News

Interview med Petrine Vinje

Antonio Cataldo, artistic director of Fotogalleriet, interviews artist Petrine Vinje
in connection with the solo exhibition at Fotogalleriet running from 31 August–14 October 2018


AC:
The large-scale project you are staging at Fotogalleriet takes as its starting point the life and oeuvre of the Czech photographer František Drtíkol (1883–1961). How did you come across František Drtíkol? And how do you think he relates to your artistic practice?

PV:
I came across Drtíkol in the national collection of modern art at Veletržní Palass,[1] in Prague. Among works by František Kupka, Czech cubists and other major European figures, the relatively few reproductions of his work that I saw stood out. It was perhaps in this context –an eclectic, rich collection characterised by considerable lags after the fall of communism– that they became visible to me. The female figures for instance and how, in terms of method, they had been used as form really caught my interest; and how the museum mediated the project and biography of the photographer. It turned out that there was very little translated literature about Drtíkol, but in the museum and archive sources he was presented as a master of light. In some sources it was nearly insinuated that this knowledge was transferred into enlightment when he devoted himself to Eastern philosophies. The complexity of his figure, combined with the life models and the objects –that was what I wanted to investigate.

AC:
Can you tell us a little more about Drtíkol?

PV:
František Drtíkol came from a working-class background in the Czech countryside, but appliedand was accepted into the Lehr- und Versuchanstalt für Photographie (Education and Research Institute for Photography) programme in Munich in 1901. The culture-historical importance of the Bavarian capital at the time was greater than in most of the other European major cities, and many central artists of modernism spent their formative study years in Munich[2]. After a few years as an assistant for, among others, Schumann in Karlsruhe, Drtíkol established himself in Prague with his own photo studio. His first period was his most successful –he exhibited at major photography exhibitions around the world; won prizes; and did portraits of the most prominent individuals of the Czech cultural and political elite. At the same time, he shifted in the 1920s from classical pictorialism and symbolism to innovative use of light and geometrical forms, such as cubes, columns and circles, together with life models in the studio. A flourishing and creative period, was followed by several years of financial and political crises that presumably moved his artistry in a reductive direction. Drtíkol began to stylise his motifs and to experiment with papercuts. Interesting, but mentioned very little, is that Drtíkol in 1945 became a member of The Communist Party –like many other intellectuals after the Second World War. Most of them, however, left the party after the military coup in 1948, although Drtíkol chose to remain in the party until he passed away. The fact that he did not work against the regime also had the effect that he was no longer praised by his colleagues; and he left a professorship after only a year –because he was regarded by the students as archaic and conservative. Perhaps he got the opportunity to devote his life to introversion precisely because he chose to remain in the communist party? If so, it was despite the fact that the communist regime not all that enamoured alternative ways of life, especially those devoted to spirituality. This is mostly unknown, but until his death in 1961, Drtíkol increasingly loses contact with the outside world and writes down confused texts from his meditations, delusions as much as about himself as a figure –sometimes as Christ, sometimes even as Buddha. He draws and paints helplessly, religious motifs, and writes in his diary entries: ‘I wish to be forgotten. But remember all that I have taught you.’ Drtíkol’s history in one of large waves, characterised by social and political changes. But I often feel that the personal perspective is given too little space when it comes to trying to understand the complexity that underlines both his personal and political standpoints. Prague, Munich, and particularly Berlin, bear with them histories of both abuses of power and personal disasters, and only seldom do we manage to delve deep enough into the complex structures that have formed Europe, or the world, into what it we know today.

AC:
Can you say a bit more about what it felt like when you discovered his works for the first time and then read about Drtíkol’s life? Do you think that visiting a museum has to do with emotions, or is it rather that the museum’s responsibility to mediate various positions that can also be irritating, pleasant, inspiring, constructive or constrictive.

PV:
The meeting with Drtíkol’s photos of life models initially surprised me. I felt I was linked to the women as described in the communicative texts of the museum –as being proactive, androgynous, powerful and part of the central European avant-garde– leaping out into Modernity. The storytelling contrasted with what Drtíkol himself wrote about women. His own position as a self-declared genius made me all the more interested, because it was so contradictive. It could easily have put me off, but I chose rather to tackle it and tried to use the opposition as a method. My practice as a sculptor has for many years been a question of defining my own places as scenes of action, but also of acquiring my own space for action. I found interesting Drtíkol’s use of life models with sculptural objects because he attempted to merge subject and object.

