Not just body parts – exploring Miroslav Páral’s exhibition at GOMA
Just a few minutes away from Charles Bridge, overlooking the picturesque Old Town square, lies GOMA, or the “Gallery of Modern Art ” as it calls itself in English. Having just opened earlier this year, it has bold plans to become a “living space” in the city. For now, however, it may be described as a little bit of Český Krumlov in Prague, exhibiting the works of one of the town's prominent modern artists – Miroslav Páral.
Upon first look, you could be excused for thinking that all that was ever on this man’s mind were breasts and vulvae. The front room, and indeed several others, are lined with statues of female torsos with animal heads, their sexual glands greatly exaggerated.
Indeed, a mugshot of the artist, dressed in prison clothes and holding a serial number, may suggest this fascination landed him behind bars. But the curator of the exhibition, Veronika Láníková, assures me that there is a far deeper meaning behind these pieces.
“These are not the only things that he specialized in. We can take them as metaphors for other themes. For example, towards the end of communism, he was in Ukraine, in Chernobyl, and this visit had a powerful impact on him.
“He started to focus on the structure of the human body and began to modify human bodies, mixing them with those of animals. In some body parts he placed special inner themes. For example, fingers are something that transfers your inner energy into the world around you. Legs on the other hand are something that gives you the earth’s energy. Of course, these vaginas and boobs that you mentioned where used by him to shock people."
Speaking of Chernobyl, I understand that he visited this location in 1986 – the same year that the infamous nuclear accident took place – and this whole series of figure sculptures bears the title “The Aggression of Time”. Could you explain why?
“The visit to Ukraine was accidental. While he was there, he came into contact with Ukrainian artists, something that was not allowed at that time by the local government.
“These artists, the Ukrainian people in general in fact, could not talk about what was really happening around Chernobyl, but he had the opportunity to meet with them and see what had happened.”
“These artists, the Ukrainian people in general in fact, could not talk about what was really happening around Chernobyl, but he had the opportunity to meet with them and see what had happened.
“’The Aggression of Time’ therefore describes the aggression of social development in Ukraine and not only in that country, but in the whole of the Eastern Bloc. It was very violent towards the general population and he wanted to show how Chernobyl, the experience of communist rule and everything around that had affected normal people.
“He began to focus on the structure of the body and how societal disasters could be reflected on society in general.”
“It is a powerful reaction when we compare it with his earlier artwork, because, in the beginning, he was actually focused on physics, especially astrophysics. His earlier themes focused on a time of construction, but after his visit to Chernobyl he started to work on ‘The Aggression of Time’ as a sort of reaction to what he had done previously. He began to focus on the structure of the body and how societal disasters could be reflected on society in general.”
The artist’s fascination with body parts becomes clearer when we move to the next rooms. Here, the afore mentioned torsos are still present, but one also notices the fingers that the curator described earlier. They are in various sizes, some simply point up towards the ceiling, others hold various objects such as lamps, tables or tea kettles.
There are also many statues of teeth. These, in turn, were designed by the artist for practical use as either wine pedestals or ashtrays. They are based on a cast of Páral’s own teeth, Ms Láníková says, adding that he got the inspiration for this section of his work during his journey to the United States in the year 2000.
“It was again something what he was not planning. He was invited to a university to hold some lectures about ceramics and his artwork in general. He didn't know what to do there. He had so many ideas, but he didn't know how the students in America would react to them.
“He was trying to come up with a good topic when he accidentally put a cast of his teeth in his suitcase. He realized this once he had arrived in the US and thought to himself that this could actually be the theme that he was looking for.
“So he started to work on it with the students, coming up with ways to use these teeth. He also had many friends who were smokers and he liked wine, so this is another reason why many of his statues would end up as ashtrays and wine pedestals.”
