Eva Koťátková: Inside Iconography by

by 12. 6. 2013

THE SPACE AROUND ME slowly swells out into various forms but when I touch something, all at once it stops and darkens. A vague shape angrily spills itself into a geometric one, and when it fails they help it a bit. One of them looks like a hill and I try to crouch with it. Just for a moment, so I don’t upset it. As soon as I stop, I’d like something new again. So I’m beginning to draw carefully, ah me, the paper is so small. I attach colours to my back and try to hit the designated area. I imagine how large and perfumed it is even though, ugh, I feel someone’s peeking at me from every corner. I stick my head over the edge to see them better, but suddenly they all disappear. I go on without exactly knowing why, from time to time I make a skip, because, but anyway, up until those bad-tempered shapes I was quite enjoying it. Ouch. Something just hit me on the head. I shiver and carry on with wide eyes. Ouch. Again. First I’m getting just a gentle metal slap, but then the pounding machines put on weight. They told me they are letters. But shhhhh! – they strike me as somehow suspicious. After some time I findmyselfat a strange ruled crossroads and I don’t exactly know on which row I should start writing myself.I’m trying the wide orderly one. They actually squeeze me into it a little. I gradually feel my limbs extending and my head squeezing into a strange oblique angle. From time to time they screw a slide rule onto me in place of hands so I can stay level. Apparently it’s for my own good. I scarcely breathe, so as not to mess up the clean and perfect letters falling from the machines which edge and print this row, I see more and more new arrivals, how they want to squeeze in here, and after the hundredth collision with someone next to me I’m no longer aware of anything at all. Those machines that print us noisily trumpet that the place where we’ve found ourselves is the best of all possible books and therefore there’s no need to wonder or worry how it will continue and how end. With every step and in every new lesson the machines slyly and ostentatiously whisper to us that the more we adapt to their font the freer we are, and when we put on the shoes of standardised serifs and pour out our heads into their tears. They say we have to be strong so we can hold the line above us on which they push the newlyforged letters, and that apparently they still escape from time to time and therefore we mustn’t let ourselves falter. I get used to the regularity of the word spacing and the height I have to reach, I get used to the size of the row which I must not exceed. I look forward to the scanty but regularly appearing coloured spaces and cloyingly sweet music. I slowly stop noticing the long, mindless, carefully put-together book.

At some point something or other stops. That rhythmic roar of the press grew hoarse, although I have the feeling it’s still pounding in my head. But I can’t see any other machines or letters. Splendid, free! But what will I do? They didn’t want me? Why am I here? Have I spoiled their output? Maybe they wrote me off somewhere. I look round and see I’ve been put in some sort of frame. I would say it’s in the lower part of the page. It’s nicely decorated but I can see only certain and moreover terribly boring passages of text on this page and a piece of the other equally boring ones on the other. I try to rattle the frame to move it somewhere but it stays as though nailed to the spot. All I can do is start thinking back. I realise with horror that I can recall only very vaguely the preceding several hundred pages. What did we just write?

After some time I find myself at the strange ruled crossroads and I don’t exactly know on which row I have to begin to write myself. After I imagined where that orderly wide line would lead, it grew dark before my eyes. Whew. This is no good. Somewhere, simply without thinking, I began to write without looking in which direction or somehow taking into account whether what I write is comprehensible. I browsed through and through the page, scored through several pages at once, or alternatively almost didn’t touch the paper. When I came to myself, I discovered that I’d been squeezed into some sort of unbearably narrow table. I was painted grey relatively nicely but every day they poured some pills into my cells so that my shape held and I didn’t start bleeding through the bars. But it was so unbearably stifling that sooner or later I simply had to discover that that page with our table has its own depth, and that the letters appear only on the surface, while there is lots of space below us, which no one checks. I can thus use it as I wish and control the whole space. I began recounting more and more frequently, so I could findout how the texts show through the pages, how it all interconnects, what depends on what and how it is layered and connected. Higher up I scraped a piece of printers’ ink off our table and then furtively, during the long days and years, wrote everything into my own book. In the end, to be safe I left it all printed inside a page so they couldn’t pull it out, trim it, or shut it into a table.


MM: What attracts you to the artists of art brut?
EK: Mainly the different methods they use to orient themselves in the world and how they use them to illustrate their difficult position; the ambiguity with which their drawings and other records can be perceived – as artistic works, psychiatric aids for determining diagnosis, methods of daily existence, various fragmentary forms of biography. We are forced – by the vigour and intensity through which they operate on our thought processes – to read personal codes, new constellations of things, complex structural worlds exposing the dysfunctionality of real ones.

