When Time Exploded in the Czech Republic. Heroin Crystal and the Runaway Nineties at the GHMP Klára Fleyberková

It’s 1994. The still fresh Czech Republic is reeling under a flood of information and ideas coming from the West, the cities are alive with neon lights… At the end of the year, an exhibition opens at the Stone Bell House, which is in many ways revolutionary. BELL ’94, or the First Biennial of Young Artists, provides insight into the work and perceptions of the emerging generation of artists. Almost thirty years on, the same generation now returns to the scene with the Heroin Crystal exhibition.

view of the exhibition Heroin Crystal, Stone Bell House, 2022. Photo by Tomáš Souček
view of the exhibition Heroin Crystal, Stone Bell House, 2022. Photo by Tomáš Souček
view of the exhibition Heroin Crystal, Stone Bell House, 2022. Photo by Tomáš Souček
view of the exhibition Heroin Crystal, Stone Bell House, 2022. Photo by Tomáš Souček
view of the exhibition Heroin Crystal, Stone Bell House, 2022. Photo by Tomáš Souček
view of the exhibition Heroin Crystal, Stone Bell House, 2022. Photo by Tomáš Souček
view of the exhibition Heroin Crystal, Stone Bell House, 2022. Photo by Tomáš Souček
view of the exhibition Heroin Crystal, Stone Bell House, 2022. Photo by Tomáš Souček
view of the exhibition Heroin Crystal, Stone Bell House, 2022. Photo by Tomáš Souček
view of the exhibition Heroin Crystal, Stone Bell House, 2022. Photo by Tomáš Souček
view of the exhibition Heroin Crystal, Stone Bell House, 2022. Photo by Tomáš Souček
view of the exhibition Heroin Crystal, Stone Bell House, 2022. Photo by Tomáš Souček

In those nearly thirty years, most of them have achieved major successes at home and abroad, and have become respected fixtures on the art scene. The Heroin Crystal exhibition, however, fills the spaces of the Stone Bell House with what the artists represented at the exhibition were doing in immediate response to the 1990s. Alongside the now iconic works, it will also present lesser-known projects from the GHMP’s collections, sketching a picture of the artistic direction of the time. Everything was new and everything was possible.

The opening of the Czech Republic to democracy at the end of the Cold War did not only mark a turning point in social terms; it also marked a significant break in the development of art. Compared to previous generations, the emerging generation turned away from traditional means of expression towards working with objects, installations, video, photography and a fusion of all of these. The curators of the GHMP perceived this and opened the door wide to new approaches.

One of the curators at the time was Olga Malá, who is now returning to the venue with “her” artists. Under her supervision, the historic spaces of the Stone Bell House will once again encounter the works of Veronika Bromová, Jiří Černický, Federico Díaz, Milena Dopitová, Pavel Humhal, Lukáš Jasanský and Martin Polák, the Kamera Skura group, Krištof Kintera, Markéta Othová, Michal Pěchouček, Jiří Příhoda, Petr Svárovský, Štěpánka Šimlová, Michaela Thelenová and Kateřina Vincourová.

Although many of this long line of artists differ from each other or even define themselves in opposition to one another, they have almost the most important thing in common – the period in which they entered the world of art. Moreover, when it is a period as initiatory as the 1990s, it is perhaps impossible for their work not to be defined by it. So, we went into studios, classrooms and homes to ask some of the exhibitors what was really going on for them in those post-revolutionary years, how it affected them and where our world, and they along with it, have moved since then.

Jiří Černický
As if a Flower Begins to Bloom

KF    Heroin Crystal is your work from 1995. What does this still life of junkie paraphernalia rendered in cut glass say about the time of its creation?

JČ    I think the aesthetics of this work is, in many ways, indicative of the 1990s which is probably why the whole exhibition is called that. It would take a whole day’s symposium to comprehensibly describe this period, but I will try to formulate it at least provisionally. After the revolution there was an explosion of provocative and expressive things, everything that had been suppressed before suddenly exploded. As if a flower begins to bloom. But in the flood of all kinds of aesthetics and excitement about the possibilities, a kind of darkness was immediately visible, a dark side that relativized the enthusiasm. It was this darkness associated with commerce that I tried to name at the time. Heroin Crystal is about the longing for a fairytale world, for hope, for a parallel world that is, nevertheless, artificial. Psychedelia meets the tradition of Czech glassmaking. These contradictions and black and white vision are, I would say, significant for the 1990s.

KF    How big a role did the unstoppable flow of all kinds of information play in your work?

