Atlantes

_MG_3074

 

2010, 4 cut-outs 29,7 × 42 × 29,7 cm; texts

Jindřich Chalupecký Award: 2010 Final, Centre of Contemporary Art DOX, Prague

 

Four short stories about lives of fictive artists, illustrated in form of cut-outs used in children books.

 

translated from Czech by Tereza Stejskalová

 

exhibition view, DOX, photo Martin Polák

 

Master of New Worlds

 

He came from humble origins in one of the provincial towns. After he completed his training with the local painter of icons, he left for the Ancient Capital to continue his studies. At that time, people of his kind could not settle there, so he spent the nights secretly at friends’ places or in the streets. Earning his living by retouching photographs during the day, in the evenings he attended drawing courses. Although he failed the entrance exams to the Academe, he tried to win recognition in other ways. He participated in group exhibitions of non-conformist artists who fought “stale academism”. With a live interest in an up-to-date art, he absorbed all possible influences with enthusiasm. He learned that in the West artists stopped depicting things around them but instead began to invent fantastic forms. To catch up with the times, he decided to see it with his own eyes and, using all his savings, he bought a ticket to the Western Metropolis.

For months he remained in a state of exaltation, absorbing the achievements of the new movements. One day he felt that to search further was no longer necessary. Paintings, sculptures, objects, architecture models, as well as moving and light structures that did not resemble anything, multiplied under his hands. With amazement he gazed at his creations. He became convinced that a new movement was being born, one which could innovate not only art but also the surrounding world. He even wrote its manifesto, describing his works as machines which would raise man to a higher level of existence where man would be but a component of a flawlessly functioning machine of the absolute.

Meanwhile his native country underwent a fundamental social transformation. People who had no rights like him took over power and, joined in common and enormous effort, started to rebuild the country. Here he saw an opportunity to apply his art experiments to life. He returned to his country and joined the activities of a new commune workshop, where artists lived and worked together. It was at once a laboratory, a school and a manufacture, where day and night, projects for the new world were being developed: poor youth were taught new artistic sensitivity; designs of utility products, from platforms and uniforms to cigarette cases for people’s militia commissars, were produced for the revolution. There was a shortage of everything including art supplies, so that the members often had to produce them by themselves. Despite the difficult conditions, they worked at full stretch. The driving force behind their efforts was youth; both their own and that of the world they were bringing into existence.

While the artists united in the commune workshop wanted to depict new society using new forms, another important art group tried to promote revolutionary ideas in a language that would be comprehensible to ordinary people. The two parties fought a fierce battle over whose ideas would become the official aesthetic program of the new power, to be applied in production processes and art education in schools. The change in government put a stop to the argument. Power was won by pragmatists who understood that to keep the power in their hands, they must satisfy the most primitive needs of the masses, be they material or aesthetic. Artists were called upon to decorate products of important industries, such as the food-processing industry. While the members of the commune workshop have tried to apply the results of their formal experiments, their customers were scandalized by the results. They demanded true-to-life portrayal of things even if there was nothing to be true to. Objectless compositions, on the other hand, seemed to portray the lack itself as if ridiculing the general poverty. In response, the government launched a smear campaign against the new movements. The commune workshop was dissolved and its members prevented from receiving state commissions.

Our hero thus ceased to be publicly useful. As he could not earn living by art, he was forced to take up a job of a housekeeper. His wife, also an artist, earned some pin money by needlework. They tried to resume the interrupted activities of the commune workshop by inviting people to meet on regular basis in their attic flat. Every week they dreamed, drinking tea, that one day, perhaps, they would again have the opportunity to realize their art utopia. Gradually, however, their circle grew smaller and smaller. Some members were reported missing, others stopped coming out of fear to bear possible consequences. One evening the host had to tell his last guests not to come again.

 

Master of the Golden Age

 

He came from an old family with a natural refined taste. He spent his childhood, surrounded by beautiful things, in the very centre of the Ancient Capital. He liked to sit on the polished parquet floor in a salon, drawing while his mother was playing piano. Carved lion heads on a chest of drawers, porcelain statuettes of a goosegirl and a harlequin, engravings in books from his father’s library, all incited his imagination. He used to create folding picture books with fanciful stories of encounters between characters from different historical periods. Later at the Academy, he studied with great care old masters and the art of distant civilizations. His travels to cultural centres, which he could afford thanks to the wealth and connections of his family, also contributed to the broadening of his cultural horizon.

Soon he developed a unique art style. He created foremost prints but also designed   utility objects such as wallpapers or toys. Appropriating elements from different cultures, he combined them so that they gracefully merged into one another. He believed himself to be in the process of discovering a hidden spiritual unity of different traditions, a basic aesthetic feeling common to all mankind. His mission, he supposed, was to deliver a sense of the perfect form to as many people as possible, and thus to contribute to the general ennoblement. He addressed the public through a journal dedicated to new directions in art, published thanks to the enthusiastic support of an educated benefactor, a fish oil merchant.

