Jiri Kratochvil - Art Maker
In 1979, English poet Craig Raine published his seminal poem ‘A Martian Sends a Postcard Home’. Raine’s metaphorical descriptions of natural and man-made phenomena represented a new way of seeing, from an extraterrestrial’s point of view, attempting to make sense of its earthly observations. It is via this reversed perspective, – from the outside in – or ‘defamiliarised’ view that Jiri Kratochvil approaches his art making.
A couple of years prior to Raine’s poetic masterpiece, NASA sent Voyagers 1 & 2 into outer space with a message aboard by Carl Sagan and his colleagues – a kind of time capsule intended to communicate to extraterrestrials the story of humans on Earth. Included was a message from the then president of the US Jimmy Carter: “This is a present from a small, distant world, a token of our sounds, our science, our images, our music, our thoughts and our feelings. We are attempting to survive our time so we may live into yours”.
Responding to the spirit of this gesture, Kratochvil has, throughout a career spanning over forty years, sought to explore critical aspects of the world, offering glimpses into human civilisation, culture and existence. Gathered over time, his work represents a trove containing some of the most consequential markers of the evolutionary process, from the earliest coil pot to Greek inventions, from diatoms to gold. Political, symbolic and existential references connect past and present, the man-made and the natural universe and serve as a visual commentary for onlookers inclined to know and understand the human narrative. The resulting body of work integrates a diverse set of ideas and observations, expressed through sculptural objects and drawings.
In its comparisons between human invention and natural things, the strangeness of the images summoned by Raine’s martian – where books are described as “mechanical birds with many wings” or rain as “when the earth is television” – resonates with Kratochvil who concerns himself with the potential for differences in perception. By questioning “how we make sense of things, how the brain works, how receptive it is”, he proposes that the way we see things, or how our individual mindset is determined, is formed by an ongoing process, of our responses to received information.
“We all see the world through a fixed grid of education, of prejudices and of ideas which is filled in over time. I think of the writings of Jan Amos Komenský (Comenius), the Protestant cleric and founder of modern education, who proposed the idea that we see the world through different lenses or ‘spectacles of delusion’. As we construct the grid, or spectacles, our identity begins to form, it is a fluid process, it evolves.”
This notion of ‘evolution’ as opposed to ‘creation’ is something which the Moravian-born artist cultivates in relation to his own artistic pursuit.
“I was never happy with the term ‘creative’ as it implies a kind of ‘Godly’ work. Although we all think we know what it might mean, I feel that it is too open to a romantic fiction interpretation – as if it magically comes from somewhere outside of us, rather than being a manifestation of the incredible part of us which is the brain. Evolution is a very slow, even ponderous process underpinned by constant change and flow. It seems to me that art in general is very much a part of this ever-expanding, interconnected field sustained by the ‘activities’ of the individual artists. We cannot define what art is, and so the most useful way of talking about art is to ponder what informs it. Since the possibilities are literally endless, choices and limits are made – nobody can deal with everything! I am trying to locate my work in a space which is circumscribed by diverse, often contradictory, tangents which are of some importance at the time when a piece of work is evolving – it is a slow process with many dead ends and surprises.”
Kratochvil left former Czechoslovakia for the United Kingdom in 1969 after the Warsaw Pact invasion, the same year as the first Concorde test flight, the debut of the Boeing 747 jumbo jet and the Apollo 11 moon landings. It was also the time of the Vietnam War. As Man strode implausibly into the cosmos using state-of-the-art technology, he simultaneously caused carnage against his own kind on earth.
“There seems to be a catastrophic gap between the human ability to solve problems resulting in incredible advances in science and technology and our slowly-evolving consciousness of the world and ourselves.”
Aligning with his own research of the human condition, this state of “disconnection” is frequently addressed in his artistic investigations.
Kratochvil attended Ravensbourne College of Art and Design from 1975 to 1979, he gained a BA in Fine Art followed in 1990 by an MA in Fine Art at Goldsmiths’ College, London where he subsequently became a Course Leader for the joint degree in Fine Art and History of Art.
“It was at Ravensbourne that I first met the exceptional artist Carl Plackman who was one of the visiting tutors. He was, without doubt, the most sought-after tutor and, I think it’s fair to say, that a tutorial with him was an event of lasting significance. Later on, when I was doing my MA in Fine Art, I invited Carl to my studio and again it was memorable. As a tutor and fellow artist, together with his work, it made him, in my view, the Martian referred to by Craig Raine in his poem. Seeing his work for the first time in 1978 at the Arnolfini Gallery Bristol was an experience which was literally out of this world, but at the same time very much part of this world. The juxtaposition of objects in the exhibition was conveying something urgent and important, and yet it was not possible to say what it was. Perhaps the nearest way of describing it would have been to allude to some form of concrete poetry – we know the individual words but the syntax is of unknown origin and hence the possible meaning hovers somewhere in a space above. For me, it was the first time, as far as I can recollect, that I became aware of the impossible possibility of looking at the world from outside in and although it took me many years to digest this, I can say now that it is what, to a large degree, informs my art making. Somehow, of all the artists I have met and know, Carl’s pedestal stands just that a bit taller than any others.”
