Jiří Thýn’s systematic exploration of the possibilities, needs and limits of photography has been motivated less by admiration for and fascination with the medium than by a certain scepticism regarding it. Even a superficial encounter with his work makes it clear that photography as such is inseparable from this quest, and in recent years his searching study of non-narrative photography has also been reflected in his output. The artist has embarked purposefully on a path of tireless experimentation but also of reconnaissance of already discovered terrain in the field of visual perception, and creates light objects, installations and videos as well as photographs and photograms.
Jiří Thýn uses length of exposure as a way of drawing, creating black-and-white fields of compositions in light. What painters structure with paint he constructs with photography. He exploits reflections and mirroring effects. He is equally interested in analogue and digital photography and he tests out the perceptual powers of the viewer.Thýn imitates movement by multiple exposures.
He works with the degrees of sharpness of the shot, with inversion, and uses technique to expressive and abstract effect. Inspired by poetry, he sets off a chain of associations conjured by the aggregate of images and percepts. The photograph remains part of the work but the point is simply what is depicted but a complex net of relationships, seconded with texts that are located close by and as it were fix the burgeoning tree of connotations with a more coherent message. What we have here is a kind of inscription by which Jiří Thýn, through his intuitive choice of texts from a mass of accumulated notes, offers new levels for the reading of the whole. He opens up his work to interpretation from within, not from without. Inspired by free verse, he conjures emotions, impressions and reminiscences and he displaces the significance of rational explanation. He attacks rationalisation with stimuli that lead to no unambiguous answers. His study of non-narrative photography continues. Intuition and imagination play an increasingly important role in his work – the insight that “the essential is outside thought”.
Yvona Ferencová: Jiří, have you ever done documentary photography?
Jiří Thýn: I was always interested in documentary photo and I think it still has its specifics and qualities. At UMPRUM (the School of Applied Arts in Prague) I applied to study with Pavel Štecha, who was very much a documentary photographer. But because of the school environment, and because I came to realise how subjective documentary work is, and in my view ninety percent of the time today it is doing no more than filling out the canon of the 60s, it stopped interesting me. Art and art photography appeals to me far more, just as I’ve been more inspired by fine artists than by photographers.
YF: How would you classify your 700 photographs from the ornamental plant nursery in Prague 8 – Ďáblice? Is this documentary work?
JT: It’s the biggest documentary set I’ve worked on. It was something very close to my heart, and originally springing from a fascination with the environment of an enormous horticultural business. I was interested in the external circumstances (demand, the economics) affecting the form of the “garden”. This was intuitive work. So what emerged was a very large set of photographs – probably the best word for it would be “archive” – but one without a rational key. Currently the layout of the book is ready, but every so often I keep on photographing garden centres.
YF: You draw with light. You set the object in motion by layering multiplied light sources. You paint using the reflections band shadows of a thing, you create collages, and you open up the picture spatially by slicing through it. With these techniques are you stepping beyond the boundaries of the photographic medium as conventionally understood and moving towards other art disciplines?
JT: I would like to work with other media but my first idea is always connected with a photo. That’s why I keep coming back to this medium – I have the feeling that I can express myself best in it. I enjoy creating things with my hands, making something palpable, and this isn’t something you feel doing classical photographs, when you compose someone or something. What is missing there is the characteristic element of the collage technique, the gluing of different materials onto the surface of the picture, the motion of the tool when you draw and so on. For me the cutting too is associated more with the gesture of drawing than with space, despite the fact that originally this act of dissection of the canvas was connected with the spatial. Consequently I translate all this into the photograph, where shade and plasticity are important, making the slice visible when otherwise it would not be visible on the paper.
YF: A bar test on a photograph of a nude girl, the colour scale as part of a shot of a colour photograph, a portrait photograph of a girl lit by coloured lights and so forth. Is all this a matter of conscious study of light and its interaction with matter and the possibilities of the photographic medium in their mutual relations?
JT: It’s mainly about the photo. But in a photograph the philosophical subtext, the realisation of existential context, is always important for me. Because each time you are thinking about light – whether metaphorically or in reality – and about time. These two quantities are constantly and immensely stimulatingly present there, creating the context of these things. When we did the “50% Grey” Exhibition together, this was about a certain critical reflection on the medium that sprung from my scepticism about photography. My current works are still distantly derived from this investigation, but have become more universal. I started to develop an interest in the abstract level in photography, and especially the term non-narrative photography, which I am trying to defend. But apart from that I am interested in the process of the work itself, much more than in the level of content. I enjoy thinking through the phases of realisation, and I’m fascinated by the aspect of genesis of the work.
YF: When you were recording the colour reflections of objects, was this an investigation of colour relationships or partly also a testing out of the possibilities of the quality record of these phenomena, – the uncovering of something not everyone can perceive without the help of the photographic medium?
JT: These technical things don’t interest me at all. I took this as a metaphor. Abstraction started to interest me because it can’t really exist in photography. You’re able to make out that it is a reflection of something or a mirror or a piece of paper. But what is important is the absence of a story – that these things lack a narrative component. In all other photographs the flow of time plays a basic part in the reading of the image, whereas in these compositions time is not fundamental for the meaning of the message. When I was doing the studies of colour compositions, I was fed up with the activism that I’d lived through with the Ládví Group, and the growing popularity of socially engaged art. That was another reason why I wanted to work on things that were not bound to context.
YF: For the works exhibited in the Fait Gallery in Brno you used photographs by other people as material, which byou then as it were finished and added texts to. Why this brecycling and need for the word?
JT: For me the texts were parts of non-narrative photography. Here the abstraction of the text works like poetry, which secondarily creates abstract thought. By arranging words I create texts which have no logical meaning but conjure up an impression or summon emotion. This represented another level of the possibility of combining text and image – the construction of abstract context. Today this is already behind me.
