Czech Action Art: Happenings, Actions, Events, Land Art, Body Art and Performance Art Behind the Iron Curtain
In the substantial preface to Czech Action Art: Actions, Events, Land Art, Body Art and Performance Art Behind the Iron Curtain, Pavlína Morganová, the director of Prague’s Research Centre of the Academy of Fine Arts, argues for the superiority of the term “action” over the catch-all category “performance,” whose connotation of formal presentation may be less descriptive of conceptual practice than the suggestion of something being done or caught in the very process of happening. In the Czech context, this “something” was no less powerful for being at times imperceptible to the public in whose midst it occurred, as when body artist Jiří Kovanda took to Prague’s Wenceslas Square in 1976 to perform a series of predetermined yet everyday-looking gestures that barely registered for the passers-by. (A different action from the same year makes the cover of Morganová’s book, where a Christ-like Kovanda can be seen standing in a busy Prague street with his arms outstretched, as if to catch the oncoming crowd). As both an original aesthetic strategy and a reflection of life’s compromises under constant surveillance, such ambiguous work seems more inextricable from its milieu than anything made by the American neo-avant-garde. Indeed, generations of Czech artists living under communist rule found solace in art theorist Jindřich Chalupecký’s theories on the fundamental difference of Czech modern art from its Western counterpart, whose enmeshment with the art market could not help but diminish its artistic value. For Chalupecký, art made in totalitarian conditions had an inward-gazing, quasi-religious purity that had as little to do with reforming modernist aesthetics as with contributing to the material and spiritual deprivation of the world outside. Yet Morganová suggests that this position may have been another compromise, an attempt to find the silver lining in a situation where artists not only lacked basic support systems but also took considerable personal risks in antagonizing the authorities.
Arguing that artists sought to transform life, not art, Morganová provides insight into these shifting socio-political circumstances, first explaining her reasons for dispensing with Czech action art’s Slovakian counterpart: despite their linguistic similarities and shared political destiny, the two milieus saw art develop independently of each other between the Czechoslovak coup-d’état in late-February 1948, when the communist party attained power with Soviet support, and the years of perestroika and glasnost leading up to the fall of the Wall. Between 1948 and 1989, artistic activity split into the obligatory official and unofficial streams: while the first type favoured socialist realism and required ideological affiliation with the Association of Czechoslovak Artists, the second had no right to exist, operating clandestinely through mail art, samizdat publications, and private venues. Although the temporary relaxing of restrictions on the economy, media, and culture throughout the 1960s allowed for limited outside contact, the Warsaw Pact invasion that ended the “Prague Spring” of 1968 restored repressive measures during the “normalization” of Czech society and drove progressive art underground once more until the early 1990s.
Briefly mentioning its earliest sources in the nature rituals of ancient pagan cults, Morganová identifies Czech action art’s two main precedents in the 1950s, first in graphic artist Vladimír Boudník’s attempts to explain alternative pictorial values in front of a peeling wall to random passers-by, and second in Jiří Kolář’s experimental poems that often instruct the reader to perform some ordinary action or simply to imagine it – coincidentally, a stance that clashed with how American Allan Kaprow conceived of happenings, which could never be “merely” virtual. The bulk of Morganová’s book is divided into roughly chronological sections entitled “A Breakthrough to the Everyday,” “A Return to Nature,” and “An Experience of the Body.” The first considers actions with a social component whose proper moment was the comparatively liberal 1960s, starting with Knížák, who founded the Aktual group in 1964 with Jan Trtílek, Soňa Švecová and Vít Mach, and whose happenings anticipated Fluxus events in the years before he made contact with New York’s George Maciunas and was declared director of Fluxus East. In A Walk Through Prague (December 5, 1965), for example, he distributed complicated step-by-step instructions in advance for an action where individual participants were forbidden to communicate with one another even as they shared the same experience, doing such things as waiting silently in front of the National Theatre or drawing circles on the sidewalk on their way to National Avenue, then walking along their circumference. While police stopped the activity before it could culminate in the silent dispersal of the participants, Morganová explains why this would have heightened its sacral quality. The first chapter also considers collective actions by larger groups such as Křížovnická škola čistého humoru bez vtipu (The Order of Crusaders for Pure Humor Without Banter), which organized excursions by bus or boat (or simply to the pub) and used props like beer, eggs, and bread. These activities were conceived by Order member Eugen Brikcius as deliberately hermetic, presumably as a retort to communism’s obligatory social behaviours and seemingly irrational repressions. However, Morganová here contrasts the transparency of Knížák’s call for individuals to take an active role in their own transformation with the gratuitous hermeticism of the Order’s rituals which “artificially induce a specific situation and are often mystifications for the sake of mystification” (p. 89).
In “A Return to Nature,” Morganová finds the term “land art” inadequate for the Czech context, though she also claims that few actions of any kind were totally removed from nature. Far from the vast American landscape whose land art sometimes resembles the derelict artefacts left behind by some vanished civilization, Czech nature was smaller in scale and saturated with history, as if inviting less invasive interventions that left no permanent traces. In the beautiful Letiště pro mraky (Airport for Clouds) (1970), Jan Steklík cut white packaging paper into cloud-like shapes and scattered them in a meadow to evoke the eponymous airport – an icon of futile aspiration under totalitarianism – and then burned the paper, as if allowing the sign to float up to the referent above. Elsewhere, Miloš Šejn took walks through the landscape from the mid-1960s to the late 1980s, leaving evidence of his presence that was quickly swallowed up by the natural environment, like handprints in kaolin clay. In fact, what may be startling for those unfamiliar with the milieu is the persistence of nature-based interventions well into the 1980s, a decade associated with postmodernist critique in the dominant art-historical narrative.
