KATEŘINA ŠEDÁ WAS invited by Taipei Museum of Art curator Esther Lu to participate, along with Bernd Behr and ChiaWei Hsu, in the presentation of the Taiwan Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale. This peculiar group of artists presented works examining the relationship between ‘us’ and ‘foreigners’. The curatorial project was titled This is not the Taiwan Pavilion. Kateřina developed her project with the BATEŽO MIKILU group. How did a Czech artist come to represent Taiwan? In what way did her work relate to happenings in Taiwan? And what is the nature of Šedá’s collaboration with BATEŽO MIKILU, a group of six fifteen-year-old students from the Masaryk High School in the Moravian town of Zastávka? We’ll try to find out in the following interview.
Lýdia Pribišová: What drew you to Zastávka? And how did you come to connect the situation of a small town near Brno with Taiwan?
Kateřina Šedá: Initially it was not about the town, but about the fact that two years ago a group of six fourteen-year-old students contacted me to help them change something about the place. Usually students at that age are concerned with entirely different matters than helping a place where not even one of them lives. I was so taken by this that I visited Zastávka. Immediately, I noticed that the town did not have a square or any large open space in the heart of the town. The center of this village is basically an intersection of large roads with lots of traffic. So Zastávka is divided into lots of little islands, which don’t communicate much with each other. When I got the invitation to go to Taiwan, I wasn’t looking for any connection between these two places. On the contrary, I was trying not to. The key thing that I noticed in Taipei was how considerate people were in public spaces. Several times, someone on the street pointed out that my shoelaces were untied and when somebody dropped some money, a whole group of people stopped to help pick it up. In the subway nobody pushed and in the stores everybody smiled. When I compiled my notes, the curator had a completely different opinion. Initially, I was angry and insisted I was right. After all, I wasn’t going to completely reverse my opinion! Then after a few days, I realized that she was helping me see things from the opposite point of view. I had viewed the considerateness of people there absolutely as a positive; it never occurred to me that it could be main problem. Considerateness is a condition in which the periphery becomes the center. But if the periphery becomes central for the entire society, then being considerate is the main problem. At that moment I was able to see the situation in Zastávka in a different light: I had originally viewed the six students representing the surrounding villages as a positive, considerate element, and Zastávka as the problematic point of contention. Suddenly I realized that Zastávka’s problem was its periphery, as expressed now through six students.
Without any planning whatsoever, I was now looking at two places with the same problem: the periphery had become the center.
LP: In your work you deal with community interaction. You create new communities by creating some activity, some reason for their existence. In the new project you focus on the relationship of the periphery to the center. How do these relationships work in the Venice project? How are you working with community here?
KŠ: I’d like to point out that it isn’t the ’Venice Project’. Our project primarily concerns Zastávka, and was presented in Venice as a unconventional event, which was at the same time meant to draw attention to the situation of the Taiwan Pavilion in the exhibition.
It’s actually the first time in my work that I’ve ever responded to such a request for collaboration. I usually pick the people and places for my events myself, intuitively, which is why I usually avoid such ‘orders’. But this time, I heard a ‘call from both sides’. Usually, there’s only a call from one side (curators invite me to an event or exhibition) and I have to take care of the other side myself. I try to involve in my projects people who are often outside the art world, who usually don’t care about art. And paradoxically, the less they care about it, the more I care about them. This time, however, I heard both sides calling and both sides were saying much the same thing – BATEŽO MIKILU: “This is not our village” and ESTHER LU: “This is not the Taiwan Pavilion.” It seemed to me like an important sign – for the first time I wasn’t on any side, but found myself in the middle of two sides.
My new role in the project logically involves a different kind of cooperation. It took several months before the group really let me in and stopped acting as if I was some teacher, on the outside. We had to forget about age and the deferential respect shown to elders to really get on an equal footing. This time, I’m not the director and they’re not participants, we’re really co-authors.
LP: (to BATEŽO MIKILU): What led you to contact Kateřina Šedá? What did you expect from her and how did you find out about her work?
BATEŽO MIKILU: We learned about Katka’s work through ŽO (Georgi Dimitrov), who had already taken part with KI (Kristýna Fillová) in Katka’s Líšeň Profile event. We found Katka’s way of thinking and creating very interesting.
