Summary

A Pile of Needles and Nails, Spring 1981, Orlické Mountains, Panské Pole is the documentation of an installation work made and then photographed by the artist. It consists of two black and white photographs mounted on a piece of card, accompanied by the name, date and location of the installation in typewritten script. The photographs, arranged side by side, show a pile of pine needles on the ground, with metal nails mixed amongst the needles. The photograph on the left pictures the pile from the side, revealing its profile and its height from the forest floor, against a blurred horizon of trees in the background; the photograph on the right is taken slightly from above, so that the pile blends into the pine needles that cover the forest floor. Only the heads of the nails are visible amongst the needles, so that the nails are nearly imperceptible to the viewer. Many of Kovanda’s other object-interventions are geometric or white, and are meant to be at once slight and ephemeral, and to stand out incongruously from their background. Whilst such geometric interventions can be read as an ironic commentary on minimalist sculpture, in A Pile of Needles and Nails ..., man-made objects are subtly intermingled with natural elements. The juxtaposition of the two elements – needles and nails – playfully points to the sharpness of both, creating an internal play between man-made and organic. Such visual rhymes between opposites, or plays on doublets or triplets recur in Kovanda’s interventions, for example Two Little White Slats and Three Little White Slats, Autumn 1980, Vltava River, Prague 1980 (T12423), gesturing towards a system of meaning.

The pile, an apparently casual accumulation of material, is one of Kovanda’s preferred methods of arranging objects. It is made from the same materials as its background and could potentially pass unnoticed, and yet is distinct from it. Kovanda creates a similar tension between the organic and the manmade in the intervention Crumpled Paper, Winter 1982, Kampa, Prague 1982 (reproduced in Havranek, plate 7 [p.15]) where a ball of white paper is placed on the snowy ground next to a tree, blending into the white snow. The location of A Pile of Needles and Nails ... in Panské Pole in Orlické Hory, a mountain ridge in the North-East of the Czech Republic forming the border with Poland, differentiates this installation from the more usual urban settings of most of Kovanda’s works.

Artists of the Czech conceptual performance movement, which began in the mid-1970s, and with which Kovanda is associated, included Karel Miler (born 1940), Jan Mlčoch (born 1953) and Petr Štembera (born 1945), and later Tomás Ruller (born 1957) and Jirí Sozansky (born 1946). In 1978 Jirí Kovanda stopped making performances and actions, turning instead to leaving traces of his activities and recording them himself. He comments, ‘back then, interventions were a smooth transition from actions; it was just that I personally had disappeared’ (quoted in Mancuska, p.147). Whilst his performances had taken place in gallery spaces, to an audience of friends, or anonymously amongst Prague’s public, the installations Kovanda made between 1978 and 1982 had no immediate audience. The objects were simply left, and ‘lived out their existence in their own way’ (quoted in Havranek, p.108). The question of whether the documentation of an art-work can itself be considered art became current in the late 1960s, with the move from object-based to process-based practices (articulated in the landmark 1969 exhibition When Attitudes Become Form, Kunsthalle Bern and The Institute of Contemporary Arts, London). It is particularly important to ephemeral installation and performance works. Kovanda answers the question in his own way:

The question is when communication takes place. I think it’s at this moment when the thing is referred to as art. That means that if an action has an audience, it happens straight away. If no spectators have been invited, however, I think it doesn’t take place until afterwards, in the artistic space.

(Quoted in Mancuska p.146.)

In his performances, Kovanda has always insisted on working only with materials at his immediate disposal. From 1977 to 1995 he worked in the Depository of the Modern Art Collection of the National Gallery in Prague and often used left-over art materials for his installations, such as small blocks of wood, paper or string. He sees this as central to his interest in conceptual art:

I’ve always been attracted by the idea of making do with whatever I have at my disposal. That’s why I was so deeply impressed and immediately influenced when I first encountered conceptual art. You didn’t have to know a craft, you didn’t need expensive materials, you didn’t have to be extremely skilled – and yet you could still do something worthwhile.

(Quoted in Mancuska, p.149.)

Further reading:
Vit Havranek, Jirí Kovanda: Actions and Installations 2005–1976, Zurich 2006.
Jana and Jirí Ševčík, ‘Mapping Czech Art’ in IRWIN (ed.), East Art Map, London 2006, pp.181–8.
Ján Mancuska, ‘Interview with Jirí Kovanda’, Frieze, no.113, March 2008, pp.145–9, http://www.frieze.com/issue/article/jiri_kovanda

, accessed 22 October 2009.


Elizaveta Butakova
October 2009

Supported by the London Centre for Arts and Cultural Exchange, in collaboration with the Courtauld Institute of Art.