Is there substance in the detail of our lives? If we record everything we do, every detail of the life of our bodies, will it tell us anything? Will it reveal who we really are? If it doesn’t, is there any point to the project at all, apart from the therapeutic value of the activity itself?
Luboš Plyný, the only Czech artist represented at the Viva Arte Viva! international exhibition at this year’s Biennale of Contemporary Art in Venice, recorded every single day in the life of his deceased mother and father. The result, a swirling mandala of closely inked words with each of their ashes at the centre, is an unusual and arresting mortuary object and one of the many diverse examples of the imaginative craftsmanship with which Plyný executes all of his work. But the main subject of Plyný’s devouring interest, is himself and the physical life and activity of his body, and this his largest solo exhibition in the Czech Republic to date, offers a representative cross-section of the work of this compulsive and prolific self-taught artist.
Self-taught and no slacker when it comes to self-promotion, though not in an obnoxious or tiresome manner but rather with zest and humorous élan. For example, he spent the whole of the year 2000 travelling on the Prague transport system validating the same ticket for each trip. At the end of the year he added up how much he’d saved in fares (4,683 crowns) and then reported himself, with the offending ticket, to the transport authority, informing them that if they put up his self-designed wanted poster in the transport system, the inspector who brought him to justice would not only collect a huge fine but would earn a bonus in the shape of a signed portrait of the artist. Unfortunately the Prague Transport Authority apparently left its sense of humour on Tram 22, along with its briefcase and umbrella. Plyny’s lucky ticket along with his letters to the Authority, framed in glass, have the feel of an official award, a historical record of this loophole in the Prague Transport Authority’s jurisdiction and one artist’s ironic attempt to correct it.
This boldly humorous approach earned him the previously non-existent title of ‘Academic Model’ awarded by the Dean of the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague in November 1999. Along with letters of recommendation from other artists, medical certificates and psychological evaluations Plyný presented a set of photographs of himself mimicking famous figures from the history of art. These included Jacque Louis David’s Marat, dead in the bath, Michelangelo’s David, and, among others, Emil Filla’s image of a spiritually exhausted Dostoyevsky reader. Since being awarded this bona fide title Plyný uses the symbol of his award – a discobolus containing his name and title – to sign all his artworks. There is nothing original in an artist imitating famous works of art and Plyný’s photos do little apart from nudging us to look at and perhaps admire afresh the famous works he chooses. But they are an integral part of the exhibition as, in all of the mimicking photos Plyný is naked and it’s the human body, Plyný’s in particular, which is the main focus of his work.
The ‘anatomical self-portraits’ depict, in coloured ink, acrylics, collage and snippings from anatomical textbooks, Plyný’s body cut up into slices, with individual layers, skin, muscles, bones, the circulatory system and internal organs shown in different colours and often from different angles. These are the works that have brought him most recognition, and rightly so, for though they all follow more or less the same formula, each picture is unique, vivid, arresting and sometimes beautiful, in a faintly disturbing way. They also act as a mirror in which we see our own bodies, drawn apart thread by thread and spread panoramically before us. What we see, thanks to Plyný’s finely detailed rendering of all these parts, is a multi-coloured, overflowing, self-overlapping and incredibly complex physical network, a natural miracle in itself, miraculous enough not to need any ‘ghost in the machine.’ And yet at the same time, as we look, we are incapable of identifying ourselves with all this wonderous meat, bone and tissue and Plyný seems to acknowledge this difficulty with the faces, some photographs, some painted images, emerging from within the welter of his anatomical networks. In these works Plyný’s obsession with recording and displaying detail pays off in an often haunting power of suggestion.
Some of this suggestive power is also apparent in the black and white ‘Quilted Photographs.’ These are a record of Plyný’s attempt to ‘explore the limits of his own pain’ and show the artist’s face and torso stitched together in various ways with shoemaker’s thread. Plyný’s eyelids and lips are sewn shut by an assistant, and in one image the thread connects his hands and arms to his face in such a way that the slightest movement of his body tugged at the skin of his face. It looks incredibly painful, and the incisions of the needle are visible, though one can’t help thinking that colour, for obvious reasons, would have more impact than black and white. But still, however exquisite the pain, Plyný’s face remains impassive, and it is this impassivity, suggesting an iron self-control that hints at a directing self within, a self which, however mortally tied to the flesh, can, in some sense, transcend the limits of the body. I’m sure Plyný had no intention of posing such a metaphysical question when undertaking the project, but, in the context of the exhibition, it does, at least for this reviewer, arise.
The human body, in the shape of its primary needs, is very much present in another major item of the exhibition: Plyný’s sex toys. These form, on the second floor of the exhibition space, a veritable forest of erect organs and gaping orifices. Constructed of wood, metal and plastic tubing, screws, nuts and bolts, this is like a piece of an erotic emporium designed by Heath-Robinson and Hieronymous Bosch. Heath-Robinson created graphic inventions of outlandishly complicated mechanisms and machines to do the simplest of jobs, while Bosch’s pictures show humanity’s concupiscence interlinked with the very fabric of the world. Plyný’s mass of sex toys indicates something of the gnawing desperation which leads to the making of these contraptions – which as Slavoj Žižek pointed out, don’t so much satisfy as recycle the lack of satisfaction – and the amusing, but nightmarish quality of this insatiable universal need.
The creation of art, the need to make something of our lives, is, for some, a need as strong, or perhaps stronger than, the need for sexual satisfaction, and this exhibition curated by Ivana Brádková, Nadia Rovderová and Terezie Zemánková is an ample and all-embracing display of Luboš Plyný’s self-consuming and self-defining need to make art. Art which records, suggestively and entertainingly, the search, if not the discovery of the meaning of the artist’s life and identity.
Images courtesy of DOX Centre for contemporary art, Prague