Prague Rock


Left: Ilona Németh performance at the Prague Biennale. (Photo: Travis Jeppesen) Right: Curator Matt Price. (Photo: Mike Gisondi)

“YOU KNOW THIS IS WHERE the sugar cube was invented, right?” So my companion helpfully informed me last Thursday as we taxied it out to the veritable no-man’s-land known as Modřany, an area of Prague I had neither seen nor even heard of, despite having spent half of the aughts in the city. “No one’s going to find it,” artist Ondrej Brody predicted the night before at his opening at STYX Project Space in Berlin.

Yet the obscurity of the locale ultimately served the minoritarian aesthetic that has always been fostered by the Prague Biennale, an event that has been entrenched in local controversy ever since it began in 2003 as a rough-fated collaborative effort between critics Helena Kontová and Giancarlo Politi, and Milan Knižák, the notoriously prickly former director of the Czech National Gallery (better known internationally as the sole Czech member of Fluxus). The lead-up to the second installment, in 2005, included a very public feud among the collaborators, resulting in two separate Prague Biennales, with Kontová and Politi’s camp relegated to an abandoned factory space in the then recently flooded Karlin district. Their version of the biennial has endured, despite major political resistance fueled by Knižák’s power plays, its zero-budget approach feeding the adventurous sensibilities of a region that has been largely ignored by the contemporary art world over the past two decades.

Now that Karlin has fallen victim to gentrification—and ironically, of course, its biennial is probably partly responsible—the move to a disused office building, in a homely industrial part of town unseen by the millions of tourists who flood the Golden City on the Vltava each year, is somewhat inevitable and gives the 2011 edition an even grittier edge than its predecessors. Unsurprisingly, few complaints were aired at the opening about the ugly industrial carpeting and painful fluorescent lighting; the white cube is hardly a sure thing in post-communist Europe, where apartment art and barely visible conceptual interventions linger in collective memory as the subversive strategies of yesteryear. As such, the limitations of the space were cast aside, allowing the content of the show to spark chatty debates.

Left: Artist Cecile Martin. Right: Artist Mark Ther. (Photos: Mike Gisondi)

“The Czech section is too conceptual,” complained Mark Ther, an artist whose highly stylized and absurdly scripted videos have led some critics to finger him as the Czech response to Keren Cytter and Ryan Trecartin. “The young generation wants a big show, a spectacle!” Maybe so, but I still spotted standout work by Karel Kunc, Aleksandra Vajd and Hynek Alt, Tereza Severová, Tomáš Svoboda, František Kowolowski, and Evžen Šimera.

Since its inception, the biennial has been among the few to emphasize painting, and this year, with its large “Expanded Painting” section, was no exception. The centerpiece exhibition, “Painting Overall,” was rather weak, with a preponderance of student-y work. A more advanced state of the art could be found in “Some Domestic Incidents,” focusing on paintings by the youngest generation of Bright Young Things from Great Britain. When I entered the room, cocurator Matt Price was being besieged by an Italian TV crew, to whom he diligently explicated the apocalyptic wastoids depicted in Sally Payen’s canvases. (My personal fave, however, was the dark figuration of Justin Mortimer.) I informed him I was at work on a book about bad painting; he (jokingly?) asked if I intended to start with Manet.

The opening was a scaled-down affair, with the afterparty across town at the gallery of the National Technical University Library, DJ'd by members of the confrontational art collective Guma Guar, who swapped out the hard techno they are best known for promoting in favor of a more crowd-friendly blend of witch house and eccentric electronica. The whole thing thinned out around 11 PM. The following day there were late-afternoon performances by Cleo Fariselli and Ilona Németh. Fariselli’s, which took place on the ninth floor of the biennial headquarters, featured the artist and two colleagues playing handpainted drums; Németh’s consisted of two young ladies mud-wrestling to R&B and Eurotrash disco tunes outside in the parking lot.

Well, there is the old spiritual idea that you have to crawl through the filth to cleanse the soul.

Travis Jeppesen