CHARACTERISTIC OF THE work of Václav Magid is the overlapping of his roles as an artist, curator, art critic and theoretician. His point of departure in the Czech scene around 2005 was determined to a considerable extent by the previous, 1990s generation of artists. Their more spectacular style of communication gradually became conceptualized and art passed through a development from individualistic pieces and grand exhibitions to the socalled ‘unobtrusive tendency’ of the turn of the Millennium. Václav Magid found a counterpart to this tendency in his native culture, in Anatoly Osmolovsky’s Russian non-spectacular critique of capitalist society linked to Guy Debord’s Situationist International analyses. At the same time, Magid very quickly pointed to the depoliticizing effect of academization and museumificationof this phenomenon, which, by means of its interconnection with everyday experience, attempted to investigate the condition of the place and of society unmediated by media and ideological images. He thus expressed the need for a new socialization and politicization of art and the position of the artist. In his first more sizable curatorial project States of Things (Karlin Studios, Prague, 2006), Magid turned attention away from the curatorial stagnation of mono-thematically conceived exhibitions and towards more comprehensive reactions.
In his artistic role, this analysis and critique was already apparent in his attempt to investigate the boundaries of the conceptual language with the aid of the ‘rigorous’ application of conceptual processes and the positivist collection of data from life. The concordance between depiction and fact that interests Magid the curator continued to interest Magid the artist. The method of description that he has long been exploring serves him as a way of naming and observing this relationship. He uses the procedures and formal language of science seriously, manipulatively and speculatively. He pursues the penetration of conceptual art with the methods of the Situationists in themes of the mundane, of urban life, of social determination and the individual position. In a year-round performance with documentation that cites the formal practice of 1970s documentation, Magid presents a social self-portrait in diary form (One-Year Project, 1 April 2005 – 1 April 2006. Over the Course of One Year I Tried to Keep Complete Records of Everything, AM 180, Prague, 2006). Later, in a piece titled Reconvalescence (Futura, Prague, 2009), the collective, Situationist dérive movement through the city intersects with Baudelaire’s and Poe’s individualistic flâneurism, while Magid pursues his own artistic position as a resident and artist.
It appears from other projects of his early period that Magid, alongside the issue of documentation, is most interested in the relationship of the conceptual method of proposition, procedure and application and its degree of fulfillment or purely idealistic establishment. He also investigated the avant-garde potential of Post-conceptual art in his curatorial projects, such as the exhibition Purpose (together with Vasil Artamonov and Petra Herotová, gallery of the Academy of Fine Arts, Prague, 2006), which examined the positive artistic gesture and social intervention and its impact on real life, i.e. the ‘purposefulness’ of art. In his later Place for a Project (gallery of the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design, Prague, 2007), he demonstrated, using the example of the exhibition format and exhibition practice, political mechanisms and financial relationships and commented ironically on the circumscribed curatorial theme of repoliticization of art in the Czech Republic. He had the exhibiting artists compartmentalize the gallery space with the aid of multicolored panels and texts into a series of places. These places were defined by means of demarcating slogans without the presence of further props or artifacts. The disparity of ‘places for’ and ‘places without’ also appeared in the piece Shadow of Doubt (Prague Biennale 3, Prague, 2007), which relativized the self-congratulatory format of the biennale. In this piece, stating the local context alongside the universal quality of the biennale by the use of the coordinating conjunction ‘but’ cast doubt on the show itself.
Apart from the political aspects of art, Magid is also interested in the methods of, and reasons for, the penetration of irrational and unconscious elements into contemporary artistic thinking and the perpetuity of conceptual methodology and rationalization and the new demands of imagination. He has investigated these questions theoretically, for example in the Consequences of Conceptualism conference organized in the context of his position in the Science and Research Center of the Prague Academy of Fine Arts in 2010 and in the magazine Notebook of Art, Theory and Related Zones (in collaboration with Jakub Stejskal). He also deals with these issues in his own artistic work and they constituted his curatorial theme in the exhibition Gaspard of the Night (Futura, Prague, 2010), the objective of which was to highlight gothic and grotesque elements in contemporary artistic discourse. The exhibition, whose title was borrowed from Aloysius Bertrand’s anthology of prose poetry, attempted to examine the post-conceptual work of today through the prism of the aesthetic categories of the fanciful, the origins of which lie in Romanticism. This concept can only be better observed in Czech art now that the divergence from rationality is much more conscious, but that fact, on the contrary, demotivates the adventurously-minded curator.
If I might return to the aforementioned relationship between the concept and its fulfillment, there are four artistic pieces that are crucial for Václav Magid, which I will examine more closely. The demonstrative methodology of his work may be derived from the tradition of Russian conceptual art – the combining of text and image with an attribute of descriptiveness and illustrativeness, which originates in classic Russian literature. Magid, however, displaces the zaum of 1990s post-conceptual art, for example the Medhermeneutika collective, by introducing logical association, although that does not necessarily lead to a rational conclusion. The method of application and emphasizing of contexts – both existing and foreshadowed – has accompanied the process and outward impression of his work since around 2009. His Father’s Blind Eye exhibition (Jelení, Prague, 2009) already expanded on a series of contexts surrounding a photograph of an execution in China from the archives of Georges Bataille, implied the necessity for a new composition of historical fragments with the present and illustrated Magid’s interest in researching the relative positions of art, philosophy and aesthetics.
