in Features | 02 MAR 08
Featured in
Issue 113

Kiss and Tell

From waiting for a telephone to ring to making eye contact with strangers, for over 30 years the ‘actions’ of Czech artist Jirí Kovanda have explored the limits – and joys – of what freedom might mean

in Features | 02 MAR 08

Kissing Through Glass (10 March 2007)

On 10 March 2007 at Tate Modern, from 11am to 8pm, Czech artist Jirˇí Kovanda stood behind a large window, holding up a note asking passers-by to kiss him through the glass. And kiss him they did, an action which, in spite of the physical barrier, was accompanied by embarrassment, hesitation, caution and, occasionally, tenderness.

The piece at Tate (Kissing Through Glass, 10 March 2007) was not the first occasion that kissing had featured in the ‘actions’ of Kovanda, who still lives in his native city of Prague. For one of his first ever actions he asked a man and a woman to kiss each other while standing barefoot in freshly mixed concrete. As if noting the results of a scientific experiment, Kovanda then typed his observations on a sheet of paper, including the title – Kiss – location and exact date (11 May 1976). Below this note, mounted on a sheet of paper, are photographs of the protagonists and of their concrete footprints.

This action took place in Prague eight years after the invasion of Czechoslovakia by Soviet-led Warsaw Pact troops, during a period of grim totalitarianism that paralyzed many areas of public life. Around the same time, Emmanuel Lévinas, a philosopher who was born in Russia and living in France, perceived a parallel between totalitarian ideology and the Western idea of individuality: both, as he saw it, were founded on a quasi-tautological understanding of self-identity, rather than of a connection to ‘the other’. Those in Eastern Europe who read Lévinas saw his ideas as a welcome confirmation of the conclusions many intellectuals in the region had arrived at about totalitarianism and individualism. Against such a background, the philosopher was not alone in viewing love as the event that promises to free the subject from false alternatives. That the kiss as a symbol of love should mark the beginning of Kovanda’s artistic development thus resonated with his time; from such a position he was able to create spaces that made conceivable an opening up to ‘the other’.

Kovanda’s next action, realized the same year, was a case in point. For Untitled (Waiting for someone to call me …) (18 November 1976) the artist sat next to a telephone and waited. As in all his subsequent actions, the artist himself was the protagonist, yet surrendered his active artistic self to the decisions of others. One month after completing this work, Kovanda stood in Prague’s Wenceslas Square in front of the National Museum (whose bullet-pocked façade provided a lasting reminder of the Soviet-led invasion) and declared: ‘I follow a previously written script to the letter. Gestures and movements have been selected so that passers-by will not suspect that they are watching a “performance”.’ In other words, the artist’s gestures were perfectly ‘normal’ and ‘untheatrical’ – which is precisely why Kovanda entitled the piece Theatre (1976).

Kovanda’s role as an artist is obviously performative and based on the imitation and repetition of existing elements. He once asserted: ‘I use only that which already exists.’1 Yet in order to open up new spaces for meaning, his role-playing also allows the performer to act upon personal decisions within the repetitions. These performative spaces of opportunity offer, above all, encounters. In a documentation – consisting again of a sheet of paper and two photographs – of an untitled action that took place on 3 September 1977, again in Wenceslas Square, the artist described his proposition as follows: ‘On an escalator ... turning around, I look into the eyes of the person standing behind me.’ (This piece was also recreated recently at Tate Modern.) These actions have often been interpreted as metaphors for a lack of communication in contemporary society. In fact they are the exact opposite. Communication as such is in plentiful supply – but what is really important, what can change the course of one’s life, must take place in the context of an unexpected encounter such as an act of non-verbal communication.

Again and again, Kovanda stages encounters that allow those involved (by choice or by chance) to experience being affected in this way: by deliberately bumping into people coming towards him on the street, (Contact, 3 September 1977), standing with outstretched arms in the middle of Wenceslas Square obstructing the flow of passers-by (Untitled, 19 November 1976), pushing between two people in conversation (an untitled action he realized in late 2006 at the Kunstverein Frankfurt), inviting friends to follow his attempt to meet a female stranger (Attempted Acquaintance, 19 October 1977), or simply confusing them: ‘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 ...’ (Untitled, 23 January 1978).

Kovanda’s actions also include scooping up rubbish with his bare hands in a park (Untitled, 19 May 1977) or scratching away at hearts that had been scrawled on an old wall (Untitled, 29 June 1977). As gestures of self-abasement, they are disconcerting. At the same time, they are executed with a degree of care that, on the one hand, bears witness to infinite patience, even tenderness, while on the other is quite absurd: take the time in 1977, for instance, when Kovanda lovingly carried handfuls of water taken from the River Valtava in Prague and placed them back in the river a few metres downstream.

