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Kniha: Czech Action Art -- Happenings, Actions, Events, Land Art, Body Art and Performance Art Behind The Iron Curtain – Pavlína Morganová

Czech Action Art -- Happenings, Actions, Events, Land Art, Body Art and Performance Art Behind The Iron Curtain

Kniha: Czech Action Art
Autor: Pavlína Morganová
Podtitul: Happenings, Actions, Events, Land Art, Body Art and Performance Art Behind The Iron Curtain

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Nakladatelství: » Karolinum
Médium / forma: Tištěná kniha
Rok vydání: 2014
Počet stran: 287
Rozměr: 21 cm
Úprava: ilustrace
Vydání: 1st English ed.
Spolupracovali: english translation by Daniel Morgan
Skupina třídění: Umění
Jazyk: anglicky
Vazba: kniha, brožovaná vazba
Datum vydání: 14.02.2014
Nakladatelské údaje: Prague, Karolinum, 2014
ISBN: 9788024623177
EAN: 9788024623177
Ukázka: » zobrazit ukázku
Popis / resumé

Vznik a vývoj akčního umění, jeho formování a přehled akcí v českém prostředí od konce 50. let až do současnosti.

Popis nakladatele

This is the first ever in-depth interpretation of Czech Action Art as a vast and very original stream of Czech post-war art within the context of the region´s complex socio-political history. Based on the author´s more than decade-long research, her interviews with artists and interpretations of many of their performances and other actions, Czech Action Art also features a list of all Czech Happenings, events, performances, body-art pieces, land-art related and other actions from the 1960s to 1989. With more than 200 illustrations, many of which have never appeared in publications, it provides a vivid picture of the Czech performance art scene. (happenings, actions, events, land art, body art and performance art behind the iron curtain)

Předmětná hesla
České umění – 20. století
Akční uměníČesko
Kniha je zařazena v kategoriích
Pavlína Morganová - další tituly autora:
Začátek století Začátek století
Někdy v sukni -- Umění 90.let Někdy v sukni
Jiří Kovanda -- Ještě jsem tu nebyl /Jeszcze tu nie byłem / I Haven´t Been Here Yet Jiří Kovanda
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List of Illustrations



Czech Action Art

The Artwork and Its Context - A Historical Framework

The Victory of the Idea over Matter - A Question of


Czech Performance Art from Futurism to the Present

I. A Breakthrough to the Everyday

1. Milan Knížák's Aktual

2. Czech Collective Actions

II. A Return to Nature

1. A Transformed Landscape

2. Nature and the Body

3. Elements

III. An Experience of the Body

1. The Prague Body-Art Troika

2. Performance Art of the 1970s and 80s


Post-1989 Czech Action Art

List of Actions

Czech Action Art 1960-1989



This book is the first comprehensive academic study of Czech

Action Art, including -performance, body art, and land art

related performance and actions, available in English. The fact

that this pioneering study breaks new ground in terms of its

subject matter is just one of its many merits. In this study,

Morganova presents a nuanced overview of the genre of action

art and its particular manifestations in the Czech Lands. Her

analysis combines local and global art historical and socio

political contextualization. She not only places the artists and

their artworks in a national context, informing the reader as to

the local social, political and historic circumstances that

stimulated and shaped the production of the work, but also

makes parallels with Western European and North American

counterparts, in order to draw out what is particular and unique

about Czech Action Art.

A rich introduction sets up the context for the development of

Action Art in the Czech lands, providing an overview of the

socio-political context that was integral to the development of

the genre. Morganova also addressed the difficulties that come

with researching and writing on the topic, mainly with regard to

documentation, as many of these works of art were not made

with an awareness that they would eventually become

historically important. The author's explanation is necessary to

understand the methods that she used to create the first written

history of Czech Action Art, relying heavily on original

interviews with the artists and access to their personal archives.

Finally, she discusses the likely sources for and pre-history of

Action Art in Czechoslovakia, which was decidedly different

from that of action and performance art in the West, namely in

its absence of Dadaist and Futurist traditions.

Following the introduction, Morganova divided the text into

three distinct sections, based on common themes that she

observed in her research: action art relating to the everyday;

land-based action art; and that which deals with the body. This

division is helpful to understanding the varying manifestations of

action art in the Czech lands. The author acknowledges that

these categories are fluid, and throughout the text cross

references with other chapters when the work of one artist fits

into more than one category.

