Central Europe Review: politics, society and culture in Central and Eastern Europe
Vol 0, No 6
2 November 1999

Kazi Stastna C U L T U R E :
The Impossibility of Doing Things Differently
An interview with Ivan Kafka

Kazi Stastna

As the current holder of the EU presidency, Austria has taken it upon itself to actively support the accession of the new candidate countries. It is in this spirit that the Austrian Cultural Institute in Prague launched various cultural programs featuring artists and authors from five of these countries. Included in the program is a series of exhibitions being held at the Institute's Oskar Kokoscka Gallery under the umbrella title Kunstraum Europa (Art Space Europe). Following an exhibition of contemporary artists from four of the EU candidate states (Poland, Slovenia, Estonia and Hungary) in the summer, the institute is devoting the month of November and part of December exclusively to a pair of Czech artists: Jiri Kolar and Ivan Kafka. The exhibit represents a confrontation of two artists from two generations with two distinct artistic approaches but a similarly uncompromising devotion to their craft.

Jiri Kolar

Born in 1914, Jiri Kolar stands as the older of the two and is a virtual giant of Czech culture. Although known worldwide primarily as a visual artist, specifically for his pioneering work in the art of collage, in the Czech Republic Kolar is equally well known as a poet. His first collection of poetry, Krestny list (Birth Certificate), appeared in 1941, and despite an official publication ban in the years 1949 to 1957, his efforts remained geared toward forms of verbal expression until the early 1960s, when he made the definitive switch to collage.

In the period of transition between metiers, he began creating 'silent' and 'evident' poems which consisted not of words but patterns, shapes and images constructed out of typed letters, numbers, punctuation marks and eventually from scraps of print, writing samples (including Braille) and pictures. Later, these scraps moved from the page and began covering actual objects - sculptures, birdhouses, furniture, household objects etc. Over the years, Kolar expanded these techniques, working with various kinds of images and materials: manipulating them, splicing them, scrunching them, multiplying them and creating utterly new forms of collage in the process.

His original approaches were recognized and his works exhibited and prized the world over, but in his home country both his poetic and visual art works remained unpublished and unexhibited until the year 1990. In 1977, Kolar jeopardized his already precarious standing by signing Charter 77. Three years later, he fled his homeland and settled in Paris, where he resides today (dividing his time between that city and Prague).

Ivan Kafka

In comparison to Kolar's works, which although incorporating various kinds of materials and objects are still confined within the conventional artistic space, the majority of Ivan Kafka's works transcend gallery walls and penetrate out into the open. In categorical terms his works can be labeled installations, but more accurately they are confrontations and dialogues with the surrounding environment. Sometimes the process involves creatively filling a space, at other times it is more a matter of asserting a presence or rearranging particular existing elements. In all cases, however, Kafka transforms landscapes in a way that is striking, yet unobtrusive.

Since he attempts to transform open spaces and infinite landscapes and to create new relations and dimensions within these spaces, most of Kafka's works function on a large scale: 3000 orange and white traffic pylons filling a courtyard, 10,000 white skewers wedged in between the cobblestones of a Prague street, four-meter square cubic frames standing in thick forests or open fields. By introducing these sizable elements, Kafka always manages to draw attention to the space itself and invites deliberation of its particular characteristics: visual, material, spatial and functional.

The particular types of spaces and environments vary - from wide open fields, birch woods, the Austrian Alps, French chateaux, the Swedish seaside and frozen lakes in Finland to both historical and industrial urban spaces - but they are never mere coincidental locations. In fact, it would be impossible to remove the works from their location, since in essence Kafka?s process consists of making alterations and additions and the artistic work is the sum total of these alterations and the surrounding living environment, with all of its unpredictability and transitory elements.

