Vít Havránek: Tomáš Vaněk - Creative Routine
All of Tomáš Vaněk’s work revolves around patterns, routine behaviour as the key to the definition of creativity. He works with all different sorts of patterns, which he understands as the repetition, in various situations, of stereotypical models that are culturally stable or imprinted by the family. With the constant escalation of the rhythm of number-based practical devices – the telephone, computer, cell phone – with the enhanced mobility and fragmentation of our experience, the defensive reactivity of the organism increases and our behaviour tends to become more uniform.
Reality TV The work of Tomáš Vaněk
In any reality TV program, any individual featured in the program is solely present to complete the structure, and each of their participations & actions are not to be considered individually, but for the ensemble they compose. Tomas Vanek (TV), who was born in 1966 in Pocatky, Cz, and lives & works in Prague, Cz, is a participant who engages himself on the surface of any given environment. Since the mid 90s, TV has elaborated a meticulous & categorised process that has never failed to both share and engage with(in) reality, but more precisely to act upon the quality of reality.
"Poetry does not come to explain mystery, poetry comes to draw attention to mystery" (Ivan Diviš: The Last Poems)
Tomáš Vaněk told me that he has been somehow thinking about death in recent times. One of my friends, whose father plays second violin in the Ostrava philharmonic orchestra, told me that quality silence can only be played in a big space. On a visit to the Olomouc draughtswoman Inga Kosková, Tomáš explained why he calls his works "participles". "Participation, then," the former descriptive geometry teacher replied, "you have that your whole life."
All of Tomáš Vaněk’s work revolves around patterns, routine behaviour as the key to the definition of creativity. He works with all different sorts of patterns, which he understands as the repetition, in various situations, of stereotypical models that are culturally stable or imprinted by the family. With the constant escalation of the rhythm of number-based practical devices – the telephone, computer, cell phone – with the enhanced mobility and fragmentation of our experience, the defensive reactivity of the organism increases and our behaviour tends to become more uniform. The instinct of self-preservation, operating collectively, selects for the individual the forms that are most culturally viable, so that the organism will not be exposed to stress; for example, the movement of individuals in a crowd, at train stations and airports, the ever more complex norms of social behaviour, social protocol in dress, protocols of companies and so on. Conventionality mimics workaholics. And speed thus enters into relation with originality.
Another characteristic feature of Vaněk’s work is the development of the ‘participatory’ approach to situations, which he refers to in short-form as ‘Particip’. Participation evokes in us memories of events that we took part in, not entirely of our own will, but rather automatically because that was considered to be ‘natural’, normal, by the family, society or some other community. In participation, there is a great deal of obviousness and a certain degree of creativity. (1)
Vaněk’s approach to the artistic situation is similar. He has been influenced by the practice of Tai chi, sport fishing, football and fire fighting, which are activities that he continues to pursue. In the long run, this kind of training shapes experience and separates thought from the activity itself. The person who is training discovers the routine of his or her own body and, with extensive repetition of identical exercises, gains insight into his or her own stereotypes.
Vaněk’s paintings from the series Paints Varnishes (1997) are unobtrusive. (2) They work on the principle of mimicry and assume the colour of the milieu in which they are located. A monochromatic pallor, light beige, green, the glossy and unobtrusive colours of varnishes. With Vaněk, the choice of colours is intuitively unassuming; the paintings only react to the context of the specific site where they are hung. This site is reflected in them and absorbed by them – something we only notice when we examine them from close up.
The muted impressions that the paintings create are reinforced by their titles: Gloss, Aspic, Mirror, Curtain. Painting is an artistic activity by means of which the artist communicates, on the one hand, with the history of innovations in painting and, on the other hand, with the viewer in the real space of the gallery. The key concept for Vaněk in this connection is ‘surface finish’, which means that he wants to reduce the function of the painting to that of the carrier of surface finish. As such, it does not have a decorative or spiritual function; rather, it reflects the possibilities that the painter has at his or her disposal in specific conditions (material from the Czech firm Paints Varnishes); it tries to enter into visual communication with the viewer through reflection. ‘Reflection’ should be understood ambivalently, both as a mirror image and as profound contemplation.
