Fotograf Magazine

Heaven on Earth or “About a Chair”

The reason why we encountered with reactions to this year’s International Biennale of Photography and Visual Art (BIP2014) in Belgium’s Liège, called Pixels of Paradise, is mainly that, thanks the care taken by the Czech Centre in Brussels, a curatorial selection of contemporary Czech production was shown. So under Czech conditions the question begs itself: how to present contemporary photography? And also the continuously contentious topic of to what degree do “national” shows help or not help to establish Czech artists abroad? With a certain irony some Czech participants at BIP2014 made an unexpected discovery: the section called O židli (About a Chair) from the curatorial trio of Hynek Alt, Aleksandra Vajd and Karina Kottová was the only one, of a total of 12 sections that were part of the Biennale, to enrich the event with a multimedia and international dimension. It would seem that this hyperbole was meant only compensate for the Czech complex of not exhibiting abroad enough. But the truth is that the Czech section actually got out of hand not only in its national definition (limitations), but also through its form and content. Even despite the adjective “international” in the festival’s name, one sees primarily Belgian artists at BIP. In contrast with metropolitan shows, BIP has the air of periphery and its keeps mainly along the lines of photographic media. This has a number of positive aspects, for this event also offers opportunities to regional artists and involves also local institutions and spaces.

Liège is located in the one-time industrial area of the francophone part of Belgium. The festival, which has been running since the 1990s, is definitely not an attraction whose opening professionals around the world flock to en masse. It is an event that has continuity, but mainly a specific lure/appeal. The Biennale uncovers the history of the regional industrial centre; some sections offer views of towns’ and museums’ art collections. It is very charming how naturally this year’s theme for the Liège Biennale connected past and present; how contemporary photographic and video-art productions communicate with the historic displays in the exhibition halls of the regional institutions.

BIP2014’s leitmotif has something to do with the problems that constitute the photographic medium: “Seeing and Believing” refers to the ambivalence of

the image. Even if it lies, it is telling the truth. It exposes more than just reality and leads us to a much greater awareness of the complexity that the image hides in itself. The key words and seeing are expressed differently in the individual sections. Attractive themes like mystification and holiness (saintliness), intangible and the invisible world attain in the illusiveness of the contemporary digital image radical dimensions and content. The BIP art director, Anne-Françoise Lesuisse, designed the layout that covers the relationship between image and the “intangible” with spiritual sections almost literally: Views of the Spirit, (Vues de l’Esprit), Mirages or Prescience. In the documentary section, Idols (Idoles) she then addresses the relationships between the portrayed and power; in a section called Icons (Icones) at the Musée des Beaux-Arts de Liège she puts the symbolic and mythological interpretation in historic genres into the context of the contemporary technical image.

The exhibition O židli (About a Chair) definitely succeeds mainly in the fact that the curatorial team avoided the stereotypical presentation of Czech photography. Rather it showed a representative selection from the Czech scene with regard to the Biennale’s photographic context. Of course standards like Jasanský and Polák, Markéta Orthová, Veronika Bromová, Michal Kalhous and Viktor Kopasz had to be included; from the younger generation, for example, Jiří Thýn, Radek Brousil, Lucie Sceranková and Johana Pošová. However, the exhibition pushes the “mutating medium” of photography further along, for it is open to artists, who explore, almost exclusively, painting (i.e. Pavel Příkaský). The performance and process principles of the work of Martin Zet, Václav Magid, Aleš Čermák, Pavla Sceranková and Ladislav Vondrák, also push things a step further; along with the three-dimensional installation by Matyáš Chochola. Simple things work – the fact that the work’s concept (message) is the elementary motif of a chair in the most varied positions, contexts and situations possible, leaves its boundaries very open. The artists‘ positions, which escape the contemporary post-conceptual wave, also become part of the game.

The statement of the curators of the Czech section radically defines itself vis-à-vis the Biennale’s “pixeled” focus in its religious, spiritual and paranormal presentation, by choosing worldly (earthly) themes throughout; these stand with their feet on the ground. The Czech section formally acts rather as a nickname representing the “Biennale of Contemporary Art” rather than the conservatively defined “Biennale of Photography.” As concerns the theme “the chair in contemporary art,” the curators do not sort out whether the pieces of furniture appear in main roles in the works or only instrumentally – in any case the result of the exploration is that the spectrum of Czech artists, who address this mundane motif in one way or another, is broad. It is possible that research on the areas of religiousness and spirituality would be less fruitful in the Czech atheistic conditions, even though you would find a lot here as well. The confrontation with the Belgian environment, no matter how peripheral the format, opens up interesting issues related to the specifics of the Czech scene. It also offers further, rich ideas for reflection. I will not attempt here to engage in analysis of the historical influence of the reformation on the Czech mentality and its spirituality, but is not perhaps a certain iconoclasm and refusal of exalted themes to the benefit of that mundane something characteristic of the Czech milieu?

Mariana Serranová