Working with wood, metal, glass or other elemental materials such as carved rock salt or limestone, Kratochvil unearths some of the archetypal organic resources of the planet. Early stalagmitic sculptures in ceramic act as a temporal bridge to future novel installations incorporating plastic, technological components and other mixed media which examine the interrelationship between nature, technology and the man-made. From the early nineties, works such as Strawberry field, Suburban garden and Chamber piece integrate found objects in plastic with wood.
“It is impossible not to see plastic in our environment. These pieces were developed in response to the cultural zeitgeist when talk about the environment was really coming to the fore.”
From form to image (1990), his installation at the Ron Herron-designed Imagination Building in London was included in the Swimming Under Water exhibition. Red, undulating, polyethylene industrial fencing surrounded the staircase and a large planter in the building’s atrium. The architecture of the building allowed the installation to be viewed from above in its entirety, thus transferring the material form into image.
During a residency in Emmen, Holland in 1993, Kratochvil further developed a series of sculptural works using yellow plastic gas distribution pipes supplied by the Dutch manufacturer Vavin.
“I had seen some fantastic images of diatoms in National Geographic. They are single-celled algae with a silicon structure living in oceans, waterways and the soil. They take different shapes often reminiscent of geometric or hi-tech architectural forms. I was intrigued to see how I could use these forms, which go back to the beginning of life on Earth, in some meaningful way. My endeavour was greatly helped by my visits to the Natural History Museum’s diatom collection, and talking to the very generous experts there.”
By re-moulding the yellow polyethylene pipes into scaled-up organic forms, their historic, industrial functionality is elevated to geometric, architectural works of art. The resulting pieces were exhibited in Holland and in the City of Prague Gallery.
In 1995 Kratochvil was invited to present his complex piece Large detector in the exhibition Pretext Heteronymus, inspired by the plural identities or heteronyms invented by the early 20th century modernist Portuguese poet, Fernando Pessoa. “The heteronyms are Pessoa’s coterie of avantgarde writers, fictions in which he himself becomes part of an intertextual narrative.” Referencing his own heteronym – The Josef Project – which was conceived in collaboration with the photographer Peter White, Kratochvil set out to detect non-existing ‘Omega energy’. Live goldfish swam between three interconnected flasks illuminated by primary colours. Movement of the goldfish triggered sensors placed in the connecting tubes between the flasks producing distinct multi-coloured ‘printouts’ with the help of a stack of computers. After its initial exhibition in Clink Street Studios in London, the piece was exhibited in 1997 in Rome’s Complesso Del San Michele a Ripa Grande as a version of the initial show, and finally in 1998 at the Museum of Installation, London.
Kratochvil succeeds in delivering complex themes with a particular playfulness. The other side of forever (2005) was “informed by our historic, multilayered and complicated relationship to alcohol.” The fully functioning, self-regulating ‘still’ was made largely of glass according to the advice of Dr John Stone, Director of Research at the University of Ottawa and of Dr Nicholas Green, the Deputy Head of Department of Chemistry at King’s College London. “The still recovered pure alcohol from a large glass flask containing bought commercial vodka and returned it to be recovered again in a continuous process. Permission for the recovering of alcohol was granted after an interesting exchange of letters with Her Majesty’s Customs and Excise.”
In 2014 for the exhibition at Horatio Junior gallery in London, entitled The devil is in the detail, he presented three pieces which were composed of various materials some of which were salvaged from a derelict outbuilding at his home. It’s chemical, Life biological, and Purely physical go beyond their explicit references to the realms of science to call into question the absurdities of human life. Structural components fashioned from Portland stone, metal or wood achieve an artisanal standing: hexagonal molecules, a book, expertly bound in leather and embossed with the word PROTOCOL, precise rosettes carved into its steel support, golden finials and a weighted pendulum impress in their craftsmanship. And then, the eye hones in on tiny, plastic figurines, procured from a German model railway supplier. Their artificial fabric and dubious actions feel incongruous against Kratochvil’s beautifully crafted pieces; they are a mischievous wink to the condition of human behaviour.
Imagining a spatial ‘mess’ of images floating through the universe “waiting to be received and read” or “chosen and borrowed”, Kratochvil selects references, suspended in orbit like celestial objects, because of their meaning and relevance in human history.
