Oh Brother A Conversation with Lumir Hladik

by Matthew Kyba

When and why did you first start practicing art?

Around 1973, a “Eureka!” moment, when I realized that I can express notions through art. Until then, I rendered.

"Oh Dear (Detail 1)
“Oh Dear (Detail 1)

Your early works involved underground performances that were disallowed by the government. How did this element of “taboo” play into the artworks and influence into your later works?

This particular “taboo” circumstance had a twofold impact. First and foremost, it eliminated the factor of catering towards an “art audience”. There was no “public” art scene for contemporary art, (galleries, publicity, critics, reviews). The only art form that the communist government allowed to be shown in government run galleries and museums, (there were no other), was socialist realism. We are talking about the 70’s, the peak of conceptual art, THE Decade of art discovery and experimentation. The Czech young artists, who embraced this art revolution, had to go underground. It is an irony, that this oppression had a benefit. We created pure art devoid of commercial ambition and with zero influences from audiences or media. There was no commercial value of our work. That never played a role in our art.

The other impact… because of the possibility of being detected by the government spy agency, the locations where we created or performed our art were everywhere but a gallery space; either in the fields and forests, or at 2 am in a cellar (deep underground). We also performed in the streets of Prague, but our art was so subtle that no official could detect it.

Within your art practice, are there any subject matters that you consider taboo?

That is a complex question. I believe that true hi-octane art happens as a dictation from above or beyond. The artist acts more or less as conduit and executor of what he/she is “destined to do”. At the same time the outcome is always a distilled and subjectively skewed artist’s sliver of a version of EXISTENCE. The scholars claim, “the most subjective art is also the most objective one”. Generally, there are three main topics that are considered taboo: sex, human body, and religion. Artists, who are destined to depict the human body, have occasionally extended their practice into the realm of pornography (Jeff Koons, Joe Currin) or even verging on a soft version of child pornography (Mark Ryden, Ray Ceasar). Dismembered bodies are also a rare sight, unless you watch an action movie. There is nothing completely taboo, there are just levels of explicitness. My work occasionally touches on the subject of religious rituals or practices in human history.

"Oh Brother (Detail 3)"
“Oh Brother (Detail 3)”

Your work elicits liminal zones where the audience can feel like they are standing within a tomb, almost frozen in time. Your last show “Oh Brother” actually literalized this effect, mimicking a catacomb. How do you view the gallery space in context of what you produce and how you try and alter the setting?

As a curator or co-curator of my exhibits I am trying to further deepen or expand the experience in encountering the art I created. My current exhibit “Oh Brother” at the GASK Museum in the Czech Republic is one of those rare lucky coincidences. The Museum’s chief curator, Richard Drury selected the optimal venue for my concept, (a 1740 Jesuit College spa room, featuring a glassed-over empty pool). The outcome wildly surpassed our expectations.  Some visitors admitted that the installation “touched the deepest strings in their souls”.

When you discuss your work, the idea of “celebrity-ism”. Could you clarify how your thoughts on our fascination with the “celebrity”, and what it says about society?

The following answer contains the term GOD. I use the term as an approximation for a multitude of notions: origin of all, universal driving force, divine intervention, divine algorhythm, and existence- initiating code.

My work always was and is about TIME. My “Oh Brother” exhibit is about merciless time, time the merciful and TIME the equalizer. The issue of celebrity revolves around the merciless time, MORTALITY. Here, we now enter some of our deeply entrenched religious beliefs, which, till today, are severely impacting our lives. IMMORTALITY is GOD. IMMORTALITY / GOD is PERFECTION. Some people are, in some way or another, better than the average folks, thus closer to perfection and consequently closer to GOD. In the best days of Christianity, it was the Saints, who were celebrated, admired, emulated and venerated. By relating to these OUTSTANDING individuals, we are acquiring a chunk of immortality; we are buying us TIME, DORMANT, ENCAPSULATED TIME. It is just pure irony, that today, anyone can become a celebrity, merit or not. It does not matter if they are evil or good, skilled or smart, ethical or not. ANYONE, whose publicity goes into high numbers, becomes a CELEBRITY. Why is a very good carpenter or MATHEMATICIAN a much lesser celebrity than an actor? I asked many people this question. 100% of them responded.” It is pretty obvious, that’s the way it is today, don’t you understand”. It is obvious, and…I don’t understand! I don’t want to understand.

GOOGLE SEARCH RESULTS in MILLIONS:

LIFE 6 Billion

SEX 1.6 B

GOD 1.5 B

DEATH 1.5 B

Jesus 600 Million

Barack Obama 190 M

Einstein 107 M

Buddha 103 M

Lady Gaga 94 M

Jennifer Anniston 77 M

Michelangelo 36 M

Adolf Hitler 32 M

Vincent van Gogh 18M

Charles Manson 11 M

Roger Penrose, Physicist 0.65 M

When decorating your works, you use vivid pinks with shining silvers. How do you view ornamentation in your works?

It relates closely to the preceding question. We are obsessed with collecting, obtaining, buying things that are EXPENSIVE. Here we go again, we are acquiring encapsulated TIME. Usually, the more expensive an object is, the more time it took to make it. Someone had given up his/hers allocated life hours to produce the object. We are sucking each other’s blood (time currency) in a futile hope that we are cheating death. Needless to say that it is all about raising one’s status for the opportunity of procreation – to attract better – hi-octane DNA sexual partners. Excessive plumage (accumulated TIME CURRENCY = WEALTH, demonstrates excessive energy, or better yet HEALTH.

The value of things have changed dramatically over the past 500 years (spice), some have not (velvet, gold). It is fascinating to see remnants of Catacomb Saints, people who allegedly promoted restrain, poverty and humility, being decorated with gems stones and covered in gold and silver. We feel good when we “sacrifice” highest possible value -TIME.  As we all know …the ultimate sacrifice… is to give up one’s life, all the allocated TIME, given to an individual.

