Monday, August 16, 2010

Open Wide: Freak Show II

by Drew Martin

I just got back from the opening of Freak Show II in Prague. I used to shy away from openings because I wanted to focus on the art work and not the socializing but this opening (which I attended because I am in the show) has changed my opinion because of the access to the artists and peripheral events; all in the spirit of the work.

At the opening, the American artist, Clint Takeda, performed on his electric guitar with an array of feedback pedals. Wearing a long red wig and cloaked in a hooded jacket, Clint piled on overlapping layers of noise amongst a crowded gallery of cheerful, beer-in-hand Bohemians, which restored a grunge-Prague I recall from the early 1990's. He performed in a corner with his creature sculptures, which he had displayed last year at the first Freak Show, and in front of new books he made for this occasion, which were nailed to the wall, with dangling ribbon placeholders.

I regret not spending more time with the little books because they are probably the most intimate and formal pieces in the show. They are small and filled with delicate line drawings and patches of color. I remember Clint making similar visual diaries last year, which were equally interesting. A page in one of this year's books included an iodine transfer from the gauze bandage that had dressed his head wound (gash is probably a better term) he earned from a fall during a dash for a tram at the beginning of the week. It is hard for me to think of a Freak Show without Clint. He flies in from Philadelphia, where he currently works and lives. He has the time of his life for a week, often disappearing in the labyrinth of Prague, and surfaces before the show to install his work and perform at the opening.

I prepared two projects for the show. One was a microscope projection piece that failed miserably but was fortunately small enough and in a neglected corner of a backroom that it went unnoticed and its absence had no impact on the overall show. The other was a photography project, which was a serial extension to my Under the Hood - Portraits of My Neighbors show which I had done in Ridgewood, New Jersey and Los Angeles, California. When the curator, Tony Ozuna, asked me to do this kind of project in Prague, I was at first reluctant because I did not think about how it could work. The more I thought about it, the more I liked it.

The am180 collective gallery is a small, alternative space, that draws its crowds from a cool and connected Prague art world but is somewhat removed from its surrounding neighborhood, physically and culturally. That I could possibly create a visual survey of the gallery's neighbors and attempt to get them to into the space, was very attractive. I flew in two days before the show and the day before the opening, at a quarter to eight in the morning, I started walking within a few block radius of the gallery with my old Ricoh camera and five rolls of black and white film.

My home town neighborhood was all too willing to participate in my shoot and everyone I asked in the Silver Lake and Echo Park areas of Los Angeles agreed to have his or her picture taken. I know Czechs well enough, having lived amongst them for five years, and knew I was going the have some problems. Though Tony later said I should have shot at different times of the day (and he's right), I like to capture a place in a span of a couple hours. A lot of the rejections were indeed because people were running off to catch a tram or metro to work, but the average Czech is a bit more guarded than the average Californian.

The result of the shoot was just shy of 200 black and white photo portraits of many Czechs, one Russian, one Ukrainian, a Vietnamese shopkeeper, two young Chinese tourists staying at the neighboring hostel, a handful of foreign laborers at various jobsites (whose backgrounds I did not inquire about), several dogs, two cats, found objects, some signage and graffiti.

My favorite rejection was from one guy hurrying down the street, who stopped for a second to say "Fakt?" before continuing on. This word can often sound like "f---ked" and combined with his facial expressions and a shaking of his hand was short for "Are you f---king kidding me. I don't have time for this sh-t."

The ease and confidence of the Los Angeles participants was replaced by shyness and bewilderment by many people in my Prague turf. It was not so much that the decline of my Czech language put them off as it was something about the Czechs themselves. All of the fetching women expressed they were not photogenic and that they might break my camera.

My spiel, in Czech, was "Good day. I am an artist from America taking pictures of people who live and work in this area for an exhibition tomorrow night..."

