THE CZECH-SLOVAK pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale will feature a project by Dominik Lang. Known mainly for the way he critiques exhibition institutions by means of playful, most often architectural interventions, Lang is going beyond the boundaries of what he has achieved thus far in the project being prepared. The direction he has opted for, which is rife with risks, involves the manipulation of personal as well as national mythology, and draws on the story of the works of his father, the sculptor Jiří Lang (1927–1996), which represents a post-war grey zone. The site-specific installation entitled Sleeping City was designed by Lang with a nod toward the modernist architecture of the Venice pavilion created by Otakar Novotný in 1924. The aim is to travel back in time in the pavilion and convert it into an exhibition space for the art of later modernism. But not completely literally. In his inter-generational dialogue the artist transforms historical material both intuitively and rationally as a current question posed in the language of contemporary art.
Katarína Chlustíková: What is your project at this year’s Venice Biennale based on?
Dominik Lang: It is an analysis of the irreversibility and contingency of history, the problematic of the retrospective categorisation of a work. I am interested in how various things are irrevocably anchored in time. My project is based on personal experience. I grew up and still live alongside the almost complete works of my father, a sculptor. During my life he was no longer active, which means that the composition and location of his sculpture has not changed. The studio in which his sculptures are kept ends up being more of a dusty depository, the contents of which are firmly bound up with the period of time during which they were created. His works form a crowd of silent witnesses, a genuinely sleeping city.
KCH: Up till now you have been mainly involved in architectural installations and intervening in the dialogue with creative institutions. This project, which re-presents the sculpture of late modernism, is unusually personal on one level, in that you admit personal mythologies into your institutional critique. What is the reason for this shift in content and why are you presenting it at the Venice Biennale?
DL: In my opinion the project is not so distant from my usual working method of creating site-specific interventions. I have simply changed the medium of communication. It is not a specific spatial or social situation or an item located in a specific context, but the work of another artist with which, in addition, I have a strong personal relationship. I am appropriating my father’s work as material using by which I want to learn not only something of the person of its creator, but of the specificperiod of time during which it was created. This is the most powerful project I have ever undertaken, not least because of the possible risks involved. I am constructing a model of an unrealised exhibition in which I place various modified,dilapidated, covered up or otherwise “abused” sculptures within new coordinates. I am creating a kind of grid through which I am trying to read, while at the same time reshape, my own consciously distorted view of my father’s work. In this respect the pavilion itself is important. A beautiful building from the twenties is ideal for similar classical works. I only know my father’s exhibitions from photographs. They are permeated by a very powerful period atmosphere, based partly on the aesthetic of the exhibition space. They were held in premises such as Špálovka, Nová síň or Mánes, whose architect also designed the Vienna pavilion, which luckily has not undergone any drastic refurbishment.
KCH: Are you not afraid that your own artistic stake will be overshadowed by the intensity of the real-life story behind it? In the interests of generalising this issue would you be willing to exchange the work of your father for other products of European modernism?
DL: I would, though this specific set of works and the fate of their creator has a special power and importance for me. From the start I have been working with full awareness of a certain impossibility, my inability to reach an objective evaluation of the work of an artist so close to me. I was not present at the moment these sculptures were created and they therefore represent a kind of discovery, which I am attempting to read retrospectively. I am working in respect of various perspectives of the relationships with a specificfate,whose ego-author I am living proof of.I would not change Jiří Lang for another artist in Venice.
This project also comprises an interesting parallel to developments in post-war Czechoslovakia up to the present day, and I believe that it is much better suited to a foreign context. In Venice I am expecting much greater willingness to see the project without the unnecessary personal connotations which the artist Jiří Lang might provoke in the Czech Republic. I am not interested in making my father’s sculptures more visible, but instead I want to use a specificapproachtotheminordertoillustrate the fate of the artist and his work, imprisoned in his time, which is by no means an isolated example.
KCH: The project takes as its theme the conflictof the politics and aesthetics of two eras: late modernism during the communist era in Czechoslovakia and the strategies of appropriation common in contemporary art. However, the specificityoftheculturalcontext may remain veiled for a foreign viewer and the context of appropriation therefore not understood.
