Katarína Uhlířová: When did the photographic process, photography as an inspiring medium with immense potential, really capture your interest?
Jiří Thýn: I can’t remember precisely when. My grandfather on my dad’s side was a photographer, but we just missed knowing each other. I think I was one when he died. So probably my first more serious contact with the medium was not until secondary school.
KU: After secondary school and further studies you went to the Prague Academy of Art, Architecture and Design. How important for you was your period of study in Finland?
JT: In Finland I started working on my degree project. I had been to the North before when studying at AAAD. I think that during my studies abroad I basically reassessed my attitude to photography, but I don’t know how far Finland as such contributed to that. I deliberately isolated myself there. From today’s point of view it was existential experience. I realised I had to create my own themes and that to do so I needed to exploit things I had immediately to hand. I then came to use this approach to the full in the course of the following years. Sometimes I go back to it even today.
KU: You came back from Finland, finished your studies and defended your degree project. What came next?
JT: After graduating I started working as a freelance photographer. That didn’t change anything. What was fundamental for me was the chance of a period as photographer in residence in Berne in Switzerland. The residency offered me a unique opportunity to concentrate on work that really interested me. That’s not much of an option when you are working commercially.
KU: What did you think about in Berne?
JT: The surroundings inspire you wherever you are, and it also depends on the people you happen to meet there. But the most important thing is having time and the chance to think things out. If you create something concrete during your stay, that’s only secondary. Mostly what you get out of it is ideas, and then you have the chance to build further on the time you spent there.
In Berne I met Zbyněk Baladrán; we were residents there in succession. Originally I wanted to work on completely different things, and think through different themes. I was interested in memory: I tried to remember and visually call to mind all the people I had met since childhood. I brought them to life again in my memory. I wrote down my memories – basically it was a kind of simple meditation. But in the end it was compositions of my work table that I made in Berne and I started to get interested in space as such. Harmony played an important role.
KU: And the exhibition in Sudek’s garden studio (Josef Sudek Gallery)?
JT: The exhibition at the Sudek studio was a continuation from my degree project. It was its very personal echo. At the time I was trying to create my own visual language. I tried not to use faces, which always grab the attention in photography. I worked with installations that I made directly for specificphotographs.
KU: What is the importance of the series 50% grey? The theme is analogue photography: reduction, photograms, strip tests. Is this a kind of more general formulation or attempt to familiarise the viewer with the medium of analogue photography?
JT: I tried to treat photography as such as a theme in a more thorough-going way. The abstract level is very important for me, and I continue to work with it. To put it in simpli fied terms: I wouldl ike to work with photography as a premise.
KU: Did you produce this set because you needed to think in a more theoretical way and abstract more consistently? Or can we identify a different impulse behind all this?
JT: Photography is all around us. It’s scarcely an exaggeration to say that within thirty seconds of waking up we encounter one photograph or another. They could be family snaps on the bedside table, a magazine, a book – photographs are everywhere and mostly in the most vulgar form. I think this is closely bound up with politics and the overall way society is set up. What we’re forced to visually digest in ordinary life is absurd. If you concentrate on photography, you realize it’s absolutely everywhere and the degree to which it has been devalued is immense. That was why I began to think about photography as such. Not that my primary interest was in theorising. Instead I tried to find a new view and from there it was just a short step to 50% grey and abstraction…
KU: How was the set 50% grey created? Can you describe your experience with the technique of photogram? How was it ultimately reflected in the chosen form of presentation?
JT: In the set 50% grey I worked with photograms, for which I created a simple geometrical abstraction on glass panels. Then I exhibited these together with the positive, i.e. with a black-and-white photogram. It was important for me to present the glass “negatives” with the positives. During ordinary work with a photogram, as we know it from history, most of the things that were laid on the photographic paper were removed after exposure. I tried to change that, so that the positive and negative would be perceived as a single whole.
KU: Recently you have been reducing the reality depicted and taking great care that there should be as few disturbing elements as possible in the resulting picture. Unimportant messages that would pointlessly divert your or the viewer’s attention are eliminated. Would I be right in seeing that as your own reductive method for moving in the direction of abstraction?
JT: It’s true that I try to ensure that the finalpicture is as precise in meaning as possible. That’s why it’s important for me to have everything under control. I try to make sure that everything that ultimately findsitself in the photograph has its meaning. I would say that in photography the things that are ultimately parts of the picture play a more important role than in other media (for example in film or painting).
DRAWINGS WITH LIGHT IN SPACE
KU: We are gradually coming to your present exhibition entitled Archetypes, Space, Abstraction in the City Gallery Prague in the Old Town Hall. I’m now going to ask an apparently banal question: Where did the yellow curtain come from and what is its function in the exhibition?
JT: The yellow curtain was basically a necessity. Behind it there are two radiators and a wall it’s impossible to do much with, so I put an original statue by Gutfreund in front of it on a pedestal. I chose yellow more or less intuitively, but with an awareness of reference to the avant-garde. I’ve been interested in curtains for a long time for other reasons too, but in this case the curtain is seventy-percent just there as functional drapery.
KU: Apart from the curtain itself, the yellow also appears on your stickers, notices, and has an association with light, refers to the avant-garde and so on. Why yellow?
JT: I wanted to change the atmosphere of the introductory space. In the whole conception of the exhibition I planned the yellow curtain as the main bearer of colour information. I knew from the start that the exhibition as a whole would be conspicuously monochrome. The photographs of the stone are in colour, but because of the original shades of the mineral in the enlargements actually turn out looking black-and-white. From the outset I also wanted to have the Gutfreund original. The photographs of the stone have abstract features, and are also meant symbolically: I was interested in the chance to show something that had been hidden for many years. Ordinary objects fascinate me. When I broke that stone, I had a strange feeling, looking at something that nobody had ever seen before.