As far as I am concerned, the meeting with art and artists in museums and collections takes place at various levels. In the museums one can be lucky enough to have the big art experience, that which evokes the great emotions we are hungry for, and that broadens our awareness. Museums have a great responsibility to narrate the story of the objects that stimulate the intellect to constantly change. I really believe that museums and archives can change our understanding of the world, but this requires that the institutions are open to regarding their own collections as well as meeting the public as with an open process.

AC:
Do you feel Drtíkol is an exemplary exponent of a gender-defined history of art which has been established in our own age?

PV:
I hoped that by delving into his inheritance I would find a more balanced history, but unfortunately his history is made up of gender perspectives that are extremely limiting; and which we see repeated, both in art and in social structures too much for that matter, even today. History more often tells us about the male, white genius’s large contributions to society than about the failures and failings of the same figure. I also find this interesting, because women’s lack of success or reticence is often explained by their personal life, that which has to do with emotions, biology and personal qualities. But Drtíkol’s history could have been such; all the time he was not particularly well-liked among his contemporary colleagues; he left art and flipped out in spiritual reveries and megalomania. His story is not unique, but it is one that seldom emerges.

AC:
Do you think that this history also applies all the way through abstract expressionism and other Modernist movements which generated in Europe moved to the US as a form of global expansion?

PV:
Absolutely. The view of the artistic genius moves with the view of art in a flow across continents, as it does in literature and the academic world. In the inheritance of precisely this central European artistic figure there are words about both positions in our contemporary society as well as historical perspectives. History deals with far too few of other narratives, those which deal with the profound and near art based on quality and time, and independently of archaic categorisations such as gender and sexuality.

AC:
Munich was the unofficial powerhouse of German art at the turn of the 20th century. Wassily Wassilyevich Kandinsky, Paul Klee and a number of other prominent artists studied there, as did Drtíkol. Is this important to you regarding the understanding of how certain ideas about Modernism took shape –ideas linked for example to pedagogy and nature as a source of inspiration and exploitation, to youth and forms, but also esotericism and what is acceptable or unacceptable within the paradigms of history?

PV:
It is interesting to see how the educational institutions and small milieus are central to historical upheavals. My interest in examining the notions you mention –such as those on which Modernism is founded– is based on searching for ideas that coincide with what is established. Even so, it is an interest in searching for the human perspective –a place where the subject is given unlimited space.

Rudolf Steiner and Madame Blavatsky were both persons who Drtíkol enthused about as much as they led pedagogical or spiritual movements that came up with alternative solutions to life itself. In these paradigms there is both the possibility of seeking naiveté and a retrospective perspective while seeking to set in motion the progressive –that which cultivates change. Crises and collapses can also generate changes in what is personal as well as in art. This is something I can relate to my own life –the fact that one gains other forms of access to art when one stands in positions where one is vulnerable; facing the possibility of falling makes it expansive and healing.

AC:
You once said that you feel empathy for Drtíkol. Could you elaborate on this?

PV:
As an artist I can at times relate to what I read as a striving to find a goal with one’s work, and that he left his camera on the shelf and turned inwards when everything felt meaningless. I think that most creative people stands at such tangential points at certain times in their lives. Drtíkol is definitely not the only person in world history whose life has taken such a turn, but even so, there is a touch of madness in his persona that is not found in all such histories. In many ways, Drtíkol is the opposite of other historical figures I have worked with (Edith Stein, for example). His basic values remind me that I have had to related to large sections of by upbringing, and the project has shown me that the personal point of departure is crucial for one’s relation to society and the formation of a new way of life. It can end in positive changes or personal collapse.

AC:
Can you say a bit more about the spiritual side of Drtíkol and how do you think it connects to your research and work? Where has that part of the research taken your artistic project?

PV:
In my projects I have worked with the deconstruction of hierarchical systems established in Europe, like those of church history. It has been a question of wishing to deconstruct, incapacitate, and attempting to intellectually grasp the basis for the systems that have had a profound influence on my own life. At the same time, I have carried out these projects with a wish to examine human needs, meaning and affiliation, and how aesthetics has been the link between that which is to give meaning (the abstract and spiritual) and the real. Western European ignorance about Eastern philosophy and spirituality coincide with the idea of maintaining systems, categories and a colonialist attitude towards everything that is foreign. Drtíkol was one of many who in the inter-war period sought the Oriental to find what he was looking for –perhaps an idea of happiness. Via a number of art projects I have examined if Eastern philosophy is more humanistic in its attitude to the body and the individual than anything I know from Western traditions. Anatomical theatre (2013) was, for example, such a project, an installation built to include discussion and practical development of both Western and Eastern thinking about the soul and the body.

