Tomáš Pospiszyl on this Year’s Young Artists’ Biennial (Interview)

Ji?í Thýn, Composition 1-8, 2010, photograms, object. Image courtesy of Tomáš Sou?ek.Markéta Stará: Your Young Artists’ Biennial came along after two years when it was curated by Karel Císa?, who is known for his profound and frequently challenging curatorial approach. Your curatorial strategy and selection of artists seems, in comparison to you predecessor, open to a wider audience. Was it your intention to defy the approach of Karel Císa??

Tomáš Pospiszyl. Image courtesy of the author.Tomáš Pospiszyl is a critic, curator, and art historian based in Prague. He has worked as a curator at the National Gallery in Prague (1997-2002) and was a research fellow at The Museum of Modern Art in New York. Since 2003 Pospiszyl has been teaching at the Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague. The Young Artist’s Biennial was organized for the first time in 1996 at the Prague City Gallery, focusing on the youngest generation of Czech artists. Tomáš Pospiszyl curated this year’s exhibition.

Markéta Stará: Your Young Artists’ Biennial came along after two years when it was curated by Karel Císa?, who is known for his profound and frequently challenging curatorial approach. Your curatorial strategy and selection of artists seems, in comparison to you predecessor, open to a wider audience. Was it your intention to defy the approach of Karel Císa??

Tomáš Pospiszyl: I could have continued in what Karel Císa? started four years ago, but obviously that was not an option for me. Knowing that Karel mostly worked with artists already established who work in a conceptual paradigm, I decided to focus on the younger generation. Regarding accessibility, I believe that should be the aspiration for all exhibitions of this kind. At the same time I wanted to experiment and combine artists who apply a strong conceptual language, such as the Rafani Collective (Untitled, 2010), with a different type of art. Although I feel a strong connection to conceptualism, and as a curator I frequently work with its key protagonists, I am well aware that is not the only paradigm in which contemporary artists work. I was also attracted to areas remote from the core current trends of contemporary art and wanted to include works that cannot be frequently found on the Czech contemporary art scene, such as music videos, illustrations, documentary films, etc.. Actually, in retrospect, I regret not having pushed this idea further.

MS: Let’s take a look at the concept of the exhibition and the exhibition webpage where you familiarize viewers with the works and artists in the show. Would it be correct to understand your approach as educational?

TP: I think that such “service” should be something natural. I’m actually not even afraid to say that this year’s biennial is a “pop” exhibition where one can bring one’s family and individuals who know nothing about contemporary art. The exhibition and individual pieces of art are not supposed to embarrass the visitor or make him or her feel uneasy, at least not all the works exhibited in the show. It may sound like a cliché but my aim was that each visitor, especially the ones whose knowledge of contemporary art may be in many respects limited, would find something in the exhibition, i.e. something that would appeal to them.

MS: Where do you draw the line between an inaccessible and elitist exhibition, on the one hand, and a project that for its accessibility and comprehensibility might be seen as superficial and uninteresting to the more professional public? How did you deal with this issue in this year’s biennial?

TP: I don’t really have a theory that I work with. In case of the biennial the selection process was very subjective; I selected artists whose work I felt strongly about. Nonetheless, I still aimed at creating a project that I could enjoy not only with my mother, but also with someone like Ján Man?uška (a Czech conceptualist). As I have said in the past, I believe that such exhibitions should help broaden the contemporary art audience. I was also interested in the older generation of spectators who are frequently confused by the language of contemporary art. I would like to point to the fact that young art is no generational ghetto. Or, to put this differently, my approach could be understood as positive discrimination in favor of the older generation.

MS: The goal of this year’s biennale is to introduce wide range of approaches and techniques applied in contemporary art practice. What made you to opt for a unifying theme for this exhibition? Do you see the curator as the “primary creator”?

