The beginning of October saw the opening of the long planned exhibition of work by the finalists of the Jindřich Chalupecký Award 2016 awarded annually to Czech visual artists under 35. Unlike the year before, when the exhibition was held in Brno, this time it took place in the glass atrium of the Veletržní Palace of the National Gallery in Prague. It presented work by four of the five finalists – Katarína Hládeková, Anna Hulačová, Aleš Čermák and Johana Střížková. Matyáš Chochola, who actually won the competition this year, was present in the Veletržní Palace too, but not in the shared space.
From the start I wondered whether the former Korzo (intended for programmes and events for the public) was the right place for as prestigious award as the Chalupecký Award. The arguments for the overall institutional setting at the National Gallery were unassailable, but the particular exhibition space selected seemed rather debatable to me. Each of the artists had their own defined space, it is true, but there was a risk that the occasion could seem too reminiscent of the presentations of work by final-year students from the Academy of Fine Arts, which is regularly held here. A worse error, in my view, was the openness of the space to the street through large window displays. Many have welcomed this as a chance for art communication with the chance passer-by, but the artists (except for Hládeková) in no way produced their work with this possibility in mind, as is underlined by the fact that Chochola completely distanced himself from the setting, while another two artists created booths for a video and for sculptures. For what kind of viewer was this deliberate openness intended? Apart from National Gallery staff, who regularly walk around the Veletržní Palace? Are these people really potential visitors? For these and other reasons I think that the space chosen harmed the exhibition.
The exhibition space in no way merged the work of the finalists, but they did meet up in some of the themes of their art: performativity, the body as object, the transcendental, the end of the world, the phenomenon of astral and cosmic space, disasters, the ecology of the present, banality, science, or philosophy versus the world. All with some degree of overlap alluded to the actuality of the past versus the present and to the question of how to grasp things, states, in the here and now. A clear difference was evident only in the work of Anna Hulačová. But let us look at the work of the finalists of the Chalupecký Award one by one.
Johana Střížková presented a video-essay composed of fragments of human alienation, obsessive-compulsive disorders or autistic features. Using a poetic language of detailed shots, invading the personal zones of the actors, the artist presents an absurd storyset in an unidentified apartment full of design elements. But the sensitivity for which Střížková strives is undermined precisely by the artificiality of the environment, which has so depersonalising an effect that the feelings it evokes defy credibility. The new Japanese term hikikomori (alienation) therefore gets lost. The installation of melted lenses in front of a blackbox also disturbs the whole atmosphere. The potential narrative is turned into a mere superstructure for what has already been said.
In its way this is a feminine corporeality, to which the work of Matyáš Chochola – full of instincts, bodily fluids, smells and certain obscurities – stands as an opposite pole. His art has a whiff of narcissism, intensified by the overall dimensions. If the artist had presented separate installations, he would have had to think, like Hulačová, of some anchoring module. Orientation to wards the interior of the Veletržní Palace in a way kept the viewer in suspense, but it did not evoke a fetishistic path of purification as one might assume. And that is the relevant word – assume. In the case of Chochola one cannot assume. The individual elements (a burned out Mercedes, a broken exercise machine) were a rather needless gesture, but as soon as we went further everything acquired more precise contours. A timeless post-catastrophe landscape appears on the floor in front of viewers. Little hillocks of the ruins of civilisation gradually emerge out of the dark. The sense of mixed feelings is almost schizophrenic: here there is an appeal to the present in the form of a performance and the dancer who presents it, here to a memory and finally to the future. The hallucinogenic vision is underscored by a material explosion, which is a bit of a flashback, but it nonetheless works as a whole.
One might get a similar impression of something ungraspable from the work of Aleš Čermák. His video-projection is not a virtual rubbish heap, but in its own way disturbs the viewer in a way similar to Chochola. The clear conceptual basis rests on many philosophical and intellectual terms of a certain type – metaphysics, the transformation of mind, algorithm or Hölderlin. These cannot be read out of the video in a primary way, however, and so are hardly comprehensible to the ordinary viewer. The artist is thus at first sight making a selection – between those who understand and those who are a long way behind, but through a certain instructional form he gives the latter a helpful guideline. Thereby he once again, as in the case of Chochola or Střížková, alludes to a picture of our society. In his case pointing out the emptying out of the relationship between patient and doctor. Despite the fact that Čermák illustrates some philosophical facts (at the same time invoking certain mystifications), the visual collection of different views on reality is built in such a way as to stimulate the viewer to think about them. The overall depression and urgency of the theme is underlined by the expressive installation of a drone, referring to a place from which a future civilisation observes us and learns from our mistakes.
A little further on, closest to the glass display window, stands the work of Katarína Hládeková. This artist is the only one to have produced her work with an eye to the possibilities of the given exhibition state, but not even in her case has the display window become a communicative element. What in the other artists is either clearly visible at first sight, or evident after taking in the whole work, is expressed only in latent suggestion in Hládeková’s work. She uses conventional simplifying symbols, but in order to see the horizontal eight, hashtag and bracket we would have to be looking down from above, which is obviously impossible here. Her concept, hidden in this way, resonates with the cyclical repetition into which society is getting. We often simplify expressions, we copy photographs, important things become less important, meanings are disappearing – but is it really evident here that the artist is working this way? Maybe she has rather simplified her installation, and so even the careful viewer tends to flounder.
The last of the five finalists was Anna Hulačová. While her work stands rather apart from theirs, she still manages to produce the most conspicuous effect on the atrium. Her yellow booth could be taken as conjuring the association of a swarm of bees. At the exhibition opening, when it attracted swarms of viewers, it certainly worked like this. It is the only piece here that tells a different story. No apocalyptic vision of the end of the world, but a pure and light treatment of the uninterrupted labour of human community, alluding to the theme of crafts or a specific kind of folklore. Hulačová’s sculptural work is based on the simple forms of primitive peoples, and does not hide the inspiration of modernism either. Reference to the microcosmos and different cultures is unobtrusive here, even ephemeral, but the work is in its way a gentle sociological probe. One aspect that we should not overlook is the fact that this is the first time in the history of the Jindřich Chalupecký Award programme that there has been an effort at bringing about a confrontation with the international art scene. But this just brings us back to a ques-tion mark over the choice of space. In the rear section of the Korzo are works, thematically resonating with those of the finalists’s, by the French artist Laure Prouvost. Does this space really correspond to the importance of the work of the famous winner of the British Turner Prize? Compared to the places where her installation has been exhibited before (in Brussels, London and New York) it seems worse than just inadequate.
Tereza Záchová is an art curator and critic.
Matyáš Chochola Magic, Exotic, Erotic, 2016 multimedia installation, guest: Ladislav Vondrák photo: Peter Fabo.
Anna Hulačová Factory concrete, drawing on paper, tin, earthenware, 2016.
Katarína Hládeková # ∞ ), 2016 installation of objects, metal, textile, glass, plastic. Photo: Peter Fabo.
Johana Střížková, Factor of Six, 2016 film 12‘ 14‘‘, camera: Viktor Smutný, sound: Petr Kapeller actors: Jana Kozubková, Lukáš Kubík, Naděžda Sheshukova, Vanda Špitálníková, Jiří Novák, Dominika Andrašková, Jáchym Kučera, Mirka Mitísková, Štěpán Skalský, production: GPO support: BioFilms, Magic Lab, Panavision. Photo: Peter Fabo.