Matej Kren

Imagine a hollow tower of books in assorted shapes, sizes, and languages, stacked like bricks of knowledge from floor to ceiling. And when you peer inside, up and down, this latter-day Tower of Babel suddenly (thanks to two mirrors lining top and bottom) becomes an endless tunnel. Jorge Luis Borges could hardly have done better, but Idiom, 1991, is the creation of Slovak artist Matej Kren, a visual polyglot who works with drawing, painting, sculpture, silk screen, installation, photography, xerography, film, and, above all, his imagination.

Typically, Idiom is as simple and unpretentious in form as it is rich in meaning: “It comes from bookcases and goes back to them,” remarks Kren. But the corollary of this decidedly low-tech approach is a kind of labor-intensiveness bordering on obsession. Many of the bookcases in question, for example, were located in Bratislava, which meant that 34 cartons of books had to be packed up, shipped to Paris, unpacked, and assembled one by one. Of course, these were not just any books, but a collection of old technical works, serving, Kren explains, to remind us not only that knowledge becomes obsolete but also that even such unesthetic technical works can still be transformed into something poetic.

At 34, Kren belongs to the “found” generation of Czech and Slovak artists that (in contrast to the lost generation of 1968–1988) came of age with the Velvet Revolution of November 1989, and his shoestring magic is both the product and the expression of that transitional experience. In the early 1980s, while he was still an art student, he began working on an experimental film for Slovakian TV that was intended to convey the schizophrenic existence of an unofficial artist (himself) in an official system (the art academy). The resulting ATD (Etc., 1987), shown at the Paris Biennale of Art Films during this exhibit, is a bulimic assortment of vignettes, tableaux, and sophisticated sight gags pieced together to the sound of a 24-hour countdown purporting to mark “a day in the life and a life in a day of the Slovak artist Matej Kren, etc.” In addition to writing the scenario and “acting” the main role, Kren also did the excellent musical score. True to its theme, when the film was finally completed, it was broadcast exactly once, late at night (11 P.M.).

Undaunted, Kren was already working on a second film (like the first, a collaboration with director Kvetoslav Hecko), which he had decided to draw, not as an animation, but as an imitation of the photographic image. Four years and 268 drawings later, the five-minute Takový le film (That’s a movie, 1990), appropriately produced by the Trick Brothers (Bratři v triku) film studio, was finished, though not exactly as it had been envisioned. Kren’s illusionism was, in fact, so perfect that the trick went unnoticed, and he finally had to reintroduce various artistic devices into some of the drawings in order to make viewers aware that they were not mechanical reproductions. As exhibited here, in a row around a small back room of the gallery, these drawings are above all, like the cartons of technical books, concrete manifestations of Kren’s tenacity. But where the magic and the meaning come in is with the transformation of these otherwise discrete elements into the singular that is a true-false film or an infinite tunnel of knowledge.

At the very end of ATD, a quote from Marcel Duchamp flashes across the screen: “The greatest artists of tomorrow will go underground.” Several months before the Velvet Revolution, Kren and seven other artists took this dictum literally and organized an unofficial, unpublicized, and basically illegal exhibit called “Suterén” (Basement), held, as the name implies, in the basement of a Bratislav building. Among the works that Kren presented there was a pyramid made out of crates from Egyptian oranges. Instead of basking in the sun like its pharaonic prototypes, this “Egyptian” pyramid, he explains, was sitting in a cold, windowless basement, but it was nonetheless a luxury item because the crates, like the oranges, were available on the market only twice a year. In the last three years, Kren has come above ground, but orange crates are still scarce in Bratislava, and his work has not lost sight of this reality.

Miriam Rosen