TP: In a way, yes. I am a curator, not a dictator. Instead of imposing my own views on others I prefer to communicate with the artists. Not that I would like to compare the Young Artists’ Biennial with large-scale international exhibitions and biennales, but throughout the past couple of years I have felt that in this particular exhibition format curators tend to resort to schematism and to the misinterpretation of artistic expression. I wanted to avoid that. Even though I think I have not fully achieved my goal, it was this aspiration that brought me to reject any thematic framework. I found it interesting to open up and shift my focus from curatorial constructs that would compartmentalize the exhibited works towards the interplay of individual artists and their works. The objective was to prevent the spectator from reducing her understanding of individual works to some universal concept. I think the Czech art scene needs more exhibitions like this. Even though my curatorial approach was quite liberal, I had to draw some limits. They derived mostly from the spatial limitations of the exhibition space in the House at the Stone Bell in Prague.

MS: You mentioned the thematic restrictions that shape contemporary biennials. Do you have a specific project in mind where you felt that the curators somehow deformed or distorted individual artworks for the purpose of a unifying concept?

TP: Let me reiterate, I do not compare these „grand“ biennials with the Prague Young Artists‘ Biennial. They are really incomparable in terms of their size, available space, quality, funding, etc. But I feel that for example the Berlin Biennial or even the recent Istanbul Biennale presented its artists within a rigid and restrictive structure. For this reason I found the approach of the last Whitney biennial refreshing. Its curator, instead of presenting an elaborate concept, decided to present artists and artworks, which were interesting and stood in the exhibition for themselves. Although I am very much in favor of this approach I must admit that it is difficult to find a balance and avoid producing a kind of salon exhibition. It is important that the spectator find the meaning of individual works by himself rather than being given a pattern according to which individual works should be perceived and understood.

Ladislav Babuš?ák, In the Bright Sunshine, Heavy with Love, 2010, color photography. Image courtesy of Tomáš Sou?ek.MS: Even though your curatorial approach shuns a unifying framework, the distribution of works seems to follow a certain pattern. For example, pieces with an emphasis on the visual such as Composition (2010) by Ji?í Thýn and In the Bright Sunshine Heavy With Love (2010) by Ladislav Babuš?ák are next to each other. Should this special allocation be understood as a categorization of the art pieces of its kind?

Ji?í Thýn, Composition 1-8, 2010, photograms, object. Image courtesy of Tomáš Sou?ek.TP: That was not intentional. My approach was more or less intuitive and for this reason any categories should be understood as subjective interpretations by the spectator. In regards to the unifying theme running through the show: although I have attempted to avoid a strong conceptual framework, I came to realize that most works deal with issues of subjective or collective memory and topics of a social and collective nature. Most presented works deal with the process of remembering and strategies of memory’s externalization. Several works have emerged from various forms of collaboration or from an open-work process,whereby the artist found his collaborator(s) among other artists or among the public. A perfect example of this is the work by Vasil Artamanov and Pavel Sterec (Zápis události v kraji, 2010). Regarding Thýn and Babuš?ák whom you mentioned earlier: In comparison with Babuš?ák’s, Thýn‘s work is very formal. I would not be afraid to say that their approach is the opposite, which is also the reason why I have decided to exhibit them together. On the other hand, I was afraid to put Thýn next to someone else – the visual quality of his work is so powerful, I was afraid it might eclipse  the other works.

MS: Since you are a scholar at the film academy in Prague (FAMU) it comes as no surprise that film, document, and photography dominate the biennial. Although the show presents, in significantly smaller numbers, other media such as painting (La?a Gadžiová, Untitled, 2010) or installation (Dominik Lang, Workroom, 2010), it is natural to ask why these appear in such small numbers if the initial goal was to present a wide range of approaches and techniques? Does painting or sculpture have their place in art of the 21st century? If so, could you expand a bit on the issue?