MM: Do you have the feeling that what psychiatric patients paint is somehow connected with Utopia?
EK: I would say that in the first place it is about building something which would replace an existing reality that does not hold together, is not satisfactory, or in which the identity of the creator disintegrates. Someone whose territory is narrowed to the dimensions of a room and whose activity is reduced to basic daily rituals can realise themselves in their thoughts and build a fictional, often thoroughly worked-out parallel existence as a form of self-preservation. Concepts of a better world or a new one are adapted in such a way they can incorporate themselves into it better than they’ve managed to do in the real world. That means that rules, hierarchies and communication strategies are subjected to their needs, and managed in the way they want.

MM: What is it, in your view, that most frequently distinguishes their fictitious world from their real life?
EK: The most important thing above all is that for the most part there is no equation or even a smooth and easy passage between these two worlds. The creator is unable to return to the real world easily and according to need, and so on. The biggest contrast between their double identities occurs in cases when, bound by the rules of the clinic and by their own inability to socialise, they build a new biography in which they take the leading role – they rule some sort of society, manage the weather, have supernatural powers, talk to the animals and so on. On the other hand, in some cases they unexpectedly reproduce their own current dismal state and the subordinate and passive role allocated to them by others.

MM: In the exhibition City of the Old (2010) in the Meyer Riegger in Karlsruhe you also worked with the idea of a fictitious society, but this time a society of old people. Where did you get that idea from?
EK: It was a fictitious city, some sort of old people’s home, a society right on the periphery. The title used the English phrase City of the Old, which applies to a city young people have left to find work and a better life somewhere else, so it’s been abandoned and is gradually dying. A model of this city was presented in the exhibition, together with its statutes/regulations, derived from activities people do in the city.

MM: The arrangement of this building reminds one a little of the prison Foucault wrote about. Only there’s not a guard in the centre, unless perhaps it’s us.
EK: There are more differences, but you’re right in that some sort of self-government and its regulations function in my fictitious city, which highlight the already existing situation/order; they take shape naturally. Foucault’s model is more visible in some of my other works such as Re-education Machine. But I admit that however fascinating an author he is, literature and theatre influence me more.

MM: And what do the people in your City of the Old do?
EK: They divide the daylight hours between archiving and cataloguing the things left to them and the documentation of their personal memories.

MM: They write down their own legacy…
EK: Yes, a sort of final inventory which serves not only as evidence of their life, but also helps to fill the time they have left.

MM: In several projects you focused directly on the world of children, or rather on the rules which shape and circumscribe it. In Educational Model (2009) you created pyramidal architecture from chairs and tables, and on each piece of furniture were certain tasks the children must fulfilif they were to climb up. You organised Art Education (2008) in the Karlin Studios, and in the Václav Špála Gallery you exhibited The Way to School (2008), in which inter alia you physically took your adult world back to school classes. Have you linked your childhood world with any other surroundings?
EK: In 2010 at the Liverpool Biennial I presented the work Stories from a Living Room. It was inspired by the idea of a Utopian society made up only of children and old people. A real group of children and old people met regularly and the outcome was a video-recording documenting the children as they recounted the old people’s life stories in the first person, making them their own. The installation had a circular ground plan reminiscent of a structured stage set. It was divided into five sections with various functions, stage environments and different levels of interactivity.


MM: You often work with machine motifs in your collages and objects. From the formal viewpoint your collages could remind one of Modernist ones, but I’d say that unlike them, you turn to the relationship of man and machine. While for the Modernists machines were a metaphor for a new and better life, a mark of faith in the future, in your case they express more the oppression of the subject, isolation, a substitute.
EK: Machines appeared most prominently and explicitly in my recent work Re-education Machine (Lyons Biennale, 2011). I used fragments of an old Czechoslovak printing machine from the 1960s which used to print mainly educational brochures. It thus had a share in the circulation of lies and semi-truths. I transformed its incomplete parts into a monumental mechanism resembling dilapidated, non-functional equipment and even parts of a torture chamber. Mixed in the installation was equipment for manipulating books like manipulating people, to which the scale of the objects corresponds – for example, crooked equipment or reading apparatuses. It was all to create an abstracted, terribly gloomy, structured unit in which people are manipulated like objects and in which the natural state is violently reshaped, distorted and censored.

MM: The motif of bars has a similar function in your work to the motif of the machine.
EK: Bars demarcate a space, indicate limitation, divide something from something else – or more frequently, one person from other people. They thus indicate a clear hierarchy between the person looking and the person being looked at. I findit very interesting precisely because they create a dramatic boundary between people, but nevertheless leave both sides visible, which is crueller than having a wall which obscures and suppresses. Bars imprison but also protect – depending on which side we are standing. I use the motif of bars to emphasise or highlight some mental limi-tation. I build cages which cannot be seen. In a recent work (Work of Nature, Raster Gallery, 2011), I used them like the setting of a fictitious zoo or some kind of shelter, a natural science institute, which protects and confines at the same time.

