Fotograf Magazine

Village- a catalogue by Lukáš Jasanský and Martin Polák

City, village and landscape… map

Already the fifth catalogue by Jasanský and Polák, Village/Vesnice (Makum a Divus, Galerie Švestka, 2004) came out to accompany with a six months’ delay an exhibition of the same title that took place in the summer of 2004 in the Švestka Gallery. How does it differ from the previous ones?  In giving the long-expected Villagethe same format and a similar graphic design as their Pragensia catalogue (GHMP, 1998), the authors confirm that their urban and rural cycles are analogous in both focus and method.

As with the Pragensia of 1986-90, a paraphrase of traditional city views,

Village also intuitively probes the continuity of the specific outlines of the environment, and the absurdity of the behavior of its inhabitants. After the catalogue of their extensive cycle County Photography/Zemské fotografie (Galerie Josefa Sudka, Divus, 2003), showing gaping desolate plains of a rural landscape, it seems that the artists’ preoccupation of many years to capture the basic topographic principle has now become complete, creating a handsome plastic mental map of the Czech space. 

The 53 black and white photographs found in the Village catalogue are divided into three mutually complementary sections: the chapter Village, which serves as a basic starting point, focuses on the allencompassing village prototype; Reconstructed Village follows the traces of the inhabitants’ activity, and finally, Old Ways observes the somewhat feckless survival of traditions. The catalogue of three villages almost has the appearance of a well-structured sociological inquiry into the life of the Czech countryside: the outline of the basic features of the environment – the actions of individuals  – the (non)participation in shared values. But the authors are far too sophisticated for that. Their intention is well thought-out, and, moreover, as we shall see, they like to have fun as they are carrying it out. Without too obvious of an ambition, but with unmistaking precision, they penetrate to the core of the physical reality of the rural countryside, helplessly caught in a time loop.  

In parallel times

If we understand the standard countryside in the section Village as some unchanging, traditional essence of the environment, and the Reconstructed section as tracking the current activities of the villagers for hints of life and the movement of time, the Old Wayssection speaks about the past, bygone life of the village. The interplay of the sections aptly documents the influences jointly affecting the Czech rural village. Synchronous times overlap during a provisional situation. Anonymous facades in the photographs, where we only seldom glance the horizon or open skies, are interspersed with awkward, self-conscious dominants, or collapsing and at the same time not yet finished solitary buildings. The generalizing portrait of the Villagefinds that there is no change. The state of things indicates: almost gone, but still there – or vice versa.

The traces of desultory activity on the part of the absent inhabitants in the section Reconstructed Villageare chiefly viewed as touches that are ends unto themselves. We see for instance the blankets straightened immaculately in the window, probably to air them, a house in mid-construction according to some chaotically meticulous system, or the result of someone’s anxious efforts at methodical order in some piles of building materials, and elsewhere the grubby effort at a dignified look for the prettified environs.

The artists’ preoccupation with the traditional aspect and history of Czech rural villages is very subtly indicated in the third section, Old Ways they do not look for the original Baroque, historical essence in the contemporary and inconsistent mien of the villages. Here too, we can find a parallel with an earlier cycle Památkářské fotografie – Ignác (1999 – 2000 – Heritage Photographs) drawn from an urban environment. Just as in the earlier city photographs, focusing on suburbs, ordinary houses and the urban landscape, in the village album it is the sense of the whole, the overall impression that is aimed at, not the taking of superficial samples in the form of extreme shots. Dozens of drab, humdrum rows of prefab houses are very familiar to the viewer. Behind the walls, with the matter-of-factness of oxidizing houses, unperturbed but with some bursts of hyperactivity, languish their anonymous inhabitants.

