Exhibition at Rudolfinum maps ‘mutations’ in contemporary Czech photography & art

Veronika Bromová - 'Pohledy', photo: CTK

“What exactly happened?” is the key question or starting point for a fascinating new exhibition which opened on Thursday at the Galerie Rudolfinum. Entitled Mutating Medium, the show focuses on changes in Czech photographic art over the last 20 years, as artists working in the medium shifted from traditional methods to new ways of seeing and treating the image, blurring at the edges with other forms, other media. The exhibition follows on the massive success of Decadence Now! with 150 dynamic and unusual works should prove just as stimulating.

Milena Dopitová - 'Čtyři masky',  photo: CTK
I caught up with curator of Mutating Medium, Pavel Vančát, on the day of the opening. He described how much over the last two decades, work with the photographic image has changed.

“It’s definitely a big shift, from the very beginning of the show where you can see some quite classical let’s say post-modern or symbolist photographers, up to the very last portion of the show where you can see not even photographs but just shades and lights and the picture itself is breaking apart into pieces and is remodelled into something new. Over the last twenty years this medium has mutated into many different forms, many different formats, and many different multimedia solutions in the field of art. It’s important to stress that this is less an exhibition about photography than about contemporary art using photography and possible solutions on how to incorporate photography into contemporary art.”

Václav Jirásek - 'Infection' series
Many directions have been inspired by the evolution in technology and the advent of the digital image which could be newly addressed, distorted, reinvented, and Mutating Medium shows gradual evolution but also thematic jumps and aesthetic overlap and sharp juxtaposition and contrast. The show is divided along five lines: The Pictorialists, Strategists, Manipulators, Non-Photographers, and Post-Photography. Work displayed early in the show includes that of Ivan Pinkava, known for his use of symbolic or Biblical references or narratives in portraits that represent individuals as alabaster-like and androgynous. Pavel Vančát again:

“His works are among the most classical in the exhibition. On the other hand, many of the artists have pieces that reappear in different sections to provide a comparison, even if they don’t all fit in the same groups. I tried to bring a confrontational approach to all the rooms in the exhibition to get as much as possible in comparing different eras, genres, approaches.”

Similarly, the curator took a special approach to the interiors of the 19th century Neo-Renaissance building.

Jiří Kovanda & Markéta Othová - Bez názvu,  photo: CTK
“It was quite difficult but I have to say the Rudolfinum team was excellent and very professional. They even allowed me to use in some not so classical ways, such as using nails in the walls, which is not very typical for a 19th century kunsthalle! Also, it’s difficult that the whole space has that ‘classical’ appearance where you would expect 19th century. But I tried to maintain an atmosphere that is quite neurotic and nervous and to beat back the atmosphere of the space.”

Much of the work on display is stimulating, whether the calm but somehow nerve-wracking silver bromide seas of Pavel Baňka, Markéta Othová’s Cesta (The Journey) which features an abstract black shape in an historic train yard but no train, or Veronika Bromová’s brutally anatomical digitally retouched photographs from her 1990s series Pohledy. There are ultrabright digitally altered landscapes by Štepánka Šimlová and an untitled lambda print of bright roses by Jiří Thýn, which forms the show’s central image. Lambda prints, produced by digital laser exposure of photographic film are extremely high resolution. I asked curator Pavel Vančát why this image in particular had been used to highlight the exhibition, and he talked about the artist’s broader work:

Veronika Bromová - 'Pohledy',  photo: CTK
“Jiří Thýn is the youngest artist in the exhibition, he has a background of quite classical photography which he studied at the academy of Applied Arts in Prague, but he moved towards all kinds of projects. He got to three dimensional works and his latest methods are very avant garde, working with photogram, he even makes three-dimensional sculptures which resemble photography itself but is made up just a few single colour lights and wire objects with some simple geometric forms. So this is an example of ‘how far’ photography can go today and in the show this is the end, which balances what we see in the beginning. It shows the tension between the works over 20 years.”

You chose the rose image as the central motif for the show?

“That was actually Petr Nedoma, the director of the Rudolfinum Gallery: we discussed three or four different pictures and each was worked on by a different graphic designer and we chose the best graphic design and that was it.”

There is something very poetic about that image in a classical sense...

“It is very much classical but I would say it is over-the-top classical. That’s tension ‘at the end of photography: today if you take a beautiful photograph of a beautiful rose you have to think ‘why’ anybody would take such a photograph. I think it’s getting a little bit scary to have such a beautiful photograph today.”

As for one of the main ideas viewers may take away? That photography in many ways melded with other media, subverted or was subverted by, absorbed, distilled by other forms only to resurface and metamorphosis again. Digital advances, now commonplace, provided new freedom for artists to explore. Pavel Vančát once more:

“Definitely it gave much more freedom and have an idiom for that, that today photography is no longer defined as a single branch of art but it is becoming something like a technique. Something described in the caption under the image. It’s difficult to say if the photographic tradition is continuing in some strict way and more that it’s continuing in broader aspects of contemporary art.”

Štěpánka Šimlová - Landscapes series,  © City Gallery Prague
Visitors of the exhibition, which lasts at the Rudolfinum until May 1st, may also be interested to take guided tours of the works on display. A beautifully produced 150 or so page catalogue is also available in Czech, but an English supplement is in the works. Find more information about Mutating Medium at galerierudolfinum.cz