Artists: Michal Škoda, Dorota Walentynowicz
The artists presented in the exhibition reciprocal share an interest in exploring the relationship between the image, the gaze, the individual, and space. Not only Michal Škoda’s drawings, collages, and photographs but also the camera-objects of Dorota Walentynowicz entail a reflection on space and a phenomenological approach. The body, although not immediately visible in their work, nevertheless paradoxically constitutes the dynamic presence/absence that is essential to perception. Whereas in Škoda’s work the body functions as a medium of the gaze in the context of architectural and urban spaces, Walentynowicz’s work presents the choreography of gazes, that is the dispositive, manifested in the photographic image. By turning the apparatus of the camera into an almost physical counterpart to the viewer, she makes the camera dispositve visible and reveals the invisible aspects of the gaze that are subliminally inscribed onto the pictorial space of the photograph.
Initially one might primarily view this joint exhibition as inspired by the fact that both artists were participants of the AIR–Artist-in-Residence Krems, a residency program of the State of Lower Austria, with which Galerie Stadtpark has cooperated since its founding (in 2000). However, studio visits with each of the artists were key in determining the curatorial concept for bringing together their works in the exhibition reciprocal. The works of both Škoda and Walentynowicz convey an element of the strange and a depersonalized quality; this is felt in the latently dystopian atmosphere of Walentynowicz’s objects as well as in the visual emptiness and absence manifested in Škoda’s works. Viewers, initially somewhat puzzled and disturbed, are subtly drawn into the work of both artists in a mode of active perception and are addressed and engaged by the kinesthetic totality of their experience.
The medium of photography is another important common theme in the works of Škoda and Walentynowicz. Whereby Škoda by no means considers himself a photographer but uses the photographic image as one visual medium among others, including drawing and collage, Walentynowicz’s exploration of photography entails an inherent reflection on the medium itself. She investigates the medium “from within,” making the device and system of the camera her central object of study. To this extent, photography is formally addressed by both artists; it provides a space for aesthetic analogies and communalities between the works but simultaneously reveals substantial differences in the individual artists’ approach to the image and their concept of space.
Michal Škodas’ explorations of spatial perception has a fundamentally phenomenological orientation. On a formal level, architecture and urban structures form the pictorial basis of his investigations. However, Škoda is less interested in forms per se, their morphological manifestation, or geometric structure; he does not engage with space on a representational level but instead is concerned with the experience of space. His images thus always reflect the temporal dimension of spatial experience. Škoda presents perception as interwoven with aspects of the gaze that are rooted in memory and the imaginary. On the one hand, the artist explores the limits of perceived space. On the other, he comprehends memory and the imagination as active mental processes that have the potential to override, expand upon, and transform what one sees. His various drawings, collages, and photographs can thus be seen less as discrete pictorial units and more as excerpts from an ongoing continuum of spatial perception.
Focusing on the temporalization of perception, Škoda primarily concentrated on the medium of drawing during his residency at AIR Krems in the spring of 2015. It was not Škoda’s intention to portray the spaces, to which these works referred and which were largely borrowed from his everyday environment; that is, he was more interested in developing a visual parallel to the “mental resonance” or memory of such spaces than presenting an aesthetic analogy of their manifestation. What one “sees” in the drawings—as in the selection of images shown here from the series Time and Environment—are purely black and white diagrams that recall architectural plans. The visual space surrounding the isolated, plan-like, and geometric forms is filled in with pencil so completely that one can hardly identify any individual markings. Instead the irregularities in the metallic reflection of the graphite bring what is actually the background of the image to the fore, turning it into a negative space. Škoda’s period of residency can thus be understood as a contemplative interrogation of urban and architectural space, in which contemplation is understood not as a moment of quietude before a motionless object of observation but instead as a study of processes of spatial perception and the traces that these processes leave in the mental apparatus of the observer.
Since 2011 Škoda has been carrying out a kind of visual “journal” with Time and Environment, which comprises photographs, collages, and drawings of everyday experiences and impressions of spatial situations. Škoda is not concerned with maintaining consistent “entries” or creating a temporal structure as a form of self-affirmation. Instead, his photographs and drawings are created based on a given situation and are very intuitively inspired. Correspondingly, to create the visual installation shown here, Škoda drew from this pool of images to create a “focused but open” selection. The structure of the field of vision, the composition, is by no means indebted to a structural logic or temporal, semantic structure.
Not only do drawings and photographs coincide naturally in Škoda’s visual chronicles but there are analogies and overlaps in their pictorial language. Škoda uses different visual media to refer to different modalities of perception, using the specific qualities of each medium in order to do justice to the various spatial/situative or temporal/processual aspects of spatial perception. The varying visual vocabularies used within the heterogeneous collection of images from Time and Environment shown here—from geometrical contours to blurry photographic imagery—thus cannot be understood as mutually exclusive perceptions of space. Instead, they correspond to various aspects of the seeing and are indebted to a notion of space that integrates concepts of retention and protension as well as memory and projection.
