Lines of Looking - Interview with Kateřina Vincourová by Barbora Ciprová
On the occasion of the solo exhibition of Kateřina Vincourová, the first woman to receive the Jindřich Chalupecký Award in 1996, organized by Jindřich Chalupecký Society and the American University Museum at the Katzen Art Center in Washington, D.C., assistant curator of Arteria exhibition Barbora Ciprová made an interview with the artist about her practice and her approach to art.
In one of your interviews, you spoke about making Untitled (2011). How you bought yards of elastic in a wholesale store, brought it to your studio and let the material lead you. Then you stretched a monumental artwork in space. Do you always work intuitively like that, with the work being born primarily out of its material qualities, or do you work based on a preconceived concept?
Both lines work in parallel. I can‘t create without a clear concept. Before I bought the elastic, I thought of outlining a simple drawing in space; particularly a drawing of a bookcase, shelves and empty space. I was thinking about surfaces on which you put something and which are an integral part of family life; about the objects that are placed there and that have a specific meaning. I was interested in the existence and history of bookcases as a reference to the status of the family. I was inspired to pick this particular material during my three-year maternity leave when I was constantly fastening children’s pants and extending elastic waistbands every time my children would grow a bit. So I bought elastic and took it to the studio. Then I bought more materials in other stores, perhaps more intuitively, feeling that I could make use of them. I was interested in intimacy, fragility, objects as symbols. It’s simple. When you go to any store and assign a theme to yourself, you will always find it there. If someone gave you a selection of foods and assigned the theme of intimacy, you would pick flour and sugar rather than something else. But in the end, I stretched a “live plant“ rather than shelves in space. Only at that moment, I completely let the material lead me, as you put it.
Kateřina Vincourová, Bez názvu, 2011, Jiří Švestka Gallery
Your works often feature a moment of balancing, fragility. One even feels that everything can fall apart at any moment. Can one speak about a certain feeling about life in this respect?
Yes, that’s how it is. There are several reasons for that. At the sensitive age of 18 to 26, several of my close people died. I also lived in Russia for a while where I saw the existential hardships of life, with people being thrown into completely different moral criteria than those of our “safe” world. Then there are interpersonal relationships and the moment I came to understand how easily they can end. Relationships are immensely important and the balance of happiness, stability and equilibrium is very fragile. It’s good to be aware that anything can change. But that doesn’t mean we should worry about it or be afraid of it. It’s simply better to accept the fact that we can just as well lose all those beautiful things.
In the 1990s, I was also addressing societal problems such as ecology and consumerism. That appeal was important to me, for the society around us was extremely consumerist. Including artists. Me and my partner were living a rather alternative life at the time, considering the time and the Czech context, and in my work I addressed issues that nobody would get back then. Back then already, it was an issue to me that people would not establish personal relationships due to new communication technologies, they would communicate through networks, lying around with their phones and calling each other like they were zombies. I think I didn’t have the right audience back then. For instance, people would ask me all the time why don’t we buy a new car when we have the money.
Maybe they clung to their certainties and did not want to admit their transience?
For instance, nobody would hear about ecology. Not at all. At the same time, there was no information available here. I had access to it through my partner who came from abroad, but I didn’t know what to do with it. So I tried to address it from a critical point of view. I didn’t feel I was more exclusively informed or more agile than other artists. It just wasn’t a thing in art back then.
To what extent is this appeal still present in your current work? Aren’t your works political or let’s say feminist only secondarily?
During my most recent exhibition in Brno, a single commentary got to me that called the exhibition political. Everybody else just spoke about how feminist it was. And yet there was for instance a hand holding a white flag! (Sorceress for Peace, 2016). I even considered doing a peace dove. Even the hands with a rope (Untitled, 2016) are a people’s march. So from my point of view, the political appeal is still there. But the works are so fragile that I guess I have a tendency to hide a similar agenda and rather stress their intimacy. There is never a single story though but rather several stories in parallel.
Kateřina Vincourová, Kouzelnice pro mír, 2016; vzadu: Kateřina Vincourová, Bez názvu, 2016, Fait Gallery
So you would like the works to be read on two levels.
Yes. Some people do see it there and some don’t. We see what we want to see and I let the viewers decide.
To what extent do you strive for the more feminine or the downright feminist aspect to prevail? Is it your attitude or agenda, or rather an association on the part of the audience and the art world, based on the form of your artworks and the materials you use?
