his performances in the 1970s and 1980s, even for some of his friends it was a joke. Even the guy documenting his performances wasn’t sure what was going on, whether it was an art action or not. It’s a coincidence that it was rediscovered.

Or there were artists like Vaclav Ambrůz or Vladimír Havlík working in Moravia, who would organize parties for their friends. Sometimes it was difficult to distinguish whether it was a party or a happening or a performance. Or maybe it was a strategy to endure the bad times and find a way to express creativity and build a small niche where one could live under the conditions we had.

 

Some of the more radical artists like Marina Abramovic were just not known here?

 

As a 20-year-old living in Prague, I didn’t know about her. But she visited Prague in the 1970s and had events here among performers. Czech performers at that time consciously decided not to work publicly. They performed just for their friends. They’d invited 2 or 5 or 7 people to a basement, do a performance, maybe take a photo. There was a secondary audience that learned of these events only through documentation, through photographs sent through the mail. There were large barriers between performance and life art on the one hand and the consumption of this art on the other.

 

Was there something similar here to the Orange Alternative in Wroclaw?

 

Yes. There was a Society for More Joyous Days that was established in 1989. Young people started to do street performances that were close to Orange Alternative. For several months, every day, there was an unofficial race along the street of political prisoners. This is a street in Prague that is called even today the street of political prisoners because it is where the Gestapo headquarters were during World War II. The group was celebrating contemporary political prisoners by running through the street every day for many days in a row. It’s hard to know if the police knew about it or how to stop it — because can’t you run on a street if you want to?

 

When you came back to the Czech Republic were you surprised by the changes that had taken place in the contemporary art scene?

 

Of course. And the changes were already happening in the early 1990s. Of course it is a cultural shock when you go back after several years to a country that you thought you knew well and realize it’s a different place than you left.

 

What were you studying in the United States?

 

It was a program in curatorial studies.

 

You came back and immediately began working as a curator here.

 

I was hired by the National Gallery here.

 

What did you most want to do as a curator when you took that position?

 

Again, it was a dream job. I could do exhibitions. I was helping to organize a new installation of the collection of the national gallery. It was a big task, never finished.

 

These were the holdings of the contemporary art at the national gallery.

 

Yes. The situation there was in turmoil. There was no money, and directors were changing quite often. But I thought it was the right place for me.

 

You were focused there largely on Czech artists or contemporary art in the region?

 

I was looking more broadly in my projects outside my job at the National Gallery, for instance, a big reader on art theory in Eastern Europe I did for MoMA, together with MoMA curator Laura Hoptman. Curiously enough, the communication among the countries in Eastern Europe is limited, and the networks don’t always work well. Mostly, it is through an outside power that makes this regional perspective possible.

 

Can you give me an example of that?

 

Such a network used to be the Soros Centers of Contemporary Art. Soros decided to build centers in the countries in this region and make them communicate with each other. If you look at many publications of East European art from the 1990s, they were supported or initiated by these Soros Centers. Then Soros decided not to continue this support. Other initiators came onto the scene, like Erste Bank, which built tranzit initiatives for contemporary art in Hungary, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Romania and Vienna, a sort of recreation of the Austro-Hungarian empire. Or there are different projects created by the European Union, which we all hate, because we feel that it is very artificial to be put all these things together with an artist from Poland, an artist from the Czech Republic, and so on. Or the Visegrad system. These structures are always implanted on the region rather than growing from the grassroots.

 

Are there underfunded grassroots initiatives that have emerged?

 

Yes, that’s the big change after 2000 when artists, and many curators, realized that they couldn’t depend on state-run institutions like national galleries or city galleries. They started to open their own galleries in garages and store windows. That was an exciting time. We bitched about the lack of support, but finally we started to do something on our own and not just trust big institutions and state budgets, which are unreliable.

 

Very unreliable, especially in an era of austerity. Where do those initiatives stand today?

 

It’s still booming. It’s interesting to compare it to the semi-official art spaces of the 1980s. There’s a lot in common. Someone decides that they really need to do a contemporary art exhibition program, and they do it. People very often kidnap existing institutions, like a veterinary clinic or a psychiatric institution, where they’ll take over a corridor and exhibit there. Something similar is happening today with art galleries in former gas stations, even in a former mortuary that was no longer functioning. People usually do it for two or three years, then they realize that it’s too much energy and they don’t go on. The ones that continue become institutionalized.

