Two Little White Slats and Three Little White Slats, Autumn 1980, Vltava River, Prague is the documentation of an installation by the artist. It comprises four black and white photographs of the work mounted on a single sheet of paper, a hand-drawn map of its location and typewritten text documenting its title, date and location. The elements in the photographs are a pile of small white slats balanced on a rock, one made from three slats, the other from two. The left-hand photographs show a close-up of each pile of slats, whilst the right hand photographs reveal the position of the rocks in relation to the riverbank. The map indicates that the two elements of Two Little White Slats and Three Little White Slats ... were located thirty metres apart on the Vltava River that runs through Prague. The hand-drawing is unusual, as Kovanda usually preferred the anonymity of type-written text in his documentations (T12421, T12422 and T12424). While his earlier performance pieces were photographed by his friend, the amateur photographer Pavel Tuč, Kovanda took all the photographs of his installation works himself. He has commented on the importance of the white colour of his installation elements: ‘they were often white ... Maybe it had something to do with that out of place quality I was talking about. On the street, for example, the colour white seems rather artificial. It provides a certain contrast.’ (Quoted in Havranek, p.108.)
In its use of repetition, the installation is typical of this period of Kovanda’s work. Two Little White Slats and Three Little White Slats ... is closest in form to Two Little White Piles, Autumn 1980, Karlův most, Mánesův most, Prague 1980 (reproduced in Havranek, plate16 [pp.34–5]), which features two identical white piles located on parallel bridges (one of which, Mánesův most, is featured in the hand-drawn map). As well as imbuing the work with an internal rhythm, the seriality of these installations may be read an ironic reference to the production processes associated with minimalist forms. The small scale of the interventions, their precarious positioning and marginal location are comical and touching. As the curator Georg Schöllhammer observes, Kovanda’s interventions rely on ‘the use of the most minimal formulae of pathos, the revocation of the rhetoric of gestures’ (quoted in Havranek, p.111).
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.