Fotograf Magazine

Glocal Girls at Praguebiennale 3


Glocal and Outsiders: Connecting Cultures in Central Europe

Karlín Hall, Thámova 14, Praha 8

25 –16. 9. 2007


Within the labyrinth of a plethora of various projects, pipes, dripping water, unidentified industrial objects, mysterious trap doors, workshops, dusty windowpanes and clean white partitions, photography at the Prague Biennale 3 maintained a highly visible presence. That is to say photography and its derivates in various cross-disciplinary exhibitions related to video art, and depending on the viewer’s unyielding timeline.

Glocal (the main focus of this year’s selection) refers to a very broad notion (at times perhaps too hazy) reflected from different perspectives, denoting the connection of global paradigms of art with local art forms, traditions, and issues.

It would perhaps be rewarding to trace this new concept of interconnection also through the earlier contexts of Modernism and some of the localized interwar avant-garde movements (such as the Czech avantgarde), but at the same time we would probably immediately encounter considerable differences in terms of distribution, which in our day of the wide-open public space of the web page is incomparable with the relative isolation of avant-garde movements and their circuit of art revues and exhibitions.

At the Prague Biennale, one of the largest retrospectives of the visual arts held in Central and Eastern Europe, and organized by the renowned Italian magazine Flash Art (24. 5–16. 9, 2006: directors Giancarlo Politi and Helena Kontová) we had the opportunity to see a very open picture, presented by a host of curators and artists representing a number of nationalities and cultural identities. We may often perceive our surroundings as contrary to the direction in which we have decided to go, and we may naturally stray into misconception. Let us therefore focus on merely one of the projects, presented in a very traditional way on purely white surfaces, defined by straight lines and enlivened by turns in the shape of the letters L and T.

The author of the Glocal Girls concept, Vladimír Birgus, built the exhibition around the current work of twenty Czech and Slovak female artists and photographers, with the additional age limitation of their being no older than 35 years of age. By this definition he opened up a space usually taken by the permanently strong generation which began working in the given medium in the Czech and Slovak art scene during the early 1990s, as well as somewhat earlier (this generation is exemplified e.g. by Magdalena Jetelová, Milena Dopitová, Veronika Bromová, Jitka Hanzlová, Štěpánka Šimlová, Lenka Klodová, Míla Preslová, Michaela Brachtlová, Markéta Othová, Jolana Havelková, Michaela Thelenová and others). The re-encounter of the two national scenes is more than justified, and precisely in an exhibition of the likes of Glocal Girls. While already in the early 1980s the presentation of Prague-based Slovaks (who were at the time students at FAMU, the Prague film academy) would almost infallibly become a group event, within the framework of Glocal Girls once could paradoxically not trace any specifically “national” style applicable to a broader circle of artists. The experience of all the artists on exhibition was in fact similar (whether they studied in the Czech Republic in Slovakia, or whether they operate in international cultural capitals / centers). More than anything else they are individual artists, for whom local forms, traditions and issues represent above all a peculiar source material, in which one may put indubitable roots for a global sureness of movement.

Twenty women artists were presented in Birgus’ exhibition, but the total number of artists was twenty-two. By including creative duos (Filip Láb – Barbora Mrázková, Salim Issa – Štěpánka Stein) this feminine collection also opened up to men. This choice may immediately raises the question as to what degree input in work done by two artists in tandem can still rank as the work of “women photographers” in the exhibition title. Personally I do not believe that the aspect of collaboration “disqualifies” any given work, since a greater part of our lives takes place within relationships (at times more latent in a work of art, yet unmistakably recognizable). We may then see this as an expansion of the perspective into yet another dimension.

Thus for instance Dita Pepe in her cycle Self-Portraits with Men (Autoportréty s muži) reckons with and elaborates on the interconnectedness of partners. This connection itself has a concrete visual reflection, while the artist remains a stunned observer of the possibilities of metamorphosis. She has mastered to brilliance the techniques of studio lighting both in and out of doors, which she deploys here.

Overlapping identity is also the theme of a duo of two women artists, Zuzana Blochová and Dita Lamačová, in their cycle Persona. The title is an allusion to Ingmar Bergman’s classic 1966 film Persona, starring Bibi Andersson and Liv Ullmann. In her 1967 essay Bergman’s Persona Susan Sontag voiced several observations, which could also loosely apply to the work in question. For the two photographers, however, it is the computer more than anything that is the source of a chain of continuous minor shifts in terms of identity. These shifts overlap with the notions of “Persona” per se, as the consequence of interpenetration.

In her cycle Refugees, Kateřina Držková uses the computer to transform the reality of people and their fleeting portraits, turning simple black-and-white snapshots of people in refugee camps into the cheapprint reality of high society. Bára Kuklíková worked with a similar concept some time ago in her series City v cizím City (Feelings in a Foreign City). The difference lies above all in the difference in visualization, but also in the consequences of this whole chain of self-deception, which is ultimately palpably different in its overall message. Kuklíková’s series accentuated above all the contemplation of “life in the game” where the refugees actively collaborated on the work on their own proposed image. Držková approaches this differently. Life is as it were “at stake”, and at times – as an exception to the rule – one can even win.

At the Biennale, Kuklíková presents a selection from her cycle Ghost. Here she elaborates on not one but several “truly strange stories”, inspired by the “otherness” of B-films. This concept surely is not exclusive of “the stress on the visual qualities of composition of image, and the psychological aspects of color” that Vladimír Birgus points out, but it is in fact precisely the almost descriptive stress on all these effects that eventually swings the uneasy balance towards radically different contexts. The combination of what is hardly combinable in the end reveals “something positive”, that stops all pursuers. In most B-movies it is probably in fact the budget.

