ESSAYS Mousse 6
Action! The Silent Revolution of Jiří Kovanda
by Simone Menegoi
Jiří Kovanda is “a famous artist that you don’t know.” A guy who in Prague, in the 1970s, made installations that were so barely noticeable that those who passed by them didn’t see them. He made performances so discreet that those watching didn’t realize they were performances. That’s all? That’s all, and it isn’t so little. Thirty years later, someone realized that his work is still relevant, and is a point of reference (conscious or not) for many of the most radical artists of recent generations. This is how the international art world began to take notice of him: the photographic documentation of his first actions began to circulate; a couple of trendy galleries showed his work; a monograph was published last year. Today Kovanda, at age fifty-three, makes mostly paintings and sculptures. Always according to his own manner: positioning himself a little after or a little before—even if it’s only a millimeter—from that which we recognize at first glance as “art.”
This history of art is also made of lacunae, eclipses, oblivion at times, followed by a renewed interest. The history of contemporary art is not an exception; if anything it makes this aspect particularly evident. One of its major lacunae, in recent times, reexamined avant-garde art produced in Eastern Europe from the postwar period to 1989, in particular in the 1960s and 1970s. Body art, performance, original and visionary forms of conceptualism; an entire continent submersed in political censorship and economic difficulties; an Atlantis that some, over the past few years, have begun to trace onto a map and make better known in the West as well. One of the many forces working recently in this direction is a group of Slovenian artists, IRWIN, who are curating a large project on many fronts (editorial, shows, conferences) aptly titled East Art Map (eastartmap.org), whose most recent volume is a five-hundred-page publication in 2006 from Afterall, the publishing house of Central St. Martins College in London. Another was presented just a few days ago, at the Contemporary Art Museum of Belgrade, when the show KONTAKT opened (already presented at the MUMOK in Vienna in 2006), that shows the work of more than thirty artists from Central and Eastern Europe, collected by the bank group Erste.
Among the names in the show in Belgrade is Jiří Kovanda, born in Prague in 1953. Even in the context of the avant-garde of the East, in which conceptual subtlety and irony systematically prevail over the “heroic” gesture and the rhetoric of materials, his work distinguishes itself with its exceptionally elusive and volatile nature. His most notable works—if the term “notoriety” can be employed to describe such a niche artist—are a series of actions carried out from 1976 onward, in Prague or near the city, and installations realized in those same places beginning in 1978, some of them documented according to the spartan aesthetics typical of Conceptual art. On an A4 sheet of paper, one or two photographs in black and white with a few typed words that describe gestures so simple that a spectator may ask why someone would make the effort not only to record them but to carry them out in the first place. I rake together some rubbish (dust, cigarette stubs, etc.) with my hands and when I’ve got a pile, I scatter it all again (1977). I carry some water from the river in my cupped hands and release it a few meters downriver (1977). I hit four clumps of dirt with the soul of my shoe, looking at the corners of the room (1979). To better understand the marginality of these actions, you have to keep in mind that they happened in public places (streets, bridges, squares), but in a secret fashion: they weren’t promoted by any gallery or institution, they were out of context in every performing arts festival, and they weren’t announced except to maybe a few friends, and sometimes not even to them, but only to the photographer who was there to capture the event in a single picture.
Moreover, Kovanda was doubly isolated in the Prague context. He was isolated as an avant-garde artist, a figure only tolerated by the regime on the condition that he remain underground. But he was also isolated, at least in part, from the avant-garde scene itself, either because he didn’t have artistic training and was often viewed as a dilettante, or because the scene was dominated by political concerns that the artist didn’t share. “Many people have asked me what influence my actions had on society during the era, and I am not saying they weren’t influential, but that that was absolutely not important for me.” He declared this to Hans Ulrich Obrist in an interview in his monograph edited by jrp/ringier (2006). “The personal aspect was always predominant over the social aspect.… There was no political subtext, absolutely not. I worked on the borders with a group of given possibilities and I didn’t feel as if I were rebelling against something.”
The so-called installations are no less elementary than the performances, and if it is possible, they were even more private, given that Kovanda was able to document them on his own, avoiding the need to get a photographer involved. A piece in autumn 1980 consisted of three wooden shingles positioned on a carpet of fallen leaves; from that same year are two heaps of white, perhaps handfuls of sugar, maybe salt, left by the artist on two parapets on two bridges over the Vltava. Also in the 1980s are the wedges in the pavement, three small wooden wedges (the kind used for keeping a canvas tight) on the edges where cobblestones meet the street corner. On the whole, it seems that they are a version of Land art, of Minimalism and Anti-Form, miniaturized and made ephemeral, becoming parodies of the originals.
