Prague’s Vernon Gallery surprises passers-by with conceptual art

20-03-2009

Contemporary Czech art made international headlines after the Czech presidency of the European Union unveiled the famous Entropa artefact by David Černý in Brussels in January. But contemporary art is doing well in the Czech Republic, too: two years ago, Meet Factory opened in Prague with studios for young artists; last year, the privately-owned DOX gallery opened in the capital. And another such venue of contemporary Czech art is the Vernon Fine Art gallery in Holešovice.

Some time ago, a small corner shop in the Holešovice neighbourhood of Prague disappeared. It sold and repaired typewriters, and it must have been there for ages. But even though the shop signs and the bars on its large windows were gone, the actual space remained the same. Soon it began to fill with the weirdest artefacts, including carrots, flashing lights, all kinds of messages, and most recently – shoes. All this is part of an ambitious project by the Vernon Fine Art gallery that uses the former corner shop to attract passers-by, and to draw attention to their main venue located in a converted apartment in a nearby building. Monika Burian is the founder and director of Vernon Fine Art.

“The gallery was founded in 2001. The mission of the gallery is to promote Czech artists, especially young Czech artists. We very much focus on new media, and we try to bring these artists out of the Czech Republic, which means we do art fairs, organize exhibitions abroad, and then of course we have a exhibit programme here in Prague. We have about six exhibitions a year in our apartment gallery, on the third floor of the building in Janovského. And we also have the project room, which is at the corner of Janovského and Heřmanova where I give artists the freedom to do whatever they want.”

And artists use that space well. The former corner shop has been transformed into an unusual gallery; people cannot walk in, but can stop in front of its large shop windows and look at what’s inside. Recently, passers-by were intrigued by a video-installation called Reactor, by Jakub Nepraš, who was screening a series of TV shots on a round projector propped up against the window. But Monika Burian says that it was the very first exhibit which provoked the most reactions.

“The funniest reactions have probably been to the exhibition of Jiří Kovanda in which he used lipstick and a carrot, and we had to change the carrot every day, and we had some comments written on the windows. Since we are around we can see people’s reactions, and it’s nice to see that people really stop and read the texts. And these are not only people who are interested in art but elderly people walking their dogs, mothers with children, and they always check out what’s going on. People ask what the next exhibition will be; they probably don’t really understand the programme but in a way it is a process of educating people who would probably not go to see a contemporary art exhibition.”

On Tuesday, an installation called Podzim, or Autumn, was launched at the former corner shop. At first glance, it looks like the room is being used as a shop once again. It displays old-style felt shoes, typically worn by pensioners during the communist days, and even before. But when you take a closer look, each pair of the black felt shoes has the logo of a contemporary Czech political party – the Greens, the Civic Democrats, the Communists, and so on. The author of the exhibit, Richard Weisner, explains.

“It’s a simplification, a nice short way of describing what we are going through right now. I wanted to point out that each of us will eventually come into a period of “autumn”. And all the political parties say they want everybody to get ready for that, but I don’t think you can because when you do happen to be in your autumn, god knows what it will be like.”

And where did he get the actual shoes that I though had long disappeared from the market?

“They are still being produced, and I have some great stories about trying to get hold of them. They even told me that they usually run out of them before Christmas, and that the Chinese even make copies of them. Myself, I have the original Czechoslovak ones, and these were made in Slovakia.”

But Mr Wiesner’s installation was only a part of Tuesday’s happenings. The actual Vernon gallery, located in a remodelled apartment on the third floor of a building in the same street, opened an exhibition of paintings by young Slovak artist Jana Farmanová, for whom this is the first solo appearance in the Czech capital.

“This is my first independent exhibition in Prague; I have exhibited before on several occasions here as part of bigger projects. The things you can see here were picked by the curator, and have been made recently – within the last year, and which have not been exhibited before – I didn’t want to come with things that had already been here.”

The head of the Vernon Gallery Monika Burian says the aim was to fill a gap on the Prague gallery scene. Most galleries in the city, she says, focus on well-established artists.

“I must admit I never look for artists. From the beginning, from the opening of the gallery, it was the artists who found us. I have the impression that the very young generation, that means people leaving school, or those who are very new to the art market, are very interesting. I have some doubts about the middle generation. They are somehow closed in, and did not have a chance to see what was being done abroad. And then you have the older generation of people in their 80s; they have their status in the international history of art but their problem was also that they weren’t able to travel as much as they should, and they are somehow recognized, but not as much as their colleagues abroad.”

The economic crisis hit most of the world, and definitely most of Europe in 2009. I imagine it must be difficult to sell art right now, at a time when most people do not like to spend money unless they have to. But Monika Burian, the director of Vernon Fine Arts, says it’s not quite like that.

“It’s difficult to say because honestly speaking, I sold three paintings that I had had in the gallery for a long time, and I wanted a certain price for them, and we sold them. I have a couple of collectors who come to us and they think of art as a type of investment. On the other hand, you can see at the fairs that people think more. There’s not much of those impulse buys that we saw some two or three years ago. Now people come, they are interested in the artists, they want to find out who they are, what their work is like, and then they buy. Let’s say the serious collectors are back because the prices were too high for unknown artists, and I think that the scene will cleanse itself.”

You can find all about the Vernon gallery at www.vernonfineart.cz. Or stop by the experimental Projekt Vernon in Prague - Holešovice.

20-03-2009