MARKÉTA OTHOVÁ (1968) is an inimitable artist whose work creates a distinctive, unique world. In the 1990s this graduate of the graphic art studio at the Academy of Art, Architecture and Design in Prague surprised both photographers and artists. Her work was not reliant on the techniques of art photographers: she was not trained in the craft of art photography and needed no knowledge of it. It therefore puzzled many when she reached the final of the Jindřich Chalupecký Prize in 1999, 2001 and 2002, actually winning it in 2002. For example, Robert Silverio, critic and historian of photography tried to understand her work in terms of its presentation: “It’s primarily interesting for the way in which such trivial shots are exhibited in such a huge format. It works like this: we are used to attributing meaning to pictures, but here we have very large photographs of trivial things, and so the viewer cannot understand, is wrong-footed, and this loss of certainty can arouse interest.”1 Questions of the banality of the objects in the shots, or of an anti-photo-aesthetic, cropped up very frequently in the photographic reviews at the time. Meanwhile Othová, although finding a positive response in the context of conceptually orientated art, also seemed independent even of conceptualism. Without treating photography simply as a medium for sober documentary and informational purposes, she nonetheless exploited the freedoms of an approach that rejected art as craft.
The Swiss curator Christina Végh2 argues that despite some kindred features, Othová’s work differs from the tradition of Ed Ruscha, Dan Graham or Robert Smithson in its greater emotionality.3 The philosopher and theorist of art Karel Císař, on the other hand, argues in his theory of photographic sequence4 that in her works created by sequential shooting Othová has “come close to the kind of use of photography familiar to us from the conceptual art of the 1970s”.5 In this context Císař refers to sets and authors other than those mentioned by Végh, and lays the emphasis on ways of grasping the temporality of the themes of the work. By contrast Végh analyses what she sees as the “intentional unintentionality” of the work and the question of the level of rationality in its construction. In fact temporality (and so sequentiality) is a consequence, not the source of the main impulse that creates the form (similar to the conceptual). Othová’s art is founded on feeling, and the need to get close to reality is the characteristic mark of her fiction.Inrelationtoherwork,Marek Pokorný speaks of the transformation of the frame of reference, in which the movement is equally towards reality: “Reality is the medium of photography; photography is not a record and photographed reality is a substitute representation. This does not mean, however, that the author moves inside the image, but that the photograph enables her to speak again and again about reality (and so about herself) without the photo-technology (as construction), or the authorial subject (as re-construction) monopolising attention.”6 Using the camera, or image, the artist seeks to pare off, from the outside, the moments at which observed reality and the internal world of the artist meet. By being photographed, a scene ceases to belong entirely to our world and our property7 and it is for this reason that we sense behind her shots timidity about coming close, struggling with the desire to share and possess a given image.
Markéta Othová takes photographs intuitively, very often without a frame worked out in advance. She does not set out to take photographs, and in her early sets she does not set the stage. The camera is the inconspicuous collector of moments of consonance with the external, just as it is the choice of shots from the archive and deliberate work with the syntax of the whole and installation in space that form the integral, rational part of Othová’s art. This mode of documentation that is not just about reality, this installation that is not just site-specific, this creation of a whole that is apparently heterogeneous8, creates an unusually distinctive and self-supporting work.
We can find a common denominat or between most of the photographs, whether taken on journeys or, to a lesser extent, at home9: this is the attempt to get close to the observed object, or to the mood that the situation/object reminds the author of. In the act of capturing the object or mood, Othová as it were finds a kindred part of herself. She seeks to follow the plot until she considers that it is over. All the sections of the narration are equally important (in contrast to reportage of the Bressonian decisive moment) because the aim is not the informational and emotional value of the culminating moment, but the need for closeness of an encounter lasting a certain time. This feeling generates the sequential and narrative character of the work: it emerges on the surface as if entirely of its own accord – from curiosity as to what will happen next, or, on the contrary, as the process of recognition of a benumbing stereotypicality.
In the set Untitled (2002), a little girl walks to and fro in a courtyard; the artist follows this idle behaviour, and there is no more apposite means of submitting to the photographed subject and absorbing from it the mechanical quality of boredom than to snap one photo after another, so that that the eventual result is the presentation of forty seven almost identical views from the window as a slide show. We findthe same principle at work in the series Untitled (2003), in which Othová snaps a programmed fountain. The water regularly falls and springs up again, Othová presses the shutter copying the stereotypical dynamic of the column of water and only afterwards puts together a sequence of fall and rise. She almost never uses a tripod, and by her own account she does not compose shots.10 She brings empathy to the mechanical process, and her camera is more the outstretched hand of her feelings than a machine.
