We No Longer Want to Know Why Petr Vizina

With artists David Böhm and Jiří Franta about their exhibition Fabulist at the House of Photography, quantum physics, couples therapy and artistic self-confidence

Photo by Vojtěch Veškrna

Q Who or what is a Fabulist?
DB An unreliable narrator, i.e. anyone, like the two of us.
Q Why did you choose the House of Photography for your exhibition from the available options?
DB The space of that gallery became the key for us in terms of how to think about the exhibition. It‘s two identical floors. We thought we could do everything twice and install it on both floors in the same way.
JF We also work in tandem. We‘ve taken advantage of that in performances and actions. The works for the exhibition, however, were not created in such a way that we did one first and then the other, rather they were created both at the same time.
DB Moreover, you don‘t see them side by side in the exhibition. Like in quantum physics, the same action is happening in two places at the same time. It‘s not about some kind of comparison, it‘s about blurring, a handcraft doubling, the exhibition maybe takes place in the moment of that deja vu that occurs in the viewer‘s head somewhere on the stairs between the first and second floor of the gallery.
JF If I perceive any danger in this approach, it is in the sense that it encourages visitors to “find ten differences“ between Franta and Böhm. But that‘s not the point, of course; I‘m more interested in what can happen in the process of making when you constantly have the possibility of creating two versions of one picture.
DB We are not bothered about comparing and explaining who makes what. Of course, each of us has his own tendencies, obsessions and fascinations, so that could be analysed, but that‘s not the point.
JF We‘re always being asked: who drew this? And how do you agree on things? It‘s just that that‘s not how it works between the two of us.
Q So how does it work between you?
DB We met at school, when studying with Vladimír Skrepl at the Academy of Fine Arts almost twenty years ago. We did one exhibition together and after a while we found out that we were only approached as a duo. I would say that there are more advantages than disadvantages. The intensity and the adventure, that often we just don‘t know how it‘s going to turn out, keeps us interested and excited.
JF Working on my own, I would often overwork my paintings or drawings. I tend to immerse myself in them, not to see or hear anything else. With David, lightness enters my work. Suddenly, the dialogue works, so I couldn‘t do without it. For me, it‘s also a nice grinding off of my ego.
Q You sound like relationship therapists.
JF That was one of the ideas for this exhibition, that we‘d go to couples therapy and then we‘d come up with something based on that but then we thought we‘d rather paint in the studio. But seriously, there‘s one other thing that‘s new to us, which is paint. Up until now, we‘ve never worked with paint on such large formats that we‘d be passing to each other.
DB We‘re trying to change approaches and strategies in all kinds of ways to make something happen. We don‘t have just one proven method. The doubling principle in this exhibition is an opportunity for us to come up with something new, to be able to say one thing twice, it‘s a double game with an uncertain outcome.
Q Do you think it‘s unusual that in the visual arts we see authorship as strongly individual, whereas it‘s quite common for it to be collective in other fields?
DB Yes, the visual arts in general are probably more individualistic than other fields, but there are a lot of those pairs too. Six years ago, there was an exhibition called Two Heads, Four Hands at 8smička art zone in Humpolec which was about that, and there are quite a lot of those fine art duos. But I don‘t think we‘ll see more of them in other areas, whether it‘s actors, musicians or businessmen.
Q Of course, Bodie and Doyle, Lennon and McCartney, Suchý and Šlitr, Lasica and Satinský…
JF Speaking of those pairs, I‘d be more the Lasica type.
DB I see us more like the two detectives in the Sabotage clip, and you‘re the one with the moustache. You want somebody next to you who‘s got your back, who passes the ball, who keeps the beat. Our things are created in two ways – either as a fulfilment of an intention or as a by-product of time spent together in the studio, which is the case with the exhibition at the House of Photography. And that‘s the interesting part of working in tandem, that we don‘t know what the result will be, which way it‘s going to go. In a sense, it‘s like a jam session.
Q What is the main advantage of working in pair?
DB I wouldn‘t say it‘s the advantage of the pair in any pragmatic way, like it‘s more beneficial to share the studio rent. It‘s something more rare – in fact, I think most artists would like to work with someone else, they just haven‘t found the other one. I‘m exaggerating, but it‘s like a band. You can play solo but how long can a person enjoy touring alone? You have a person next to you on the same wavelength and the energy multiplies rather than adds up.
JF It‘s about some mutual support, of course we‘re both floundering, but we have our positions from which we enter into working together. We once said to each other that in the 19th century David would have been a portrait painter and I would have been a landscape painter. But it‘s not that easy, and many times unexpected results happen in that collaboration. We enjoy playing and having fun. Of course, we want to be 21st century artists, we bring contemporary themes into our pictures. It‘s often a transcription of the endless dialogues we have with each other.
Q Is one of you more talkative and the other listens more?
DB I probably talk more. But we often talk to each other in the same way that we draw, we don‘t tell each other specific stories, but rather layer different observations over each other. If someone is next to us, they wonder what we keep rambling about all the time. Sometimes something comes out of these Dadaist conversations and we sense that it is exactly that. That‘s exactly how we came up with the idea for the exhibition at the House of Photography. We had another space to choose from, but with this one we knew immediately how we wanted to work with it.
JF Mutual conversation really seeps into our drawings, actually it’s language and speech in general. David has been drawing a head and a sentence fragment to go with it every day in an A3 sketchbook for about thirteen years. And sometimes he‘ll use that in a collaborative drawing. Sometimes it helps me when drawing as an alienating moment. I actually draw continuously and, like David, I scribble my themes in my sketchbook every day without knowing exactly why they are coming and what they mean.