It is useless to say that the fate of the installations or the actions was to remain invisible. The majority of passersby didn’t even notice them since they were so discreet, and if they did notice them, it was quite rare that they would notice them as “works.” It is true that some of the works, like the 1976 performance in which the artist stopped immobile in the middle of the street with arms held out, could have drawn some attention as “abnormal” behavior, and that some installations, a bit more articulated than the others, may have signaled something “unusual” in the urban environment. But what can be said of interventions that proposed to be absolutely mimetic, indistinguishable from the context? In Theater (1976) Kovanda stood in front of a building and followed a series of prescribed gestures, but he carefully chose insignificant and everyday gestures, like balancing on one foot then the other, scratching his nose, leaning on a railing, and so on. An action the following year (documented only with two sparse lines, not even a photograph) consisted in simply arriving ten minutes early for a date with friends.
It is in these limited cases that the nature and the intent of Kovanda’s interventions is clarified. The artist declared that for him, photographs and texts are only a documentation of the work, not the work itself. All the same, it was difficult or even impossible to be witness to his installations and performances at the very moment they were realized; they were destined to be known later, through documentation. So, what does Kovanda’s work consist of? Subjective experience, on the one hand, and the relationship that the spectator could establish with the work at a distance, on the other. The first, the subjective experience, was by definition private and difficult to communicate, especially since, in the case of public actions, it was tied to a particular psychological condition: “Those things that rise up in a state of tension or a type of trance because I am a shy person, so those things constituted a violation of limits, not only in respect to the people on the street beside me, but also in respect to me, given that they implied a behavior that was not natural for me.” The second, the relationship that the spectator is able to establish with “the sort of trance” is linked to the imagination, that the dryness of the texts and photographs, rather than diminishing, actually stimulates, adding to the enigma and the strangeness of those interventions at the edges of visibility.
Naturally, even research this original has precedents. During the time close to Kovanda one can think of the Fluxus artists and their strategy of systematically erasing the line between art and life (the score for a 1963 performance by Alison Knowles reads simply Prepare a Salad). But Kovanda had a different genealogy in mind for his work: “I was more interested in the American scene than European Body art. It seemed too poetic and theatrical… I don’t see much daily life in Fluxus. I see it more as a kind of pretense of arty-ness. The actions of Acconci, Oppenheim, and Burden seem to be more extreme situations, but they seem more taken from real life than those in Fluxus. When Richard Long went somewhere and put some rocks down, it seemed something much more ordinary to me than Fluxus. More ordinary in the good sense of the word.” That “ordinary in the good sense of the word” that Kovanda admired in Anglo-Saxon performers is probably the essence of his work.
Today Kovanda is a man of fifty-three. He hasn’t lost his shyness, nor has he abandon his anti-professional attitude. As in the 1970s, he doesn’t have a studio, and he makes a living with a trade he sees as being tied to art, but not in the role of the protagonist: until 1995 he was in charge of the warehouse of modern art at the National Gallery in Prague, and today he is assistant to the chair of the painting department at the arts academy. To Obrist, who last year asked him what he was working on, he declared, “I’m not working on anything, now… I am a bit skeptical. I have nothing planned.” But the West began to rediscover buried treasures of Eastern European art, and his work is also slowly gaining visibility. A pair of sophisticated and serious galleries, gb agency in Paris and Krobath Wimmer in Vienna, have inserted him among their artists, Artforum reviews his shows, and the images from his first works have begun to circulate in a crowd much wider than specialists. His work has stood the test of time, more so than more celebrated artists from the same generation: the dryness of his interventions, their unwaveringly anti-spectacular character, and the lucidity and coherence with which he configured the problem of the relationship with the public make the works memorable. Works that, among other things, seem to have a certain influence on younger conceptual artists, those already awarded in notoriety, like Roman Ondák or Paweł Althamer. The latter artist in particular, in the performance series Film (in which the actors “recite” perfectly everyday actions), explicitly seems to offer an homage to Kovanda. Apparently little shaken by this interest, now Kovanda dedicates himself to painting and sculpture.
It is not a turnaround in respect to his historical work: in the 1970s he made drawings, graphite traces registering simple movements. Besides, the new works are nearly mocking the old in terms of technical ability or “inspiration”: they are small canvases that look like they were made by a child, at times made with only a small piece of newspaper glued to canvas, or else assemblages made with wooden rods and pieces of bread, a cardboard box and sticks, a piece of rubber and a strip of tape. By comparison, Alighiero Boetti, who worked with corrugated cardboard and paper doilies, looks like Richard Serra.
From time to time, Kovanda still concedes to the whims of some action, like in 2004, for the show Being the Future (Palast der Republik, Berlin), in which he spent the entire opening hidden behind a column in a remote part of the building. We don’t know if he is still interested in Zen, as he was in the 1970s. Maybe not. But he certainly won’t mind an article about him that closes with an anecdote from that philosophical tradition. A Buddhist priest, envious of the renown of a Zen master, provoked him with stories of great miracles performed by the founder of his sect: standing on the bank of a river, with a brush he knew how to trace the name of the Buddha on a sheet of paper that an assistant held on the other shore. “Can you do this prodigious thing?” he asked. And the master, unruffled: “Perhaps your fox can perform this game of prestige, but this is not the way of the Zen. My miracle is that if I am hungry I eat, and if I am thirsty I drink.”
Originally published on Mousse 6 (January 2007)