Fotograf Magazine

Jiří Černický

Černický's symbolic ambivalence

Perhaps only this very broad definition is still valid today, after the use of symbolic language has undergone such fundamental changes that it provokes the question of whether we can speak of such a thing at all. Graig Owens, who dealt with a topic related to symbolism – namely, that of allegories, or what he termed the “allegorical mode” of contemporary art, defined the shift of the modern sense of allegory from the original meaning (from the Greek allegoreuo – for I speak otherwise) by saying that in the modern sense, allegory no longer referred to something secret, hidden or esoteric, but rather added something further to the original meaning. Such is similarly the case with modern symbolism. Symbol in its traditional definition represented a language structure endowed with the capacity of dual meanings. The reading of traditional symbols, however, is loaded with a number of meanings, often contradictory, negating one another.

In the present epoch (characterized by the slogan “pictorial turn”) the symbol is born out of a latent, dispersed meaning only by its realization – that is, by its “display” as such. It can no longer be defined by its dual meaning. Symbolism has thus lost its universality, and by the same token become autonomous and independent. This is naturally owing to the fact that the contemporary work of art transcends the boundaries of any taxonomy, thus becoming completely autonomous, dependent only on the individual will of its author. This, however, does not mean that the individually created situations are not able to symbolize for the viewer (a viewer either willing or equipped for this) some kind of overall situation – a view of the world. It is still valid that the image abstracts general aspects of the world, even if the interpretation of its subject is ever more open.

If the viewer, or “reader” is to comprehend what the image symbolizes, he or she would have to have a perfect knowledge of the author’s motivations, without which an interpretation of an image necessarily means a reduction in meaning. This, as we have already said, is as it were constantly being born anew with each new artistic realization. The loss of a symbolic totality is on the other hand balanced by gaining a certain freedom. In the words of Godamer, art has ceased to be the “worship of scholarship” and has become a “provocation”. Nonetheless, it still remains a kind of symbol, challenging thought (“the symbol is the dawn of meaning” – Ricoeur). Visual artwork that creates new possibilities of thinking, beyond the limits of the already known and accustomed is a good definition of Jiří Černický’s work. His work seems to illustrate Deleuze’s thesis that thought is the focal point of artistic creation and the transformation of life. It is not, however, the artist’s work, “loaded” with ideas that it springs in ceaseless, continual practice. Černický’s aim is not to create some kind of hermetic territory of his own, but the contrary. He could be ranked among the “engaged” artists, who deal with the topical malaise of our world. Černický’s perception of reality, as it is reflected in his work, does not correspond to any conventional symbolic language, even though it is inspired both by modern symbols and by historical anecdotes and legends. He creates a hybrid language based on an often absurd overlapping of cultural symbols of European history and contemporary icons. He relates to rather finely structured problems of the globalization of culture, feminism, postcolonialism, religious fundamentalism, etc. Such contemporary problems and theories are fertile impulses for creating a new symbolic language, and it is only a question of whether it is even adequate to cite historical parallels.

Černický’s emblematic work is for instance his Medusa. As is the rule with this author, the work exists in several versions. The first one is a woman’s bust with sunglasses, hypodermic needles and syringes woven into the woman’s hair. In the second, photographic version, the original mythical Medusa – the only mortal of the three Gorgons, famed for her beauty – becomes a kind of modern phantasm. Transformed into the likeness of an unsightly domestic helper, Medusa in the Kitchen, 2000 and Home Maker Medusa, 2000 resembles a sadly ironic icon of our banal times. In Černický’s reading, the story of the rejected Medusa – an Ostblock au-pair migrating to earn money in the West – becomes simultaneously a post-colonialist symbol or a metaphor of the relationship between the poor East and richer West. This is similarly addressed in the case of the photographic record of the performance Duch v˘chodu na západû/The Spirit of the East in the West, 2002, where Černický appears clad in a Muslim burka stitched out of pieces of the American flag. The unsettling effect of the “global burka” consists in the paradoxical combination of these two heterogeneous symbols (signs) emerging from diverse cultural patterns, and at the same time in the realization of the stereotypes and possible connotations that accompany these symbols. The connection of another taboo theme with an aesthetic sophistication in another of his well known works, the color photograph titled Od srdce/From the Heart , 1997, has almost a tinge of scandal. Černický here works with an open and at the same time intimate way with a motif loaded with many psychological and symbolic interpretations. What could at first glance be called almost a programmatic feminist work at the same time has a powerful charge of ambiguity that is, in fact, featured in the very title. This suspense and uncertainty, amplified by the strong psychological impact of the subject, further shifts the meaning of the work, which oscillates between sexuality and death.

While we usually connect the symbolic with something that is a given, universally known, something possessing a certain history, in the case of such contemporary works of art as Černický’s we encounter a double level of meaning in the word “symbolic”. The instances where we can speak of a symbolic meaning in the traditional sense are clearly much rarer. Instead we can consider a sort of symbolic structure which is the potentiality of every work of art, depending on the degree of meaning and general impact that the work in question is built on. Perhaps more adequate in this instance would be to say that something is “used as a symbol”. In this sense, Černický uses the motif of tears, for example. In his early pilgrim performance Slzy postiženým třetího světa/Tears for the Sufferers of the World a vessel filled with tears became the object of a symbolic act of presentation, in which the tears served as a symbol of empathy with the suffering. In one of his most recent works Panasonic Emotions, 2000, tears function in a paradoxical connection with technological rationality, again as a visible symbol of human emotion, whose intentional suppression is in a futuristic vision compensated by their mechanical

Having mentioned Gilles Deleuze in my article, the title of one of Černický’s most well known works První sériovû vyrábûná schizofrenie/The First Serially Produced Schizophrenia, 1998, seems to directly illustrate the subtitle of Deleuze’s (and Guattari’s) text A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. In his own words, Černický is here concerned with the problem of ethical compromise within industrial and technological progress during the course of the Second World War. The figure of Munch’s painting The Scream here again does not represent a symbol, but rather works as an icon that has acquired the meaning of a symbol, or perhaps even more precisely, of a metaphor – a metaphor for the schizophrenic state of a modern society that puts industrial progress above morality.

Petr Ingerie