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Catalogue essay for exhibition 'Jiri Kratochvil'

    With the project of the Jiri Kratochvil exhibition in the Cross Passage of the Old Town Hall we followed two aims from the beginning. We wanted to introduce the artist in Prague, the man who left the Czech Lands in the late sixties, and his work, which is the result of intensive research into the potential of polythene materials. Kratochil’s orientation towards plastics as his only creative material gave us the idea of presenting his exhibition in the context of the Artchemo exhibition which is held by GHMP on the 2nd floor areas of the Old Town Hall. The Artchemo exhibits are a reminder of the Artchemo Symposium which took place in Pardubice in 1968 and 1969 but which came to an end because of the unfavourable circumstances and the political situation here. The Artchemo programme involved the investigation of plastic materials and their application to art. The exhibition in the Old Town Hall gives an overview of selected results from two years of this symposium and the work by the Czech artists is therefore over 25 years old. We thought it would be interesting to present a confrontation with an exhibiton of contemporary work by Jiri Kratochvil, an artist who creates his work solely out of plastics – the polythene pipes used for the long-distance distribution of gas.

    The retrospective Artchemo exhibition indicates clearly, through the passage of time, that the artists who belong to the generally accepted personalities of the sixties generation (Kolibal, Janouskova, Malich, Nepras, Hendrych) created several successful works for the symposium but ‘the use of plastics’ did not play a particularly important role then, and from the viewpoint of the individual artists’ development it was only something of an episode, somewhat out of context. Plastics were used like any other material and became subservient to the creative efforts already followed and accepted. The actual idealogy of the symposium was fulfilled more markedly by artists like Milos Urbanek, Rudolf Volrab or Milos Sevcik, for whom the charateristics of the plastics were the starting point. However, none of these artists made any systematic effort on the idea. The concept of the symposium, which is certainly inspirational from the present-day point of view, reflects the enthusiasm of the day for new, unusual material and the effort to keep in step with the then topical trends.

    These days there is nothing exclusive about plastics. They have become part of our daily life and our works of art, and no general need is felt to emphasise the fact in any way. Artists simply use plastics if they find them suitable for the realisation of their artistic concepts and an artist like Jiri Kratochvil, who works solely with plastics, is more of an exception than the rule. Actually, even for Kratochvil, one of the reasons for using plastics is their ominipresence and their practically unlimited capacity for change (any colour is possible, plastics can be hard or soft, smooth or variegated). Polythene is the most common kind of plastic in the world and changes its identity incessantly. With its capacity for endless change, Kratochvil sees plastics as the ideal material for contemporary art which is often characterised by divergence of opinion and plurality.

    Kratochvil’s art is based on his characteristic, specific way of thinking, which seeks links between evolutionary biological systems and the contemporary world of science, with its ever more complicated technologies. The culture, science and technology created by Man do not, in Kratochvil’s eyes, stand in opposotion to nature, but are part of it, albeit its extenstion.

    In his imagination he goes back to the beginnings of life on Earth, when the first simple structures and micro-organisms started developing from the original ‘soup of chemicals’. These archetypal organisms were exposed to all sorts of outside pressures which threatened our existence. In order to survive they created protective coverings, a sort of ‘skin’, which form the borderline between the inner (private) and the outer (public) area. Kratochvil is intrigued with this narrow territory, the borderline, where both areas meet and where the ‘skin’, the surface, also fulfils the structural role. He is fascinated by the similarity between microscopic and macroscopic (e.g. architectural) structures and believes in the existence of a universal network or store for the individual formula which links us to the past and probably works on the principle of the Jung theory on ‘collective memory’. According to Kratochvil this is:

          “…the sum of direct and indirect experience from the past which is handed down to us and thus influences the present, and the input into our memories begun long ago with simple primary organisms. I think that all the shapes and structures we create actually come from some sort of ‘library or database’ of shapes and structures which already exist in the microscopic world, and these structures are only waiting to be discovered. Their unbelievable variety, strength and power, as well as our utter dependence on the microscopic world are factors that greatly influence my art. Most telling for this ‘other universe’ is the fact that we cannot see it with the naked eye, without instruments – we can only see the results of its existence…”

    The artist considers polythene the ideal material in connection with the above conception. The main reasons for having chosen it are predominantly the singularity of its origin and the plurality of its effects, and its endless recyclability. Kratochvil creates his work from polythene pipes, which he cuts, bends and melts. Their simple, but structurally firm cylindrical shape, with a closed, rounded surface, is capable of resisting external pressure and contains an inherent lengthwise growth potential. Shapes derived from the ‘tube’ must have been the prime candidate for success in the survival battle during the strange watery beginnings of life on our planet.

    The artist gives the exclusive use of the colour yellow a special role because it causes a flattening of three-dimensional forms and contributes to the ever increasing doubt cast on the relationship between the perceived and true reality. Kratochvil comprehends these shifts in meaning and our comprehension of visual information to be the consequence of the tremendous progress in information technologies and their more or less complete digitalisation which allows any ‘image’ to be infinitely manipulated in such a way that what we see need no longer have any relationship to reality at all. Never have the links between the ‘image’ and what it truly represents been as loose as now. Present complicated electronic systems, pointing towards dematerialisation, work along principles that are incomprehensible for most people and often generate mistrust as well as nostalgia and the longing for a return to a lost paradise. However, Kratochvil sees technology’s path to the future having a more responsible approach, often founded on biological systems. He finds the thought of the fusion of technology and biology exciting and that is the borderline on which he places his creative efforts.

Olga Mala,
Old Town Hall Prague,