BY Christy Lange in Features | 01 SEP 12
Featured in
Issue 149

What Matters Most

Kateřina Šedá’s projects question the pros and cons of an artistic practice that purports to be for the good of its participants

BY Christy Lange in Features | 01 SEP 12

When my Czech-Russian grandparents were in their late 80s, my father assigned them the task of writing their memoirs. These were not to be the kind of idle recollections casually jotted down when something occurred to them. No, they should be chronological, and must thoroughly cover their respective upbringings in Russia and the former Czechoslovakia, their wedding in Prague, their journeys from Germany to Brazil to Iran, and finally to Queens, New York, before my dad moved them out to Palmdale, California, to be closer to our family (though not too close). Each chapter was to be written independently by both my grandmother and grandfather, from each side (no cheating), and would be turned in to my dad according to a schedule. The end result of his years of cajoling and their literary labours was a bound book, illustrated with photographs my father scanned from their old photo albums, then carefully laid out in Quark and self-published under his own imprint. Despite (or perhaps because of) my dad’s domineering approach to the memoir exercise – and thanks to his parents’ strict Eastern European tutelage – he had helped produce a priceless document.

And so it was with Czech artist Kateřina Šedá’s project for her grandmother, Jana. The family noticed that, at the age of 76, after her husband had passed away, Jana no longer took care of herself, and did scarcely more than watch television alone in her home in Líšeň near Brno. Šedá’s response was much like my father’s – she prescribed a strict regimen of vigorous mental activity, which she would monitor. For 33 years of her life, Jana had run a hardware store with her husband, so Šedá encouraged her grandmother to try to recall all of the tools they stocked there, and to draw and label each one. The result, compiled in a project entitled It Doesn’t Matter (2005–07) – named after Jana’s response to any question posed to her – was 521 rudimentary large-scale drawings made in Jana’s unsure hand. The collection may look like the findings from an industrial-age archaeological dig, drawn by a child, but Jana’s recollections form a comprehensive archive of a life lived – and worked. And, as is not lost on Šedá, it has the black and white uniformity and strict task-orientated parameters of a work of Conceptual art.

'It's Too Late in the Day', 2011, exhibition view at Künstlerhaus Bremen, Germany. Courtesy Künstlerhaus Bremen and the artist; photograph: Tobias Hübel

As with most of her direct interventions with her family and neighbours over the years, Šedá’s approach to It Doesn’t Matter was more rigorous than palliative. In the video documentation of the project, we see the artist nagging her grandmother about exactly what and how to draw, imploring her to keep working. As Jana grew older, Šedá also devised a series of questionnaires for her to complete: 1x Daily Before Meals (2006–07) (the reference to a doctor’s orders is not incidental). The therapeutic assignment comes off as series of directives: ‘Grandma, write someone a letter! A postcard!’ ‘Grandma, What will you have for breakfast? What will you do after breakfast? What will you have for lunch?’ and so on. Jana’s unenthusiastic responses convey her exasperation with the project, and, by extension, her thoughts about her granddaughter’s art work.

It Doesn’t Matter, like all of Šedá’s works to date, raises questions about the benefits and pitfalls of any artistic practice that purports to be for the good of its participants. Šedá negotiates these terse and jagged borders, enlisting entire communities, making herself the enthusiastic leader whose challenge is to win over the population. Like the bossy child in the playground who makes and enforces the rules of the game, Šedá also sort of spoils the fun by regulating it. As she herself has admitted: ‘When I was a child, I felt the need to order my friends around; I was convinced I knew best what we should do, where we should go, what we should play. What I’d hear from the people around me was that I was going to be a manager someday.’1 But she makes no apologies for her somewhat pedantic approach, because she presumes it will be beneficial. Nor is it a secret that her recruitment and organization are also done in the service of creating an art work by Kateřina Šedá. 

For Every Dog a Different Master, 2007, shirts made as part of a public project in Nová Líšen, Czech Republic. Courtesy Arratia Beer, Berlin, and the artist

For one of her best-known works, There’s Nothing There (2003), which she undertook while still a student at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, Šedá set out to convince the inhabitants of the Moravian town of Ponětovice to simultaneously perform a series of normal daily activities for an entire day. For weeks before the project, she launched a campaign urging all the residents to follow a prescribed ‘Daily Regime’ on Saturday 5 May. This required: ‘300 questionnaires, five letters to families, two personal visits to 115 homes, five public announcements, two meetings with local officials, one public assembly of the entire town, posters, flyers’. Šedá was no doubt aware that the majority of her participants had spent most of their lives under a system of government that dictated their activities. In her more playful version of the imposed daily regime, everyone sweeps their gardens at 10am, rides bikes at 10:30am, gathers for a beer at 5pm, and goes home that night knowing their neighbours a little better than they did the day before. Rule number six: ‘Nobody wins and nobody is defeated.’

