Skin and Masks

Galerie U Dobrého pastýře 09 08 — 11 11
Opening — 8 8 2023

My generation was born “in the skin of a slow-cooked frog” in the context of the climate crisis, but it was only the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic and the outbreak of the Russian-Ukrainian war that completely shook our self-image. The ensuing shock and disillusionment have caused a decisive challenge to our seemingly immutable values of rationality, humanism and progress, along with calls to redefine them. In the works of the emerging generation of artists, this reassessment is manifested in particular by a turn towards their counter values: towards emotionality, spirituality, or a desire to achieve a more equal status for all actors in the planetary community.

The title of the exhibition project is a paraphrase of the text Black Skin, White Masks by the anti-colonial thinker Frantz Fanon. There, Fanon recounts specific realities of the time and, based on Freudian psychoanalysis, draws from them the inner mechanisms of the oppressed and their oppressors. Finally, he arrives at the construction of a new identity by rejecting the dichotomy of superiority and inferiority. Philosopher Silvia Wynter finds in his thoughts an argument for a different conception of humanity by emphasizing his rejection of a biocentric conception of humankind. Frantz Fanon understands the human subject as the interconnection of two planes of identity – the skin – that is, the biological construction, the physical matter of the human body – and the mask – as the result of socialization, a cultural construct that emerges through the circulation of myths and (un)knowledge. (In this context, he recalls, for example, the outmoded European colonial optics of medicine and anthropology, which considered African Americans as the developmental precursor of white Europeans.) This conflation of biological and mythological essence emphasizes a kind of hybrid mode of being that thus opens up the possibility of new definitions of ‘human.’ Just recall the recently lived reality where a single microscopic organism was able to influence the functioning of the world at both the macro and micro levels. And just as Fanon formulated his emancipatory thinking through the example of specific case studies from his medical practice, the exhibition project in Galerie u Dobrého Pastýře is interwoven with different premises with common syndromes and methods of therapy.

It has been ten years since we have seen a massive wave of post-internet art, which has gradually weakened post-conceptualism and rationality as the prevailing paradigm of contemporary art and slowly rehabilitated its aesthetic qualities. The inclination towards imaginativeness, expressiveness, authenticity, affect or emotion as signs of the art of the emerging generation were described, among others, by Václav Magid in one of last year’s Art+Antiques. In an excursus into the contemporary background of 19th-century Romanticism, he explains the collapse of the Enlightenment concept of rationality, which caused alienation from the surrounding world and oneself, resulting in a sense of melancholy as an unfulfilled longing to find reconnection and unity with nature. The working methods of neo-romanticism become introspection, intuition and an emphasis on individual experience, which became even more present as a result of the pandemic and forced isolation. The first, immediate wave of escapist melancholy, however, opened up the topic of mental health care and emphasized the necessity of empathy as essential equipment for survival. At the same time, the pandemic deepened inequalities and highlighted the unsustainability of economic growth arrangements. All of this feeds into a holistic approach to healing in the works of this generation, creating a jarring mix of sincere belonging in a state of expanded consciousness and critical distance and irony towards marketing esotericism.

The central motif of the installation in Galerie U Dobrého pastýře is a large-scale ornamental drawing by Kristýna Hejlová, which runs through all the exhibition spaces. Her subtle and detailed compositions are a combination of motifs of sacred objects or architecture and subconscious automatism. They reflect the artist’s interest in the intersections of religion and paganism, mysticism and eschatology as contact with liminal existential experiences. The linocut technique in this case is more related to her tattoo practice than traditional printmaking technology. The disturbance of the surface – the skin of the gallery or the human body – can also be read as part of an initiation ritual that cannot do without physical pain. In this sense, the disruption of established integrity for the purpose of transformation can also be interpreted as a kind of therapeutic practice and the leitmotif of the whole installation. At the same time, her peculiar drawing at times creates a setting for the introduction of other works.