Often she does not leave the narrative in its original chronological sequence. For example in the cycle Discovery Day (2005) she jumbles the order of shots of a boat sailing under a bridge, so that the order becomes unreadable and puts a strain on the viewer’s conventional need for a chronology or story. She shifts the boat forwards and back, and when it seems to be receding, she brings it back again. First she shows it from the stern, then from the prow. For a moment it completely vanishes from view, and then makes off on an uneven progress away from the meeting-place of the two existences (the artist’s and its own). In the last shot, Othová lets go of the object of her interest and it disappears on the horizon.
Out of a tranquil experience, the artist creates a small drama of convergence and distancing, the desire to keep the small boat close, but also to depict the impossibility of resisting the flowoft heriver.The treatment is the same in Her Life (1998); the six-times reproduced shot of a woman walking down the street keeps the woman in the same place, allowing her neither to finish her step nor to go back.The people/ phenomena in Othová’s work often come closer and then recede, as, for example, in a piece showing the meeting of a little girl and an adult man (Untitled, 2005), or another showing a lady with a little dog going to the end of a street and after a moment of emptiness coming back (Return, 2000). In yet another there are children in a yard surrounded by a high wall – they all successively leave except for one girl, who remains seated in front of a closed window, while the last shot escapes beyond the fence, to show a similar girl with her mother. (Utopia, 2000).
The theme of separation also appears in the series Speak with Her (2005). From her chair Othová timidly observes a little throng of people around Björk seated by herself, who is as isolated from the others as Othová is from her. If reality is divided, the artist has a tendency to connect it, to establish an inter-relationship that matches her wishes. In the set Illinois Institute of Technology (2006), she shows the hole left in the ceiling of a modernistically perfect building, and then the tile that has left the hole, lying broken on the ground. While Jiří Kovanda photographed a broken brick,11 only to try to glue it together and then record it in reconstructed, if battered, form, Othová offers an unstaged reality. She does not fix the tile backin the ceiling, but leaves it broken for the cleaners to deal with. She re-connects irreversibly separated entities simply by creating a diptych, inseparable photographs, a subsequent installation, or a syntax of the whole. In this way she achieves what is impossible in reality.
Inevitability is reflected the matically and not just syntactically in the series The Power of Destiny (1999). By variation using only two photographs, Othová restricts their possibilities, eliminating the millions of other ways, choosing precisely one shift and no other. In her diptychs Untitled (2003), of a Lion Bar, and Untitled (2002), of a view of Verona, she explores the illusion of closeness. In the first case she upsets the apparently functional relation of perception by changing the scale (the chocolate bar is a meter long). In the second case she does the same by a change of locality (Paris), which is supposed to replace a missing section in the area under the castle, but in fact the filling is different, and so completeness is impossible.
In her more recent work there have been gradual changes. Othová is engaging in more staging and construction, and making a bolder reality of those timid attempts at approach. For example she circles with a camera around a black plate, which is thus transformed from circle to ellipse, and back again in eight different shots of a motionless object (Untitled 2009). She is no longer standing hesitantly at the window, but becoming movement and action herself; this set shows a passive object reflecting the activity of the artist. We find a similar principle in Leçon de photographie (2007) – narrative variations on a little box and its lid. It is also implicit in the set Untitled (2011), showing a pair of black bracelets in which the artist has closed up the holes for the hand by computer in a view from above: the first is covered by a little black disc, and the second, mirror reversed, with a white disc. She has created lids for bracelets which, although opposite in tonality, complete and consolidate the shape. By contrast it is symmetrical opening that is presented in the cycle Untitled (2011), in which photographs of a mountain massif are hidden in the space behind a tram stop.12 The effect is not alarming but protective, just as the bars in front of the shot suggest not imprisonment, but an order of the symmetry. In Untitled (unclosed), Othová has managed to connect the distant world of the reproduced icon with the setting of her own experience. On her travels she has photographed a range of famous buildings and retrospectively discovered that other people have shot almost identical views. What she has experienced herself has been linked with the experience of others.
