White String at Home, 19–26 November 1979, Prague 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 show two views of the artist’s apartment, with a piece of string stretched across it. The apartment is small, and the string passes directly through the centre of the room at a slant. Kovanda has said that as a self-taught artist, he did not have the right to a studio (at the time only members of the Foundation of Czech Visual Artists and art-school graduates had the right to have studios) and, indeed, the nature of his work in this period meant that he did not require one. His apartment was therefore an important site for the production of his work, as he commented: ‘I live and work here and that’s the way it’s always been’ (quoted in Havranek, p.105). This was the case for many artists from countries across the former Eastern Bloc in the late Soviet period, but although the small room evokes the cramped living conditions of Soviet-era accommodation, the work is not a comment on these conditions as such. Kovanda used a variety of settings for his interventions, from urban public spaces to woodlands and domestic spaces. His strategy of creating an unexpected context for an object and leaving a trace of his actions was not, therefore, dependent on a particular topography, and Kovanda himself has always refused a political reading of his work.
The theorist and curator Vit Havranek notes that Kovanda’s domestic installations, ‘thematize the geometrical contrast between tools used for doing a variety of things, and domestic and natural environments’ (Havranek, p.119); in Untitled, 1980, Uhlíře 1980 (reproduced in Havranek, plate 20 [p.41]), a slim white post has been placed next to people seated at an outdoor table in a domestic garden, with a deck-chair and blankets nearby. In White String at Home..., the taut white string creates a geometric line across the photo. Several of Kovanda’s interventions feature string, often as a way of exploring the dual function of a line as barrier or bridge. In the crowded apartment, the string acts as an obstacle, but in the installation XXX, Summer 1979, Uhlíře 1979 (reproduced in Havranek, plate 24 [p.49]) a piece of string stretched between the banks of a small river connects the two. Amongst the domestic objects of the apartment, the string draws out other linear and thread-like elements in the objects present, most interestingly accentuating the lines in the reproduction of Salvador Dali’s Sleep 1937 (private collection), which hangs above the door.
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.