opponent's text to Irena Jůzová's habilitation at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague (May 2008) January 2007
Irena Jůzová first made her mark as an artist at the break between generations in the early 1990s. Groups such Tvrdohlaví (The Stubborn) or Pondělí (Monday) were already a thing of the past, and there started to appear artists who were characterised not by a group aesthetic, but rather by a markedly individual approach, tending above all to explore personal identity and subjective stories (to name just a few: Kateřina Vincourová, Markéta Othová, Jiří Černický, Jiří Příhoda). Irena Jůzová, however, differed from these artists, at first subtly, later ever more distinctly, in both the materials she worked with and her visual language. She worked consistently with objects, often using various primarily non-artistic technologies, and it was easy back in the early 1990s to pigeonhole her as a sort of “pre-computer” new media artist. The titles of many of her works seduce one into doing so (Irradiator, Filter, ID, Magnetic Resonance Scanner). If we were to stick to this superficial classification, her further evolution as an artist would necessarily be a disappointment. Thanks to the time afforded by a doctorate, I have been able to study the documentation of Irena Jůzová in detail, to gain insight into her works and her style of work. In the past I missed a large part of her exhibitions and I had only a vague idea about the form and function of various mechanical and electronic apparatuses that she frequently used. Still, wires and electronic components were usually not the main focus in her work. I believe that the common denominator of Irena Jůzová’s work so far is not technology, even though it is present there to a considerable degree. In essence, her work hardly varies, drawing as it does above all on the artist’s personal mythology, similarly to the work of several other artists of her generation. Irena Jůzová started out as a draftsman and graphic artist. She enrolled at the Academy of Fine Arts in 1989, studying with Ladislav Čepelák, and in 1990 she transferred to Aleš Veselý, from whose studio she graduated and where she was subsequently active for a number of years as an assistant professor. She studied abroad extensively, winning scholarships whose number reaches double figures. Already in her beginnings in the studio of Aleš Veselý, when she was still working as graphic artist, Irena Jůzová had a vision of working with space. The journey from graphic art to this kind of work, however, took a relatively long time. What was important in this respect was the gradual thematization of her graphic work, that is, the exploration of the process itself, of imprinting the matrix on paper. An important shift for her was working with paper that is used for building the scale models of aircraft, roughly similar in quality to tissue paper. She did not mount the prints in frames, instead leaving them to freely float in space, which enhanced their nature as objects in space. A decisive step into the world of sculpture came with her 1991 installation titled Ochránci (Protectors). These are formed by three found pieces of wood, their ends covered in paper cases. The contrast in materials is not random. Jůzová uses here a means of expression similar to the approaches of Arte Povera, and it is interesting to consider this work in relation to the works of Jiří Kovanda, or to Surrealist objects. More than a play with allusions to the history of art, however, Irena Jůzová was concerned with the emotional impact of the finished work. In that year (1991) there followed other objects based on a combination of three-dimensional objects and semi-translucent paper. Worth noting is the object Obal (Wrapping), which consisted of a water level wrapped in translucent paper, with a cut-out for the gauge. This was the first time Jůzová used apparatus, in this case an instrument which reacts to the Earth’s field of gravity; in other words, a device visualizing relations and energies around us that are invisible to the eye. Later she would add a plummet and other, more complex mechanisms to the water level. The field that Jůzová would inhabit in the subsequent years is outlined also by Instalace se světlem a skleněnou tabulí (Installation with Light and a Glass Panel) – it consisted of a glass pane mounted on wooden pegs and supported against a wall. Jůzová was not concerned with social commentary, or deliberately shocking work with ready-made material. She saw the glass pane rather in symbolic terms. We can see through a pane of glass, yet it takes up physical space, the light passes through it – but we cannot do so. Both works I mentioned essentially summarize Irena Jůzová’s key interests in the next few years. However, a true turning point in her work came only with an object entitled Vysílač (Transmitter), created also in 1991. It is assembled out of air-conditioning pipes, which, bending as they do at a 90 degree angle, open up into space. The ends are covered in transparent film, through which we can see inside, making us realize the relation between the surface and the depths. The work is placed on a pedestal in an open space. The viewer quickly notices a diagrammatic representation of a cellular form on the inner side of the object, and its identical imprint on one of the transparent films. If we circle around the objects, we may get these forms to overlap in order to realize the interrelationship of original to copy, and we have in front of us something akin to cell division. The natural forces and relations that Jůzová wanted to present here essentially correspond with the background program of František Kupka’s Amorpha:Fugue