JČ    Of course, it was absolutely crucial. Thanks to the Internet, one suddenly had a chance to work with a much greater variety of expressive means, aesthetics, and philosophies. Suddenly, we could really compare ourselves with the West. Many people found that they had formed completely wrong ideas about the West, because until then it was common to rely on low-quality texts and photographs. That this is sometimes a benefit is shown by the example of a photograph of Jackson Pollock working, as published in the Life magazine seen in Japan in the 1960s. But there was no relevant information, so the imperfect message for them was that someone was spraying paint. So they started experimenting and going wild with dripping, far more than Pollock himself. The Gutai group was born, and they were actually ahead of their time and ahead of America because they moved the limits a little bit further. In general, though, it’s definitely better to have information available than any censorship, I think that’s clear.

KF    At the time of the censorship you started to study at the Faculty of Education in Ústí. What led you there first?

JČ    I couldn’t study in Prague under socialism because my father signed the Two Thousand Words manifesto. I didn’t even believe that I would get to any school at all, so I was glad that I was accepted to study art education in Ústí. Eventually, the Faculty of Education turned out to be a complete revelation. A lot of teachers who couldn’t exhibit in Prague took refuge there: Jaroslav Prášil, Jiří Bartůněk… When I moved to Prague after the takeover three years later, I found it, on the contrary, conservative and terribly academic. We had some arguments about it with people like Milan Knížák. But again, it was beautifully raw, wild and turbulent.

KF    Now you are the head of the painting studio at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague. How do today’s emerging artists differ from your generation?

JČ    Although we don’t have distance yet and it’s definitely individual, it seems to me that they are more sensitive in some ways. I think we had a different kind of sensitivity. We were more risk takers and fighters, we hurled ourselves into a lot of things and didn’t give a damn what was going to happen. At the same time, we had to make an effort to find information; for today’s students, information is showering them from all sides. But like everything, even this is ultimately double-edged. It’s like having breakfast in a hotel – you come to the buffet and find such mountains of food there that you’re confused. You don’t know what to eat and, eventually, you lose your appetite. So you take a biscuit, a tea, and you walk away. Whether that’s good or bad, I don’t know yet. But as far as talent is concerned, every generation is the same. And every generation is also necessarily linked with the time in which they create.

KF    Do you feel connected to your colleagues from the exhibition?

JČ    I had a lot in common with some of them, no doubt. With Katka Vincourová, it was a distinct aesthetics of capitalism caught up in commerce, which we, in a way, perceived as unpleasant. Krištof Kintera, on the other hand, made those shiny appliances… We had a feeling that there was a kind of stupidity coming out of it all that needed to be commented on. But precisely because it wasn’t black and white, there were long debates, philosophies, and all kinds of teasing associated with the creation of art. Everybody was in opposition to someone. But the wildness, the speed and the intensity brought us together.

view of the exhibition Heroin Crystal, Stone Bell House, 2022. Photo by Tomáš Souček
view of the exhibition Heroin Crystal, Stone Bell House, 2022. Photo by Tomáš Souček

Michal Pěchouček
Back then I had it pre-cooked, today I have it instant

KF     You spent the 1990s almost exclusively at school. What was it like to become a student so early after the revolution?

MP    For me, it meant clearly that the whole art world was coming to me filtered through the Academy. I entered it in a year when students still accepted things seriously and without any problems, for example the custom that one shouldn’t exhibit while studying. And also that real art is made by people who are probably impossible to meet in person. I perceived even many of those people, who will now be exhibiting at the GHMP, as divine. These were the names that were being talked about, and when I met them at a party, I fainted on the spot. I was completely unaware that they were only a few years older because they were several levels more successful. So I quickly started hitting the parties to unlearn the fainting.

KF   Such respect for your colleagues! What about the teachers?

MP    Well, we certainly mustn’t forget the great symbol of the 1990s, and that was Milan Knížák. It wasn’t a complete reform but rather a logical revolutionary change. At that time, Havel even asked the students if they really wanted Knížák as the chancellor. It was probably a rhetorical question, but it was asked. However, a whole new group of artists then entered the Academy with a clean slate, so to speak, and creative freedom was absolutely unquestionable.

KF    What did you do with it? What was your theme then?

MP    I think my situation was a bit precooked thanks to my father, who was an aspiring amateur photographer and filmmaker. So growing up in a creative atmosphere with an inspirational figure, I couldn’t avoid it. Because of this, I had a lot of material that I was surrounded by and needed to process it somehow. I guess I also told myself that I was following up on someone else’s work. I was able of a creative superstructure that my father wasn’t capable of. I don’t blame him, on the contrary. I just knew that I could do it, that I could take it somewhere higher, with his permission. That was my beginning. That’s how a lot of artists start, it helps them find a starting point, to take a private conflict, a family mess, as a basis… With a good will to change something or to understand why it’s like that, then they throw themselves into it.