Taking the same care over his interventions, a form he began exploring in 1978, Kovanda placed a flowerpot containing a stunted plant in front of a column in an empty room (Installation I, December 1978). Once again, everything was meticulously documented, with the photographs and sheet of paper joined by a precisely drawn floor plan. More clearly than with the actions, Kovanda’s elaborate documentation of his interventions is out of proportion with their often minimal, banal character, as if the artist is parodying the factual, distinctly dry modes of documentation favoured by his Conceptual colleagues in the West. For in his early years, Kovanda was by no means working in total isolation in Prague. From photographs and texts, it is apparent that he was familiar with the performances of Vito Acconci and Chris Burden, who visited Prague in the 1970s, and with certain works by Western Minimalists and Conceptualists. Kovanda was also in contact with Polish artists who had better access to information and opportunities than their Czech counterparts. And in 1969, at the Vaclav Spala Gallery in Prague, he happened upon an exhibition of Marcel Duchamp’s ready-mades, an experience that was crucial to Kovanda’s artistic approach.

So what is the relationship between Kovanda’s work and that of his Western colleagues? In her definition of performative identity, Judith Butler emphasizes the element of the parodic: each repeated performance means a slight shift that feeds on parody.2 For the documentation of Installation 4 (1979), Kovanda slips into the role of the ‘good’ Conceptualist: beneath a photograph of scattered earth in the corner of a room is written: ‘I hit the ground with four lumps of soil aiming towards the corners of the room.’ When, in 1979, the artist placed a barely visible thin sheet of glass on the floor in the corner of a room, this might have still been considered a factual statement about objecthood; yet when Kovanda, again alluding to the Minimalist aesthetic, modelled a corner in salt and an arc in sugar along the balustrade of a Prague bridge and titled the installation Salty Angle, Sweet Curve (1981), the parodic element becomes obvious. However, these kinds of interventions don’t make Kovanda a Minimalist, as some label him. Rather his approach is reminiscent of an artist such as John Baldessari, who has also been wrongly labelled a Minimalist: both artists share a refreshingly cheerful lack of respect towards the universalist claims of Modernist aesthetics and Conceptual–Minimalist orthodoxy.

Parody can undermine authority; although Kovanda had already decided by the age of 15 to take on what he terms the ‘role’ of the artist, he never sought admission to any Czech academy of art due to his deep mistrust of the authority of such institutions. Until 1977, he worked as a surveyor on the construction of the Prague underground, followed by a job in the depot of the Prague National Gallery. Since 1995, he has been an assistant in the painting department at the Prague Academy of Art. It is no coincidence that his very first artistic attempts were abstract drawings that ignored the lines on ruled paper. His actions, too, are directed against interiorized barriers to political, societal, cultural, ethnic, religious or sexual otherness. In this sense, his invitation to kiss him through a window at Tate Modern can be understood as a paradoxical challenge to overcome barriers that are seemingly insurmountable.

Kovanda’s parodic approach – which includes the objects, collages and painted pictures he has made since the 1980s – has never slipped into cynical irony. On the contrary, his work always has something lovingly nurturing about it. No one is being laughed at – not even when Kovanda used found pieces of wood to make Minimalist objects that can be read as clumsy reconstructions of Carl Andre’s sculptures (Autumn Piece, 1980) or when, between 1996 and 1998, he painted a series of untitled white pictures as a re-staging of artistic procedures developed by Robert Ryman. Instead, what is at stake is more a sense of mourning over the irretrievably lost expectations and promise that motivated these artists. This becomes clear in pictures with such heavyweight titles as The Sperm of Che Guevara or The Promised Revolution (both 1997), which allude to a melancholy, diffuse void.

But Kovanda doesn’t spare himself from parody either. In 2006, he had his first ‘official’ exhibition in Prague – excluding earlier, small, isolated shows – not at a major institution but at the commercial space of the Zden˘ek Sklená˘r Gallery. He called it ‘Kovanda’s First Retrospective’. On the walls and on and under shelves, were works from different series arranged alongside each other and mingled together, like a show imitating a retrospective. Baruch Spinoza assumed that any truly free imagination is an act of deliberate self-deception. What else are Kovanda’s actions if not deliberate deceptions, simulations and distortions, tentative but admirably tenacious attempts to do something impossible: to knock holes in totalitarian constructions – be they designed by politicians, philosophers or artists – and fill them with moments of freedom? ‘Emancipatory politics’, says Alain Badiou, ‘always consists in making seem possible precisely that which, from within the situation, is declared to be impossible.’3 Kovanda always resists being perceived as a ‘political’ artist, and within the definitions of the conventional meaning of the word, he isn’t one. But since the evaporation of most political Utopias – a development which in Prague already seemed sealed by the invasion of the Soviet troops – political artists are, perhaps more than before, those who reveal to us an insight which is as simple as it is uncomfortable: that it is not revolutionary avant-gardes that matter, but the ability of individuals to imagine ‘non-existent things’ – Utopian ideas of a projected future – and treat them as if they were already existing in the present.4 And, lest we forget, the ability to confront self-declared authorities with a smile. In this sense, I would go so far as to claim that Kovanda is a deeply political artist.

Translated by Nicholas Grindell

1 Judith Butler, Gender Trouble, Routledge, London and New York, 1990
2 Judith Butler, ‘From Parody to Politics’, in Gender Trouble, op. cit, p.142 ff.
3 Alain Badiou, Ethics: An Essay on the Understanding of Evil, Verso, London and New York, 2001
4 On the role of the power of imagination in contemporary art, see Charles Esche, ‘Imagine Resistance’, Whenever It Starts It Is The Right Time: Strategies for a Discontinuous Future, exh. cat., Frankfurter Kunstverein, 2007