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Czechoslovak Post-Conceptualism / Kvalitář Gallery, Prague

According to curator Marika Kupková,  the title of this joint exhibition from Ondrej Homola and Katarina Hládeková –Czechoslovak Post-Conceptualism–  is an audaciously ironic reference to a recent exhibition at the Fait Gallery in Brno, Czechoslovak Conceptual Art of the 1970s. If so, the title is the most audacious thing about Homola and Hládeková’s exhibition.  The conceptual artists featured in the Brno exhibition were generally, genuinely concerned with investigating the relationship between art and the artist at various levels, not least in regards to ethics and politics. However, it’s very difficult to discern what the motive force  behind Homola and Hládeková’s joint enterprise is.

An interview with the pair conducted by Kupková, to accompany the exhibition, does very little to enlighten us. In Britain and America comedy duos were traditionally built on the Straight Man/Comic pairing, and Homola and Hládeková, at least on paper, follow this tried and tested formula, though it’s far less productive of laughter in the world of art than in comedy. Hládeková, as the Straight Man, pitches various serious-sounding explanations for their joint work and what they were or weren’t aiming at. Homola deflates her more or less orthodox Postmodernist patter with facetious remarks, and debunks the whole project. But his debunkings at least make some sense, while Hládeková’s ostensibly serious remarks do not.

“We are concerned with the question of artistic, metaphorical representation and how we can completely respond to it through an emulsification of analysis and intuition, as well as of implied and literal interpretation.” I for one would be genuinely fascinated to see analysis and intuition ‘emulsified.’   The exhibition’s one defining characteristic is the teeth or dental motif. “We chose teeth as the motif of this exhibition” states Hládeková, but further on in the interview says that “teeth are really just a random symbol in our exhibition.” Art isn’t science or mathematics, but there’s quite a difference between choice and randomness.  

Perhaps she’s being purposely ambivalent and contradictory, which would be fair enough. This approach is characteristic of what Craig Owens called Appropriation Art (and applicable to Postmodern Art in general) back in 1980. Appropriation Art simultaneously sets up and subverts ideologies and is both “critical and complicit.” Homola and Hládeková’s serio-comic theorizing about their work does have a vaguely Post-Conceptual taste but Post-Conceptualism’s questioning of the art object as a commercial product is missing, as some of the exhibited works have a price-tag. But we’ve speculated about the pair’s artistic philosophy and intentions, or lack of enough. We have to play our part in the Conceptual or perhaps Post-Conceptual game by making whatever we can of what’s physically presented to us.

The exhibition is small and compact, dominated by two dental-palate shaped constructions. One is made of thin iron bars with forked tips within which are placed bunches of loose paper covered in Czech script, each of these loose sheaves have a year printed on the cover, beginning with 1998 and ascending in ten year leaps- or perhaps gaps is a more appropriate word given the dental context- to the year 2148. One is tempted to extract some of these papers and see what they say, but that ingrained ban on tampering with artistic exhibits (however flimsy) is all but overpowering.

Separated by a short space is another dental-palate construct, this time made of half-pillars suggestive of the material used for fillings; one of the pillars is tipped with gold paint, doubtless a comic touch of Homola’s.  A number of the pillars have things inside them, visible through gaps in their surface. There’s a small iron bust of President John F.Kennedy, renowned for his dazzling toothy smile, in another miniature construction reminiscent of something from a doll’s house, a book is propped open on a map of Czechoslovakia, painted bright blue under a dazzling yellow sun; a tiny telescope, though it could also perhaps be a missile, stands aimed at the blue-smeared country. There are small heaps of short rectangular white sticks in all of the pillars, precariously stacked or glued together like the wooden pallets used in factories and shops. There’s some momentary fun to be had kneeling down to see what’s inside the pillars but there’s a cursory feel to the construction, a real sense of it being ‘thrown together’ which leaves a somewhat unpleasant taste in the mouth. Homola jokingly reassures us that this isn’t an interactive exhibition, and we have nothing to fear. Though “you may be assaulted by questions about the condition of your own teeth, or indirectly about your own role on the art scene, or in society.” I was certainly beginning to wonder what I was doing there at this point. Which I suppose is better than feeling nothing at all.

A series of purple-tinted photographic negatives on plexiglass along the right-hand wall by the entrance provide some relief from the clinical whiteness of everything else. Each of the photographs contains different configurations of the objects in the dental-pillars, the short white sticks predominating. JFK pops up again, and there’s a man with a small skull set jauntily on top of his head.

Breaking the whole dental feel is a large wall drawing, a cartoon in black pen, showing three comic figures piled on each other’s shoulders staggering toward, or being repulsed by, a chunk of Modernist sculpture. It’s reminiscent of Josef Lada’s cartoons of Jaroslav Hašek’s The Good Soldier Švejk.

Perhaps a broader range of exhibits might have been conducive to a broader range of effects and interpretation. Having just four parts: the two ‘dental-palates,’ the wall-drawings and the photographs, creates only the narrowest correspondences within the exhibition and all subsumed under the one teeth motif.  Hládeková says a tooth is “absolutely reminiscent of a miniature.” This is essentially a miniature exhibition, with miniature impact and miniature credit for the two artists; a single tooth with no bite.

Czechoslovak Post-Conceptualism
Kvalitář Gallery
Senovázně náměsti 1628/17
Prague 1
Until April 18
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Images courtesy of the gallery and artists