Curatorial plan of Jan Zálešák for the Cursor Gallery
At the end of 2016, an exhibition opened at Veletržní palác, seat of the National Gallery in Prague (NG), entitled Against Nature: Young Czech Art Scene. The brainchild of Adam Budak, curator of special projects at the NG, this was to be the first outcome of a cycle that would demonstrate “the gallery’s genuine interest in tracking the most interesting developments in contemporary art on the local art scene”. In order to provide a cross-section of the youngest Czech art, the NG contacted the independent curators Chris Sharp (US/MX) and Edith Jeřábková (CZ). Unless I am mistaken, there were no follow-up events with the same ambition, and Against Nature remained a one-off “monument” and a memento of the changes that took place at the NG in 2019 (the recall of Jiří Fajt as Minister of Culture and the dismissal of Adam Budak by the acting gallery director).
I decided to use this exhibition (both the works on show and the discourse represented by its catalogue) as the starting point of my year-long residency at the Cursor Gallery. My interest was piqued by the following passage from the introduction to the catalogue entitled “The Changing Present” by Adam Budak: “[this exhibition] offers a perspective from which the work of young artists can be examined and critically evaluated; at the same time, however, it is the promise of what is to come, a kind of prophecy of what the young generation will be interested in and how they will contribute to perceiving and understanding the world that surrounds us, shaping our identity and knowledge.” This is a bold statement. It is no less bold (not to say somewhat strange) to take this statement as reason to look back and ask to what extent the prophecy has come true and where, on the contrary, reality has rudely upstaged prophecy.
At a time when the discipline of exhibition histories/studies is enjoying a boom, the decision to focus on a particular exhibition might seem somewhat academic in character. However, there is also a personal dimension. I had already attempted a similarly “appropriative” approach when working on the project Memories of the Future II (2013), in which I hooked up with the exhibition Memories of the Future curated by Karel Císař in 2009. Returning to the same strategy, but shifting its focus, represents a big challenge for me. In addition, late 2016 marks a turning point in my personal life. The network of relationships and contacts that I had built up during years of institutional and later independent curatorship has been transformed over the last four years from a vibrant “corpus”, naturally extending out in various directions, into something far more static. Many relationships have come to an end or find themselves in a state of limbo: they have not been terminated, though neither have they continued to exist as previously (parenthood, living abroad for some of the time, the onset of the generation gap, etc., are just some of the reasons).
Just as the exhibition Against Nature found no follow-up in the NG’s programme, so my curatorial work almost ground to a halt, reaching out to a future that has as yet failed to materialise. And so among other things I would like to avail myself of the opportunity to oversee this year’s programme of the Cursor Gallery in order to resuscitate some old relationships and contacts. By revisiting an exhibition that was not “mine”, I wish to avoid the sentimentality that might otherwise infect such a plan. Instead, I am able to approach the exhibition, the works exhibited, the artists on show, and last but by no means least its curator Edith Jeřábková, who is aware of my bold ambition, with both a keen interest, but also with a certain distance (though already in the preparatory stages this distance is diminishing, and it may soon become apparent that it is impossible to sustain).
Over the course of this year’s cycle of exhibitions, I wish to draw on Against Nature in two ways. Firstly, as a subject of an almost academic research, albeit without a predefined methodology. Here, the question of how to return to the original exhibition becomes explicit, and various kinds of problems are already apparent. For instance, the spatial layout and context of the two galleries in question differ considerably. I assume also that some of the works exhibited at Against Nature no longer exist, or at least not in an ideal condition. In addition, over the last five years the careers and lives of the exhibitors have moved in very different directions. In some cases there has been a shift towards greater professionalism; for others the creation of gallery art is no longer a priority.
When Edith Jeřábková in the accompanying text drew attention to the ambivalence of the exhibition title, she noted that the word nature can refer both to the natural world and to an unaffected naturalness or authenticity. We might ask to what extent the positioning of artworks within the specific context of gallery operations is a form of (our) naturalness. Did Against Nature reinforce the status quo of contemporary art as a practice involving the placing of exhibits in a gallery? Or did it create an opportunity to interrogate said practice? (Not in the sense of a discursive, institutional critique, but rather in its emphasis on the existential dimension of experience with the “power of things”, the authentic character of practical contact with matter that has not been extracted from a complex network of relationships.)
This approach to work also involves gathering of materials for the final publication, which is an established outcome of the annual curatorial residency at the Cursor Gallery. This will generate a lot of questions and hopefully some answers. Interviews and meetings with those who were represented at the exhibition Against Nature will be incorporated into the final exhibition and be included in the individual texts and accompanying activities.
The second way I will draw on Against Nature will involve not questions, but assumptions and presuppositions. This is in part related to the need to revive old relationships and strike up new ones. It will be manifest in the form of a quartet of chamber-like exhibitions given over to the work of two or three artists or artistic duos. The selection of exhibitors will be based on a simple criterion, namely, that in their work I sense echoes, extrapolations and a continued exploration of the themes and problems opened up by Against Nature: work and its status both within and without the context of creativity; craftsmanship; an interest in natural materials and objects and in their agency; the slackening of the Cartesian separation of nature and culture, people and things; the possibility of criticism over and beyond the humanist framework of narrative…
These four exhibitions will possess a deliberately ambiguous status. They are intended to operate independently and offer the artists free space for the realisation of their plans in the generous premises of the Cursor Gallery. At the same time, all four will be related to themes dealt with in Against Nature. As the research linked to the preparation of the final exhibition continues, its preliminary findings and the changing state of knowledge/understanding will inevitably resonate with the individual presuppositions, be this in communication during the preparation of the exhibition, or considerations regarding the accompanying programme and written outputs. This approach is not without its problems, and is already generating a palpable tension when it is not completely clear where individual exhibitions begin and end (and no, this does not refer to the exhibition dates). However, this is precisely where I feel the importance of the annual curator-in-residency at the Cursor Gallery resides, namely in the fact that it is unafraid to host difficult projects.