Jiří Kovanda | Interview

On June 30th, before the opening of the exhibition JIŘÍ KOVANDA. ANTI-HEROISM AND RESISTANCE at the National Museum of Contemporary Art (MNAC) in Bucharest, we had the opportunity to talk to the artist, with the help of the co-organizers of the event – Czech Centre. Below is an exclusive interview with Jiří Kovanda about his work and his current solo show at MNAC (Parliament Palace, ground floor, on view through October 23rd, 2016).

Jiří Kovanda / Photo: Vlad Dumitrescu

Jiří Kovanda @ MNAC / Photo: Vlad Dumitrescu

You once said that art should be part of the ordinary life, and that artworks should be available for more people to experience. Why is it so important to have art in our everyday lives? How does art enrich our lives, from your point of view?

In my opinion, it is one of the most important tasks of art to open eyes to everything. I think art could make us more sensitive about everyday objects and the normal everyday living.

You often say that you aim to show people the simple things, you highlight the profound aspects that we can relate to and that form a universal language. For instance, your work Kissing Through Glass is about intimacy, a gesture that is known by everyone.

With Kissing Through Glass it was something like yes and no at the same time. The closeness feels real, it is kissing yet it is not. I am interested in this type of situation where something appears to be real, although it is not, as in this case where you have the glass of about 1 cm between the two persons kissing. Some people told me that it felt as almost a real experience, others were shy, even if the kissing was not real.

A secondary aspect is that the performance took place in an art space, in a gallery, so it was different from real life. It’s not normal life, and I can do it because it is an artwork.

This is different from your performances on the street – those were disruptive and unexpected for people. In the gallery, one can expect to participate in a performance. But when you suddenly turn around on an escalator and look someone into the eyes or interrupt people from passing by, what are the reactions?

Of course, if something is in the gallery space, it is clear for the viewer that it is artwork. But outside, in the street, it is different. My performances in public spaces were not the final message for the audience. They were disruptive maybe, but it was not clear that it is art, only some strange behavior. It is not clear who I am – a fool, a drunk man, an artist… When the documentation of the performance is presented in the gallery, then it is clear what it is.

Jiří Kovanda / Photo: Vlad Dumitrescu

So the gallery is where people understand what art is.

Yes, for me it is important to put it in an artistic context. If the context is clear, then the message can also be understood.

Nowadays, the everyday life manifests mostly online. You are interested in relations, borders and the intimacy between people. What is your opinion about how the internet and social media affect these aspects? Did you ever consider doing something artistic online?

No, absolutely not. I am from the old generation. The internet is not my world, my thinking is different – obviously, I use it to communicate, but I am not thinking to make art online.

You said you believe that what influences human beings and their construction are profound and intimate things, rather than the social and political context. Yet the way we relate to the other often depends on social, cultural, political, religious, ethnic, sexual factors, although we are rarely aware of all these aspects influencing the evolution of a relation and its outcome. Do you think art can go beyond these limits and generate a truly natural, unfiltered reaction?

I think art must go beyond these limitations of social, political nature and so on. Indeed, politics can be part of the art discourse. But I think art should have a higher purpose and transcend this. For example, often there is this question about politics during the 70s in Czechoslovakia and my position in regard to the political situation. For me it was important to transcend this situation and make works for anybody, everywhere. I wanted to be somewhere outside the borders.

So if you were to do those performances somewhere else, it would be the same?

Yes, my performances were not political. Of course, there can be some political reading – there could be a sort of political statement when you do something free in a society that is not free. However, my first idea was about the contact between you and me, about the relationships between people anywhere, without any political, social, religious etc. restrictions.

Jiří Kovanda @ MNAC / Photo: Vlad Dumitrescu

The way you communicate with the audience is mainly non-verbal. The gesture is important, you say, it’s always the same. In what way?

I hope that if I make for instance Kissing Through Glass, the gesture is the same anywhere – in Moscow, in Paris, in São Paulo. It is also the same in time, if it happens in the 70s or now it is the same or a very similar situation.

What means of expression do you use to amplify the impact of the gesture – humor, for example?

I like humor. I think it is ok to do things with humor and irony. It is my first step towards the viewer. I like it if somebody is laughing, even if I think the work is not so funny, I enjoy this reaction.

What is for you the most memorable reaction of someone interacting with you or your art?

There are different reactions.  If I make a performance, for example, there is no right or wrong reaction. The performance is something open and everything is possible. It is about the situation and how you react to it is also part of the situation.

Jiří Kovanda @ MNAC / Photo: Vlad Dumitrescu

Jiří Kovanda @ MNAC / Photo: Vlad Dumitrescu

We’ve noticed that in your exhibitions, besides a retrospective of your performances, collage artworks, objects, paintings or drawings, you also create in that space, for the space, a new work with what you have at your disposal, as you do with your art in general, and with what you find in that space. Can you share some insights about the installation you’ve prepared for your Bucharest exhibition at MNAC and what inspired you to create it?  

The show consists of two parts – one is a small retrospective, and the other part is the installation. For the installation I had this idea immediately in my first visit to the space – the room is very decorative, there is the marble floor, and it is huge and very strong. I think it is not possible for me to go against the space, to occupy it.

For me it is more important that people experience this space. In the installation there is almost nothing like artwork, I want to exhibit the space and the people, because they become part of the installation. Participants are restricted by a wooden fence like animals. And there are two possibilities: where is the animal – behind or in front of the fence? It is not clear, because people are restricted and cannot go beyond the fence.

What about the retrospective? We’ve seen a Lenin work and a Kalashnikov as preview. Are they related to the communist regime which affected both Romania and Czechoslovakia?

These two works are part of a series which refers to another aspect. Other works show a flower, an animal, a view from Prague, ordinary objects. The artworks are painted in a childish style, not artistic, so not the political meaning is important, but what is banality and what is art.

Jiří Kovanda @ MNAC / Photo: Vlad Dumitrescu

With each work you leave a trace of your physical presence, of your artistic activity. What is the trace you leave in Romania, to the visitors of your first solo show here? Do you expect a kind of special impact on them?

I hope not. We spoke about transcending borders and making something without these restrictions. I don’t want to do something special for Romanians, Germans etc. They are not the same, yes, but we are all people, and laugh is laugh for anybody – in Africa, in Europe, in Japan. I would like to think like this, not to create something special for a certain group of people. I would like to speak to anybody through my art. I like to make gestures simple, and I try to find a language that is understandable for everybody, without some special teaching. If you live in similar conditions, you can understand. And I think now the world is not so different anymore with globalization, media, internet and connections.

We talked a lot about Kissing Through Glass, for instance, I made it in eight different countries I think, sometimes there was a good situation, sometimes not, but I hope it was understandable for all who took part in it.

Jiří Kovanda @ MNAC / Photo: Vlad Dumitrescu

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Photos: Vlad Dumitrescu, courtesy of the Czech Centre in Bucharest.
Curator: Călin Dan
MNAC Coordinator: Sandra Demetrescu
Architect: Attila Kim
Co-organizer: Czech Centre in Bucharest
Partner: Staropramen
With the support of: Czech Embassy in Bucharest