Brno, Czech Republic

Rafani, Hluboko v nepřátelském území (Deep in the Enemy’s Territory) (detail), 2012, mixed media, sixty-four elements, dimensions variable.

Rafani, Hluboko v nepřátelském území (Deep in the Enemy’s Territory) (detail), 2012, mixed media, sixty-four elements, dimensions variable.


The Brno House of Arts

Rafani, Hluboko v nepřátelském území (Deep in the Enemy’s Territory) (detail), 2012, mixed media, sixty-four elements, dimensions variable.

A retrospective is typically understood as an affirmation of historical significance. Since the activities of the Czech-based Rafani collective date back only to the turn of the millennium, such an acknowledgment may seem premature. But their recent exhibition “Dech” (Breath), in which an archival overview played a significant role, reminded us that retrospection is one of the group’s hallmark strategies. Rafani’s almost compulsive need to continuously refer to its own past activities can be understood as a method of reexamining its shared identity; the interplay between Rafani’s status as a collective and the autonomy of each member, which they themselves describe by the motto “Our unity is a higher level of individuality,” has always been an integral part of the work they produce. Such tensions are explored, for example, in Cvičení (Exercise), 2012, a series of abstract images with modernistic overtones, each constructed from five paper cutouts. The surface of each sheet is covered by blue fingerprints of one of the five group members. Organized in a geometric manner into eleven altered images, each of which has a segment made by each member, the installation becomes a perfect manifestation of their collective functioning.

Unsurprisingly, then, what could best be described as an archive of the group’s past activities functioned as a foreword to the exhibition. This included a series of videos documenting the collective’s numerous Happenings and interventions, which have constituted one of its primary outputs to date, as well as a wall display of its founding manifesto and a series of texts related to past projects. Since Rafani has previously excluded text from its work entirely, this represents an important new direction for its practice. But the group still resists the idea that writing should be transparent to meaning. Language becomes a physical experience, thanks, for instance, to red lighting in the archival section of the exhibition, which distorts the viewer’s vision in the following room, which takes sport aesthetics as its leitmotif.

The majority of Rafani’s Happenings and public interventions reflect on social and ethical differences, thus relating to local political issues, civic attitudes, and the role of the state and institutions of power. A pertinent example of such work is Demonstrace Demokracie (Demonstration of Democracy), 2002, a Happening in which Rafani burned a facsimile of the Czech flag on the nation’s Independence Day, questioning the limits of democratic freedom. Although grounded in issues of local sociopolitical reality, the works of the group achieve a broader relevance by focusing on the mechanisms of art practice in relation to society at large: Art, they suggest, is integral to daily life, and its workings must be continually reexamined. The most surprising outcome of Rafani’s collective process is thus that its retrospective gaze is geared toward the projection and understanding of the present and future (works). The ambivalence and ambiguity yet formal precision with which Rafani undertakes this inquiry became especially clear in the central installation Hluboko v nepřátelském území (Deep in the Enemy’s Territory), 2012, a suite of sixty-four small figures. The formal qualities of the individual sculptures evoke various twentieth-century styles and movements, while the poses of the bodies remind us of various sports. Making sport—for which rigidity, rules, and competition are symptomatic—a unifying theme of the exhibition, Rafani questioned the rigid, aggressive character of our self-imposed social structures, including those of the art market and even art history itself, which may be keeping us from exploring the possibilities of the future.

Markéta Stará