Action Art in Czech Photography
Action art’s development began in the 1960s as a reaction to art’s commercialization and as a counterparty to exclusive aesthetics of minimalist art. For an action artist, the idea is decisive, not the art process or subject. Action art involves various tendencies beyond the artistic and subtle character of a work. Such events include ‘live’ performances with an active or passive audience (events, body art), as well as the artist’s interferences and interventions with the landscape (earth art), living space or new idea (environmental art, installation). Such events can be traced back to dadaism and futurism. Best-known include the deliberate shooting of American artist Chris Burden (1971), and the three days which Joseph Beuys spent with a coyote in a New York gallery (1974). In terms of land art, Bulgarian-born Christo excelled with his Running Fence installation (1976) – a 40-km fabric curtain stretched out across the landscape – which was rolled up and removed after the event. All these artistic performances are known only thanks to photography. The photographic documentation of outdoor happenings, performances, body art and events represent a specific branch of photography. The artists strove to turn back art’s commercialization by expressing a strong idea. In Czechoslovakia, action art was most used during the communist era of normalization in the 1970s, when freedom of speech and democratic expression were severely curtailed. Hence the main means of expression became words, voices, bodies, and actions – and photography provided the indelible documentation. The paradox is that the visual recordings and photographs of such events are now highly valued on the art market and displayed in galleries.
Photographs of private and group activities appeared in Czech art in the late 1950s. Pioneers of group and individual events included those from the Ra surrealist group, which was active from the 1940s and whose surreal ‘rhythm’ was captured by photographer Milos Korecek. In the late 1950s, photographer Tom Toman (1924-72) and graphic designer Vladimír Boudník documented his private events. In the 1960s at a time of relative political and creative freedom, various activities developed domestically. Photography gained a new role in this respect, with many photographers seeking more accurate expression and capturing intentions. Key factors were also the ease with which photographs could be disseminated and their immediate impact. At the beginning of the 1960s, Milan Knížák (*1940) was the organizer and principal actor in provocative public performances such as the Actual Art group – documenting events at New World in Prague (Demonstration for All Senses, 1964). Photos of Knížák’s events were produced with textual commentaries, including statements and manifestos. His actions, which had a strong and liberating influence on the local underground community, also attracted members of the international Fluxus movement.
In the late 1960s, Hugo Demartini (1931-2010) introduced the element of chance into his sculpture. As well as objects interacting in the open (Event in the Landscape, 1968), he also recorded the spontaneous and fleeting patterns of items during freefall from the air and subsequently static on the ground (Demonstration in Space, 1968).
At the turn of the 1960s/70s, Zorka Ságlová (1942-2003) focused on open-air installations. With her brother Martin Jirous (1944-2011), musicians from the Primitives Group and Plastic People of the Universe, as well as artists from the Křížovnická School group, she created the spatial and artistic land art concept Kladení plín u Sudoměře in 1970. This event was performed with reference to the medieval Hussite battle, when Hussite women covered a bog with white sheets in order to entrap enemy horsemen in the marshes.
Principles of dadaism, absurd theatre and nonsense/playful poetry characterised the mid-1960s happenings of philosopher, poet and artist Eugen Brikcius (*1942), such as Still Life with Beer (1967, Kampa, Prague). Karel Adamus (*1943) also united photography, poetry and land art. The Hold the Footsteps II solo event (1973) was performed on a lake bed. Photos document the process of creating a line from steps to compose a prose poem about a new path through the landscape.
Olaf Hanela's happenings (*1943) played a key role in domestic art. Working with rituals and elements, his events were staged in remote nature and - supported by other artists - he sought to integrate gestures, deeds and objects into the landscape in the spirit of established conceptual creation (Tribute to Clear Stars, 1971).
In the 1970s, other forms of western European conceptual expression incrementally influenced the local Czech scene – such as body art. Leading proponents included Petr Štember (*1945), Jan Mlčoch (*1953) and Karel Miler (*1940). Štember performed radical activities bordering physical risk – including natural elements and extreme weather (Transmission of Stones, 1971). Jan Mlčoch can be understood within the context of extreme body art. For Suspension - The Big Sleep (1974) he was hung by his hands and feet with nylon rope in an abandoned attic. The collection also includes two private non-interventionist events by Charles Miller (Touch, 1975, Garbage, 1975), which strongly contributed to the formulation of Czech action art. A specific version of body art was also represented by Dalibor Chatrný’s (*1925) experiments with a magnet and metal filings (Magnet Mouth, 1973), which created temporary sculptures on his body.
Jiří Kovanda (*1953) began performing distinctive solo events by the end of the 1970s. Today one of our most recognised photographers abroad, he started as an outsider with discreet public events for a few invited guests (thanks to which photos remain). The form and content of his events were a spontaneous response to the situation on the street - including the immediate interpretation and transformation of objects. Kovanda prioritised the communicative nature of events over recording items or temporary installations (e.g. Contact, 1976).
In the 1980s, action artists such as Tomáš Ruller (*1957), Vladimír Havlík (*1958) and Miloslav Sonny Halas (1946-2008) either reacted to the extreme individual performances of their predecessors in a free and frequently humorous manner, or adopted an oppositional critical stance.