This transitory nature and unpredictability is also characteristic of the materials that Kafka employs, which are often those naturally occurring in his chosen environment: hay, rocks, logs, leaves, snow, sand, hops. Occasionally, Kafka incorporates synthetic materials and objects into both natural and man-made environments: compressed paper, Plexiglas, ping pong balls, arrows and Kafka's recurring favorite - windsocks (this fixation stems from two years spent as a meteorologist).

The windsocks, which appear singly or in large groups in various landscapes and in various shapes and colors (depending on the host country), underline two key elements which are traceable through all of Kafka's art - humor and a light irony. These elements can occur explicitly, like in the case of the work White Ball on White Mountain which consists of a huge snowball at the top of the historical White Mountain where the Czech nobility lost its infamous battle in 1620. They can also appear more subtly such as in A Tale About Folding, Flapping, Raising: a five-meter long windsock hanging from a tree in a wide open field.

On the occasion of the upcoming exhibition at the Oskar Kokoschka Gallery (which due to space limitations will include only Kafka's objects and photo documentation of his installations), I met with Ivan Kafka to discuss the importance of these and other elements in his work.

Does the term Kunstraum Europa (Art Space Europe) mean anything to you, do you think such a space exists?

I think that the situation both in Europe and the world is such that a person can more or less work only for himself.

As far as the artistic space in general is concerned each person comes from his or her own position, her memory, her childhood, and her environment. As long as one works on a relatively even keel, the occurrence of a revolution or some other political change does not have to interest one all that much, because the problems remain de facto the same.

I am in favor of going one's own way and adhering to one's own opinion, working more in the scope of a long-term tenacity.

I am a little scared that in general a united Europe will be a bore because many things will be made the same. Every country will have the same T-shirts, the same windsocks.

Each country has a completely different experience. These particular experiences shape people and then become part of the artistic works which they produce.

Then again, if the hierarchy associated with the question of who is from where were to disappear and people were capable of communicating normally, then the Union could have a positive effect by allowing these particular experiences to connect and intertwine. Although I am not sure if this is possible and if the experiences are communicable.

What is your connection with Jiri Kolar?

Since I was born into a family of visual artists (father: visual artist Cestmir Kafka, mother: children's illustrator Olga Cechova, ed.) I have been familiar with Kolar's work since my early childhood. I was fascinated when I first saw his collage-covered ladles. He has a very precise form of expression, largely because he approached visual art from a different direction. He progressed from carpentry to poetry, and when words no longer sufficed, he crossed over to objects. I like when people attempt to find their ground in this way. He has accomplished an immense amount and explored a number of new dimensions.

Do you think that some type of dialogue exists between younger and older generations of artists?

I always imagined that certain positive aspects could be inherited on a larger scale. I am convinced that the connections between generations and the awareness of these connections strengthen the whole. In every country things develop from something into something else and it is not possible to pull out a certain stage and forget about all the others. I think that the older generation foreshadowed many future developments.

Under Communism, a large number of artists did not have optimal working conditions: they were isolated, did not have contacts, they could not exhibit, there was an absence of confrontation. At the same time, however, there was a certain camaraderie among the artists. Although I am not sure if this wasn?t too intensified by the inadequacy of the situation, since in the end when the market did appear with its opportunities and private galleries many of the friendships wilted.

In this respect, I consider a certain awareness of connections extremely important especially in light of the fact that these people found themselves in such a difficult situation, which paradoxically afforded them a certain undisturbed working environment. This peace came at the price of isolation, yet a number of these artists still managed to produce grand works and embark on large projects. To do this in the absence of the happiness and fulfillment that the possibility of exhibiting brings, is a tremendous accomplishment.

Do young artists today draw on these past accomplishments?

I think they could definitely be drawing upon them a little more because otherwise a certain excessive arrogance arises. Of course every young artist who is starting out has the feeling that he or she is opening up a whole new world. This pride crossed with a lack of knowledge and the remainders of pubescence always results in arrogance, but the point is to reasonably limit this arrogance and not be stupid. To know about things and to put them into context. This awareness strengthens the entire state of art.