Recently she has also been working more legibly with the layout of exhibition space.13 We find a diagonal grouping (shots of portals, the series Untitled (2010) tests out the size of a single shot (Untitled, 2010) with free space on the wall empty space left on a page to supplement the text. She thus lends her photographs the quality of graphically manipulated illustrations, but her message is so self-sufficient that anything written down would drown out the shots and they would be polluted by the text. The dynamic of the empty spaces is like the associational frame of meaning14 of Othová’s work, prepared for the viewer.
Markéta Othová (*1968) is a visual artist working with photography. She lives and works in Prague.
Markéta Magidová is an artist and art theoretician.
1 Robert SILVERIO, “Odveta Veroniky“, Kritic-ká příloha Revolver Revue, 1998, p. 15.
2 “Unlike the founders of conceptual photography, however, Othová allows viewers an emotionally more intense participation.” Christina VÉGH, “Sleepwalk Pilgrimage into Narrated Silence”, in: Karel CÍSAŘ (ed.), Markéta Othová, Praha: Galerie Jiří Švestka 2010, p. 154.
3 In reference to these authors Végh mentions the following series: E. Ruscha: Twenty Six Gasoline Stations, D. Graham: Homes for America, R. Smithson: The Crystal Land, see also note no. 5.
4 See e.g. the lectures Photographical Sequence (VŠUP 2009), Photography After Conceptual Photography (conference “”Results of Conceptualism” AVU, 2011), text “Indecisive moment” (65. Bulletin Moravské galerie, Brno: MG 2009, pp. 108–115), the curatorial exhibition W dowolnym momente (In an Indecisive Moment), Krakow: Galerie Bunker Sztuki 2009)
5 Karel CÍSAŘ, “Crystals of Time”, in: CÍSAŘ (ed.), Markéta Othová, 2010, p. 145. In “Indecisive Moment“ Císař gives the following specificexamples of photographic conceptualists: Sol LeWitt (Muybridge I), Ed Ruscha (Every Building on Sunset Strip), Douglas Huebler (Duration on Variable Pieces), while he considers the work of Vitto Acconci, Bas Jan Ader or Eleanor Antin to be merely photo-documentary.
6 Marek POKORNÝ, „Markéta Othová“, in: Detail. Časopis pro vizuální kulturu, no. 5, 1996, p. 24.
7 See e.g. Susan SONNTAG, On Photography, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux 1977, p. 4. “Photography means to appropriate the thing photographed.”
8 See the sets composed of thematically heterogeneous shots that are nonetheless justifiablybrought together in sequence (Close Encounters of the Third Kind , Journey , Old Sources , Pocket Fire! , Paris-Texas , Experience Dream , Excalibur , Allegro non troppo , Sony Music , While You Sleep , It’s not just a store. It’s a solution ).
9 Např. The Silence of the Lambs (1994), Untitled (1998), The Quick and the Dead (1998), Untitled (2002), Dobro došli (1999) or Passive Design (2009).
10 Extreme examples of non-composition include the shots made from a moving car that are used in the sets Ghosts (2005), Pardon? (2005), and some in Sony Music (1999).
11 The even Untitled, 1976.
12 At the exhibition Sculptures in the Streets, Brno 2011.
13 For example the exhibition Markéta Othová in the galerie Jiří Švestka, 2011.
14 Earlier enhanced by the use of film titles (orother well-known phrases) as titles of sets. But this is not a matter of direct quotation, for often she had not seen the films mentioned.Sheusesthetitlesjust as familiar phrases that catalyse and direct the current of associations. She also leaves a similar freedom in the choice of shots – she does not use a zoon, and the objects of her attention are often just a fragment of the whole surface of the shot. Quits often it is through inter-repationship with other photographs that a common feature emerges which, isolated, is not dominant in the shot.
MARKÉTA OTHOVÁ, Untitled, 2008, two gelatin silver prints, 100 × 70 cm.
Untitled, 2005, five gelatin silver prints, 110 × 160 cm.
Illinois Institute of Technology, 2006, two silver prints, 110 × 160 cm.
MARKÉTA OTHOVÁ, Untitled, undated, open series, lambda print, 29.7 × 21 cm.
Untitled, 2011, gelatin silver prints, lambda print,47 × 70 cm.