Fotograf Magazine

Clare Grafik – curator at Photographers’ gallery, London

In February this year you participated in a symposium on Czech photo­graphy and had a chance to see Land Locked exhibition – both events were held in London College of Communication. Recently you also curated an exhibition of Marketa Othova in Photographers’ Gallery, one of the rare shows of contemporary Czech photographers in London. It is a rather brief account with Czech photography, however, could you observe any similarities or significant differences in comparison to British photography?

It is difficult to compare the character of two different nationalities in this way and in terms of their artistic output. I can say what attracted me to Marketa Othova’s work and how this appeared to have a very particular ‘character’ of its own. Before seeing Marketa’s work I was familiar with the photographs of Jan Svoboda. Although their two practices are very different there is, for me, a similar texture to their work, and a similar set of considerations. In particular they both share a relation to literature, to poetry, to time and meaning which is intangible, meditative, ironic and serious all at the same time.

In the early Nineties, after the fall of communism, with opening of borders between east and west, Czech photography community as well as public were gradually introduced to current `western’ art scene through exhibitions, articles in magazines, translations of significant theoretical texts (Susan Sontags’ On Photography was translated as late as 2002!) Contemporary western art and photography certainly have an influence on Czech art scene, especially on emerging generation of artists. Did you notice similar interest in ‘eastern’ photography in the early Nineties in Britain? Was there any influence coming, so to speak, from East to West? Is such dividing still relevant today?

It is certainly interesting that key texts have now been translated into Czech until recently, As far as western European and American schooling goes, texts such as Barthes ‘Camera Lucida’ and Sontag’s ‘On Photography’ have become the staple theoretical diet for any photography student – and it is hard to imagine how thinking around the photographic medium would now be without them, It is important to consider what cultural tradition these texts have been produced from, and bear them in mind in relation to others which are perhaps less well read (certainly in the UK), I am thinking of something like Villem Flussers ‘Towards a Philosophy of Photography.

I would say that far from being under represented, Eastern European, previously Eastern bloc and Russian photographers have a substantial track record of appearing in exhibitions in the UK. At The Photo­graphers’ Gallery just a few examples here are taken from the exhibition programme from its inception in 1971: Four Contemporary Photo­graphers from Lithuania (1973), the Romanian/French photographer Irina lonesco (1973), Czech photographer Frantisek Drtikol (1974), Early Soviet Photographers 1917 – 1941 [Group show, 1982), Twenty-five Czechoslovakian Photographers (Group show, 1985), Jan Svoboda (1982 & 1993), The Hungarian Connection: Roots of Photojournalism (Group show, 1987), Lithuanian Photography (1980), well-known Hun­garian/American photographers’ Laszlo Moholy-Nagy (1982 & 1983] and Andre Kertesz (1972), Josef Sudek (1976), photographs by the Polish poet and writer S,I.Witkiewitcz [1990], Photo-reclamation: New Art from Moscow and St Petersburg (Group show, 1995), Jitka Hanzlo­va (1999/2001/2003) and Boris Mikhailov (2000 & 2001). In addition to this I would say that other galleries such as Modern Art Oxford who recently programmed their ‘New Arrivals’ series, also show a significant number of photographers and artists from or working in these countries.

Contemporary photography from Eastern Europe is rarely exhibited in major British galleries, although I am convinced there are number of personalities who deserve attention internationally. Could you give any reason for such a situation? Do you have any other experience as a curator with photography from Eastern Europe?

I personally have only ever worked with Marketa Othova but would be very open to working with practitioners from any country! In some ways the cultural industries within the Eastern European area seem to be developing a huge amount recently (I am thinking of the new DOX arts centre in Prague) or are already very well established (such as Bunker in Krakow and Ujazdowski Castle in Warsaw, Poland). It would be great for practitioners not to see success being just visibility in the western scene.

Even though contemporary Czech photography scene is open to influences from abroad, it still remains rather self-involved. Many photography works might be seen as a reaction on the current state of debate on art and photography held in a closed circle of several institutions, as well as a reaction to the state of local culture, politics and environment generally. Such piece of work could be hard to understand [and appreciate] for someone without knowledge of the local context. On the other hand, such confusion might add to the exotic of this work while viewing abroad. As a curator, how can you use such ‘qualities’ and ‘translate’ the work to a viewer in Britain?

It is always an issue for work to translate from one cultural context to another. It would be a tragedy for work to relate only to some idea of an ‘international art scene’. There is of course a fine line between work feeling too ‘parochial’ and having specific culturally specific references which can make it incredibly interesting. It is normal for there to be local as well as international debates around the arts, and this can become both a strength and a weakness in any context.

Do you regard your experience with Czech photography as inspiring? Would you like to introduce another Czech photographer to British viewers in the near future?

All the photographers I work with are inspiring. Although I have no definitive plans for working with another Czech photographer but would rule nothing out!

Jan Čihák