Interview: “The Dream Machine is Asleep” – Eva Koťátková at Pirelli HangarBicocca
In a society that rules over our individual behaviour from an early age, relegating dreams and desires into the realm of fantasy, one begins to wonder whether there is any space to be other than what your parents or social circles expect you to. For Eva Kotátkova, this space for freedom, spontaneously cultivated by children, also belongs to adults, despite reality’s attempt to anesthetize thoughts and aspirations. This is where art comes into play, as Kotátkova believes her work should materialize limits enforced either by society or by ourselves, and renegotiate that which was lost. At Hangar Bicocca, which features her solo exhibition until July 22nd, the Czech artist reconstructs a journey into emancipation pinpointed with signs like the crate, the book and the tunnel, all of which have characterized her work since she was a student at the Academy of Prague with conceptual artist Jirí Kovanda. Today Kotátkova, born in 1982, is one of the most influential artists of her generation for her unique vocabulary mixing techniques drawn from Dada and Surrealism. Her approach embraces photomontage, collage, ready-made, tokens, performances, and sculptures in steel and iron exhibited at International exhibitions such as the Lyon Biennale (2011), the Sydney Biennale (2012), and the Venice Biennale (2013), and currently at HangarBicocca in Milan and the Met in New York.
SDA: Cut out of books on pedagogy and education are features in many of your works. When did you start gathering this material and how do you approach the archive?
EK: I gather images that I find in books from an array of eastern European countries in different time periods, from the 20s and 30s to just before the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. I have always been an obsessive collector who gathered tons of books at home. However, my relation to books has changed over time. At the beginning I would just pick some images and make drawings of them to stimulate my own understanding. Only later on did I switch to a more physically violent approach to these books and started cutting them into pieces. Educational books became the milestone material for my work, giving it a more stable, pervasive, and objective perspective to it when compared to the earlier drawings. These books are prescriptive, they dictate rules through images, but only for a short time frame until they are abandoned and replaced with a new one.
SDA: Which images do you pick among the tons of cut-outs that you actually collect?
EK: I am not usually comfortable with the images that I choose. Some are especially evocative and powerful – like that of a screaming monkey – and as such they do not need a background story to relate to the individual effort against violence and anxiety, what I call social cages.
SDA: Social cages are often invisible to the eye. When and how did you turn them into sculptural devices able to host human bodies and inspire visions?
EK: It all started with the feeling that I was caged myself when I was still in art school. Then I started drawing the cages I felt where surrounding me, and observing the other students at school struggling with the same limitations I could not cope with. Did they also experience the cages? I got mainly interested in the weak, who were suffering from alienation and did not easily adjust to the school system for different reasons. I started imagining their cages like diagrams and seeing their conditions as if real and visible to the point that I could sketch them. Only later on I started visualizing the cages in different metals, traditional and classic materials but less monumental and artistic than brass or bronze, which I dismissed because of their link to art history. My intention was to achieve three-dimensional drawings in the space that you – or any visitor - cannot actually break. You can perhaps escape the cages, but you cannot really break them or change their shape.
SDA: What role does the visitor play in your often polyhedric installations, pointing at discomfort in contemporary societies?
EK: Visitors play an essential role, indeed, I always count on them. I prepare works that occupy the space in order for a reaction to happen, so the scale of the objects is related to that of the body. For example, in the exhibition you will find Heads, a series of sculptures that were made for humans to enter. Some suggest a need for completion. The body and the object are meant to form one entity for a very temporary time. In my vision, the art space should be always physically inhabited and take you from one input to the other, all around the exhibition.
SDA: Who are the people that test your work before you install in the exhibition?
Sometimes it is my family, but I don’t force them. Actually most of the sculptures and props correspond to my body measures, my own scale. So I test them myself, I am the first one to squeeze in.
SDA: Would you consider your art a social experiment?
EK: That is a very ambitious understanding for a work of art. I wished that some times, but to be a social experiment you need to gather feedback. It does happen when I involve the spectators more, and in return they cooperate in the making of the piece like in the “Asylum” (2013).
SDA: Asylum (2013) is an emblematic work in your career path - it was presented at the Venice Biennale, and was also your first appearance on the international art scene. What kind of feedback did you get on that occasion?
EK: More than feedback I got a reaction from the performers, who can be considered my first spectators. The work is a pedestal with sculptures on it, with some hanging from above, as well. The inside of the installation is activated by the performers at specific times of the day, for one hour. In Venice they were very equipped with special structures to make themselves more comfortable. They would also bring pillows, books, newspapers, and sandwiches. There was a parallel activity happening! However, the public of the Venice Biennale would only see the head, or the arm - fragments of their bodies coming out of holes and showing as part of the artwork. I still remember with puzzlement the second time I came to check the work a few weeks after the opening. The scene underneath Asylum allowed for a hidden reality to unfold, something I neither expected nor controlled.
SDA: In “The Dream Machine is Asleep” (2018), your new commission for Hangar Bicocca, you reveal the dreams of children. Some dreams are cheerful, featuring cuddly cats and other fluffy animals, some are even ironic, presenting not too hidden messages for their parents. Like the story of the ultimate battle between broccoli and burgers. I also found nightmares haunted by monsters and fears. How did you embrace something so intimate and often untold?
EK: It is in the border, it is like opening the window into something that is not there, not available for the others. In my work I am always interested in giving a voice to different groups of people that in our society are perhaps less heard. It can be children, people suffering from mental illness, who are more isolated and discriminated against. If you give them the chance, they will speak. It seems a contradiction to show something that is normally kept secret, very private and very personal, but it was a volunteer action for the 40 children involved in the project. They shared either a dream they experienced themselves while sleeping or during the day. Something from the past or that is ongoing. Sometimes they made it up, often they wished it was real, like changes in the family. They signed their dreams but there is no surname, so it sort of became anonymous for the public of Hangar Bicocca.
SDA: We live in a coercive society, where each behavior is shaped by what is considered acceptable. Children are in the process of becoming “good citizens”, but are not there yet. What did you learn from them?
EK: There is more than one answer, because it all depends on their age. When they are eight or nine years old as in this case, it is interesting to understand how their thoughts and behavior have been informed by school education, what is a result of their family experience and what is instead a more personal reaction or perception of the surrounding world. In the recording of dreams this is very explicit. Sometimes they will quote their parents, some thoughts are a bit more educational and all of a sudden there will be a complete fantasy never heard before. These spontaneous, wild dreams are very present.
Eva Kot’átková The Dream Machine is Asleep See more about the exhibition, here.