La Biennale di Venezia / The 52nd International Art Exhibition
On October 30, 2006, the selection committee met to assess the projects submitted to the National Gallery for the 52nd Biennal in Venice. Out of the twenty projects before them that day, Collection – Series by Irena Jůzová, an artist who lives in Prague and works in the town of Benátky nad Jizerou (Benátky = Czech for Venice), emerged victorious.
OFFICIAL WEBSITES: La Biennale di Venezia / The 52nd International Art Exhibition
Kunstforum - pictures from Czech and Slovak pavilon
Irena Jůzová, Collection – Series, texts for Press Release The joint pavilion of the Czech and Slovak Republics presents the project Sample Collection – Series by the creative artist living in Praha and creating in Benátky nad Jizerou - Irena Jůzová (1965).
The completion of the project took place in co-operation with the National Gallery in Prague. One of the most defining phenomena of the post-modern era is the fact that the world of art has accepted the principles of the free market. These have been adopted not only in terms of trading in works of art, but in all areas. The very inception of a work of art is subject to these laws, both in the role of the artist, the hunger for fresh goods, the managerial role of art theoreticians, and so forth. The atmosphere of the art scene is undistinguishable from that of the commodity market in consumer goods. Though a work of art is in some sense a commodity, this is true only in certain very partial aspects. It can be commissioned, or sold, and can even function as a form of financial capital, but on the other hand this is not what a work of art is, essentially, as the value of a work of art cannot be established. Let me cite an example: the value of gold is established based on its degree of fineness, the quality of meat or vegetables is determined by their freshness or type; in other words, by measurable and qualitative parameters. A painting – such as Van Gogh’s Sunflowers – is just a piece of canvas of mean quality, covered with paint that has moreover been subject to the ravages of time, so that today the painting is different than when it first emerged from the artist’s studio. The price for a piece of canvas smeared with paint is the price of the faith that we entrust in this object, for a certain hope that this relic gives us, even if this hope does not spring from the reality of the artifact, but from a haze of notions that cannot be measured.
This lengthy and seemingly irrelevant introduction is necessary to enter into thinking about Irena Jůzová’s work – entitled “Collection-Series.” The resulting object the artist puts before us is a shop – a traditional commercial space filled with standard furniture and boxes with merchandise. A shop of this kind could sell pretty much anything – but most likely some kind of luxury goods. But now it strikes me that what the artist is offering is in fact highly luxury merchandise. In this market form she offers a part of her private and very individual Self. She thus creates casts of the skin of her own body, almost indistinguishable from real skin, offering these for sale, or at least presenting them as items for sale. Flaunting one’s privacy has long been common practice in both Modernist and post-modern art. I cannot resist quoting the notorious bon mot about the Romantic Czech 19th century poet Karel Hynek Mácha, who kept very open private diaries. After these were published – this naturally did not happen until the late 20th century – one theoretician commented, that today Mácha would have presented his secret texts publicly, while he would have kept his lyrical poems secret in his diary. We must also note, that even though the artist offers herself – it is only the surface of her physical being. She consistently keeps the rest of her personality to herself.
Post-modern art has brought a fascination with the surface as the final product. The surface began to play the role of something comprehensive. Still, I do not believe that Irena Jůzová takes this aspect into account, she merely as it were repeats the early ritual of the snake shedding its skin, or the human ritual of undressing the virgin, and instead of accentuating the snake in its new skin, or the virgin in her new role, she offers us only the discarded shells. In order to make them desirable, however, she accordingly adjusts these skins, offering them as she does for sale in a chic boutique that could easily be at home on Sunset Boulevard or the Champs-Elysées. In a sense, it is a parallel to the situation in art, where there exists the all-mighty taste of the mainstream, which wants to take possession of anything that promises to become a commodity on some kind of a market, whether this be the financial market, or the market of ideas, curiosities and surprises. In this work, Irena Jůzová clearly demonstrates that despite luxurious packaging, we purchase mostly (or in fact perhaps always) only the surface, in her case an industrialized copy of a surface. It is a strange kind of deception, as if an exhibitionist was flashing a prosthetic member. Would such an exhibitionist be persecuted?
