Bizarre transformations of cities
The exhibition Urban Skanzen (Urban Open-Air Museum) in the Clam-Gallas Palace in Prague is about the city and its changing structure. Under communism, the backstreets of historic cities used to be dark and neglected, perhaps a little dangerous yet perversely enticing. When countries liberated themselves from one-party rule and cities opened up to different ideas and plans for the future, there was an explosion of diversity. Visitors from all sorts of places began to arrive in search of the elegance and charm of a city.
Some people are fascinated by the history of a city, its architecture, the layering of different styles and the influences from all directions. Others come in search of cheap thrills and have no interest in the beauty of a place. Many cities have gradually become open-air museums pandering to the lowest taste. As the French author Benoît Duteurtre writes in his book La cité heureuse, by coincidence inspired in part by the development of Prague over the last few decades, the local populations have become virtually “employees” of the tourists, who arrive in their droves in search of meaningless pseudo-experiences.
In this project, the curator Elis Unique reflects upon a current phenomenon that sees the meaning of travel transformed ad absurdum and the elegance of cities destroyed by the scourge of a tourism that is no longer even fulfilling its original purpose, namely broadening the mind through an acquisition of a knowledge of the idiosyncrasies and beauties of individual cultures. For too long, travel has not been about a romantic fascination with faraway places, but simply a relocation from A to B in order to fill up time. Elis Unique has selected several artists, each of whom in their own way is concerned with the way cities are being transformed.
In her installation, Daniela Baráčková has sketched out a strange urban labyrinth in which we can lose ourselves as though in Kafka‘s Castle, wandering about hopelessly without ever arriving at a destination. The artist suggests that intentions can sometimes be so complex that their implementation is beyond the power of those who make the attempt, and that in the end all that is left of an original plan is a fragment that nonetheless must be pursued.
David Možný has created an impressive installation of wheeled suitcases that plough ruthlessly through the centres of cities at any time of day or night. The installation has become a symbol of the absurd raids on historical monuments in which every participant takes a selfie and then adds a tick in their journal against what they saw, before moving on to the next monument.
Jan Pfeiffer looks at how the atmosphere of a particular city changes when its indigenous population is forced to leave it under the pressure of unfavourable situations or events. He reflects upon how its meaning can be lost over the course of time and how easy it is for its culture to be forgotten, but also how under certain circumstances it can be revived. However, things will never be quite the same again, and relationships inexorable change as time passes. He took the story of the family forced to abandon the Clam-Gallas Palace and applied it to his own family, which for many years has lived in the city centre but is beginning to up sticks because the conditions for a normal life are being lost. The charm of the place is disappearing, though the traces of history remain to those with an eye for the unobtrusive detail.
The videos by students of the intermedia studio of the Arts Faculty of Brno University of Technology under the leadership of Pavel Sterec took a concept, the basis of which was a word that the participants had to express through video. The words join forces and head for the central video. The installation as a whole reacts to the structure of a technical object, to the system of solar panels in the landscape and the transformation of solar energy into electricity.
The British artist Daniel Tollady has created a cosy little room out of one of the exhibition spaces. Visitors are to bring presents and leave them anywhere in the interior. A strange collection will result of just about everything possible, from books to sweets. There is a nostalgia present for that which will never return but which we can evoke in our recollections.
The exhibition examines the problem of the constant displacement of people and the intertwining of cultures, something that can be positive and enriching and yet cause an unhealthy erasure of the originality of life in cities, which are gradually losing their specific profiles. Elis Unique and the exhibition architect Miloš Marek have arranged the individual installations so that they naturally follow on from each other.
Jiří Machalický is a curator and an art critic.