- As an artist you have experienced the communist state, capitalism in the European Union and now you are approaching Brexit. Will Brexit influence or change your work?
Brexit will perhaps affect my working conditions (probably adversely) but not the work itself. The work of art is always a protest against the conditions that determine its production but not in any concrete material, economic or political sense. This is not to say that art should be disengaged. On the contrary, its power as a gesture of resistance and its potential to inspire alternative ways of looking and thinking lies precisely in its refusal to be constrained by ‘the way things are’.
- Could you tell us about Manchester? How has this city shaped you as an artist?
Manchester is a good place to live but, as you know, it does not have a great art scene. When I first came here some twenty years ago, the local art scene seemed very much led by an energetic group of young artists who organised their own thing but nevertheless maintained proactive links with some of the public galleries, such as Cornerhouse and the City Art Gallery (as it then was), and the art school. There was a sense of continuity, shared aspirations and common purpose. Since then, this identity has become more diverse and less distinct. On the one hand, there is an increasingly ambitious programme of imported international art in the city’s art-historical museums and, on the other, there is no leading contemporary art institution. The art school has refashioned itself into an academic industry and has lost contact with the artistic production in the city. The tradition of independent artists-lead initiatives is still alive and even growing but it increasingly creates a closed system where the producers are also the only audience and there is a growing gap between the constituencies supported by these initiatives and those served by the main public institutions. All this makes you think harder about what your place here as an artist is, what your audience is, what you can contribute, what it may mean to be a ‘local artist’ and so on. It sounds like a paradox but it has probably helped me to become less concerned with my identity as an artist and I find that quite liberating.
- Often, you have described the characteristic spirit of your work as “making nothing happen”. Can you explain that to us?
What I mean is that, as an artist, I am something like an observer rather than producer. I like to take things and situations that already exist in your world without you noticing them and try to point them out to you so that you perceive them differently, as something that is at the same time unexpected and quite obvious. You could say that where there wasn’t anything to see, there is now ‘nothing’ as something visible and tangible. But you can also read that phrase in the conventional sense, meaning that art is without consequence. I am quite fond of such contradictions.
- You are not a painter, but you make paintings. Can you tell us about your ‘Modern Paintings’ series?
The ‘Modern Paintings’ series and the more recent one which I call ‘New Paintings’ are both quite good examples of the idea of making nothing happen. They are remakes of other artists’ rejected paintings (including quite a few of yours). The original painting began with some ambition but something went wrong, the ambition got obliterated by the painter’s own efforts, and it ended in a failure. This failure is where I start. My aim is to recover the original ambition of the painting and make it my own. This recovery also takes some effort. I must undo all the wasted work that had gone into the painting in the first place. I take off the paint, clean the canvas, stick the patches of paint back onto the canvas with no regard for composition but face down so that the first brush marks are now on the surface. And in the new series, I grind the paint into dust and then re-apply it back onto the canvas as evenly as I can. Either way, after days and weeks of labour, I end, conceptually speaking, where you had began: with a kind of ‘nothing’.
- I really like one of your letterpress prints that is saying ‘NO TIME TO PAINT’. Could you tell us about process behind this series?
All these prints, collectively titled ‘Honest Work’, are made from an incomplete set of old letterpress type in which several letters are missing and others are in short supply. This means that I can’t say just anything I might like to say but have to find such words that I have the right letters for. In one way or another, the prints are self-referential: they all refer to ‘print’ both in the sense of the printing technology and of printed language. But this not always obvious at first. So, for instance, when the print says ‘NO TIME TO PAINT’, you may think that I have no time to pursue such an activity, or you could take it that this is not the time for painting. But then you notice that that the words ‘PAINT’ and ‘PRINT’ only differ in one letter and furthermore, the letters ‘A’ and ‘R’ are morphologically similar. It as if what I had in mind was printing rather than painting but had run out of the letter ‘R’ so I used ‘A’ instead.
- Do you consider yourself a conceptual artist? What is a future of a conceptual art in your opinion?
Once when Joseph Kosuth gave a talk here, he used the term ‘conceptual art’, then paused and said, ‘well, when we did it, they had to invent a new name for it but maybe by now we can just call it art.’
- Is there any concept behind your decision of becoming an artist?
No, nothing like a concept. Back in Czechoslovakia in my youth, it was really a matter of social attitude. I was attracted to the idea of being an artist because it somehow seemed to offer a certain degree of subversive non-conformity and freedom that any other form of social existence lacked. But that freedom turned out to be somewhat illusory because to be recognised as artist I had to do certain things that artists do and had to conform to certain expectations and norms. Now, as I have said, I find more freedom in not being concerned with identity. I have chosen art as the field in which to make a living. I produce artworks and art is the subject that I teach (or used to), and when I sometimes write, it has usually something to do with art. I suppose this makes me an artist in some ‘practical’ or ‘professional’ sense. In a much broader sense, however, being an artist is for me something like a shorthand for my commitment to the activity of art – to what art does or can do, how it acts upon the world – rather than being merely a description of my own activities.
- Right now we have plenty of galleries and spaces where artists can exhibit their work. Was it always like that? What will be next after galleries?
The idea that the gallery and the exhibition are the primary destinations for the work of the artist is relatively new. It more or less coincides with the beginning of modern art. With the advent of contemporary art in the 1960s the emphasis shifts from the work, the object itself, onto its presentation and context. As the range of acceptable forms that the work can take continues to expand, so does the variety of the forms of presentation. The gallery is still the dominant model but it now often functions more as a point of reference for how we look, what we see and what we think then just as a place of display. There cannot be art without an audience, of course. And since art is something that really happens in our heads, it may be that one day artists will discover ways of accessing our minds directly without confronting us with an object in a physical space – or even with a virtual experience in a virtual space. Maybe that the artistic medium of the future will be telepathy.