UNDER THE NORMALIZATION régime in the 1970s, Prague was – as Louis Aragon eloquently put it, “a spiritual Biafra”. In the preceding decade leading up to the Prague Spring, artists (and not only artists) had come to have optimistic expectations of the future and to feel that they could and must comment on the absurdities of socialist reality. It was a time when Magdalena Jetelová showed her political attitude in her provocative art gestures and actions. In the 1970s, despite the merciless political repression, she became part of an expanding dissident circle of artists and exhibited with others in non-institutional places. This mood was expressed not just in experiments with red signal smoke or light in Šárka Valley but in the sculptures Chairs (1979–86): the non-functionality and outsize monumentality suggested absurdities in which people recognized elements of their everyday life under real socialism. In the work Stairs a similar pattern of absurdity can be discerned: it is a rising stepped line leading nowhere, made once out of plaster bricks and a second time out of stretched string. Although absurdity or ambivalence are essential features of every contemporary art work, in the conditions of social repression they automatically acquire a political quality.
At the beginning of the 1980s Magdalena Jetelová turned to experimentation in urban spaces. Apart from the project at Chmelnice, this period saw the biggest land art project on Czech territory – involving the district of Prague South City (Undergound City). Unlike the American land artists (Robert Smithson, Walter De Maria, Michael Heizer), who brought simple graphic elements (lines, spirals, abscissae or parallel lines) into the vast dimensions of real wilderness, Jetelová in this exceptional design worked with urban spaces, architectonic elements and a different subtext. She created relationships between the underground architecture with tracks of light in a modeled landscape. She was later to develop this approach in Iceland Project (1992).
In the mid-1980s, when she had emigrated, she created in the Jule Kewenig Gallery in Frechen a work entitled Table, in which she linked up two adjoining exhibition spaces and so made the basic step to art installations. We can interpret her Chair in the same way – in this case as a composition of light projection, the exhibition space and the real parts of the chair. Four massive wooden blocks (the legs of the huge chair) rise out of the floorin front of a big wall showing the light (slide) projection of a monumental chair set up on a bank and reflectedinthewater.The artistic complexity of the whole rests on the visual composition of three images (diapositive, projection, mirroring) and the real interior of the museum.
In 1990 Magdalena Jetelová “dissolved” the boundaries of exhibition space in the Luxembourg Palace in Paris and in the Galerie Frank and Schulte in Berlin by blackening the walls with soot, in which she hand-wrote a quotation from the Anglo-American poet T.S. Eliot: “time present and time past are both perhaps present in time future and time future continued in time past“. Over this black-and-white calligraphic “image” in soot a red laser writes the same text in the opposite direction and at the same time scans the whole space.
Domestication of a Pyramid of 1992 in the Vienna Museum für angewandte Kunst (Austrian Museum of Applied Arts / Contemporary Art) is one of the classic installations of the 1990s. Jetelová also presented a similar meeting of the two different worlds of Egyptian and European architecture in Ireland in the Dublin Museum, in the Martin Gropius Bau in Berlin and in the Zachęta National Gallery of Art in Warsaw. All these installations seem to involve burying the entrance spaces of museums in lava sand. Magdalena Jetelová’s theme here is the situation of penetration – cross-section – by shifting a new internal architecture into the original historical architecture. For her these penetrations mean the intersection of time and space, and express a system of coordinates in which world history unfolds and completely different architectural styles and periods meet. She also worked with cross-sections and light in the Christine König Gallery in Vienna (Two Spaces, 1992), where she cut through the wall between two adjoining exhibition rooms. The exact cut connects the two interiors and continues with a laser drawing on the white walls of the second room.
In 1994 Magdalena Jetelová created the installation Translocation, in the Kunstverein in Hanover. Here she “displaced” not only the whole architecture of the building but also its acoustics. Above the repositioned layout of the exhibition space she built the walls of a new interior, which she brought into complicated intersection with the original architecture. She thus created an architectonic labyrinth in which the visitor loses his bearings and experiences a loss of spatial certainty intensifiedbyanacoustic shift in space and time. Sounds from the room just left were always heard in the next, producing a process of encounter with one’s own past of a few minutes before. Two years later in Darmstadt Jetelová realized Translocation II, where on the visitor also gets a view of the construction of the inserted architecture from an upper story.
Jetelová went back to intervention in landscape in the Iceland Project (1992). It involved a laser projection tracing the course of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge. This ridge is the roughly 15,000 km-long seam between the American and Euro-African continents. For most of its length it lies under water on the ocean floor, and Icelandis the only place where this boundary lies on land and for almost 350 km can be measured and made visible with a laser ray using a computer. In the presentation of the Iceland Project in the Belvedere Palace in Prague, she bricked up the entrance to the upper interior of the building, so that it was only from the viewing terrace that visitors could see, through half-opened windows, the moving text of the French philosopher Paul Virilio projected on the walls: “the curvature of the world brings us back to ourselves”. The physically inaccessible space on the first floor could be approached only by the eye, and cognitively in the mind.
