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Issue 161

Eva Kotátková

BY Sophie J. Williamson in Reviews | 05 MAR 14

Eva Kotátková Speech organ of Anna, a girl who pronounces words from the middle, 2013, installation view

An obstacle course of cages, steel-framed spheres, ladders, constrictive tunnels and unidentifiable welded structures dominates the main gallery of Eva Kotátková’s first solo show in the UK. The wall text cites inspiration from the gym, circus or theatre, but these things seem much more austere – a grotesque and intimidating mash-up of Soviet-era climbing frames and S&M contraptions. A po-faced performer stands agonizingly still, her arm trapped awkwardly within a conical, shoulder-height construction. Over time she will move her attention to another structure, activating it in a similarly stern manner: ascending slowly to reach the summit of a climbing horse; contorting backwards over a lone pole.

Kotátková started school in 1989, in newly post-communist Prague. This was a moment of unlearning and re-learning; a seismic shift in accepted societal conventions. For Kotátková, it was also the moment of induction into the acceptable behaviours of the educational establishment; the first (or arguably second, after the institution of the family unit) of many institutions to follow, each in turn instilling our compliance with society’s restrictions.

Much of her previous work drew on these early experiences of the school environment. In her salient installation Re-education Machine (2011), Kotátková re-imagines the tools of education, such as a 1960s Czech printing press, as instruments of torture and imprisonment, while in the video Sit Straight (2008), tools to discipline and instruct become pain-inflicting. These works explore the ways in which a supposedly enlightening system is equally a vehicle for indoctrination, subjected to mechanisms that, according to the artist, ‘serve only to unify communication patterns and force opinions; allocating specific social norms to people’. Kotátková has since continued to examine an array of different institutions and disciplinary systems, such as psychiatric hospitals and prisons, considering the ways in which each repress and manipulate behaviour.

Her work at Modern Art Oxford, however, takes a bold step away from a previously distanced relationship with her audience. The welded structures sit alongside more familiar and homely objects – a worn carpet, a selection of scuffed books, an old door –
all laid out upon a blackboard stage, shaped in a cross-section of a head, from the nasal cavity down to throat. Kotátková calls this a ‘speech organ’, severing the act of speaking from personality or facial expression. The fading traces of performers’ movements are marked out in chalk – a literal depiction of their ‘going through the motions’. The performer lets a steel ring drop to the floor; its echo reverberates around the room. She is indifferent and still, once again. There is a Kafkaesque futility in her attempts to make sense of her surroundings, to articulate herself, through equally absurd actions. These repetitive, awkward and – despite their peculiarity – understated exchanges between object, action and actor mediate a bleak outlook on the internalized struggle of our everyday condition. It’s a struggle that is unglorified, banal.

This sense of internal monologue is as important to the experience of the work as it is its narrative. You cannot help but be drawn into a type of metafiction: we keep up our act as audience as much as the performer does hers, politely complying with the conventions of the gallery space. The exhibition’s linchpin is in the middle gallery, where a lecture performance explores the topic of radical narration, based on a script written by Kotátková’s father, a former professor of philosophy. We continue our role as spectators, quietly listening to a somewhat dry narrative about storytelling based on the works and theories of Balzac, Borges and Beckett. However, the delivery is continually rudely interrupted by audacious audience members. The stooges shout out their own comments on the narrative, often, it seems, in dialogue with the actual authors themselves. And so Kotátková draws radical narration into the gallery space, into the creation of the work itself.

Elsewhere, carefully arranged tableaux in vitrines present meticulously cut pictures collaged from old magazines and textbooks – children playing, housewives at work, animals, odd limbs – all tied together with Kotátková’s characteristically intrusive white rope lines. A pin spears through the eye of a pelican, clasping it in place. There is an indifference to the cruelty that the artist creates in these vitrines, perhaps a quiet acceptance of its omnipotence throughout society.

To return to the analogy of S&M, its namesake the Marquis de Sade is an apt starting point for understanding the complex narratives of societal control at play in Kotátková’s work. An advocate of extreme freedom, De Sade rejected all of the mechanisms of control that Kotátková’s work addresses. He led a life true to his philosophy, and was inevitably imprisoned. It is exactly this impotence that ‘The Storyteller’s Inadequacy’ portrays; the struggle to articulate independent thought and, moreover, the struggle to act on that articulation. Whilst Kotátková’s past work has dealt with specific types of institutionalization, this exhibition can be read from a more potent perspective. It confronts a more widespread societal malaise, wherein we are moulded by, and dependent on, the very conventions that hinder our ability to think, speak and act independently. Here, Kotátková suggests that even the things we take for granted – our ability to speak, to articulate – are thrown into question by societal conditioning.