KF     You started with a mess but where did you get from there?

MP    Things were pre-cooked in the ’90s, now it’s instant in fact. Because I’m now working in a duo with Rudi Koval, I can let myself be carried along if I want to. For now, I simply do not pedal, the other guy does. And I think we’re getting to more topics thanks to that. At the moment, we have a tribute to Ukraine underway, or rather a tribute to what is going on at the border and in the camps. I think that’s something that everybody has to deal with in some way. For us, it is natural to be creative.

KF     The present offers a lot of edgy topics. So is it important to look back thirty years at all?

MP    Reflection on the nineties is therapeutic and absolutely inevitable. I think this applies especially to the very youngest generation, that is, people born after 2000. That time is very important for them. Just think about what was happening in the area of films, for example. Only now we can see how different it is – original, deranged, maybe unacceptable or beautiful… In any case, it will never be made like that again. Ten years ago, we still hadn’t realised that; we have to come to that. It’s a bit of a march towards sentimentality.

KF    Are you expecting a rush of sentimentality at the Heroin Crystal exhibition?

MP    I have this personal problem – it doesn’t make me feel good to look at my works years later. It’s kind of hurtful to me. I see a lot of mistakes every time, but that’s not an exaggerated self-criticism, everybody is sure to see them! And there’s nothing you can do about it. Although sometime in the noughties I tried to fix it in some way, editing the older videos in various ways, trying to get them into a more acceptable, more ambitious form. I was a little relieved at the time, but now in hindsight, I can see that it was a completely futile struggle. I myself can’t tell the difference between the original and the new editing anymore. So it’s probably not going to be about sentimentality.

Veronika Bromová
The silence of passing trams

KF    You started studying at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design (UMPRUM) in the late 1980s. Did you feel then that you needed to say something with your work that you couldn’t say otherwise?

VB    There were things that I created just for myself, at home, but I don’t think I felt it was too much of a tragedy or anything. I just filtered it a little bit and didn’t bring all my work to school. I think perhaps we all did that, anyway. At that time the teaching was quite rigidly focused on scientific illustration, we were taught to draw in a hyper-realistic way. Our professor at the time was an old fart commie in a sweaty jacket who kept giving us perfectly uninteresting monologues. We called it “the silence of the passing trams” because all we could perceive was the creaking of the trams outside the windows at Palach Square.

KF    And then the revolution came into the silence of the trams…

VB    This was somewhere between the second and third year of my studies, so I was still pretty much a young girl. I remember that before and during the Velvet Revolution, our older schoolmates were a huge inspiration to us. We saw all the prominent figures around the Ballet Unit Křeč every day, the Caban brothers, Aleš Najbrt… they had much more experience and courage.

KF    But you must have quickly become experienced with the advent of capitalism, too. What changed the most for you?

VB    I think that our imagination was set in motion – wild and in all directions. For me personally it was mainly the environment – the communist grey, and actually quite romantic, Prague suddenly came alive with an incredible amount of advertisements and new colourful facades. Colourful posters began to appear in the streets, billboards flanked the streets and motorways, everything lit up, a flood of kitsch… Wild capitalism with all that advertising aesthetics completely took over the city and its surroundings.

KF    Advertising agencies were a popular outlet for young artists…

VB    Yes, the ad agencies began to skyrocket and their pressure on creative people grew. My friend started working for one of them and invited me to join, but soon enough we both realised that we weren’t really ideal for it, that we were kind of from a different world. I was only interested in the advertising world insofar as it accommodated my topics. One of them has always been physicality, and the subject of the abuse of the female body in advertising began to appeal to me. But not in a straightforward way, I wanted to talk about humanity, which is the very foundation of whatever is happening around us.

KF    So, simply said, you’re looking for themes somewhere within, rather than in external circumstances?

VB    For sure. I don’t think I can be an engaged artist in a very straightforward way. Right now, I’ve sketched two drawings on Instagram of me using crutches to shoot down Putin but I see that more as a by-product, hyperbole and a need to relax. In my regular work, I definitely turn more to philosophical, deeper themes, the inner ones. I guess it’s also because I’ve always been in a creative environment. My parents were artists, and they inflated a bubble around me in which there was always freedom. Perhaps that’s why I perceived everything more moderately than others.

KF    So do you hold on to your inner freedom even today, when times have moved on a little bit again?

