One can find the Czech Republic, perhaps with some difficulty, in the middle of the European continent. One will have an even harder time finding it on a map of contemporary art. Czech artists do not form a strong and visible lobby. Eastern European art of the 20th century, a category that includes Czech art, has faced many discontinuities resulting from social and political events. If we look at Czech cultural history over the past 100 years, we can immediately identify several disruptions or at least “breaks.” The relationship between contemporary Czech artists and the past is far more complicated than the relationship between contemporary American artists and the past. Literally every generation has had to redefine its cultural values and beliefs.
The situation faced by today’s Czech artists differs only in that they find themselves in an unusually long period of stability. But even in 2014, few people are capable of telling the story of contemporary Czech art without mentioning Communism, which collapsed an entire quarter century ago. To this day, we can feel its devastating influence on artistic freedom and on artists’ ability to communicate with the outside world. The logic of post-Socialism, fatally afflicted by its own history, is reflected in the reception of the work of Jiří Kovanda (born in 1953), perhaps the most internationally respected living Czech artist. His subtle performances from the 1970s are often interpreted as a dissident protest against the existing political order, but at the time of their creation they were exclusively personal in nature.
It is astonishing that throughout Eastern Europe we encounter a long-term resistance to the idea of exploring the relationships between Eastern and Western art on the basis of post-colonial theories. Apparently, any analysis of the behavior of dominant and minority cultures—as for instance in the work of Edward Said—feels too exotic and abstract within the Central and Eastern European context. However, the art of Eastern Europe since 1989 clearly finds itself in the position of a partner who has been expected to absorb Western artistic rules. It isn’t easy to define oneself in opposition to the narrative of global history. The cultural periphery is incapable of creating its own, universally believable story of art. Its situation may not meet the definition of classical colonialism, but it can be quite excellently described with the term “self-colonization” as it is used by Alexander Kiossev. According to Kiossev, Eastern Europe is a kind of periphery where the tool of Western hegemony is not violence, but social imagination. The minority culture yearns to have the same history, including art history, as the dominant culture.
After 1989, Czech art spent a long time coming to terms with its relationship to the world while trying to find its place within it. Although it yearned to become a part of the world, it still felt alien. With just a few marginal exceptions, until recently there was no conceptual art in the Czech Republic. To this day, the craft or handicraft tradition continues to exert a great amount of influence in this country. Czech artists and art critics do not conceal their skepticism toward blurring the lines between artistic disciplines, towards multi-media art and experimentation. One example of an artist who overcame these local conditions is the cosmopolitan work of Ján Mančuka (1972 – 2011), who began to work with literature, film, and theater, in addition to his paintings and installations. Since he could not work with any local tradition, some of his work feels like informed and recontextualized remakes of classical international conceptualism. What is more, Mančuka adopted the left’s critical view of the world, which continues to be unacceptable to a large part of the older Czech artistic community.
A typical feature of the Czech art scene is the weak role of state-funded or publicly funded museums and galleries. The existing system of these institutions follows a legacy of Socialism, and has long failed to reflect contemporary needs. Since 2000, we have witnessed the emergence of numerous independent galleries. Many of these are focused on working with foreign partners and on building translocal relationships. One example is the Display Gallery: in 2007 it merged with the “tranzit” initiative, which had been brought to life in the Central European countries by the Erste Bank Foundation. The resulting tranzitdisplay association plays an important role in presenting Czech art abroad and international art in the Czech Republic. Another independent project (one with an international jury) is the Jindřich Chalupecký Award, the most important award for young Czech artists.
In 2005, the Jindřich Chalupecký Award went to Kateřina edá (born in 1977). The work of this internationally successful artist is based on activist projects within local communities. Interest in her work is motivated not only by the exoticism of southern Moravia’s towns and villages, but primarily by its ethos, made globally comprehensible by her projects’ local foundation. edá’s relationship to Czech art institutions is typified by the fact that she exhibits primarily abroad or in her native Brno. Her successful international start was made possible by the support of foreign gallerists and repeated participation at respected exhibitions abroad. In fact, these conditions apply to all the artists mentioned in this text.
In connection with the aforementioned discontinuity and the current interest in “modernology,” in recent years Czech art has often looked at itself. For some Czech artists it is no longer important to construct one’s history by trying to find what parts of domestic tradition can be compared to international trends. Instead, they create specific and often highly subjective local genealogies. In The Sleeping City, his most successful project to date, Dominik Lang (born in 1980) brought his art together with that of his father, a modernist sculptor active primarily in the 1950s and ’60s. Lang’s exploration of the past does not represent a turn away from the present. Quite the opposite: it is a tool for understanding it in a new way. For Lang, the meaning of art lies in the possibility of creating one’s own version of history, which changes according to who is looking at it, and when. His approach can be understood as a sympathetic step toward following one’s own self-confident path.
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.