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A Walk Through Prague with Jiří Kovanda

One of the most respected Czech artists in recent times, Jiří Kovanda created actions and installations in Prague’s public spaces in the mid-1970s and early ’80s. Self-taught, he was one of the few Czech action artists to work outdoors in the urban environment following the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact troops. Most of the country’s progressive artists had gone underground, to the privacy of ateliers and small groups of friends, or created art in rural settings, out of the sight of the watchful eyes of state security, their agents and informants. Czech culture languished at that time due to its inability to communicate with most of its audience, since galleries and the art market, too, were under strict surveillance. Jiří Kovanda was one of few artists who managed “not to notice”, as it were, this unfavorable situation. Through his ephemeral works, Kovanda discovered in his own way the power of the powerless, a concept analyzed by Vaclav Havel in his 1978 essay of the same title.

This fictional walk with Jiří Kovanda provides us with the unique opportunity to pass through Prague’s historical center; the original photographic documentation captures a number of sites that have been radically transformed since. Thus, the “walk” presented here offers glimpses of now-vanished features of the once-totalitarian city.

The meaning of place in its political and aesthetic context have not been examined sufficiently within the framework of action art. While the specific location of an action can sometimes be deduced from descriptions and photographs, the work’s exact position and, more important, why its particular location was selected, can be elusive. Moreover, under Communism, artists’ actions had nuanced connotations that are hardly fathomable today. These works straddled the border of art and everyday life and were at home in both domains. In order to understand such actions, it is as important to stand on the very spot where they were performed as it is to read through documentation. In many cases it is even more important. Indeed, the personal experience of reimagining such an event cannot be fully communicated in words.

Conceived as part of Pavlína Morganová’s project of mapping more than 150 happenings, performances, and other interventions carried out in Prague by over a dozen artists in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, Kovanda’s walk is incorporated in the book Procházka akční Prahou: Akce, happeningy, performance 1949-1989 (A Walk Through Prague: Actions, Happenings, Performances 1949-1989), published by the Research Centre of the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague in 2014. Members of C-MAP’s Central and Eastern Europe group had the privilege of experiencing this walk, led by Kovanda and Morganová, while visiting Prague in the spring of 2014.

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Pavlina Morganova

Research Center Academy of Fine Arts in Prague Pavlína Morganová, Ph. D. is an art historian and curator, based in Prague, Czech Republic. Works as a director of the Research Center and vice-rector for study affairs at... Read more »
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A Walk Through Prague with Jiří Kovanda MAP

A Walk Through Prague with Jiří Kovanda

One of the most respected Czech artists in recent times, Jiří Kovanda created actions and installations in Prague’s public spaces in the mid-1970s and early ’80s. Self-taught, he was one of the few Czech action artists to work outdoors in the urban environment following the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact troops. Most of the country’s progressive artists had gone underground, to the privacy of ateliers and small groups of friends, or created art in rural settings, out of the sight of the watchful eyes of state security, their agents and informants. Czech culture languished at that time due to its inability to communicate with most of its audience, since galleries and the art market, too, were under strict surveillance. Jiří Kovanda was one of few artists who managed “not to notice”, as it were, this unfavorable situation. Through his ephemeral works, Kovanda discovered in his own way the power of the powerless, a concept analyzed by Vaclav Havel in his 1978 essay of the same title.

This fictional walk with Jiří Kovanda provides us with the unique opportunity to...

Show More

One of the most respected Czech artists in recent times, Jiří Kovanda created actions and installations in Prague’s public spaces in the mid-1970s and early ’80s. Self-taught, he was one of the few Czech action artists to work outdoors in the urban environment following the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia by Warsaw Pact troops. Most of the country’s progressive artists had gone underground, to the privacy of ateliers and small groups of friends, or created art in rural settings, out of the sight of the watchful eyes of state security, their agents and informants. Czech culture languished at that time due to its inability to communicate with most of its audience, since galleries and the art market, too, were under strict surveillance. Jiří Kovanda was one of few artists who managed “not to notice”, as it were, this unfavorable situation. Through his ephemeral works, Kovanda discovered in his own way the power of the powerless, a concept analyzed by Vaclav Havel in his 1978 essay of the same title.

This fictional walk with Jiří Kovanda provides us with the unique opportunity to pass through Prague’s historical center; the original photographic documentation captures a number of sites that have been radically transformed since. Thus, the “walk” presented here offers glimpses of now-vanished features of the once-totalitarian city.

