Criticism Continues to Lag Behind Art
Czech Artist Dominik Lang with Critic Tomá Pospiszyl
Dominik Lang: After 1989, Czech art opened itself up to the world. Foreign curators and galleries have been hunting in the Czech art scene a little like archeologists—unearthing some artists while leaving others to rest in peace. Looking back, how do you view the inclusion of Czech artists, for example Běla Kolářová or Jiří Kovanda, in the international context? Are there any other Czech artists deserving of international attention?
Tomá Pospiszyl: Like any art from the periphery, Czech art is not necessarily easily understood by the general public. In the 1990s, several large exhibitions in the West attempted to present Czech or Eastern European art as a whole, with many internal nuances. However, this proved to be unnecessarily complicated. Around 2000, young Eastern European curators offered a new approach. They began to build a local artistic genealogy, something like a parallel history to the West’s dominant trends. The international art scene has already adopted several of the artists included in this genealogy, for instance, as examples of Eastern European variants of conceptualism or performance art. This is the case with Jiří Kovanda. He has an immense ability to communicate directly with the viewer, to establish an intimate relationship with him. At the same time, nobody had imagined he, of all people, could make it internationally, and it was certainly a surprise for him as well.
Lang: Kovanda’s transformation from local to global artist was very fast. Just 10 years ago, almost nobody outside our country knew of him, he had no gallery, and had not even had any large exhibition in Prague, let alone in the world.
Pospiszyl: His success was launched by his participation at Documenta 12 in 2007. This shows that if a Czech artist can make it into an international setting, then the decision is made not here at home, but out there in the world. For my generation, which directly experienced the fall of the Iron Curtain, the relationship of local vs. global has been a central theme of our lives. We still do not completely understand what an open world means. Mentally, we still perceive the differences between East and West. For the younger generation, such mental barriers no longer exist; they have a normal relationship to the outside world. They regularly study, exhibit, and even live there.
Lang: At a recent conference on Czech art of the 1980s, you spoke of the almost complete absence of women in that era’s art scene—unless, of course, they worked with or looked after their artist husbands. In the Czech Republic, feminism has always been rather timid. In fact, according to some people it doesn’t exist here at all. What is your view of the situation of women artists in the 1980s and ’90s, in comparison to the art scene today?
Pospiszyl: In the late ’80s and early ’90s, nobody gave a second thought to the fact that the Tvrdohlaví group (“Hard-Heads”), which brought together the most interesting artists of its generation, consisted of 10 men and no women. Although this would not be possible today, this imbalance persists on many other levels. The studios at Prague’s Academy of Fine Arts are led by 17 men and just one woman. There is still a need for purely female exhibitions, in order to show the specific nature of art made by women. Here, too, such problems will hopefully disappear with the younger generation, where a significant number of the most interesting artists are women. The perception of women is a more general problem in the Czech Republic. What else can we expect from a country whose government has 14 male ministers but only three women? It is a sign of our society’s immaturity.
Lang: Compared to the emerging generation of Czech artists, Czech criticism and curatorial practice strikes me as being very poor, limited to just a few individuals. What criticism needs is an attempt at engaging in a more passionate debate, while curatorial practice lacks original and daring projects, which in my view do not necessarily require large budgets. In your view, what is the cause of this situation?
Pospiszyl: Classical art criticism has been on the wane throughout the world as the result of changes in the world of print media. In the Czech Republic, however, there are not even any interesting blogs. Curators have given up on holding thematic exhibitions, or even any exhibitions addressing particular issues. Such exhibitions are usually held in small, independent venues. Nevertheless, there exist examples of relatively large private institutions, such as Prague’s DOX, that aim to create an international exhibition program and to explore social and political themes. At the same time, young artists and curators often criticize DOX, but nobody is capable of formulating this critique. Maybe everyone here knows everyone else too well. Still, we encounter similar problems almost everywhere in Eastern Europe. There are lone individuals, but we are missing institutions, including critical ones.
Lang: Many foreign museums function thanks to the generous support of private collectors who dedicate their collections to the museum or make donations to its acquisitions activities. It is not only a sign of social prestige, but also proof of a natural interest in contemporary art. In your view, what would we need for a similar model to work here?
Pospiszyl: Large Czech collectors tend to focus on classical modern art; they are afraid of the present. There is a strong conservatism at play here. Some commercial galleries in the Czech Republic sell certain artists exclusively to foreign buyers and others exclusively to domestic collectors. But some multinational corporations are in the process of building collections of contemporary Eastern European art. To this day, there is a strong tradition in the Czech Republic of collectors who are not outrageously rich but whose passion and sense for art has helped them put together collections of extraordinary quality with relatively little money. For now, however, these collectors and museums do not trust each other enough. They have not yet learned how to bring their mutual interests into harmony with each other.
Dominik Lang (b.1980) is a Czech sculptor. He studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague and at Cooper Union in New York. His installation Sleeping City presented Czech Republic at the 54th Venice Biennial. In 2013, he won the Jindřich Chalupecký Award for Young Artists in the Czech Republic. Currently he is a teacher at the Academy of Art, Architecture, and Design in Prague.Thomá Pospiszyl
TOMÁ POSPISZYL (b.1967) is a Czech critic, curator, and art historian. He studied at Charles University in Prague and at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College in New York. He worked as a curator at The National Gallery in Prague (1997 - 2002), and was a research fellow at The Museum of Modern Art in New York (2000). He teaches Art History at the Academy of Fine Arts and Film and TV School in Prague.