The exhibition at TRAFO Center for Contemporary Art marks the first show to present the oeuvre of Jiří Kovanda (born in 1953) to the Szczecin public. One of the most prominent and influential figures on the contemporary art scene in the Czech Republic, Kovanda creates art that is widely acknowledged and frequently presented in the international context. Since 2000, he has been invited to participate in a number of key art shows, including Dokumenta 13 in Kassel in 2007, the Sao Paulo Biennial in 2012, and the Istanbul Biennial in 2013. His works are held in the collections of prestigious institutions, such as Centre Pompidou in Paris and the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
With the exhibitions at the Arsenal Gallery Bialystok (2012) and at the Wroclaw Contemporary Museum (2013), Kovanda’s art is certainly not unknown in Poland. In fact, his first solo show was presented at the Mospan Gallery in Warsaw in 1976. The decision to make the artistic debut abroad was caused by the destructive social situation at the peak of the “normalisation period” in the then Communist Czechoslovakia. Given the political situation, any unrestricted public presentation of Kovanda’s work was practically impossible.
The exhibition at TRAFO is different from Kovanda’s previous appearances in Poland. It falls into the category of the artist’s less frequent but more inspirational projects involving monumental site-specific interventions, with previous examples including the installations in the classic white cube of the Vienna Secession Pavilion in 2010, or the unorthodox Palacio de Cristal in Madrid (part of the Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofia) in 2012. In his artistic projects, Kovanda always sensitively responds not only to the characteristic layout of the exhibition space, but also to its factual, denotative and, quite frequently, emotional impact.
The installation created for the monumental main hall of the TRAFO building (a repurposed transformer station) is a dominant, determinative, yet subtle and, to a certain extent, intimate piece. It is composed of hundreds of meters of standard electric cables, light sockets and glowing bulbs, arranged in vertical lines that flow through the gallery space, and thus temporarily restore its original function. The artist simultaneously turns to what is one of the deepest origins of the human civilization: the perception of and reflection on the infinity of the universe, with its main point of reference determined by the real and metaphorical energies of the stars illuminating the night sky. Kovanda uses light points to compose images of the constellations of Aries, Delphinus, Lyra and Libra, unobtrusively commenting on the conversion of the former industrial facility into a “contemporary art facility and observatory”. The installation has a hidden electrifying and provocative potential, since the energy that used to be generated here and distributed further to meet the needs of the local community, remains accumulated, visualized and sacralized within the building walls. The artist offers this concentrated, subtly radiating power to the contemporary visitors for their own use – as if inviting them to transform into moving human capacitors distributing the positive energy of artistic experience in their surroundings. To experience such state it is necessary to stop in the middle of Kovanda’s flashing force field, come to a standstill in the subtle darkness, search for the sources of individual potential and illuminate the most remote corners of imagination, forgotten in the hustle and bustle of the daily routine.
The concept of Kovanda’s installation in the main hall embraces a number of older works, showcased in the side galleries and mezzanines. The selection represents the most crucial tendencies in the artist’s work and provides a broader context for his dominant, unrepeatable site-specific piece that react to the architectural structure and former function of the impressive building.
A small selection of works borrowed from various collections familiarize the viewer with Kovanda’s iconic actions and minimalist interventions dating back to the period between the late 1970s and early 1980s. It features experimental visual forms the artist created in his post-conceptual period in the 1990s, in the atmosphere of the post-totalitarian social transformation. Aside from that, it includes examples of Kovanda’s return to performative forms and subversive site-specific installation art characterizing the expressive strategy he developed in the new millennium. The logically limited scope of the exhibition at TRAFO makes it possible to consistently follow one of the determinant latent aspects of Jiří Kovanda’s art – a relationship to space. In Szczecin, the above relationship is brought into focus in a natural way, by use of the light verticals.
Aside from the emphasis placed on the dimensional relationships, there has been a fundamental transformation in Kovanda’s perception of space in the social, geographic and emotional senses. It has been a gradual process which started back in the 1970s and has continued, in several waves, until now. In this respect, Kovanda’s art has been influenced, among other things, by political changes, speeding-up globalization and technological development. Although Jiří Kovanda has created a small number of truly large and dominant works, the perception and thematization of space remains one of the most important long-term issues he deals with in his self-reflective expressive mode. Such approach to art might be the reason why Kovanda has had a significant influence on the situation in the art world at the start of the new millennium. Created under completely different circumstances and with diametrically varying parameters to establish and experience social and physical dimensions, Kovanda’s works – both old and new, open the path to defining a new identity for the contemporary Czech, and, in a broad sense, Central European art. It is the identity that has one foot in the past and one foot in the future, based on open participation in the accessible surroundings and spatial relationships that reflect the physical capabilities of an individual trying to resist the accelerating virtualization of social existence and technological dependence. In this respect, a synonym that may be used for Kovanda’s perception of space is closeness. Closeness has been the crucial theme in the process of developing not only expressive strategies but also the actual purpose of art in a number of the Central European countries, which are slowly but ever more distinctively following a circular path leading back to ideological vacuum and impersonal systemic manipulation.