Clutching at Their Kafkas

PRAGUE, CZECH REPUBLIC***—Jan Mancuska makes terrible coffee. The 38 year-old Prague-based artist has just arrived back from a work trip in Berlin—he splits his time between the two cities—and he’s out of coffee filters. “We can pretend it’s Turkish coffee,” he jokes as he pours an indecent amount of grounds into each of our mugs. “And we can pretend this is a coffee table,” he says setting the mugs down on a rickety chair. I smile, take a small sip and peer around his studio, which is housed in an apartment block five minutes from Prague Castle. Mancuska—one of the Czech Republic’s most famous conceptual artists whose work has been exhibited in places like New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), London’s Tate Modern and Amsterdam’s Stedelijk Museum—has strewn what looks like car parts around the entire carpeted floor of the main room. This is in fact a mock up for a bigger installation he is creating for a show at the gallery that represents him in Berlin. Full of nervous energy and sporting an unkempt beard, Mancuska says that though the art scene in the Czech Republic is small but strong there is not much support for contemporary art by the general public. “There is still a huge wall standing because there is a lack of understanding,” he says as he takes a sip of coffee, makes a face and puts the mug back down on the makeshift table in disgust—presumably reacting to the coffee rather his compatriots.

That lack of understanding—and interest— by the public is just one of several problems facing the Czech contemporary art scene these days; there is lack of much funding support from the government to support contemporary art and also a general malaise by artists and some supporters of the contemporary art scene because they feel the international potential of Czech art never really took off despite early indications of interest from the West. “There were so many fucking expectations during the early days after the Velvet Revolution with something like 50,000 to 80,000 Americans here in Prague, all clutching their copies of Kafka,” says Mancuska, wearing a funky yellow t-shirt with a dripping faucet drawn across it. “The scene was based on expectation but there was no exporting of art really going on. People came over here with all this cash, opening up galleries and thinking things were going to take off in a big way. But it didn’t because Eastern European art had not been included in the contemporary art history of the 20thcentury so [Westerners] had no idea what was happening here and lost interest.”

window_girl_bigMichal Kolecek is an art historian who thinks it’s integral to continue to examine the role of CEE art in a regional and global context. I meet Kolecek at Prague’s famous Café Louvre, a city landmark where everyone from Albert Einstein to Franz Kafka would come for coffee and conversation. Despite his casual dress –he explains he is about to head off to the countryside for a family holiday—Kolecek has the air of a professor. Before I can even get a notebook out, Kolecek dives into the conversation, saying he partly blames the first government of Vaclav Klaus (currently the country’s president) when he stated that since the Czech Republic was more developed then the rest of the countries in CEE, the only way forward was to look West. This shunning of anything to link CEE together via its Communist past was a common regional theme in the 1990s but in the Czech Republic it was especially strong. Kolecek believes the initial refusal by many institutions to collaborate with other regional scenes has meant that Czech art has not flourished internationally. “We did it to ourselves,” he says. “Countries like Poland, Hungary and Slovenia invested in collecting art from CEE but you will not find Czech art in those collections because we turned away from that. And what it’s shown is that you cannot build a successful scene without a broader context.”

It is an anomaly that Czech contemporary art has not met with more international success considering the country’s rich history in both Cubism and Surrealism. Though artists like Mancuska, Jiri Kovanda and Katharina Seda are feted individually across the globe (yet none have had major retrospectives back home) the overall Czech art scene is not as well known and marketed like Polish or Romanian art. Though keen to promote the Czech Republic’s rich cultural past (just try to get away from Kafka or Dvorak the next time you are in Prague) and its contemporary theatre and film, the visual arts are left to struggle on mostly through private initiatives like galleries and foundations. “The government is afraid of contemporary art and they do not support us,” says Camille Hunt, a Canadian who co-owns the Hunt- Kastner Gallery in Prague along with American Kacha Kastner. “The scene has been stagnant.”

One place that has been trying to change that stagnation is Futura, which was set up in Prague in 2003 by expats who felt that the city needed a proper space for presenting contemporary art, has recently set up an artist’s residency. Though civic initiatives have been slow to take off, things are changing. Not-for profit galleries like Futura, which also runs the artistic space Karlin Studios on the outskirts of central Prague, have been springing up and filling a much-needed gap. “There was this expectation after the end of Communism that there would be huge art centers, maybe a Kunsthalle, but the state had its own problems and no one supported it,” Ondrej Stupal, Futura’s director****, tells me.  “People no longer have this mindset of waiting for someone to do something for you and they are becoming much more creative not only in making art but organizing things. Now you can see projects like you see in places like New York—artists who are fed up are creating their own spaces in places like parks and old factories, so that is a big change.”

***I was originally going to be writing a book about the arts in central and eastern Europe called “Inside Full of Color.” I wrote a few chapters but it just did not work in the end. So that is why I set up IFOC in the first place—I felt the ideas I had worked on needed a space and a webzine made a lot of sense. This story on the Czech Republic art scene was actually part of a chapter, originally written in late 2011. Stupal, for example, is no longer at Futura but he said things still be quite relevant. So, that explains the asterisks!

Photo courtesy: 1) DaWire (Jan Mancuska piece) 2) Hunt Kastner gallery