ABOLISHING PRAGUE

Litteraria Pragensia

ESSAYS & INTERVENTIONS

ed. Louis Armand
ISBN 978-80-7308-532-2 (paperback) 240pp
Publication date: November 2014
Price: € 12.00 (not including postage)

Order: paperback / Kindle

Abolishing Prague began as a collaborative urban archaeological project and psychogeographical investigation into the “other” Prague. The current volume represents only a small selection of work belonging to that on-going project: a combination of theoretical, historical, ficto-critical, photo-essayistic and poetic research into the city’s parallel dimensions. Abolishing Prague brings together a series of writings on a Prague uncharted by the conventional tourist guide: the Prague of suppressed or forgotten pasts, the amnesiac city of deserted docklands and depopulated islands, the Prague of shabby riverside colonies, a Prague slowly vanishing from the face of the earth, giving way to current urban planning and corporate redevelopment. Topics include Prague’s counterculture, brutalist architecture, the work of Karel Teige, Viteslav Nezval, Lukas Tomin, Franz Kafka, as well as “interventions” by contemporary…

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A Field Guide to the Czech Psyche by Jessica Serran

Review by Benjamin Tallis

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Jessica Serran’s conversations with Czechs about their identity tell us much about their individual interests and concerns, about where they come from and are perhaps going to, but also point to ways of exploring wider notions of both ‘Czechness’ and identity itself. The sensitively pitched inquiries that Serran makes to her (generally) sympathetic subjects and their responses to these promptings provide both the raw material for the work and the mainstay of its documentation. However, this documentary material, as well as the paintings that interpret it and the other images that punctuate it, draws attention to its porous, yet still constitutive borders, reflecting in its form the theme and stake of its inquiry. Clearly comfortable in her company, many of the interviewees reveal insecurities alongside fond memories, as well as hopes for and frustrations with others with whom they are grouped by nationality. From recollections of a Teplice childhood and the fulfillment of a happy home life to post-89 gender trouble and the ambiguous possibilities of travel.

The Field Guide captivates as it illuminates.

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Although she explicitly rejects the mantle of the sociologist, Serran has created something akin to a cleverly-bounded, yet open-ended aesthetic anthropology. The artist makes no claim that her ‘Field Guide to the Czech Psyche’ is representative, but far from robbing the project of socio-anthropological purchase, this reflexivity actually enhances it. Serran spoke at length to Czechs of different ages, in small Bohemian towns as well as in Prague. As she sought these peoples’ reflections upon themselves, she was introduced to friends and family and allowed access to minor mnemonic treasure troves; to personal archives of pictures, letters and stories. This process opened up a rich seam of experience and expectation particularly at intersections between the particular and the common.

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Edited versions of the conversations are buffered by photographs of both the artist and the participant – separately – considering the painting that ensued from their discussion. This formal device both highlights Serran’s presence in the work and makes a more general point about the inter-subjective construction of identity – we don’t do identity on our own, we do it in relation to others, rendering it dynamic and fluid, yet still authentic over time. The conversations repeatedly touch on different facets of this inter-relationality: of the participant and their family; across frontiers and between different nations; between Czech generations and across different societal groups; between ideas of ‘I’ and its various communities imagined or otherwise – shifting constellations of us and them.

Serran often guides the conversations to her interests, noting how long before or after the velvet revolution each participant was born and asking many of them specifically about the experience or impression of communism and its legacy, as well as inquiring about their relation to feminism. However, the conversations also escape these frameworks, allowing deeper and wider insight into the lives and concerns of the people involved. This is typical of the work as a whole, which recognizes both the utility and futility of categorization and generalization. At the thankful expense of a clear, unifying narrative, Serran’s work rejects simplification in favour of nuance and complexity. Her participants get to tell their own stories in their diversity as well as similarity, from which emerge the narratives they each rely on, as we all do, in making sense of and giving meaning to our lives and the ways this is made and given to us by others. Serran too, locates her work in an overlapping, uneasy relation with a personal myth of return to lost heimat, part of her family having left the Slovak countryside for Canada two generations previously.