The text strikes a good balance between historical

contextualization and art historical analysis, and a number of

artists and artworks are addressed. To the author's credit, this

thorough coverage is not done at the expense of in depth

analysis; none of the artists are glossed over and each is given a

full discussion and analysis. Of particular interest is the second

chapter, which focuses on Czech Action Art that is based on

nature and the land. This is a unique strand of performance and

action art that truly sets the Czech variant of the genre apart from

other manifestations of it, and underscores the Czechs' unique

contribution to the genre.

Chapters one and three will be of particular interest to those who

are familiar with some of the internationally renowned figures of

Czech Action Art, for example, Milan Knizak (who plays a

prominent role in chapter one), and the Czech Body Art "troika,"

Petr Stembera, Karel Miler and Jan Mlčoch, who are featured in

chapter three.

Finally, a substantial epilogue brings the reader up to date with

what is happening currently in the genre of Action Art in the

Czech Republic since the end of communism. This chapter is

important, as it discusses the post-communist period, and

demonstrates how Action Art continues to be a necessary and

relevant genre to artists, despite the new freedoms that

democracy brought with it. Together with the introduction,

which offers the pre-history, it functions as a nice bookend to the

main story of body and action art during the communist period.

This book has many strengths: it is written on the basis of

several years of dedicated research to the subject, and informed

by extensive interviews with the artists and access to of their

personal archives. Next, it contains a rich bibliography of both

Czech and international publications, which places it in dialogue

with global art history. In its comprehensive treatment, it

introduces the rest of the world to a number of unique and

fascinating Czech Action artists. Furthermore, with more than

200 illustrations, many of which have never appeared in

international publications, it provides a vivid picture of the

Czech performance art scene. Given that there is currently a

growing interest in the fields of performance, action and body

art, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe, the timing of this

publication could not be better. I am convinced that this book

will be well-awaited and eagerly devoured by art historians

throughout the world, as well as by those with an interest in the

particular socio-political context in this part of Central and

Eastern Europe.

Z recenzního posudku: Amy Bryzgel

Czech Action Art: Happenings, Actions, Events, Land Art, Body

Art and Performance Art Behind the Iron Curtain is an

invaluable guide to the uninitiated reader as well as providing

ample rewards for readers already familiar with the field, for

Morganová does not restrict her attention to the best known

artists, but casts her net widely, introducing the activities and

actions of a great many interesting figures who have yet to be

recognised internationally. The overarching thesis of Morganová

s study is that Action Art had a particular meaning under the

conditions of totalitarianism to which she refers throughout the

book. In this respect, her argument is a successor of the writings

of Jindřich Chalupecký (1910-1990), probably the most

important Czech art critic of the period with which the book is

concerned. Reflecting on his experience of living and working in

Prague, Chalupecký reflected that Art lived in catacombs here in

the 1950s and 60s, and therefore had a character and meaning

that is distinct from that in the West.... The different conditions

gave rise here to a different art, which is why it cannot continue

in the same direction that international art is developing. Modern

art has become a business affair there....' If Chalupecký was

pointing out that unofficial artists in Czechoslovakia operated

outside a market context, Morganová is also keen to stress the

degree to which Czech action art was a form of self-expression

that was independent of both political and market forces. She

notes that action art's 'unique authenticity and genuineness' was

profoundly connected to the fact that for most Czech artists it

could only ever be practiced as 'a kind of hobby usually done in

their spare time, outside art institutions, at their own expense', (p.

44) Given that 'totalitarianism' is central to her main thesis, it is

perhaps surprising that the first photographic illustration

included shows the demolition of the Stalin monument in Prague

on 28 October 1962 (the second shows a Fluxus Festival in

Prague of 1966). As becomes clear from the narrative that

follows, experimental artistic trends flourished and even

achieved a degree of risky visibility in the public space in the

mid-1960s; while relatively short-lived, such possibilities surely

marked the distance that had been travelled since the peak of

Stalinist terror. Morganovas focus is arguably on this later

period, post-1969, when reformist Alexander Dubček was

replaced by Gustav Husák as First Secretary and, according to a

Czech saying recounted by Morganová, 'socialism with a human

face' became 'socialism with goose-bumps'. Morganová refers to

the 1970s as a period in which 'Czech society learnt to live in a

collective schizophrenia between the private and public', with

anyone voicing their opposition finding themselves persecuted,

'oflen imprisoned or driven to emigrate or even commit suicide'.