MM: Do you perceive nature as a form of shelter?
EK: What dismays me about nature is its given quality, that it is a system based on survival at the expense of another. Unlike all possible social constructs, nothing can be done about it, which is for me unbearable.

MM: It is paradoxical that what dismays you, that natural given quality and purposefulness, has an aesthetic effect on man. Those bars can function both as décor and as restriction. However, what you struggle against, because you are unfree in your actual relationship to it, can bring to the audience a certain freedom of the imagination.

EK: I think nature is a very sophisticated and deceptive machine, both for the beauty it shows us and for the cold and precise logic of its functioning. For the Warsaw exhibition I deliberately used elements of bars and cages exactly as you mention – sometimes as an oppressive apparatus for the body, sometimes as decorative structures which break up or aestheticize the space.

MM: Your work often impinges on theatre either in the way an exhibition is installed, or, as now, as a dramatic form in the project prepared for the Sydney Biennale, Theatre of Speaking Objects. I think that scale is important in your “scenery”, and also that you never create a complete theatre set. It seems to me like a fragmentary material construction of a story.
EK: For me, a gallery space is never the impetus for creating work, although I attach great weight to how I handle it. But for the most part I try to build structured units in the gallery, which the space and the individual works and installation elements tie together and create a new hierarchy and correlation between things. As you say, scale is important for me, as is the relationship of the audience to the individual elements. Some of them compose the architecture of the exhibition and the viewer walks through them, others have a human scale and relate to the body as objects and properties, yet others offer insight in the form of models or drawings.

MM: Collages and drawings appear in almost all your installations. Viewing them provides another space with which the audience is confronted – in addition to the installational-theatrical-physical one. The audience moves within an environment, but at the same time, thanks to the drawings, can look at this environment (even at itself) from an overview, as it were.
EK: Drawing was always essential for me, and I still findit the most attractive medium. In exhibitions I try not to treat a drawing as a framed piece of paper on the wall, but as a motif that crosses from the wall into the space and is a part of the installation. I build various constructions for it and I create firm groups or constellations of motifs, between which there is an inner bond, and these are then presented to the visitor as a whole.

MM: Transferring the model of theatre perspective into the exhibition space probably also allows you the materialisation of certain plans and layers.
EK: For the exhibition Unsigned (2011) in the Austrian Cultural Center, I created an extended theatre platform on which documents, photographs of patients, texts, drawings and collages about a psychiatric clinic and the Gugging Art Brut Center were installed one behind the other. The whole institution was then presented to the audience as a kind of spread-out jigsaw puzzle, a structured portrait of the clinic. The spectator progresses from the curtain and the motifs in the foreground into the backstage area, the last scene being the façade of the building.

MM: The stories in Theatre of Speaking Objects will be not just in the subtext of your objects of your objects and installations, but will be told by senior citizens, amateur performers whom you imprison in some of the objects – cupboards, chests, tables… What led you to this relationship?
EK: This twist doesn’t strike me as so remarkable, the storytelling will just be part of a more extensive work. Theatre of Speaking Objects focuses on a situation where, for various reasons, a person is not capable of expressing their own opinion or attitude freely. They are therefore enabled to speak and communicate with their surroundings through various mediators or props: for example, a mother presents her opinions through her son, an object tells the story of its owner and a puppet is used as a therapeutic aid in examining the personalities of children. The work will consist partly of several performances based on the model of participational, nonhierarchical theatre. Eight elderly/amateur actors will alternate on the podium during the performance and speak to the audience through pieces of furniture, geometrical shapes and other people. The aim will be to present little stories about human isolation and social detachment and to invite the audience to feel involved in the situation and want to influence it actively.


Eva Koťátková is a visual artist who won the 2007 Jindřich Chalupecký Award. She lives and works in Prague.

Markéta Magidová is an artist and art theorist.


EVA KOŤÁTKOVÁ, from the series Parallel Biography, 2011, installation of drawings and collages, 82 × 40 × 400 cm; from the series Re-education Machine, 2011, installation of drawings and collages, 150 × 20 × 80 cm; from the series Parallel Biography, 2011, installation of collages and books, 100 × 30 × 300 cm. Photo: author’s archive.


EVA KOŤÁTKOVÁ, Educational Model, 2009, installation, 3 × 6 × 8 m. Opposite: from the series Theatre of Speaking Objects, 2012, drawing and collage on paper, 21 × 29,7 cm, courtesy of the artist, the Meyer Riegger, Berlin, Karlsruhe.

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Markéta Magidová