In my upcoming PhD project, I intend to look at how materiality functions as a container for cultural memories, as part of the biography of the object. I intend to explore the relationship between a work of art, historical reference and cognitive awareness by looking at both historical sources and the use of digital tools. In the meeting with the object and its surface the human need for touch is involved. This is reminiscent of the need to connect. Perhaps these are one and the same thing.

AC:
Can you say a little bit more about the project at Fotogalleriet?
As I see it, there are four elements: the configuration of the large sculptural elements in the main room, the sensor-controlled sound, the wax sculptures in the side room, and the treatment of the historical photographs and material in the library.

PV:
In the main room of Fotogalleriet I have built an installation of seven massive sculptural objects that invite the public to activate the space and acquire a different spatial situation.

In working on the installation, I have invited Tejaswinee Kelkar, an acute researcher and a practising artist, to create sound motifs for each object. These are based on thematic concepts we have defined after having read memorandums and scribblings by Drtíkol.

We have used freesound, a CC responsive archive of tagged sounds, that has been initiated and maintained by the Music Technology Group of Universitat Pompeu Fabra.[3]. After having sourced the thematic material, we have made a patchwork of sound motifs for each there, and emit them through each sculpture with the aid of sound vibrators, so as to activate the written motifs through the objects. This sound work encourages visitors to listen and relate actively to the sculptures while walking around the gallery space. The sculptures have been build specifically for this location out of plywood and non-corrosive Archival Tyvek, a technological material that is used to cover objects in museum collections.

In the smaller room, I am showing new works that consist of what I regard as three-dimensional drawings[4], originally formed of clay and later moulded in wax. This room represents a change in my artistic practice and a springboard for new works.

During the last few years, Fotogalleriet has carried out exceptional work in archiving and gaining an overview of its own history, from the early beginnings of the institution up to the present day. A selection of copies of Drtíkol’s works, from the photographic collection at the Moravian

Gallery in Brnó, is on show here, along with the selection of literature from my own reference material and the gallery’s photo book collection.

AC:
Do you think that the installation is to be experienced as a reconstruction of a historical situation, and that with this experiment one can change the direction of history and how the narrative about Drtíkol has been written? Or do you see the installation in a different way?

PV:
The installation is not a reconstruction. I view it as an addition or a twist. Some of my earlier works have balanced on the edge of being pure reconstructions, but more as a basis for investigation that manifestations. Now I am rather attempting to look at my references as a place from which the works can be more freely modelled out of.

My experience suggests rather that interaction and intercourse lead to friction and that by seeing and experiencing in a new way everything can be changed.

AC:
Is it an invitation to contemplation or to action?

PV:
I am open to the idea that this project can contain both perspectives, but will be satisfied if it can create wondering and questioning, for that is where changes begin. I have never wished to point directly at a problem with a given solution, and I find it problematic with art that flirts or is involved with radical forces, while also renouncing all responsibility. Art and the meeting with it will always differ from subject to subject. I have a strong belief in the individual’s ability to change his or her own situation, and that art can liberate such processes of change. It can be a contemplative space that releases action, or the opposite.

AC:
So, should we withdraw and create a different aesthetic field, or should we disrupt the one that has been imposed on us?

PV:
As a person who always seeks balance, it is a tempting thought to form a new and aesthetically open field.
Just think, if we could only start a new history of art!
But we owe it to the artists who have done pioneer work to be with us; so, I believe we must continue to disrupt, fetch and display what has been done before us. We also owe it to our children, who live out their lives in what we call reality –a flickering stream of visualities.



[1] When it was built (completed in 1928), it was the largest building of its type in the world and the first functionalist building in Prague. Today it houses the collection of the National Gallery.

[2] The expressionist group of aritsts Der Blaue Reiter was founded here in 1911 and in 1896 the cultural periodical Die Jugend – which was to give the name to the Jugendstil – was published for the first time.

[3] https://www.upf.edu/web/mtg

latest