The star artist who liked to provoke
Despite being born in Prague, Miroslav Páral always saw himself as a native of Český Krumlov. His family had originally been from that town and moved back there when he was just five years old. It was also in Český Krumlov that he opened his studio after graduating from the Secondary School of Ceramics in Bechyně. Páral’s love for ceramic art is evidenced by the fact that many of his sculptures were made using earthenware. He also worked towards making the South Bohemian town into a country-wide center for Czech ceramic art, Ms Láníková adds.
“He founded the Czech Ceramic Design Agency in 1991, an organization that is focused on Czech and Moravian ceramic art.”
“He founded the Czech Ceramic Design Agency there in 1991, an organization that is focused on Czech and Moravian ceramic art. He also organized several symposiums in Český Krumlov, inviting many artists from other countries. He tried to make the town into a location where Czech and foreign artists could meet and influence each other.”
The agency, which still organizes regular annual international exhibitions in Český Krumlov, was not the only footprint that Páral left on the town. His studio hosted many symposia focused on interdisciplinary overlaps in art and he organized several exhibition in the local castle. Later in life, Páral also managed to cause quite a stir in the UNESCO-listed town when he installed several of his works in one of its public spaces, the curator says.
“It used to be by the river, practically in the center of Český Krumlov. He and his friends cleaned a public space around the river and put his sculptures there.
“Many of the locals liked it, but after a few years, when the municipal government changed, a dispute occurred between Páral and the authorities. They didn't want it in the public space anymore. He disagreed and, in the end, all his sculptures that were displayed there ended up being destroyed.”
Despite or perhaps also because of this incident, Miroslav Páral was a treasured citizen of Český Krumlov. His art was recognized and displayed at exhibitions both in Czechia as well as abroad and he received two awards from his hometown during his lifetime in recognition of his achievements.
Locked up by Angela Merkel
The controversy of his installation fits well into the general pattern of his work. He was an artist who liked to be radical and shock his audience. Towards the end of his life this would show itself again during the Migrant Crisis that hit Europe in 2015. Páral was very much opposed to a European Commission proposal for an EU-wide quota system that would allocate migrants to each member state. It was during this phase that he produced the series of images of himself as a prisoner in a mugshot that are noticeable when one enters the gallery.
On one of these pictures Germany’s Chancellor at the time, Angela Merkel, can be seen posing too, dressed as a priest. I asked Ms Láníková what led him to express himself in this way.
“You have to understand that he and people like him, who were often aged 80 or more during the time of the Islamic State and who had lived in the Eastern Bloc for much of their lives, were very allergic to being told what they have to do.”
“This is a problematic issue even today. You have to understand that he and people like him, who were often aged 80 or more during the time of the Islamic State and who had lived in the Eastern Bloc for much of their lives, were very allergic to being told what they have to do.
“He just wanted to protect his moral statements and his values. And he always wanted to be able to have the choice of whether to say yes or no. Therefore, he didn't like the politics of Angela Merkel, Germany and France at that time. And he disliked the way how we had been told to take a specific number of refugees. In other words – being told what to do.”
How did this project itself into his art?
“He didn't like to being told what to do from above, so he just wanted to show how awful it is from his point of view. He first made a study of drawings, but this was just the first step in a larger work of protest.
“He started a series called ‘Islamization of Europe’ to show how some Islamic radicals behave towards women, seeing them just as a sexual object.”
“He started a series called ‘Islamization of Europe’to show how some Islamic radicals behave towards women, seeing them just as a sexual object. These female statues have no hands, because hands are something that protect you. Those sculptures are only feminine and have they have big vaginas. This brings us back to the one of the first questions you asked: ‘Why vaginas and boobs?’”
He's highlighting their objectification?
“Yes, exactly. And, as everybody who comes into the gallery can see, these statues have no faces. It is the author’s reaction to the topic.”
