Meat Maps, Red Neon and Arafat Tears
Jiří David put the heart on the Castle. Just don’t ask him to explain it.
Who is Jiří David? Is he the guy who blew up a photograph of a dead Marilyn
Monroe, then slapped it on a gallery wall above a row of urinals programmed
to play “Happy Birthday, Mr. President”? Was it he who made a map of the world
out of raw meat, then lit it with a slide of hippies at Woodstock? Is he the
one responsible for last year’s neon blue crown of thorns atop the Rudolfinum,
and that big red heart currently blinking day and night on Castle Hill?
Yes, yes, yes, and yes. Problem is, we still don’t have an answer to the first
question. How does one begin to evaluate an artist who, in the course of his
lengthy career, has exhaustively explored every artistic medium via several
hundred original works of art?
We’ll start at the beginning. As a child in a small Northern Bohemian village,
young Jirka initially wanted to be a game warden. Things changed when he began
reading intensively. “I was mostly interested in the biographies of famous painters,”
says David, singling out Gaugin, van Gogh, Cezanne and Modigliani. “I lived
their lives with them, Ipainted their paintings with them and there everything
started. Quite romantic, no?”
After a childhood spent “outside in nature, running through the woods,” the
David family moved to industrial Ostrava. It was a radical turn in the young
artist’s development, perhaps best evoked in his starkly emotional Window. It’s
an oil painting of an abstract figure trapped in a dark room with a tiny square
window in the corner; the figure holds his hand up to the light, as though waving
goodbye. Finished in 1971 when David was only 15, Window prefigured the Czech
Grotesque explosion that wouldn’t happen for another decade.
David completed his studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague and went on
to become a member of the Tvrdohlaví (Stubborn) group. This was the 1980s, when
all the important young Czech artists belonged to a movement with some manifesto
behind it. Not until the 1990s did David begin receiving international attention,
mainly for three politically-charged cycles of photographs. “No Com-pas-sion”
manipulated portraits of famous political figures – including Václav Havel,
George Bush, and Yassar Arafat – to show tears in his subjects’ eyes; 1998’s
“My Hostages” portray his subjects tied up in silly costumes.
For David’s most famous cycle, “Hidden Image,” the artist spent several years
making portraits of well-known figures like Martin Kippen-berger, Jacques Derrida,
Jeff Koons and Dennis Hopper. Using a method developed in the early 20th century,
David made duplicates of the portraits, then cut them in half down the center
to form two new photographs by sticking both left sides together and both right
sides together. The goal was to find out what these people would look like if
their faces were symmetrical, which ultimately re-vea-led a spooky, unseen side
to his subjects’ personalities.
Over the years, David has autho-red a number of texts even more baffling than
“The problem with my internal ambivalence,” he says, “is that I subconsciously
keep it growing.”
These writings don’t attempt to explain individual works of art, as David isn’t
a conceptual artist. In fact, he has spent his entire career attempting to deinvent
the very concept of art, to shatter the spectator’s preconceived notions of
what art is supposed to be. A typical Jiří David text reads like a philosophical
manifesto fueled by adolescent rage instead of a central, unambiguous argument:
“What can be meaningful today is equal to the assertion that we must learn how
to make bread out of hunger and a drink out of thirst.”
David’s statements are unique because they not only elucidate his own peculiar
vision, but also manage to capture the essence of whatever is happening in the
art world at the moment. In 1993, he compared contemporary art to sexual intercourse
during menstruation, while a later essay, “Reality as Fragmentary Objectivity,”
illustrated the growing distance between theory and practice in the (young)
Czech art scene.
Which brings us to the present. No longer a young artist, David continues to
draw criticism from his contemporaries based mainly on what he perceives as
his refusal to compromise vision and integrity. He was recently dismissed from
Prague’s Academy of Fine Arts, where he’d headed the school’s renowned Studio
of Visual Communication since 1995, inspiring a passionate discourse between
students and faculty.
His detractors’ statements haven’t affected him yet. The heart on the castle
has inevitably become the talk of the town; whether you love it or hate it,
you can’t help but notice it. It has been interpreted variously as a statement
about the NATO summit, an emblem commemorating the anniversary of the Velvet
Revolution and as a symbol of adoration for Václav Havel, who uses the heart
shape in his signature.
In characteristic fashion, David has denied all of these interpretations. Since
he views art as a symbolic language, it makes sense that he merely sees his
current piece as an extension and amplification of last year’s “Glow” atop the
Rudolfinum. David plans to conclude this cycle with a third, unannounced neon
installation somewhere in Prague next fall.
Despite the anger that’s easy to pick out in much of his work, David doesn’t
reject anything. Everything surrounding him somehow gets subsumed into art.
By refusing to focus on any one particular medium, restless ambition ultimately
leads the artist to a total distortion of reality – his, and by association,
ours. This is, after all, hypothetical. Perhaps Jiří David doesn’t even know
who Jiří David is. Maybe not knowing is the fun part.
Jiří David on his recent dismissal from Prague’s Academy of Fine Arts:
“The situation that led to my expulsion is typical of the current trends at
AVU. Over the last three years, things have changed a lot there and the conservative
parts of the school have prevailed. The professors now try to “hold their position
however possible” in the same way that our Communistic professors used to. Nothing
has changed in this respect. I see now that it’s not only AVU that’s like this.
The professors only have students to preserve their social status. They’re afraid
of change, tired, they don’t bring anything new. Their fear of competition resembles
the devil’s fear of a cross. And anyone who criticizes them directly, they get
rid of, oftentimes using less than virtuous manners. Unfortunately (fortunately),
I was the only one who said these things to their faces.
“Besides this facet, our study became very famous and much desired among students
from other studios. For some professors, namely for Milan Kní?ák,* this was
unbearable because he was losing the certainty of his pedagogical leadership,
governance and influence. Very few people took his side, and he suffered because
of it. Therefore, he insulted our studio and humiliated my students whenever
it was possible. We have written proof of all this. Afterwards came our personal
conflict, then a lot of ‘behind the scenes’ action he orchestrated, manipulated
auditions (which I successfully passed anyway), and that was roughly it.”
* Editor’s Note: Kní?ák, an artist once associated with the Fluxus movement,
is currently the director of the National Gallery. He sparked a scandal by utilizing
state funds to purchase his own artwork for the gallery’s permanent collection,
and has angered many with his inflammatory and racist comments.
Markéta Hofmeisterová and Dean Ivandič contributed to this article
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