DL: I think the opposite is actually the case. A broader international context may help my project be read without preconceptions as the principle of coming to terms with the past, which in my case often required a radical handling of the material being investigated. This isn’t about evaluating specific sculptures or the person of their creator, but findingpossible ways of approaching historical material. The installation as a whole should not highlight individual details and the viewer should not have to know the local history in detail.
When walking around the exhibition the viewer should be struck by the anchorage of various modified, dilapidated works within a certain deforming, normative structure. The powerfully staged entirety will therefore on the one hand pass the work through a certain personal construct, while at the same time demonstrating the impossibility of its fixedreading.The exhibition should collapse in front of the eyes of the viewers like disappearing tracks in time.
KCH: Are you also trying to take the role of historian and reconstruct the situation at that time?
DL: When studying period materials I was certainly inspired by several installation principles of the time. However, as with the sculptures I handle these freely. I use them mainly in an inverted fashion, I adapt their functions, I borrow individual elements in order to combine them later into a single structured whole. And so this is not a return to a specific period of time,it is not a retro style exhibition. It is more like the embodiment of a kind of interstice in time during which fragments of the past, both personal and general, mingle with supporting or manipulative constructs of the present, and it is not possible to distinguish the individual construction elements, past or present.
KCH: In your early work Construction No. II of Stanislav Kolíbal, a personal reconstruction or free copy of Kolíbal’s work, there is a pre-echo of your future interest in inter-generational dialogue. Why is this necessary in your opinion?
DL: There is a kind of inter-generational arch all around us without our even being aware of it. It’s a basic practice in art. Construction No. II of Stanislav Kolíbal was created while I was studying at the Academy and was my reaction to the emulation of works by my teachers, given that direct copies were and are taboo. By reconstructing the work in detail on the basis of photography I wanted to point to the impact works of the past have on the reading of new works. At the same time I was interested in the diametrically opposed testimony which a work looking the same could offer.
KCH: However, this attempt at inter-generational dialogue and reverence was not positively received by the older artist.
DL: It became clear that the procedures of appropriation and manipulation with history, which are completely commonplace in contemporary art, are still viewed in this country as theft or parody. Delimiting oneself or, on the contrary, looking at works of the past, is completely natural. It is essential to understand the connections with the work helps create. I would like to carry on working with this in the future.
KCH: Your work often contains institutional critique. Which questions in relation to art have you been thinking about recently?
DL: Many of them. The dysfunctionality of the main institutions, as a consequence of which many older artists have still not been satisfactorily exhibited. The hysterical attempt to seal oneself off from events on the international creative scene, which could cause a stir on the local sleepy atmosphere. The absurd division of art into conceptual and classical, which are absolutely non-existent disciplines at present …
KCH: What is your take on the selection proceedings organised by the National Gallery in Prague for the Venice Biennale?1
DL: The whole situation unfortunately impacts slightly on my project, it points to the relativity of history and the asymmetry of power and law. I don’t feel like a victim or indeed like a winner. I think this problem has its centre of gravity elsewhere. The most important thing for me was the reaction of artists, who refused to participate in protest of the method of nomination. They raised the bar of moral debate and sent an important signal.
Dominik Lang (born 1980 in Prague) lives and works in Prague. He studied at the Academy of Fine Arts (AVU) and the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague. He studied at the International Summer Academy of Fine Arts in Salzburg and The Cooper Union in New York. He works as assistant at the Guest Teacher’s Studio at AVU. He has been showing his work independently since 2004, and this year will exhibit a project at the Czech-Slovak pavilion in Venice.
1 Last year the project designed by Dominik Lang entitled Sleeping City and submitted by the curator Yvona Ferencová was successful in the second round of the call for competition to create an installation in the Czech-Slovak pavilion. The commission comprised leading Czech and Slovak art theoreticians operating independently of the National Gallery. Milan Knížák, director of the National Gallery, vetoed their decision and recommended the project by Vasil Artamonov, Alexey Klyuykov and Pavel Sterec, which had come second. However, these artists refused to participate upon being requested by the director (ed.)
All images are from the project Sleeping City, 2011, collages, 54th Venice Biennale.
Katarína Chlustíková is an art critic and historian, and part of the Gallery K4 curatorial team.