 

And their status is legal, semi legal, illegal?

 

All variations are possible, but there is a pressure to legalize everything. Very few of the places are squats in the real sense of the word. It’s usually rented space or space that people let you know about. The most famous independent gallery of the early decade was the Display Gallery started by young artists and art historians. Later it merged with tranzit with support from Erste. It’s well established and has been around for 10 years, publishing books and having a real impact.

 

I’m interested in these large squats that combine art and politics, like Metelkova in Ljubljana or Tacheles in Berlin. Has there been anything similar to that in this country?

 

Not really. In the 1980s, it was impossible to build something like that. The Czech underground was a relatively small group of people. I personally knew some of them, but I was scared of them. They openly said, “We are not taking part in the system.” And that was too scary for me at the time, as it was for many people. There were some semi-official exhibitions, but no squats.

Then in the 1990s, artists were so relieved that they didn’t have to be so political, that they no longer had to be voices of the people and put into words what could not be said. So, the 1990s was the most apolitical decade in Czech art. All the artists became interested in their own mythologies, their own identities, and they put off political questions. Of course I am generalizing. But it’s surprising to look at the art production of the time and how it refuses to deal with the past, as if the past were totally forgotten like some vanished civilization that has nothing to do with us. This is a very dangerous and scary thing. But it remains this way even today. We forget about the totalitarian past as if we did not take part in it.

It’s important to say that yes we took part in it. Even though I was only 20, on a conscious or subconscious level, I had to compromise with the system. It’s important to recognize this in order to be aware of the mechanisms at work and not repeat this again. But the art of the 1990s was totally uninterested in this. Only from 2000 on, in the visual arts as well as in literature and film, people became interested in what happened to us in the past and be critical of politics in general. Especially after 2010, a new generation of young people is not afraid to be leftists. They can use leftist terminology without feeling embarrassed or inappropriate. They are much more critical than the generation 10 years ago.

 

At the exhibit After Velvet at the Municipal Gallery, I was surprised by how apolitical the art was. The only piece that was political was from the 1960s.

 

It’s total amnesia, a kind of blindness. I’m writing an essay right now, which I have to finish by tomorrow, on the fate of the official public art created in the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. There are thousands and thousands of sculptures, especially in the housing districts around Prague. They’ve become homeless sculptures. They do not belong to anyone. No one sees them, even though they are symbols of their times. It’s not just the people who live there that don’t see them. It’s also art historians! The official art of socialist Czechoslovakia is a subject that no Czech art historians find interesting. How is this possible? What makes us exclude such a huge number of pieces? Why aren’t we being analytical and trying to understand continuities and discontinuities with our totalitarian past?

 

This is a big subject in former Yugoslavia.

 

I think it is everywhere in the region.

 

Yes. But the war interrupted the conversation in former Yugoslavia. Now there are quite a few exhibitions about public art from that period of time. Can you give some examples of the new political art here?

 

Some of it was imported. An artist who comes to my mind is a Czech American – Jan Kotik was born in the United States to a Czech mother and spoke English at home — who decided to come here in the late 1990s. He was a normal American artist — leftist, anti-capitalist, anti-consumerist. And he started to do politically charged work. None of the Czech artists of his age understood what he was doing.

Another influence from the outside was the session of the IMF that happened in Prague in 2000. For people of my generation, the IMF meeting was in sync with the neoliberal orientation of the Czech Republic of that time. It was supposed to be proof that we are part of civilized world. But in fact thousands and thousands of people from around the world came to Prague to protest those structures. What did this mean that all these people came here to protest? That shook up a lot of people at that time.

Also, the possibility of travel allowed us to understand that capitalism doesn’t solve everything, that maybe this is not the end of history and we still have to form our future in a more radical way than we did in the 1990s when we believed that parliamentary democracy and free market would solve everything. Still, in the Czech Republic, the economic situation is relatively fine. But I remember the shock I experienced when I saw the poverty in Great Britain in 1992 when I went for several weeks. I realized that not everyone is happy, that there is something wrong with that system.

