Miloš Vojtěchovský - Twilight Zone - Time Element

opponent's text to Irena Jůzová's habi­litation at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague (May 2008), Prague, February 2007.[articlehead]

Some time before 1958 the author and screenwriter of an American television series that would eventually become an icon of Anglo-American audiovisual culture during the second half of the 20th century, Rod Serling, wrote a short treatment entitled “The Time Element.” The story deals with what would happen if – being able to travel in time – someone from 1958 suddenly found themselves somewhere in Hawaii on December 6, 1941. That is, as chance would have it, just one day before the Japanese air force launched an attack on Pearl Harbor. Serling sent his screenplay to the production department of the CBS television network, but once there the script landed securely at the bottom of a drawer. Eventually the future author of the television series “The Twilight Zone” succeeded in persuading the network’s mana­gement of the potential popularity of a sci-fi series dedicated to mysterious, supernatural and extraordinary phenomena and characters. He would then personally introduce each story to the viewers. In the subsequent years, 156 episodes were created, featuring the most popular actors of their day, and in the 1980s and 1990s two new versions and feature film adaptations were made, as well as a host of radio shows, comic books and screen savers. At the time, the USA prospered under the glossy, shiny bell-glass of the American economic miracle. Yet the oppressive atmosphere of the permanent threat of a nuclear conflict between the superpowers, the encroachment of militarized scientific research on the dimensions of everyday reality, the racial tension between black Americans and a white majority trying at all stakes to maintain the status quo – all of these were naturally reflected in popular culture references and stories. This occurred mostly in the form of hyperbole, parody, or travesty, as well as in the form of adventure narratives and fairy-tale themes. Among such narratives were “The Twilight Zone” (or was it in fact Daybreak?), “The Martian Chronicles”, and the novel Fahrenheit 451, or for example Superman. At the same time, on the other side of the planet, in the experimental satellite zone of the Soviet Empire somewhere in Central Europe, similar stories and films were being made – dealing with the threat of power, the destruction of humankind, the attack of aliens from space, on the angst of a dehumanized hyper-technological civilization whose demise seemed near at hand. Everyday reality in both the Czech lands and the USA was similarly (though in incomparable form) filtered by the means of censorship and producers, and could only with difficulty reach the viewer in its raw, abrasive, immediate and un-mythologized form. It was through hyperbole, the realm of comic strip, fantasy, and science fiction, that it was easier to reach a broader audience than with avant-garde literature, art cinema, or experimental music. The sets and stage design produced in the television and film studios of the era were often the work of a number of talented and progressive artists, just as we can find in the credits the names of writers who would eventually become acclaimed high-brow authors. “The Twilight Zone” became not only a classic of late 20th century creative television in Western civilization, but also a reservoir and a kind of herbarium of the traumas and the sublimated dreams of late-1950s and early 1960s Euro-American society. Unlike B-grade science fiction films, which reveled in special effects, bizarre shapes and reckless plot twists (similar to the “Doctor Who” series in the UK), the makers of “The Twilight Zone” adhered to a pseudo-documentary authenticity and an illusory plausibility of the settings portrayed. Thus merely a minor shift in perspective could suffice for the message of the story to catapult the viewer into the realm of fantasy. “The Daybreak Zone” is the title that Irena Jůzová has chosen for one of her installations on the dawn of the zone of the third millennium, and in one of the photographs, a DVD cover directly references the earlier CBS series. The installation shares with the contextualized work a similarly ambivalent mood, strategy and position as was found in the popular 1960s science fiction gem. It also hovers on the edge between factuality and meta-reality. As in the opening episode of “The Twilight Zone”, it also documents a vista through time, and an attempt to invisibly mend as it were the temporal seams between the past and the present. In her work, the Functionalist décor of a 1930s family villa is documented in detail with a camera, capturing the period as lived by the invisible inhabitants. Sober images of detailed close-ups subtly contemplate the reality which has changed so fundamentally, both within the house and outside of it in the streets. At the time the villa was built, its architects strove for a radical break from all ballast of the past, and for the fulfillment of scientific notions of an ideally functional interior, reduced to the core and free of all personal, sentimental, or surplus elements. After seventy years have elapsed, a still life from the basement and the kitchen inevitably testify to the utopian nature of such a dream. The series of photographs and video sequences form a portrait of sorts of a house unfixed in time, an aperture opening into the innermost intimate nooks and crannies of the aging architectural organism, accompanied by the processes of entropy, an observation of how the structure is reclaimed by vegetation, snapshots of windows with indoor plants, or micro-shots of the innards of a refrigerator. I find inspiring here another inter-textual reference to television sci-fi, which thematizes the cinematic cliché of shots of empty staircases and corridors that are supposed to evoke suspense and make the viewer gasp. I find this work symptomatic of most works by Irena Jůzová. It darts lightly across various rooms, creating vistas between film, video, sculpture, environment, sound, and text. The source of this movement is something unknown, unnamable: an uncertainty, disorientation and disintegration of seeming certainties, routines, or aesthetic clichés. We do not know who the inhabitants of this anonymous functionalist house, lit only by the sparse and naked light of a discharge tube, really are. Is the dog lurking somewhere in the corridor a messenger from another world, as in Tarkovsky? Or has the dog simply dragged itself into the frame by accident? According to what key has the machinery of the magnetic tunnel become simultaneously an apparatus for the generating of memories, and a resonator of images from childhood? These and other enigmas of Irena’s work make one think that this is in fact a picture of a larger whole, that these are the props of some story that has happened, that is happening, or that will happen tomorrow. Irena Jůzová does not provide any unambiguous explanation for her works, nor does she yield to the temptation of aesthetizing her conceptual notions and realizations. Or perhaps I have simply not chanced upon the artist’s expla­natory text. In my view, the main qualities of her work lie in this attentive authorial reticence, as well as in the careful phrasing and articulation of stories that hint at the various domains, but never illustrate them, leaving many unanswered questions, but also providing many clues.
Based on this personal view, I have tried to illustrate an example of one installation by the artist. I recommend to the committee to give a positive judgment to Ms. Irena Jůzová’s appli­cation for her final proceedings towards a Doctorate of Arts.

MgA. Miloš Vojtěchovský
Centre of Audio Visual Studies, FAMU