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Daniel Pešta / DOX, Prague

We’re met with a very powerful statement of intent when entering this selection of multimedia artist Daniel Pešta’s works curated by Terezie Zemánková: a giant video of the artist determinedly eating the bubble-gum pink mask off his own face. First he loosens it by breathing in violently, then, when it’s worked loose from his chin he gathers its wrinkled mass with his fingers, stuffs it into his mouth, chews and swallows it. The mask is a defining motif in Pešta’s work, recurring in his ‘assemblages,’ installations and paintings, functioning as an indicator of anonymity, a barrier against which the individual has to struggle, and enforced social and political conformity. When Pešta eats off his own mask there’s a sense that however pre-determined we are by society, we can each free ourselves, with enough will, and a strong stomach. This idea of escaping or transcending the mask is reinforced in some of Pešta’s raw, expressionist paintings, particularly the Self-Portrait. Here, Pešta isn’t struggling against the mask, which is more like a cloudy facial nimbus, and the eyes, calm and beautiful, seem to stand placidly outside its folds as if he’s either escaped it or become reconciled to it.  

But most of Pesta’s work is concerned with making us aware of the overwhelming nature of the forces ranged against personal freedom, not just consumerist mass society, but the fact of mortality itself. On the floor against the wall, looking like something left by a delivery man in a hurry are a pile of resin blocks enclosed in wire, in each block there’s a disturbingly realistic human body part. Ecce Homo – Behold the Man –  is scrawled in red paint across across this gory package. This is the raw meat we’re made of, the physical matter which determines us.

‘Ecce Homo’ was the sign nailed up in mockery by the Roman soldiers at Christ’s crucifixion. In the context of the exhibition it becomes a timeless jibe at any notion of transcendence, powerfully driven home by Pešta’s Christ in Amniotic Fluid, the bloodied contorted mass of The Saviour’s dead or dying body enclosed like one more exhibit in a medical laboratory. A more playfully hopeless version of Christ’s Crucifixion is called Puzzle. Here cross and body are disassembled wooden parts stuffed in a net from which legs with their nailed feet and arms with nails driven through the palms thrust out. For my money this is one of the most powerful portrayals of Christ’s crucifixion in modern or even pre-modern art, something those Roman soldiers would delight in, a toy puzzle they’d be happy to bring home as a souvenir for the kids.

The Christ motif receives a completely different embodiment in one of Pešta’s videos: Annunciation 1. Here a semi-clad pregnant woman sits in a chair while behind her, with an ornate bowl in which Pontius Pilate might have washed his hands of the troublesome Christ, another semi-clad pregnant woman washes the seated woman’s hair.  This cleansing ritual – with a sensual close-up of long strands of soapy locks – is conducted in slow-motion, silent apart from the soundtrack of an Apollo Moon-Landing. While NASA is busy putting the whole of mankind symbolically on the Moon, two mothers are busy tending to themselves and the reality of the fullness of the singular life within them.

The two mothers in their calm white space are one of the items which gently and humorously works against the sense of grim Determination we get from other areas of the exhibition, finding their echo in that capitalized T of the exhibition title: DeTermination. Their pregnancies are not going to be terminated, both will give birth, perhaps to a duo comparable to Christ and John the Baptist, or at least to someone who’ll break the mould of the Human Condition.

There can be little doubt from much of Pešta’s work that this can be pretty awful, if not downright hellish. In the video From Nowhere to Nowhere which plays along the walls of the connecting space between exhibition areas, clumps of naked people push the invisible wall of the space they’re enclosed in arduously forward.  They’re as much a help as a hindrance to one another. In one sequence the man pushing forward has another man, lying limp across his back. In another a man desperately tries to keep the ceiling of the space from crushing all of them as his colleague pushes them all forward. The first adjective that springs to mind is ‘Sisyphean’ but all Sisyphus had to do, unhindered by confined space was push his visible object, his rock, uphill , and he knew why he was there – to be punished by the gods. But why are we here? Enclosed in our time and circumstance-bounded prison desperately pushing the weight of our existence forward without direction.     