Q For example?
JF For example, at one time I repeatedly drew things and people supporting each other. It didn‘t make sense to me. Images of people supporting and holding something, when at first glance it was clear that the structure was going to collapse. It was only gradually that I realised that what was behind the image was a theme of fear, or rather insecurity. The art world is fragile in its own way. If you say you‘re an artist in a pub, anyone will knock the world down for you and tells you that it‘s complete bullshit. Actually, I also kind of know that it‘s a fragile subject and contains secrets. That‘s the role of the artist. To society you‘re a bit of a buffoon and you‘re expected to be, but the buffoon who means it. And it‘s terribly difficult to get out of that box. So even in the drawings on display in our exhibition at the GHMP, there are a lot of connecting rods and wobbly props.
DB I think what often irritates people about art is that they don‘t understand it. They want to decode it in a way that works for them in other areas of their lives. They feel like maybe their kids could draw it too, and they don‘t know what to admire about it when it doesn‘t have that academic virtuosity. So it makes them nervous when they feel that they‘re missing something. I‘m oversimplifying, but it‘s a signal to a lot of people that maybe what we do is good when they know that we exhibit somewhere, that we‘ve won some awards and that someone is buying our works. But they approach it like a puzzle to be decoded and they can‘t. It‘s just that these things speak on a different frequency, but I don‘t want to sound like a wiseacre. Art, as much as I think the term is actually a bit problematic itself, is just a different kind of language and needs a different kind of thinking and looking at. You simply look differently when you‘re driving a car, when you have to make a decision about something and when you‘re looking at a painting. It‘s a different way of describing reality, and ideally it makes both the artist and the viewer more sensitive.
Q Only then it would be true that people who are involved in art excel in empathy and sensitivity. Is that your impression?
DB We often talk about this. I take it as a failure when one engages in art and it doesn‘t make them a more sensitive creature. For me, creation is a relevant response to our existence. I don‘t know why I‘m here, I don‘t know why I‘m trying to do something. And I think creation is an adequate way to grasp what is difficult to translate into words. If I could say it, I wouldn‘t have to draw it. It‘s also about the time you spend with it, either as an artist or as a viewer. It‘s like a band you‘ve been a fan of for a long time, you‘ve listened to it many times and know their music well and then you play a sample to someone and they don‘t get it, it‘s not easy to explain what you think is good about it because they‘re missing the sensitivity you‘ve picked up over the years. This irritates those who want to understand it right away. Art is not an air freshener that makes you feel better.
JF We have a lot of stimuli around us that, on the contrary, we do need to understand. The messages get simplified and accelerated in order to be understandable. I like the fact that art is complex. I figured out sometime in my freshman year that I didn‘t have to understand it or else get angry and leave the gallery. And it happened to me that I didn‘t understand a video whose meaning in some context didn‘t become apparent to me until ten years later.
DB Yet another source for this exhibition was old encyclopedias. We both grew up on books like Už vím proč (Already Know Why). Plus, we‘re both into books. We thought we were becoming more and more interested in illustrations for something that can‘t be explained. The original idea for the title of the exhibition was I NO LONGER WANT TO KNOW WHY, but that sounds unnecessarily negative unless people are familiar with the book. But part of the sources for this exhibition are just various charts and explanations from encyclopedias. Without context and numbers, they‘re just aestheticisation of information we don‘t have access to. Like coming to the middle of a narrative without catching the beginning. Maybe it has to do with our age, I still want to understand things, but the older I get, the more and more I realise how many things I don‘t understand. And I guess the way I try to understand things has changed too, maybe less rationally.
Q What, on the other hand, hasn‘t changed for you?
JF I think we already annoy a lot of people around us with our enthusiasm for art. My wife Klára tells me to go and talk about it in the studio. Art never ceases to fascinate me, I look forward to what tomorrow will bring. When we drive to Vienna, we look forward to what energy we will bring home from the exhibitions. David and I often tell each other what we dreamt. Sometimes I dream the same subject twice, like failing an exam at school. But the dream is never the same twice. I‘d like our exhibition to have the same effect. Kind of a dreamlike effect.
DB And I‘ll then tell you what I dreamt today.