Sráč Sam, Šičky (Seamstresses), 2008, digital video, color, sound, 5 minutes 6 seconds.

Sráč Sam, Šičky (Seamstresses), 2008, digital video, color, sound, 5 minutes 6 seconds.

Sráč Sam

Sráč Sam, Šičky (Seamstresses), 2008, digital video, color, sound, 5 minutes 6 seconds.

In Eastern Bloc countries, socially engaged art has long meant something different from what it means in the West. Under Communist Party rule, such art had to conform to strict guidelines: Artistic autonomy, individualism, and the exercise of the imagination were all considered dangerous. It is for this reason that, when the Soviet empire collapsed in 1989, most artists turned to art that foregrounded subjective expression. They only became aware of their social responsibility later.

The artist Sráč Sam has faced this responsibility for many years now. Far from the bustle of Prague, she runs Galerie Sam83 in the small provincial town of Česká Bříza, Czech Republic, where she shows the work of both unknown and established artists. She also writes books, runs guest studios, looks after abandoned and handicapped children in her own home, and edits the magazine PIŽMO, which aims to contribute to a wider cultural diversity. She still finds time to make art.

Fear is a theme Sam repeatedly returns to, especially in her texts, which are based on her own early experiences within a Communist political system. She chose the name “Sam” because it does not immediately identify her as a woman, and in Czech “Sráč” is a vulgar term that describes someone who gets so scared they soil their pants (her name translates to “Chicken Shit Sam”). For her recent exhibition in Prague City Gallery, Colloredo-Mansfeld Palace, curated by Denisa Bytelová, the artist presented four main spaces. (Two smaller side galleries displayed texts from Sam’s writings.)The first large gallery contained a video playing inside a wooden enclosure, and at first sight looked like any other contemporary art exhibition space. Indeed, the artist intended the display as an ironic reference to generic biennial fare. The enclosure hosted the 2008 video Šičky (Seamstresses), a meditation on Sam’s memories of working in a Soviet shirt factory as a teenager. Three screens placed one on top of the other played the same sequence over and over again: The artist sits at a sewing machine while a child dances half-naked in the background. All three screens at some point feature the faces of Asian women, perhaps an allusion to Vietnamese seamstresses who were forced to work in the Eastern Bloc as slave laborers beginning in 1980 as a means of repaying the USSR for its military support during the Vietnam War.

The last three rooms resembled different settings. In a space reminiscent of a factory, a long table strewn with materials, stencils, and patterns also displayed drawings and small objects. The next room had benches and tables for visitors and a chest containing strangely old-fashioned albums filled with black-and-white photos. In this schoolroom atmosphere, visitors were encouraged to use the stencils to turn album templates into their own works of art, which they could then take home. The following room had an almost museum-like atmosphere; it included a long table holding small sculptures made from a variety of different materials. Additionally, one of the side galleries was a reading room, where visitors found a copy of Sam’s most recent book, Strach mého muže (My Husband’s Fear [2017]). The workshop, school, museum, and reading room were all forms of stage sets showing how art today takes many different forms in different presentations. All of these are legitimate so long as art recognizes its responsibility and aims to contribute to the transformation of society. Sam’s art never fails in this endeavor.

Noemi Smolik

Translated from German by Nathaniel McBride.