“The Body becomes an Object”
Three Questions for Eva Kotátková

“It’s rules and conventions that hold us prisoner,” says Eva Kotátková. Control mechanisms are the central theme of the Czech artist, from whom works on paper were recently purchased for the Deutsche Bank Collection.
Eva Kotátková shows how school, family, and even architecture discipline people. She repeatedly uses cages, corsets, and prostheses in her stagelike installations, including the ones shown at the last Venice Biennale and in the Schinkel Pavilion in Berlin. Surrealism meets dark humor in these works, so it’s no surprise that Samuel Beckett and Charlie Chaplin are among Kotátková’s heroes. Starting in November, the Kunsthalle Baden-Baden is presenting a solo exhibition devoted to the artist. ArtMag asked her three questions on her recent projects.

Anatomical Orchestra” is your first institutional exhibition in Berlin. The installation consists of objects, instruments, and prosthetic devices that await activation through the human body. The central motif of the exhibition is the fragmentation of the human body. Is this also a metaphor for alienation, for a profoundly distorted human relation to the world? How did the idea for this project arise?

Eva Kotátková: It’s not so much about the fragmented body, as it was in my previous works that used the technique of black theater to segment bodies into separate arms, legs, heads, or trunks that seek to constitute a new body, a new temporary coordinate. Or in works that questioned educational processes, where a grid motif expressed the obedience and resignation or inertia with which we repeat learned communication or behavior patterns and the way we follow rules without questioning them, etc. With Anatomical Orchestra, however, I was thinking of a different body, an ill or disabled body, one whose senses are not functioning, as a result of which the body becomes a partially empty shell not able to fully use its potential, or one missing sense becomes replaced by another that’s far more sensitive and developed. Enlarged prosthetic devices, hearing trumpets, and walking sticks were accompanied by written and illustrated cases of people with different disabilities as well as skills—there was a case of a blind person whose hearing was exceptionally developed, as though the ears were sensors able to capture even the most delicate sound or movement in a room. One of the things that brought me to this project was the space of the Schinkel Pavilion itself, which reminded me of a spa pavilion, the kind where a spa orchestra plays for a napping audience of people seeking a cure. Another impulse was the obvious resemblance some musical instruments have to body parts or bodily organs, and so I also worked with real musical instruments that had been divested of their function. They became containers for something, props that were then used by performers in a different way, that produced sounds when someone manipulated them.

Your work reminds me of Czech surrealism in the way it sometimes appears playful, nostalgic, and graphic. At the same time, though, it deals with very brutal issues: power and control mechanisms that act on the individual and his or her body. One is reminded of Foucault’s “Discipline and Punish.” You show the human being formed and corrected by devices, instruments, or certain choreographies. Movements of the body and mind are often directed by puppet strings. “Not how people move, but what moves them” is the title of a collage series, works of which have recently been acquired for the Deutsche Bank Collection. What, in your opinion, moves people? And how would you describe the power mechanisms your work addresses?

Eva Kotátková: This series had two parts. One depicts me posing in passive positions, demonstrating a subordinate relation to the surroundings. I become a support for something, a playground, or a base for another body or bodies to dance, exercise, or move more freely. The other part of the series shows two people using a combination of pantomime, dance, or some strange sign language to express or represent concrete situations—as if they were walking through a tiny corridor, holding an invisible object, hearing an unbearable noise, etc. In the first case it’s about a body that tries to move, but faces limitations and regulations imposed on him/her by the outside world. The body becomes an object, a mute thing that resigns from all ambition to act freely, to decide for itself, to enter into conflict or take even the slightest risk. Other people take advantage of this situation and use the body for their own gain; they sit on it, use it as a bed, as a holder for something, as a transition to get from one place to another, or they step over it like any other obstacle. The second part of the series uses movement as a way to replace the spoken or written word, an attempt to create a kind of strange image vocabulary that depicts concrete spatial situations in which the body can be, everyday activities as well as states of mind. But again, they focus on those scenes that make visible the limitation of the movement, either by outside impulses—the size of a room or surrounding objects (all of which are enacted in pantomime)—or by forces originating on the inside, inner dispositions. As if free movement no longer existed, as if it weren’t possible to perform a gesture that does not remind one of something, recall something that we have seen already or have learned before.

Does art offer an opportunity to escape control? Or does it confront you with another system of rules and regulations? What is your idea of freedom?

Eva Kotátková: I often look at art brut, where you can find both in a very powerful way. Greatly simplified, it would be the limited, regulated, imprisoned, or institutionalized body on the one hand, and the mind that builds the impossible on the other—the various parallel worlds or identities, phantasmagoric creatures, new hierarchies. But one also sees the framing of art brut, the world that tries to categorize it, name it, suggest possible readings. I guess what impresses me the most is when free ideas or actions or exceptional creativity are generated in almost contradictory situations: totalitarian regimes, miserable personal conditions, psychiatric clinics, and so on.