And it was in this context that artists withdrew, she writes, into

'the privacy and security of small circles of friends where one

could live with mutual trust', (pp. 24-25) Although the political

picture she paints is bleak, and the term totalitarianism might, I

think, have been used more sparingly, or, better, replaced by

Václav Havel's concept of post-totalitarianism, Morganová's

account of the art of the period is both sensitive and upbeat, and

full of the sorts of intriguing details that can only by gleaned

from extensive interviews with participants.

The book is organised around three main themes: the everyday,

the return to nature - and the experience of the body. The

narrative opens in the period of relative freedom when

international trends began to be reflected in the Czech context:

1964-1968 saw exhibitions of Duchamp, Yves Klein, and Gutai

and a visit from John Cage, among others. The pioneer of this

early stage was Milan Knížák - the long-haired leader of the

proto-punk group Aktual Art. Morganová writes that when he

was invited to become the Head of Fluxus East, a role he

interpreted as being to 'promote Fluxus by all means possible',

the possibilities in totalitarian Czechoslovakia were limited,

though he wrote FLUXUS on his window, (p. 55) This minimal

gesture contrasts with the scale of the ambition of some of the

group's iconic happenings at this time, such as A Walk Around

the New World: A Demonstration for all the Senses of 1964, in

which participants were exposed to unusual experiences over the

course of a two-week period. Morganová introduces the story of

the early Prague Fluxus concerts and their repercussions, of

Knížák's stay in New York in the late, 1960s and his formation

of an alternative community in the town of Mariánské Lázně

when he returned in the early 1970s. (p. 76) She cites

Chalupecky's delight at the simple pleasures of taking part in

some of the early manifestations, in which, for instance, invitees

were encouraged to pelt one another with paper balls: 'it freed

people from their learned way of life and led them to different

levels of awareness, to forgotten possibilities of existence. We

played'. In addition to the sense of personal liberation invoked

here, Morganová notes the formation of the 'magical quality of

the community' that was intensified by such experiences, (p. 63).

Other collective actions explored in this section include those by

Eugen Brikcius and the group called the Order of Crusaders for

Pure Humour without Banter, whose activities included the

photographic documentation of monthly beer-drinking sessions

at a pub called U Svitáků in central Prague. Zorka Ságlovás

collective actions, such as Throwing Balls into Borin Pond in

Průhonice, yield memorable photographs and a sense of the

enthusiasm for transforming artistic activity into a genuinely

participatory experience at that time. We are also initiated top

secret organisations such as B.K.S. (The End of the World is

Coming) - a closed ritualistic group formed in 1974 - and

another group, K.Q.N., (whose acronym was randomly selected).

These groups were among a surprising number whose primary

aim was to organise events of a participatory nature for a small

circle of friends in remote locations in the countryside. Given the

degree to which Moscow group Collective Actions have become

a household name, one cannot help feeling a sense of satisfaction

upon reading that concrete poet Jiří Valoch had already pointed

out in 1971 that 'with a white snowy field before one's eyes / one

cannot help think of malevich fontana manzoni klein uecker'.

Morganová explains the phenomenon as propelled by the drive

'to experience natural events and a free space untouched by the

politics of the day', (p. 91) In line with her main thesis, she

argues that projects such as Sonny Halas's Neolithic Painting, in

which some forty people gathered in a former silver mine to

produce their own neolithic offerings (April 1974), 'helped

create the much needed space for personal freedom in the highly

organized and supervised totalitarian public sphere'. (p. 101) Jan

Steklik's Airport for Clouds, 1970, is another case in point: a

group of friends and their children used some found rolls of

packaging paper to transform a meadow into a field full of

clouds. Citing a conversation with the artist, Morganová

recounts that these were 'a symbol of freedom, since during the

totalitarian years they were able to effortlessly cross the Iron

Curtain, requiring no passports or travel documents, which most

Czech artists could only dream of. (p. 109) She introduces the

poetic figure of Miloš Šejn, whose early actions were attempts to

be at one with nature - photographed lying face down in

autumnal leaves, apparently just to feel the experience; and

Marian Palla, who announced, among others, The World has

changed. I switched the positions of two stones in a field on

October 31, 1983. (p. 128) Morganová points out the pervasive

fascination with Eastern traditions among alternative artists,

noting that Pallas actions, such as I Sit and Hold a Rock, were a

form of meditation, 'a contemplation of the most basic aspects of

creation and existence', (p. 143) She asks, rhetorically: 'the

question remains of how many of these actions would have been

created if the artists had the chance to openly exhibit in

galleries', (p. 151) For Petr Štembera, the situation was clear-cut.

