Fotograf Magazine

Representation without Reproduction?: Photography and Performance in Czech Art of the 1970s

A Czechoslovak photographer whose name begins with “K”? To this
crossword-like question there used to be a simple answer, at least
up until recently. In Photography at MoMA1, a publication redefining
the canon of photography, a volume spanning the period from 1960
until today, apart from Josef Koudelka and Běla Kolářová, also Jiří
Kovanda and Milan Knížák have been included. I think no one in his
right mind would doubt the relationship to photography in the case of
both Koudelka and Kolářová. The presence of Kovanda (beside David
Lamelas) and Knížák (beside Vale Export), however, seems to reach
beyond the understanding of the medium by many experts. It is exactly
this odd situation on the border of performance and photography to
which the talented young researcher Hana Buddeus has devoted
her book. Representation without Reproduction? Photography
and Performance in the Czech Art of the 1970s is an interestingly
compiled PhD study edited by Štěpán Marko, defended by Buddeus
and published by UMPRUM. The book is divided into two parts:
a visual narration told through photographic reproductions of events
and catalogues, telling an auteur story of Czech performance art; and
a research section, which is both theoretical and critical at the same
time. The introductory visual part, using an untypical reproduction of
reproductions of catalogues and documentation of artistic action,
allows one to grasp the topic, analyse it, and discern the impureness
of photography. Buddeus in a diligent and detailed way starts by
recapping the current state of research, combining a Czech (and
Czechoslovak) bibliography with Anglo-Saxon discourse. Among the
authors are all the sacred figures of performance theory, from Roselee
Goldberg and Amy Bryzgel to Peggy Phelan and Amalia Jones.
Although the omission of Simon Baker’s recent exhibition at the Tate,
Performing for the Camera (2016), may be excused, it is quite an
omission to not have mentioned Roxana Marcoci’s exhibition Staging
Action: Performance in Photography Since 1960, held at MoMA in
2011. Both exhibitions illustrate the breaking point that had come
about in the relationship between performance and photography, so
very key to the study by Buddeus. In her monograph, she analyses one
by one the monumental figures of the Czechoslovak neo-avantgarde:
Jan Mlčoch, Petr Štembera, Karel Miller, Jiří Kovanda, Milan Knižák
and Vladimír Boudník. She does not end up solely celebrating her
protagonists but proceeds to critically doubt their activities or,
rather, their relation to photography. Narcissism proper to both
performance and photographic self-portrait is among the major motifs
described by Buddeus, showing how ambivalent the documentation
of fleeting actions is. Following the path of presentation and issues
of representation, the author did not seek contact with living artists
but resorted to doing research on the discourse related to their work. This is probably the most questionable part of the book; although it
includes a collection of imposing and updated bibliography sources,
which is set to become compulsory reading for art historians
interested in the currently quite fashionable neo-avantgarde of Central
and Eastern Europe, it nonetheless remains too academic to become
a popular university textbook. In this aspect, Buddeus’s approach
might be very different to that of Rosalind Krauss, by whom the
researcher was clearly inspired (even if there is no mention of
Notes on Index2 in the monograph). At the end of the day, the
book’s dynamics are built up by the clash of the Anglo-Saxon line
of interpretation in the spirit of “October” (with Douglas Crimp and
Thierry de Duve, besides Krauss herself) with Czech sources (mostly
in debates with Petr Rezek and Tomáš Pospiszyl). This clash is also
evident in merging the activities of Czech and American artists. From
my personal perspective, it is far more interesting when Buddeus
starts parallel sketching of the relation between the neo-avantgarde
art in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Yugoslavia and Hungary. As the recent
exhibition of works by Ester Krumbachová at Prague’s Tranzit gallery
at the turn of 2017/2018 shows, the protagonists of fascinating
art history may not have been exclusively male. In this respect,
Buddeus’s book is disappointing due to its unintentional conservatism
since it does not reveal any interesting female performers or
photographers. On the other hand, the book creates ground for
further research, leaving a feeling of not having come to terms with
the topic, which Buddeus herself will hopefully be able to fulfil. This is
further suggested by the consequent lack of overcoming the period
of the 1970s, so precisely defined in the book’s title. Towards the end
of the book, she delves into contemporary times for a moment, yet
recent work by the performers seems to be of far lesser interest to
Buddeus than the development of the discourse in the research field.
She stirs the reader’s appetite through descriptions of the individual
performances, but if we ponder for a while, the book does not clarify
why the photographs are of such an exclusive quality that they can
easily enter the general history of photography. Is it only because
the performances were so great? Who took all those photographs,
anyway? What methods were used to edit them? Buddeus’s book is
therefore extraordinary not only due to its critical reflection, the level of
the research included and the quality of the art it treats, but also due
to the sum of reflections it inspires.

Adam Mazur

1 Bajac, Quentin, Roxana Marcoci, Lucy Gallun and Sarah Hermanson Meister.
Photography at MoMA: 1960 to Now. New York: Museum of Modern Art, 2015.
ISBN 978-0-87070-969-2.
2 Notes on the Index. Krauss, Rosalind. The Originality of the Avant-garde and Other
Modernist Myths. Cambridge: MIT, 1986, s. 196-219. ISBN 978-0-26261-046-9.
Buddeus, Hana. Zobrazení bez reprodukce?: Fotografie a performance v českém
umění sedmdesátých let 20. století (Representation without Reproduction?:
Photography and Performance in Czech Art of the 1970s). Praha: UMPRUM, 2017.
ISBN 978-80-87989-36-4.