These efforts, however, were but a drop in the ocean, the surface of which was slowly being contaminated by the spills of trashy art devoured by the insatiable bourgeoisie. By no means could he reach the bottomless pit of the ignorant masses who knew nothing but a relentless struggle for survival. Yet one day the masses rose to revenge the hundreds of years of tyranny. A wave of anger swept over the country and overthrew the existing order. Those who hitherto had nothing took power and sought to destroy whatever they felt belonged to the old world. His home was plundered by the Revolutionary Guards who took away the piano, trampled upon the polished parquet, and broke away the heads of the goosegirl and the harlequin.

He fled abroad. He could take only two suitcases to the ship; his luggage contained only indispensable clothing, few randomly chosen keepsakes, and foreign bank notes he acquired by selling the family silver on the black market. He took refuge in one of the emigration hubs where, under constrained circumstances, he tried to continue to work on his creative and edifying projects. Excessive activity helped him to overcome the shock over the change. Yet abroad he had hard time finding a fertile land in which he could plant his ideas. He was not accepted in the local circles and his fellow countrymen turned out to be either opportunists or worshipers of archaic superstitions. He was succumbing to nostalgia.

Meanwhile the situation in his homeland somewhat stabilized. New power was becoming aware of its need for experts from diverse areas including culture. Rumours about these changes convinced him to come back. After his return, however, he realized that he could not exhibit anywhere as his work referred to old traditions and thus posed a threat to the “new world” which was being built up. He felt like a “useless human” with no place for him. Eventually, he was lucky enough to find his feet as an illustrator of books for children. During the day he drew funny colourful pictures while his evenings remained devoted to art suffused with motifs of nostalgia for dead civilization. Even though he resided in his home town, it was made clear to him that he did not belong there any longer. Since the family estate was confiscated, he lived now in a small rented room, in an apartment shared with eight other families from the lowest strata. He was constantly humiliated by his neighbours who laughed at his ancient habits.

Once, during the Indian summer, he went out only in slippers with a small mesh bag to buy cigarettes and a cucumber for salad. He did not suspect that a warrant was issued for him as a part of the campaign against “reactionary elements”. As soon as he left the building, he fell into the hands of two plain-clothes policemen who were just coming to get him. For few days he was detained in a cold cell. Afterward he was taken to a train station and put into a freight wagon full of people. He had caught a cold in the cell and during the train ride he suffered continually from a high fever. After a week of traveling in an unknown direction, the train finally stopped and its living cargo was chased out of the wagons. He realized he was somewhere in the midst of woods. A moon sickle and pine peaks reminded him of his own old watercolour painting.

 

Master of the Apocalypse

 

He has come from an ancient aristocratic family. His early childhood was spent on an island in the South Seas where his father was a governor. Free life in nature’s bosom soon changed for a half-military discipline of a boarding school, where he was supposed to receive education appropriate to his class. However, as soon as his hair was cut and he was dressed into a student uniform, he launched a warfare against this institution. He repeatedly violated disciplinary rules and showed openly his contempt for the teachers. He saw them as hypocrites who violently indoctrinated their students with ethical principles and religious dogmas while they themselves failed to mask their own moral decline. He drew caricatures of the teaching staff and was almost expelled as a consequence. Due to family connections, however, it was still possible for him to finish his studies.

At his parents’ request, he enrolled at a university to study law. However, instead of sitting through lectures, he enjoyed the pleasures of student life. He explored the city and its possibilities, being attracted especially to its darker side. Rather than snobbish cafes in the vicinity of the university, he liked to visit greasy pubs in poor neighbourhoods. Together with his sidekicks he used to go on an endless pub-crawl through the night streets leaving behind him scandalous pictures and signs. He rarely studied, but once he did, he read only censored books attacking the church and the state.

Then, unexpectedly, his father died while hunting lions, and he received an inheritance big enough not to have to work ever again. He left his studies and decided to become a free artist. Without being trained in any art discipline, he could, without inhibitions, experiment with all. He made surreal films and organized cabaret shows that turned conventions upside down. In public, he emitted unarticulated sounds, which he sometimes called poetry and sometimes music. In his collages he connected incompatible elements to create monstrous patterns, which could be compared to entrails scattered by a shell explosion. At his own expense, he began to publish a journal, the pages of which were filled with inflammatory declarations. In his writing, he confessed to a desire to identify himself with the obverse side of all that was valued in order to show society its own decline. He described his own creations as „a spit into the face of the world which gives it back its rottenness“. Even in private life, he consistently tried to eschew conventions, all the way from the style of dress to relationships with women. The number of his mistresses could equal only his many enemies. He loved to address delicate social issues while always taking part of the oppressed and the persecuted. His political declarations were filled with apocalyptical visions, and it was difficult to distinguish irony from seriousness. It remained unclear whether he himself could do it.