We had already been thinking for some time how to change the environment and relationships in the place where our school is. Imagine a town that used to be famous for its mining, bustling with activity. Of course, today all the local mines are closed, the community has fallen apart and so have the relationships of all the inhabitants. In addition, the town is divided by busy roads and railroads. That’s the main feature of Zastávka. First, we considered taking part in a charitable foundation program of an unnamed company, but then, after looking through the catalogue to Kateřina Šeda’s Každej pes jiná ves (Different Strokes for Different Folks) exhibition, we decided to contact her and ask her advice. We didn’t have any illusions about the outcome, which turned out to be beyond our expectations, though.
LP (To Kateřina Šedá and BATEŽO MIKILU): How do you collaborate? What kind of results do you want to achieve?
BATEŽO MIKILU: Our collaboration gives us a completely different view of the world and lots of experience that school generally doesn’t provide. Not to mention that that Katka treats us as equals, which is pretty uncommon for people our age. We’re thankful that she doesn’t lose patience with us.
The one thing we are hoping for is that we will be able to change something, to leave our mark, and that the effort we put into this project doesn’t evaporate.
KŠ: We meet quite often in a space we’ve rented in Zastávka, and I think the rest of the town is trying to figure out just exactly what we’re doing in there. It’s important for me that we approach things together, with everybody equally responsible. I’ve never let anyone have such an up-close look at my process, or be part of it the entire time, including all the errors and mistakes. The students don’t have it easy – they get up early on the weekends and work with me the entire day.
I’m convinced that in this town a one-off event won’t help. Only a more permanent change in the behavior of certain groups will. The fact that the periphery is central for the town is, in this case, a minus… and I’m thinking about ways to reverse that. And that will only happen if the periphery changes its behavior.
LP: What form did the event at the Biennale take?
KŠ: From the beginning I was working with the fact that Taiwan (due to the political situation) does not really have an official pavilion and that intriguedme.The ‘Taiwan Pavilion’ is really more on the fringe of the Venice Biennale and is an auxiliary exhibition that cannot take part in officialcompetitions.
Since from the beginning of my project I’d been dealing with the relationship between the center and the periphery, I decided to use the presentation of my project to reverse this situation in Venice by placing the Taiwan Pavilion in the center. For me, the center of the Biennale is represented by all the official international pavilions.Therefore, the Taiwan Pavilion was presented in each of them.
The six students and I went to all 88 pavilions, each time intending to attract everyone’s attention for a moment. The six students, whose actions were aimed at showing the center, symbolized the traveling Taiwan Pavilion. Thus, a pavilion which is not usually visible could suddenly be seen in many ‘official’sites.Eachinternational pavilion was transformed for a moment into the Taiwan Pavilion, except for one alone: the event took place only in the official pavilions, which theTaiwanPavilion was not.
LP: How exactly did you intervene in the other pavilions? Were they informed of the project in advance?
KŠ: The goal of the project was not to damage any installation or take a controversial stand against the other pavilions, but simply to attract a certain type of attention. None of the pavilions was informed of anything before the event, because I am particularly interested in the moment of surprise, which is lost when such information is made public. On the other hand, I liked the fact that we were choosing our public and not the other way around. The students approached it like paper trail, though, and sometimes posted on Facebook the time and place we happened to be.
We brought these blue plastic disposable overshoes from Zastávka, which we used for all the events here and which for us symbolized a visitor coming from the periphery. We wore the overshoes every-where in Venice for the entire duration of the event, and only took them off before entering each pavilion. This simple item visually connected the group and made them very visible. In individual pavilions we divided up into three groups, each of which had the same goal – to look for the way to the Taiwan Pavilion, i.e. the way to ourselves. We picked out random visitors and showed them our map, which had the Taiwan Pavilion listed in 88 places, and then asked: “We heard that the best exhibit in the Venice Biennale is at the Taiwan Pavilion, do you know where it is?” Most of those we approached were quite helpful and began intently searching through their materials. After just a few days, people on the street began to recognize us – “That’s the Taiwan Pavilion!”
LP: Your project questions the role of national pavilions and the Biennale, highlights its transience and instability. What was the point of your participation in the Biennale, and specifically in theTaiwan Pavilion?
KŠ: That’s a good question, because I was intrigued by the fact that Taiwan does not actually have a pavilion, so it was a pretend pavilion. That seemed to me to be a far more interesting than presenting in some official pavilion or the main exhibition.I myself never tried to present any project in the Czech and Slovak Pavilion; that opportunity never appealed to me much.
The Taiwan Pavilion, though, is an entirely different situation and brought with it a whole range of new issues.
