Ivan Kafka

Nova Sin

It is telling that Ivan Kafka chose to reproduce Paolo Uccello’s Battle of San Romano, ca. 1455, on the announcement for his exhibition “Rej (Whirling Rage) 1339–1995.” Uccello’s slanting, slashing swords and spears were a marvelous formal means of achieving flatness, while creating a shallow depth through the relationship between the diagonals and the picture’s framing edge—a Renaissance equivalent of Cubist space. In a gesture that recapitulates one of the primary tendencies of Modernist practice, Kafka makes explicitly literal what was implicit in the work of the Florentine Master.

Kafka’s installation consisted of 109 pikes, halberds, spontoons, partisans, and other stabbing weapons—objects specifically related to the scale of the human body. Standing askance like a forest of figures and placed in a loose grid in the great, boxy space of the gallery, each object had its peculiarities; each arrived with its unique history and provenance. The sharp ends punctuated, the long shafts delineated, and the various curves, angles, and teeth inscribed the space of the gallery, creating an optical buzz. Kafka’s strategy continues to be the repetitive filling-up of a given space with found (or in this case, collected) objects or materials, which in their homogeneity and regularity of placement succeed in transforming the space. This approach addresses notions of field and alloverness, but whereas the tension in a Jackson Pollock, for example, has to do with the stacking of skeins of paint on a field of neutral canvas, creating a shallow depth out of palpable flatness, in this installation Kafka arrayed the objects throughout the neutral space of the gallery, paradoxically flattening the literal space.

To the New York eye, the work undoubtedly echoed the Minimalist installations of Walter De Maria, Daniel Buren, and perhaps most clearly, Chris Burden’s 1987 piece All the Submarines of the United States of America. But one ought not to fall victim to the provincialism of New York– or U.S.-centrism: installation, in spite of its present modishness, has its own roots and traditions in the Czech Republic for artists like Kafka who, given their “unofficial” status prior to 1989, often turned to the ephemeral for refuge from durable objects which could be more easily confiscated and destroyed by the state (not to mention the fact that almost no one had the power to purchase and collect more durable goods). But while Burden duplicated in miniature the enormous weapons of industrialized civilization, expressing an ambivalence toward the politics of the present, Kafka gives us genuine articles, reeking of history—the aura of the hands that bore them and of the bodies that were impaled upon them. The metaphorical relationship to the viewer is of course obvious—that of artist as “warrior” and viewer as “victim.” The work also bore a specific relationship to Czech culture. The weapons have been culled from various national collections, and their simultaneous assembly in the gallery space represented an attempt to deny the burden of history in their recontextualization—a flattening of temporal space—while simultaneously expressing a sense of nostalgia for times of greater military, political, and cultural strength in a present full of uncertainty.

Jeff Crane