I burn, I draw, I construct and deconstruct objects loaded with historical and social baggage and conflicting ideologies. Often I combine a particular Czech fatalism with an American optimism to strange effect. In my work the icon of American transcendentalism Henry David Thoreau can sit side by side with mathematician genius and terrorist Ted Kaczynski and with ideologue philosopher Martin Heidegger because they are so alike in their differences. Sometimes there is very little difference between genius and madness and they are on the surface one and the same. Is history written by great leaders or madmen?
Perhaps the answer does not matter. History is rarely neutral or complete. Through a personal vision of history I created a canon of famous and notorious cabin dwellers, of places both real and non-specific, inhabited and abandoned, because that is how time and history sometimes appear. My work runs through different practices, painting, drawing, sculpture, installation, book making, video, photography and social practice. Here the East meets the West in self-imposed exile, and escape, solitude and nostalgia share equal weight with the heavy burden of history; the American Eden and Manifest Destiny.
My new series of paintings is a venture into the darker side; of landscape, of nature, of memory. Images of smoke clouds from local fires are thinly painted into the heavy blackness of ash and charcoal rubbed into a burned wooden panel. These are the objects of reverie of fire, that primordial sense of one’s connectedness to something both life-affirming and life-destroying.
Long statement in ten parts:
1. In 1818, Caspar David Friedrich finished his painting ‘Wanderer Above a Sea of Fog.’ Friedrich, who during his lifetime enjoyed some popularity, only to be forgotten as a relic of old age against the backdrop of progress and industrialization, was resurrected twice in the 20th century: first time during the Nazi period in Germany when his paintings were appropriated by National Socialism and reinterpreted as having a strong German nationalistic sentiment and second time in the 1970s when his work and Friedrich himself were finally rehabilitated from a comatose state caused by the Nazi stamp of approval. Friedrich’s paintings became widely known and reproduced and ‘Wanderer’ became one the most iconic images of 19th century Romanticism, intensly copied and parodied. The image of the ‘Wanderer’ forms the basis for many Hollywood movie posters and the back shot, a look over the shoulder of a character surveying what is ahead distills the scene to a set piece, at once simple and complex, a contradiction in paint. In the hands of Hollywood the image of the ‘Wanderer’ is subsumed into capitalist ideology, an obverse of the nationalist sentiment ascribed to Friedrich’s work in early 20th century. He is forever surveying the lands over which he assumes control by his gaze. The second reading however, is melancholy and nostalgic. The ‘Wanderer’s’ gaze, though we never see where his eye is directed, is one of longing for oneness with the world, a world too immense for him to comprehend. Of the contradictory nature of ‘Wanderer’ the art historian John Lewis Gaddis wrote that Friedrich’s painting suggested ‘at once mastery over a landscape and the insignificance of the individual within it. We see no face, so it's impossible to know whether the prospect facing the young man is exhilarating, or terrifying, or both’
2. In a world emptied of authenticity, nostalgia and utopian thought are never too far away. In my work, two types of idealism, Western capitalism and Eastern European communism, meet, each with its own version of naïve optimism, innocence, purity and sublime sensibility, but also with its terrifying dimension, its own darkness and failures.
3. Especially interesting is the American veneration of the individual and nature. The individual is a stand in for a larger notion of freedom, an idea begun in colonial America that gained popularity in the 19th century with Thoreau and the Transcendetalists. Thoreau, the great admirer of nature and antagonist to the banality and stupidity of ‘civilized’ culture, was the precursor to existentialism and their idea of ‘radical freedom.’ He lived both. Perhaps because nature was ‘too close, too wild, too savage’ that made Thoreau fall in love with it. Perhaps it was because that is how people of his day saw nature, did he resist the temptation to follow the crowd. Where others saw evil and wilderness, Thoreau saw untamed beauty. The fact that our lives are dominated by technology, bureaucracy, and the ever widening economic divide serves up the fact that individualist notions of the most radical kind are gaining ground. No longer is the individual connected to others and to nature. The individual is only connected vicariously, to a network of meaningless data accounting for the existence of countless other individuals whose lives are forever trapped in a stream of packets and bytes. No wonder that utopian ideas and nostalgia return full force in the popular imaginary of the globalized technological West. If on the one hand did colonial Americans see nature as Edenic and on the other as tainted, there must be a new kind of urban wilderness both good and evil, because the question must be asked, if in the 20th century did we try to tame nature and subdue it to our will, did we succeed or fail?
4. For me, having come from Eastern Europe, and born during the twilight of Communism, the failure of utopian idealism was an ever present occurrence in the same way that the technological utopia is present in today’s globalized society, promising something that cannot be delivered. The vestiges and ruins of a Stalinist past can still be seen in much of Eastern Europe in the buildings and remnants of nationalist monuments, but similarly are the vestiges of a not so distant technological past of the United States visible, decaying in the California desert, inside mountains and buried beneath concrete slabs miles below the earth. It is wonderful to live among the ruins of bygone days.
5. Empire in decline. After the last Soviet tanks rolled out of Czechoslovakia after the Velvet Revolution, the construction trucks quickly took their place, laying foundations for business parks, shopping centers, condominiums and fast food joints, new monuments to a new ideology. We came to America in the mid-1990s, wide-eyed and full of optimism as countless others before us did. Little did we know that the Reagan Revolution attempted, as a last resort, to inject its dying culture with life support in the shape of a giant national debt and dumping most of it on the people least likely to be able to pay it off. In the words of Robert Hughes, the ‘American Century’ that began in 1945 ‘finished ignobly amid the glitzy triumphalism of Reagan’s presidency, and its squandered resources cannot simply be willed back into being.’ To escape the dull and gray reality of post-communism for the fertile fields of American capitalism was like escaping a car crash and ending up strapped to a seat on an Amtrak heading straight for a train wreck, all in high-definition slow-motion courtesy of Fox, Columbia, or MGM. Maybe I share too much in the fatalism of the people of Czech Republic but aren’t capitalism and communism just a different form of slavery?
