New York

“Minisalon” “Impermanent Places”

World Financial Center Exhibition Galleries

Ten years ago, under the auspices of the Jazz Section in Prague (a dissident organization of musicians, artists, and writers), rebellious graphic designer Joska Sklanik, a member of the Section, began a project called the “Minisalon,” in which he invited some 300 artists from Czechoslovakia to produce an image in a small, square wooden box that he provided. He imposed no other restrictions. Sklanik had hoped to exhibit these boxes and to publish a complete catalogue, but for the next ten years he was unable to mount the exhibition, at first because of the political assault launched on the Section’s activities by the Communist government, and later, following the so-called Velvet Revolution of 1989, because of lack of funding for exhibitions in post-Communist Czechoslovakia. A few years ago, though, the Czech government declared the “Minisalon” a “national treasure,” and recently the project became the basis for a show that began its U.S. tour in New York.

“Minisalon: An Exhibition of Czech and Slovak Independent Art of 1984” brings together 244 works representing widely varied approaches to artmaking. They include a rudimentary box with a splintered bottom stamped with the word “Minisalon” (by Juraj Bartusz); an empty box with a stain in the left corner (Peter Meluzin’s S1014 Drevodekor [S1014 Wood decor]); a cute cotton rabbit with red eyes enclosed in a simulated cage fenced with chicken wire (Kurt Gebauer’s Králiček [Bunny rabbit]); and two mousetraps splashed with vivid reds, blues, blacks, and whites (Ilja Sainer’s Pasti [The traps]). The works provided an overview of prevailing trends in Czechoslovak art over the last fifty years. Many of those trends may seem somewhat retardataire to Western eyes, referring, in the main, to Expressionism, Surrealism, abstraction, arte povera, and Pop.

Although the show comprised works in disparate styles, as a reflection on the artist’s condition under Communism “Minisalon” pointed to the vitality that often characterizes artwork born of severe political repression, and to a kind of gallows humor from which an almost grotesque narrative of the absurd quality of life under such conditions can emerge. In the context of the present state of artistic life in Eastern Europe, which includes unprecedented economic hardship for the vast majority of artists, “Minisalon” might also generate a paradoxical nostalgia for the “lost world” in which political persecution lent meaning to the notion of artistic freedom. Sklanik alludes to this when he writes, in the exhibition catalogue, of “the taste of adventure and challenging illegality which colored this [his] action,” and that now seems to have all but vanished in the Czech art community. Sensing this nostalgia, one might even argue that the “Minisalon,” today receiving national and international attention, is in its final stages as an artistic action: in the new political context, it reads like something it was never meant to be—a fascinating artistic relic from the Communist past.

This double-edged response to Eastern European art was also evident in the reception of “Impermanent Places: Seven Installations from Prague,” which introduced installation-based work by the Czech artists David Cerny, Ivan Kafka, Martin Mainer, Adela Matasova, Frantisek Skála Jr., Margita Titlová-Ylovsky, and Magdalena Jetelová, many of them unknown in the U.S. The exhibition’s curator, Charlotta Kotik (she cocurated it with Sklanik), argues that many Czech artists, confronted with perpetual shortages of materials and fearful of their works being destroyed by censors eager to find political allegories even in the most apolitical art, were compelled to produce perishable works. Those “temporary environments” often served to express the anger and angst, hope and disillusionment, of working in such a hostile environment. To provide the Western viewer with a deeper sense of the context of this work, the installations were accompanied by extensive documentation of the underground artistic movements in Czechoslovakia prior to the Velvet Revolution.

The exhibition was conceived not so much to show that Czech artists can make art to rival their Western counterparts as to demonstrate that in many ways their works parallel Western art. In attempting to convey how the interests of Czech artists have shifted, and in focusing on their work’s similarities to Western art, the pieces created for this exhibition seemed to lack a strong voice. Once again, perhaps ironically, the ones that stood out were those referring to the disquieting aspects of the Czech past, such as Magdalena Jetelová’s video projection Domy, 1984, an image of a dwelling consumed by fire that alluded to the “initiation of brain washing using the color red,” i.e., the color associated with Communism; and Skála’s Sad, 1991–94, which re-created the menacing atmosphere of an abandoned Eastern European village cemetery, but in a reduced, “portable” scale.

Marek Bartelik