in Two Colors, with its two separating circles, a scene taking place on a planetary, or cellular level, symbolizing the all-pervading universal law. A work that seems to depart form this tendency is Stůl pro dvacet hráčů (A Table for Twenty Players), which nonetheless foreshadowed the character of Irena Jůzová’s future works – a massive spatial scale. In the case of Table, Jůzová offers the viewer twenty magnetic plates fixed on a large table, on which one can draw by turning a button. Joining in this game, however, leads one nowhere, the meaning lies solely in involving the viewers in a common activity. A new series of works by Irena Jůzová, defined by a quality I would call illusory interactiveness opens with the installation Místa (Places). These are three partially open booths. If the viewer enters the middle one, lights and ventilators switch on, and his or her image will be transmitted through a video-camera to monitors placed in the other two booths. The viewer in the middle one has no feedback, according to the artist, he/she does not know “how exactly and if they are being filmed”. Instead of the expected principle of the usual interactive installations (the viewer produces a movement and the mechanism of the installation translates this movement into a predictable effect) we are left at sea. We are trying to force the work of art to communicate something, but it resists acting as a simple technological mirror of us or of our movements, and instead it transmits our image to some other place, to an area which is quite simply inaccessible to us. Jůzová also disappoints the viewer’s expectations of an “electronic mirror” in other works (Places II, Project with a Movie Camera, Booths, Apparent Voices). The viewer is mostly introduced to a small space isolated from its surroundings, accentuating the theme of self-perception, and at the same time its limits, the illusory nature, or the downright impossibility of contact with one’s environs. She communicates with the viewer through sound, a closed television circuit, lighting, or simply by the relay of “energy”. These themes and artistic strategies were developed, as well as summarized in Irena Jůzová’s 1995 exhibition at the Václav Špála Gallery, entitled Podivné hry (Weird Games). Here she presented several installations – an older, moving banister had formed part of her diploma thesis entitled Mezi veřejnou podívanou a soukromím (Between Public Spectacle and Privacy) – but above all in her latest works. Some of them, including the above cited banister project derive from the aesthetic of a “weird thing”, an object torn from its usual context, or placed in a new context via a seemingly absurd adjustment, while its new meaning or function does not become in any way clear. Alongside the banister this was represented at the exhibition by dozens of geometrically organized stainless steel sabers lacking any clear symbolic value, charged only with an unsettling ambiguity, enhanced by the sound of electric discharge. Magnetický tunnel (Magnetic Resonance Scanner) is a compelling, but similarly confusing installation of mobile medical equipment with a glass panel, combined with old family photographs. The function of the movement of a construction coming from a hospital environment again carried an ambiguous, meticulously deliberate metaphor. The artist utilized her chance finding of a mobile bed, and instead of trying to impose on it her own artistic program, she allowed this object burdened with its own history to speak for itself. Reviewers often describe the works of Irena Jůzová – and not only works of this exhibition – as “cold”, “elusive”, or “in need of an explanation”. Though they are often emotional in impact, yet their exact meaning and the impulse behind their creation remain hidden from the viewer. Thus he or she naturally questions the purpose and meaning of the exhibits. The artist has, however, never had one simple correct answer in mind, and she cannot provide one. Rather, her theme is the incapacity, or the impossibility of interpretation. Many of her mobile installations, or ones operating with electric energy, create the sense that they do not function as they should. Their purpose, however, is not a strictly defined performance and its direct symbolic meaning, but rather an evocation of atmosphere, which involves also the (futile) inquiry into the purpose of the structure at hand. Irena Jůzová’s aim is not to provide inter-active entertainment for the viewer. In this regard her work is far more “egocentric”, serving as it does to reconstruct inner sensations and emotions. This autobiographical character, the work’s firm anchorage in the person of the artist, or perhaps this disinclination to tell other people’s stories, defines her work. The old photographs, or apparatuses that have been used for years, that she appropriates are to her charged with the aura of their past, and she simply tries to convey that past, instead of providing an exhaustive analysis, or even an interpretation. Alongside elements of technology, Irena Jůzová often works with found photographs, or texts by the most various authors. Such means of expression – above all the old family photographs – were a standard part of the repertoire of Czech art in the 1990s, which was concerned with the exploration of intimacy and issues of identity. For a similar purpose, Jůzová also employed textual quotations from the most diverse literary, popular-science or even philosophical texts (see works such as Love and Affection, Destructiveness and Cruelty, Mere Climate, not soul, changes – those who sail across the sea, On Love, The Silver Casque). Parallel with a simple reproduction of text on gallery walls she