Review by Benjamin Tallis
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.
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.
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.
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.