View of “Hynek Alt,” 2014. Background: Untitled (Chair), 2014. Foreground: untitled, 2014.

View of “Hynek Alt,” 2014. Background: Untitled (Chair), 2014. Foreground: untitled, 2014.

Hynek Alt

Drdova Gallery

View of “Hynek Alt,” 2014. Background: Untitled (Chair), 2014. Foreground: untitled, 2014.

Once upon a time, the invention of photography sparked great hopes: We would obtain a more objective record of reality by delegating the task of taking its imprint to a technical process. Some languages even call the camera’s system of lenses an “objective.” Yet faith in photography, it turns out, is mistaken, and worse, dangerous: It misleads us into trusting a photographically manufactured image not only more than a painted picture but even more than the reality we see with our own eyes, a trust that has been mercilessly exploited. The Slovenian-born photographer Aleksandra Vajd and her Czech colleague Hynek Alt—the two have lived and worked together in Prague since 2001—have made it their mission to create photographs that subvert this oddly undeterred faith through the medium itself. For “manwomanunfinished,” 2001–, they have taken pictures of each other over the course of several years; the project’s primary purpose is to explore how subjectivity—specifically, gender relations—informs the photographic process. More recently, in “Untitled (Caves),” 2009–, possibly inspired by Plato’s famous allegory in The Republic, they have investigated the relation between image, likeness, and deception. “You Can’t Change the Weather,” 2011, presents photographic likeness as pure illusion through simulated depictions of various atmospheric conditions.

Alt went solo for this show, “Systems Decomposition,” whose title suggests that his goal remains destabilizing the “system of photography.” The selection of motifs for the show, which was conceived specifically for the space at Drdova, brings a subjective aspect into play: All the images (which are mostly untitled and all dated 2014) depict highly personal effects from Alt’s studio—a painted portrait of his mother, his colored pencils, his chair. The portrait and the pencils are set before a glossy black backdrop so that to gaze at the pictures is also inevitably to encounter one’s own mirror image—a stratagem that involves the beholder’s subjectivity in the work.

And then there are deliberate mystifications. In the photographic reproduction of the portrait, a plume of vapor—actually, a floating piece of gold foil—hovers in front of Alt’s mother’s nose, recalling the auras that parapsychologists captured in photographs around the end of the nineteenth century. Even wilder is the large picture of the chair (it takes up an entire wall of the gallery): The piece of furniture levitates as though freed from gravity, with colorful strings rising up from the seat. In actuality, the photographer made the image by suspending the chair from the ceiling; the strings dangle down, not up. In another image, the gallery’s neon chandelier mimics this inversion; brightly lit, it sits on the floor instead of hanging beneath the ceiling. That last picture is pure flimflam, or, as Alt himself puts it, a “parallel reality.” Yet it all looks so real in the photograph.

And that is the point: The exact photographic rendering of the objects on the one hand and their illogical arrangement on the other create an enigmatic effect that Walter Benjamin, in his famous essay on the technical reproducibility of the work of art, called “aura.” Benjamin argued that photography—a medium he saw as objective and, owing to its capacity for mass reproduction, democratic—could not possibly possess any aura, which he conceived of as an index of artistic authenticity and subjectivity. Contradicting Benjamin, Alt restores aura to the photograph. But his purpose is not to seduce us. On the contrary, the ambivalence of his pictures is designed to sow distrust in the photographic replication of reality.

Noemi Smolik

Translated from German by Gerrit Jackson.