The reality of the contemporary world is multilayered – at least this is how the post-modern individual experiences it. Very often, a single layer is seen as representative of the whole, or as the whole itself. Jůzová endeavors to avoid this kind of simplified perspective. Right from the start we are aware that the product she offers is authentic only secondarily. It comes to mind that it is in fact secondary authenticity that is typical for the world today – only I am at a loss how to define this secondary authenticity.
And it is perhaps in the world without definitions that art dwells, and so does the work of Irena Jůzová, as presented at the Biennale in Venice.
Irena Jůzová’s “Collection-Series”
Irena Jůzová presents in the Czech and Slovak pavilion at the Venice Biennale a lukopren cast of her body. The idea to cast and exhibit the surface of one’s own body, or somebody else’s body is not new in art – what is new and significant is the input of this artist in the context of contemporary culture. In a study on Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze writes that “…we continue to produce ourselves as a subject on the basis of old modes which do not correspond to our problems.” Irena Jůzová puts her own body on exhibition, not as a sexually attractive, or topical gender motif, but as an industrial product. Evidently it is not an expression of intimacy that she is after. In her rendition, the body is stripped of attractive aesthetic and psychological motivations. The loss of all traditional connotations of the body as a subject of sexual and social relations, as the motif of an anthropological alternative within the framework of attempts to preserve life in the universe are balanced by the artist’s effort to connect (or confront) the moment of exposing her own body with the visual rendering of naked function-power, which manipulates human beings just as it manipulates works of art. This effort at self-presentation is an attempt to strip the body of certain motifs that are easily usurped by mass communication and market forces in favor of the emotions and instincts by which this form of power achieves its victory over art. In this sense the presentation of the imprint of one’s body in the context of a luxury boutique made of prefabricated paper architecture is an act of detachment, of inquiry as well as critique.
The artist herself regards exposing and reflecting on a cast of her body as a turning point in both her life and work. More than the traditional meanings of shedding one’s skin as we know them from nature and the rituals that come to terms with this phenomenon, the installation of Irena Jůzová has more to do with the definition of la pensée du dehors, the thought from outside, that is, with a paradigm of art distinct from those operating in the culture of the classical era, bound as they were to the norm of art as a metaphysical transcendence of the world of objects. Instead of metaphysics, there is fact; instead of singularity, there is mass-production. Instead of empathy, there is self-visualization. The lukopren skin bears no visible signs of a singular message, but has all the appearance of merchandise being displayed in shop-windows, and presented in industrially produced packaging. Artificial skin, “purged” of artistic connotations, thus opens the way to other meanings than those persistent in art that remains subordinate to power.
In Irena Jůzová’s work, the stripping and shedding of one’s skin has a purifying, regenerating meaning, if only in the sense that it saves the artist from the possibility, or expected obligation, of any kind of personal or artistic confession. Artificial skin is a signifier of her physical absence. All that the artist leaves behind is an imprint, the writing of a plastic text in showcases and boxes bearing the imprinted name, Irena Jůzová. She substitutes with a cast of her skin the expected, singular and physical “self” in favor of something more essential that lies between her and the contemporary world, between life and the forces that curb life today. It is a game of billiards, of sophisticated hits and misses by poetics and aesthetics in the face of the reality of the era of mass manipulation, of the production and distribution of culture as commodity.
Just as the lukopren cast is a sign of the artist’s absence, the concept of the installation in the pavilion as such is a sign of the absence of seeing architecture as the traditional structure which it purports to be. It is not made of tectonic functional elements, but serially-produced paper casts, in the shape of the architectural elements of classical structural styles. If the tectonic function in modern-day buildings is identified with art, then, as Adolf Loos put it, architecture as art in the traditional sense can realize itself only as sculpture or as tombstone. The architectonic set of Irena Jůzová’s installation draws one into its game of loss of identity and the revelations of secondary authenticity (as Milan Knížák terms one of the key features of contemporary culture). Within the setting of the Czech and Slovak pavilion, Irena Jůzová presents a game not only with the imprint of her body, but also with the imprints of architectonic elements as a daring metaphor of a memorial, or mausoleum of art as manipulated by the market.