The meaning of place in its political and aesthetic context have not been examined sufficiently within the framework of action art. While the specific location of an action can sometimes be deduced from descriptions and photographs, the work’s exact position and, more important, why its particular location was selected, can be elusive. Moreover, under Communism, artists’ actions had nuanced connotations that are hardly fathomable today. These works straddled the border of art and everyday life and were at home in both domains. In order to understand such actions, it is as important to stand on the very spot where they were performed as it is to read through documentation. In many cases it is even more important. Indeed, the personal experience of reimagining such an event cannot be fully communicated in words.

Conceived as part of Pavlína Morganová’s project of mapping more than 150 happenings, performances, and other interventions carried out in Prague by over a dozen artists in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s, Kovanda’s walk is incorporated in the book Procházka akční Prahou: Akce, happeningy, performance 1949-1989 (A Walk Through Prague: Actions, Happenings, Performances 1949-1989), published by the Research Centre of the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague in 2014. Members of C-MAP’s Central and Eastern Europe group had the privilege of experiencing this walk, led by Kovanda and Morganová, while visiting Prague in the spring of 2014.

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NOTES ON DOCUMENTATION

Kovanda carefully documented his art actions from the very start in the mid-1970s. Conceptualism became for him, an autodidact with minimum funds, a chance to devote himself to art. It was thanks to conceptualism that Kovanda realized that one did not need anything or need to know anything to become a good artist.

On a sheet of paper the artist would type a work’s title and approximate or precise date. Occasionally he included a short written description of an action and supplemented the text with photographs or drawings of the situation described. Today these documents, which Kovanda once carried in well-worn folders to show to anyone who was interested, are viewed, exhibited and sold as artworks. In fact, the MoMA Photo department recently acquired a few of these photographs / documentation sheets . They were originally records, documents and proof that the action took place and of the methods used. Today, these documents are a peephole to the past; they help to make present what is now absent. Yet, they are also interesting documents of specific places that sometimes no longer exist. Here, the original photos are juxtaposed with recent photographs of the locations taken by Ondřej Chrobák when Pavlína Morganová and Jiří Kovanda reexamined the places in 2014. Addresses and the short written descriptions from the documentation sheets are also included. The original images and scans of the documentation were kindly provided by Jiří Kovanda from his personal archive.

The Walk

1. Untitled, November 18, 1976

This action, one of Kovanda's first, was conducted in a construction trailer parked near the Národní Muzeum (National Museum) on Wenceslas Square. The artist worked there in the mid-’70s as a surveyor on the construction of the Muzeum subway station. He based Untitled on his daily routine of waiting by the telephone to be summoned to perform a task. It is evident from the photo-documentation that the phone eventually rang but the call was not for Kovanda, so he passed the receiver to someone else.

1. Untitled, November 18, 1976

2. Untitled “Theatre,” November 1976

This action took place in Wenceslas Square, one of the busiest places in the city center. Jan Palach immolated himself here in 1969 to protest the occupation of Czechoslovakia by the Warsaw Pact troops. After that event, the site became the center of protests and demonstrations that culminated, in late November 1989, in the Velvet Revolution, when , the entire square was filled with people every day. It should be noted, however, that Kovanda’s reasons for siting his work here probably had less to do with the square’s political symbolism than with convenience: he was employed on the excavation of the Muzeum subway station (directly beneath the monument) so that he was working in the square on a daily basis.

2. Untitled “Theatre,” November 1976

3. Untitled, November 19, 1976

Yet this performance was intended not merely as a confrontation with random passersby, an attempt to bridge the anonymity of the city and break down the barrier that everyone carries. It was predominantly Kovanda’s attempt to break through his own timidity and diffidence that had enveloped the artist in solitude even when in presence of others. Although he used his body as an obstacle, his gesture was also an attempt to open himself to members of the public, to establish contact with them and perhaps even embrace them. It is hard to tell from the documentation whether he succeeded in this. The looks of indifference, bafflement and irritation on the faces of those captured in the photographs reflect the tenor of public space under totalitarian rule. They become visible only in confrontation with Kovanda’s artistic gesture. In this piece, the body’s experience, a key aspect of body art of the 1970s, recedes into the background and social experience takes center stage. Kovanda presented similar "social gestures" in other early works in the city center.

3. Untitled, 19 November 1976

4. Untitled, August, 1977

During a work break, Kovanda carried out this action on the upper part of Wenceslas Square. In front of the construction trailer, he stood looking at the sun until his eyes teared. With its emphasis on the imperceptibility of the change brought about by the action, this piece is typical of Kovanda’s work. An intimacy of sorts, which is revealed in the documentation, is also typical.