Kristýna Hejlová transforms the entrance exhibition space into a kind of cathedral occupied by a pair of characters, or rather costumes without their human protagonists. The bride’s wedding dress and the groom’s suit by Jan Bražina, a unique realization by the artist, openly works with gender binaries. The symbol of the bride and groom represents the traditional heteronormative arrangement of romantic relationships. Even today, however, the institution of marriage is part of the political debate for the queer community in the Czech Republic. Through the absence of bodies, Jan Bražina thematizes the unfulfillable ‘normality,’ the impossibility of equal acceptance of queer partnership. The corset of the bride’s costume can also be read as a social and legislative ossification, or Fanon’s mask, which cannot bind every single individual.

Another type of absurd imbalance, this time geopolitical, is thematized in the works of Polina Davydenko. After the outbreak of the full-scale Russian-Ukrainian war, the environmental subtext of her works transforms into humanitarian activism and, to a certain extent, into news reporting. Through documentary observations of civilian conditions in her immediate surroundings, she is able to tell complex stories in a broader context. In her slide show, she presents an intimate communication with her brother Dima, currently fighting at the front. His photographs of moments of rest stand in contrast to the images of war in the media, moving and chilling at the same time and brimming with an unadulterated sense of hope. In contrast to the documentary-style testimony of the Ukrainian soldier stands a stylized object representing the gaze of his sister personifying the crying of Ukrainian women. The tears of rock salt woven into the braids that symbolize them come from the salt mines.

Her friend Anna Tesařová takes on the difficult role of continuing the story of Polina Davydenko with her photographic series. In it, she documents the places of power she visited. The motivation for their selection was also a personal experience – a private ritual of affirmation of safety for Polina and her family at the time of the outbreak of war. Power centers are the subject of research into geomancy, a school of thought at the intersection of ecology, anthropology and spirituality. It reflects Anna’s interest in narratives, fairy tales or superstitions linked to the natural elements and landscape. Stories or folklore customs found while travelling through the remote corners of northern Europe are processed and transformed with respect and empathy, but also with insight and lightness. Her mirror pilgrim’s staff can also be seen as another symbol of the act of initiation, as in the drawing by Kristýna Hejlová.

The fascination with the fairytale and fantasy world of supernatural beings can also be observed in the work of Dominik Styk. His striped textile objects connect the human with mushroom, plant or animal elements. These fairy-tale connections are based on his original theatrical and performative background. Indeed, many of his works can serve as objects, costumes and puppets, drawing the audience into an illusory play set in a world where our bodies have morphed and become the breeding ground for new forms of life. This playful allusion seemingly takes us back to childhood, a utopian world where good and evil are pure and in balance. Only in this world we no longer find people of our own kind, they have somehow sublimated out of their clothes.

András Cséfalvay also guides us through a benevolent dystopia in his video. The narrators of his stories, characters from the past or the future, use the language of metaphor and allegory to warn us of the doom of their present. Their alternative reality represents all kinds of minorities: human, animal and inanimate. In doing so, they restore the voice of all entities that seem to have lost their voice or have long been silenced by the dominant interpretation of the world.

The text Black Skin, White Masks ends with the often-quoted section, “Superiority? Inferiority? Why not the quite simple attempt to touch the other, to feel the other, to explain the other to myself? Was my freedom not given to me then in order to build the world of the You?” Fanon speaks primarily of eradicating racial prejudice and establishing new partnership positions, a desire with which one cannot disagree. But we know from experience that on a mass scale this is a rather complicated task. Therefore, the disarming climax of the exhibition is the text by Jan Boháč, which aptly and self-ironically grounds our sincere and sometimes perhaps naive efforts to be better and more respectful people. The central character of his story puts on his enslaved bear skin and goes to meet his animal companions. She puts all her human faculties to work for this encounter, but in the end, it proves fatal for her. Jan Boháč’s inspiration and key themes are a dramatic event, an accident and the resulting derailment, a sense of distress and uncertainty, even dissociation, but we find ourselves experiencing it. In his stories, the event of the accident is interchangeable with the experience of crisis: environmental, pandemic and existential. He links these two seemingly disparate events of threat, which can be both unexpected and long-lasting, into a single narrative line that, after a short time, unravels in a succession of startling fantasy metaphors. The focus, however, is more on our individual and authentic experience of confusion, helplessness and even paralysis. Because we know where, but we don't know how. Silvia Wynter says that being human is more a matter of practice than status. Thus, the artistic strategies and messages present in the exhibition can serve as useful survival guides.