VB    I think so. Where my work is going is again rather a question of my life than of social circumstances. I’m leaning more and more towards nature themes and mythology, which is a parallel history of humanity. I try to create with natural materials, although perhaps my lightboxes and advertising magic are not disappearing either. But I’ve lived in the country for almost fifteen years now and I love working with what’s around me. I’m also trying to think about art a bit more in the context of the current environmental situation…

KF    …which is a big social issue.

VB    That’s right. I see an incredible sensitivity to nature and the planet in today’s young generation of artists. I’d say they’re more sensitive than we were. We’re living in a very creative time right now, there’s a huge influx of information and inspiration everywhere, everyone is creating something. They are in a tougher situation than we were in that there are more of them. But those are just my impressions from today. People tend to create myths about every era in hindsight anyway. The 1990s have this layer of mythicization too.

KF    So what can be said about them today?

VB    For example, that it was a strong and quite interesting era. A huge boom of everything, even of mistakes and bad things. But it was also a breath of freedom, pure euphoria. Suddenly, we could give everything complete freedom and formulate and exhibit what we really wanted. The curators Karel Srp and Olga Malá had huge merits in that, they were some of the key figures for our generation, they had a vision, they noticed us and gave us space. Hopefully, all this will be felt a little bit in the exhibition. I couldn’t ask for anything more from it.

Milena Dopitová
On the Border Between Public and Intimate

KF     In 1989, you co-founded the Monday Art Group. In what atmosphere was it at the time?

MD    In communist Czechoslovakia, there were only three schools focused on non-commissioned art – two in Prague, one in Bratislava. Thus, the interest of applicants exceeded the supply multiple times, and priority was given to those with the “correct” political background. Many of us applied repeatedly, and thus, in my year of studies, there were people who did not let themselves get discouraged because they wanted nothing more but to be accepted. During the first year, we became familiar with the school environment and got involved in all the activities that were already gathering pace in the pre-revolutionary era. It was in that period that we founded the Monday Group. We spent a lot of time together looking for ways how and reasons why to make art. In retrospect, I realize with some nostalgia that it was a happy time of beginnings as a student living under totalitarian conditions. Because these conditions had a share in the formation of the group and, consequently, in everything that started this encounter.

KF    But then came the revolution.

MD   All these events caught us on the move and we took them for granted to some extent. Unlike our parents, who experienced the occupation in 1968, we felt that things could not have turned out any other way. Today, I see it as a great good fortune that I was able to be there and experience it. Anyone who lived and worked during that time finds it increasingly difficult, as time passes, to find words to describe it without looking like some kind of a dreamer. It was an amazing euphoria; in addition to other reasons also due to the fact that we could change history also on behalf of our parents.

KF     What did the first free years, the beginning of the 1990s, mean to you?

MD   I guess it was mainly the open space for work, the possibility to travel and to feel freedom not only in myself but also in my surroundings. The revolution started the interest in Czech art, important figures were coming here and involved us in international projects. It was a fast time of many exhibitions, one work following another and we did not realize that it did not have to be like that forever. Suddenly, I could represent our country at biennales in Sydney, São Paulo, Aperto, Gwangju, exhibit in New York, London and Berlin. Often while I was still a student. So for me the 1990s were mainly work, work, work, but so joyful!

KF    You talk about abroad, but what were the exhibition opportunities like here in the Czech Republic?

MD   Alongside state institutions, the private galleries such as MXM began to emerge. MXM quickly became, among other things, a centre of current discussions that shaped contemporary art, a meeting place for artists, theoreticians, philosophers… Above all, its curators Jana and Jiří Ševčík were really responsible for the implementation of many exhibition projects and theoretical publications in both the Czech and the international context. As far as public institutions are concerned, it was primarily the GHMP, led by curators Olga Malá and Karel Srp, who opened the doors of larger galleries to contemporary art in the 1990s.

KF    Thanks to this, spaces like the Stone Bell House opened up to you…

MD    The work of the 1990s was very much related to space: that’s just because many of us turned to installations, to objects, it was a new challenge. In 1997, I responded to a space in Baden Baden with the Not for Sale object – a lying figure eight symbolizing infinity. The abstract notion of volume, of quantity, was given shape, size and colour, i.e., a real form. At the same time, it was a large, three-metre long braided figure eight. At that time, we didn’t think at all about the practical questions of how to disassemble it or store it after the exhibition, we simply made objects for monumental spaces. Because we could! Because anything was possible – to combine media, to combine anything with anything else and to break any boundaries. As long as there was enough money for the project, nothing prevented the realization of any ideas.

KF    And the themes?

