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View of “Adam Vačkárˇ,” 2016. Foreground: This Side of Paradise (Space Seed #1–6), 2016. From the series “Seeds,” 2016. Background: Four works from the series “Counterculture,” 2016.

View of “Adam Vačkárˇ,” 2016. Foreground: This Side of Paradise (Space Seed #1–6), 2016. From the series “Seeds,” 2016. Background: Four works from the series “Counterculture,” 2016.

Adam Vačkář

Dauwens & Beernaert

View of “Adam Vačkárˇ,” 2016. Foreground: This Side of Paradise (Space Seed #1–6), 2016. From the series “Seeds,” 2016. Background: Four works from the series “Counterculture,” 2016.

Gorgeous color photographs, as elegant and beguiling as advertising pictures, showed crisply illuminated vases holding a variety of bouquets before white backdrops. And no less elegant were the steles that were set up in the middle of the gallery. Yet something about this installation by Prague-based artist Adam Vačkář felt disquieting. The series of bouquets bears the title “Beautiful & Damned,” 2014, and they are no doubt beautiful—but why are they damned? Look more closely and you’ll discover that some of the flowers, slipped in among others gleaming in diverse colors, have wilted. And those fresh flowers are in fact artificial, made in China. However perfect the bouquets may look at first glance, impermanence, blight, and death already inhabit them. The show’s title, “This Side of Paradise,” was full of layers. It originated with Rupert Brooke’s 1914 poem “Tiare Tahiti,” from which F. Scott Fitzgerald took the title for his 1920 novel (he also published The Beautiful and the Damned in 1922). Perhaps more pertinently, in 1967 it was the title of an episode of the television series Star Trek, in which the ship’s crew beam down to an Edenic planet where the spores of a toxic plant fill them with peaceful bliss.

Hanging on the facing wall was the “Counterculture” series, 2016, showing plastic bottles Vačkář collected along the banks of the Vltava River in Prague and used as vases for plants growing wild in the locations where he found them. Scraggly, withered weeds stick limply out of battered dirty bottles. Still, there is a peculiar beauty to these arrangements. At the center of the room stood six works from the 2016 series “Seeds,” black steles looking like objects made using a 3-D printer but actually simple tree branches wrapped in packing foil. They are supported by metal feet, whose precision-machined, computer-generated geometric forms contrast sharply with the irregular organic shapes of the bandaged branches. Happiness and the paradisiacal beauty of nature clash with mass manufacturing, digitally designed perfection, and the inundation of the planet with industrial products that will never return to the cycle of nature (think of the floating islands of trash in the oceans); Vačkář forges an intoxicating synthesis of opposites.

The ambivalent quality of nature—in classic aesthetic theory, the embodiment of beauty—and its antithesis, the devastation caused by industrialization; the subliminal affinity between beauty and destruction and death; the energy unleashed when opposites collide: These form the focus of Vačkář’s art. Growing up in Prague, he saw how a well-intentioned system, socialism, was perverted: Good turned into evil, freedom into servitude, hope into despair. Hence his interest in the sort of phenomena that harbor the potential for such inversion. For the earlier installation Sonata for 6.35 mm, 2012, he shot at blank staff paper, the holes forming a kind of score. A destructive act was given a constructive turn; demolition became composition. A paradox, to be sure, but one that attests to a profound insight that the French philosopher Alain Badiou, in his Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil (1998), put this way: “Evil is possible only through an encounter with the Good.” With Vačkář’s work in mind, we might add: Destruction is a possibility that reveals itself only in the encounter with beauty.

Noemi Smolik

Translated from German by Gerrit Jackson.