In 1994 Jetelová created Atlantic Wall, inspired by Paul Virilio’s book Bunker Archaeology which describes the typology of these fortifications.The artist formulated “absurd notices” and projected them onto the surface of individual bunkers. Both in content and in form the notices match the shape and location of selected concrete structures. One is “absolute war becomes theatricality”, projected on the base of bunker with an embrasure that has four offset frames reminiscent of the wings of a theatre stage. Other messages, like “territory of violence”,
“site of the battle for time”, “the fundamental is no longer visible“ were the artist’s ironic variations on Virilio’s analysis and her creative reaction to the forms and current unstable state of the different concrete giants.
In 2006 in another project she visually undermined the stability of the Kunstforum building in Regensburg by obscuring the original columns of the Neo-Classical entrance portal with the huge, variously tilted forms of a colonnade covered in red carpeting. The result challenged the viewer’s certainties and was also a joke at the expense of a respected building.
In 2007 in Recklinghausen she drowned the whole ground-floorofaformerbunkerusing 24,000 liters of water. Projected on the rippling surface in light was the text, “Lectures on Nothing“ by John Cage, which was at times so distorted by the movement of the water that it lost its original quality of communication, On the lower floorallthat could be heard was the dripping of water, creating an atmosphere of ominous premonition of approaching danger.
In Prague in the same year she created a smoke sculpture on the steps under the site where the statue of Stalin had stood. It was an echo of the smoke objects she had made in Prague before she emigrated.
A year later in the Augsburg H2 Museum she turned the empty space of the huge industrial hall into a sculpture in its own right. She filled the space with sensors, which reacted to the movement of passers-by and relayed the intensity of movement onto thin mirror foil, thus creating a unique visual situation: the subtle trembling of the great mirror surfaces visually transformed the entire space. A programmed robot recorded these transformations with a filmcamera, and the results were images of rotating rooms, which were then projected in an adjoining space. The originally static architecture was changed into a dynamic, and in its film documentationa“cosmic”,complex. Here Jetelová was partly developing ideas from her light installation Galileo (2003), in which pedestrians activated sensors that guided them up to two little bridges ending in thin air.
In 2010 in the Mannheim Kunsthalle she presented a five-part installation entitled Landscape of Transformation, with the single theme of the Declaration of Human Rights (UNO, 1948). In the entrance space visitors were confronted with reports from the whole world documenting gross violations of the Declaration. These reports were projected on the principle of a continuously changing horizontal, creating the optical illusion that the space was swaying and falling and so making visitors feel that they were losing their own stability. The next room was a “school” environment, full of the sound of children’s voices reading out the reports from the preceding room: the children are having difficulty with their reading, and keep stumbling on words with an alienating effect on the meaning of the reports. The next section was a store full of paper bearing printed paragraphs of the Declaration. The text was printed in fluorescent white paint on a white background and was invisible anywhere but in this corridor. Conditions in the next room briefly restored the visibility of the test: but the flashing light jumped between loosely hanging wires and the “solitary” bulb soon went out. Each flash was a warning of the fact that society is unable to respond injustice, whether or not it wishes to, and only in exceptional cases does it “tackle” serious breaches of human rights. The last interactive space was lined by mirror surfaces: the closer the visitor comes to them the more they shimmer and the less clear become the reflections. In the middle of each“mirror”is an absurd generalizing statement about contemporary reality: “the unfoundedness of self-evidence”, “permanent instability”, „“Is uncertainty the only certainty?“, “the acceleration of immobility”, the visitor reads on the formally abstract vibrating background.
Last year in Prague DOX Jetelová once again worked with the theme of human rights. Under the title Scene of the Crime she addressed – in collaboration with the Institute for the Study of Totalitarian Regimes – the Czechoslovak socialist context and violation of rights under the former regime. In the mirror section of the installation visitors there were reminiscences of absurdist theatre with texts by its main protagonist Václav Havel.
The work of Magdalena Jetelová moves between sculpture and architecture. Her primary interest is the context of space and time, and she reflects on both these dimensions in all her art works, whether politically motivated or not. By creatively molding of space she also suggests that the traditional boundary between sculpture and architecture has been irreversibly abolished. Magdalena Jetelová’s journey from the sculpture-chair to specific installations in concrete space time is unique proof that this is so. .
Magdalena Jetelová (*1946, Semily) studied at the Prague Academy of Fine Arts (1965–1971) and in Milan with Marino Marino at the Accademia di Brera (1967–1968). In 1985 she emigrated to the West, where she lived in England, in the USA and later in Germany. In Düsseldorf in 1989 she was appointed to a professorship at the State Academy of Fine Arts.
Pavel Liška is an art historian.
MAGDALENA JETELOVÁ, Stalin, 2007, Letná, Prague, Festival of Contemporary Art, photo: author’s archive.
Contamination 006, 2006, height 6 m, red carpet. Photo: author’s archive.
MAGDALENA JETELOVÁ, Conections, 1987, photography, wood ouk;