I guess I have actually never addressed that theme. Definitely not on a critical level, in terms of dissatisfaction, injustice. I only work with the fact that I am a woman and I love openly expressing myself as one. I also love talking about the fact that we women need to live a rich intimate life. I find it extremely important for people to be also satisfied sexually – I see a certain life balance in that. All that reflects in my work and can be reinterpreted through the feminist perspective.
Now I would like to move on and ask about the moment that is often present in your works; that of monumentality. You start out with small things that often develop into extra-large site-specific works. Could you describe that tendency?
I think this comes from my fear that I won’t be able to grasp what I want to communicate. Then I have this kind of a spider tendency – I create a spatial situation in which I want to capture the viewers, catch them, even physically attack them to be able to share what I want to share. I do not express myself primarily through words or conceptual reflection. That is a line that is too slow and impersonal to me. I need to touch. I want to grab a person and put them in my pocket. But of course I know that I may discourage them, it can also be uncomfortable. I have a tendency to create space within spaces. By intervening in the space, I can change the viewers’ horizons, points of view and bring them to a physical confrontation with the work.
How important do you find the site-specific approach, drawing on the character and history of a given place?
Immensely important. While at the same time, only a few of my works are not transferable. When I approach a space in which I am to exhibit, I basically become an architect. I enter the space with great sensitivity and a personal relation to it. I actually never had a curator to tell me where to hang what. I always had an idea and a model already when I was creating the work and the things were influenced by the possibilities of the space. This is my first exhibition where I had someone pick the works for the exhibition and I’m actually loving it. It’s a different kind of responsibility this time.
I would also like to touch upon the theme of corporeality, but with a little twist – the absence of body. Touching, memories, casts are a recurrent theme in your work. Sometimes the body is rather literally commodified in the form of models and mannequins, however, often it is an immaterial principle or a missing counterpart of a rather abstract installation.
I often tell the story of tension, relationship and context rather than talking about the body as a mortal frame. About its “beauty.” It’s not about the ancient adoration of the body. So once I use the attributes, parts of the body, I try for them to play as little a role as possible; to have the function of anything else but the body. On the other hand, objects that relate to the body only remotely, such as a coat hanger, allude to the body and the relations between physical and mental elements. They express the fragility of situations.
That is perhaps best embodied by the work Torso (2010–2011)...
Yes, the skeleton is a ladder of helves that have been crucial for survival since prehistoric times. At the same time, they are ergonomic as they have adapted to our hand. Besides other things, they also remind of the shape of bones.
Kateřina Vincourová: Torso, 2010-2011, Fait Gallery
But one also feels that they are really a mere support structure and what is important is what is around it. The soul?
In respect to that, I also want to ask about the work Counting made at last year’s Mikulov Symposium. I find it very different from most of your works, as it addresses a religious theme...
What is important to me there is the line of looking which is a recurrent theme in my works. Looking eye to eye – in this case it’s your eyes and the eyes of Christ in the picture. The gaze and the power of the one who is looking at you and who is intentionally depicted so as to fascinate you. Sexuality, transsexuality – those religious images have everything. Temptation cannot be depicted in a more telling way. Long hair and beard. Many men look like that today.
Kateřina Vincourová, Počítání, 2016
Is the issue of sexuality in connection with a religious or another icon what interests you about that?
It is rather about the hypocrisy of the religion that depicts Christ as a handsome man looking like a woman with a haunting look to bewitch you. The whole thing is about commerce again. It is about power.
Is there a strong story that is recurrent across your work?
Yes, there is one. In all that poetry and beauty that captures you and even deceives you, very often there is hidden evil. At the same time, there is also slight decadence. My works are about the attempt not to succumb to that beauty, for there is always something dangerous about it.
Is the question of local specificity versus the international language of art important for you?
No, I don’t see that in my works. I don’t feel to be part of a specific world with specific issues. We do have a different life experience, but from the global perspective, the differences are not that big in many respects.
So even the theme of consumerism in the 1990s was not focused on the Czech context?
No, consumerism is a global problem connected to economic growth. The more money people have, the more consumerist society is. Everybody wants to have full shopping baskets, and then we make products of absolutely poor quality. They don’t cost anything. It’s just ecological waste. Take plastic shoes for instance. You enter the store and already based on the smell you think they must be poisonous. But people are happy because they can buy many more shoes than they need. The times are simply like that.