YF: But if you use a photograph (e.g. a documentary one), then a story is always involved there, even if only in the thoughts of the viewers.
JT: Yes, it’s a bit of a paradox, but most of those documentary photos are stripped of actuality by the anonymity of the original meaning. I chose them for that purpose, and transposed them onto a different poetic level. It’s important for me to get a distance from the original subjects. Even though these things look partly onceptual, the way how they came into existence is not conceptual. For me what is basic is a state of concentration, a path on the level of instinctive convergence with the theme.
YF: Are the texts exclusively your texts?
JT: I use my personal notes written over several years. The only texts I wrote in a short period were the texts for Zurich. Mostly they are my own texts but in a few cases there are texts by others. I add to them, or take things out, and after several stages of alteration I no longer know what was mine or what was inspired by a text by someone else.
YF: Doesn’t this match the order of spatial fields? A text, and behind it a newly photographed selected photo with collages and cut-outs? Are you deliberately creating a kind of spatial airy cloud of ideas and stimuli?
JT: I want the viewer to be able to choose which perceived component he will prioritise at one moment. I want layers of reading to be formed that are physically given by the spatial arrangement. Also important is the setting of the whole in a structure; offsetting from the walls gives it the status of an object. Just as all the fragments of a spatial installation are compact.
YF: I am interested in drawing by slicing. It gives the impression of being intensely thought out.
JT: To be perfectly honest I am only just now gearing up to speaking about it. It’s been important to really live through what I am doing. Even if it is more a matter of concept, here too there is an important level of “contemplation”. These things are born out of a certain frame of mind. I am trying somehow to find a balance between intuition and rational intervention.
YF: Do you make intuitive interventions and leave them in without revision?
JT: No, but I intervene deliberately only ex post. I try to make these things, and then put them into a logical structure. Those cuts made into empty paper look very thought out, but actually I started to work with a tool that I just happened to have to hand. First with a normal cutter, and later with a scalpel. And because I’m not secure in drawing, I started to draw with a cut. It worked. The fast gesture that holds the speed. This was followed by re-photographing, the illusion of depth. It made sense. The choice, the recycling, was determined by photographs from magazines I had to hand, together with scepticism about over-saturation with the photographic image. The points and circles got there initially for practical reasons. I was worrying about h
ow to ground and hold down the cuts, and once again I just had something to hand – the material I had used earlier for colour abstraction.
YF: What can you tell us about the last exhibitions in which you participated, which were part of the 11th International Biennale of Contemporary Art, Manifesta in Zurich?
JT: Zurich was specific. The German curator Christian Jankowski made a personal choiceof my work, and that of twenty-nine other artists. In the frame of idea for his exhibition called What will people do for money? I was supposed to consider a range of Zurich professionals and pick the ones I wanted to work with. Some professions had already been chosen, and so basically I chose pathology by chance. I was primarily interested in the diagnostic level of the field, which works mainly with a microscope and samples of tissue and isn’t what most people imagine when you say the word pathology. It all turned out to be very complicated and in fact I ended up with a pathology lecturer who works directly in the dissecting room. Although interesting, the collaboration had its limits because of the correspondence form in which we communicated. The results were presented in two places – in the Zurich Kunsthalle In Search of a Monument and in the foyer of the university hospital where the lecturer worked. The realisation was not without its practical problems, but I don’t think it turned out too badly. At the same time I don’t consider my Zurich work to be something life-changing. I tried out something that I wouldn’t have otherwise managed to do in Czech conditions. I produced a large neon object based on a drawing we did together. It originated from records drawn with a blindfold – the gesture of the drawing was created by the evocation of memories relating to Sabrina’s work. But in the end only one of the series of drawings was realised in neon. Sabrina then chose photographs that I went on to manipulate.
Yvona Ferencová was curator of modern and contemporary art at the Moravian Gallery in Brno from 2000 to 2015. Today she is an independent curator.
Jiří Thýn (1977) studied at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague in the years 1999–2005 in the Photography Studio. He was awarded grants and scholarships for study stays at UIAH – the University of Helsinki, PROGR in Bern, Triangle in New York and the Fonca Institute in Mexico City. He has had solo exhibitions exhibitions for example in the Photography Gallery (London), the Museum of Contemporary Photography (Chicago), the National Gallery (Prague), Fait Gallery (Brno), CEAAC (Strassbourg), and the Moravian Gallery (Brno) and contributed to a series of international and Czech group exhibitions (Manifesta 11, 16th Tallinn Print Biennale, exhibitions in Huntkastner Gallery [Prague], Museum of Contemporary Photography [Chicago], Syntax [Lisbon], Trafo Gallery [Budapest], and the Moravian Gallery [Brno]).
View into the installation of the exhibition Consciousness as a Fundamental Attribute, 2014 Huntkastner Gallery. Photo: Ondřej Polák.
Jiří Thýn Untitled, from the series 50% Grey, 2009, black-and-white photograph on baryte paper, 70 × 100 cm.
Untitled, from the series Basic Studies of the Non-narrative Photograph, documentation from the Jindřich Chalupecký Award Exhibition, 2011. Photo: author’s archive.
Jiří Thýn Untitled, from the series In Search of a Monument, 2016, bw lambda print, 70 × 100 cm.
In Search of a Monument, 2016, Manifesta 11, view into the installation in the university hospital in Zurich, Manifesta 11. Photo: Wolfgang Trager.
Space, Abstraction no. 3, 2011, b-a-w photograph, 130 × 100 cm, from the series Prefigurations, Space, Abstraction.