PRINT November 2008


ONE SUNNY SATURDAY IN MAY 2003, the majority of citizens in the Czech Republic village of Ponětovice (population approximately three hundred) went shopping at exactly 7 am and spent ten crowns each on their groceries. They opened their windows at 9, swept their houses at 10, cycled around town at 10:30. At noon they had dumplings with tomato sauce for lunch. At 5 pm they all met up for a beer. And at 10 pm, in a final flourish of civic synchrony, they flipped off their lights and went to sleep. Why? Because Kateřina Šedá, then a student at the Prague Academy of Fine Arts, asked them to. Or told them to: The statistically average day she had created for the villagers to perform (after intricately surveying their habits) was laid out on an instruction sheet headed “Regime for a Day,” and, though initially she had secured their willing participation in the project—trekking from house to house, delivering self-described “letters of persuasion” and questionnaires, staging meetings, etc.—once they had agreed to take part, they were theoretically required to submit blindly to the demands of her meticulous schedule. The confusion between permission and submission is salient, for the artist’s work frequently occupies an unlikely middle ground between liberty and coercion.

In Šedá’s documentary-style video of the event, There’s Nothing There, 2003, this concerted recital of the everyday is revealed as the final stage of an investigation that sprang, as do most of her projects, from a local contingency. Playing a spying game while trying to understand the dynamics of rural life (she herself was born in Brno, the Czech Republic’s second-largest city), she overheard someone complain of Ponětovice that “there’s nothing there.” This plaint, while perhaps loosely recalling Gertrude Stein’s famous dismissal of Oakland, for Šedá encapsulated a defeatist assumption that everything important happens in cities. So she traveled to that community and two adjacent ones, Kobylnice and Prace. For her film’s opening phase, she recorded these hamlets’ identikit anonymity (fields, pale houses, spooky absence of people). What she was chasing in her “Regime . . .” was a visualization of something typically submerged, missed by outsiders and locals alike: the elusive texture of normalcy, experienced discretely by each individual, but unconsidered and divorced from any collective dimension. For both Šedá and for Ponětovice’s citizens—the latter seen testifying, in the video, to the day’s uncanny ritualistic quality and using it as a pretext to connect with one another over beers—the event was a testament to the latent potential of invisible ordinariness for fostering social cohesion or, more ambitiously, even reenchanting daily life.

Šedá’s art, then, performs a doubled advance, through the effect it has on the participants and the effect it has when displayed in galleries. One senses that, for the artist, the first is more important, and this, ironically, is what gives the second its power and integrity. Šedá —who has fashioned clothes and other items for the homeless (Homeless Man, 2000) out of supermarket salami wrappers and transformed the town of Líšeň into a gallery for an afternoon by inviting 150 residents to display in their windows anything “they’d like to show off” (Window Exhibition, 2001)—thus stands to one side of the tradition stretching from Allan Kaprow’s 1960s collapses of art and life to superficially related town-wide projects such as Pierre Huyghe’s Streamside Day Follies, 2003. She is less interested in mergers that expand art’s purview than in actively revivifying, via imperatives framed approximately as art, particular lives hedged in by anomie, disconnection, and inequality.

In 2005, the artist commenced work on It Doesn’t Matter. The title’s apathetic statement was this time voiced by her grandmother Jana, who since retiring had decided, Šedá writes (in the 2007 artist’s book Kateřina Šedá: *1977), to “put an end to all her activities” by staying in bed, watching television, and being waited on by her family, with whom she wouldn’t converse. Šedá’s solution was to “reconstruct,” mentally, the shop her grandmother had spent thirty-three years working in, seeking to rebuild a formerly productive frame of mind by asking Jana to draw and talk about the items she remembered selling. These eventually numbered some 650, their reemergence from memory recorded in text interviews, drawings, lists, photographs, and a video. The process was effective, to a point—Jana was restored to engagement with life, but only provisionally. The video documenting the artist’s work with her grandmother ends, inauspiciously, with Jana complaining. Šedá, a realist, is careful to leave such candid imperfections in her work, whether it be an interviewee in There’s Nothing There confessing that he didn’t have dumplings and tomato sauce for lunch, or the fact that Šedá had to follow up It Doesn’t Matter with further attempts to “resuscitate” her backsliding grandmother. The Granddaughter, 2006–2007, found Jana faced with travel diaries in which to record the routes she had taken around the garden that day, prelunch questionnaires, and lists of objects whose use she had to describe. And—as recorded in Her Mistress’s Everything, 2008, the tender, tragicomic video and photographic series Šedá showed recently at Manifesta 7—since Jana died in 2007 her family has maintained her apartment for Jana’s pining wolf- hound, Ajda, who still lives there, watching television.

Given that Šedá’s conceptual backdrop is the atomization of contemporary society, it is not surprising that she has worked outward from its most basic building block, the family. In her video Copying Mother, Copying Father, Copying Child, 2004, she sedulously imitates her parents’ activities—hanging out the washing with her mother, working in the garden with her father—before they, on a walk through town, copy her: a process of mandatory identification. Indeed, orders and rules and regimens run through her work, and it is impossible to separate this from the fact that all of Šedá’s art has been made in a postcommunist milieu: the tired towns of the Czech Republic. If her work aims at palliating—family member by family member, village by village, literally and symbolically—a condition in which neither religion nor ideology binds communities together, then it does so in a manner tinged by a performative authoritarianism.

And in this a counterintuitive ethos coheres. For the participants are following orders voluntarily, and are thus able to survey the gap between their former indenture and their present freedom—but also to realize that their freedom has been accompanied by a condition of progressive isolation, and to experience a form of togetherness that has been undermined by a voiding of master narratives. For her work Over and Over, 2008, shown at the recent Berlin Biennial, Šedá took forty inhabitants of Líšeň to the German capital and had them climb over a polygonal fence some thirty feet in diameter, using ladders they had brought from home and greeting one another as they clambered up and down. For all this work’s potential resonance, given its placement on the former “Death Strip” between East and West Germany, the fence was Czech—constructed from German-fabricated replicas of fragments of Líšeň fencing—and spoke first to Czech concerns. For Šedá, fences are comprehensibly emblematic of the Czech Republic’s social ills. Whereas under Communism, for better or worse, everyone was on the same economic stratum, under the freedom of the market economy there is ubiquitous inequality and self-protection, producing a society of individuals closed off from one another. Over and Over doesn’t feel nostalgic for Communism, but rather outlines a condition in which neither past nor present is romanticized but in which art, if directed toward reaching a wider public first and institutions second, might make tentative differences.

Šedá’s gift lies partly in her realization that while community-specific projects can touch just a small number of people, localism can paraphrase a world—but, trickily, only as long as it purports not to be considering itself symbolic. And her art is equally notable for not making the performers feel as if they are acting out a play for a distant audience’s benefit. Indeed, no more than a limited proportion of her work is for external viewing. The deepest part of Over and Over, one might hazard, was widely unseen, though Šedá has alluded to it in interviews. This fundamental element of the work resided in the townspeople’s interactions (and, we should imagine, arguments, recalling Šedá’s pragmatic candor about art’s incapacity to create utopian conditions) on their Berlin sojourn, and in the bus tour around the city that Šedá arranged for them. It resided in the idea that fences, while typically serving to divide, might operate to bring people together, just as being marshaled and ordered about might, seemingly paradoxically, make one happier. It is open to debate, of course, whether this private, social aspect was art—but you suspect that, if it works on estranged hearts and minds, Šedá isn’t overly concerned about fine points of categorization.

Martin Herbert is a writer and critic based in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, UK.