The 54th Venice Biennale is less than a month away and the installation representing the Czech and Slovak arts scenes at the national pavilion is now en route. Created by Czech artist Dominik Lang and entitled The Sleeping City, the instalation aims to challenge international viewers to experience, assess, or revisit on an intuitive and emotional level recent Czechoslovak and European history, from the Cold War to today.
As a key device, the 30-year-old Lang turned to a storage room in his father’s own studio. The late Jiří Lang, a modernist artist most active in the 1950s, died when the son was still a teen. The show takes the father’s modern pieces and transforms, repositions, or even deconstructs them completely, making The Sleeping City not only an unusual journey but a dialogue and transformation. The curator of the installation Yvona Ferencová says this:
“Obviously, the work of Jiří Lang, compared to the son’s, is very different and was marked by the period in which it was made: the father worked largely with plaster, as bronze as a material under the Communists was unthinkable. Most of his work is figural. By contrast, Dominik works with space, modifying areas of galleries or public spaces with subtle physical shifts, changes, and cuts. In The Sleeping City, he takes things to a new level, using some of his father’s own work as material to be modified and changed.”
One example is a plaster sculpture of a crouching woman that originally bore the title The Cold War, which the 30-year-old artist has since sliced up and re-juxtaposed. Throughout the pavilion, the artist creates various physical barriers, from grids to furniture that recast the father’s original work in ways he never intended. As a result, the installation could never be mistaken for being a retrospective of the older artist’s work. Yvona Ferencová again:
“For the project to be successful it was necessary for Dominik to approach his father’s work with detachment and a cool eye. He couldn’t treat it like a holy relic: that would defeat the purpose. Two of the works are cut up, but even the others are exhibited and positioned in ways they would never have been in a classic exhibition. This is Dominik Lang’s approach. Remember that it’s not just a look back on the past but an expression of the present. He had to do it in this way or it would have been nothing more than his father’s show.”
The Sleeping City takes its title from a 3-D relief by the father but goes beyond any show the late Jiří Lang ever intended: it is very much the son’s. Two photographs included in the catalogue are particularly striking: Dominik as a little boy at his father’s side in the artist’s studio, and Dominik as an adult and artist in his own right in the same studio many years later. When I met Dominik Lang he described what it was like growing up surrounded by his father’s work and also talked about his early relationship to it.
“I experienced it as a little boy but more on a passive level. The statues were something like silent witnesses standing or stored in the studio. As a boy of 10 or at most 15, his work represented Art. For me that was what art was and he represented what it meant to be a sculptor. Later, through my studies I of course broadened my view. But by then – and this is an interesting aspect – we had ‘missed’ each other, so to speak.”
Jiří Lang died before the son’s own journey as an artist began, and Dominik set out on a markedly different path. The meeting of the two, admits Dominik Lang, is more emotional and riskier than his previous approaches. Here’s what he had to say:
“On a personal level this is riskier and more emotional. I’m trying to tackle or address how collective memory changes or develops. Generationally my father was much older than me and the period of history he experienced, I missed. With the help of his work, which was created 50 years ago, I try to look back and reconstruct what happened. I used around 20 pieces, which were changed or fragmented, to form a unified installation, a kind of web you go through.”
According to the artist the Czech and Slovak Pavilion in Venice is very well-suited for the show. Now the question is, how visitors, will respond. The artist is confident the international audience will find various connections, perhaps with more of an open mind than audiences at home.
As some will no doubt remember, the road to the Biennale wasn’t an easy one and The Sleeping City was not without controversy: first chosen last December by an expert committee put together by the National Gallery, a choice then rejected by the gallery’s highly-vocal, highly-opinionated director Milan Knížák, a visual artist himself, who tried to push through other notable artists on the Czech scene but who turned him down.
The incident saw the country’s Culture Minister Jiří Besser go over the director’s head, legally transferring responsibility for joint- Czech and Slovak entry at the Biennale to fall under the Culture Ministry. On Thursday, at a press conference at the ministry, Mr Besser reiterated that selections by expert committees needed to be respected – and not be the choice of a single person. Dominik Lang, for one, is glad to have the incident behind him. The artist again:
"I was actually surprised that even the jury even chose this project in the first place but was then wasn’t surprised in the least when problems arose. I thought it was clever that Mr Knížák chose artists close to me to try and go in my stead, but he must have known would reject the offer. After that things were unpleasant. I think in the long term the way the National Gallery has been run under his lead has been detrimental not only to younger but also older artists and obviously the whole thing also had an impact in an international context.”
Find out more information about Dominik Lang and his work at www.artlist.cz