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The pleasingly solid book, which documents the project, contrasts with the ethereal paintings, the swirls of rich yet muted colours, revenant images and deceptively simple words, that form Serran’s visual ‘translation’ of each conversation. The book includes images provided or suggested by the participants, ranging from family photos to the logos of state-owned enterprises from the communist period. These personal snapshots are like pearls on the string of the narratives woven through the conversations. Snatched glimpses exceed their framing like Tarkovskian polaroids, drawing us in, inviting to look deeper; to come closer. Other photographs, of landscapes, historical objects and events, ground the work, giving it the particular sense of place that allows Serran to reject a unifying notion of Czechness, while justifying the specificity of the Field Guide. 

Serran’s translations are painted mediations and connectors, which, like their subject matter, confound facile categorizations, rendering highly particular combinations and permutations of traits and fates recognisable yet mysterious and open-ended, redolent with possibility. Seemingly blank space is as important as figure and abstraction; elsewhere and elsewhen haunt the here and now. The participants’ questioning of supposed moral and historical certainties, their steadfastness and hesitance, passion and fragility provide a resolutely human counterpoint to many of the received wisdoms of the post-communist period and its dominant politics of memory. Real, lived experiences of Czech society both before and after the velvet revolution tell us something about the high-politics of transition, but more about the politics of the everyday and how people relate to it, to each other and to themselves. Serran’s work is a valuable – and beautiful – contribution to a burgeoning field of inquiry in post-communisms.

Too often, supposed political or social engagement provides a superficial crutch for poor art, but Serran deftly and potently combines responsible social inquiry with arresting aesthetic expression and exploration. The combination of words and images, pre-existing pictures and newly created paintings emphasizes the dynamism and diversity of this work, which manages to be sympathetic and comforting as it destabilizes and disturbs preconception and prejudice. Serran’s ‘Field Guide’ pushes boundaries yet still gives borders – of self as much as state – the respect they deserve. She has, to paraphrase one of her participants, struck upon a compelling combination of logic and magic.

 

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Goodbye, Black Lenin

 

 

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The news that Pro-European, anti-Yanukovych protestors in Kyiv had toppled the Lenin statue at the corner of Kreshchatyk and Shevchenko brought to mind a story told to me by the artist and activist Nikita Kadan.

It was merely days after Yanukovych’s Party of Regions, along with their allies the Communist Party of Ukraine, had secured victory in the parliamentary elections, gaining the majority that saved Yanukovych and Azarov in the Verkhovna Rada this past Tuesday. It seemed a long time since the Orange Revolution had failed; a long time since we had given up on Yushchenko; a long time since some of us realized that an oligarch, even one with a golden halo of wheatsheaf hair, could not be trusted. Now, it is that November night that seems a long way away.  

As we wandered frozen through Kyiv, in search of a bar for a warming brandy, we walked past the Lenin statue and Nikita told me the story of the Black Lenin. The statue of VI Ulyanov that stands at the opposite end of the Kreshchatyk to the Maidan was richly rendered in red Karelian marble and Kadan told me then about the last time the statue had been attacked, when acid had been thrown onto it, disfiguring the face and hands. The Communist Party of Ukraine, whose posters, tents and videos had been all over Kyiv that summer, paid for the restoration and arranged for a protective vigil to be kept close by.

Typically, however, not all went to plan. The marble ordered to put right the damage was of a significantly darker shade than the original. Given that the damage had been to the face and hands, the botched restoration had the effect of changing the statues ‘skin’ colour, giving birth to historical miracle; to the legend of ‘The Black Lenin’.

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Since that I have often thought about the Black Lenin, At the time I felt that it somehow symbolized what I felt about Ukraine, about the work of Nikita, the REP, Hudrada, about Maksym Butkevych and Vasyl Cherepanyn, about the conversations with Denis Stukalenko and with the Ukrainian students in Odessa, Lviv and Prague. The incompetence of those they were fighting against, manifest in their newly intersectional statue, seemed in its own, amusingly surreal way to invert the old Viennese saw: “the situation is serious, but not hopeless” said Black Lenin.