Vaněk uses patterns as physical matrices for spraying paintings, for spraying graffiti on walls; in addition, he uses them as a semantic quality, as synonymous with stereotype or convention. He takes a stereotypical approach to the production of the painting, thereby coming into conflict with the idea of originality and the potential of innovation in the discipline of painting. For him, the discipline of painting is so exhausted and glutted with innovations, the development and context of innovations, that he chooses patterns as a way of re-evaluating the discipline. Essentially, he uses an approach that is well-established in Eastern practices, in which a certain exercise – pattern, sentence, question, cliché – is repeated until one sees it as redundant, as information that leads one to the stereotype experienced within oneself.
In communication, the stereotype can be used both for the production and for the reading of signs. Vaněk produces stereotypical signs (televisions, pistols, squares, arrows), which he offers for an original reading. Or, on the contrary, he produces original signs (graphs of trips on escalators in the metro, a graph of taking off his sweater, etc.), which he offers for a stereotypical reading.
Conventional behaviour is not an abstract idea for which Vaněk creates a virtual model; it is one of the determining experiences of the artist, who lived more than half his life in ‘real socialism’. That era offered people the opportunity to live in relative material comfort without much exertion, as long as they submitted without protest to the rules of the game and gave up any thought of asserting their own opinions. They were not to discuss, not to doubt, not to seek, but only to adhere to the predetermined rules of the game. Sensitivity to the rules of the game (whether economic, political, artistic or ethical) is a deeply ingrained attitude and also functions similarly in the new economic-political conditions. It is one of the contemporary qualities and potential discoveries that the art of the former Eastern Bloc has to offer. Another profound experience from that era was life in the underground. It is experiencing a resurgence in contemporary eastern art that is a specific ‘post-underground’ hybrid, familiar from earlier eras.
Vaněk initiated the tautological game of the painting as background at the exhibition Idea-Pattern-Shift-Spray, in the Gallery na Bidýlku (on a Perch) in Brno. (3) There, he spray painted the walls of the gallery to look like wood panelling. On this background, he hung two paintings of wood panelling in such a way that the paintings were invisible because their surface was connected precisely to the boards and wooden tree rings of the background.
The media of photography and video have thematised background as the basic vehicle of meaning. Because these media are overloaded with information, the background is contextually a more important supporting element than the actual theme, story or idea. We witness a similar development in political science and in cultural studies; for example, Hakim Bey’s critique of multiculturalism and minority correctness is built on the affable but nonetheless indispensable hegemony of ‘us’, we of the majority (the background), so that it can foreground the other, the different, in the spotlight. The massive weight of the background is, of course, crushing and even if the other is in the foreground, it has no real power to attack the system as a whole. Vaněk moved altogether naturally from the application of patterns to walls (and paintings) to the creation of background. His pattern spray paintings are used successfully in group exhibitions (Distant Resemblance: Something more than Cosmetics, Confrontation, bj on the rise, etc.). Vaněk has thus gradually acquired the role of favourite sparring partner, passing to his colleagues. (4) Vaněk’s Particips not only integrate the diverse artefacts on display, they also concretise the relationship between the artefacts and the space.
The wood panelling that Vaněk sprayed on the gallery walls is a reference to the cosiness of living rooms and aesthetics recalling the style of bourgeois mountain cottages with saunas and a jeep parked in the driveway. Vaněk, of course, does not reproduce the physical dimension of the familiar phenomenon of cosiness in order to confront the visitor with it in the gallery. He understands it as a pattern. He works with it in an abstract order and gives it a visual conventionality. As the examples of the harmonious co-existence of Vaněk’s backgrounds and artworks at group shows indicate, he restores to the pattern of wood panelling the power of real wood, a power that the do-it-yourself-ers and some prosperous citizens believe in, judging from their interiors. Here it is confirmed that a reference three times removed is more real than a plank of wood.