A Move with Čep

Village reminds one more of a conceptual artefact than a catalogue accompanying an exhibition; this is due in the most part to the use of fragments of essays by the Catholic poet Jan Čep from his book Soliloquies and Conversations (Samomluvy a rozhovory), compiled by the artists. Why is this? It is not so much that Jasanský and Polák are tired of reading introductory essays about themselves written by contemporary theoreticians, but rather a curious, ingenuous discovery – the artists reveal something, but are deliberately opaque to the same degree. At the bottom of the parallel, in content with the dateless ruminations of Čep, and the non-engaged photographs of Jasanský and Polák, is a formal contradiction, from which nonetheless the artists derive the maximum.

Mostly further questions, i.e., more room for their own contribution.

The problem lies in the fact that they have selected passages pathetic in style, that perhaps too urgently sermonize about universally valid truths about the absurdity and conflict at the heart of our civilization – as is evident from the very first paragraph: ”Above our heads events have piled up, suspending the steel constructions of an inhuman world, that demands the acquiescence of our will, which claims to have been born of our will. But it still depends on us, whether we are willing to admit that it is already eroded at the core by millions of contradictory wills, which one day will build its ruins into the erection of a new world. But let us not forget that the aspect of that new world will germinate from our present innermost secret thoughts, that are already hidden in the heroic intentions and dreams of our hearts.“

In spite of the intentionally exaggerated selection of quotations, bringing them to this topical context confirms beyond doubt the helplessness of the parallel languishing of the Catholic tradition and the consequences of Communist deprivation. And moreover it elegantly enhances the meaning of Jasanský and Polák’s position: ”The English writer Hilaire Belloc walked on foot all over both France and England; he uncovered the former aspects of the landscape, the network of old Roman roads, the borders of the Celtic kingdoms. You could call it pure eccentricity, as who needs such discoveries? Discoveries like these surely do not contribute in any direct way to the formation of modern society, to the increase of material well-being. But they often reveal the traces and contexts of human history and civilizations more eloquently and with more conviction than written sources.“

Čep thus carries the theme of Village, and of all of Jasanský and Polák’s work so far, one level further, without at the same time tying their hands. It is hard to estimate to what extent this is a momentary demonstration, or a new aspect of the subversiveness of the duo of artists. One explanation is that this is a perfectly deliberate and earnest summary of their joint work that will probably satisfy only those less perceptive, or the as yet uninitiated.

An Indifferent Viewer, or the Stranger Syndrome

A sufficient distance from the photographed reality enables the artists to avoid any sort of sentimental and idyllic clichés. They do not want to manipulate reality, or to identify with it in any way. By their choice of Čep’s universal monologues, Jasanský and Polák even succeed in extending this distance to their relation to their own work, at the same time emphasizing its timeless, ambiguous scope, and to follow through with the detached position typical of them as artists. It would almost seem that it is the rural environment in which they themselves do not live that allowed the artists to collect field notes with more detachment and in a sense more schematically than in the older cycles set in Prague. But quite possibly this is also dictated by the very nature of the rural environment, which is easier surveyed.

In the series of images, which often seem as though they were taken by mistake, without providing any introductory information about the environment the artists piece together a highly saturated commentary. With their disengaged attitude, Jasanský and Polák enjoy to the full the privileged position in which they place themselves by their ”slightly deranged“ stranger’s eye, which finds the same principles at work in every place it comes to rest. The absurdity is diagnosed through subtle nuances. Jasanský and Polák play at being strangers even in those places familiar to them, behavingt as though they were ignorant of the local rules, as though they did not understand the automatic situations ”normal“ to the environments they observe. As strangers they can see much that remains invisible to the members of the local community. 

This attitude, however, also enables them a sound reflection, and this dynamic allows for a great degree of freedom. At the end of the catalogue, Jasanský and Polák have planted a small surprise. The dramaturgical trick with the questionmark that concludes the final sentence could be read as a following-through of their customary ( self)irony. This last work is indeed more mature than their early cycles, but there is no cause for scepticism; as the ”jokes, jokes, jokes“ have by no means run out, let us keep our eyes open.

”What did I do with the time that separates me from my childhood, so distant and at the same time suddenly so close? Have I not run dry the sources that gushed from it, have I not extinguished the light that had so illuminated it?“ 

mariana serranová