in Interviews | 02 MAR 08
Featured in
Issue 113

Jirí Kovanda

Born in 1972, Ján Mancuska is a conceptual artist who explores the materiality of language and film. Here he interviews Jirí Kovanda about his pioneering work of the 1970s – an encounter between two generations of artists

in Interviews | 02 MAR 08

Untitled (On an escalator ... turning around, I look into the eyes of the person standing behind me ...) (3 September 1977)

Ján Mancuska I’m interested in the initial impulse that led to your ‘actions’. What did you do before them?
Jirí Kovanda I was doing drawings in a notepad. Then I did collages.
JM Have you ever exhibited them?
JK  Last year, for the first time.
JM So your first public events were your actions?
JK  I had my first exhibition in Warsaw, in a student gallery, with photographs of my actions. Untitled (Standing on Wenceslas Square with arms outstretched ...) (19 November 1976) was in it, as was Untitled (Waiting for someone to call me ...) (18 November 1976) and other things I had done.
JM How did you end up in Poland?
JK  I went there for the first time in the spring of 1975 with friends. By chance we visited Repassage Gallery – a small student space in Warsaw’s old town – and started talking with some guy there. Through him we met Zofía Kulik and Przemysław Kwiek, who showed me around the local scene. Paradoxically, it was through them that I got Petr Štembera’s phone number here in Prague. When I got back, I called him right away. He was really helpful and invited me over. That’s how I met Jan Mlcoch and Karel Miler, too.

'Kovanda's First Retrospective' (exhibition view, 2006)