On the surface, Šedá’s activities have more in common with community-based projects than with a traditional artistic practice. But her undertakings are always stamped with her subjective authorship and guided by her own value system ­– the principle that doing something is always better than doing nothing; or knowing your neighbours must be better than not knowing them. Rarely are artists whose work involves local communities so bold in setting parameters for what their work should ‘solve’. As Šedá puts it: ‘My work is meant to blend in with normal things, with ordinary life […] What I’m trying for is so that anyone can repeat what I’ve done; I’m trying to find the simplest solution possible.’2 Such socially engaged practices are often prone to construct hypothetical situations or be wilfully over-ambitious. Šedá’s works, by contrast, are not open-ended and contingent, but rigid and result-orientated. On one level, this puts more pressure on her to make her activities successful, orderly, fair and entertaining. On the other hand, it lowers the expectations for what socially engaged art should or can ultimately achieve. 

Die Suppe ist gegessen (The Soup Has Been Eaten), 2011-12, performance documentation. Courtesy Galleria Franco Soffiantino, Turin, and the artist; photograph: Michal Hladīk

Many of Šedá’s works hinge on her belief in the inherent need to break down social and physical boundaries among the members of her own community of Líšeň. In her 2007 project For Every Dog a Different Master, she attempted to foster relationships among the residents of the vast suburban housing project, Nová Líšeň. After copying the family names of each resident from the buzzers in the buildings, she devised an elaborate scheme to send identical shirts (which she designed) to 1,000 of the complex’s 20,000 inhabitants, with a letter suggesting it had come from another neighbour. In Over and Over (2008), she wanted to trace a direct route from her house in Líšeň to the local bus stop, so she enlisted all the homeowners on the route to help her scale their fences and traverse through their homes and yards. To convince the families to take part, Šedá admitted: ‘I’m always having to push myself to ring some stranger’s doorbell […] The people I talk to just can’t understand why I do what I do if it doesn’t lead to some simple sort of benefit – “What’s the point of that girl climbing over our fence, for God’s sake?!”’3 One of her close collaborators attributes her success to ‘her uncontrived openness that wins the trust of all those people so utterly uninterested in contemporary art’.4 Indeed, it is this ‘uncontrived openness’ that seems to be the key: Šedá works hard to counter any impression of strategy or irony, to bridge the uncomfortable gap between what she makes her art out of, and what others consider as art. This can mean inviting her neighbours to create an exhibit in the windows of their homes, or organizing a gathering of Sunday painters in Brno. In her 2011 project for Tate Modern, From Morning Till Night, she chose to literally map two communities onto one another. She transplanted 80 people from the village of Bedřichovice to London, where for three days they performed their daily activities on a grid of the town that she had carefully mapped out over the corresponding area around Tate Modern.

On the surface, Šedá's activities have more in common with community-based projects than with a traditional artistic practice.

In the spirit of community projects that have to be judged based on their success or efficacy, Šedá performs an almost obsessive survey of her participants, even offering prizes or incentives to respond, and then incorporating the responses into the final work. She doggedly pursues their feedback, even if it means soliciting answers that challenge her premise, like the letter she received from a neighbour in Nová Líšeň explaining: ‘Another thing you have to keep in mind is that most fellow citizens don’t want to stop and get to know one another. If a person can afford to build their own house, they build it in a secluded spot, with a very tall fence so as not to be seen.’5 The presentation of her results can often look bureaucratic or overly exhaustive. Her first comprehensive catalogue, for example, appropriately takes the form of a series of manila folders in a larger cardboard file, as if it had been lifted from the desk of a city official.

