BY Noemi Smolik in Features | 01 MAY 12
Featured in
Issue 147

Future Memories

Dominik Lang’s work is influenced by his intimate relationship to his family home and the legacy of Czech conceptualism

BY Noemi Smolik in Features | 01 MAY 12

In 1921, at the age of 25, the Russian philologist and linguist Roman Jakobson published a short article titled ‘On Realism in Art’. It included this Armenian riddle: ‘It hangs in the drawing room and is green; what is it?’ The answer: ‘A herring.’ ‘Why in a drawing room?’ ‘Well, why couldn’t they hang it there?’ ‘Why green?’ ‘It was painted green.’ ‘But why?’ ‘To make it harder to guess.’1

'Spící město' (The Sleeping City), exhibition view, 2011. All images courtesy Krobath, Vienna/Berlin, hunt kastner, Prague, and the artist

The works of the Czech artist Dominik Lang are rather like this riddle: conceptual yet absurd – surreal even – they draw the viewer in through the questions they provoke. For ‘Vzpomínky na budoucnost’ (Memories of the Future), a 2009 group show at the Václav Špála Gallery in Prague, Lang blocked access to one part of the exhibition space with a glass wall. Why? So that the audience’s awareness of the space was heightened precisely because they were prevented from entering it. The glass partition also became a screen reflecting the history of the gallery. For it was here in 1969 that the first posthumous exhibition of work by Marcel Duchamp took place, devised by the artist himself before his death. As well as the famous urinal (Fountain, 1917), the show included Duchamp’s The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915–23), which is referenced in the title of Lang’s work, Velké sklo (The Large Glass, 2009). Furthermore, exactly 50 years previously, this same gallery had hosted a show of sculptures by the artist’s late father, Jiří Lang (1927–96). This biographical fact cannot be deduced from the glass, of course, but we are prompted to ask about it, just as we ask why the herring hangs on the wall.

Lang grew up in Prague with his parents in a Baroque house that his grandfather bought in 1919, located next to the city’s famous Charles Bridge. Being a sculptor, Lang’s father turned part of the house into a studio, and because he never had another opportunity to exhibit his work after the show at the Špála Gallery in 1959 (not least because his Modernist sculptures were at odds with the realism demanded by the ruling Communist Party) almost his entire body of work remained at home. As a result, Lang grew up surrounded by art that was not officially recognized as such. Because the house was not expropriated by the state – as it was smaller than 100 square metres – he spent his youth in a privately owned home in a society in which private property was scorned. From a very young age, therefore, Lang was aware that multiple realities can exist in parallel and that it depends entirely on one’s perspective as to which of these realities is more or less real. For years, under communist rule, the house acted as an island for the anachronistic, while reality took place outside. Following the Velvet Revolution of 1989, and the regime’s subsequent collapse, this situation was inverted: the ‘official’ version of reality turned out, in retrospect, to be nightmarishly unreal. At the same time, the formerly unreal house found itself in the new reality of nascent capitalism: a tiny baroque building in the tourist centre of Prague – yet another kind of unreality and absurdity.

Spící mēsto (The Sleeping City), 2011, exhibition view, Pavilion of the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic at the 54th Venice Biennale. Photograph: Martin Polak

Unsurprisingly, Lang began to question what is real – not accusingly or ironically, but by permitting himself to hold onto a different reality to the one that surrounded him. In 2004, while still a student at Prague’s Academy of Fine Arts, he created a set of wooden steps that were installed over the original stone stairs leading up to the entrance of the academy (Schody, Stairs, 2004) – a subtle intervention that created a diverse yet parallel reality. In 2008, Lang replaced one panel in the glass wall of the academy’s exhibition space with a mirror. Titled Gallery Space in the Mirror, the work was to prove pivotal for the artist’s future practice. The mirror points to the fact that the eye can only see itself if a mirror is held up to it. This, in turn, means that the eye only ever sees itself in reflection, and subsequently, as Ludwig Wittgenstein noted in Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (first published, like Jakobson’s essay, in 1921): ‘Everything we see could also be otherwise.’2 As part of the group exhibition ‘Rozhraní’ (Interface), at NoD Gallery in Prague in 2010, Lang showed a small object made in collaboration with his friend and teacher, the Czech artist Jiří Kovanda. The work consisted of two simple brown hen’s eggs presented in two hollows on a square white plinth. What you see is what you see, you might think, were it not for the title: Sirové a vařené (Raw and Boiled, 2010). A raw egg and a boiled egg – but which is which? You can’t tell by looking at them. It’s hard to imagine a better commentary on Wittgenstein’s maxim than these two eggs.

For Lang, as for many young Czech artists today, Kovanda is a role model. In the 1970s, in a highly repressive society, Kovanda found ways of opening up public spaces by enacting performances in which he carried out everyday actions that barely differed from those taking place around him – except that he was doing them as the result of free choice. In 1976, in the busy Wenceslas Square in Prague, he strolled alongside a railing then stopped, turned round, scratched his ear and performed other ‘invisible’ gestures. He named this action Divadlo (Theatre). Today, Kovanda’s approach is understood as a call to self-empowerment in the face of reality – a call which, although formulated in the 1970s, has lost little of its topicality in a society that has experienced so many radical breaks in reality since.

Gallery Space in the Mirror, 2008, mirror, installation view, Academy of Fine Arts, Prague. Photograph: Martin Polak

Like Kovanda, Lang often works using minimal interventions. When asked about this, he explains that he is interested in creating ‘a deception either visual or thematic that immediately triggers a sense of uncertainty in the viewer, as it shows the space or object from a different perspective’. He is, however, concerned not with ‘setting up obstacles or manipulating information’, but with ‘revealing what could not be seen although it was right there in front of us’. And this is important. Lang’s efforts focus not on inventing new things, but on redirecting our attention to what already exists – with the assistance of deception.