4. Untitled, August, 1977

5. Untitled, September 3, 1977

5. Untitled, September 3, 1977

The escalator in the pedestrian underpass at the middle of Wenceslas Square was one of the first of its kind in Prague. In the 1970s and ’80s, people streaming down the sidewalk of the commercial avenue between Muzeum and Můstek had to use the underpass; crossing the street was prohibited.They took the stairs down but ascended to the other side on an escalator that was always packed. This detour, which people passively accepted, was superbly captured in Jan Ságl's 1972 film Underground, in which women, men, and children are shown emerging from the underpass, their faces expressing resignation or expectations of everyday joys that have nothing to do with the political situation. After a regular crosswalk was opened in the 1990s, the escalator was removed, since no one used it anymore. The escalator on the other side of the street, which Kovanda used for his action, is now used by only a few pedestrians exiting the Můstek subway station. It would be difficult for the artist to carry out his action here today.

6. Contact, September 3, 1977

In this action Kovanda gently bumped into fellow pedestrians in Wenceslas Square and the surrounding area. The photographer documenting the action was on the other side of the street, unnoticed by the artist’s targets, who had no idea that they were participants in a performance; only in the photographs are Kovanda's intentions clear. Attempting to interact with strangers in the street, on streetcars, and the subway is a recurring theme in Kovanda’s early actions.

6. Contact, September 3, 1977

7. and 8. Installation II, February, 1979

By C-MAP Fluxus group

8. Installation II, February, 1979

Installation II was related to Installation I. In this second piece, Kovanda tied a string around the column behind which he had placed the flowerpot in the earlier work. He used string in other actions, such as White String, which he carried out at his home in November 1979.

7. Installation II, February, 1979

An empty storage room on a street near the lower end of Wenceslas Square served in 1978 and 1979 as the meeting place for Prague’s leading body artists and thus as a center of Czech performance art. The meetings were linked to Petr Štembera and Jan Mlčoch’s activities in the basement of the Museum of Decorative Arts and in St. Agnes Monastery. The room on Provaznická Street was the final refuge for these artists before their interests shifted away from body art, and it was here that Kovanda made his first installations, the first works to signal the fatigue that was descending on the circle of Prague's body artists. Installation I, created at the end of 1978, consisted of a potted flower placed behind a column in an empty room. Some of Kovanda’s later installations focusing on specific spaces and their visualization were developed in this same spirit.

9. Installation III, March 15, 1979

9. Installation III, March 15, 1979

Two poles tied together and leaning against the ceiling of a room on Provaznická Street didn’t seem like a work of art or an action in 1979; the piece was ahead of its time by a couple of decades. It wasn’t until about 2000 that the younger generation of Czech artists gradually began to respond to such pieces by Kovanda. The artist still uses the principles he employed in these early installations in his current Post-Conceptual works.

10. Installation IV, Spring, 1979

This was the final installation that Kovanda made in the room on Provaznická Street. In the 1980s he returned to working outdoors in the city’s public spaces.

10. Installation IV, Spring, 1979

11. An Attempt at Meeting a Girl, October 19, 1977

11. An Attempt at Meeting a Girl, October 19, 1977

Another frequent location for Kovanda’s actions was the Old Town Square, Prague's medieval center, surrounded by Gothic and Baroque churches. A small group of friends who regularly attended evening performances in the basement of the Museum of Decorative Arts and later in the storage room on Provaznická Street watched from the Jan Hus monument as Kovanda attempted to make the acquaintance of a random girl. Among those photographed while watching were Karel Miler, the action artist and art historian, theorists Jiří Ševčík and Jana Ševčíková, action artist Lumír Hladík, and photographer Dušan Klimeš.

12. Untitled, January 1, 1978

12. Untitled, January 1, 1978

Kovanda arranged to meet several friends at the Jan Hus monument on Old Town Square and ran off while they were talking. In the photo-documentation from 1978, the medieval square appears nearly empty; today it is filled most of the year with food stands, cafes, and other popular attractions.