6. Today we are always in the process of some ‘great return’ to a ‘better future’ via a ‘better past.’ This return is an instance of the process of becoming the future. In some sense Utopia, whether it is based on individualism or communitarianism, is a form of escape from the ever present idea of becoming. Understanding that the past is full of instances where the promise of a better future was a set of missteps, missed opportunities, chaos, war and suffering, we tend to be wary of the future and therefore of becoming. It is rather comforting and fulfilling to think of the world in an abstract sense as a world in which everything happens simultaneously or never actually happens at all. The present is all there is in the end. To live with the ramifications of the past, present and future is to live with the traumatic notion of what authentic unmediated life really is.
7. My work excavates the promise of the unfulfilled potential of lived experience based on idealist thought. This idealism, far from being the fanciful object of eccentric minds or revolutionaries, is more ingrained in the everyday. The idea of the single man surviving in the forest, a freedom unknown to modern man unobstructed by the presence of others, a pristine Eden-like existence, is the zero-point coordinate of American ideology. Thoreau’s idea of solitude was the American dream of yesterday before the corporate body began to sell its own version, based on the Jeffersonian model of ‘pursuit of happiness’ and property, to the public. This time the family, not the individual would play the role of the essential kernel of American ideology, separated from the greater whole yet necessarily linked to it. Theodore Kaczinski’s 25 years spent living alone in a cabin in Montana from where he sent meticulously crafted mail bombs to political figures was the individualist American dream gone awry. Conversely, the socialist utopia counts on the absolute interrelatedness of the social body to its ideology as the truly functioning utopia. There the individual functions only as the necessary component of a large mosaic, the family an idealized image of the state, much like in the American version, functions as the extended arm of the state. What ties both capitalist America and socialist Europe together is of course the way that both dealt with technology and how they were either able or unable to cope with technological growth. Both America and Soviet Russia were heavily technologized by the mid-20th century. Soviet modernization spared nothing and no one, it’s technology peaked at the height of the space race and when money and faith in the system faltered, due in no small part to a genuine legitimation crisis of the 1970s and 80s, what was left was a legacy of spent tech industry, tanks, rockets and jet fighters posing as monuments and playground equipment. In America, technology is synonymous with modernization and progress and progress is by definition anti-nostalgic. Even the Soviets wanted nothing to do with nostalgic longing for the past in their feverish drive toward every greater achievement. But it is precisely at this time, when progress is deified and tech industry giants assume the roles of self-appointed and most heinous Ayn Randian leaders, that we get nostalgic for pre-internet days and imagine what life would be like without constant notifications and Twitter feeds.
8. I believe this constant going back and forth between American and European cultures to dig out possible meanings and histories are for me a personal reconstitution of a sense of place and of home as ideological and personal constructs, I am after all a product of both places. Ever since my move to Southern California my focus has been on landscape, location, dwelling, home, place and nostalgia. I’m interested in the intersections where these concepts take on a real appearance, where they are arrested, where they develop and how we think about them. In political discourse, place and home are always tied to landscape and the experiences one has within the cultural understanding of each. Landscape as homeland is at the forefront of all nationalistic ideologies, whereas place is always where revolutionary battles give meaning to the universality of struggle and overcoming. Home and place are therefore also references to the nature of life split between the city (place) and the country (home) and the vacillation between the two.
9. The cabin is a trope that permeates both ideas of place and home, of the particular and the universal, and the familial and the individual. A home away from home, the cabin has many variants that speak to the common theme of escape from the present into the ethereal qualities of solitude and freedom, the cabin represents the life ‘out there’, the man cave represents the life ‘in here.’ The disappearing Western frontier subsumed the cabin and its function as common shelter, a place for migrating masses, crafts people and artisans. In the 20th century, when the frontier finally disappeared for good, or rather when it turned inward into cyberspace and outward into outerspace, so did the cabin transform into a place of rustic refuge and imagined return to simplicity, a second home, a vacation spot, a contingency rather than necessity.
10. In contemporary culture this escape has been gaining more and more ground as the motif of the individual surrounded by pristine primordial landscape with a solitary hut or cabin abound in films and are found over and over again in American and European literature and philosophy. Agrarian culture, the blood and soil politics of which Heidegger’s hut was no small part opened up the theme of German nationalism in the 20th century and tied it to the landscape, social economy and ideology. Thoreau’s experience in the cabin at Walden Pond served as the ontological point of reference to American environmentalism and self-reliance. His influence can be traced through the development of national parks and reserves, anarchist and environmental movements, ranch life and homesteading, all the way to the new radical economy of resistance by the likes of Ted Kaczynski or the anti-government extreme right-wing Idaho separatists. The cabin is a symbol for freedom and the individual, located within a romanticized landscape of natural harmony, even if this freedom exists for limited amounts of time such as on weekends or extended holidays. Even the green anarchist movement added to this dilemma of the interpellation of place and home, or the cabin and the individual, with its insistence on a life in nature, completely independent of the grid of city utilities. Self-reliance, sustainability, survivalism, individualism, nationalism, anarchism, environmentalism and so on, these are the ideological symbols and traps of a life on the edge. Such a life can only be lived in contradiction, but such contradictions make life interesting and worth living.