Urban Skanzen: Bizarre transformations of cities by

by 15. 9. 2018

The exhibition Urban Skanzen (Urban Open-Air Museum) in the Clam-Gallas Palace in Prague was about the city and its changing structure. Under communism, the backstreets of historic cities used to be dark and neglected, perhaps a little dangerous yet perversely enticing. When countries liberated themselves from one-party rule and cities opened up to different ideas and plans for the future, there was an explosion of diversity. Visitors from all sorts of places began to arrive in search of a city’s elegance and charm. Some people were fascinated by the history of a city, its architecture, the layering of different styles and influences from all directions. Others came in search of cheap thrills and had no interest in a place’s beauty. Many cities have gradually become open-air museums pandering to the lowest tastes. As the French author Benoît Duteurtre wrote in his book La cité heureuse, by coincidence inspired in part by the development of Prague over the last few decades, the local populations have virtually become “employees” of tourists  arriving in droves in search of meaningless pseudo-experiences.

In this project, the curator Elis Unique reflected upon a current phenomenon that sees the meaning of travel transformed ad absurdum and the elegance of cities destroyed by the scourge of a tourism that no longer even fulfills its original purpose, namely broadening the mind through an acquisition of a knowledge of the idiosyncrasies and beauties of individual cultures. For too long, travel has not been about a romantic fascination with faraway places, but simply a relocation from A to B in order to fill up time. Elis Unique has selected several artists, each of whom, in their own way, is concerned with the way cities are being transformed.

In her installation, Daniela Baráčková sketched out a strange urban labyrinth in which we could lose ourselves as though in Kafka‘s Castle, wandering about hopelessly without ever arriving at a destination. In this way the artist suggested that intentions can sometimes be so complex that their implementation is beyond the power of those who make the attempt, and that in the end all that is left of an original plan is a fragment that nonetheless must be pursued.

David Možný created an impressive installation of wheeled suitcases that ploughed ruthlessly through the centres of cities at any time of day or night. The installation became a symbol of the absurd raids on historical monuments in which every participant takes a selfie and then ticks it off a list in their journal before moving on to the next monument.

Jan Pfeiffer looked at how the atmosphere of a particular city changes when its local population is forced to leave under the pressure of unfavourable situations or events. He reflected upon how its meaning could be lost over the course of time and how easy it is for its culture to be forgotten, but also how under certain circumstances it could be revived. However, things would never be quite the same again, and relationships inexorably change as time passes. Pfeiffer took the story of the family forced to abandon the Clam-Gallas Palace and applied it to his own, which has lived in the city centre for many years but is beginning to leave because the conditions for a normal life are being lost. The charm of the place is disappearing, though the traces of history remain to those with an eye for unobtrusive detail.

The videos by students of Pavel Sterec’s Intermedia studio at the Arts Faculty of the Brno University of Technology have taken a concept, the basis of which was a word that the participants had to express through video. The words were then grouped together and directed towards the central video, which aggregated the meanings of all the preceding words. The installation as a whole reacted to the structure of a technical object, to the system of solar panels in the landscape and the transformation of solar energy into electricity.

The British artist Daniel Tollady created a cosy little room out of one of the exhibition spaces. Visitors were able to bring presents and leave them anywhere in the interior. A strange collection resulted of just about anything possible, from books to sweets. This is a nostalgia for that which will never return but can nevertheless be evoked in our recollections.

The exhibition examined the problem of the constant displacement of people and the intertwining of cultures, something that can be positive and enriching while causing an unhealthy erasure of the originality of life in cities, which are gradually losing their specific profiles. Elis Unique and the exhibition architect Miloš Marek arranged the individual installations to naturally follow one another.

Jiří Machalický is a curator and an art critic.

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Jiří Machalický