In Monika Kováčová’s cycle Killart, there is an even more strongly present sense of a precarious balancing act on the edge of a game, which at any moment might swing into reality. The artist’s staged images remind one of the “poetics” of police or rescue-squad documentation, such as are so-often leaked to the tabloid press to publicize some sort of scandal. In black and white, car accidents, murders or suicides, together with the brutal narrowing down of the visual field, simultaneously become a controversial expression of both reality and unreality. This trace of snooping is also characteristic of Markéta Kinterová, who with a detective’s sense of precise methodology records the trajectory of a randomly selected person through a city.

Andrea Kalinová presented in her exhibition last November at the Month of Photography in Bratislava a bizarre aesthetic based on the improvised places of refuge of the homeless. The only thing that the blurred group and “universal” portrait of world politicians displays in sharp focus is their smiles. In the accompanying text, the artist quotes the official recommendations as to the suitability of the gifts presented by Slovakia to high-ranking foreign politicians during state visits.

In The Town I Like Daniela Dostálková, together with her friends (as well as regular staff), stages everyday situations in the sterile works of the new Japanese plant built in the Czech Republic, testifying to the suppression of individuality within multinational corporations. Globalization and unconditional subjugation to efficiency seems to be easily transferred from the production line to people’s minds and behavior. Individual identity dissolves in the collective adaptation to corporate “culture” and strategy. Still, taken separately and in a different context, Dostálková’s ironic images could – in their technical precision and sophisticated composition of space – fit well on the pages of a glossy promotional corporate catalogue.

This very inspiration, taken from publicity campaign strategies, corporate presentations, lifestyle and fashion is clearly evident also in the technically brilliant work of the duo Štěpánka Stein and Salim Issa. The arrangement is elaborate, utilizing studio lighting and photography. The artists did group portraits of the inhabitants of the industrial city of Newcastle in the east of England, of diverse social classes.

Something quite different was the multi-media cycle by Silvia Saparová, also created in the UK and entitled Space for Women. The artist takes silicon casts of her own body to public spaces (such as for instance, typical English pubs) where women appear only sporadically. It is a sort of anagram of the notions that usually fill “male” space, at least as we know it.

The work of Alena Kotzmannová forms a distinctive counterpoint to that of Štěpánka Stein and Salim Issa; the strategy of her black and white works can be literally surprising. This is true of her early etudes done with mouse houses (published also in charmingly funny book form), or her monumental video art projections. In her Karlín Hall exhibition, her photographs seemed tied to escaping narrative – and perhaps by doing so, they become a story in their own right. The source material for the series by Slovakia’s Petra Feriancová were photographs published in National Geograhic in 1977, the year of her birth.

The portrait work of Barbora Bálková, hiding the identity of the sitter in poignantly formed masks, or Soňa Goldová’s photographs of objects of daily use, from which she creates synthetic landscape scenes, are both simple exercises which seemingly let things run their course, but which result in surprising metaphors. Andrea Lhotáková uses in her triptych Monumenty (Monuments) an inverse process of restitution encountered when working with a large-format camera. In Portraits of Women, Sylva Francová links merges several layers of time into a single “genre” image of a number of personal and intimate details of domestic life. The space portrayed in a narrow panoramic strip is static, and within it, several images of one woman appear, in various everyday situations. Authentic reality is layered in the computer, and reconfigured into a new reality, riddled with many varied circumstances. The gaze captures also family members and closest friends.

It is the penetration of many (sometimes rather dust-covered) layers if time that is characteristic of the work of some female artists and one male artist in the present exhibition. While the medium since its beginnings provided a technical framework for a sort of “embalming”, and the preservation of ever-changing reality (while at the same time to various degrees it preconditioned the situation captured by the camera), there has always existed a parallel “game” of cheating on this preconditioning. Lucia Nimcová employed the overlapping of several layers of time in her series This Is Not My Country, in which she presented contemporary parallels to archival photographs of her native Humenné (Slovakia). In her cycle Určeno k likvidaci? (Destined for Liquidation?) Martina Novozámská reveals in the contemporary setting the city such as we may remember it from early childhood recollections. Her technically brilliant large-format photographs present in a strictly frontal view the battered shop signs and dusty windows of socialist-era businesses and pubs. The photographs of Barbora Mrázková and Filip Láb portrayed the Polish city of Katowice. Taken from the larger series Eastern Block, these used a dark tonality and the confrontation of absurd assemblages of various motifs, accentuating the ghostliness and gloom of this Polish center of heavy industry at a time of radical political, social and economic changes. In the case of all the artists, male or female, we are not dealing with a nostalgic reminiscence of early 1980s childhood, but rather of a time that seems to have evaporated forever and by the act of recording is set into motion once again.

The unfortunate phenomena lingering in contemporary Czech photography have in large part already become well known.

On the one hand, it is a kind of cabalistic “conspiracy”, which parades ad nauseam across the exhibition rooms and magazines within the same group aesthetic. And on the other hand, there is the now somewhat tiresome lack of interest (and its ceaseless flaunting) of the broader art scene in the work of the graduates of university-level photography schools, but also the reluctance of these young artists to enter the mechanisms of the art scene. Vladimír Birgus has succeeded in achieving a feat rather rare in our neck of the woods: in the present exhibition, he has avoided the generational “conspiracy”, as well as the seductive “conspiracy” of any given school, and decidedly refused to ignore anything “other” (even if not so close to him personally) which merits attention. I believe that in spite of the wide range of approaches of the twenty female and two male photographers, the final selection certainly does not result in an alibi-generated lack of focus, offering instead a very strong idea of the current shape of the medium (and not only on its “feminine” aspects) in the specific arena of Central Europe.

Aleš Kuneš