International Center for Photography | January 29-May 9, 2010
Between the late 1960s and the mid-1980s, in Kyjov, a small city about 160 miles from Prague, a dirty, unkempt man wandered the streets daily, carrying contraptions that resembled cameras. His neighbors, depending on their level of faith in the communist ideal of civic progress, considered him either a harmless old coot or a stain on society. The children hanging around the city swimming pool were a bit scared of him, even though he had to stand on the other side of the fence; for obvious reasons, the municipal pool functionaries would never allow someone that dirty inside its confines. The girls who did talk to him were sure the camera he was carrying didn’t work. Made of plastic tubing, bottle caps, spools, string, and other bits of worthless junk, it couldn’t possibly take photographs. So why not let him pretend to take your picture? What harm could it do?
Continually perched on the edge of ruin, shunned and barely tolerated, the man was the antithesis of a progressive society, which in this case was post-Prague Spring, pre-Velvet Revolution Czechoslovakia (now Moravia). Lacking any semblance of hygiene, and, far worse, completely unproductive, he wandered the streets all day, reminding everyone he passed that a dirty bundle of chaos was living in their midst. This was how Miroslav Tichý staged a one-person revolution and found freedom in a police state. I don’t think it would have been qualitatively different in America, except that he would have had more company.
The cameras, of course, did work, with the result being more than six thousand snapshots, all of them blurred and in a deliberate state of decomposition. They look as if they were taken by a lurking voyeur, and then, after years of neglect, retrieved from a moldering heap, which is exactly what they were. Their subject is largely and obsessively the same: women in all stages of life, from young girls to elderly matrons. They are sitting alone or together in parks and at bus stops, lying by the swimming pool, or walking down the street. They are standing behind a counter, examining their shoes, running, or riding bicycles. Some are taken from other sources—there is a photograph of the nude Charlotte Moorman playing the cello that puts this cult figure in a new context. Another group is of lovers in parks. And it is not always clear how far they have gone in their lovemaking. There are groups in which Tichý focused on butts, legs, and clotheslines festooned with underwear. For the most part, they capture small, ordinary moments. The cumulative effect is funny, sad, painful, and embarrassing. When I was walking around the exhibition, one adolescent girl announced to her friend, “this is just a wall of butts.” And yet his taxonomy of blurred images often deny individual identity and distinguishing facial features, helping dissolve the racist motivations and interest in purity that fueled the categorizations established by Nazi Germany, Soviet Russia, and Communist China.
Tichý often adds a hand drawn line to clarify a contour. He tears off parts in order to focus in on a subject. He attaches the photos to pieces of paper or cardboard upon which he has drawn a decorative, patterned frame in ink, crayon, or pencil. In sum, his works are like pages dislodged from a disordered album whose purpose will never be known, something one might find in a flea market and probably toss back on the pile. I think this might be Tichý’s vision of the universe—the endless reconfiguration of things that are already adrift, all of them marked by time’s relentless weight.
Some images are so blurred it is difficult to distinguish a figure from her surroundings, solid from light. Many of the snapshots have been partially eaten by mice and silverfish, echoing the sense that a decidedly non-spiritual light is eating away at their forms. Their surfaces are scratched, stained, smudged, torn, folded, and blistered. They have been left out in the rain, and walked on. Everything is in a state of decomposition, even as the viewer slowly discerns the image. This is not the literalization of Barthes’s punctum, but something far more unsettling—the actual decaying and neglect of the photograph.
Tichý’s work invites the viewer to come to terms with a double absence, one that has occurred and one that will. Each photograph is a blurred image of a lost, imperfectly preserved moment and a scarred, deteriorating thing. In that regard, the photographs are metonyms for their subjects. In looking, we recognize that the photographs, like their subjects, are stubborn, fragile things headed towards chaos, which is the opposite of how they are generally regarded. The women inhabit their own world, their days filled with moments of leisure and solitariness, reverie and introspection. As close as the photographs bring us to them, we never feel as if we will know them. Tichý’s world is one of irreparable separateness poised on the brink of infinity. For him, looking is filled with wonderment and mourning.
Along with nearly one hundred photographs, this important exhibition featured a film, Tarzan Retired, as well as two large vitrines containing piles of photographs, homemade cameras, lamps, and rolls of undeveloped film spilling out of a box, all coated with dust and grime. In Tarzan Retired, which was how Tichý characterized himself, he says to Roman Buxbaum, his biographer, friend, and probably the only person he trusts: “If you want to be famous, you have to be worse in something than anybody else in the world.” Talking about his process, he said: “In the beginning, I used three rolls of film a day—that’s three times 36 shots a day. I didn’t predetermine that. It corresponded to the time and duration of each passing day, to the earth turning. The world is founded on numbers. What is the highest and what is the lowest? That’s infinity.” And this is the real subject of Tichý’s work.
For all the political and aesthetic implications of his work, which are thoughtfully detailed in essays by Brian Wallis, the exhibition’s curator, Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev, and Roman Buxbaum (the Richard Prince essay is preening and trivializing), none of the writers addresses the conscious relationship Tichý’s work maintains with real time, understandably preferring to locate it in the context of historical events and manageable periods. At one point in the film, Tichý tells Buxbaum that he was “passing time,” suggesting that photography was his way of filling his day without being productive in a social sense. The title of a painting by Jasper Johns, “Arrive/Depart” (1963-64) came to mind. Tichý slowed time down so that we can examine its inevitable effect on us. The blurred images are like memories that have faded, never to be crystalline again. He has placed his softened glimpses embodied in states of decay on the threshold of infinity, which is always waiting to envelop us. As the rest of society was celebrating progress, and looking towards the future, Tichý set out on a different path and, in a small city, patiently documented his way to infinity, knowing it would come for him one day. That’s the real reason why so many of the townspeople shunned him.