Some ideas you have, particularly about animals, seem taboo compared to popular thought. You not only insist that animals should be respected as humans, but even considered above them. Could you clarify, and explain how this comes through in your practice, specifically within your Symbiotic Baroque?

I claim that animals are closer to GOD than humans. They are the true Saints or Zen masters. British law claims that animals are not capable of intent; therefore they are inferior to us, humans. I absolutely disagree. I believe that animals’ intent is the purest possible, devoid of myriads of questionable purposes and underlying objectives and strategic agendas that are incessantly infesting human behavior.

I collaborate with animals, when creating my reliquaries. Let’s revisit the phenomenon of alleged Catacomb Saints, whose remnants were preserved and decorated and venerated. Firstly, with my “saints animals”, I don’t have to wait until they die, for they are saints the minute they are born, secondly, I preserve their living gestures, actions, their living DIVINE INTENT.

Lumir Hladik, "Coyote"
“Coyote”

What external artworks and cultural products have played a role in your practice? (Literature, films, other artists, etc.)

The list is long, some highlights:

Literature: H.CH. Andersen, F Kafka, M Twain, K Capek, P Coelho

Philosophy:  Zen, Ken Wilber

Art: Medieval art, Dutch painting 14-17 century, (Eyck, Bosch, Vermeer), Joan Miro, Joseph Beuys, Eva Hesse, Jannis Kounellis, Dennis Oppenheim, Neo Rauch…

How does spiritualism and ritualism play into your work?

I believe that our arbitrarily forced division of material and non-material world is nonsense. Quantum physics offer some insight; however also predict the impossibility of an absolute all encompassing one. We will never find the answers for the big WHYS. It will be a secret forever and I like it like that. Mysteries are life’s ultimate spice.

Everything is a ritual.

Repurposed wooden materials and Victorian style décor are constantly within your Tribal Gothic work. What significance does juxtaposing these elements create?

I am attracted to THINGS, which contain divinity and are natural in origin; animal parts -bones, fur, plant parts branches, bark, etc. These are the non-agenda ones. Human THINGS have to have a history, story or agenda. I use mostly decorative elements as they represent the “ excessive plumage” of human existence. All these objects are brimming with context. Things talk.

Could you explain the process of the Symbiotic Baroque work as well as the final installation? How does the final product mirror its creation?

My series of symbiotic reliquaries began to take shape in 2006. These objects are co-created with the assistance of Canadian wildlife. After exposing my semi-finished objects to random attacks of mainly black bears, but also fishers, martens, raccoons, birds and insects in the outdoors, I gather these mangled remnants and engage in part preservation, part restoration work in my studio. The partially destroyed objects are then enhanced and complemented by additional natural elements, entropic drawings, vintage ready-mades and decorative elements. When this elaborate embalming ritual is accomplished, the final “relic” is then usually entombed in a protective museum display. My urge to preserve and venerate divine destruction generated by innocent “living saints”, anonymous wild animals is my knee-jerk reaction to a phenomenon I refer to as the “derailed civilization”. I claim that, “our disrespect for death is killing life!” As mentioned previously, my symbiotic intervention work is closely associated with the lost art of the “Catacomb Saints”: ancient Roman skeletons. During the 16-19th century they were frequently exhumed from the catacombs of Rome, given fictitious names and sent abroad as relics of saints.

"Oh Brother (Detail 2)"
“Oh Brother (Detail 2)”

As I mentioned before, I am obsessed with the theme of TIME or better yet SPACETIME in all its aspects; history, entropy, mortality, immortality, eternity. I obsess with discoveries that reveal how IRRATIONAL we humans are when dealing with this fundamental issue or notion in human history. How foolish we are, ignorant and silly and funny when trying to use our rational brains when defending our irrationality.

My ‘Oh brother” exhibit is quite complex. The centerpiece, a reliquary, is bringing in 6000 years of human history and beliefs. It was partially created by animals…the main veneration being aimed at them; anonymous living saints. The walls, covered with wallpaper that features 21,914 identical newborn baby photographs of my dead brother, surround the entire room. My brother lived exactly 60 years. Died on his birthday. Each photograph represents one day of his life. The days are anonymous. Even when alive, my brother did not remember his days. And, over time, the people who knew him will forget as well. Entropy is ubiquitous; it slowly destroys things, lives and memories. There it is… one life of someone, whom not many people know anything about…a human anti-celebrity. Here it is, juxtaposed to a celebration of an anonymous animal’s intervention… the saint celebrity that never was. All this in a room, which, in a distant past served as a spa for anonymous Jesuit monks, long dead and forgotten, all this drowned in the reverberating sound of a singing Nightingale, a main character from a famous H.Ch. Andersen’s fairy tale, The Nightingale. In this particular story, the bird’s song has saved the emperor’s life, DEATH has left empty handed. In my story, the Nightingale’s song came too late. Not everything is on time, but everything is about TIME.

Do you feel like there are any taboo themes within contemporary art? It seems more and more there is less content to be transgressive after the postmodern turn. Is there any taboo left to be fleshed out?

There are taboos; naked child body, human body in extreme distress – dismemberment, sex and religion. The most interesting aspect of extremely explicit art is that it is not effective. It shocks… but it does not last… it has a very short half time.

Where do you place your art in the context of the contemporary scene?

The most difficult question of them all.  First glance… conceptual, intervention, installation. It falls in with what the art world offers for the last 50 years or so. However, I believe there are some aspects of my work that are very unique. I am the only one who engages in serious “working” relationship with animals in their own environment. Also, I combine traditional art forms (drawings) with ready -mades.

This interview was conducted by curator Matthew Kyba.

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