In Particip no. 15, in co-operation with the library of the Museum of Decorative Arts in Prague, he made his own notebooks available to the public. (5) To publicise them, he used the original lending slips of the library; on these he printed the call numbers, his name and the title of the Particip and mailed and distributed them. These slips entitled visitors to borrow the notebooks free of charge and examine them in the library. In the notebooks and in Particip no. 15, Vaněk thematised the issue of reading, the linearity of the text and the acquisition of information through printed media.
Interaction is the real antithesis to conventionality. It is a module of engagement between the artist and the viewer. For Vaněk, it is a real social and political solution.
The patterns (arrows) have also been successfully set in motion. Vaněk treated the passengers on the nos 5, 17 and 14 trams to this sight on the Tram Line Bridge in the Prague Troja District, where he spray painted arrows on 81 pillars. This was not an illustrative example of the phenomenon of animation. The arrows suggest the theme of pointing and are directly linked with the conventionality of visual codes. The arrow is a simple but key symbol of Vaněk’s reflections. It symbolises the interaction between factors that determine every ‘situation’. On a deeper level, the arrow is a hidden metaphorical testimony to the existential feeling of an entire generation. The sociologist of Czech origin Václav Bělohradský has described this sensation as a kind of force of civilisation that, without regard for the ideas of individuals, communities or society as a whole, carries post-industrial society on in a powerful current; of course, no one knows if the destination has been identified; no one knows who has set the course or where it is headed.
Particip no. 18 consisted of an event: Vaněk dismantled his own car, a Škoda (the most banal popular vehicle of Czech make), (6) and subsequently used its basic parts as patterns, which he sprayed with black paint on large cardboard boxes. Depending on the situation, he exhibits the piece either as an assembly of boxes, of which only the outer one is visible, or as a spatial installation of the box on a wall. The maps of the primary parts that make up the automobile reveal to us what a complicated and de facto perfect abstract machine the car is. The function of the parts is, for the lay person, so hermetic that in the particulars and in the overall heterogeneity they constitute a cosmos. This cosmos of functions is usually skilfully hidden under the seamless casing of the machine. In Mythologies, Roland Barthes speaks of ‘the roundness, which is always an attribute of perfection because its opposite concedes an operation of a technical nature and simple human composition’. (7)
Vaněk’s spray paintings of electrical fittings in rooms where there is functional electric lighting, his artificial simulation of non-functional electric lights (at the exhibitions Glued Intimacy and bj on the rise), (8) his spray painting of bell pushes, of televisions with switches and of the switches themselves, his simulation of electric wall-mounted lights with the use of plastic balls, suggest a certain electric-switch obsession. They are not intended as a tautology or a game. Rather, they point to the manifest, omnipresent prerequisite of the availability of electrical energy, without which the entire complex of our functions is unthinkable (electric razors, TV, radio, cell phones, computers, etc.). When electricity is not available, we become frustrated immediately. Its presence and economic availability is so obvious that it practically cannot be a theme of discussion in itself. The discussion of the new media revolves around the nature and special characteristics of thousands of electrical applications. Of course, the entire system of the production, supply and distribution of electrical energy (as an essential prerequisite since the 19th century), is overlooked as something totally obvious. For that matter, it is remarkable how attractive the phenomenon of push-buttons, electrical fittings and switches are for other artists thinking along similar lines (for example, Pierre Joseph’s project with electric bells and Roman Ondák’s installation of sockets).
In his re-interpretations of drawings by the Czech ‘national’ illustrator
Josef Lada, Vaněk participated for the first time in a specific, original and
artistic situation. As it turned out, it was a theme that was highly engagé
because Lada is so well known in the Czech Republic. The exhibition of these
works in the National Gallery in Prague provoked a social scandal. Vaněk was
sued for slander by the descendants of Josef Lada. The largest Czech gallery
opportunistically backtracked; it hung a curtain over the door to the
installation with a warning that entry was ‘at one’s own risk – the
gallery is not liable for the content on display’.
