The following article about the Czech video artist Mark Ther has two lines of development. One is to do with the biographical approach and romantic concept of the artist, and the other looks at the relationship of Ther’s work to film style and culture. Is it really defensible to deal with these two separate matters in a single text? Biographism usually builds on the mysterious nature of art and the artist. And what has that got to do with Ther’s relationship to cinematography? Its techniques offer him the most impressive pictorial form in which to convey that nature.
It makes sense to look at Mark Ther through biographism and the romantic conception of the artist. One immediate good reason is his own romanticising style – however self-ironic sometimes – in creating his own “portrait of the artist”.1 It is a portrait constructed on the level of artistic decision-making and also by means of social response. Apart from the autobiographical dimension, the portrait is of course created by a media influenced by Ther’s rather sensational image and manner. It speaks both of general approaches to sexual identity, of historical animosities and aesthetic demands on artistic production, and of the mode of self-reference and presentation of the artist himself.2 What also makes the concept of biography relevant to Ther is his thematic orientation to “important personalities” and “historical dramas”, which is accompanied by allusions to the genre conventions of narrative cinematography. He already embarked on exploitation of specific elements of the genre vocabulary, such as motifs, characters, props, and costumes, in an early set of photographs and videos concerned with the opera singer Maria Callas. He produced these while still a student in Vladimír Skrepl’s intermedially conceived painting studio and Michael Bielický’s New Media studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in the years 1998–2005. Appearing here beside Maria Callas we find popular musical and drama icons such as Madonna or Audrey Hepburn. In the narcissistic adoption of their likenesses we can see admiration and fascination with the cult of the stars of classic cinematography, and at the same time pleasure in the act of travesty and performatively re-directed identity. The photographic portraits of Maria Callas (2005)3 eclectically integrate pictorial photographs, magazine portraits of the famous and costume details that constantly remind us that we are dealing with transgender disguise.
In terms of theme, up to 2012 we can divide Ther’s work into chronologically successive stages: performance and trans gender, the aestheticisation of gay sexuality and violence, and stories on the boundaries of fiction and documentary from the wartime4 and post-war Sudetenland. The theme of identity, whether relating to gender, sexuality or ethnic origin, which capitalises on socially controversial issues, is always present. From the point of view of the artist’s development, the videos Hanes (2007) and I Will Get You Out and Chop You in the Midair (2007) represent a narrative turning-point, prefiguring Ther’s intensifying need for grand narratives. As regards media, there is a turning away from video performance, an orientation that we can set in the context of generational and creative affinity with Ondřej Brody or Eva Jiřička, – i.e. from the classic videoart tradition – to “more filmic” forms. The move towards grand narratives is confirmed by one of the more recent videos, Enkel (2012), which like Pflaumen (2011) or Das wandernde Sternlein (2011) is set in the past but unlike them has no typical connections to the Nazi or immediate postwar era. At the level of visualised fiction it already offers viewers a more comprehensive narrative space, in which they can “safely” find their bearings through the genre guidelines of the psychological film and thriller. Abandonment of performative levels and games and manipulations of film cliches make it harder, however, to employ some dimensions of the genre. Ther is evolving his own authorial idiom: he is striving for an original aesthetic, and a sophisticated style that seeks the maximum technical perfection. From the point of view of plot this goes with a visible preference for psychologising contents and generally more accessible messages.
Mark himself says that he is making or shooting videos/ films […]
“Videos/films” is a term that the artist regularly uses to express the media status of his works, and it even appeared in the title of his one-man exhibition at Prague City Gallery in 2008. The two specific media terms separated and linked by the slash in one expression convey his enlarged sense of belonging to the tradition of visual art and cinematography. They denote a refusal of the essentialist attitude to artistic field that continues, especially in cinematographic practice despite the frequent, but also dramaturgically hapless inclusion of films by visual artists in the special programme sections of festivals. All this makes the slash an appropriate pictogram for the boundary position that Ther occupies and wishes to occupy.
Ther’s early videos5 are based on situational improbability and absurdity. Authentic characters are inserted into unreal situations and inappropriately presented. The actors and events are organised in “arbitrary” fictions that are inexplicable for the viewer and shot as if simple documentation without any very significant post-production interventions.6 In the later “more narrative” works, technical dilettantism has been replaced by an increasingly high standard of technical professionalism. Although closer to video performance than to narrative movie (compared to Ther’s more recent works), the sets mentioned still activate in us the demands of the film viewer expecting established techniques and meanings. Why? It is because they paraphrase the use of introductory and concluding film titles with the accent on the “brand” of their maker; for the most part they operate with plots, and employ acting techniques with the use of close-ups of actors’ facial expressions, and this is typical for mainstream feature films. It is also why we notice the discordance between the partial genre indication and a narrative without “adequate” causality; we notice that there is no functioning harmony of semantic signals and syntactic expectations.7 Ther’s videos are neither classic genre films nor their parodies or pastiches. They are more their simulacra, constructed using formal technical reference, authentic starting points of theme, and constant efforts at maximum attractiveness for audiences. This last element too forces us to correlate Ther’s work with mainstream narrative film.
[…] and the question of what video and what film is, is a question he leaves to those who know precisely how they should look and where the boundary between them lies.