When Lang was invited by the Brno House of Arts to exhibit as part of its 2009 sculpture biennial, ‘Brno Art Open’, his project consisted of opening up to the public a tiny room in a house in the town, which was empty apart from a museum attendant. As a memento, visitors could take away a postcard printed with an image by the Czech photographer Markéta Othová of the empty room without the attendant. In fact, the room was the one in which Karel Tutsch had organized semi-illegal exhibitions from 1987 until his death in 2008, under the name of Galerie Na Bidýlku. The gallery has since achieved legendary status as the only venue in what was then Czechoslovakia where artists like Kovanda could show their work. ‘My own memories – that’s what I was showing,’ says Lang about the project.

Visit, 'Brno Art Open', 2009

Which brings us back to the exhibition at the Špala Gallery, ‘Memories of the Future’. Curated by Karel Císař, the show – which also contained work by Othová and the Austrian artists Mathias Poledna and Florian Pumhösl – was very Minimalist and sparse. So sparse, in fact, that another installation by Lang almost passed unnoticed. In a windowless room on the ground floor, above which were a further five storeys, the artist installed a backlit glass ceiling that simulated a skylight (Denní světlo, Day Light, 2009). This was a change that was not immediately obvious, although it did exist – or perhaps it only existed for those in the know? Or is that an absurd question? And here we are back with the raw egg and the boiled egg, and with Wittgenstein’s doubts concerning our capacity for seeing.

‘Memories of the Future’ included a third piece by Lang: a replica of a wooden sculpture made in 1988 by the Czech minimalist Stanislav Kolíbal. Working from a photograph of the original piece, and using the same type of plywood and nails, he constructed the same forms and used Kolíbal’s name and the original title and date of the work as his own title (Stanislav Kolíbal, Stavba II, 1988, 2005). Seen in the context of these works, Lang’s unusual installation for the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic Pavilion at last year’s 54th Venice Biennale was a logical progression.

Schody (Stairs), 2004, MDF, installation view, Academy of Fine Arts, Prague. Photograph: Martin Polak

Since lack of official recognition caused Lang’s father to keep almost all of his art works at home, the artist lived surrounded by a ‘sleeping world’. The first floor of the house was populated by figurative and abstract sculptures that accompanied everyday life like detached witnesses, somehow isolated from the passage of time. Female nudes sitting or standing in rows, one behind the other; stylized angular figures with oval heads; or purely geometrical forms welded together into a whole by the dust of decades – the sculptures became an almost threatening presence. Even today, the house resembles a cabinet of curiosities. One of the doors still bears a large, clumsy-looking picture of Prague, painted directly onto the wood by Lang as a child and dedicated to his father. On the landings stand Baroque sculptures, some of them draped with sheets, while shelves full of ancient books reach up to the ceiling. Everywhere, once-exquisite pieces of furniture are worn through use: among them lie two cats and a succession of pots, many of whose plants have now withered. Lang’s friends joke that this Baroque superabundance is what drives the radical Minimalism of his work.

When Lang was asked to develop a concept for the Venice Biennale, he decided to exhibit his father’s sculptures. Not only did he play the role of curator, but also that of designer and, in a sense, of restorer, too. He broke up the conglomeration of sculptures and presented the works separately; where a leg was missing, he replaced it with a steel support. He placed one crouching woman on a wooden pedestal, another highly stylized one on a cupboard, and integrated a third, leaning forward, into a wooden table. He constructed an iron frame to support a sculpture of a man holding a figure that extends skywards, while the numerous remaining fragments were fixed to the tops of iron rods, mounted as a group on a white plinth like a display in an ethnographic museum. He called the installation Spící město (The Sleeping City, 2011).

Spící město (The Sleeping City), detail, 2011

For Lang, the process was liberating: after the exhibition, the work went into storage rather than returning to the house, meaning that his father’s studio is now almost empty and can be used, at long last. This, in turn, means that the house, once so surreal, has finally become real. But why go to such elaborate lengths? What deception was Lang creating here, if indeed he was creating one at all? Was he merely using his father’s work as raw material for his own or, on the contrary, did Lang finally give proper consideration to it? Did he want to honour his father or break free of him? The more questions one asks, the more absurd things get. The contradictions thrown up by the work seem irresolvable: what holds it together is purely biographical. And yet this is precisely what Lang wished to focus his attention on: ‘On one’s own past, on the works of art and human stories that are otherwise locked into time and the capricious and arbitrary shaping of history.’

Just how capricious and arbitrary history can be is something the Czechs and Slovaks have experienced first-hand in the 20th century. And they found that the artistic response to such an arbitrary, capricious reality cannot be to adopt a classical conceptual approach, based strictly on information and objectivity. Such a reality – and this is a realization Lang shares with fellow Czech and Slovak artists like Kovanda and Roman Ondák – can only be defied with imaginative deception, with the courage to embrace absurdity, and with an openness to the biographical. Translated by Nicholas Grindell.

1 Roman Jakobson, ‘On Realism in Art’ (originally published in 1921), in Krystyna Pomorska and Stephen Rudy (eds.), Language in Literature, Cambridge, ma, Belknap, 1987, p. 25–6
2 Ludwig Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, 1921, paragraphs 5.633 and 5.634

Dominik Lang lives and works in Prague, Czech Republic. His solo exhibition ‘documentation’ is on show at hunt kastner gallery in Prague until 20 May. Part of his installation ‘The Sleeping City’, which was presented at the Pavilion of the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic during the 53rd Venice Biennale in 2011, is currently on show at La Triennale in the Palais de Tokyo, Paris, France.

Noemi Smolik is a critic based in Bonn, Germany, and Prague, Czech Republic.