Introducing Kateřina Šedá

Modern Painters – October 2008

Through the choreography of mischievous acts, this Czech artist raises participation to an art.

Kateřina Šedá once convinced the inhabitants of an entire town to spend a day doing the same thing at the same moment. Likewise, she once sent gifts to (and on behalf of) 1,000 dwellers of an apartment-building complex, asked neighbors to help her cross the fences between their homes, invited 150 people to display objects in their windowsills, and cajoled her grandmother out of a depression by encouraging her to make hundreds of drawings of the objects she once sold at a hardware store. In an effort to initiate new social relationships, the 31-year-old Czech artist has imagined, choreographed, and given shape to a number of ingeniously inspired participatory art projects involving performance, cooperation, and much negotiation. Although her projects evolve into elegant gallery and museum installations—usually featuring a mix of video, drawing, and sculpture—they invariably begin in collaboration with residents of Šedá’s native Brno, the second largest city in the Czech Republic. The artist’s familiarity with the town and its populace is key to the success of her projects there. “I am not simply interested in making interventions, but in provoking change, ” Šedá notes during our recent conversation. The provocation of such change, the artist adds, “generally requires an extended time commitment and more labor.”

Šedá’s projects, which she began conceptualizing as a student at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, since she enrolled in 2000, , have become something of a phenomenon both regionally— sleepy neighboring towns have invited the artist to create projects that will enliven their own communities—and internationally. In fact, far-flung art institutions have appealed to the artist with descriptions of their local tribulations, followed by an invitation to propose and develop works in-situ. “They invite me for a three-day visit to their venues and cities,” Šedá recalls, “and I am supposed to become inspired in that time and propose a project that can address one of their problems.” The artist questions whether such an undertaking is possible. Nevertheless, it raises an intriguing question: what is it about Šedá’s work that creates expectations for the possibility of a better society?

It can be productive to approach Šedá’s practice in light of what Danish curator Lars Bang Larsen has termed “social aesthetics”—an attitude focused on the world of acts. For Larsen, social aesthetic artwork has a utilitarian aspect that proposes direct public involvement, where collective effort is emphasized as an alternative to authoritarian structures. Similarly, Šedá works with individuals and groups to address personal or local histories endemic to her own social environment. For example, the project Každej pes jiná ves (For Every Dog a Different Master) (2007) was inspired by a 1980s-era housing complex known as Nová Líšeň located on the outskirts of Brno. The building’s grey cement facades had recently been painted various shades of vivid color, a beautification project undertaken by the aptly named Regeneration of High Rise Housing Developments committee. Intrigued by this effort to personalize architecture, Šedá decided to address the perceived lack of sociability among the complex’s residents. She designed shirts with a fabric pattern featuring the painted buildings, which she then sent to 1,000 residents in handwritten-addressed envelopes on behalf of their neighbors in opposite buildings. A month later, the artist invited those same people to her exhibition at a local gallery. The invitation card stated that the exhibition dealt with Nová Líšeň, and about 350 of its residents showed up at the opening. The following month Šedá sent another letter to the residents explaining the project’s intentions and asking for comments. While many residents expressed their gratitude, several responses were critical, accusing the artist of being a dreamer and of invading their privacy. Šedá considers this last set of correspondence one of the project’s most important aspects, optimistically explaining, “The negative comments were actually the positive result of these people being approached and their opinions valued.”

Before initiating Každej pes jiná ves, the artist had spent the previous two years working with her grandmother on a series of activity-oriented pieces to engage the elder Šedá. The phrase “It doesn’t matter”—Jana Šedá’s constant response to anything that was asked of her during a serious depression—was the inspiration for, and title of, their first collaborative work. Consisting of hundreds of detailed drawings by Jana that depict items from the hardware store where she worked from 1950 to 1983, the project showed that clearly, “things” mattered. The project was as concerned with therapeutic ends (the artist’s intention was to “resuscitate” her grandmother) as it was with picture making. While the human-interest side of the project is impressive, it is the Perec-like description of a world—in this case, a hardware store and its multitudinous elements—that allows the project to transcend its specificity.

Šedá’s most recent work, Over and Over (2008), again confronts the lack of social contact between people who live in near proximity. The artist calls the project her “most challenging to date.” Šedá began by asking 40 Brno neighbors for permission to cross the fences and walls between their homes. She negotiated with each neighbor to gain access to their yard, and participants had to come up with a mechanism that would allow the artist to easily cross the border. For the performance in Berlin Biennale last spring (with the site of the Berlin Wall as a backdrop), her Brno collaborators helped Šedá scale a decagon-shaped wall that replicated their various fences. Two months later, a second performance back in Brno required the cooperation of twice as many neighbors, who assisted the artist in crossing approximately 100 fences. If early performance-based conceptual art employed its audience as a co-conspirator—responsible for interpreting, documenting, and mythologizing the act—artists like Šedá see communication as an end in itself and its audience as a vital producer of content.

There is a significant legacy of performance-based conceptualism in the Czech Republic—think of Jiří Kovanda’s scheduled actions and happenings in the 1970s, for example the self-explanatory (Untitled (On an escalator … turning around, I look into the eyes of the person standing behind me …), 3 September 1977), or Contact, in which the artist wandered down the sidewalk and, as if accidentally, bumps or rubs his shoulders into passers-by. Artists of Kovanda’s generation have influenced a later generation of Czech artists, like Ján Mancuska’s, Jiří Skála, and Barbora Klímová. Yet Šedá’s work—with its emphasis on communal cooperation and its utopian underpinnings—is a departure from performative work of the previous generation, which was often reacting to the suppression of individuality under Communism. In contrast, Šedá’s insistence on socialization is an attempt to reveal potential conviviality and create meaningful crossings over inequalities and borders. As Šedá admits, she is interested in working with people “not in order to show problems, but to find solutions.” Her projects ultimately emphasize that participation is a choice not a mandate, a choice that entails a constant political struggle, whether rooted in the battleground of the home, the street, or the world.

–Sofía Hernández Chong Cuy