This sense of entrapment is most powerfully enunciated in what is for me the most potent part of the exhibition: a selection from the Nocturnal Head Records. Behind a black transparent curtain thirty or so resin blocks glow beckoningly in a black-walled room at eye-level.  The lit frames alternate their proportions between square and rectangle, creating a slightly unbalancing effect. Which is intensified as one looks into these warm blocks of light which contain the very stuff of bad and disturbing dreams in golden preserving fluid.  Each is a miniature ‘assemblage’ a collage featuring the symbols of Pešta’s artistic vocabulary: the mask, mouths, faces, bodies covered in stitching, faces from old photographs, bits of painting, capsules of DNA. Despite the similarity of materials and symbols each block is different and each reinforces the others, drawing one along the sequence, and drawing one in with their intricate detail and carefully choreographed correspondence. There’s something oddly regal and elegant about this series and much of Pešta’s work generally, which Zemánková has captured with her arrangement. There’s real passion in Pešta for the physical materials used to express his feelings and ideas which she also makes apparent. A very tactile case in point is a lone item from the Nocturnal Head Records which looks from a distance like the coils of a flattened brain made from blood-red wool, on closer inspection the brain – obviously the seat of a one-track mind – is an orgy scene, a mass of interconnected, interpenetrating bodies.

There’s a rather more aggressively erotic flavour to another example of Pešta’s leitmotifs, the Genetic Code. In Genetic Codes: Female Element Alpha Wolf slightly blurred images of a bare-breasted blonde woman and a wolf transferred onto hundreds of strips of capsule alternate hypnotically. Woman and wolf – the ultimate ‘Alpha Male’ –  are each separate, each isolated in their nature, and as the eye follows the stop-motion effect of the long rows of capsules, woman and wolf collide teasingly but impotently together. The same sense of the isolation and impotence of the sexes , their inability to mesh in any satisfying way is also apparent in another sample from the Genetic Codes series: Brides and Grooms.  Here the images on the capsules are from black and white photos of early to mid-Twentieth Century marriages. Each capsule encapsulates an individual bride or groom but the sexes are all grouped, en masse together, male and female identity remaining ineluctably unmixed.

The one place where sexual identities are merged, or submerged, are in Pešta’s paintings. The sexes are indistinguishable in Election an image of party political supporters in ‘group photo’ pose. These people are aggressive beasts, a mass of pink, fang-mouthed baying heads, baying for ‘progress’ or for ‘fairness’ or for ‘freedom’. Two of the human beasts in the back row support the banner of their Inglorious Leader in their teeth.

Another of the paintings, School Field Trip is a green drench of a spookily suggestive image. A group of school children, perhaps on a summer ‘School in Nature’ holiday stand in ranks facing us. These children look lost, their faces blurred amidst the green mass of nature, suggesting that the natural world is as much a danger as a beautiful escape. The row of children at the back are blurred with light, as if burning with some kind of marsh gas. This painting faces another equally playful but more evocative painting called Light Catchers, which shows a view of a darkened landscape, a plain or park where the shadowy figures of people congregate. Here and there one of them has a head burning with a steady pink flame (Pešta doesn’t allow us to forget the pink of his face mask). Who are these people with burning heads? What differentiates them? Are they somehow bringing enlightenment or a destructive conflagration?

The most powerful of the videos, which, like all Pešta’s videos is more like a very short wordless film, is called Chain and its brief tribal soundtrack reverberates throughout the lower floor of the exhibition, adding an ominous note as one stands glued to the resinous images in the Nocturnal Head Records room. In the video, in an old deserted factory, eight white-shirted men sit close around a table, their hands thickly and tightly bandaged. The only ornament on the table is a small candle. After what seems to have been a long period of shared silent meditation the man at the head of the table puts the bandaged stump of his hand into the flame. Once ablaze he passes the fire to the man next to him, who passes it to the man next to him and so on round the table until they’re all sitting sharing the fire, arms raised in a blazing toast. A moment later they rhythmically beat their flaming hands out on the table. Is this some form of rehearsal for a group suicide in some post-Apocalyptic world? Or a celebratory High Mass of some new religion of light? Whatever it means – bearing in mind that a poem has multiple meanings, and Pešta’s videos  are very poetic performances – it’s simple but beautifully performed, filmed and, like so much of Pešta’s work, stylishly evocative.   

Daniel Pešta
DOX Centre for Contemporary Art
Poupetova 1
Prague 7
Until 7 May

Images courtesy of the artist and DOX Centre of contemporary art