“It’s an adventure”: Krištof Kintera on finding beauty in old electronics

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The most comprehensive ever UK exhibition of works by the top Czech sculptor Krištof Kintera kicks off at the Ikon Gallery in Birmingham this week. Kintera (46) is known for thought-provoking, witty sculptures that reimagine everyday elements of the world around us and frequently have a kinetic energy. Ahead of the Ikon show – which The Guardian has ranked among the top art events in Britain this autumn – I spoke to Kintera at his crammed, bustling and colourful studio in a former factory near the Vltava in the Prague district of Modřany.

Your dad was a graphic artist. When did you first start taking an interest in art, or showing talent?

“[Laughs] I’m not sure if I have talent. Sometimes I doubt it, even these days.

“I was a regular boy from Vršovice, playing football. My father had an artistic background – he was a graphic designer, doing books and graphic design.

“The theme has to be first – after that goes the technical solutions.”

“But I was never pushed by him to follow in his steps.

“I remember I was doing drawings of football players of Bohemians Prague – that was the only artistic output.

“Then, I think it was around the time I was 16, I abruptly stopped doing sport, because it started to be boring.

“And I discovered the world of art. Basically I started with photography and, all of a sudden, I found this field of endless possibilities – and it was much more interesting than doing sports.”

Krištof Kintera, Nervous Trees (2013). Photo: Courtesy the artist

In many of your works there’s a use of electricity, lights. As a kid, were you the kind of kid who was, I don’t know, making radios and stuff like that?

“No. Not at all. I was making some models, from paper – like Formula 1 and this kind of stuff.

“Also in that age we were more playing with real stuff; nowadays everything is on screens.

“So yeah, always doing something, but not manically.

“It all happened later, when I started to do some first artistic things: drawings, paintings.

“Sculpting is also being part of the process, being surprised – and that happens only if you do it with your hands.”

“Then, step by step, it led me to build things.

“And the easier…well, maybe it’s not the easier way, but the only way how to do it is to do it yourself.

“It’s also quite pleasant, because you are the one who went through all these technical difficulties.

“And of course it doesn’t work in the first moment and you have to get further and further and ask friends and solder things – and you don’t have a clue how it works.

“But step by step you get some basics and then you are happy because, all of a sudden, it works!”

A lot of your work has moving parts. Is that something that you started doing your studies? Or did you come to it later?

Krištof Kintera, My Light is Your Life – Shiva Samurai (2009), electronic controlled lights. Photo: Courtesy the artist

“I think it was a little later. Or at the end of my studies, because I remember I did these Talkmen sculptures [metre-high human-like sculptures that move about and babble] as my diploma work, so there were some first steps in that direction.

“On the other hand, I want to say that all of these technical things have to be used as a tool of the theme, of what you want to say, and it’s not always necessary that a sculpture moves or speaks or smokes or makes light – the theme has to be first, and then after that goes the technical solutions.

“I do a lot of sculptures also without any technical elements – like nowadays.”

I know you have people on your team who help you with the really complicated mechanical stuff. But still, do you yourself have to be, to some degree, a mechanic, an electrician, a metal worker?

“I don’t like to make sculptures to entertain new, developed architecture.”

“We are a collective of friends here and I really appreciate that we work together, because some of the works are so, let’s say, time-demanding and without the help of my friends it would take me ages.

“And to answer your question about technical solutions, I think we are not experts here.

“The people who are doing robotics are much further, and we can’t compete with them.

“But we know some basics and we’re all kind of basically skilled in how to do things here.

“And for me it’s a kind of way of thinking, because sometimes you are not sure how the thing will be at the end.

“I call it ‘thinking with the material’. It’s like when a musician is using his instrument.

“For me, sculpting is also being part of the process, being surprised – and that happens only if you do it with your hands, and nobody else.

“So I really insist that most of the things we do here, on our knees, as we say, and only with some of the more sophisticated electronics do we ask for the help of our friends.”