The whole display, spread across several large rooms, bears the title “Unfinished Exhibition”. Unfinished, because Miroslav Páral died last year at the age of 67, after contracting a virus. Opened in honor of his memory, the exhibition was originally intended to run from mid-June to the end of August, but has now been extended until the end of September. Visitors also have the opportunity to purchase a wide variety of replicas of Páral’s works. These include his practical artwork, such as the teeth ashtrays, but also exhibits like a large red bench, designed to look like it was built using giant thorns.
Why opening a gallery in Prague is “suicide”
As we carefully sit ourselves on this spiky seat, I ask the curator what it’s like to open a new gallery in a city so well known for its rich culture.
“It's suicide. It's horrible. We are all positive of course and we try to be in a good mood, but it's extremely hard, because we have a lot of competition. We are located on Betlémské náměstí and we cooperate with other culture centers here, but it is very hard of course.”
Why is that so?
“Money. Money and the competition of other big and older galleries, of course.”
Since you mentioned money, one thing that struck me is that you specialize in modern art and there has been quite a lot of growth in that sector of the Czech art market over the past years. In fact, according to some experts, it's the fastest growing segment of the art sector in terms of sales. Was this one of the reasons why you have chosen to focus on modern art or did you just like it?
“It is the passion of the owner of our gallery. And, yes, we hope we can also sell the art.”
Have you had any success, and could you perhaps tell me a bit more about what you offer?
“Success comes, but very slowly. We are still in the beginning. For this exhibition we offer all the copies of his graphics, as well as his porcelain, which is also very interesting. There are those topics of fingers and teeth again and if somebody is interested we can give them a contact to the owners and we can help them to buy those sculptures. But our point is now to sell smaller pieces and invite people to come in to the gallery.”
One of the ways in which the GOMA team intends to bring more visitors, half of whom are currently foreigners I am told, is to transform it into what they call a “living space” within the city. Ms Láníková explains the details of this bold plan as we get off the bench and head down into the gallery’s unused but extensive Gothic cellars.
“The plan is to make something like a center for two different sorts of people here. One group would be something like normal visitors to a gallery. The people who just want to have a look and maybe walk around the gallery. The second group are people who want to enjoy something special, and we think that wine, especially choice wine from the Moselland area would serve that purpose well.
“This building itself is also very interesting, so we would like to keep our visitors in here for a little longer. I would be very pleased to tell them about the history of these spaces. The oldest part of this house is from the 14th century and there used to be stables here too.”
The cellars are indeed quite large, their arched ceilings indicative of their age and the thought of wine standing on Miroslav Páral’s teeth pedestals comes to my mind as I take one last glance at the space before the curator leads me into the inner block, where a group of workers is busy clearing out a cabin that she hopes will soon serve a special purpose too.
“I want to teach people basic art techniques related to the exhibitions that we organize here. I want to show people the work that goes into such art techniques, so I am planning a series of small, short workshops.”
“This is another part of our idea of a living center. I want to teach people basic art techniques related to the exhibitions that we organize here. So, for example, here we have graphic art and also clay sculptures. I want to show people the work that goes into such art techniques, so I am planning a series of small, short workshops.
“Of course, based on what exhibition is currently on display, we can also focus on other kinds of art, such as paintings or glass. Most likely, we will focus on sculpting, printing, graphic design or drawing.
“So, you come into the gallery, you look at the art and you either choose to buy something, or just find inspiration to try something out in our workshop.”
The last piece in the team’s strategy is to make use of the fact that GOMA is a private gallery, she says, in a revelation that is likely to be attractive not just to a certain type of visitor, but bold artists too.
“We just think that if something is good, if it’s provocative, but it has good artistic and technical value, we should show it.”
“We are not afraid to show very problematic themes. The point is, we take no money from the state. It is our decision what we choose to display and I think that makes us more independent. We are not interested in mainstream modern art topics. We just think that if something is good, if it’s provocative, but it has good artistic and technical value, we should show it.”
GOMA (Česká Galerie Moderního Umění) is a newly opened gallery located on Prague’s Betlémské náměstí. It exhibits the works of established as well as up-and-coming artists and sells art too.