His relatives were quite upset by all this. Not only did the descendent of the family put to shame his name, he also strived to annihilate the class he was born into. After his public support of a rebellion in the colony which used to be governed by his father, their patience wore thin. His mother succeeded in having the court declare him as feeble-minded and legally incompetent. After enforced asylum imprisonment, he was moved to a family estate in the south of the country, where he was to remain under the surveillance of attendants. Without their consent, he could neither leave the place nor freely dispose of the inheritance.

As our hero’s agitated story became known, it incited a great interest in his work. Dealers turned his blasphemous drawings into prints on covers and t-shirts while musicians composed songs for his manifestos to be played on the radio. One art dealer, who grew rich by selling erotic postcards, bought all his drawings and turned them into his gallery’s hot commodity. He also published a re-edition of his work, on glossy paper.

During the early stages after his return from the asylum to home care, he tried to translate this experience into drawings and poems. In proportion to his growing fame, he was gradually losing his desire to do anything. His massive success seemed to him his greatest failure. In his works the society faced its own decline; yet, it remained unaffected and life carried on as usual.

After some years, his friends succeeded in having the court reconsider and subsequently restore his legal competence. He was now free to return to the capital and engage in ever new outrageous activities. Instead, he continued to live in the family country house. He remained indifferent to invitations to exhibitions or conferences and declined to talk to the press. Yet, he did not refuse visitors. Anyone who came to see him was warmly welcomed and invited for a discussion. At such occasions, the host always held a glass in his hand.

 

Master of the Unlimited

 

He was born in a perfectly organized country. His parents were civil servants and respectable citizens. Like all other children, he attended nursery, kindergarten, and school; he joined hobby groups and went to summer camps.

The society in which he grew up was based on scientific principles. From his very youth he was taught that everything can be derived, experimentally verified and counted up. He heard from all sides that life on earth is the happiest and that the government is the most just, because both life and government are regulated by science. Soon, however, he began to doubt that it would be so easy. He used to go with his parents to a country house in the northern woods; there, during the lunar nights, he felt that nature hides something great and unknown which can never be measured and explained. At the same time, he noticed more and more fissures in the supposedly harmonious social order: uniforms did not fit formless bodies; anxiety over status lurked behind the pretended optimism; sterile tiles of toilet washrooms evoked the slaughterhouse; people were imprisoned by spectacular architecture built to remind them of their own happiness. In the course of time, he realized that the real essence of this society was not science but an all-penetrating lie. What scared him the most was the sense of general satisfaction; people believed that this was how it should be since it was scientifically proven that it could not get better.

He wanted to choose a vocation that would enable him to go beyond the limits of this countable world and discover the new and the unknown. Because of bad health, he could not become a cosmonaut, a pilot or a sailor. Therefore, he decided to search for the limits of the measurable at least in theory and went to study mathematics. During his studies, he spent all his holidays by traveling to wild nature where, for a while, he could enjoy freedom from the untruthful society. He loved especially to hike the mountains; at their peaks he experienced the feeling of being united with the universe. Here, he believed, he was in touch with some infinite truth impossible to grasp by reason. He began to express his mystical experience through drawing and painting. Not constrained by training or knowledge of history of art, he merely recorded his inner visions.

He tried to include his experience of the truth higher than the laws of nature in his dissertation to be submitted at the mathematical faculty. He failed his thesis defence; the examiners saw it as an example of an obscurantist pseudoscience undermining the fundamentals of the state. Thus, an academic career was closed to him; he could neither publish nor gain employment in the field. If before he felt alienated toward the world in which he lived, now he became a real outcast. He worked in various second-class jobs which had nothing to do with his interests or skills. His salary was not enough to support his own recently founded family and so he depended on his parents for financial support. During the years of studying abstract subjects, he lost all habits of practical life so that his household had to be taken care of by his wife.

He believed his failure in the measurable world to be a special merit, of which he was even proud. For he did not compromise with the hypocritical society but remained faithful to his idea of the truth; he managed to maintain a place where he could live as he wanted, not according to the scientifically pre-programmed patterns. He lacked occasions to go to the mountains, so instead he began to devour difficult-to-access spiritual literature. He jumped from one religious tradition to another and saw in all of them interpretations of his own mystical experience. He tried organizing his everyday life according to the rules of different ascetic traditions but he always failed to keep it up for long. He participated in apartment meetings of similarly thinking poets, artists, and thinkers. He showed them his paintings and explained to them the paintings’ higher spiritual meaning.

His working days were difficult to bear as their primitive routine disturbed his concentration on his own inner life. Later, however, he was lucky to find a job as a night watchman at a wood storehouse. Apart from occasional fights with workers and the homeless, it was a quiet job, so he could devote his time to studying and recording his visions. He returned home in the mornings when other people went to work, and then slept the whole day. As a result, he did not spend any time with his family. Sometimes he was visited by some of his friends, otherwise he did not seek contact with people. He stopped reading newspapers a long time ago since he did not believe a word of it. He lost almost all touch with the measurable world. The storehouse was located at the outskirts of the city; in one direction there were few other storehouses, in another there was nothing. When in the winter he looked into the window of his guard cabin, he saw only the immense snow-covered landscape.