Krištof Kintera, Postnaturalia, 2016, exhibition view at Collezione Maramotti. Photo: Courtesy Collezione Maramotti, Reggio Emilia, Italy; photograph: Dario Lasagni

One of your most striking works is Revolution, a little boy figure banging its head against a wall. They were from, I think, about 15 years ago – are they all still working?

“Yes, yes, I hope so [laughs].

“From time to time I hear that there is a broken head or something.

“But there are six of them and most of them are in museums, so they are under good care.

“Right now we have one of them here and we’re getting him ready for the show in Birmingham, in Ikon.”

I guess you’re one of a small number of artists who has had an impact on the landscape in Prague with a couple of your works. One is the streetlamp pointing to heaven under the Nusle Bridge [frequent scene of suicides in the past], the other is the monument to a cyclist who was killed. Given that I presume there’s a lot of bureaucracy to get those works put up, what is your motivation in taking part in these kinds of public projects?

“We got to the paradise of electronic junk, which is in a suburb of Prague.”

“Yeah, it’s kind of bizarre that both of these sculptures which are in a public space in Prague have this funeral theme. It was not on purpose – it just happened.

“And in both cases I was really personally involved and I felt like this is something which needs to be done.

“The topic was strong for me and that’s why I decided to do them.

“Both of these sculptures have a long story to tell – how many different kinds of complications we had to go through.

“But I was not alone for that. I always had somebody behind me and basically we lobbied it out by persuading the politicians of these Prague quarters.

“And I’m still quite happy that we managed to make these two sculptures, because I have to say that I don’t like to make sculptures to entertain new, developed architecture.

“For me I always have to be, or I try to be, persuaded by myself that I want to make this sculpture in the city.

“So these two cases are like that.

Krištof Kintera - Memento Mori, photo: Robert Candra / Czech Radio

“I’m working on one more now, but I don’t know if I should say so [laughs].”

Could you tell us about the process of doing one of your works, from the idea to how you actually do it? I was thinking about Postnaturalia, which is going to be on show in Birmingham. It’s a kind of huge landscapes of cables and electronic components.

“It’s a saga, you know. It was kind of a long process. I think it took us two and a half or maybe three years.

“It started with a very small attempt to play with the theme. And it was getting larger and larger and finally I decided – together with the Italian museum Collezione Maramotti – that we would make kind of a huge installation out of it.

“And that kind of kicked me and made me make it bigger.

“I think the scale in that case is important.

“Because if you would do it only as a small bunch of drawings or small sculptures, the impact wouldn’t be so strong.

“So that’s we were doing it for quite a long time.

“To simplify the idea, I was impressed, and I’m still impressed, by systems of electronics and buildings and the fact that we are living in a huge, complicated miscellany of wires and hubs.

Krištof Kintera, Paradise Now, 2009, zinc coated steel.  Photo: Courtesy the artist

“And if you imagine that this is the same thing like nature does – like the root systems of flowers and trees – and you start to compare these things, all of a sudden it was an enormous inspiration.

“Because you open up any kind of instrument and you see these detailed, engineered platforms, but they look like architecture, or they look like flowers.

“For instance, the coils from old televisions: you break the television, you take away the coil – and it’s a beautiful blossom of a flower.

“And that’s amazing, because it was designed to be working and never designed to be seen as beauty.

“But this moment of taking the beauty out of the pragmatic, engineered conditions – it’s an adventure.”

Where do you get all of this stuff? You use so much of what looks like junk – old electronics and all kinds of things that people have thrown away. Do you go around scrap yards and places like that?

“Yes, we do [laughs].

“Fortunately, being around this topic of course, we finally got to the paradise of electronic junk, which is in a suburb of Prague and where they are basically sorting all electronic trash.

Krištof Kintera, photo: Ian Willoughby

“First when I went there I thought I will have a heart attack, because it was so strong, so amazing – the huge amount of any kind of old electronics you can imagine.