I approached every one I could, even a gypsy prostitute and her pimp who were making a house call (they declined), and gave all the participants an invitation to the opening and told each person he or she could come and take his or her pictures off the wall or from a clothesline that bisected the front garden. Sadly, only one person from my survey showed up (perhaps because it was pouring rain at the start). I hope the others will make their way there during the gallery hours over the next month and have a look.

The participant who did show up made the shoot worthwhile. He was one of the first people I shot and we probably spent about fifteen minutes together. I meet him after I started talking to a young gypsy who was drunk (or drugged) and was stumbling down the street with a very fancy camera he had apparently lifted from a tourist. The young thief agreed to let me take his picture with the camera but not on that open street. He asked me to walk down a side street with him and then things got a little awkward so I retreated and bumped into the man I ended up photographing.

He was a street sweeper and was embarrassed and reluctant but said I could take his picture for 20 crowns (about a dollar) because said he wasn't doing well and needed to buy bread. He settled for the 13 crowns jingling in my pocket and was the last person I expected to show up but he actually arrived a half hour early with his partner, a sophisticated and lovely, well-dressed woman who spoke English flawlessly and had once worked for Czech Airlines.

Even without the others showing up, I think the project works here because they are all part of the show now and hanging on the gallery walls. Tony's first comment when seeing the pictures was that they were "wholesome", which I think is accurate.

Czechs have interesting faces with handsome features and many of the participants were not merely compliant but liked the idea and giggled between shutter clicks. They seem out of place in the club-like gallery and perhaps this sits well with Tony's original concept of the show: that artists are seen as freaks by the common pedestrian; I certainly must have been to most of the people I met.

While the two Freak Shows have displayed artists and works that perhaps support this notion, what I wanted to do here was to introduce the other side of the equation. Without such an explanation, however, this will be lost on most viewers, who will wonder why these pictures are amongst grittier work. What I especially like about the concept behind my shoot is that it is entirely specific to this time and place. It makes my being there purposeful and necessary: I would feel odd traveling all this way to hang something I did elsewhere for another reason.

Clint and I were the only two Americans and foreigners in the show. The majority of the exhibit is filled with 14 drawings by Josef Bolf (pictured at the top), two paintings (and one silhouette cut-out of a head) by Lenka Vítková, a video loop and drawing by Veronika Bromová, a mural/photo collage by Jolana Ruchařová, three carved dildo/phallusses ending in fetuses of various stages/sizes by Lenka Klodová (pictured left) and a wonderful big diorama by Marie Hladíková (detail below).

This last piece is my favorite in the show and one that best fits the show name, in my opinion. The diorama puts you deep underground in a cavern that is full of stalactites and stalagmites, protruding coal and rock formations and accents of gems and crystals. The internally lit diorama is big enough to crawl into and sits on top of slabs of styrofoam. Two creatures, a larger black bat-like thing and a smaller white mate are tethered from their hearts by a common artery. A little angel-like creature looks on from above, crying chains of tears.

I fell in love with Marie's work before meeting her last year when I was looking at the other artists' works on their respective websites. It's edgy and punkish but also soulful and sweet. Although it is made from cheaper materials (foam and glue-gun silicone) she has amazing surfaces, such as the body of the white lover, made with air-drying clay and covered in nail polish. Despite the fact that I respond immediately to its fantasy and quirkiness, Marie has a great sense of volume and spatial relations.

During a slightly chaotic moment the night before the show, Tony expressed a little concern that Marie was going to show "a cloud", which was something other than he was expecting, although he did not see it. I saw the cloud in parts the next day when I went with Marie to her studio. Even though it was not assembled, it was fantastic. It looked like a huge silver foam meteorite, which is to be pinned with strings of silicon raindrops.

The opening was attended mostly by Czechs with some American expats and a few other Eastern Europeans. There was one walk-in; a young French man who happened to be strolling by this off-the-beaten-path place and immediately embraced the interesting crowd.

To view an online book of a larger selection from my photos in Prague, click here>>>