13. Untitled, January 1, 1978

The historic building that houses the Prague’s Museum of Decorative Arts is situated near the Old Town Square. In the mid-1970s, Petr Štembera, a key figure on the Czech body-art scene, was employed by the museum as a depository worker and night watchman, positions that gave him access to the building at night and enabled him to open it to a small circle of kindred spirits that included Karel Srp, Petr Rezek, Květoslav Chvatík, Jaroslav Anděl, Lumír Hladík, Jana Ševčíková and Jiří Ševčík, Jitka Svobodová, Milena Slavická, Ludvík Hlaváček, and Pavel Büchler. Between 1975 and 1978, when the museum’s attic spaces were under renovation, performance evenings were held there in which Štembera, Jan Mlčoch, Karel Miler and, later, Kovanda presented actions. Kovanda’s untitled piece from 1977 was the first performance he gave at the museum. Until then he had attended the evenings as a spectator.

13. Untitled, January 1, 1978

14. Untitled, December 8, 1977

The second action that Kovanda presented during the clandestine performance evenings at the Museum of Decorative Arts led to contact with the spectators. During this period the artist was carrying out a series of contact actions on the street.

14. Untitled, December 8, 1977

15. Untitled, February 23, 1978

15. Untitled, February 23, 1978

This undocumented action, in which Kovanda played a Dylan song to those who had gathered on one of the last performance nights at the Museum of Decorative Arts, stands at the threshold of Kovanda's transition from action to installation artist. Around this time the group took part in a number of exhibitions around the world and the individual artists performed in Poland and Hungary. Petr Štembera, invited to the US by Chris Burden, performed there in 1978 as part of the Polar Crossing exhibition in Los Angeles and San Francisco. The group was still briefly active in the late 1970s in the temporary space on Provaznická Street.

16. Wedges in the Cobblestone, Autumn 1980

In this piece, Kovanda inserted wooden wedges between the cobblestones in a recess on the left side of the main entrance to the Rudolfinum building. It was one of his first installations in a public urban space in which he followed up on his final actions and first installations in the room on Provaznická Street. In the years that followed, Kovanda created a number of unobtrusive installations in various nooks of Prague. They took the form of modest, material interventions in the urban environment, and the artist left them to their fates. Their simplicity stems from the limited means Kovanda had at his disposal and enjoyed using, and their low profiles were perfectly adapted to the close surveillance of public space in the years of “normalization.”

16. Wedges in the Cobblestone, Autumn 1980

17. Two Little White Piles, 1980

17. Two Little White Piles, 1980

Despite the strict surveillance of public space in Czechoslovakia in the 1970s and ’80s, neither informers nor secret police agents were disturbed by either of the two small white piles of plaster that Kovanda placed on the railings of the Charles and Mánes bridges. These understated yet conceptually monumental installations could be seen by viewers looking across the Vltava River toward the panoramic backdrop of Prague Castle.

18. Two Little White Slats and Three Little White Slats, Autumn 1980

18. Two Little White Slats and Three Little White Slats, Autumn 1980

A neglected area at the foot of the Mánes Bridge was the site of several actions. It was here, in 1965, that Milan Knížák gave his lecture “Why Indeed,” an event documented in a photograph that is now in MoMA’s Archives. Knížák was a key figure in Czech action art, founded the Aktual group, was affiliated with the Fluxus movement, and in 1966 took part in preparing a Fluxus festival in Prague. Owing to the situation in Czechoslovakia, Kovanda did not know about Knížák’s talk at the site. The only way Kovanda could have found out about the older artist’s presentation was it through personal contacts, which he did not have in those circles at the time.

19. Untitled, June 29, 1977

19. Untitled, June 29, 1977

The dilapidated wall in front of Sova's Mills, now the Kampa Museum housing the Jan and Meda Mládek collection of work by František Kupka and other 20th-century Central Europeans, was renovated in the 1990s. Thus, any romantic inscriptions that might have survived Kovanda’s efforts to remove them have been irrevocably lost. The photo-documentation indicates that no one took much notice of the artist’s strange and persistent activity in the then-public space.

20. Kiss, May 11, 1976

Several locations in Prague witnessed more than one action by Kovanda. These include temporary “alternative spaces,” such as the basement of the Museum of Decorative Arts and the storage room on Provaznická Street, as well as Wenceslas Square, where he worked in the 1970s. Another important site was Střelecký Island. In the middle of the Vltava River and accessed via Legion Bridge, it is one of the most romantic places in Prague. The island is essentially a park surrounded by water in the center of Prague. It was here in 1976 that Kovanda staged one of his early actions, though he himself did not perform it. The artist directed a chosen couple to kiss while making footprints in a slab of wet plaster.