 

Have there been any exhibitions that have looked at this new political art in the Czech Republic or elsewhere?

 

Some. What comes to mind is the exhibition five or six years ago that took place in the municipal library, which is part of the City Gallery of Prague. It was called Annual National Growth. The different works were playing with the theme of economy. Most of them were highly critical of consumerism or economic thinking in general. It was a very successful and popular show. Most of the artists were working with humor..

Another one was by Groupe Guma Guar. David Cerny hates them because they are Communists to him. And they are. Given a space at the City Gallery, they in turn gave the space to a recently banned Communist youth organization to use for their propaganda. The exhibition was vandalized within three days by skinheads, and then it was closed.

 

That was in some sense a successful happening!

 

One other work of visual art to mention is Czech Dream, a documentary about a fake supermarket. It comes directly from the Czech tradition of schemes and practical jokes. Two young filmmakers got a state grant to make a documentary. They created a fake advertisement campaign about this amazing supermarket chain that offered very very low prices. Then they invited the public for the opening of the supermarket. They built only a facade that had nothing behind it. Thousands of people came to get cheap meat, and there was nothing. It created a big controversy because it was perceived as a cruel and a waste of money. But it made people think about the mechanisms of advertising and the general mechanics of consumer society.

 

It reminds me of Andreja Kuluncic’s NaMa series. I wanted to ask you about David Cerny. He is deliberately provocative. But he denies that his works are provocative. His art is all over the place. So he’s very visible. Yet, much of his work is confrontational. He wants to piss people off. What has been the reaction of the general population?

 

A big part of the general population loves it. The sculptures wouldn’t remain in important places if there weren’t general agreement that the works are funny or refer to important things. I think he’s got a great talent to talk about general problems to general audiences, which is very rare. It’s also why he’s so hated by the art community. One of the reasons he has so much art in public space is that he doesn’t show in galleries. He doesn’t want to communicate with other artists. He wants to approach the whole society, which is why he has created this public persona, and why he deals with interviewers in a certain way.

 

He is a performer, and his work is very theatrical in its reliance on spectacle. It seemed that he wanted to find a larger group of people to piss off with Entropa. That also seemed to start an interesting discussion.

 

Unfortunately, it was a discussion of whether it was a misuse of public money or not. That seemed to be the most important question for people, rather than the content of the work.

 

In what interesting directions do you think artists are going in this country?

 

I find it interesting that many young artists are interested in the past or in reinterpreting the history. They are doing our jobs, the jobs of curators or art historians. They are researching what their older peers were doing. The results are not art history books or exhibitions but art projects that sometimes manipulate the original artwork. It is a dialogue with history, which I find interesting: to find what we have in common with the past, what we have brought to contemporary times, and what we expect of the artist today.

Barbara Klimova, who works in Moravia, started a big research project in which she interviews and reinterprets the works of often forgotten artists, some of whom didn’t even think of themselves as artists. Or, on a more personal level, Dominik Lang is a sculptor who works with the modernist legacy of his father’s sculptures. By putting them into new contexts, he comes to terms not only with his family situation but also modernism and the totalitarian past.

 

When you think back to your perspective of the world in 1990, have you had major changes in your thinking?

 

Many. Obviously, the whole world expanded. As writer Jáchym Topol put it, even time expanded, because before it was stable and slow and then it was accelerating. For me, all these opportunities opened up. Right after 1989 it was suddenly clear who was bad and who was good. We knew it even before. But it was important to realize that this distinction is black-and-white, and I was part of it as well. Was I good or was I bad? It’s a question you have to ask yourself all the time. It’s not just the people’s revolution that will tell you who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. It’s also about learning self-responsibility. The world around here is how you build it. You have to be in charge.

 

When you look at everything that has changed or not changed here from 1989 until today, how would you evaluate that on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 most dissatisfied, 10 most satisfied?

 

I’m not sure if the question makes sense. But generally, I’d put it high. Around 8.

 

Same scale, same period of time, but your own personal life?

 

I feel very happy. But that question implies that I had other choices. Which is difficult to say. I could be richer. I could be younger. But, anyway, 9.

 

Finally, looking into the future, how would you evaluate this country’s prospects on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic?

 

7.

 

Prague, February 28, 2013


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