MD    For me, they have always been inextricably linked to life and atmosphere. The beginnings of the search followed the agenda of the Monday Group, whose credo was “Don’t neglect the little things and compulsory exercises”. Our relationship to the mundane, the ordinary and the everyday, was related to this. The social overlap was then translated by each of the members in their own way. One of our first exhibitions was called New Intimacy, and it was the movement on the border between the public and the intimate that was crucial for me for a long time. A lot was said about it in texts and articles about my work at the time, so I see it now as a bit of a marker of the 1990s. Today, I’m responding to a completely different period of time, with a completely different atmosphere. However, many of my works continue to have this level of meaning.

Milena Dopitová, Sixtysomething, 2003, photographs, 165×134 cm
Milena Dopitová, Sixtysomething, 2003, photographs, 165×134 cm

Krištof Kintera
I like to think through the process

KF     You were sixteen years old in 1989. What role did the creation of art play in your life then?

KK     I probably can’t speak of art creation that I would consider important in retrospect but I was obsessed with it even before I went to the Academy, that’s true. You can’t make art without obsession. I felt sort of infected by it and I was very eager to get into the Academy after the secondary school. Plus, it was a time when you either went to a university or to do the obligatory military service, so it seemed kind of dead important. But I might have ended up doing an alternative civilian service somewhere, so what the hell. It was more about the opportunity to find myself in school and formulate my own path, that’s what I longed for.

KF     That path led through the early ’90s. How much did that era influence your work?

KK     I naturally reacted to what was around me, that’s automatic. The post-revolutionary change was very clear, capitalism came and the new visuality associated with it. It was suddenly necessary to exist in a commercialized society. In response, I made all sorts of nonsensical appliances and displayed them in shops around Prague. Then, while still at school, Plumbař was created – a fictional character in a lead suit and a dwelling that was supposed to shield the signal overload. Overload! Back then, when the Internet was absolutely in its infancy and most of us didn’t have it at home. In short, in any era, one relates to just what surrounds one, even if it takes a bit different turn again later.

KF     Today it turns to very specific global crises. How do you relate to them?

KK     It’s not that I’m directly forbidding it to myself, it’s more like I kind of naturally don’t want to react to the current social climate and issues like the Coronavirus or the war in Ukraine. Then it’s too political and social art. I actually quite enjoy not knowing exactly what I’m doing. It may sound a bit strange, but the artist doesn’t always have to have the whole structure of their work thought out in advance. I’m trying more and more to think through the material. I’m simply a studio artist, I like to think through the process. A lot of artists have a different approach, they are conceptual, so they think it all through perfectly and then make it happen somewhere or have it made.

KF     You also have some teaching experience. Do you feel like today’s young generation is going more in the other direction?

KK     I really don’t like to generalise and it’s been almost ten years since I taught at UMPRUM. However, I am in contact with young artists because I am interested in how they perceive it. If I were to generalise after all, I feel that nowadays there is rather talk about what not to do and how not to do it, that ethics and politics are getting too much involved in the artistic work. And of course ecology, which is probably natural, although I see a bit of a dead end there. If we’re honest with ourselves, art won’t save the planet. If we want to tackle environmental issues, I don’t think it should be through the platform of art.

KF     Yet your work can sometimes be set in an environmental context…

KK     It often happens to me that people kind of suggest that, yes. I guess I could very easily hide under such a tendentious label and declare it as the core of my work. When you make a sculpture out of old washing machines or a post-naturalia installation out of stuff from a recycling centre, it seems obvious. But I’m very aware that it’s not that easy. Such a work is inherently non-environmentally friendly because we use glues, chemicals, epoxies, polyesters… And, in addition, it’s so huge that it has to be trucked to the exhibition. So I can’t say I’m saving the planet by making art out of garbage. But it’s true that sometime in the 90s I was among the first to protest in front of a newly opened McDonald’s, so maybe it has more to do with age and an increasing feeling of futility.

KF     So now you’re about to be confronted with your younger self at the Stone Bell. What do you think it says about your generation of artists?

KK     I don’t know. In retrospect, I see us as a group of many individualities. Although there are some formal similarities. For example, specifically with Jirka Černický, although we don’t see each other in any way, we don’t go out for a beer together. I guess we simply react similarly to things around us, which is positive, it doesn’t make me nervous in any way. And in the end, we’ll each do it our own way anyway. But I think the diversity of all of us will really prevail.


Autorka je kulturní publicistkou a dramaturgyní
stanice Českého rozhlasu Vltava.

view of the exhibition Heroin Crystal, Stone Bell House, 2022. Photo by Tomáš Souček
view of the exhibition Heroin Crystal, Stone Bell House, 2022. Photo by Tomáš Souček