Return to the Future II
paintings, drawings, video, manipulated photography
Algorithm of the Future of the Past
Roger M. Buergel, the curator of documenta 12 (2007), asks: “Is modernity our antiquity?” Jan Zálešák aptly paraphrases him in Minulá budoucnost (Past Future): How could modernity become our antiquity? And if it’s over, what’s left of it? Just ruins we can walk through like spectators or archaeologists?(1) Similar questions became my starting point when I began thinking about the city of Milovice, located to the north-east of Prague. The city’s modern history is a military one. In 1904, part of the city was converted into a military space for the Austrian army. During World War I, it served as a prisoner-of-war camp for Russian and Italian captives. After 1918, it was home to the Czechoslovak army, replaced during the Second World War by the German Wehrmacht. After 1945, the Czechoslovak army returned and stayed until 1968, when it was replaced by the Soviet occupying forces. The Soviets completely vacated the premises in 1991. Milovice, originally a city of a hundred thousand, shrunk to a town with a few thousand inhabitants surrounded by collapsing military buildings. Decaying frames of barracks disappearing into the wild vegetation now look like ancient ruins, nostalgically suggesting the ancient glory of the conqueror. Modernity, represented here by the unwavering politics of control and power, disappears forever, of its own accord, and slowly – or quickly under the forks of a bulldozer. If modernity is over, is the only thing it left behind really ruins we can walk through? And what’s next? Zálešák states that the depressive character of our presence arises in large part from our incapacity to imagine some satisfying future.(2) And can we imagine the future of the past?
I believe the algorithm of the past is written into school desks. It was with this idea in mind that I approached the pupils at the Milovice elementary school. Through discussions during art lessons, I tried to delegate questions about the future of the ruins and the town in general to the community’s youngest generation. The students’ positions ranged from stereotypically fixated views of history with a nostalgic tinge to perspectives seen through the lens of progress and gentrification. The city as a function versus the city as memory? During the debate, the students mostly referred to mediated oral history.
The next step in our collaboration was a happening which took place at an abandoned military airport: an appropriation of “Was ist Kunst?” (2007) by the Slovenian art group IRWIN. The original “Was ist Kunst?” was created in collaboration with the Georgian army. With this intervention, IRWIN places the army into the world of art, i.e. into the institutions of art into which it usually does not pertain, thus appropriating the spaces, places, structures, and institutions which are considered foreign in relation to contemporary art, with the aim of performing contemporary art in a political “arena”. (3)
IRWIN resuscitate the avant-garde attempt to go further than simply critically reflecting reality. The endeavour to engage as a political body and promote one’s vision of the organisation of life and society. An attempt to blur the boundaries between art and politics. In Tbilisi, the soldiers were not called up to guard the flag: they were choreographed into a scene, a tableau vivant, which says “WAS IST KUNST”. Even though the project involves real soldiers, it is permeated with a certain surrealist dimension, as its ultimative power is gained from the components of linguistic articulation. It is its title which confirms that these are, in fact, real soldiers.(4)
The tableau vivant created by IRWIN was repeated at the Milovice military airfield. Soldiers were replaced by elementary school pupils, effecting a kind of “font change”. The same question – what is art? – was asked again and in a different context. The occupation of the military space took place through a subversive act which is, in fact, more closely related to totalitarian ideologies than democratic debate. Art instrumentalised the participants of the happening through a total demonstration of its own power. A rejection of the ideology of power enacted through its performative demonstration.
Just like the students in Milovice, as a first-grader (1988), I also took part in a “great image” – this was during rehearsals for the vaulting box choreography for the last unrealised Spartakiad in socialist Czechoslovakia (the Spartakiads were mass gymnastic events involving hundreds of thousands of gymnasts from around the world along with millions of spectators, organised by the communist government in order to celebrate the liberation of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet Union). The Spartakiad can also be considered a specific type of political-artistic discourse.(5) My subjective reconstruction of the vaulting box, complemented by a pencil drawing of an orange rectangle, was my way of symbolically stepping out of the total Startakiad work. The drawing depicts the colour of the Spartakiad uniform as I remember it. The orange rectangle loosely references Rodchenko’s triptych, which Nikolai Tarabukin – in his 1923 essay From Easel to Machine – called “the last painting”(6). According to Tarabukin, the artist was to become an engineer, the traditional wall painting was to transform into the propaganda film, and the erection of monuments was to be replaced by the construction of housing estates. Almost a century after the “last painting”, perhaps also in response to the financial crisis, the war on terror, and the growing mistrust of capitalism, the art world experienced the historiographic turn. More than the present or the future, artists address the past. The artists becomes not an engineer but an archaeologist, the traditional wall painting does not become a propaganda film but a “storytelling document”, and the erection of monuments has been replaced not by housing complexes, but by site-specific anti-monuments.
And all this in the sense of the artist’s attempt to not just conserve, but also critically reassess the ruins of modernity as supporting pillars of the algorithm of the future of the past.
1 .Jan Zálešák, Minulá budoucnost (Brno: VUT, Fakulta výtvarných umění [Faculty of Fine Arts], tranzit.cz, 2013), p. 16.
2. Ibid., p. 14.
3. Marina Gržinić, “Europe: In Between Document and Fiction – Erich Lessing’s Photographs from Post-World War II Europe EXPANDED.
4. Marina Gržinić, „EUROPE: In Between DOCUMENT and FICTION“, Erich Lessing’s Photographs from Post-World War II Europe EXPANDED
5. Boris Groys, Gesamtkunstwerk Stalin. Rozpolcená kultura v Sovětském svazu [Split Culture in the Soviet Union] (Prague: VVP AVU, 2010), p. 11.
6. Hal Foster, Umění po roku 1900 [Art Since 1900] (Prague: Slovart, 2007), p. 178.