Rafani collective at the Vaclav Spala Gallery, Prague

Markéta Stará

Reviews / 13.11.2008

The Rafani collective is one of a handful of activist art groups in the Czech Republic who effect a social and political critique through works that exist primarily in the public sphere. Their most recent project is an exhibition in an art gallery in Prague a major change in their practice that brings with it difficult questions of how to remain activist while forsaking public spaces.

The group's work is primarily engaged with the fragmentation of Czech politics and society, in which they see the individual as alienated from those around him or her. Their projects suggest an almost utopian vision of change, and due to the controversial modes of expression, the art collective (whose members ask not to be named, in order to underline the collective nature of their work) has attracted the attention within the Czech media as well as within the Czech contemporary art scene. In past actions they have posted a series of cynical comments on the displacement of Sudeten Germans after World War II (an event the Sudeten Germans call theAustreibung, or expulsion) (August 2001); publicly burnt the national flag (October 2002); drowned a painting from the Prague National Gallery in the Orlick Dam lake in Southern Bohemia (September 2006); ostentatiously and publicly joined the Communist Party (November 2007); and cooked and distributed food in the streets of Prague (December 2003), evoking images of food being served to the unemployed, poor and homeless during the Depression in Europe and the United States. 

All images installation view, untitled Rafani show at the Vaclav Spala Gallery, Prague, September–November 2008 Language and text have played a fundamental part in their practice. Although on many occasions text is not included directly in the work itself, it plays a vital role in the process of publicising their interventions. This is mostly done through the collective's website, which serves as a platform for presenting manifestos, explaining motifs of individual projects and stimulating public debate on the issues tackled. 

With all this in mind, Rafanis recent exhibition at the Vclav pla Gallery in Prague breaks with this past: the artists have traded the open public space for a more or less traditional art gallery (moreover, for a gallery space with a decades' long tradition of exhibitions), and they have intentionally resisted any textualisation of the project. The show remains untitled, as do the exhibited works. The website and email server for the group have been closed down, and there is no text in the catalogue only images. What is left is the subjectivity and personal experience of the spectator, which can come to life only through encounters with individual works.

The installation of works in the gallery directly acts upon the viewer's physical body and seeks by this engagement to suggest social and political constraints that exist in the world at large. However, any feeling of liberation suggested by the free form plan of the gallery space and the absence of contextual information is mooted upon entering the first floor of the gallery. All pieces are based on the division of space, i.e., each piece consists of two components, one on the left, the other on the right. The spectator feels physically captured, exposed to each work's polarity. At times the division is suggested only by the tension between the two components of a particular piece, while at other times the division is made actual: signalled by a wall-like structure made out of thin wires, or made palpable by projected targets that move towards the viewer from opposite walls of the gallery. The body of the spectator becomes a screen onto which tension is projected and through which it materialises a technique reminiscent of late 1960s work by Bruce Nauman (such as Live-Taped Video Corridor, 196970). In another work, the spectator is presented with a split image of the current Czech president Vaclav Klaus (an unpopular figure with Czech intellectuals). Both halves are installed opposite each other; there is no escape from the omnipresent politician. The claustrophobic feeling inflicted on the body of the spectator in the previous two rooms continues.

The basement of the gallery has been transformed into a labyrinth, divided by pieces of wood, and its floor covered in plastic foam. It is not possible to walk through the space, only to tumble through it. Tension turns literal, becoming muscular. The wooden pieces lead the visitor towards a locked door. There seems to be no escape and moving within the enclosed space is increasingly difficult. On the main floor, the spectator is bombarded by a video installation showing the struggle of other bodies.

The works in the show function abstractly, reinstating the feeling of social tension that results from a fragmented society in which the individual permanently encounters limits that separate him or her from other members. (The exception to this principle of generalised tension is the Vaclav Klaus piece, where the source of conflict can be objectively and precisely identified.) By attacking the spectators body, it turns social issues into personal ones, thus heightening awareness of them and prompting public scrutiny. Nevertheless, the total elimination of text and consequent elimination of any guidance might reduce the effectiveness of the message: some of the viewers may get lost, or not grasp or be able to engage with the intended meaning. A public debate on these issues might not be stirred at the very least, such a debate becomes less probable if not impossible.

Presenting the show in the space of a gallery makes its activist nature even more problematic. By departing from the public space and entering an institution (the gallery is public but charges for admission), Rafani in many ways undermine the goal of the show as well as the goal of their practice in general. Who are the audience who decide to visit a gallery and pay an entrance fee? Are those the individuals who will engage in a public debate? Will they be able to, with no textual or circumstantial support, which works so effectively if the activist art is presented or performed in the public space? It seems as if the debate of current socio-political issues has been postponed for another time!

- Markéta Stará