“It appears that what we ‘see’ is the light reflected from an object of our attention, which then our brain interprets, and light has a certain speed so it takes a little while for this to take place. Of course here on Earth it is more or less instant but in the vastness of the universe it’s a very different story. Because of the unimaginable distances, that which we ‘see’ might not exist anymore. It is only the reflected light which is travelling towards the viewer. If some alien is looking at us from somewhere he too would ‘see’ the reflected light of our existence. The fascinating implication is that we, or the aliens ‘see’ everything in the past.”
The clay coil pot is one of the most significant examples which repeatedly occupies Kratochvil’s art.
“Making a receptacle of any kind was a game changer in our evolution because it allowed the storing of food and water and thus facilitated travel and in turn, trading was born. The same can be said for the impact of the screw thread, believed to be invented by the Greek philosopher Archytas of Tarentum in about 400 BC. The oil presses in Pompeii were worked by the screw principle. Archimedes developed it and used it to construct devices to raise water.”
Through his practice of drawing, Kratochvil extends his pictorial language to include aspects from the plant world interspersed amongst technological tools and other cultivated innovations. In 2015, he was an artist in residence at the Josef and Anni Albers Foundation in Bethany, Connecticut.
“I arrived with a head full of ideas. It was really a time of shift, to experiment, to allow my brain to explore. I played with the idea of looking at the world from Outer Space. I started with drawing, and, deciding that Martians probably wouldn’t use paper but instead something synthetic and durable, I began to use geotextile.”
The resulting series of works entitled Disorderly conduct, 2015 featured carrots restrained by metal braces, pulleys, straps and bolts.
Building on these experimental pieces, his most recent series of drawings uses myriad objects in compositions which evolve throughout the process. Relaying ideas and information back and forth like a 3D grid of connecting possibilities, they attest to Kratochvil’s view that “knowledge is an expanding field, where traces of everything remain.” Seemingly random placement, yet highly-considered content, often featuring vertical inscriptions and reminiscent of Japanese woodblock prints or medieval Orthodox icons incorporates written word into the visual: TOTAL DISCONNECT, QUANTUM REPULSION, EQUILIBRIUM UNDER PROTEST, CUPOLA, AT VARIANCE WITH REASON or NITROGLYCERIN all point to the themes and preoccupations which inhabit Kratochvil’s mind.
Precisely-chosen motifs are drawn onto the fabric surface in acrylic and watercolour. From ancient civilisations, cultures and customs, Kratochvil excavates Classic inventions, Byzantine icons, or Early Medieval language systems. Cuneiform clay tablets of the Ancient Near East, used for 2000 years and inscribed with wedge-shaped impressions which form its signs, or rosettes and mosaic inlays from the Royal Game of Ur, or letters from the Glagolitic alphabet occupy the pictorial space. Traces of gold paint bring a touch of luxury and reverence.
“Gold has always been precious. It was valued very early on in our evolution, perhaps due to its symbolic link to the sun. It also symbolises longevity, it doesn’t oxidise so it is long-lasting.”
The primary colours dominate an aesthetic partly informed by Oriental art. Incorporating geometric structures, either in the foreground or background, angular screens, wedges and supports in red, green and blue act as visual separators, distinguishing between shapes and dividing the compositional area to introduce perspective and multi-dimensionality. Like the elliptic plane along which planets, stars and astronomical objects reside, theirs is a continuous game of balance, juxtaposition and connection.
With intuition, Kratochvil picks from his self-described celestial library of images. Nuts, bolts, threaded screws, levers and other momentous discoveries are paired with blossom sprigs or a tree. Flags, as primeval signals shout out “We are here!”, their presence gesturing to the cultural importance of identity. His drawings turn the spectator into cryptologist to decipher, layer by layer, the vestiges of humanity.
Leaning towards the ideas of Italian theoretical physicist Carlo Rovelli because “quantum physics transforms the way we think about the world” the artist often cites the American astronomer and scientist Carl Sagan whose research on alien life included the radio message beamed into space from the Arecibo radio telescope aimed at informing potential extraterrestrials about Earth.
“I imagine how we are being observed from Outer Space, what we say, what we do, how we are behaving. Our spectators must be intrigued, and bemused. Watching us, what sense must they make?”
Since 2006, Kratochvil has lived with his wife, the British artist Jane Harris, in southwest France. The countryside studios they share brim with projects in different stages. Acacia logs salvaged from tree surgeons over thirty years ago are worked into one of his latest piece entitled Conflict of interests (2021). In Misunderstood information (2022), reconstituted metal parts of a disused cider press are combined with the old oak beams, carved into mycological forms and meticulously balanced and constructed by a skilled engineering eye.
Consistently revisiting the nature of perception, language, communication and politics, Kratochvil’s art traces world history across eras, through oceanography, geology, microbiology, brain science, astrophysics, modern invention and artistic and cultural heritage. His is a slow journey of discovery, a summation of human oddities and existence, and of universal concerns. For a moment, as passengers, we may also consider the view through his own, unique spectacles.