JM What led up to that first exhibition in Warsaw?
JK  Kulik and Kwiek arranged it at the Mospan student gallery.
JM Did you do any actions there, or simply present them in the form of documentation?
JK  There was only documentation.
JM Did you conceive your actions, or the documentation of them, with an exhibition space in mind from the outset?
JK  The documentation was intended for exhibition spaces from the start, but the actions happened elsewhere.
JM I’m very interested in the transition that occurred between the performance of your actions and their translation into documentary photographs. There are no audiences present at some of your actions. The only people who know they’re art are you and the photographer. But the resulting photograph isn’t the art work, it’s the action, isn’t it?
JK  The question is when communication takes place. I think it’s at the moment when the thing is referred to as art. That means that if an action has an audience, it happens straight away. If no spectators have been invited, however, I think it doesn’t take place until afterwards, in the artistic space – in other words, either at an exhibition, or in print, it doesn’t matter. In short, when it’s presented as art.
JM In retrospect, then?
JK  Yes in retrospect, although you can’t draw a clear dividing line. Without the action, it wouldn’t exist. The action has to take place.
JM In this respect time has quite a particular status. In the act of documentation, you’re calling attention to something that happened earlier: the action without an audience.
JK  But the action has to be there. An idea isn’t enough, it has to really take place. I’ve had many ideas and scripts for different actions that I haven’t carried out, but I’ve never published the ones that didn’t happen.
JM Could you imagine doing ‘remakes’ of the original actions today?
JK  I’ve already done so. For instance at Tate Modern last year I not only reinterpreted the kiss through the glass (Kissing Through Glass, 10 March 2007), but also the one on the escalator (Untitled (On an escalator ... turning around, I look into the eyes of the person standing behind me ...), 3 September 1977). I don’t have anything against ‘remakes’ in principle, but I have to say that my experiences of them haven’t been good. As I said, it’s important for me that an action really takes place. And when it’s happened once, it doesn’t make much sense for it to happen again. My experience of it is completely different then, substantially weaker.
JM Did you perform any of your original actions more than once during the 1970s?
JK  No, never.
JM Let’s come back to what was going on in the 1970s in Prague, to the Body art scene represented by people like Štembera and Mlcˇoch. Your pieces are quite different. But you actually worked together, didn’t you?
JK  They had started about four years before me; for a while we worked simultaneously, until it all ended at around the same time.
JM It seems to me that you rejected the fervent, expressive language of Body art. You’ve never worked with the body or with pain; you’ve never even staged your actions, which is quite an essential difference. Did you ever talk about that? Did you approach them critically?
JK  No, not critically. We never talked about things that way. At the time I didn’t notice such a big difference. I liked Miler’s work the most. But I wasn’t trying to set myself apart from them at all: in fact, they fascinated me. The first action by Štembera I saw live profoundly moved me.
JM Which one was it?
JK  He was barefoot; there was a heavy iron rod lying by the wall and he walked up to it and tied the iron rod to his feet. He jumped with all his might away from the wall, but the rod held him, so he didn’t jump far. After that, he untied it and poured some acid on the spot he’d jumped off from. Next, he made a mark at the spot he’d jumped to and turned around and then he jumped back without the iron rod. But the wall was there; normally, without the iron rod he would have jumped further. He fell feet first into the acid. It was a powerful experience for me.
JM So you think the differentiation was rooted in your personal dispositions instead?
JK  It wasn’t calculated in any way; it came from inside. It was my way of seeing and feeling things. We never did things together; we never sat down and worked together on one thing, for example. Each one of us always did his own work. Although, at the time I thought we were closer. But – as opposed to Štembera, for example – I set myself apart from performance, imposing a limit that was uncrossable. I had to make do with the way I was. Štembera used different props, for instance. I just always wanted to be, with nothing else. And I stuck to this with absolute awareness and consistency.
JM What were your views on happenings and on what The Plastic People of the Universe, the underground rock group founded by Ivan Martin Jirous, were doing?
JK  There was no direct link. As for happenings, I liked some of Milan Knížák’s things, his really simple demonstrations. When happenings tended too much towards ‘theatricality’ I never enjoyed them.
JM Speaking of Knížák, what was your relationship to Fluxus?
JK  Fluxus never interested me, because of what I’ve just said. Fluxus seemed like little theatre pieces to me.
JM When I encounter the term ‘Eastern European art’ I always assume that different scenes are subsumed under one term when in fact they were isolated from each other. But you entered the art world through Poland. So there must have been some interconnection?
JK I’d take issue with making such a distinction between ‘Eastern’ European and ‘Western’ art. Although contact with the West was highly restricted, there was some interaction – even if it might not have been direct. In my view, you can’t think of Eastern European art without the West. Eastern European art is European art.
JM Did you have contacts anywhere else, besides Poland?
JK  I didn’t personally, but Štembera certainly had many.
JM Was there any contact with what was happening in Slovakia? For example, did you know Július Koller?
JK  I knew Koller and some other Slovak artists, too. But there was very little contact with them.
JM What did you think of Koller back then?
JK  That’s an interesting question. For me his work was almost embarrassing. UFO – ‘Universal Futurological Orientation’. Was he crazy? What was he on about? To tell the truth, I kind of looked down on Slovaks generally at the time. Today, you can see clearly how the interpretations of things has shifted from back then. There was a lot more expressiveness, there were more personal layers than we allow ourselves today. I don’t know why, but Koller was absolutely incomprehensible to me at that time. Today our approaches might seem similar, but at the time they were totally different.
JM Were you in sustained contact with anyone from the West?
JK  I wasn’t in any sort of sustained personal contact with anybody. Štembera handled all that, actually. He was in touch with various people – through letters and things they’d send each other, and so on. With Chris Burden, for instance.