“There is everything. Everything that was made to work, that was made to help our lives to be more cozy – it’s there.

“And it’s an endless inspiration.”

Many of your works have great, really kind of attention-grabbing titles. How much is the title an element of the work?

“A very important one. Our society is still structured and communicated by language.

“So the fact that I do sculptures is that language doesn’t necessarily have to be enough – that’s why I do sculptures, or drawings.

“But we still use language to speak about it. To get to know and hear about how people read it and what they think.

“So thinking is so strongly connected with language, even though it’s not everything. But to describe things we’re still, you know, hooked into using language.

“That’s why the titles are of course important for me, because they kind of set up the thing. They are setting up the prism, the angle, how to look at the thing.

“Or maybe they just make you nervous – ‘what did he want to say by it?’

The benches on the sides comprise the laboratory of the work Postnaturalia, Rudolfinum gallery, Prague, photo: Ian Willoughby

“And all of a sudden things are happening, and people have stuff to think about.”

A lot of people who I know brought their children to your last big show at Rudolfinum in Prague. I think a lot of kids really love your work – they find it very playful. Is that something that’s gratifying to you, to see kids taking so much delight in your work?

“I’m very happy that kids can read the language I’m bringing.

“But, I know this reaction and I’ve heard it many times.

“On the other hand, I have to always say that the show was not structured and designed as a children’s park.

“It was more designed for adults, because the context of the thing needs an adult view of the complexity of society.

“But again, to see that even quite young people and kids can read it by themselves, differently than I expected…

“And not just kids, but also the older generation of people – we shouldn’t forget about that either, because the old people also become kids, in a way.

“And they also can read it.

“So it still makes me quite happy that there can be a universal language for more generations.”

As well as the more complex works that you produce, you also do a lot of these kind of throwaway pieces that are similar to posters, with slogans or words on them, including The End of Fun!, which is being shown at the Ikon gallery. What place do those pieces have in your work?

The Postnaturalia laboratory shows visitors how some exhibits were made, Rudolfinum gallery, Prague, photo: Ian Willoughby

“They play a very important part in my work, because some of the projects are quite huge and time-demanding or technically complicated.

“When you’re doing, for instance, Earthquake Machine out of 80 washing machines, it takes time.

“You spend a lot of time just building stuff, moving stuff.

“I love it, but at the same time I miss this direct output.

“So the drawings, I call them drawings, make me have a result quite easily and to keep going and doing art.

“Otherwise I would sometimes feel like an engineer or a metalworker.

“And that’s why I do these drawings, because I’m still an artist [laughs].”

Capitalism and consumerism is a kind of target, I guess you could say, of a lot of your work. Is it ever a struggle for you to reconcile your politics with the world of art, where so much of it seems to revolve around money?

“You know, I wouldn’t point it at capitalism directly.

“I would rather point it at society, by itself.

“Because I don’t think the problems of the world can be thrown only at capitalism – every system has its weak moments, no matter if it’s socialism or capitalism.

“So I’m rather making these short messages that are pointing to different kinds of problems we all face.

“It doesn’t have to be only consumerism or our way of life – it’s also psychology, it’s also just feelings, everything that we live every day.

“What comes into my mind I try to kind of take and put it back together again in a kind of shortcut, to make people think about basic things.”

But still, corporations are major buyers of sculptures. Is that something you have a problem with?

“Not really. Because corporations or big companies don’t buy sculptures from me.

“Except for one, to be honest – I have one sculpture at a big energy company [CEZ], that is true, and I don’t want to hide this moment.

“But this moment made me really think about where a sculpture ends up and who is buying it.

“Sometimes you make mistakes – because I consider this as a little mistake I made – and you learn not to make bad decisions again.

“So I don’t remember that usually I would be selling sculptures to big companies.

“Sculptures are hard to sell to, you know, anyone [laughs].”

The End of Fun!

Ikon Gallery

Birmingham

United Kingdom

September 17–November 22, 2020