Fotograf Magazine

Once upon a time in the east

Tenkrát na východě / Once upon a Time in the East, Dům U Kamenného zvonu, 28. 10. 2009 – 3. 1. 2010

The twentieth anniversary of November events seems to be a suitable opportunity for general balancing (assessment). This trend has not escaped even the cultural sphere, where different exhibits, more or less related to this theme, began to appear. One of the largest of these currently running “revolutionary exhibitioning“ activities is that with the title, Tenkrát na východě / Once upon a Time in the East, which is now taking place in the Dům U Kamenného zvonu (House at the Stone Bell). Fortunately the only thing that the exhibit from the curatorial workshop of Vladimír Birgus and Tomáš Pospěch shares with the eponymous Jackie Chan film is its name.

The exhibit takes the viewer through a photographic territory defined by a time period extending from the end of the Second World War up to the Velvet Revolution. The extensive photographic exhibit presents more or less known works from various local artists. The exposition begins promisingly: the entire first room is filled with embracing Communist politicians from the archives of the Czech Press Agency (ČTK). Unfortunately this space is both the first and the last moment where the viewer has the feeling that the exhibit has a clear, focussed concept. As we walk further through the exhibit we find out that it is arranged primarily along chronological lines.

The early post-war years are not a very well documented area in Czech photography and so the first of these years are covered by the ČTK archives. The photos are complemented by period descriptions and present a nice historic excursion into the inflammatory beginnings of the construction of the socialist state. This moment in the exhibit is definitely beneficial from the point of view of historical awareness. Young visitors to this portion of the exhibit look on it with clear interest and wonder. It’s a shame, however, that there’s missing here any sort of putting the events  into  their  broader  context.  Without  this,  the  exhibit  is  just a collection of select, attractive image strips – the blowing up of Stalin’s monument on Letná, trials of political prisoners, university students attending socialist work brigades, etc.

The subsequent decades of Czechoslovak development are already very well covered by Czech photographers. In this case the exhibit, instead of using ČTK archives, presents various well-known names and works from Czech photography. Here we cannot overlook the classic, quality documentary work of artists like Pavel Dias, Miloň Novotný, Josef Koudelka, Dagmar Hochová, Jindřich Štreit and Karel Cudlín. The well- polished family silver of Czech photography then pleasantly complements less known artists like Gustav Aulehla, whose photos belong among the most interesting parts of the exhibit. Unknown photographs from the military service environment taken by Josef Moucha or the New Year’s Eve parties in the Jalta Hotel dating from the 1980s documented by Jan Jindra also peak our interest. These “discoveries“ are regularly interwoven with the works of better-known artists and collections just as they had met on the historical timeline.

In the moment when the viewer has the feeling that he/she is beginning to get a sense of the exhibit’s meaning, the concept’s authors prepare them a small surprise. Between the documents colour advert and fashion photographs begin to appear. Elsewhere we are surprised by the sudden placement of works by Miroslav Tichý or photos taken for work by the secret police, the StB: here there are again projections of colour photos. The viewer then gets the feeling that they are inside a photographic encyclopaedia. Here you will also find whatever might come to mind. Then the more or less confused viewer slowly works his/her way to the present.

In the final space no one is surprised by the several creative photographs by the Bratrsva (the Brotherhood), remade cover pages of Communist magazines, or a short, conceptual video by Kateřina Držková. After all, each work shown relates to the exhibit’s theme in some way. Either they were created during the time period covered by the exhibit’s concept, or they more or less speak to this period. To its detriment, this in the only guiding principle along which the exhibit is structured.

In the introductory text the authors of the concept declare that the exhibit is not meant to be “a look at the history of Czech photography, nor a historical look at the development of the Czech lands between 1948 and 1989.“ It is not certain however to what extent they were able to make good on this declaration. The exhibit instead tends to fulfil otherwise obligatory options “c) all of the above“ and “d) none of the above.“

To a certain degree the exhibit maps historical developments, which it categorises chronologically and binds them like dominoes. At the same time it’s a view of the history of Czech photography, from which it for the most part chooses notoriously well-known pictures, with a surprise once in awhile. Yet the authors do not adhere to either of these approaches systematically. This is a characteristically post-modern mix of many possible curatorial approaches rolled into one, or otherwise stated, of the absence of a clear, dominant approach. Learn something here, enjoy yourself there, balance out the surprise of novelty with classicism, and shake up the wariness from documents with creative (material). Somehow it all lacks a common denominator. This as a result is truly a mere timeframe for post-war development.

And so the exhibit, Tenkrát na chodě / Once upon a Time in the East, leaves an inconsistent impression after its viewing. By no means can one say that it’s a bad exhibit. Practically nowhere in the exhibit will you find a weak photograph. All work shown is interesting, of good quality: the majority of them are well-known classic pieces. The exhibit’s production is exemplary: a quality architect, beautiful spaces, luxurious frames, blow- ups. Unfortunately here the saying that the quality of the whole is only as strong as its weakest link applies: i.e. it’s impacted by the absence of any real attempt at logical organisation, concept, order, and submission to a strong curatorial project. In present times, a similar catalogue approach – to line up one behind the other all works and artists that are currently available – ceases to suffice. Afterwards not even backing by famous persons, a good event venue, nor a luxurious installation can help.

Filip Láb