Monday, 15 August 2011

Czech Republic: Brno, Olomouc, Ostrava

Dum Umeni/ House of Contemporary Art, Brno

So in the past week I've been in Moravia and Silesia in the Czech Republic, staying with old friends. My base has been Brno, the capital of Moravia and the second largest city in the country. Brno is like many larger towns here; a city centre where the Hapsburg architectural influence is still very strong, which quickly gives way to inter war housing on the outskirts of the city centre, then a random jumble of Communist-era sprawl, in various states of use and disuse.

At the bottom of the hill where my friends stay, there is a gargantuan four story factory, which has lain empty for as long as anyone can remember; the windows are panned in and there seems a fair amount of smokestack industry detritus lying about inside. However, this would make a truly phenomenal exhibition and artists studio space. It's hard to find out who owns it or what its status is; it would probably also take about 1.5 million euros to bring it up to a reasonable level of functionality again. Sadly, my uninformed suspicion is that the old place is being allowed to fall down, so that one day it can be dynamited and replaced by a more modern block of flats.

Pavla Scerankova installation at Raum : Selbst

Moving quickly away from idle daydreaming with non-existant huge sums of money, I've seen some art here. The most impressive showing was in Brno at the Gallery of Contemporary Art ( Dum Umeni). Here, a young Berlin curator called Fredereike Hauffe has pulled together nine youngish artists from Germany, the Czech Republic and Slovakia, in a show entitled Raum: Selbst (Space : Self). The themes include how a room operates, innovative use of space, and the relationship between an individual and their personal surroundings. There were a number of particularly exciting results, most notably from the quirky imagination of Pavla Scerankova, from Kosice in Slovakia. Scerankova, amngst other things, produced an extraordinary piece featuring an old mass-produced Comminust era desk, half a dozen fishing rods, and a weighted down sheet; producing a perfect sense of balance and harmony from these distinctly unpromising ingredients. The fishing rods were as taught and elegant as the strings in a Naum Gabo.

Berlin-based Markus Weiss also stood out with his paintings of curtains. He paints in microscopic detail and exploits the natural linear folds of the fabric, producing a real sense of dislocation in the otherwise pristine white cube space. Weiss' was perhaps the most subtle intervention in a show crackling with energy and enthusiasm; a real pleasure, this. The Raum: Selbst project is meant to be ongoing and to tour a number of different venues, so it will be worth keeping an eye on.

I'd been to the Moravian Gallery in Husova Street on a previous visit. It is a major collection of art and historical objects spread over five buildings; elsewhere, they have a very good Rubens, as well as a large collection of Czech art from earlier centuries. I confined myself to the modern gallery, however. On the ground floor, there is a very large installation show by the well travelled Milena Dopitova. Dopitova is a well known artist in the Czech Republic and teaches at the art school in Plzen, as well as maintaining a significant international practice, both in Europe and the US. However, this show fell well short of the mark for me. It extended over ten rooms, when three would seem to have been adequate; the pieces were over-resolved, and given trite titles that caused more than the occasional internal groan. Dopitova modestly set herself the task of conveying the full spectrum of human emotions in their totality, and whilst some pieces such as I Think I'll Stay A While Longer, featuring draped furniture, were quite interesting, the majority seemed to bear little relation to the subject announced in the title, in the same way that a Big Mac bears little relation to actual nourishment.

Emil Filla, Still Life with Fruit, Bottle and Cup of Oil
Upstairs in this gallery, there is a very significant collection of Czech modernism. The contribution of Czechoslovaks, as they once were, to international modernism is very well established, and there are some really interesting examples of Czech Cubism in this display. Antonin Procharsky's Prometheus was a stand out; sadly photography was not allowed and it's not on Google Image Search, so you'll have to take my word for it. There were also very representative showings of the likes of Emil Filla, Bohumil Kubista and Brno artists who contributed a fair amount to the development of Czech modernist painting in the inter-war years; this locally based showing is perhaps the most resonant.