has also started using quotes placed on metal plates fastened to various objects or structures with chains. The texts then lose a clear order, they become anesthetized, interconnected archives placed in space, without any apparent hierarchy relating individual elements. The amassing of texts is thus – once again – not programmatic, it does not illustrate a thesis adopted in advance. The choice of texts starts with an impalpable sense, hard to define, of the importance of a randomly found quotation to the artist. It is a rebus without an answer, much like life. A parallel part of Irena Jůzová’s work which has so far rarely been exhibited is her drawings. She has worked on them since the early 1990s to the present day. They transcend the role of mere sketches, though some of her resulting works in three dimensions have no other ambition than to carry out what has already been created with a pencil. Already in her early drawings we perceive an effort to capture not only the spatial relations of objects, but also of forces and energies that surround them. They are not involved only in the solution of problems of technique, or the diary record of one’s experiences. She revisits here her childhood memories, and through the pencil she realizes their form and possible meaning. The billowing curtains in her grandmother’s room, recordings of the sounds that used to surround her back then, the light qualities of moments distant in time, which have nonetheless never faded from memory – all these reappear. In the drawings, the timelessness of Irena Jůzová’s thinking manifests itself to the full, as do the absences of modernist progress or post-modern surprise twists in her work. It is inessential in her drawings, whether she is referring to a childhood event, or one that happened yesterday – everything is mixed up and everything is interconnected. In her drawings and the subsequent three-dimensional works she makes present her own ambiguous feelings. They are structured by intensity, rather than chronology. The drawings often involve writing. Alongside technical sketches, phone numbers jotted on the margins, or hastily assembled budgets we find here also contemplations on existence, or excerpts from reading. In order to understand Irena Jůzová’s work as a whole we must stress her fascination with inexplicable, irrational phenomena, dreams, or optical perceptions verging on hallucination. Jůzová started to capture the coordinates of inner relations and unknown energies by photographing places, and drawing the lines of force that appear to us in the forms of visible objects, but in reality they are a kind of hidden cipher, a suspected inner principle of the surrounding reality. She perceives the parallel worlds outside everyday reality not only through her own experiences: similar inspiration can be intensified also by reading or cinema. Her 2003 installation Twilight Zone is suffused with the atmosphere of the mystery film thriller, with its furniture perched on telescopic legs and its surface of abrasive material. It is accompanied with a video-installation and a series of photographs taken in a derelict house, where the chaos and disorder within darkly contrast with the rational plan of the original architectural design. A similar oppressive contrast is achieved in the series of large-format manipulated photographs entitled Find Your Style…, where an indecorously ordinary dog is inserted in impeccably designed glossy interiors. The medium of digital collage seems particularly apt for Irena Jůzová’s sensibility, often employing as she does the combination of various elements or the modification of existing objects, but her projects do not come into being as a result of her desire to work with any given medium. Her ambition is not to master a new visual medium, she merely wants to capture her own notions and sensations more precisely. From the start of a project, Irena Jůzová works with a visual image or a drawing of a particular scene, and she may well stay with that. The corpus of Irena Jůzová’s work encompasses even such, at first glance, disparate experiments as the casts of her own body, using a thin, semi-translucent “skin” made of a synthetic material. In this way she creates self-portraits of a sort, which are also relics. I think that in this ongoing work we are not dealing with a dilution of some post-modern ironic play on human identity in the style of the 1980s. What the artist is after is a complex architectural setting and its atmosphere, which is not that of ironic analysis, but rather of a horror film. Crucial for the work of Irena Jůzová is the conviction that there exist moments when we may behold what lies under the surface of reality. More than photography or film, it is drawing, object, text or collage that can mediate such experiences. It is through them that she continues to convey her secrets and her visions of another reality. This is sometimes marked by the artist’s inability – or intentional unwillingness – to mediate the message of her work without further explanation. It may sound banal, yet I think Irena Jůzová places a far from ordinary emphasis on creative work. The earnestness with which she approaches it borders on a peculiar, and fierce, stubbornness. I believe that she belongs among the artists who are not subject to almost any variations in quality, and do not depart from the path they embark upon. She carries on working in the same vein. What changes is the understanding and the reception of her style. At a given period she may seem unfashionable, but a few years later a new generation of artists will appreciate her precisely for this stubbornness. I recommend that Irena Jůzová be granted the title of docent.