JM Did they tend to be chance personal connections?
JK  I don’t think so. Burden was very important for us then. Štembera kept in touch with him for a long time. So you see, our scene wasn’t all that isolated. A lot of the things we did were reactions to what was being done abroad, even if it was mediated. For example, Following Piece (1969) by Vito Acconci was a big discovery for me.
JM And what about the Viennese Actionists?
JK  I never liked them; I thought they went ‘out of bounds’. But back when we were doing performances people talked a lot about them; they were always part of the scene.
JM I wanted to ask about the turning point in your work from actions to interventions.
JK  The earliest interventions arose in places where others were doing actions and to which an audience had been invited, so they could take part in the performance. Like the flower behind a column which was my very first intervention (Installation 1, December 1978), these works were carried out before people arrived, my physical presence remaining as a trace in the space, as if I’d just disappeared. At the time I didn’t think of the works as objects, but as traces of activities after an action: I’d hide a flower behind a column, or tie two slats together and lean them against a beam supporting the ceiling. Back then interventions were a smooth transition from actions; it was just that I personally had disappeared. As in my last action, in which I ran away from a group of people in the Old Town Square [Untitled (I arranged to meet a few friends ... we were standing in a small group on the square, talking ... suddenly, I started running; I raced across the square and disappeared into Melantrich Street ...), 23 January 1978].
JM Did you knowingly make that your last action?
JK No, that’s just it. I had no idea it wouldn’t be followed by any others. I’d always directed myself towards people in my actions, but in the last one I was running away from them. The first impulse behind the interventions that followed weren’t the objects themselves, but the activity which led up to their being there.
JM Did photographs play a similar role in the interventions as in the actions?
JK  I think they played exactly the same role. The transition from one to the other was smooth; there was no watershed.
JM Why did you ‘disappear’?
JK I can’t say. I’ve always done things in an intuitive way. My ideas have always appeared out of the blue. They’ve never been the result of some intensive reflection or rational justification. My presence just died out, somehow. It’s interesting that it happened to everyone at around the same time. My fellow artists did go on doing performances for a while, but they acquired a somewhat different character; they didn’t seem to be as intensively charged as they were in the beginning. There was something about them that just wasn’t quite right anymore. They’d depleted themselves.
JM Then in the 1980s you started painting?
JK  Unlike my colleagues, I had continued drawing the whole time I was doing my actions and interventions. As a matter of fact, I understood them as documentations of simple activities – traces left on paper.
JM Were they meant to be drawings? They weren’t ‘instructions’?
JK  No. They were intended as drawings, even though they straddled the line between ‘art’ and documentation. They always involved a contrast between a geometric form and something organic. For instance, I once outlined a square in ink and then traced it out in pencil by hand. The title itself often indicated that it was a record of some activity: I Drew Copies of Two Squares (1977), for example. The format gradually got bigger, and in the late 1980s I started with a couple of paintings.
JM Did your environment change a bit back then as well? You did things with Vladimír Skrepl a lot.
JK  That was related to the transition. My former colleagues had abandoned art completely. So naturally I looked around for someone who was doing things that interested me. The form of the new painting at the time was quite powerful. There was a strong opposition to the received forms. It might seem today as if those paintings were a return to something conventional or conservative. But it wasn’t like that at the time at all. At least I didn’t see it that way; they really were ‘new’.
JM There were no actions involved in any way: were the paintings a reaction to those earlier works in some sense?
JK  It was more as if suddenly they were of no importance; as if they’d been forgotten. But today it’s clear that the experience persisted.
JM I want to ask you about recycling, mainly in connection to the object–related pieces you did in the 1990s, although it has a bearing on your entire oeuvre. Some of your pieces came back from exhibitions in a box. Then you took that box and put it back in circulation as a new work of art. As in your actions, you chose to make do with what you had, to use only what was at your disposal. There’s nothing added.
JK  That’s very important. I’ve always been attracted by the idea of making do with whatever I have at my disposal. That’s why I was so deeply impressed and immediately influenced when I first encountered Conceptual art. You didn’t have to know a craft, you didn’t need expensive materials, you didn’t have to be extremely skilled – and yet you could still do something worthwhile. That absolutely fascinated me and I wanted to come into contact with it somehow.
JM You’ve never had a studio. Does that have anything to do with it?
JK  It does. But it wasn’t some sort of programmatic refusal to have a studio. I just didn’t have one and didn’t particularly want one, either. I felt I didn’t even have the right to one. At the time, only those who were a member of the Foundation of Czech Visual Artists or who were graduates of some art school could. I never went to any art school and I wasn’t in the Foundation. I never really felt the lack of a studio, though, because I enjoyed doing small things in big series much more than doing one single big thing. So it was kind of a combination of what I wanted and the possibilities open to me.
JM It’s only now that a lot of interest is being shown in your work. What’s your view on that? I know you stopped working for an indeterminate period. Do you think it’s typical that the system is capable of understanding simpler concepts only when they’ve actually become historical?
JK Of course I’m pleased about the current interest, but I also ask myself what it would have been like if my art had been widely recognized when I first made it. It doesn’t really bother me all that much, though, that it’s only come after so many years.
JM And what are you working on now?
JK I’m doing things that are related to the work I was doing in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Often they’re interventions/installations for a particular space: objects in which materials from previous works are recycled; performances that deal with interpersonal relationships. The difference is that now I conceive of them for gallery spaces from the start.