KU: The two installations that follow refer to the way that photography can be regarded as a kind of drawing in light. You are abstracting more conspicuously. The artificiallight underlines the processual character of the installatiun and the video itself.
JT: In the second room there are other abstract installations – drawing in light, although to clarify I could call it, “black-and-white transition” illuminated by a photographic lamp. The lamp then plays the main role in the short film en titled Philips.
To put it in simplified terms, Philips documents the final proces sof enlarginga black-and-white photograph. We see the exposed black-and-white photographic paper, which after fixing is was hedin water.The movement of the picture and changes in composition are caused by the flowofthe water.
KU: By putting the emphasis on the process of production of the photograph you are drawing the attention of even the most conservative viewer away from the usual concentration on whatever is photographed. You are creating obstacles to a simplifiedor hurried consumption of the exhibition. Could the video Philips be regarded as a manifesto for your method or the exhibition too? How did you come to make it?
JT: It was pure chance, It simply occurred to me during work. I had been thinking of something quite similar, but my thoughts had been developing more on the theoretical level. The video Philips flowed naturally from the situation.
KU: What was in your mind when you were photographing the small “Gutfreunds” What were you most aware of? You have your own method, but you don’t insist on some absolute control of the medium.
JT: First I’ll briefly describe my method. I couldn’t predict the result precisely but I had a certain idea in my head. I knew that the “four-exposure” technique would enable me to record all the main angles of view. At the same time I had a feeling that the result would be abstract.
While working I had been reading the letters Gutfreund sent from Paris to his parents. I was also reading extracts of the story of Katarzyna Kobro. Their lives were very interesting. For example Kobro burned most of her sculptures so as not to freeze to death with her child during the war. Gutfreund worked with scraps of wood while he was interned.
KU: When and where did you firstencounter the work of Katarzyna Kobro?
JT: About three months before the exhibition I was looking on the Internet for spatial studies and suddenly a link to documentation of her work popped up.
KU: Why did you decide to reconstruct her object with your own light intervention?
JT: I was surprised that one could create a timeless object by using basic forms and colours. I chose one of the first compositions, which was documented in black-and-white photographs. I’m not sure but I think there were other variants in different colour combinations. I was interested in that monochrome variant, in which the individual segments are coloured from white to middling grey to black. I was struck by it in the context of photography. My aim was not to create simply an enlarged copy of her work. I wanted to enter into the composition by a simple non-invasive intervention that would not run counter to the meaning of her work.
KU: So again you could say that you had revealed a little of the potential of drawing with light. It is drawing of a spatial kind. Naming it again helps to expand the apparently flat photographic surface.
JT: Yes. I got back to light. Yesterday I was thinking about it here (in New York, editor’s note). It made me remember Tomáš Vaněk and his shadow installations, for example.
KU: How did you get the idea of archetypes, and what was their role in the exhibition?
JT: I spent a long time thinking about a name for the exhibition. In the end I decided to use a name that would encourage a precise reading of these things. This means that the works of Otto Gutfreund and Katarzyna Kobro served as a archetype for what I used them for, i.e. for space and abstraction. The stone as a natural motif is connected with the experience of time; it is also a bearer of abstract information.
KU: You are in New York right now (in 2011, editor’s note), and have a lot of time to think about art. Can you think of a concrete problem relating to contemporary photography that we have not yet mentioned, and that you will be taking with you into the future?
JT: There are many problems, but they relate more to the overall context of art and its presentation. I am thinking about what to do next. At the moment it looks as if I am moving away from classical, i.e. depictive photography. I would like to go on working with photographic abstraction at the level of installation. For the moment I can’t formulate it more precisely. I’m thinking about installations and spatial objects.
Jiří Thýn (*1977) has been working long-term with analogue photography. With his photograms, photographs, installations and videos he offers the viewer deeper insight into the nature of this medium. It is an adventure to observe the current possibilities of photography as Thýn presents them. In his most recent works the photographic process and its resulting presentation have had one theme in common: photography examining itself for itself. Thýn often works without demanding a depicted reality. The latter is usually an object to reflectlight,a medium for more than one possible spatial plan. Jiří Thýn works with photography as a premise. Since finishing studies at the Prague Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design (the studio of Prof. Pavel Štecha) he has lived and worked as a freelance photographer in Prague. Since 2005 he has been a member of the Ládví group. He has had a scholarship in Finland (2002–2003), and periods as artist in residence in Switzerland (2007) and in Mexico. In 2011, he had a fellowship in New York. (www.huntkastner.com/en/artists/thyn/thyn_cv.pdf)
Katarína Uhlířová is a critic and curator.
JIŘÍ THÝN, Untitled, 2008, 70 x 100 cm, black-and-white photograph.
JIŘÍ THÝN, Untitled, from the series Best Before, 2004/2005, lambda c-print, 100 × 135 cm;
Untitled, from the series Best Before, 2004/2005, lambda c-print, 135 × 100 cm.
Space, Abstraction No. 3, 2011 , B/W photograph 130 × 100 cm, Archetype: Otto Gutfreund, Cellist 1912-1913, bronze v./h. 47,5 cm.
JIŘÍ THÝN, view of the installation of Prague Biennale Photo 3, drawing by Light , 2013, installation, mixed media, R-G-B lights, photo: Hynek Alt.