As a finalist in theJindřich Chalupecký Award in 2010, he presented his piece Atlases (DOX, Prague, 2010), a modern reworking of the 19th century myth of the pioneering artist spurned by society. He applied the myth to various social systems and classes in the form of illustrations of four of his own texts, which he cut out and set in a museum installation. The essential content of the work consisted also of a metaphor for institutionalized criticism, presented via the image of the artist propping up the gallery, museum and critical institutions by means of her/his work. Magid hyperbolically describes the artist as an Atlas, whose position and social status is threatened from the very places that his work is designed for. It should be stated that this issue is also reflectedinMagid’scivicactivities.
Two other, current projects seek potential bridges across various historical and contemporary coordinates. Coordinates was the title of Magid’s exhibition last year in the Moravian Gallery in Brno, in which he constructs the coordinates of the fates of characters of Soviet Union citizens and the ideological image of Stalinist Russia (the Leningrad area). The map is based on a number of points of reference: a specificLeningrad underground station, a cookery book with a foreword by Joseph Stalin, a 1949 campaigning film about Leningrad spas and a book for school children about geography and astronomy. These are presented by a scientific illustrative method and gradate from factual descriptiveness and interpretation through personal stories and the chronological, geographical and mental coordinates of a number of characters constructed as examples – a photographer, a librarian, a piano teacher who is a daughter of an enemy of the people, an imaginary sailor and a night watchman with an interest in science fiction. In this way,the artist illustratively, mechanically and ironically compares the propaganda materials of the regime with the professional, personal interest and civil profiles of the characters and creates a commentary criticizing the transposition of the avant-garde ideal by ideology into an instrument of power. It seems appropriate here (in relation to the foregoing) to mention Magid’s editorial activities in organizing a Czech edition of Boris Groys’ books The Total Art of Stalinism and The Communist Postscript.
Magid’s latest project From the Secret Files of Aesthetic Education, which is presented in this year’s Lyons Biennale (and the first variation of which was presentedin the Kostka Gallery in Prague in 2013), is derived from two sources: the thinking of the 18th century German philosophers who promoted beauty and art as a means of achieving liberty and truth and the Soviet television series 17 Moments of Spring, which tells the story of a Soviet secret agent placed amongst the Nazi ruling elite in the closing months of the war. The exhibition is composed of two, and subsequently three scenes: 1) a projection of the series from the period of the declining Brezhnev regime and the aesthetic of the time, which turned against him, 2) a construed theatrical scene of a meeting between Friedrich Hölderlin and Johann Wolfgang Goethe in the home of Friedrich Schiller, which is presented as a shift in the boundary of the avant-gardist intervention of art into life and 3) a crossover scene, i.e. an interpretation of the preceding, mirrored installation arrangement. The third scene speaks of the failure of the avant-garde and modern ideal in totalitarian and neo-liberal politics. By intersecting the embryo of the modern avant-garde in the late 18th century with one of its conclusions, Magid unfolds a contemporary plot about power and the meaning of art and its autonomy, about balancing the elements of the rational and the sensual.
Magid seeks in the foundations of modern philosophy and literature depictions of the contrast between a construct and its converse, for example in the case of Schiller (ideal, beauty and truth) and Baudelaire (downfall). In his object And the Sky Saw This Proud Skeleton Blossom out as a Flower (2010), the image of the blossom of evil is combined with a sort of Vitruvian model of the ideal city as a parallel to the Roman polis representing a construed organization in opposition to the encroaching medieval tendency towards irrationality. The end of the 19th century, the development of the modern Industrial Age and its contrasting consequence in the form of decadent literature later brought a similar situation on a less than epochal scale.
With the aid of the correlated arrangements of cultural and historical events and facts, Magid interrupts the linear composition of historical interpretation, which is offered too quickly, with such large gaps and under such varied pressures that we cannot trust it in the long term, apply it in the present or, for that matter, extrapolate it into the future.
Edith Jeřábková is a curator and art critic. Together with Dominik Lang she leads the Sculpture Studio at AAAD in Prague.
Václav Magid (*1979) is an artist, curator and art theoretician. He lives and works in Prague
VÁCLAV MAGID, Master of New Worlds, from the Atlases series, 2010, cutout, 29,7 × 42 × 29,7 cm, photo: Martin Polák.
VÁCLAV MAGID, Untitled, from the Situations series, 2009, ink on paper, 56,7 × 76,8 cm, photo: author, courtesy Alberto di Stefano & Eugenio Percossi.
Coordinates, 2012, exhibition view, Atrium, Brno, photo: Moravian Gallery in Brno.