TP: Although marginal, painting does have its place in the 21st century. I find painting interesting when it is linked with modernistic approaches or when it focuses on the materials used. I have to admit that I under-represented artists who work with space or spatial objects. That was prompted by my fear of the small rooms in the House at the Stone Bell. On the other hand, I did not really come across that many interesting spatial works in the generation I was looking at.

MS: Entering the exhibition space it is impossible to overlook Dominik Lang’s intervention who besides his installation in the exhibition (Lang moved the entire gallery workshop into the exhibition space) also worked with the architectural structure at the gallery entrance. Was this your initiative or an initiative by the artist? Did Lang also contribute to the architectural structure of the exhibition as such?

TP: From the beginning I wanted Dominik to not only be one of the artists in the show but also the architect of the biennial. I therefore not only consulted with him about the installation but also about the selection of individual works. Due to the disposition and the nature of the gothic space there was not enough room for him to experiment. Therefore I offered Dominik not only space in the exhibition, but also to take over the foyer where he intervened by moving the cloakroom and the ticket office to a different location.

MS: You included artists who due to their technique (street art, comics, or video clips) are rarely represented in exhibitions. The question is if it makes sense to exhibit for example street art in the space of a gallery. How did you deal with this issue and what were the reactions of the artists?

Toybox, Home sweet home, 2010, comics, Image courtesy of Tomáš Sou?ek.TP: Street art does not belong in the gallery by its nature and I was aware from the start that by bringing street art into a gallery you may destroy it. For this reason I initially thought about representing these artists through documentation rather than exhibiting their actual work. I view this type of artistic expression very positively and I respect it. I realized I had to go through this experiment to see what it means to transfer street art into the mausoleum of the gallery space. For both street artists, i.e. ToyBox and Epos 257, the decision to participate in the biennial was not an aesthetic issue, but much more contextual: should I exhibit my work among all these other artists, should I beput in a position where my work is selected by a curator for the purpose of an exhibition? In the case of ToyBox my experiment was successful. Epos 257 was much more hesitant from the start and I think that possibly under my pressure he underestimated the dilemmas that may surface within the gallery context. After a week he asked me to take his work down. I respected his request and exchanged his work for a video recording where I explain his position and direct spectators to watch out for his works within the public domain.

MS: In this case wouldn’t it be interesting to make use of the public space around the House at the Stone Bell where the work could function in a different way, and which the artist might prefer?

TP: Were it an option I would very much prefer to show his work around the Old Town Square. Sadly, due to the restrictions imposed by the presence of the ancient Prague Town Hall, it is impossible to do anything in this area, although it is considered a public space.

MS: Let me return to the to the concept of the exhibition for one last time. Although as you said the show rejects a thematic framework, most of the works in the show deal with aspects of contemporary life and society. As most of the works have been created for the biennial, it is relevant to ask about the selection of artists. Was dealing with the topics you mentioned above an important criteria for your selection?

TP: I approached the selection process as a research into contemporary art production by the youngest generation, and I used it as an opportunity to examine artists whose work I was aware of or partially familiar with. Themes and topics were not important at this stage. It is true that certain subjects reappear in the biennial, which made me realize that many young artists on the Czech art scene deal with similar issues and apply similar or comparable modes of production.
MS: Bearing in mind the totalitarian history of this country, was it your aim to select artists who grew up in post-communist times and whose attitude to today’s social reality is frequently quite critical and leftist?

TP: It is a physical reality that young people due to their age are not connected with the totalitarian history of this country anymore. However, I do not consider the show to embody a radical left wing ideology. I have a problem with curatorial concepts that are, like the Western intelligentsia, radically leftist and that often use the kind of Marxist rhetoric with which I cannot identify. ?????????????? ????

Markéta Stará. Image courtesy of the author.Markéta Stará (1985) was born in Prague. She has published widely in Ateliér, Flash Art CZ/SK, and Stará lives and works in Prague. She is an assistant curator at the Center for Contemporary Art FUTURA and a freelance critic and curator.