Morganová cites him: 'If not for the hideous atmosphere here in

the 1970s, hardly any action art would have been created, and

certainly not in the form that it took'.

The same thread carries through into the third chapter, devoted

to artists concerned with the body, though Morganová warns of

the dangers of interpretation when it comes to artists such as

Karel Miler as 'one of the goals of the artist's actions is for there

to be no symbolic interpretations, for the actions not to mean

anything'. This is also related to the interest in Zen philosophies,

she notes. As Miler wrote in 1973: A pure fact is as significant

as the universe'. As regards extreme forms of body art that test

the limits of pain and danger, Morganová rightly notes that these

'authentic expressions' should not necessarily be interpreted as

relating solely to the particularities of the Czech political

context. Gina Pane and other Western artists were pursuing the

same themes. This is an interesting point, for it would seem to

me to problematise the logic of the argument, threading through

the narrative as a whole, concerning the difference and

uniqueness of the situation; I think it is a line worth pursuing

further today, as we seek to find greater critical independence

from our interviewees. Referring to an action in which he shot a

poisoned arrow at a wall, dressed in a Nazi shirt, Morganová

notes that for Štembera 'the Nazi shirt is for the artist a symbol

of communism since all totalitarian regimes are one and the

same in his view', (p. 170) Here, and elsewhere, Morganová

might perhaps have done more to specifically challenge such

opinions, to contextualise them in relation to specific historical

events, or to distinguish more consistently between the different

phases of the Czechoslovak communist experience. Havel's

writings feature very usefully in the preface, and I would have

been keen to encounter more theoretical components in the body

of the text, drawing on the wealth of relevant writings by

contemporary authors and key Czech intellectuals of the era such

as Jan Patočka or Václav Benda.

Jan Mlčoch is the author of some of the most politically overt of

the actions that Morganová discusses. I was thrilled by Zig-Zag

Wiggle-Waggle, of 1975, in which he 'smuggled into Hungary a

handful of earthworms in a bandage full of dirt', (p. 178)

Morganová cites an interview in which Mlčoch explains that

'The rulers were criminals and the individuals that violated the

laws declared by these criminals were actually virtuous people.

He is clearly echoing Havel's excellent analysis of the trial of the

alternative musicians in 1976, in which he arrives at the same

conclusions. Mlcoch's Bianco (1977) was a reactions to the

issues around signing Charter 77: 'I lay down on the floor of a

small basement room and spat into my own face for 30 minutes.

Then I sat at a little writing table where I wrote my signature

very slowly on a piece of white paper. I stopped after 30 minutes

without finishing my signature.' Interestingly, Morganová notes

that it was the signing of Charter 77 that was in part responsible

for the disintegration of the Prague community of action artists -

friends who had often gathered in the preceding years to watch

performances out of hours at the Museum of Decorative Arts

where Štembera was employed as a night watchman. The raising

of the political stakes highlighted for artists the awkwardness of

artificially risky actions in connection with the real threat faced

by Charter 77 signatories', (p. 173) The decision whether to sign

or not to sign was existential: 'by signing, a person condemned

himself and his family to being deprived of the chance to work

in his or her profession and to further persecution, (p. 180) One

justification for not signing used by some was that 'in signing the

Charter 77, the signatories politicized themselves and became

"dissidents", thereby dooming their chances of publicly

presenting their art or working in their professions, which the

non-signatories could continue to attack the boundary of the

official culture from non-official positions', (p. 28)

Many artists left Czechoslovakia in the 1980s. Morganová tells

the story of a poignant action by Pavel Büchler, carried out

shortly before he emigrated to the UK, alluding to the

hopelessness of the situation in which no one imagined that the

end of the political status quo was almost in sight. Linden Tree,

or My Country (as the Linden is the Czech national tree)

consisted in stripping a small tree on the banks of the Vltava of

all its foliage in the early hours of the morning, (p. 201).

