The beautifully preserved baroque interior and grounds of Prague’s Troja Chateau is playing host to an informal retrospective of the works of Czech sculptor Jiri Prihoda this summer and autumn. Prihoda’s work is an often sensuous blending of architectural themes with design values. Though usually made from familiar industrial materials, many of his objects and installations have an unexpected sense of warmth and intimacy, a kind of otherworldly, fantastic functionality. However, The baroque surroundings of Troja Chateau might not be the best place to enjoy some of the displayed works to the full.
The installation ‘188dB kHz’ reflects Prihoda’s interest in natural forms, a stylised group of sperm – and minke whale fragments made from blue Styrofoam and steel. Though perfectly modelled, these feel utterly incongruous in their surroundings, as do, though to a lesser extent, the models of gargoyle heads from New York’s Art-Deco Chrysler Building. There’s a monumentality to these great animal heads made from plywood and chip wood covered in lead sheeting; they look more like some benign prehistoric creature, the ornamental remnants of some unknown civilisation, rather than the ornaments of a civilisation we know all too well. But their arrangement, lying at an angle on the floor of the entrance hall seriously diminishes their power.
One of Prihoda’s latest works is ‘Helix’. This was originally conceived as an observation tower that could be ascended by a network of wooden ribs in its interior. But for the Troja exhibition, Prihoda has turned it into a funnel and placed it between two of the chateau’s rooms, the idea being that it can act as a kind of giant kaleidoscope allowing new configurations of the surrounding baroque paintings to be seen. But a kaleidoscope requires mirrors, and the only baroque painting I could see through it was the one visible through its wooden-ribbing on the ceiling. This didn’t provide any kind of alternative view of the painting. And simply because the helix was a baroque architectural element doesn’t give the installation any particular significance.
More impressive is ‘Event II’; what looks like a giant seahorse’s head or the curling tail end of a Saxon ship, but is another attempt to playfully subvert the visitor’s visual sense. Stepping inside the thing, made from shiny metal and a wooden outer ribbing allows you to see the inside of its inverted surface. Unfortunately, perhaps with my senses already subverted by trying to navigate the slightly confusing layout of the exhibition, I didn’t realise until having left that I was supposed to step inside the object.
I did manage to fulfil my visitor’s duty to the full when it came to ‘mPod’ however. This involves another of Prihoda’s spiral structures, a wooden staircase carpeted in leather, at the top of which is a window showing a Martian landscape. Prihoda was inspired by an American group who wanted to sign up colonists for the Red Planet, and ‘mPod’ is his imagining of how a typical Martian dwelling might look. What I like about this is its utterly unscientific nature and sublime impracticality, as the dwelling’s whole point is to be nothing but a place to view the arid Martian landscape from. Mars, a place from which none of the colonists could expect to return, on which are no baroque chateaus, and no works of art apart from those of Martian nature playing with the limited materials of icy sand and dry rocks. A landscape made mesmerising by Jana Dolezalova’s entrancing video-film of the Red Planet’s arid landscape.
‘Interstellar’ also invites the visitor in, this time, to climb up to a platform and peer inside a half cylinder containing a fresco of a photograph from the SF movie of the same name. We’re meant to have the impression of enjoying a bird’s eye view of the inside of some great interstellar space- travelling cylinder transporting thousands of people living in an artificially created natural landscape to some far off planet. But, again, the utter incongruity of this theme, its complete disconnection from its baroque surroundings detracts from any impact it might otherwise have.
‘Collector’s Ark’ in the grounds outside the chateau entrance is a large enclosed building/object, with similar pretensions to an ‘immersive’ experience. This shell-like space, with a copy of the fresco of the Holy Trinity from the chateau’s Imperial Hall suspended from the low ceiling, is seductively designed, and if it weren’t such a fierce heat-trap I would have lingered longer, indulging in the associations the idea of a ‘Collector’s Ark’ arouses.
While the exhibition provides an opportunity to enjoy Prihoda’s idiosyncratic architectural installations, the placing of the works in different isolated rooms on different floors makes for a somewhat awkward viewing experience. Some of the works don’t really have much room to breathe, and, having such natural form and shapeliness they might benefit from being displayed in a more natural setting, such as an ordinary park, like Henry Moore’s sculptures displayed in his garden. These are works you want to stroll around and in and through and they require time for their effect to develop. Here at the Troja Chateau they’re rather cramped, time- and space-wise.
Image courtesy of Prague City Gallery and the City of Prague Museum.