Vaněk seems to have taken a liking to engagé art. In one of his next Particips, which had the form of a text, he took an article by a professor at the Prague Academy of Fine Arts, substituted a few words with ironic paraphrases and abbreviations and published it under his own name. It was not so much a comic parody as a routine copy of a routine text about art.
Probably the last noteworthy situation work by Vaněk is Particip no. 30, responding to the ‘problem of graffiti’, a phenomenon spoiling the beauty of the centre of Prague. Vaněk has long been preoccupied with questions of his relationship to graffiti, graffiti artists and street patterns. His Particip consisted of sanding tags and other graffiti signs with a portable sander. Thus, a negative was left on the site. These installations were, to a certain extent, absurd. They resuscitated the original foundation, but only to a certain extent because their purity was at first glance distinct from the surrounding wall.
In these instances, Vaněk drew on experiences from his spraying work in the galleries; his installations were accepted by the organisers on condition that the walls of the galleries be ‘returned to their original state’. This cleansing, but from the perspective of his own art destructive, activity was the theme of another of Vaněk’s joint actions. On that occasion, Vaněk helped another Czech graffiti artist, Ivan Vosecký, to patinate his ‘Everything is God’s will’ patterns, because the police had charged him with vandalism and damage of foreign property. (9)
Tomáš Vaněk is one of the founding members of the group ‘pas’, which was established in Prague in 1999. (Pas – produkce aktivit současnosti – the production of activities of the present.)
The other founders of pas are the student of the Prague Academy of Fine Arts Jiří Skála (currently attending a postgraduate course at Le Pavillon in Palais de Tokyo, Paris) and the curator and theorist Vít Havránek. The group was created as a production cell that would organise and produce, in co-operation with the arts community, events that investigated new models of communication between art and the public. One of its first projects was an installation of display cases in various cities of the Czech Republic (2000). (10) Pas invited twenty contemporary Czech artists and produced the content of the display cases. Another event was the issuing of three series of stick-on labels (2000–2003), which were printed as a supplement of the Czech art magazine Umělec (Artist). At the Fair exhibition, College of Art, London (2002), pas offered a video trip in collaboration with the travel agency Alatour (a tourist trip to Prague, with the itinerary drawn up by the Norwegian artist Jespe Alvaer). It took part in the paspress event in the Palais de Tokyo in Paris (2002). At present, pas is finishing production on the exhibition Czech Made (L. Gillick, S. Heger, O. Musovik, R. Ondák, J. Osmolovskij, M. Sosnowska). Pas is a production group that develops and executes projects on commission. firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. At the initiative of Jan Mančuška, an international discussion circle of artists and theorists was established in Prague so that they could link up and comment on each other’s texts on the net. My contribution, a work currently in progress, is titled ‘The Theory of Obviousness’.
2. Paints Varnishes (Barvy laky) is the name of one of the largest Czech manufacturers of industrial paints (indoor and outdoor finishes for wood, metal, plaster and so on).
3. Idea-Pattern-Shift-Spray, 2000, Gallery Na Bidýlku, Brno, Czech Republic. Jiří David, who exhibited in the gallery after Vaněk, showed an understanding of and sensitivity to Vaněk’s concept. David decided to leave the wood panelling in place and to hang his landscape paintings on it.
4. Distant Resemblance: Something more than Cosmetics, 1999, SMSU NG in Prague; Confrontation, 2000, Czech Centre, London.
5. Thanks to Dr D. Okrouhlíková, head of the library of the Museum of Decorative Arts.
6. See the installation of twenty ‘little Škodas’ by Roman Ondák at the exhibition Ausgetramt, Secession Wien, 2001.
7. Roland Marthes, Mythologies, 1957.
8. Bj on the rise, 2000, Gallery Jelení (Deer), FCCA, Prague; Glued Intimacy, 2001, Gallery Jelení, FCCA, Prague.
9. They mixed colours on palettes on the street to match the shades of the walls and restored the walls to their original, rather dilapidated, condition. Exhibition Criss Cross, Broumov, Czech Republic, 2001.
10. These were display cases that in the 1980s had been used by the
socialist regime for local political propaganda.
Published in the magazine Untitled, 2003.