The commitment, energy and decency in adversity of those who I have known in Ukraine has come shining through to a wider audience in the last week. This is a second chance. A chance to put right what happened when the future turned out to be orange, but not bright. Apart from my friends there, my love of the diverse history, culture, food (yes, even salo) and drink I have found there, my engagement with Ukraine has been almost entirely through the prism of the EU. In my work and in the research I am doing or in relation to thinking through the direction that the country could take, for better and for worse; in reflecting long and hard on the perils of ‘transition’ and of stagnation, weighing up the merits of association and isolation, of subjigation and sustenance. And it was the EU that triggered this wave of protests, finding that, almost despite itself, it was popular; that in official rejection it was still desirable as a counterpoint to Putinism and to the self-interested elites who have dominated Ukraine’s two decades of independence.

That evening, last November in Kyiv, Nikita who was recovering from a cold, was more subdued than usual, but had been a perfect host as he guided some friends and I through the exhibition at the Pinchuk Centre. He was featured twice in the show, which showcased the shortlist for the ‘Future Generation Prize’, once for a solo work ‘The Small House of Giants’ and once as part of the REP Group who were nominated for their work ‘Evro-remont’ – ‘Euro-Renovation’. Both stand as suitable prisms through which to reflect on the rubble of communist icons.

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Cloaked as ever in a disarming simplicity and precise control of material, Nikita’s ‘Small House of Giants’ comprised a classic, rusting iron-sided workers shelter, spliced with a clean, all too familiar, yet still unknowable neo-modernist façade of the type that a museum from the Soviet 70’s might take. This juxtaposition of the depth and surface, of rich texture and subtle sheen are united through the myth of the heroic worker. Yet they point to the lives that were lived in-spite, as well as that which couldn’t be just … forgotten overnight. Kadan has long tried to mourn the loss of the Soviet art institution, replaced by the ‘prosthetic limbs’ of gallery’s like Pinchuk’s. This mourning drifted to melancholia because of the void that followed what was lost; because of the failure of ‘transition’ in Ukraine; because of the failure to replace and renew; because of Ukraine’s Euro-Renovation.

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The REP’s piece in the exhibition consisted of a series of gypsum walls, each decorated in a hastily adopted and discarded style from sometime in the last twenty years, with matching carpet or lino. Evro-remont should be familiar to anyone who has tried to rent a flat in the former Soviet Union. The cheaply rendered, hollow imitations of styles that might, briefly, look the part but won’t go the distance – “the kind of walls that you could put your elbow through in a good conversation” was how Nikita once described it to me. This prioritization of surface over substance has come to stand as a metaphor for Ukraine’s ‘transition’ – superficial imitations of elsewhere’s new cover the old core which rots underneath. “Eurorenovation is a style for people who are now stealing what they see and plan to run away in a very short time. From interior design from these super kitschy interiors of 90s it turned into everything.”  

Now, Black Lenin is gone, the first to go in the protestors hastily-cobbled decapitation strategy. All the interpretations of anti-Russian-ness, all the overly simplified ‘finally, the victory over communism is complete’ rhetoric that will undoubtedly follow this highly symbolic moment, will miss the point. This was the tearing away of a euro-renovation, hastily authored by the rotten post-communist communist party. Rejecting Putinism is not to reject Russia – many Russians would like to do the same. Similarly, embracing the EU need not be only an embrace of imbalanced neoliberalism, as many in current EU states would agree. Ukrainians have shown the EU a way back to its better sides and given it a chance to resurrect and re-boot its Eastern Partnership. It should grasp it with both hands.

As well as looking to the future, a proper reckoning with what was lost in the past is needed if a more solid foundation for progressive politics is to be built in Ukraine. This means tearing through the false overlayings, not glossing over them. If such a foundation can be built, then Ukraine can be build a better future for itself and become a bridge between the EU and Russia, not a gypsum buffer zone for either.

Ukrainians are fed up with Euro-renovations, this time, they want Europe. 

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