In place of the usual light installation by Jorge Pardo in the smart rotunda at Kunstverein Braunschweig, a wooden bar hung from the ceiling by two ropes: Trapeze (2013). This piece was made by Eva Kotátková as part of Theatre of Speaking Objects, her first solo show at a major institution in Germany. With this intervention the Czech artist made a mute object speak – a leitmotif running through this exhibition consisting of a collection of partly over-staged and partly nightmarish found objects, metal body extensions and altered everyday items, as well as performative installations and collages that tackled themes of human socialization, discipline and communication.
In two cases, Kotátková literally made objects speak, staging them in the spirit of the exhibition title. In the Spiegelsaal, the audio installation Theatre of Speaking Objects (2012) consisted of 13 wooden plinths, spread around the room, each bearing a single object: a door, a drum, a huge clay vase or a tree trunk. Over this lay a blanket of sound in multiple languages (German, English, French, Czech, Polish, Italian, Ukrainian) with fragmentary narratives on isolation, exclusion and speechlessness – the Babylonian confusion of tongues taken to pathological heights. On the upper floor Psychological Theatre (The Feral Child Case) (2013) combined a caged proscenium stage with suspended metal constructions (chair, door, staircase, wall, cube). In the ensuing dialogue between a ‘Kaspar Hauser boy’ and a psychologist, the latter tried to reach the child via objects – to domesticate him via language.
Not only objects were made to speak – every Sunday, part of the exhibition came to life thanks to performances by amateur actors. For the installation Communication Through the Wall (2013), Kotátková placed a wall in the middle of the room, separating two people from one another. While one made sounds with objects like a pot, chair or brick, the other noted her impressions in the form of a chain of associations on a blackboard. Symbolizing subjective perception and its translation into language, the scenario also had the quality of a jam session. The second ‘performance’ Parallel Biography (Speaking Library) (2012) was staged on the upper floor. From inside a cruciform wooden shelving system, an elderly man read from the novel Casanova (2008) by the artist’s father Petr Kotátková – the story of an ageing man with a personality disorder who fills gaps in his own biography with fragments from the lives of literary or historical figures (including Casanova and Odysseus). This installation, already dense with symbolism, was framed by a rather overloaded collage of books on the wall.
The show as a whole stuck to the artist’s main themes – applied psychology and educational theory. In most cases, however, the collages, objects and installations displayed a rather one-sided vision of humanity, showing children and adolescents as puppets, along with authoritarian, conformist adults who seem (obliged) to compulsively discipline them. This is due to Kotátková’s ongoing interest in psychological and pedagogical theories from Eastern European specialist literature from the 1930s to 1960s. But she manages to update the historical image material she takes from these sources: in her multi-part wall-mounted work Theatre of Speaking Objects (2012), for example, she frames photographs of bodies inside strictly drawn lines, using connecting lines to highlight glances, gestures, poses and power relations between students and teachers, creating critical micro-scenes of socialization. The overall composition was diagrammati‑cally extended by a wooden shelving system, numerous collages and metal cut-outs. Physical oppression made itself felt in the principle of body extensions in Kotátková’s sculptures and metal constructions, as in the ensemble Work of Nature (2011–2). The strongly abstract sculptures have something of a corset or cage about them, looking like a horde of mute waiters on a stage or a disciplinarian ‘playground’.
The chorus of speaking objects and figures heard in the exhibition was partly relevant, partly redundant. Relevant in the case of the episodes and experiences that shape a subject over the course of his/her life and that may lead to pathological behaviour but the constantly repeated scenarios and the artist’s views on human nature seemed too restrictive. But the curtain did not fall without applause: Kotátková created a successful, confident show that forced its audience to examine its own position, both physically and psychologically.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell