By Michal Nanoru
“After a certain time, I am happy again. I have the time to develop old negatives and to search for the real Death among them.”
Correspondence with Václav Jirásek
“Poor, poor Ghost,” she murmured; “have you no place where you can sleep?”
The Canterville Ghost
In Oscar Wilde’s short story The Canterville Ghost a thoroughly modern, materialist family struggles with ghosts of the past revealing themselves, among other things, through an irremovable blood stain on the floor of a gothic library. After almost 120 years, the satirical story has lost nothing of its pertinence today. Quite to the contrary.
The photographs of Václav Jirásek (1965, Karviná, today‘s Czech Republic) in many ways recall the stain, the effect of which was amplified by Sir Simon’s ghost by means of the colors of Miss Virginia – at times, it could be dull (almost Indian) red, then it could be vermilion, rich purple, or even bright emerald-green. “How horrid!” cried Mrs. Otis; “I don’t care for blood-stains in a sitting-room. It must be removed at once.” The form of Jirásek’s photographs may vary, yet in essence, they speak of one and the same thing and keep reminding us of what we wish to ignore. Be it highly stylized baroque portraits loaded with distorted symbolism or distempered spring landscapes where blooms feel as ulcers, be it lost souls wandering through the woods in hospital masks or on their way home from the store, be it the panting industrial age or men in masks made of hedgehog skin, Jirásek’s photographs portray ruin, decay and death and the human response they provoke. They may annunciate apocalypse, but themselves are neither repulsive, nor do they speak, to quote Roland Barthes, in “the intentional language of horror”. Their aim is not to horrify the viewer nor are they willing to complain about life. Like the best in art tradition, they reveal the dark side of the world in an exalting and cultivating melancholic form. And sometimes, they laugh in silence, too.
Jirásek is a product of the 1980’s in Czechoslovakia. Back then, the members of Bratrstvo (The Brotherhood, a cult art collective of which Jirásek was the leading figure, comparable perhaps to Neue Slowenische Kunst), were trying in all possible ways to get round the atmosphere of frustration in the slowly decaying regime of a Soviet satellite. They were making excursions both into Moravian countryside and into the history of art – being admirers of the panel painting of Master Theodoricus, the anonymity of medieval painting guilds, the mysticism of Caspar David Friedrich, the purity of the Pre-Raphaelites, the filthiness of the decadents, the suspense of Warhol’s. But they would also plunge into the future as seen by science fiction, or even into the aesthetics of new romantic music videos spreading underhand on VHS’s.
The heretical photographs of the Brotherhood tested the forms of archetypes within changing paradigms, while seeking to come to terms with the generation of the artists’ parents and of more distant ancestors – they travestied the agitation iconography of socialist realism, the nationalist movement and Christianity, working with the aesthetics of kitsch and communist and fascist symbols as part of the manipulation. It all resulted in a perverted self-ironic ballad of utopian pathos, played on Magnola, a 75 years old plate camera.
With the 1989 Velvet Revolution, the Brotherhood burst into the Czech art world and pop-culture through galleries, television, records and clubs. Yet, their hopes for a new, cultured society were soon to turn sour as a new feeling of disillusionment and estrangement from a globalized consumer society only served to deepen the group’s interest in places on the margins.
The Brotherhood adopted a light-hearted attitude to photography, seeing it as preparatory medium for a programme in which painting should dominate. Before it could see the light, however, the group split up in 1994. Jirásek, a graduate in painting, stuck to photography. After more than twenty years of working with the medium and despite his remarkable experience (he takes photographs of Ashaver-esque homeless people on his way home from sittings with the richest of European businessmen), Jirásek still sees himself as a “visitor” in the field of photography and refuses to style himself as a photographer. (After all, it has never seemed that he was trying to stop time – if anything, he would hijack it.) For an autodidact and for us to call him an ”artist using photography”, however, he displays too perfect a mastery of the photographic craft. And this is only the beginning of the confusion.
All his life, Jirásek has been fascinated by mystery – camouflage, mimicry, the mask as a secret which we wish to uncover but also as an icon of the face, moments in which “the archetype leans towards the fascination of mortal faces” and vice versa. Master Theodoricus-like portraits in Industria (2004-2006) on the background of German-School-style spectacular technical images of heavy industry brought to its knees oscillate precisely between this sort of real experience with man and the immutable type. Jirásek is a collector of overt masks – St. Nicholas, devils, welders, masks of a traditional, military, protective, mythological or athletic kind – but also of the more covert masks of success or happiness. The principle of his work is a cryptogram, a favorite pastime of medieval monks and of Edgar Allan Poe, challenging both for the reader and the author. Just as Walker Evans used the “documentary style” as a sort of disguise, the painter Jirásek misuses the seemingly transparent medium of photography, in order to, as he puts it, “reach truth in a roundabout way”.