In my installation, I set up only a wall with a window in the pavilion, which was meant to symbolize the entrance to our version of the Biennale. Visitors who came there were handed a new map of the Biennale through the window. The map showed that the Taiwan Pavilion was actually somewhere else – in the 88 international pavilions. The wall, for me, was also a symbol of the obstacles facing the Taiwan Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, and with my event I was trying to put a small hole in the wall and change visitors’ perspectives.
LP: Your event only lasted the first five days and was only open to the general public for two. Your projects tend to be designed for the ordinary people who also take part in them. This time however, most of the event took place during the preview for professionals dealing with contemporary art, giving the impression that it was intended for them. So what about that? Why was the project so short? And what became of it for the rest of the Biennale?
KŠ: In my projects I work with various people, including professionals. In Zastávka I’m working with the center and the periphery, that is to say the people who live there and those who commute. The Biennale can be viewed similarly – if we represented the commuters, the periphery, then we had to seek out our counterparts in those who are at home at the Biennale, and that certainly isn’t the average viewer, even if I don’t want to ignore them.
As far as the length of the event is concerned, I was limited by several factors – the greatest of which was the age of the teenagers and getting them time off from school. Even so, I think the results were excellent and five days were sufficient. Plus, I’m working with another schedule within the project as a whole. We’re planning the main event in Zastávka after the opening and at the end of the Biennale. Viewers can check the website and Facebook to see how the project will continue and what is going on.
As for the installation itself, there was a major change after the event. The spectators were able to get to the other side – behind the wall, where they had the opportunity to notice that the hole in the wall symbolized the entire event.
LP: What would you have presented at the Biennale if the Zastávka project hadn’t existed?
KŠ: I can’t answer a question like that because it doesn’t make any sense to me. It’s the same as if someone asked me what I would be doing in my life if I didn’t have two hands or couldn’t walk. My pieces come about naturally. I believe in them and never bring places into the calculation – it wouldn’t work and none of the participants would believe in it much. I originally wanted to do something in Taiwan itself, but then it seemed pointless to me. First of all, that’s what most artists would have done and secondly, I was mainly interested in defininga general problem, which I could deal with anywhere. Involving Zastávka, that just happened by chance – it’s hard to plan things like that. I work with general themes and it doesn’t matter whether I’m in a village or abroad. The main thing is what the work conveys and how. I’m not afraid of repetition. Quite the contrary! I repeat some things/events/principles intentionally, because it’s only with repetition that they begin to work and I have a chance to get farther than before. There are some what different demands on my work than for classical ‘works of art’, which is why I tend to smile when I read some of the art critics.
LP: How is this project different or ground-breaking compared to previous ones?
KŠ: This piece differs from previous ones in many ways. In particular: 1) it was created at someone else’s request (the six teenagers), 2) for the first time I’m not the author, but really a co-author, and I’m letting someone get a close look at my proc-ess, 3) for the first time a curator has truly become part of my work – not as a curator, but more as a co-author, 4) the event in the village will be the firsttimeI’m not appearing under my own name, but as a member of a group (BaTeŽo Ka MiKiLu) and 5) for the first time the presentation of the event is just as important as the event itself, since the presentation is also conceived as an event.
LP: So what will happen next in Zastávka? At the Biennale the project was titled This Is Not a Czech Pavilion. What will it be called later?
KŠ: Our project in Zastávka has from the very beginning been called At Sevens and Sixes. In Venice it was presented under the title This Is Not a Czech Pavilion. This was a reflection of theTaiwan exhibit,This is not the Taiwan Pavilion, and also indicated that another place was involved. The presentation in Venice is not the culmination of the project, but rather its symbolic beginning. For the rest of the year we plan to continue the event in Zastávka, and, if we’re able, we would like to show another piece of the project at the Leipzig exhibition in September 2013.
LP: Thank you.
BATEŽO KA MIKILU in collaboration with RADIM PEŠKO, Map of the Venice Biennale, 2013, marker pen on paper, 50 × 64,5 cm.
BATEŽO KA MIKILU in collaboration with RADIM PEŠKO, Map of Zastávka, 2013, marker pen on paper, 50 × 64,5 cm.
KATEŘINA ŠEDÁ, This Is Not a Czech Pavillion, 2013, photo: author’s archive;
KATEŘINA ŠEDÁ, This is not A Czech pavillion, 2013, photo: David Ondra;
KATEŘINA ŠEDÁ, This is not A Czech pavillion, 2013, photo: author’s archive.
BATEŽO KA MIKILU in colaboration with RADIM PEŠEK and ESTHER LU, Portraits, 2013, marker on the paper.