Olomouc Cathedral
Towards the back end of last week, together with my co-host Greig, we went on a mini-tour of the eastern part of Moravia. On Thursday we took in Olomouc (pronounced Ol-oh-mootz), a significant university town. Most folk in Scotland have heard of Olomouc through their football team, Sigma, who in recent years have handed out embarrassing pumpings to both Kilmarnock and Aberdeen in European competitions (they won 5-1 at Pittodrie in 2008-9 during the calamitous reign of Mark "Muttley" McGhee); our hotel was next to Sigma's smart new-ish stadium, a kind of mini-MacDiarmid Park.

A Communist took a dump in the Habsburg graveyard. Random brutalist "Billa" shopping centres are a common sight.
 The town centre is a Habsburg jewel, with ludicrously ornate fountains, plague columns featuring multiple saints, and Baroque apartments coloured pink, sky blue and mint green. The impressive three-spired cathedral dominates the skyline here, though it is far from the only architecturally significant church. It looks like Olomouc will be a lively town during term-time, but it was very quiet when we were there; think of the Perth Road in Dundee at the end of July and you have an idea of what it was like. There was a large-ish contemporary gallery which seemed to be closed for electrical repairs, despite advertising a major retrospective of the Polish sculptor and installation artist Magdalena Abakanowicz. It would be interesting to come back here during term time; however, despite being a sizeable place, the town didn't feel much busier than a place the size of Forfar or Montrose.

Olomouc Street
Friday was Ostrava day.  Ostrava, or OSTRAVA!!! as the town marketing now has it, is a steel making city and the most significant in Czech Silesia. There are many close cultural links with Polish Silesia here, and it's not uncommon to hear Polish spoken on Ostrava's streets. Over the river, a giant hulking steelworks sits like a rusting elderly rhinoceros; formerly state owned, it now has been added to the seemingly never-ending Lakshmi Mittal steel empire. Popping up there late on Friday afternoon, it didn't seem that much was actually happening on most of the gigantic site. Surreally, a brick church pointed its spire up amongst the steel entrails of the colossal enterprise.

Mid-Steelworks Kirk

Around the vicinity of the works there were some remarkable paintings on sheets of steel by Marek Sibinsky. Sibinsky is a painter and graphic designer, and there are a series of his monumental paintings here, made in 2008, attached to a fence, commemorating the history and scenery of steel making here. The sheet panels are roughly 2 x 1 metres in dimension, and the imagery is rough and hard; greys, blacks, blast furnace oranges, with the workers appearing as Josef Herman-like cyphers.

Paintings on steel by Marek Sibirsky

...and the pile that inspired them
Mittal's pile of slow-time rusting pig iron is no longer Ostrava's main claim to fame, however. That is now, firmly, the legendary Stodolni, a long, narrow street in the city centre known as "the street that never sleeps"; a little corner of Benidorm in the centre of Europe. The place features clubs and euro-discos cheek by jowl, and the whole of Ostrava seems to decamp there on Friday, its busiest night. After a thorough appraisal of its many and varied hostelries, and a bit of mid-90s techno, Greig and I limped back to our hotel with both engines on fire, and a dead tailgunner.

It's been a quiet couple of days before I move on from here. The Czech Republic is changing exponentially every time I come here. When I first visited in 2007, old Skodas, Trabants and Wartburgs were still a common sight; now they have all but disappeared, to be replaced by gleaming new Octavias. Companies like PWC and KPMG have moved into Ostrava, a proposition that would have seemed frankly insane four years ago. There is a slowly developing affluent change here, and a sense of general easy well-being; nothing ostentatious as in Swtizerland or Austria, but it's there nonetheless.

With an art school, a good cultural life, pals, and a varied list of things to do, Brno is looking like a quite likely destination for me once this big trip has come to an end. I'd had it in the back of my mind for a while, but it seems all a bit more likely after this enjoyable week. Vienna, Bratislava, Prague are a mere two hours away if one gets bored; Leipzig and Dresden only a little bit further away. We'll see.

Tomorrow I bid farewell- for now- to the Czech Republic, and head for a couple of days in Bratislava. After that, I'm having a day in Klagenfurt, in Austria, to see the Contemporary Art museum there, and also the home of Robert Musil, one of my personal literary favourites. And who knows, maybe Trieste for the weekend? After that, next week will see the beginning of the long descent into Macedonia, the end of the holiday phase of this trip, and the beginning of my work here.

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