Even if Škoda’s images are always void of people, he works still draw on an emphatically subjective notion of perception. The formal stringency of his work is not oriented towards a specific minimalistic or formal ideal, nor does it aim to underscore an elevated viewer standpoint that provides a dominating overview. Škoda brings diverse images together in such a way that projective mental space is opened up for the viewer, which is constituted by the open and polysemic interplay of individual images of space. Viewers are challenged to explore the diegesis of the pictorial space, filling in the gaps between the images on their own. The movement through the exhibition space, i.e. the viewers’ actions in space, become a natural part of this thus concretized reading of the images, which overrides a purely visual or semiotic understanding thereof. In terms of the aesthetics of their reception, Škoda’s works evoke an incoherent, changing space that allows the viewer to become aware of the perceptual activity codetermined by the given space.
The medium of photograph forms an important joint concern in the works of Michal Škoda and Dorota Walentynowicz. However, whereas Škoda makes functional use of the photographic image, in the work of Walentynowicz the camera, the photographic dispositive itself, is a core theme. Dorota Walentynowicz places the medial conditioning of the gaze at the center of her investigation. In doing so, she does not merely question the authority of the camera but also attempts to reveal the intentions that lie behind the image, the gaze, and the dispositive. Who determines visibility, of whom and of what? Who takes a picture of what or whom—and why?
In the work of Walentynowicz the relationship between the image and apparatus is inverted. The image takes on an experimental and peripheral status. Beyond any pictorial/artistic intention the image appears as a purely indexical record of the fall of light. This is how in Untitled Filmset I and II the photographs of moving points of light in space appear, which inscribe themselves on the loosely mounted film of the artist’s self-built camera obscura. Whereas the image seems to forgo any function of representing space, Walentynowicz manages to give the apparatus itself a spatial dimension. Her camera-objects from the series Folds (2012), and If Everything is Repeating (2014) have appearance of buildings, and in Ubu Roi (2013), Algebra of Fiction (2013) they seem explicitly figural. The camera-objects become entities that serve as spatial counterpart to the viewers and that turn the causality of photographic spatial representation on its head. They can be understood as inverted, inside-out camera interiors. It seems as if they had tried to make visible their interiors, as if wishing to lend the disembodied and almost immaterial nature of the photographic image a physical, spatial form.
Walentynowicz lends the apparatuses figural presence. The obviously hand-crafted nature of the camera-objects, their model-like appearance, and their improvised material vocabulary of plywood and cardboard cause the works to vascillate between seeming like unfinished prototypes and viewing machines with a dystopian edge. Walentynowicz briefly confronts the viewer with an ambivalent situation, an interplay between curiosity, interest, and unease, if not anxiety. The viewer is unsure whether these viewing machines are not capable of observation or surveillance. Upon closer examination the camera-objects lose their authority and power, proving to be fragile, unsteady, and almost even vulnerable. The three tripod-like objects from the series Algebra of Fiction recall a small family of long-legged creatures, whereas the two camera-objects from the series Ubu Roi, which hover near the floor, have the appearance of a couple gazing up to viewers.
The animistic presence of Walentynowicz’ camera-objects come from the fact that they have been emancipated from their default function. The objects have stepped out of the image-gaze-camera relationship (dispositive). They seem to have managed to free themselves from their original purpose and have escaped their depersonalized existence. The revolt of little visual monitoring instruments, protesting the instrumentalization of their own (camera) gaze. Their placement in little groups within the space seems to indicate that they are capable of motion; their figurative appearance and potential for “bodily” expression make them into protagonist of a spatial-situative scenario, a performance that engages viewers and even integrates them into the choreography. The play of gazes between viewers and the apparatuses unfolds as interferences; the roles of the observer and the observed are exchanged.
Elements of confusion and puzzlement are present in the works of both artists—whether as a confrontation with pictorial and spatial emptiness in the images of Škoda or in viewers’ encounter in space with Walentynowicz’s animistic and dystopian seeing machines. This initial sense of unease, however, is aesthetically countered by the artists. Walentynowicz uses an element of irony to dispel the seriousness of a critique of the image and a questioning of the regime of the gaze, making the apparatuses seem somehow awkward or even sympathetic. In contrast, through the interpictorial interplay between his photographs, collages, and drawings, Škoda juxtaposes what initially seems to be a rational-geometric aesthetic with poetic moments of photographic imagery, thus shifting the focus from the activity unfolding in individual images to an emphatically subjective form of spatial perception.
Space, the most abstract common theme shared by both artists, appears both in the work of Škoda as in that of Walentynowicz as a vague entity in a media-ontological sense, and it is therefore the object of constant negotiation. It is not an external existence and visually representable entity but a mental object that constitutes itself in a processual manner. In this sense Michal Škoda directs our focus onto the uncertainties inherent to our perceptions of space, which challenge the viewer, the observer, in both a perceptual and cognitive capacity—thereby causing us to become aware of our own act of seeing. In the case of Walentynowicz, in contrast, the very apparatus that produces pictorial space is charmingly transformed into a counterpart for the viewer. The visual space of the photograph, even if pictorially demystified, is not deconstructed or negated but instead the viewer is made aware of the inadequacy and constructed nature of the camera gaze through a form of reflective self-empowerment. With tongue-in-cheek the works point beyond the theory of the dispositive to the mediality and imponderability of any kind of seeing, any form of perception.
Text: David Komary
Translation: Laura Schleussner