Sunday, August 3, 2008

The Celebrated Voyeur

The language of frustration

IV: in which the world finally notices a Czech original




“I am a prophet of decay and a pioneer of chaos, because only from chaos does something new emerge.” - Miroslav Tichý

The Pompidou Centre in Paris is currently showing a retrospective of the work of Miroslav Tichý, an 82-year-old Czech photographer whose work was completely unknown until 2004. His photographic equipment is primitive, he shuns the trappings of modern life and he has the appearance of an ancient vagrant. He is a fascinating, defiant figure, cohabiting with rats in the dusty old house once used as a tailor's shop by his father, living on practically nothing among the scattered relics of a difficult life. He is a true outsider, and his work is a testament to his "otherness"; it consists almost entirely of black-and-white photographs of anonymous women in various states of undress, taken from afar with homemade telephoto lenses, through gaps in fences and hedges - for "hygiene reasons", he was not allowed into the local pool, so he spoke to people through the fence and took many photographs from the same viewpoint. The pictures are generally under- or over-exposed, out of focus, unconventionally framed and bleached out. The beauty and unease which coexist in many of his unsolicited portraits are functions both of the subjects and of the decayed, spectral nature of the images.



He studied art in Prague, after which he became an opponent of communism and, by extension, an outsider. He eventually suffered a nervous breakdown in the late 1950s, leading to spells in psychiatric institutions and prisons, in which systematic abuse of those who did not share the state's ideals was practised under the oppressive regime of the day. Thereafter, he chose to work on his own, turning to photography when his studio was taken from him. He customised cheap cameras with cardboard, wire, elastic and the like, and taking up to a hundred photographs a day. Like the creatures inhabiting the nightmarish world of Jan Svankmajer (who I will discuss in greater detail in a later post), in which found objects such as bones and thread spools are reimagined as limbs and torsos, or David Cronenberg's organic interfaces, Tichý's camera is itself an unnerving piece of equipment, an extension both of his personality and of his aesthetic.



It is impossible to view Tichý's work without considering the moral or social implications of his endeavours: is it not true that people who go about with the express intention of secretly photographing strangers in a somewhat erotic context are generally hounded by society? What is remarkable about Tichý is that his photographs, the product of a lifetime of antisocial, compulsive, furtive, solitary behaviour, are now regarded as a great body of work, rather than simply a catalogue of obsession and frustration, the hoardings of an unhinged loner. If the artistic merit wasn't there, would he be seen as just another "strange local man", the unkempt ghost in the house the neighbourhood children avoid? Undoubtedly - it is difficult to imagine that the discovery of such a disturbing collection in, say, the United States wouldn't lead to some form of investigation into the owner's character, background checks, psychological profiling and the usual public knee-jerking. However, in this case, it could be said that the mere act of capturing the female form in an artistic medium was a rebellious and politically confrontational act; the communist government which took over in 1948 demanded that art students produce images of workers' solidarity - something which Tichý refused to do, resulting in his marginalisation and incarceration.



In both his methods and his subject matter, he reacted against progress and a stifling political climate; this would indicate there is far more to him than the decrepitude and filth which a casual observer might see on the surface. Neither can we discount his other crucial idiosyncracy: once his photos were developed, Tichý would mishandle, scratch, vandalise or simply discard them. There was no shrine in his home, no wall of nameless faces; instead, he left his pictures to decay in the mess of his dusty house. As he says, "The erotic is just a dream anyway. The world is only an illusion, our illusion.” As with any complex character, it is almost impossible to ascertain his true motivations, but accusations of voyeurism for the sake of titillation seem facile in his case.



There is no doubt that Tichý's work would never have been seen had it not been for the interest and dedication of his young neighbour Roman Buxbaum, who took it upon himself to conserve the man's neglected, cast-off images. Tichý himself doesn't seem to have cared about the images once they had been developed. It may be that for him, the process of capturing moments of beauty was the whole point, the thought that he had managed to briefly frame something tiny, mysterious and personally resonant. There is no question, however, that he has always been interested in the trace of what was once there. His photographs are filled with apparitions, equivalent in temporal terms to an image's residue on the inside of an eyelid, but universal, haunting and monumental just the same. His ephemera speaks profoundly about him and us. As the curator Harald Szeemann remarked on seeing Tichý's work,

“Intensity will always find its medium.”



The music for this post is provided by Atlas Sound, the solo project of Deerhunter's Bradford Cox. In case you're not familiar with his solo work, Bradford makes ethereal, reverb-saturated music at a prodigous rate, reflecting his experiences as a sick child, during which he began to make art and music with the outlook of someone very much on the outside of things. It's beautiful, mysterious music, hinting at decay and loss. I'm a big fan and hopefully these songs will lead you to seek out more of his stuff.

MP3: Recent Bedroom (from the album "Let The Blind Lead Those Who Can See But Cannot Feel" - buy the album
MP3: You Belong To Me (from the "Altitude Sickness" EP)
MP3: Cold and Golden
MP3: April 13

Hundreds of free releases by Atlas Sound can be found on his blog: Deerhunter/Atlas Sound/Lotus Plaza


Comments?

3 comments:

Gardenhead said...

Wonderful writing. I will have to check out more of his work. So there's a talented art critic inside ya too? I'm excited to read your Svanjamekar post. His film Faust fascinates and scares the shit out of me in equal measures. I find marionettes terrifying, yet am compelled by them for this very reason. The surreal way the puppets move from the stage to the streets of prague is a very unnerving thing. I have a prickly neck just thinking about it.

Astonishing Sod-Ape said...

Thanks for that. I'll write about Svankmajer soon. He's a living legend. His next film will be released before the end of the year. I can't wait!

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