PRINT November 2013


Four stills from Eva Kot’átková’s Sit Up Straight, 2008, four-channel digital video projection, color, sound, 2 minutes, 1 minute 30 seconds, 4 minutes, 2 minutes 30 seconds.

WHERE DOES THE SPACE of the human body begin and end? How do subjects position themselves against oppressive cultural norms? Fundamental questions of this kind have defined much philosophical and political thought, from Plato to Marx—but they are often treated as grand abstractions rather than as discernible effects on the self. Prague-based artist Eva Kot’átková, however, gets personal: Her installations, sculptures, performances, collages, videos, and drawings give visual form to the social and psychological forces that invisibly shape human experience as it is lived out in the body. What, for instance, does it mean to have existed during the “normalization” period of Soviet-Communist Czechoslovakia? How does this experience inscribe itself on a subject? And how might such an experience reverberate now, when established regimes everywhere are seemingly being replaced by finer, more pervasive networks of power?

For the past several years, Kot’átková’s wistful and provocative work has examined the ways in which people internalize the normative behaviors dictated by institutions ranging from governments to the education system. For the performance and video pieces Walk to School and Walk to School (Hole and Thread), both 2008, she trekked to her former primary school on the outskirts of Prague every morning for several months. Donning her own childhood backpack, she eventually became a curious but familiar figure for the other children who walked alongside her. After reaching her destination, she would often stand outside the gate, silently observing the building. Sometimes she physically anchored herself to her environs—burying her legs in the dirt of a nearby hill, or tying herself to tree branches—in a concretization of her attachment to the site and, presumably, to the values and habits instilled in her there.

In a related work, the four-channel video Sit Up Straight, 2008, Kot’átková worked with four children, recording them as they simulated positions habitually assumed during class. She built thin wooden frames to delineate these postures, visualizing the structures of learned behavior as immobile geometric forms. In one channel, we see a young girl sitting at a desk while she clasps her hands behind her back as if they were bound together—a form of punishment for unruly behavior. In another, a boy raises his hand, passing it through two rectilinear wooden frames that seemingly fix it in place. Kot’átková transforms these wooden armatures into cages that restrict bodily movement; in Seated, Standing, Lying Down, 2009, and more recent works, she has replaced the wood with steel. Indeed, cages have become emblematic of Kot’átková’s practice, giving physical form to the many psychological constraints at work in a society of control.

Over time, Kot’átková’s consideration of the mechanisms of cultural indoctrination has taken the form of increasingly intricate installations. In Re-Education Machine, 2011, made for the Eleventh Biennale de Lyon, she focused on another purportedly “civilizing” institution. This sprawling three-dimensional collage—comprising about a dozen steel-cage sculptures, as well as drawings and found books—takes as its starting point the ruins of an old printing press outside Prague. The government was notorious for its brutal enforcement of ideological conformity at the time: Nearly all publishing houses and organizations devoted to the arts were closed, and those that remained suffered under fierce censorship. Re-Education Machine depicts this propagandistic system as a kind of torture chamber, where mechanical parts rescued from the site commingle with the artist’s own cell-like, welded sculptures. Books from her personal collection float in a pool of water and hang on a rack to dry. Drawings made using torn and cutout pages from salvaged publications depict hybrid forms, part human and part machine. The viewer meanders through the installation as if it were an archaic labyrinth made from the vestiges of a spectral authoritarian apparatus. “Every revolution evaporates and leaves behind only the slime of a new bureaucracy,” Kafka wrote long before the German occupation of Czechoslovakia in 1938 (and longer still before the Soviet invasion that put a stop to the reforms of the Prague Spring). A similar bureaucratic grime permeates the spaces and imagery of Re-Education Machine and, indeed, Kot’átková’s oeuvre as a whole.

Kot’átková has extended her study of institutions to psychiatric hospitals in works such as Asylum, 2013, which was made for the Fifty-Fifth Venice Biennale this past summer. Here, she turned her attention to the Bohnice hospital in Prague and other Czech mental clinics, producing a composite of these various institutes. The installation combines steel sculptures (several cages among them), paper cutouts, medical reports, containers, and collages spread across a long black platform to form a stylized archive of the anxieties, phobias, and phantasmagoric visions of the patients. Distorted body parts are suspended on metal poles, combining human and animal, machine and object, as if they were emanating from the recesses of the human mind: A man’s torso emerges from a snail’s shell; prison bars replace the eyes and mouth of a young boy. And in a move that has become characteristic of her most recent work, Kot’átková incorporates live performers, visible in fragments: An arm unexpectedly emerges from a hole in the platform and rests inside a cage; two living, blinking eyes peer out from behind a white faux-brick wall. Here, as in her other projects, Kot’átková plays with the question of who is imprisoning whom, charting the disintegration and reconciliation of the (collective and individual) body. Her work articulates the struggles of the self within the many layers of the bureaucratic, normative systems it inhabits—making the far-reaching effects of myriad superstructures at once present and palpable.

Apsara Diquinzio is curator of modern and contemporary art and Phyllis C. Wattis Matrix curator at the University of California, Berkeley Art Museum and Pacific Film Archive.