Michal Cimala – Avant garde instruments and sculptures (from the Berlino to snowguitars) at Prague’s DOX


In this week’s Arts we visit Prague’s DOX Gallery of contemporary art featuring a new exhibition by young Czech artist, avant garde musician and assistant professor at the Academy of Fine Arts, Michal Cimala. Entitled Posun (Shift) Michal Cimala’s new show features everything from sketches to photographs, as well as free-standing avant garde sculptures which also function as industrial musical instruments. The 35-year-old artist makes no secret that his work, made from plastic industrial piping, metal, and even old snowboards (his series of snowguitars) are all to a degree inspired by the bleak industrial area of Havířov where he grew up.

Michal Cimala
I spoke to Michal Cimala recently on site at the DOX gallery and we began by talking about industrial influences.

“This is simply from my childhood because I was born in a very industrial area near Ostrava in Moravia. This area is full of iron and metal works and sometimes the landscape appears very sad because the basic colour is black! So this is a very strong and important influence for me from my early years.”

A lot of people would expect you to have the opposite reaction: was there ever a time when you disliked it and wanted, simply, to escape? “Yeah, that’s a precise question, exactly. Because... I ended up studying in a very nice area, in Turnov in a place called Czech Paradise and so I left the industrial background behind to an area that was fully in nature.”

I know that you studied abroad as well as at the UMPRUM (Academy of Fine Arts, Architecture and Design) here in the capital: did you come back to industrial elements through design or through your artwork?

“During my school years at UMPRUM I incorporated some of those elements in body art and jewellery design in the beginning: my professor was Vratislav Novák, the creator of the metronome overlooking Prague (where a statue of Stalin once stood). But then I left for an internship in Berlin and things changed again. It was in Berlin that I began working with new materials and changed a little bit in my way of thinking: I started working with plastic, plexiglass, and later in Prague I built my first musical objects.”

We’re going to talk about those of course, but it says here in the brochure that some of these pipes were from gas companies...

“That’s right: when I was in Berlin I lived in an area called Prenzlauer Berg and our street there were people repairing the pipeline and I used to walk by there every day more than one month. At the time, my professor said ‘Hey Michal what have you been doing? I haven’t seen any new work from you yet’. Then, one day I was walking along the pipeline so I took a piece of pipe and began to work with it and developed a special curve and cut the pipe and developed an experimental sculpture in plastic. I did two separate pieces and later took them to Prague, where I put some construction inside and some pick-ups from electric guitars and developed my first instrument which I called Berlino (Berlin in Italian).”

Some of the pieces that are exhibited here have very refined shapes and in a bright yellow they are somehow reminiscent of a Lamborghini or space-age items... How are the items manufactured?

“The material is polyethylene but it is just cut with machinery although sometimes the items appear to have been cast. Because the first piece was yellow, I simply love it and have continued with that. For some reason the pipes in Western Europe are always yellow while in Eastern Europe they are black with yellow stripes. And I use both. Combined they appear like some kind of animal – a salamander – but I like working with both.”

I indeed thought that a couple of the items were cast from a mold because of how carefully they were put together, compared to something like the snowguitars, which are more obviously refined by hand.

“The snowguitars are a different story. Four years ago a friend and fellow artist at our studio in Prague (Trafačka) gave me a broken snowboard and I got the idea of make a special guitar for a performance so I simply cut it into the shape I wanted, made the design more weird, added strings and a pick-up and I used it for performances for a year or so before selling it to a collector. So I lost the piece but a friend of mine asked a snowboard manufacturer if they would be willing provide old broken boards for me so that’s the arrangement.”

There is a very playful element to the guitars: one is fuzzy, another has antlers attached: what is your relationship to found-object?

“I have two approaches: in some case I draw everything in advance and develop all the parts of the work individually; the other way, the snowboard way, is more like assemblage, with references to historical pieces by Max Ernst or Picasso or the Dadaists. Sometimes I have items lying around the studio for years, everyday objects, and sometimes for fun I spontaneously add them to something. So that’s the relationship.”

What strings do you use with the instruments?

“Usually I use electric guitar strings but now I use bass and even piano strings. It is possible to tune the instruments but they are not complex: they are only two-tone instruments so they are not really difficult to play. You can play minimal riffs or use slide guitar techniques. It’s for people who feel music but not really for professional musicians, although they can use them too. I want to have a special band and after ten years since I began ten years ago I feel I am onto something now, although I don’t fully know what just yet!”

I was watching your video on your website and was surprised by the some of sounds you get out of the instruments: do you enjoy performing? It looks like you do: in the video you have two instruments and this helmet on...

“Yes of course and it can be great if you are properly prepared and if you have some experience. But I still get nervous, even if we had our group for seven years. The video is for the exhibition and shows which sticks and items I use to make sounds and how the instruments work. It also features footage showing how the snowguitars work.”

Be sure to visit Michal Cimala’s website www.michalcimala.cz to learn more about current and past projects.