Michal Novotny is an art activist and journalist based in Prague.
This interview was recorded in Paris in the frame of an upcoming exhibition project in collaboration with the Institut Français de Prague in 2011.
Could you describe the process of your work?
Day after day my work is a challenge. Working in a particular context, I try to ask myself the question of what life is like there. For me, when working in a context, it is important not only to be sensitive to the space, but also to the people living there and their lives. My work is built with the help of others. It is very important to consider what you can learn from other people; it is very important to be attentive. For me, art links people together. Whatever you do, you must make relationships with other people. If a photographer wants to get a good expression from his model he has to be attentive and listen. What most interests me isn’t so much the material itself, but what the work provokes when viewed.
But understanding the context must sometimes be difficult, so how do you carry the meaning in your work, how do you create the medium to carry your message?
Yes, it is problematic. And sometimes I fail. It has happened to me that I have come to realize that life in a place I exhibited was completely different than I had thought. I made my work there, and it was ok, but I was not satisfied.
It takes some time to analyze and interpret before you develop a piece of work. I also link my work to others at all stages of its processing. I make maquettes, the drawings which I present to commercial companies I work with. I build relationships with people in the place I am working. Finally, I invite everybody to the opening. For me, the main point is not to change the world but to provoke something. To create one more interesting thing which can make the people laugh, give them some pleasure for a couple of seconds, let their imagination be free.
Superficially looking at your work, one might think that the thing that most of your pieces have in common is that the material used is always some kind of abandoned material, material left somewhere in the street or material which has been through a process of destruction or devaluation. What does this mean to you?
Just as every human being does, I react to my surroundings. I live in a society whose main mode is still a mode of production. Mass production then requires standardization. But standardization applies not only to the products itself but also to the people who consume them. Our society tries to convince us that the only way we can be free is by accepting the products we are offered. Our only choice then lies in the way in which we choose the product. But in fact this is just a regression of our freedom. From this point of view has grown my interest in what I call slave objects. Slave objects are for me objects whose purpose is just to perform one very simple function. One of the best examples is polystyrene packaging, which I have previously used in my work. After having a very short life serving only to transport another product, those pieces of polystyrene lose their purpose and become garbage. For me it was amazing to discover how much time and effort we need to put into the production of a material with such a short life. For me those polystyrene parts represent the default, the standard but also poetry, as they consequently contain our wishes, our ideas of an ideal life. Holding the same meaning are for me cigarette stubs. One day I was in a bar next to some people who went there to the same place every day, and I listened to what they were saying. In a bar you can hear gossip, everyday philosophy, but also about god and destiny and all this happens during the time it takes to smoke one cigarette. Those details, like old cigarette stubs, are very small but at the same time very full of life. It is garbage which carries our lives, or let’s say, which fingerprints our lives. These fragments of reality represent for me also a human proportion.
The process of destruction normally has the result that something becomes nothing, with your work it is vice versa, there ‘nothing’ becomes an artwork. Does this have some special meaning for you?
It is a question of ego. Generally ego is very bad. This process can therefore be considered as good therapy. Normally we buy something, we use it and afterwards we throw it away. It is very important for me sometimes not only to destroy but also to rebuild. The consequent aspect of rebuilding is this odd paradox we share in our humanity. Finally, only when you destroy something, do you get to understand how difficult it was to build it. But my reconstructions are also meant as some kind of monument. A monument to those who create with a lot of passion and effort but who, at the same time, are not able to create something perfect or ideal. For me this is humanity par excellence. We all try to change things, but we don’t find a good way and in the end we even deform the originals. But there still remains the primary wish which is of a much higher standing then the reality and the results themselves. This process is also a critic. An example can be seen in my project with a community of people who cut cars in half and then stage some kind of race with them. This game is not only about the halved cars, but also plays an important social and sharing role for the people participating. On the other side, those people are in a constant battle with bureaucracy. What is unbearable for the system is that those people don’t accept the concept that a car should have four wheels. By doing so, they create something wild. If you find some kind of freedom like this the system will crush you.
Back to the form, how do you deal with the aesthetic side of an artwork, the beauty, in a purely formalistic way?
I am an idealist. I believe in the power of beauty. My very first childhood experience of art was beauty. It was the first thing which interested me. Year by year, then with my ongoing study and experience, I finally understood that beauty is one of many questions to which the answer sometimes finally gives rise to something called art. For me beauty is the first level on which you can connect people. Therefore I use it and I believe in it. Most of my work is also connected to architecture. I am inspired by architecture in its formal aspect. If you accept that architecture also connects people, where there is architecture, there is life. Architecture provokes life.
What is your relationship to the discipline of sculpture, the classical conception of what sculpture is?