Zkratka (Shortcut), 2008, stailess steel, 149 x 42 cm. Courtesy Galleria Franco Soffiantino, Turin, and the artist

Šedá’s most recent project, Nedá se svítit, which she has been working and reworking for the past five years, has proved more elusive in producing positive results. Each of its ten iterations thus far has been named after a different interpretation of the Czech saying nedá se svítit (literally: no light), ranging from ‘It’s too late in the day’ to ‘That’s the way the cookie crumbles’. The project sets out to solve a problem in the Czech village of Nošovice, where a Hyundai factory was recently built in the middle of town, creating an obstacle between the two sides of the village. Neighbours who used simply to cross town in ten minutes to visit each other, now have to make a one-hour journey to circumvent the automobile plant. The residents’ decision to lease the land to commercial interests had caused not only a geographical rift, but a social one as well. In response, Šedá encouraged inhabitants of Nošovice to imagine themselves standing where they no longer could – on the grounds of the factory – and to draw the town as they see it surrounding them, on a circular template with a hole in the middle. Over the course of several years of the project, Šedá then had their panoramas embroidered on cloths by local weavers. She has turned the results into tablecloths, head scarves and skirts to create a new folkloric local costume. In the most recent iteration of the project at Arratia Beer in Berlin this summer, ‘no go’, the skirt became a costume, and the circle became a long ribbon.

It’s clear that Nedá se svítit remains aesthetically and theoretically unresolved. ‘Here I’ve got no idea what my role is,’ Šedá said in an interview in the catalogue for her 2011 exhibition at Künstlerhaus Bremen. With its pages of stream-of-consciousness interviews, the book is almost a visible manifestation of her working through the project. ‘I don’t want to say it’s an error, because nothing’s an error. It’s more that I often find myself in a dead end.’6 But the problem she is butting up against here is not the townspeople’s habits themselves, or a single fence between them – instead, it is a large, circular, faceless corporate entity. One can’t easily hop over and land on the other side; the inhabitants of the village are forced to constantly skirt its borders, symbolized by the hole at the middle of each of these new pieces.

Šedá’s work begs the question: what is the real possibility of art being therapeutic? As she explains it: ‘My work isn’t about removing or adding anything, but fixing something. Let’s say this pen I’m holding belongs in a hole. I don’t want to take it away and bring a better pen; I just want to give it a nudge so it falls in the hole.’7 In one way, this makes her actions and interventions sound innocuous – as if they’re a gentle nudge rather than a shove. The flip-side is that she reveals her projects are guided by her strong and subjective judgment that she knows where the hole is, where the pen ‘belongs’. Šedá’s final questionnaire for her grandmother, given to her in hospital less than a month before she died, consisted of a piece of paper containing a series of intricate circular patterns about which the artist asked: ‘Grandma, which of these things doesn’t belong?’ In barely legible hand-writing, Jana wrote: ‘Everything.’ It is an unexpected and poignant comment on what art means to those inside of the circle and outside of it; her conclusion about the art project would probably still be that ‘it doesn’t matter’, regardless of her granddaughter’s unrelenting conviction that it does. But Šedá maintains that there is a deeper meaning in her activity, even if it’s only in its translation into a work of art of her own. Because we all know that ‘it doesn’t matter’ is usually what you say when it does.

1 Interview with Kateřina Šedá and Jana Klusáková in For Every Dog a Different Master, jrp | Ringier and tranzit, Zurich, 2008, p. 171
2 Interview with Kateřina Šedá and Aleš Palán in I Am Trying to Steal it Back, Revolver Publishing, Berlin, 2011, p. 195
3 Kateřina Šedá, ‘Over and Over Again’ in Over and Over, daad and jrp | Ringier, Zurich, 2008, pp. 19–20
4 Michal Hladík, ‘Let Yourself Be Carried Away’ in Kateřina Šedá, jrp | Ringier , Zurich, 2012, p. 88
5 Op cit., For Every Dog a Different Master, p. 191
6 Op. cit., I Am Trying to Steal it Back, 2011, p. 16
7 Ibid, p. 33

Kateřina Šedá is a Czech artist based in Brno-Líšeň, Czech Republic. Her work was recently the subject of solo exhibitions at Kunstmuseum Luzern, Switzerland; Nassauischer Kunstverein Wiesbaden, Germany; and Arratia, Beer, Berlin, Germany; and is on view in the group show ‘Hembyg(g)d’ at Marabouparken, Stockholm, Sweden, until 25 November. In early 2013, Šedá will be part of the group exhibition ‘More Love: Art, Politics and Sharing Since the 1990s’ at Ackland Art Museum, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, USA.

Christy Lange is programme director of Tactical Tech and a contributing editor of frieze. She lives in Berlin, Germany.