Installation III 15 March 1979, Prague is the documentation of an installation work, made and then photographed by the artist. The black and white photograph shows a long wooden pole, made of two shorter wooden poles strapped together with string. The pole stretches from the floor to the ceiling in a room resembling an empty gallery space. It is propped against a beam in the ceiling, and casts a distinct shadow in the space. As it stands unfixed, its uncertain balance seems to express the notion of a moment captured in time. The tension between a sense of the ephemeral and the fixedness of an exact time and place is central to Kovanda’s practice, as is indicated by the precise documentation of his interventions. They are presented systematically as black and white photographs mounted on paper with a typewritten title and date (T12422, T12423 and T12424). Kovanda comments: ‘the places and dates were important, for it was a particular activity [that] was being documented. I wanted it to be clear; I wanted there to be a record that in such and such a place and at such and such a time, such and such had happened’ (quoted in Havranek, p.109). The overlap of the two poles breaks the stark linearity of the object, and the string endows it with a hand-made aspect fitting to Kovanda’s insistence on everyday, readily available materials.
The leaning pole recalls the batons that may be positioned in varying relations to their surroundings produced by French artist André Cadere (1934–78), such as Round Bar of Wood 1973 (T12180); but whilst Cadere’s batons are painted in brightly coloured stripes, Kovanda’s interventions are minimal to the point of potentially passing unnoticed. As curator Georg Schöllhammer points out, Kovanda ‘created his performative statements in a totally reserved way, totally reduced, totally conceptual’ (quoted in Havranek, p.110). The work is part of a series of Kovanda’s very first interventions, which all bear the title Installation and are numbered I, II, III, 4 and 5, of which I, II and III are all located in Povaznická Ulice, Prague. From the photograph, the status and the location of the object appear ambiguous; the space was in fact used for artistic performances, as Kovanda explains: ‘The earliest interventions arose in places where others were doing actions and to which an audience had been invited, so they could take part in the performance’ (quoted in Mancuska, p.147).The works were installed before the audience arrived, documented and then left, without further intervention.
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 artwork 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.)
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.
Supported by the London Centre for Arts and Cultural Exchange, in collaboration with the Courtauld Institute of Art.