Vit Havránek - head of the Tranzit Display gallery in Prague

Vít Havránek

My guest today on One on One is Vit Havránek, head of the Tranzit Display gallery in Prague. Vit opened up this space for contemporary art last November, after working for many years at the National Gallery in Prague. He publishes and edits books of young Czech artists’ work, and has been charged with amassing one of the biggest collections of Central European art today by the Austrian bank Erste. I met him in the café of his new gallery to ask him a bit about the way he used the space:

“So, very briefly, we call the space a ‘backstage for contemporary art’, the title of the space is ‘Tranzit Display’, but a kind of explanatory title is ‘backstage for contemporary art’. We call it this because it is not only a gallery where contemporary art is exhibited, but there is another bunch of activities which we offer people, which are connected to contemporary art, but which aren’t necessarily art itself. So we also organize lectures with architects, art historians, curators and artists, and then we run here a small bookstore and a small café, where people can sit and consult and look at our books and stuff related to contemporary art, and we also organize projections. But of course, the main task of the space is to house exhibitions of course.”

Is there some sort of over-arching theme that is going through all of the things that you have had on display here so far?

“Yes, we have a few topics, but one of the biggest things is that we are really interested in the history of art, a little bit in the 1960s, 1970s and the 1980s. So, what we are also trying to do with our publishing programme is to discover artists from the 1970s who either are not known, or who are very important for contemporary art. One of the big topics of this gallery is the connection of the youngest generations of artists with these older artists. And the other thing is to follow the idea of contemporary art branching out into a wide range of things, like music, like sound art, like theatre and cinema. So this is another thing that we are interested in following.”

It seems like going back to the 1970s is rather fashionable in Prague at the moment, there has just been an exhibition of 1970s fashion, and 1970s interior design. Do you think that revisiting the 1970s is a current trend in the Czech Republic?

“Definitely it is trendy, and I think it isn’t only a trend, but it also has a strong meaning. I think generally all of Eastern, all of Central Europe has an interest in its recent history, we are always recounting it, we are always coming back to it, and we were all strongly influenced by the events of the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s. So we are trying to understand our current situation through an understanding of our history. So I think it is trendy, but I think there is a strong reason why. And that’s it.”

In recent months there has been an increasing amount of pressure on the head of the National Gallery, Milan Knížák, to step down. There has been a petition drafted calling for him to resign. As the head of a Czech contemporary art collection, do you agree with these calls?

“Yes, I signed the petition too, and I think it is completely right. Because I am often invited to different lectures, conferences and symposia abroad, and there is a view of the Czech Republic from the outside that it is as if the National Gallery doesn’t exist at all. And it is supposed to be the main institution because budget-wise and collection-wise it is the key institution in the country. And it is not at all functioning on an international level. So I think this petition is right and I think that we should ask him to really reconsider and leave.”

Am I right in thinking that this space is contributed to financially by Erste Bank, and that through this space, the bank would like to build up a very strong, very good collection of Central European art? Can I ask you what defines Central European art, just where it was made, or any key themes that different artists have in common?

“It is a good and important question, and it is not easy to answer, but at least, I think, we got rid of this idea of Eastern European art, which is a similar kind of label. The interesting thing is that if you use, for example, this title of ‘Eastern European art’ then you are looking at this art firstly as an ethnographic object, which means that it is an object which is supposed to tell you more about ethnography than it is about art. And I don’t think the same pressure is put on works labeled ‘Central European art’. Because there is no such ethnographical demand placed on works coming from Central Europe, it is just a kind of geographical denomination. So I would agree, yes, it is just a technical denomination for art coming from a certain region, which doesn’t necessarily have any basic aesthetic or formal characteristics.”

Would you say, however, that there are some predominant trends in art currently coming from Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland? Or not even that?

“Yes, I think there is, like I said, this very strong interest in history. If you look at Hungarian art and a group like Little Warsaw, and Polish artists like Wilhelm Sasnal, then they are very much wondering about history and working with very specific historical events and topics. And this is the same in Czech art. So there is a certain general interest in where we are coming from, what is our past and how it influences the current situation somehow.”

You were saying that at international conferences, the Czech National Gallery is not seen as an international big-hitter, would you say that Czech art in general is?

“I wouldn’t say this. There is a certain phenomenon of Polish art for example, which is related to the art market and also the size of the country, because Poland is quite a large country. So there is no such phenomenon with Czech art. But what has happened recently is that the art world has liberalized, and there are some really strong artists who are part of the international context somehow, and it doesn’t matter if they are Czech, or Hungarian, or if they are German. And this is also a result of political development, because we are now members of the European Union, which means that we are a lot less exotic now than we were in the 1990s.”

When you have a day off and you want to go and look at a nice painting or two in Prague, where do you go? What is your favourite gallery, just as a visitor?

“I don’t have a favourite place, I don’t really go for the place, I am more looking at individual exhibitions. So I would go to the Rudolfinum and Prague Castle if there was an interesting exhibition going on. So I think I don’t have a favourite space, but I try to go to the small galleries, for example Karlín Studios is an interesting space, and Futura – these independent, not-for-profit spaces, that often have good contemporary art exhibitions.”