20. Kiss, May 11, 1976

21. Water, June 11, 1976

21. Water, June 11, 1976

This action is one of Kovanda's earliest and precedes those carried out in the vicinity of Wenceslas Square. In the mid-1970s Kovanda began to take a strong interest in Conceptual art and attended performances organized by fellow Prague artists Petr Štembera and Jan Mlčoch. He leaned a photograph of a bottle of water against the wall of the stairs leading from the Legion Bridge to Střelecký Island and placed an identical glass bottle next to it. Then he set the photograph on fire. This action does not appear in later publications even though it was documented by the artist.

22. Untitled, May 19, 1977

22. Untitled, May 19, 1977

An important element in Kovanda's performances is the pointlessness of the performed acts. In an interview with me in June 1997, Kovanda emphasized that the difficulty or usefulness of an action is not important to him. The importance lies in its execution. This action refers to Karel Miler’s Unveiling the River, an action from 1975. Miler became an important model for Kovanda in the second half of the 1970s, when the two artists worked together at the National Gallery and shared interests in Zen Buddhism and Conceptual art.

23. Untitled, May 19, 1977

This action was one of several that Kovanda carried out on Střelecký Island on May 19,1977. He performed for a small circle of spectators recruited from among his friends, thus taking to an outdoor public space the type of performance meetings he had been involved in at the Museum of Decorative Arts. The secluded spots where Kovanda staged his work on the island provided the kind of safe, intimate atmosphere favored by the artist.

23. Untitled, May 19, 1977

24. Untitled, May 19, 1977

24. Untitled, May 19, 1977

Among the onlookers at Kovanda’s final performance on Střelecký Island on May 19, 1977 were, pictured on the left, Jana Ševčíková and Jiří Ševčík, key theorists of the 1980s and ’90s, performer and art historian Karel Miler, with whom Kovanda worked in the National Gallery, and Lumír Hladík, another Czech action artist.

25. Autumn Piece, Autumn 1980

25. Autumn Piece, Autumn 1980

Kovanda returned to Střelecký Island in 1980 and with three wooden laths “secured” fallen leaves to the ground. His previous interventions involving objects had been presented in the room on Provaznická Street and outside a summer house in the Czech village of Uhlíře. With Autumn Piece, along with other installations he executed that fall (see numbers 16–18), Kovanda switched definitively to working in the public space of the city. The small scale of these installations forms a striking contrast with the monumentality of the American land art that undoubtedly inspired it.

26. Salty Corner, Sugary Bend, Winter 1981

26. Salty Corner, Sugary Bend, Winter 1981

Kovanda made this installation in a recessed section of the right front side Legion Bridge (formerly known as May Day Bridge), near the National Theater. As in a number of his other outdoor installations in Prague, it is based on an internal “unrecognized” dialectic.

27. Fur Coat (concept by L. H.), Winter 1982

27. Fur Coat (concept by L. H.), Winter 1982

Kovanda’s final piece on Střelecký Island was also his last work in a public space in Prague. Fur Coat was based on Lumír Hladík’s idea of wrapping handrailings in protective material during the winter months. Hladík had emigrated earlier that year, and Kovanda created the piece as a reminder of a friend whom he might never see again. He installed it on the upper part of the staircase leading to Střelecký Island from Legion Bridge.

28. Sugar Tower, Spring 1981

Kovanda produced more than thirty actions and installations in Prague. Sugar Tower, the final work included in this unusual walk through the city, was made in Vyšehrad, an important historic location and tourist attraction. Ancient legends say that Vyšehrad was the seat of the first Czech rulers. Situated on a hill overlooking the Vltava River, the fortress appears as a counterweight to Prague Castle. In the 1960s, Kovanda and others in the circle of Petr Rezek and Petr Štembera closely followed the revolution in art that was being led mostly by American Conceptual artists and which included Minimalism, land art, Conceptual art and other approaches such as antiform, process art, environments, and Happenings. Makeshift translations of various texts describing these avant-garde currents were included in Czech samizdat anthologies in the ’60s and ’70s. Shortly before installing Sugar Tower, Kovanda translated for his own use an interview with Carl Andre that was later printed in an important samizdat publication on Minimal art and land art (Karel Srp, ed., Minimal, Earth, Concept Art, Jazzpetit 1982.) Kovanda’s variations on Minimal art, inflected with his subversive humor and penchant for understatement, asserting themselves as radical gestures exemplifying what Jana Ševčíková and Jiří Ševčík aptly called the aesthetics of minimum difference.

28. Sugar Tower, Spring 1981

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