Charlotta Kotík: I am a firm believer in the duty of artists to voice their opinion

David Černý - Red Skull, photo: archive of National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids

An exhibition of artists who have responded to some kind of political oppression in their work is currently underway at the National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. Entitled Artists as Activists, it showcases the works of internationally recognized contemporary artists, including Ai Weiwei, Tania Bruguera or Malik Sajad. The Czech Republic is represented by David Černý.

I discussed the exhibition with its curator, Charlotta Kotík, and I first asked her about the role of artists in questioning generally accepted ideas:

“I think artists are trying to see the reality in a different way. And I believe that in order to create the image of the world around them they have to sometimes tear down the laws and rules which are generally observed and point to the troubling things within the society.

Charlotta Kotik, photo: Ian Willoughby

“I think in the history of art the artists we really value and admire the most today and treasure the most are precisely those who went their own way in their work. It is those who were trying to establish some kind of a new approach in their work both as a social and a formal comment, pointing out to things that were troubling at the time.”

Would you say good art needs to be or should be politically engaged? Is it important to take a stand?

“I wouldn’t say that it has to be, but I think it is almost inevitable, especially in the present time, to take a certain kind of stand, even when you decide to do a landscape.

“The selection of the landscape tells you that you are either dealing with a landscape which is somehow affected by climate change or a bucolic landscape which is not affected by anything.

“If you select the latter, then you are taking a stand. You are basically refusing to admit that a large part of our world is affected by climate change, by the act of man which is not always beneficial to that very nature you want to depict in your work.

“So I think it is very hard to say that art is apolitical. I think that every artist is selecting a certain stand. Maybe they wouldn’t deem it political, but in some way I think there is always reaction within the work itself.”

Ai Weiwei - Self-Portrait in Lego, photo: Rich Sanders, Des Moines

The exhibition Artists as Activists features artists from all around the world who are in some way responding to political oppression through their work. How did you select the artists?

“Because of the limitation of space, for example, you are trying to think about people who are representing certain attitudes and you want to introduce different approaches to things.

“You know you cannot include everything. You have limited budget and limited possibilities and you also work with other organisations. And I must say that the Czech and Slovak Museum and Library were amazing in cooperating on this exhibition, so it was really a very positive experience.

“If people have an ability to use their skills to point out the ills in the society, it’s their obligation to do it.”

“I certainly wanted to include people who are known to the to the public which is familiar with artists from the Czech Republic, so David Černý was a natural choice for the inclusion.

“I also wanted to comment on the situation within the United States, all the issues of the racial and economic injustice and education, so there is an artist called jc lenochan, who is dealing with these topics for years.”

Which work of art is David Černý represented by?

“He is represented by a large skull lit from the background. The skull is obviously a very potent symbol of both oppression and fragility of life. He is also represented by a suitcase, a beautiful object, made from polymer resin assemblage. And suitcases are emblematic of spying and a political subversion.”

The biggest name in your exhibition in unquestionably Ai Weiwei, the world renowned Chinese artist. Why have you decided to include him in the selection?

“The Museum itself was very keen on getting names which would sort of highlight the importance of the institution itself, so I was trying to get the work by Ai Weiwei.

“I felt it was really good for the institution, which might not be as known as some other large museums, to show that it is able to bring in work by very famous people.

Tania Bruguera - The Tatlin’s Whispers, photo: archive of National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids

“The same with Tania Bruguera, the Cuban artist who is very famous, especially for one particular piece, The Tatlin’s Whispers, which was first presented in Havana Biennial in 2009.

“She wanted to repeat the performance in 2015 and it was forbidden and it became a big issue of political freedom in Cuba. So she is somebody who really points out to the suppression of free speech and free artistic expression in the countries with totalitarian regimes. She personifies something very important.”

Ai Weiwei is actually not the only artist from China. Can you tell us more about the other one, Hong Hao?

“I am a firm believer in the function of art within society and the duty of the artists to say their opinion.”

“Hong Hao is another Chinese artist, who is not so well-known. He documented in his work all the things he daily touched and used. He came up with this enormous lexicon of objects which people in the industrial world use on a daily basis without even thinking about it, creating this demand for overproduction and overconsumption which leads to major environmental problems.

“So I was trying to cover certain issues, from everyday life to larger political issues in Bruguera, to the comments on many issues in Ai Wei Wei and the commentary on political oppression and surveillance in the work David Černý.”

In this time of migration crises and impending climate change, how important would you say is the artists’ voice and do you think artists actually have the power to bring about change?

“That’s a very big question. Artists do have a voice and should use that voice. I am a great believer in social commentary and if people have an ability to use their skills to point out the ills in the society, it’s their obligation to do it.

Hong Hao - My Things No. 1, photo: archive of National Czech and Slovak Museum and Library in Cedar Rapids

“Images are extremely potent things and I see it now with the George Floyd protests here in the United States. It is imagery that really sticks in your mind.

“The imagery of his portraits is done sometimes in a very awkward way, not necessarily only by artists but also by people who are amateurs and who try to take a stand and show their point of view.

“I know that the images really do affect people’s mind and might wake them up to action. So I think that art is a very important tool, because it’s in your face, and I am a firm believer in the function of art within society and the duty of the artists to say their opinion.”

Is there any artist from the selection you have made that is particularly close to your heart?

“I like the work of all of them plus more of those which we couldn’t have. I didn’t talk about Emily Jacir who comments on the situation of the Palestinian minority in Israel and Malik Sajad, the artist from Kashmir, who kind of comments in a very subtle way on everyday life and the things which are difficult to do in the state which is not entirely free, which is controlled by India.

“So they all address issues which are in some way known to us who experienced life under in the totalitarian regime where I was growing up. So I would say Bruguera and Malik Sajad are people who I feel very close to because their everyday life is so affected by a regime which doesn’t allow the full freedom of life within their territory.”