Fotograf Magazine

Mutating Medium: Gesture of Generational Oversaturation?

An exhibition, focusing on contemporary Czech photography of the past two decades, took place in the Rudolfinum Gallery in Prague. Curator Pavel Vančát chose to call it Mutating Medium, which clearly establishes and expresses the direction in which his artistic considerations on the state of photography in our environment are headed. A 150-page catalog was published on the exhibit Mutating Medium: Photography in Czech Art 1990-2010 (texts by Pavel Vančát, publication concept by Pavel Vančát and Markéta Kinterová, graphics by Markéta Kinterová). Here you may see a selection of works from twenty- -two artists, including Ivan Pinkava, Pavel Baňka, Václav Stratil, Jiří Černický, Jiří Thýn, Markéta Othová and Daniel Pitín. This listing clearly shows that not all selected artists are photographers.

The catalog is based on the concept of an exhibition chronologically divided into five chapters – sections created by mutual artist confrontation: Pictorialists / Strategists / Manipulators / Non-photographers / Post-Photography. While the first four parts of the exhibit are linked to specific expressive statements by the artists, to whom the given names of the section also relate, the conclusion of the exhibition and the catalog are designed as an epilogue. “Post-Photography” is the definition of a situation that occurred after some anticipated apocalypse, or at least after the “extinction” or radical transformation of photography as an independent, distinctive medium.
Pictorialists are the materialization of contemporaries and the keepers of the classic medium. They are compelled to come to terms with run-ins with “postmodern uncertainty”. Some stick with traditional photography, because they have an established transcending theme (V. Jirásek, I. Pinkava), while others work with a loosening of contextual content and reevaluate their approach to the medium as a means of expression (P. Baňka). The inclusion of the images of Antonín Střížek into this section may seem contradictory. Here the artist works with various subjects and language approaches, which he uses as a montage, but his true goal is to evoke the illusion of a compact image and the complex atmosphere of the work. If Střížek’s painting is taken as an image approaching an image “along another path”, this is a matter of paraphrasing the term “pictorialism” itself. The question remains as to which direction this irony is aimed, whether towards a stray type of photography, or painting, or both.

According to the curator, Strategists often “quote” or “document”, thereby achieving a “wider overlap into the sphere of fine art”. The key work in this section is the self-portrait, Monastic Patient, by Václav Stratil from 1991-96. This is in fact (a piece of) research on the surface of the actual artist’s Me, founded upon self-styling in front of the lens. Here the artist flawlessly escapes the identity determined by the camera. A radically postmodern gesture here is the series, Chapters from the Art History, by Filip Turek, which inserts documentary photos from a magazine into golden frames with the name of the famous artist on the label.

Manipulators embedded into the latter half of the 1990s make their own break with tradition. “By anticipating the end of the fundamental characteristics of photography”, where they are indicated here as “originality” and “authenticity”, they are not just embedded but also motivated to work. And so they manipulate. Here the notoriously well-known works of Jiří Surůvka (Gilbert & George, 1999) and Veronika Bromová (the series Views, 1996) have a strong presence. Václav Jirásek (Infection, 2002-03) bombastically places dead bodies into the landscape. The duo Jasanský/Polák in the cycle, Ignác – Conservationist Photography (1996-2000), seemed to reach into an archive, and for the occasion of the exhibition, they rejuvenated the memory and showed the face of the organizing institution cast in historical black and white light (Rudolfinum).

Non-photographers openly ignore or do not react to classic photographic environments and procedures. Markéta Othová creates a black and white series of central ornaments, Mayday (2004-07). Alena Kotzmannová mediates the relationship between dark and gloom in the cycle, Apartment (2006 – 2007). Jiří Thýn photographs a beautiful rose the likes of which the world has never seen (Untitled, 2005) and the duo Vajd/Alt reproduces a “likeness” of old film reels (Exposed, 2005).

The conclusion of the exhibition – Post-Photography – unveils the destruction of the medium, and the migration to abstract forms, to a breakdown of the medium to its prime factors and to new research on the photograph and its role in modern society. Perhaps the strongest work here is that of Jiří Thýn Untitled – from the cycle, So Sad in These Luxurious Times (2009), representing a color Rorschach test in a church nave. A chilling probe into the exploited realm of surrealism? Vajd/Alt in the video loop, Lighthouse (2008), mechanically film a rotating camera. Jiří Thýn in Light Composition (2010) parodies research on expressive material sources from the period of the Bauhaus Avant-garde, the result of which is the aesthetizing of banality and skepticism toward expressive means as carriers of cogent understanding.

Let us conclude. Photography, an aesthetizing medium by its very essence, creates unexpected barriers. Not agreeing with its traditional aesthetics and standing against it is just another form of aesthetization (flaw, banality, quasi- -stylization, persiflage, metaphor, irony). Then again, penetrations and mutations of seemingly incompatible media resound as simply an evocation of other aesthetic approaches; like some kind of superficial vibration. These photographs seem not to speak any other way than radically, meaning completely. The declared destruction of the medium only changes into a new aesthetic quality. So this means no funerals, no crying or nostalgia, because the medium is not dying. Photography mutates mainly in the view of the curator; this is his personal theme, which can be respected, but not of course as a compulsory view on the development of photography in Czech art over the past twenty years. That would be too manipulative a view and a pathetic conclusion. One may perceive the exhibition rather as a gesture of a certain generational oversaturation, which occurred amidst the fast-paced changes of the 1990s, and which was later accomplished by none other than Pavel Vančát as curator. The exhibition functions on this basis. It is a reference to skepticism and reductive tendencies both in expression, and in the thoughts of both the 1990s generation and the youngest generation. Criticism of the medium is only a suitably chosen framework for something much more fundamental. As such, it is an attempt at unified generational self-reflection, which continues to fall apart in the absent-minded and rushed conditions of today’s world.

To reduce the term photography to “prime factors” or “bases” and begin using it again. Otherwise it is a proven restart that other artistic media are undergoing today, for example painting. Milan Kundera once said youth is a “lyrical time”. Mutating Medium is essentially a darkly lyrical project parting ways with its own youth.


This text was published in the Slovak newspaper, Pravda, on April 1, 2011
Mutating Medium. Photography in Czech Art 1990 – 2010 Fotograf 07 o.s. in colaboration with Rudolfinum Gallery, Prague 2011, 154 pages

Petr Vaňous