As I visited the two exhibitions in Oslo at the Astrup Fearnley museum (The World is Made of Stories and Los Angeles − A Fiction) last weekend, I was reminded of how frequently you are confronted by graphic images of sexual organs in the modern art arena:
Although, what happens when you are bombarded with too many anatomically correct penises – do you become immune? I am struck by how unattractive naked sexual organs seem as they hang on white, flood-lit walls accompanied by the sound of visitors’ footsteps reverberating through the enormous exhibition halls. I am instead concerned with the variations and deviations of the anonymous fertility organs, and wonder what is considered to be the correct distance to the exhibited limbs and pubes.
In Andrea Culkovás’ playful, exploring and visually saturated documentary about life as a modern artist, the title H*ART ON (presumably a play on the words “hard-on”/erection, “heart” and “art”) is positioned in the crossfire between a semen-squirting penis and milk-spouting breasts. However, the frequently occurring sexual motives of the featured artists’ productions never eclipse the informed and profound conversation about the nature and importance of art which unfolds throughout the film.
Relatively unknown avant garde painter, designer and illustrator Zdeněk Rykr (b. 1900) is allocated a central position in the documentary, both geographically and thematically. We also follow Jitka Cempírková, curator of the Rykr Museum in Chotěboř, Czech Republic; artist couple Mark Divo and Sonja Vectomov who work on a renovation project in Rykr’s hometown; Karin Písaříková, a Czech conceptual and performance artist working in Tokyo; and Cedric Philippe, a young French art lover who visits Mark Divos’ artist home during a reading of The Head of the Artist by Milada Součková (historian, literary critic and Rykr’s wife)
«The only way to talk about deceased artists, is through living artists», writes Součková. This may be the film’s goal: to enable artists to speak about themselves and others, about art’s function and possibilities.
H*ART ON’s contributors demonstrate art’s potential through their own work and artistic conversations. Each one is, in their own way, able to discuss challenging topics including the fight against conformity and fascism (Rykr), bodily functions/transformations/erosions (Písaříková), presence and emptiness (Divo), and the importance of art throughout history (Součková).
The film jumps energetically between the various contributors while adding a refreshing supply of intercalated excerpts of people from around the world and different eras with explosive expressions: mad dancing, nudity, acrobatics, play, intimacy. One man, covered from head to toe in mirror fragments, wanders silently between the scenes, connecting the film’s various universes. Perhaps he symbolises Rykr, who according to the curator «avoided having a face which could be read.” What all these conceptual artists have in common, is the way in which they activate their surroundings, framing them with surprising activities and props.
«Art is just nonsense, especially modern art»
Calm and wide-eyed curator Jitka Cempírková spends eight hours a day in Rykr’s visual universe, and fantasises about what it would be like to see the sea for the first time together with her idol. As she stares at one of Rykr’s surrealistic paintings, we are given the chance to see the world through his eyes. The painting is a portrait of a fireplace where the flames are consuming a grinning head. Above the fireplace hangs a framed picture (within the painting) with four main elements: a cluster of humanlike red letters lean anxiously toward each other. To the right, a dead tree, bent by the strong wind. To the left, a dark, cape-clad figure hides behind a white pillar. At the top of the picture floats an ethereal shape, which, at closer inspection, resembles two figures embracing tightly. Is the fire in the fireplace a representation of art itself as it kindles the human existence, with loneliness as the basic state of mind, death an inexorable hunter, nature doomed to disappear and the loving co-existence a subliminal ideal?
«Art is just nonsense, especially modern art, which doesn’t even exist. But it is a lifestyle. (…) Art is definitely local,” states Swiss Mark Divo, who is interested in the location of art and the need for the artist to be present in the work. He explains that the house he is currently renovating is a “living artwork”, a “social sculpture” along the lines of Joseph Beuys. The artwork itself is pointless and worthless without the artist present to explain it. But what happens when the artist loses his key conversationalist? During the documentary, his wife Sonja leaves him for a house guest. “It’s about trust, knowing who to rely on», he concludes. There is a heavy silence in the living room where the abandoned artist sits scratching his stubble accompanied by two discrete dogs. In the background, one of his works is displayed, an example of “concrete art” made from ordinary, colourful kitchen sponges.
In Tokyo, Karin Písaříková has perfect grasp of the language, as well as of the complex social codes – just so she can break out of the studied conformity through her art. Several of her works are created from discarded human hair, such as a reproduction of jellyfish, which according to the artist, is an expression of exhaustion and loneliness. In some of her other works, her own body is used as part of the expression, for instance where she lies spread-eagled in the middle of a uterus made from human hair, or when she films a close-up of her own bare nipples gushing milk with uniform-clad school boys in the background. She explains how everything she thought she knew dissolved when she became pregnant, when she lost the body that she knew so well. “I believe that the connection between nature and instinct is not as obvious for everyone,” she reflects.
The film’s most intimate scene is when we get close up with a Japanese woman dressed in a loose, red dress as she is being strung up in an uncomfortable position. The woman lets out a whimper, coarse ropes dig into her naked skin leaving angry red marks. The woman’s faceless, suited executioner twists and turns the woman’s suspended body, tightening the ropes so the exposed breasts spill out contorted between the coils. The positions being dramatized are taken from the illustrations in Součková’s book about the artists head. Over the ruthless, intensely erotic display we hear a quote from Součková: “It is an eternal passion. Life – and death – and in between these: art.”
Rykr designed theatre sets and chocolate wrappers in addition to his more experimental productions. He actively fought against fascism, and never experienced commercial success or recognition whilst alive. “I am leaving a foot print just by my very presence,” concludes Cempírková, who has become a living piece of the Rykr museum, a social sculpture. The humble curator’s hopeful statement represents the ambition of all artists. Life is more than being born, reproduce, and then to step aside for the next generation: “This is my foot print. My life.”
The film has its world premiere in DOK Leipzig
on Wednesday November 2.