Before moving on to “An Experience of the Body,” Morganová also situates Marian Palla’s work of the 1980s at the intersection between a non-intrusive land art and a phenomenologically-oriented body art: Palla infused a Zen sensibility into minimal interventions in nature where significant change could occur through as little as the act of switching two stones in a field. The thematic hinge between nature-based actions and body art proper seems to lie in the early-1970s work of Petr Štembera, who transported stones from one location to another on a slightly larger scale. Early Czech body art veered between the poles of dangerous actions that put the artist’s (or an animal’s, or even the public’s) body at risk, as with Štembera’s mid-1970s work, and the more benign alternative, as with Karel Miler’s, where the body became merely one medium through which to actualize a conceptual proposition. An employee of Prague’s Museum of Decorative Arts, Štembera staged many of his actions secretly in that institution’s basement, depriving himself of sleep or nourishment in order to sharpen his senses, and performing such painful feats as extinguishing a candle with blood from a self-inflicted wound. Elsewhere, at Prague’s Terezin Fortress, he recreated a Gestapo-era interrogation by inviting visitors to whip him if he moved from his spot in front of an empty wall. Morganová interprets such actions as a response to the schizophrenic turn of mind needed to survive the period of normalization.
Following Štembera and Miler, Jan Mlčoch also created risky situations that involved varying levels of sensory deprivation, such as in 1976 when he consented to be buried under gravel – four years after Pictures-Generation artist Jack Goldstein performed a similar action for his thesis exhibition at CalArts – or in 1974 when he suspended himself by his hands and feet from attic rafters, his eyes bound and ears plugged. In the action Bianco (1977) – where the artist lay down on the floor and spit on his own face for 30 minutes, and then spent another 30 minutes drawing out and ultimately never completing the act of signing his name on a piece of blank paper – Mlčoch commented on a common ethical dilemma for intellectuals: whether or not to commit political suicide by signing Charter 77, a dissident text criticizing the communist government for its abuse of human rights. Morganová returns to Charter 77 and Bianco in a lengthy epilogue where she mentions a 2005 re-enactment by Rafani, a contemporary activist group of fluid membership that chose to reflect on this painful episode in Czech history by accentuating the action’s spitting sequence, now enacted by multiple floor-bound bodies. Other parts of the epilogue contextualize how these historical actions are remembered by younger artists working without the same socio-political restrictions, including the group Kamera Skura in the 1990s and participatory artist Katerina Šedá in the 2000s.
Although Morganová sometimes situates the myriad names and actions in her book opposite better-known American or Western European figures and works, it would have been more intriguing to ponder comparable manifestations in Eastern Europe. In her discussions of collective actions and nature-based interventions in the first and second sections, respectively, she might have considered a Soviet counterpart like Collective Actions (Kollektivnye Deistviya, or KD). Formed in 1976, the Russian conceptual group staged events on the outskirts of Moscow, where the invitees would witness mysterious yet unexceptional events such as the performers appearing and disappearing from their field of vision. Similarly, there is a discussion in the second section of Olaf Hanel’s Pocta jasným hvězdám (In Honour of Clear Stars, 1972), which comprised 120 human-made fires near the Sázava River to match the set of the night-time sky in spring. Referencing the element of fire, Hanel’s action bears an uncanny resemblance to a 1970 work by the Slovenian OHO group that also dealt with the four elements: Milenko Matanović’s Arrangement of Candles on a Field Corresponding to Constellation of Stars in Sky (1970). In the same section, Morganová suggests that Zorka Ságlová’s hay-filled room in her 1969 exhibition at Prague’s Václav Špála Gallery arose independently of foreign manifestations like Arte Povera. Nevertheless, it would have been useful to compare Ságlová’s relocation of the countryside to the gallery with a 1969 exhibition of works by OHO in Zagreb, where Tomaž Šalamun presented, among other items, a bale of hay in its untouched state.
Admittedly, exploring such correspondences, particularly with actions made in the more permissive environment of Titoist Yugoslavia, would probably be out of place in a study whose national focus, sharpness of analysis, and profusion of archival detail will make it dispensable to future researchers not just on Central European art but conceptual art’s global manifestations. In an appendix, Morganová provides an alphabetical list of every Czech action artist working between 1960 and 1989, complete with all their known actions. The invitation issued here may not be to expand upon her research – which, while necessarily incomplete, is meticulous and exhaustive – but to compare her account with those of other national narratives while also, perhaps, reorienting “performance” around “action,” regardless of the established critical terminology.
Reviewed by Milena Tomic, McGill University
Czech Action Art: Happenings, Actions, Events, Land Art, Body Art and Performance Art Behind the Iron Curtain
by Pavlína Morganová, translated by Daniel Morgan
University of Chicago Press
Paperback / 288 pages / 2014