Memento Mori (1995, in cooperation with Robert V. Novák and Ivan Pinkava), the documentation of a chapel in Sedlec near Kutná Hora replete with bones and symbolism, should be understood – as the title suggests – as a reminder of approaching death and a contemplation of things beyond this world, rather than as a mere documentary carried out prior to the chapel’s renovation. Yet, at the same time, just like with other works of Jirásek’s, it is so literal, so absurd – we are talking skeletons of forty thousand people arranged into patterns as if they were Lego tiles – that it cannot be otherwise than hyperbolic. The wrecks of Cars (Auta, 2007-) are torn from the dark of night by the flash of a paparazzo. What it uncovers, though, is not the adrenaline attraction of fast death on the road, but the sorry, shamefully ridiculous, and equally moving decease in oblivion among the weeds. Instead of death in cars, we see the death of cars, our civilization’s symbols of social standing. In their decay, they are taken over by the invincible unconscious of nature, just as were disused factories and old castles before them. Similarly, As to the errant Greek dogs in Cerberus (Kerberos, 2007-) – do they guard the entrance to the underworld or just a story from the local dog shelter? At first sight, Devils (Čorti, 2004-) feels like an almost ethnographically descriptive project depicting a Moravian tradition close to the artist’s childhood – a tradition preserved in some villages in its unique form for centuries. But why is he using the totally impractical and paralyzing large format to capture a few hours of madness involving huge amounts of alcohol and frantic frolicking on snowy fields?
This subversive shift, the search for an improbable use of the medium, the conceptual use of a “foreign” language or the slip of the context – without particularly alerting the spectator – has been at the core of Jirásek’s strategy since the times of the Brotherhood. When you look again at his mix of grotesque snapshots and large format portraits of “devils”, it is hard to tell whether they betray derision or a sigh, or if such a thing exists at all. Are we seeing a stylized testimony or a skillfully concocted mystification? Is this not, after all, an eerie tragi-farce? What captures Jirásek’s imagination is the space between that “which is almost believable and the unbelievable”. This may mean a mystical experience or it may mean ominous Death in sneakers telling us of his indulgence in plum-brandy.
For the artist himself, his work remains a slowly experienced ritual, “measuring his own grave”, as Marlene Dumas would have said. He accepts faults with humility, both in the image and by understanding fallen things, lunatics, forgotten workers, techniques or apparatuses not as a photogenic collection of curios, but, in the fashion of Diane Arbus, as a significant yet overlooked part of the world. That emphasis is spontaneously put on esthetic experience, that the images exhibit a baroquely opulent sense of ornament and gothic sense of color is a matter of the same romantic disposition. In the crossroads of meaning that is Industria, we meet the theme of the decay of symbols of modernity and of darlings of Marxism-Leninism. We see the ironworks as hell and an alchemist’s laboratory hidden on the outskirts, full of creatures in masks and overalls, which the skill of a former band stylist and image-maker turns into a particularly appealing fashion editorial. Stools, tables or ashtrays “designed” and made by workers from Industria look both dignified and comical, just as people with distinctive characters. The pieces of furniture and intimate corners covered with pornographic images are a tribute to authenticity and a testimony of the curious creativity of the washed-up, of a struggle of man not only against the environment of hard work in poisonous colorful dust but also against the culture behind the factory walls. They are the antithesis of how “design” is understood today. That they are elevated into the cool form of a neat photograph which could easily end up as a trendy decoration in a renovated brownfield loft, only adds the final measure of paradox. So does the fact that Jirásek persuaded the Moravian Gallery in Brno, Czech Republic, to include some of the chairs depicted in the photographs as part of its collection.
A doubter and a skeptic interested in the contemporary use of photography, both art and vernacular, Jirásek does not cultivate an easily recognizable package pertaining to a stylish brand. Landscapes (Krajiny, 1992-) resemble sets of animated cartoons by Jiří Trnka – except for their being deserted by the puppets. Industria spells out and to a large extent secularly re-articulates Wannieck Factory – Farewell to the Industrial Age (Wannieck factory – rozloučení s průmyslovým věkem, 1994-1996) which preceded it by ten years. Meanwhile, the refinement of Memento Mori is removed from the Weegee and Warhol-like infamy of Cars and of Cerberus.
Nevertheless, just like Sir Simon, for eternities dreaming about the garden of death, Jirásek remains faithful to romanticism as a response to industrial rationality and to the new digital age; true to the powerless and beautiful romanticism ready for pointless sacrifice, a romanticism “offering amazing opportunities to adopt an esthetic approach towards escapism and morbidity of all possible sorts, offering both pure sentiment and the cruelty of dark irony”. Just as in a gilded gothic panel containing mummified relics of saints, the timelessness, beauty, Jirásek’s art of composition and his meticulous attention to prints always drag the shadow of transience and the conflict between eternity and decay behind them. As in a face smiling with the mouth but not with the eyes, there is always something disconcerting about these images. It is as if these perfect photographs were only meant to remind us that, just as them, we are of the dust, and all turn to dust again.
Yet, maybe not. Maybe this is all a joke. Just as he manipulates his objects, Jirásek manipulates the viewer. Nothing is more telling than that the photograph of a flag bearer he took during the Brotherhood era, an ironic play on the times and the medium itself, was appropriated as a timely symbol by the political movement of 1989 and, supplemented by the ensign “Truth shall prevail”, spread on posters all across the country.
© Copyright Michal Nanoru, shall not be reproduced in any form without permission.