First of all I started out painting and drawing at school, and I felt very frustrated with the format. I felt very disappointed by the size. Therefore I decided to experience three dimensional work. Sartre says that objects are not just a presence but that they exist in the same time as we do. I mean, they don’t exist in a human way, they’re not alive, but we share our existence with them. For me to work in the discipline of sculpture is a way in which to add some more existence into objects. I like painting and photography as well, but there is still more I’d like to express with material in three dimensions. Installations or objects depend on the context; to deal with them is as problematic as our existence can be.
How did you come to do art?
I wanted to become a car designer. I was obsessed with cars and their form. But over the years, I understood that this way of design would not give me enough freedom to create. I have a lot of ideals, and a car is an object made primarily to be expensive. Besides that, you also have to deal with things like ergonomy, the history of the car and also label identity. Finally I was so bad at mathematics and physics, that I could not enter design school anyway. I began to study fine arts. At the beginning I was absolutely sure I didn’t want to be an artist. Art was for me so disorganized, there was no structure, it was like a no man’s land with no order or system. I tried to enter applied arts, I tried scenography, and in all these things I failed. But at the fine arts school, it was year by year becoming better and better. Finally, after the fifth year of my studies, I realized that I had to accept the system. But my original opinion has remained. Artists should be, in my point of view, more integrated into society. Artists should give their sensibility, their power to observe, to different spheres. An artist should not just exhibit and produce works of art but also give something back to society itself. As an artist I would like to work internationally and in different fields, as I believe artists are here to help, to create a better future. Art is and has been the element of change. But it is not society which needs to come and ask the artist his opinion. Artists themselves have to put in more investment. They have to push their abilities also outside of the field of art. We know how to observe, analyse and understand some of the complexities of today’s world. It could be interesting to use this in the real world and not only keep our experiments within museums. But contemporary artists don’t use their full potential; they make only objects which are sellable on the art market. They should also be able to confront a real situation.
Sometimes you work with historical motifs, what is your relationship to art made in the previous centuries?
In principal, art is a human representation. This has not changed. There is a certain canon of art which is unconscious. I like it, for me it represents all humanity. Therefore I believe in some types of classical models, as they are myths of different levels of beauty. I also like to play with time. I would like to connect all the history of art and mix it together.
How is the relationship between an idea and its realization represented in your work?
An idea is never enough. I have to think and to work on its realization. However tough it is. The work of artist is to make an idea understandable and not only a mystic expression. An artist has to operate in real life as, in the end, we all live together.
What is your position regarding the written word?
I don’t write poetry. I use text as a material or as a tool.
I wanted to ask if you agree with the fact that your work will be described?
For me the rule is: if a work does not speak to the public, it doesn’t exist. Therefore exhibiting a work out of the gallery is a test for me. I see if people stop their cars, if they have a look and smile and if it works without me. Work shall live without its creator as much as without text or a signature. Art should be democratic, open. The art market is then another thing.
But alongside your work you add a quite precise description about time, place etc?
I am a worker. If you work in a private company, you have a contract for 35 hours a week and they consider that after 35 hours your work is finished. They don’t consider the stress after and the thoughts before. Everything is counted in hours. That’s also why I add these numbers. But of course this time is also not realistic, it mostly doesn’t count the thinking time.
How do your titles arise?
I put a lot of affection in my work. Affection represents for me something more than love. There is something in affection which is equal, like in the family, among friends. My titles are then affectionate, and are also many times fantasies about strength. I like those fantasies which make us realize how weak we are.
What about the space around your art? Do you prefer to exhibit in a gallery or outside?
My ideal would be to work in everyday life. Then there is the reality of the art market. You have to create your own style as a person, your own universe as an artist. The logic here is different. But even by trying to work outside of the art world I go forward only little by little. When I want to create something outside of a museum I immediately start to encounter huge problems. This is much more about politics than art. About freedom and what is expected and what is not. So I believe that if I become a little bit more important on the art market I can make a little bit more in the other sphere. At the same time, it is also important to ask a question about the gallery. We who are artists have been living in that white cube since the 60s, 70s. When I destroy the wall of the gallery I mean it also in the way that it might be good to ask the question about what is the gallery space of today.
Is then the artistic system restrictive for you?
On the surface it is very free, in reality there are a lot of codes. For me it is just a game, a confrontation. I try to turn it my way, I try to have fun. I don’t take it as a limit, but as a problem to overcome.
How do you feel about your body of work, is there linearity or has it gone in different directions?
For the first part of my work, I built a lot of constructions. In the second part of my work, since 2004, I have started to destroy. This is new research and I am trying to provoke something. But the main topic of my work is still the human and the ideals that people have, against the reality in which they finally live. Also I don’t divide my work by the new and old. If a good occasion arose, I would install polystyrene parts on prefabricated buildings again.
Do you think an artist should be critical of society?
I think that critic is a big word. In a way artists should be mainly critical of themselves. It’s important to ask myself: what am I doing, why am I doing this? It’s important to ask such questions. If we don’t ask and we just continue to repeat ourselves, it would become boring.