In the videos from 2007 that I have mentioned above – such as Hanes or I Will Get You Out and Chop You in the Midair Ther starts to adopt some conventions of feature film with more thoroughness than before. He abandons the performative level and the humorous and cynical hyperbole evident in his earlier form of allusion to film conventions. By the logic of this development the artist no longer figures in front of the camera, and places actors there instead. The poetics of the un-manipulated, imprecise record give way to the screenplay, the professional camera and cutting in almost smooth style. The length of the films increases beyond the earlier limit of five minutes and reaches mid-length.9 In the videos Das wandernde Sternlein (2011) and Enkel (2012) we see the addition of a poetics emphasising subjective impressions with attention to sound and the toning of the picture.
Like Michal Pěchouček, Filip Cenek, Dušan Skala and others, Mark Ther is a Czech visual artist with a strong relationship to film aesthetics, but Ther’s concept does not involve conceptual analysis of the medium, cinematographic apparatus or the position of viewer as subject, which we find for example in the work of Ján Mančuška or Zbyněk Baladrán as well. Nor does Ther’s “situation” at the media boundary of video and film, between the tradition of visual art and the context of cinematography, consist in the stylistic techniques that I have outlined. If he were not presented at exhibitions and socially defined as a visual artist, his videos might fall into the fuzzy category of experimental film, which is hardly a necessary element of gallery exhibitions.10 Thus their intermedia character flows less from the actual nature of the videos than from their presentation regime – the way that they are presented in parallel in galleries and in cinemas. In the case of gallery installation Ther prefers a quasi cinema, a “black box” without a specific installation situation that might direct the viewer’s attention away from the projection. His films are also parts of special programme sections at film festivals or in the programmes of cinemas, without him considering this transfer of perception problematic. From his exhibition practice it is clear that he is not seeking to “constitute” a cinema in a gallery. He does not present a structure in “film ruins”, as Erika Balsom has defined11 the tendency of contemporary visual art to adopt phases of the medium of film that have already been left behind in the film industry. In this respect Ther addresses not the exposure of cinema to artistic questioning, which as the Dutch film and art historian Balsam points out has proliferated in every direction, but is instead ever more strikingly concerned with the conventionalised projection of film. Only the setting of the gallery remains as a potentially alienating aspect, then, but this is the setting that is for the moment the most friendly to him.
Marika Kupková is curator of the TIC Gallery in Brno and a film historian.
Mark Ther (1979) is a visual artist who ever since his time as a student at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague (1998–2005) has been making videos with overlaps into film form and style. In 2011 he won the Jindřich Chalupecký Award for his work Das wandernde Sternlein. He regularly presents his work at exhibitions and at the same time at film festivals.
1 I do not mean biographism as an interpretative strategy bound in terms of argument to the author’s life, knowledge of which is the condition for the correct understanding of his/ her work. nit as a general principle relating too the choice of motifs, themes and formal techniques.
2 In media responses to the artwork of Mark Ther we find two key themes: his orientation to the depiction of sexual and social taboos and the references of his videos to the idiom of film and the apparatus of cinematography. The first theme has obvious media attractions, and leads to the presentation of Ther’s work as political. The attribution “controversiality” is conformed by a wide range of reactions and references from hateful journalistic attacks through reflections in academic specialist journals to real incidents of censorship, the most sensational of which was the premature closure of Ther’s exhibition in the Prague City Gallery in 2008. The artist himself reacts to questions about provocative content inconsistently: sometimes he denies that he seeks to provoke, but sometimes he agrees. There is thus a veil of “mystery” about his social and artistic attitudes.
3 Christian Steiner took the photograph.
4 One of the first videos using the historical framework of Nazism was Was für Material!, 2007.
5 4:05 (1998), What gave me America (1999), M. C. a A. H. (2001) or his graduation project My pleasure (2003).
6 This was less a matter of deliberate action than a consequence of limited technological and production resources.
7 Adéla Babanová and Ivan Svoboda, for example, work with similar failure to fulfil audience expectations.
8 On the change of techniques see MAZANEC, Martin. Neléčená schizofrenie. Mezi filmem a videem, mezzo kinosálem a galerií. Accessible at http://www.mediabaze.cz/page.php?document= 9; the cameraman Lukáš Milota works long-term with Mark Ther.
9 The video Das wandernde Sternlein, which was part of the exhibition of the finalists of the Jindřich Chalupecký Award 2011, is 20 minutes long. So far the longest – 46 min – is the video Enkel (2012), presented at Ther’s one-man exhibition in the Václav Špála Gallery in 2012, the organisation of which was part of the Jindřich Chalupecký Award 2011.
10 This applies above all to Ther’s work since 2007.
11 Cinema enters the gallery on the tide of a culture converging under the sign of the digital, appearing there as something of an old medium to be commemorated and protected, as exemplified by Overture. […] Rather than standing against the convergence of media by commemorating a senescent cinema, this mobilization of cinema in contemporary art – as a new medium – participates very much in its movements. It compromises what were once relatively rigid borders between the image-regimes of cinema and art and emblematizes the new mutability and transportability of moving images after digitization., Erika BALSOM, Exhibition Cinema in Contemporary Art. Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2013, p . 11.
Mark Ther Enkel (Grandson), 2013 Full HD video, 46:00 min. shot from film.
Das wandernde Sternlein (Wandering Star), 2011/12, Full HD video, 20:00 min, shot from film.
Enkel (Grandson), 2013, Full HD video, 46:00 min. shot from film. Bei dem (At the), 2011, Full HD video, 18:00 min. shot from film.