And this is true not only in art, but in all spheres. In politics, for example, the year 1989 did not come out of nowhere.

I cannot comprehend that in this country we are unaware of at least the positive aspects of past events and instead immediately discard everything in the name of what is happening at the moment.

Sometimes someone can create light ripples by blowing on the surface and eventually a wave is created which takes him with it and the entire situation shifts historically a large step forward.

Do you think then that a certain antagonism towards the past exists?

I wouldn't say antagonism.

What makes more sense - to work in isolation or to hang on a sponsor or gallery owner's back and wait to see how much money he gives you? This too is repulsive. I think that in both systems a person has to learn to live in such a way that allows him to produce the works he wants to and retain a sense of personal pride without becoming too entangled and too dependent on anyone.

I do not want to appear arrogant toward the younger generation, now that I am approaching middle age. Of course many young people do show an interest. I am only describing my personal sense of a latent danger which surfaces from time to time like bubbles out of a bog.

Do you produce works for specific spaces or search out spaces for your specific works?

I design about 80 or 90 % of my works for concrete spaces. The works then establish various ties, connections, connotations and stand directly in the context of the surrounding environment. What I am mainly interested in is encountering a particular environment and creating something concrete for it. Of course I want that space to have its own particular urgency, a worth: whether it be architectural, historic, thematic or visual.

Sometimes these spaces are imagined. I have projects which are five or ten years old and then one day I arrive somewhere and the space appears. In the past, I have had a certain amount of luck or intuition in this regard.

How do you reconcile yourself with the impermanence of your works?

I don't. In a way it is good that the works appear briefly and then disappear and don't hang around and get on one's nerves. Many things seem to me to get annoying after a while, not only my own works.

I think that the intrusion into the environment should always be clearly noticeable but not aggressive. I am most intrigued when I create a work that is distinctly visible but which I do not have to clear away because it sort of files out by itself. In this my leaf carpets in Stromovka park are ideal (every year Kafka makes large patterns on the forest floor of Stromovka park in Prague using leaves in striking fall colors). That is, unless the wind blows, the sun shines, it snows, rains or an evil pensioner walks by dragging her feet.

There seem to be many elements of chance or coincidence involved. What is the role of the audience in such public, coincidental works?

I do not spend much time thinking about the role of the audience, either someone notices the works or he does not. With the leaf carpets I have attained a certain circle of observers made up of pensioners, young people, dog-walkers and recently there were three mounted policemen watching as well. I like when people discover the works by themselves. Open spaces offer absolute freedom: the work can captivate someone, either positively or negatively.

In the past when I have cooperated with certain companies, I have received very positive reactions from the people involved. These are people who had been working with a particular material all of their lives and suddenly had the opportunity to approach it from a different angle and see something entirely new emerge out of it.

I have to admit that I am interested more in the creative process rather than the social aspects. An artist must first produce for himself and must undertake the risk himself before he opens his work up to anyone else. An artist who immediately factors in an audience or sales, as is common in our society, is mistaken.

Do people every actively participate in the works?

When I was doing the piece White Ball on White Mountain several passersby helped out in making the snowball, a mother set aside her baby carriage and pitched in. That was fantastic, it turned into a kind of "game" which I think should also be a part of the process, along with humor.

Is there a resistance to contemporary art because it is more complicated than "traditional" art?

Lately I have been having serious doubts about art altogether, in light of other considerations or interests. Nevertheless, I think that there are things which have a meaning, a motive and thus an urgency. I tend to be more impressed by things which function on a general level, because then if it comes to some kind of political or other kind of change the conception does not have to alter. I do not care if the work is a sculpture, a painting, a video, a photograph or an installation. What interests me is whether the work is one of quality and whether it forces me to pause before it for some time and whether when I lie in bed that night it does not leave me in peace and forces me to confront it.

One finds such works occasionally, and I think that's beautiful.

Text and interview by

Kazi Stastna, 25 October 1999


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