Jakub Jansa, Club of Opportunities Ep.5: Keeping in Line, 2018, two-channel 4K video, color, sound, 17 minutes 6 seconds. Installation view. Photo: Tomáš Souček.

Jakub Jansa, Club of Opportunities Ep.5: Keeping in Line, 2018, two-channel 4K video, color, sound, 17 minutes 6 seconds. Installation view. Photo: Tomáš Souček.

Jakub Jansa


Prague has always been a city of the most absurd stories, from the tale of the golem—an animated anthropomorphic creature made of clay by Rabbi Loew in the sixteenth century—to Franz Kafka’s novella The Metamorphosis (1915), in which a human being turns into an insect. Storytelling and transformation are also key elements in “Club of Opportunities,” a series of performance environments the young Czech artist Jakub Jansa has been producing since 2017. To date, there have been five episodes, which have been presented in Prague, in Athens during last year’s Biennale, at Pioneer Works in New York, and most recently again in Prague, at the gallery NoD, where Jansa’s exhibition bore the subtitle “Ep. 5: Keeping in Line.”

One of the recurrent storytellers in these performances is a human being named Red Herring, who gradually transforms into a gnarly celeriac root. A few similar roots have previously sprouted on his forehead. He utters mainly nonsense, but now and then there are flashes of insight, for example in episode three (My name is Red Herring, 2018) when he lists the ten rules for arguing with leftists without getting talked into a corner. In Keeping in Line, the topic under consideration is what advantages turning into an avocado instead of a celeriac root might have. He ponders the alternatives in a riveting dialogue with his alter ego, an individual who looks a bit like him.

But Red Herring appears only on-screen during these performances, never live. The same applies to his alter ego, who appears on a separate screen of his own. Jansa puts a great deal of thought into the environment in which these screens are placed. For the show at NoD, the two screens faced one another in a long, narrow space along with a white-lacquered table or shelf that looked heavily designed but had no discernible function. On one of the walls hung an intricately shaped mirror cutout reflecting the screen on which Herring’s interlocutor held forth. Futuristic barstools invited visitors to take a seat. Everything looked uncluttered, stylish, and almost antiseptically clean, evoking consummate modern design.

The main storyteller during all these performances is Kamil Nábělek, a fairly eccentric Prague philosopher who makes live appearances at Jansa’s openings and then on occasion during the run of the shows. He delivers speeches full of scientific and pseudo-scientific concepts concerning “the ontology and genealogy of celeriac.” His impressive nonsense keeps audiences spellbound thanks to the compelling suggestiveness of his words. While speaking, he holds up celeriac roots, lectures about the characteristics of the plant, and finally offers his listeners a glass of its freshly pressed juice. And they drink. That’s what’s so astonishing: Even though the performance is stunningly absurd, the audience is drawn in. And that’s the point: Jansa, with Nábělek’s help, is demonstrating the power of suggestion exerted on us by stories, which have lost none of their ability to hypnotize in the digital age—as demonstrated by the spread of fake news and conspiracy theories on social media. After all, the story is an art form that’s been keeping listeners under its spell since long before The Thousand and One Nights.

Translated from German by Oliver E. Dryfuss.