Morganová s epilogue sketches out in brief some of the

transformations and developments in Czech action-based art

after 1989. As society gradually became acclimatised to

liberalism, democracy and multiculturalism, as well as to gender,

environmental and other global themes', she writes, 'the structure

of how culture was run and the mechanisms behind its financing

and decision-making also changed at a hectic pace', (p. 219) She

argues that 'those artists continuing in their work often did not

realize that post-revolutionary freedom brought about the loss of

the action's greatest power - to behave freely in a restricted

society'. As a result of two, she says, in the 1990s, 'few works

achieved the intensity of the pre-revolutionary period', (p. 220)

Despite this evident nostalgia for the authenticity of

normalisation era action art, the author nevertheless singles out a

few exceptions to this rule. These include Kateřina Šedá's action

There's Nothing There in the village Ponětovice, in which the

young artist persuaded the community to follow the same

schedule collectively for one Saturday in 2003, proving that

'something big can happen in a small town - it sufficesjust to do

things together' (p. 231), and the group Rafani's re-enactment of

Mlčoch's Bianco action in 2005. In general, though, she

considers the newer work that has emerged since 1989 to be of a

fundamentally different nature: 'The primary ambition of Czech

action artists was not to shift the border of art, but to transform

reality through art... They were part of the bizarre world of

totalitarianism, and took refuge in the world of art as a space of

illusionary freedom.... The main objective

was the possibility of free expression, which, for the neo-avant-

garde of the West, was an absolute given. Even ordinary fun and

games as a free activity had, in a society fettered with mandatory

work duties and totalitarian stipulations for how free time was to

be spent, a liberating effect and a completely different meaning

than in the West.' (p. 234) Radical Western counterparts would

surely protest at a characterisation of their freedom of expression

as an absolute given, though life for artists was undoubtedly

different either side of the Iron Curtain in many respects.

Nevertheless, to claim that the idea that absolute freedom of

expression existed in the West in this or any other period is

undoubtedly illusory (we might note the censorship by the

Guggenheim Museum of Hans Haacke's Shapolsky et al.

Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, a Real-Time Social System, as

of May 1,1971 (1971); the marginalisation of women's voices;

the on-going under-representation of black artists in museum

collections and displays). Likewise, the tyranny of work in the

late capitalist world, as characterised by the ethos of the zero

hours contract, is still securely in place, albeit in new forms, as is

the system's ambition to order and to profit from all waking

hours, leisure time included, by diverting all activity into

potentially profitable channels.

Morganová concludes that only today, a quarter of a century

after the end of communist rule, is it possible to dispassionately

distinguish between the meanings, functions, values of both the

official and the unofficial culture, which paradoxically possessed

a symbiotic relationship, prior to 1989'. (p. 235) But this book

unapologetically focuses solely on the latter, with no reference to

the former, official culture. This seems symptomatic of a certain

degree of inherited trauma and might mire in complexities the

claim that this is a dispassionate text. Far from it, this is a

passionate and powerful interpretation of action art as a gesture

of self-defence in totalitarian conditions. It is a compelling story,

and one with many enchanting protagonists, but it is not the only

story. 'All new trends in art naturally move from revolt towards

institutionalization ... There is therefore nothing left for art

history to do but to attempt to deal with this phenomenon as

comprehensively as possible', Morganová writes. While this

offhand observation does not do justice to what it is that

Morganová accomplishes in her book, it does signal one of its

key potentialities. For the process of historicisation is still too

clearly linked to institutionalisation in the global field; both are

far from natural or inevitable. On the contrary, without art

historians and curators to produce and to record stories such as

those gathered so skilfully in this volume, these histories will not

be recorded for posterity.

What this book achieves, above all, is a comprehensive overview

of a scene whose internationally acclaimed participants still

remain far too few. It is a richly illustrated study offering a

unique survey of developments in experimental art in the Czech

part of Czechoslovakia. Morganová argues that while the two

halves of Czechoslovakia were politically united in the period

under consideration, the Czech and Slovak cultural scenes 'did

not develop as a whole during the years as a single country', (p.

18) Furthermore, she notes that there has been a trend in both

nations 'to write increasingly separate versions of their cultural

history' since the breakup of Czechoslovakia in 1993. Her own

narrative proves no exception to this rule. That Morganová

avoids making any links or cross references to developments in

the Slovak part of the federation perpetuates rather than

challenges the Czech / Slovak divide. With the benefit of

hindsight, however, we might now begin to seek, once more to

emphasise commonalities and the sense of participation in a

shared international project among action-based artists. Czech

Action Art: Happenings, Actions, Events, Land Art, Body Art

and Performance Art Behind the Iron Curtain delivers, very

skilfully, what it promises; it draws on the experiences of

protagonists to piece together art histories that were confined to

personal archives and known, for the most part, only by the

participants themselves, until Morganová undertook her research

in the 1990s.

Klara Kemp-Welch, časopis Umění/Art, č. 5/2015, str. 417-420

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