If there’s one photograph that summarises Vladimír Ambroz’s approach to his action and performance art, comprehensively documented at the House of Photography by curator Tomáš Pospiszyl, it’s Across.’ Ambroz strolls unhurriedly across a busy, multi-laned road, looking, perhaps to the horror of his parents, neither to left nor right. The accompanying text informs us that: “transcending defined and outlined directions, order and practices is often a step forward and leads to liberation from predefined schemes.” The work presented in the exhibition, from the late 1970s to early 1980s, illustrates Ambroz’s transgressive questioning of the lines, boundaries and societal atmosphere of Communist Czechoslovakia. His appears to have been a gentle, wry, rather lugubrious approach, sometimes blossoming into the straightforwardly comic, sometimes cautiously prodding the limits of legality, sometimes playfully teasing. He tested and questioned his own assumptions and habits too, and because most of his action and performance art was conducted in a relatively short period and under constrained conditions, it retains a kind of innocence, a freshness and honesty unsullied by success and has an understated power that much of today’s mainstream conceptual art lacks. There’s a unique quality to his work because, as Pospiszyl states in the exhibition pamphlet, it emphasizes “the expressive power of photographic documentation.”
Sometimes a single photograph encapsulates the essence of the action, as in the road-strolling of Across. Another example is one of three photos from Trails which show Ambroz trailing lines of paint across the pavement and across a road. “We leave trails without wanting to, or being aware of it” Ambroz’s laconic text tells us. “I spilled paint across the road and cars and people walked through the wet lines.” These trails we leave are transitory, whatever their medium, a truth beautifully illustrated by the photo in which the line of white paint is trodden, smeared and blown like a surge of sea-foam. Another single photograph, of Ambroz’s watch dropped in the breaking waves of the sea, entitled Time’ signifies the fragility and transitory nature of this human world we so restlessly occupy.
The world,, how we conceive it, and our place in it seems to have been a preoccupation with Ambroz. One of the most ticklish and playful of his ‘Happenings’ was conducted under the title Walls. Video footage on a small, suitably ‘retro’ portable black and white TV shows Ambroz and a group of male friends erecting walls made of newsprint, out in the winter countryside around Brno. Once these flimsy barriers – or enclosures – of newsprint are set up, they are burned down from inside. Little else happens, though the event has a peculiar and indefinable potency. Without sound we watch Ambroz and his friends unhurriedly chatting, grinning, smoking, idly conducting the erection and burning of these ‘walls’ and then walking leisurely away. I suppose it’s all in the attitude, or perceived attitude of the group, for all the lazy camaraderie they look like a revolutionary coterie, or bunch of partisans from some nameless half-forgotten war taking a break from the fighting, or perhaps this is the real fighting itself, the symbolic destruction of one of civilization’s greatest accomplishments: the printing and dissemination of the written word. The text to the video and photographs reassure us however that: “it was not a rejection of any actual information nor was it a political act.” But the event fairly reeks of subversion. What’s subversive about it, and what I imagine would be seen as such by the Czechoslovak authorities of the time, is that Ambroz and his friends look like a law, and a self-enclosed world, unto themselves.
Walls and the photographic documentation of Ambroz’s other collective happenings are complemented by works in which Ambroz and his activities are the sole subject. In The World Is A Reflection the artist wrapped his head in opaque mirror foil “so I couldn’t see through it, and it reflected everything around me. Then I slowly tore it off.” What does this typically enigmatic description mean? Perhaps later I’ll try the experiment myself to see if I can still see ‘everything around me.’ But surely all I’ll be able to see, if anything, are fragmentary reflections of my own face. Perhaps this is the ‘World’ Ambroz is referring to. Or perhaps it’s the tearing off which is the main point, for the world I live in will still be there after the temporary submersion in my own image.
A similar attempt to seal himself off from the world is evidenced by VideoHabitation a recreation of the small space Ambroz boarded himself up in for a whole month, the only connection with the outside world a camera placed outside, its images transmitted to him via a monitor. Without a clock, telephone, radio or TV, and with only artificial light inside, Ambroz unsurprisingly “lost track of the situation outside.” Through a slit in the wall of the box one can see inside and just peering into Ambroz’s self-made isolation unit for a few minutes is enough to arouse amazement at the strength necessary to endure it. He doesn’t detail any disturbing feelings about this particular ‘happening’, doubtless leaving us to imagine our own feelings if we were inside the isolated space for a month. We probably imagine those feelings to be bad, but Ambroz is generally upbeat about the potentials of ‘inner space.’ In the text to another happening, TV Look in which Ambroz and friends sat and watched TV with the sound turned off and wearing dark glasses, he exhorts us to “close your eyes and turn off the sound and abandon yourself to your imagination.” Which I definitely prefer to Timothy Leary’s infamous hippy dictum: “turn on, tune in, drop out.”
Vladimír Ambroz, Anonymity – Plastic People, 1976, photo by Václav Šedý
During the grim years of late ‘Normalization’ in Czechoslovakia, Ambroz appears to have had quite a bit of fun with his happenings, whilst also making some serious points. In June 1976 he blew up balloons (labelled ‘Sundrop Bananas’) in his studio with friends and fell about in them. “Inhale, exhale, there is less and less clear air. And what fun we have destroying it.” The following October his sardonic action of replacing a dead tree with a plastic one filled with coloured gas appears to have caused a bit of a stir among the locals. But perhaps more puzzling for the authorities was Poster. The printing and distribution of posters was controlled by state authorities, Ambroz made posters consisting of just one letter each and had them put up illegally around Brno. Amid the closely-printed, state-approved, state-sanctioned news of forthcoming events these big black single letters stand out like a satirical morse code of free expression. Ambroz also posted himself – or rather parked himself – as a car, lying face down in an empty parking space with a tyre around each hand and foot. It was only for five minutes but “people didn’t react to the situation at all. It probably seemed completely normal to them.” It would doubtless seem normal to people now, though probably for different reasons. What would be regarded as less normal would be the sight of Ambroz lying across the dividing line of a road, “the white median line symbolically went over my body. Cars were passing by and although there weren’t many they still had the right of way.” In the photograph Ambroz lies, his back to the camera, seemingly pinned down by the white line which rolls over his thigh, a thin strip of human vulnerability, a living sacrifice to the uninhibited freedom of the motor car: one of the strongest images in the exhibition, and one that must be among the most powerful from the last century.
Also powerful, and eerie, are the photos from Anonymity – Plastic People. These are of men, women and children photographed at a quarry, wearing identical featureless white masks. They are standing around in very natural, recognisable, casual postures, but where is the individualiity, where is the thing that sets them apart? The large group photo in this selection is the most disturbing. Some of the adults are bending looking at the two small children in front, also wearing masks, but what can the adults be seeing in the two blank faced children? Children are our future, aren’t they?
Questions, hints, tongue-in-cheek protests, unspoken manifestoes, overt symbolic actions with real integrity: this exhibition, selected with consummate curatorial skill by Tomáš Pospiszyl is a long-overdue showcase of one of Czechoslovakia’s most stimulating but uncelebrated artists.