Moving Image Department and Stanislav Kolíbal
NARODNI GALERIE V PRAZE, VELETRZNI PALACE | FEBRUARY 20 - MAY 3, 2015
Adam Budak’s first major gesture as the Chief Curator of the National Gallery in Prague was to introduce a Moving Image Department. This is in keeping with his ambition to make the Veletrní Palace a major European venue for contemporary art. Budak is the first to hold this position—it was created to allow for more direction and innovation in Prague’s juggernaut of a National Gallery system, which include six venues, including the medieval, baroque, and decorative arts. The introduction of the Moving Image Department clearly places the museum’s foot in the door as a participant in contemporary dialogues, but this move is accompanied by a well-deserved tribute to the Godfather of Czech minimalism Stanislav Kolíbal—who himself is an artist of international repute.
“Chapter One: The Importance of Being a (Moving) Image,” features eight video projects, two of them Czech. Liam Gillick conceived the visual identity of the department. His enigmatic style of presenting vague and often contradictory ideas in a precise and authoritative format are evident in the graphic impact of the publications and layout. He also contributed one of the pieces, “Underground (Trailer for a Book)” (2004). What is exciting about this new department, sited in a previously unused part of the museum—discovering an empty wing in the Veletrní isn’t entirely surprising—is that the curator’s have chosen to address one of the seminal problems of video and audio art, namely, that it is a time consuming medium that requires prolonged and focused attention. The majority of contemporary video artists produced narratives that they hope will be viewed in their entirety, and the new gallery in Prague goes out of its way to coax the visitor to stay for a while. That is not to say the work presented isn’t profound or highly intellectual: Meike Bal and Michelle Williams Gamaker’s “Precarity” (2015) is a complicated five screen soap-opera meditation on precariousness as an ontological condition and Roman tětina’s beautiful “Tongue twister” (2014) is visual concrete poetry; we literally watch a recording of a tongue-twister play over again and again, spoken by the narrator with varying degrees of success.
The galleries are arranged to foster a sense of video art as group activity. The various screening areas are not entirely enclosed in the typical black-box format: some areas are merely delineated by a comfortable thick pink carpet and several headphones, I observed a bunch of teenage visitors sitting on the floor intently watching Rachel Rose’s dystopic riff on nature programs “Sitting Feeding Sleeping” (2013). Each video is presented differently—some in a more theatrical environment, others more casual, headphones are not standard issue with each video; and the choice to move towards variety in this context seemed successful.
On the mezzanine of the galleries, dominated primarily by Bal and Gamaker’s five screens, one was greeted by an unintrusive and playful sound piece by Portuguese artist Sara Pinheiro, “Emma’s Soundscape” (2013). The work is an auxiliary element to “Precarity,” meant to heighten the sense of Bourgeois alienation of the larger video piece. The new Moving Image galleries add an element of discovery and surprise to a medium that typically demands a time commitment but often has difficulty justifying it. Here, it is.
An entire floor of this colossal museum is devoted to “Drawing By Drawing,” a retrospective of Stanislav Kolíbal, now 90, who managed to exert his influence on the Western European and American art scenes by cleverly dodging the oppressive Czech government of the ’70s and ’80s. He augmented his international presence as well by becoming the most sought after Czech exhibition designer: not surprisingly he designed this exhibition of his own work. The Kolíbal exhibition wraps around the central atrium of the museum, and while it is chronological, this circular motion is much in keeping with the artist’s practice and ideology. Kolíbal is obsessed with lines, circles, and the most basic and rough Euclidean geometries, which are conceived in the drawings and expounded upon in his sculpture. This cyclical gallery design also shows off his crisp and joyful method of discovery and the direct correlation of his ideas from one to the next to the next—a process he also describes very entertainingly in the novel-sized paperback catalogue—also designed by the artist.
The core of “Drawing By Drawing” are the flat works, but Kolíbal happily questions what it means to be a flatlander (à la Edwin Abbott). The earliest series “White Drawings” (1968 – 76) features simple assemblages of lines and intersections—but many of these are drawn with stitched twine rather than pencil or pen. Succeeding series find the artist experimenting with implied three dimensions and cross-hatching, navigating a decades long discussion with Sol Lewitt, with whom he exhibited on several occasions. The plaster, concrete, and wood sculptures play with solid or extruded geometries, but at times achieve a sense of willful independence from their master (both Euclid and Kolíbal), as in “At a Given Moment” and “Three Ways” (both 1968). This liberation comes across as both playful and angsty. The works that quietly steal the show are the cardboard reliefs from the “Relief Series” (2003 – 14). Kolíbal’s prescient dedication to re-purposing found and trash materials in his work has been linked to the Arte Povera movement, though he vehemently rejects this in favor of his own impoverished depression era childhood. Regardless of the motivation, these plain corrugated cardboard constructions, with their gentle sub-surface ridges juxtaposed against clean cut geometric forms, express the ludic sensibilities and serendipitous accidents that lie at the origin point of Kolíbal’s quest.
On the opening night of the exhibition, the cathedral like atrium of the Veletrní Palace was constellated with video projections and site-specific installations, with dancers weaving in and out among the two. The new aim of the museum is to bathe the viewer in environments—whether it is to cyclically perambulate through the endless sine-curve that is the career of Stanislav Kolíbal or to penetrate the long dark corridor of the Moving Image Department, prospecting for the new new thing. This is a particularly effective form of gallery coordination, one that relies as much on the contemporary spectacle that art has become—and the audience that responds to that stimulus—as the traditional role of the museum as repository of artifacts and beauty.
WILLIAM CORWIN is a sculptor and curator based in New York City. His work has been reviewed in the Brooklyn Rail, ARTnews, Sculpture Magazine, Artcritical, and Art Monthly. In 2016, he organized I Cyborg at the Gazelli Art House in London. He currently teaches with the Meet the Met program at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and hosts a program on Clocktower Radio.