My Life in Meat: Death as Art, Art as Death

by Travis Jeppesen on April 16, 2008

This essay was originally published in Czech translation in 2005. It appears here in the original English version for the first time. It is part of the forthcoming collection, Disorientations: Art on the Margins of the “Contemporary” (Social Disease, 2008).




I’m writing this in the United States of America, which, in case you didn’t know, is the fattest nation on Earth. Glancing at all the lard asses surrounding me, I sometimes wonder how I got let off the hook. I mean, I was a normal American kid by most standards. I grew up in the south, where the local cuisine dictates that everything including vegetables must be fried in animal fat, ate at McDonald’s several times a week, never exercised, often skipped out on gym class to smoke cigarettes and dope. Yet I was always a lightweight.

    For a while I even stayed away from meat. I became a vegetarian, mostly to piss off my parents. It didn’t last long. Resisting the cunning allure of dead animals proved to be a futile effort, and I soon found myself eating them once again on a more or less regular basis. 

Then one day, I became obsessed with serial killers. Of course I’d always known that monsters depicted in slasher films like Friday the 13th and Psycho existed in real life. What I learned in my research, though, is that a killer’s mania often stems from a lifelong fascination with dead things.

At a party, I was once fortunate enough to meet a sociologist whose research focused extensively on serial killers. We ended up talking at length about the psychopathology of every day life, and although we were freebasing cocaine at the time, her answers nevertheless shone some interesting light on the subject. For instance, the myth of pornography. Shortly before Ted Bundy was executed, he made some statement along the lines of “pornography is what made me savagely rape and butcher to death dozens of girls.” Of course pornography doesn’t cause psychopathic behavior; in fact, according to my crack-smoking sociologist friend, the common thread that links most of history’s more brutal serial killers isn’t porn, but horror films. Necrophiliac killer Jeffrey Dahmer, for example, used to watch The Exorcist 2 compulsively. In real life, Dahmer fetishized death in the same way that he saw it fetishized on screen. In the uncanny way that art and life feed off one another, Dahmer became an artist – a meat artist – keeping body parts of his victims around the house to play with and eat, with the ultimate goal of building a sort of shrine made out of his victims’ body parts – a shrine that he felt would heal him. Unfortunately, he was arrested before he had a chance to complete this masterpiece.

Ed Gein, a figure whose life was later used as a model for numerous horror films including Texas Chainsaw Massacre, took things even further. When police arrived at his Wisconsin farmhouse in the late ‘50s, they found a vast collection of meat art. In the woodshed of the farm was the naked, headless body of Bernice Worden, hanging upside down from a meat hook and slit open down the front. Her head and intestines were discovered in a box, her heart on a plate in the dining room. The skins from ten human heads were found preserved, and another skin taken from the upper torso of a woman was rolled up on the floor. There was a belt fashioned from carved-off nipples, a chair upholstered in human skin, the crown of a skull used as a soup-bowl, lampshades covered in flesh pulled taut, a table propped up by a human shinbones, and a refrigerator full of organs. The four posts on Gein’s bed were topped with skulls and a human head hung on the wall alongside nine death-masks – the skinned faces of women – and decorative bracelets made out of human skin. The stunned searchers also uncovered soup bowls fashioned from skulls, a shoebox full of female genitalia, faces stuffed with newspapers and mounted like hunting trophies on the walls, and a “mammary vest” flayed from the torso of a woman. Gein later confessed that he enjoyed dressing himself in this and other human-skin garments and pretending he was his own mother.

Then there are the numerous performance artists who have used meat – that is, the flesh of dead animals – in their actions. The most notable contributions to meat art were made in the 1960s by the Vienna Actionists (Rudolf Schwarzkogler, Hermann Nitsch, Otto Muehl, and Gunter Brus). Their actions, which rifled the feathers of the stiff Austrian public and resulted in jail time for many of the participants, often included the ritualistic slaughter of animals, whose innards were then smeared over the performers’ bodies, which were in turn treated like meat via self-mutilation.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, a whole new generation of musicians who had been weaned on slasher flicks began forming metal bands, making a lot of terrible noise while belching out lyrics using grotesque medical terminology to describe impossibly fatal and disgusting bodily quandaries. Grindcore was born, and in the center of it all was a band called Carcass, with song titles like “Swarming Vulgar Mass of Infected Virulency” and “Cadaveric Incubator of Endoparasites.” While Carcass isn’t around anymore, this initial strain of grindcore still exists today in the form of gore metal, represented by bands like Haemorrhage and Exhumed.

For the first time in history, the last century’s carnivorous artwork has assigned a new pertinence to dead flesh – namely, meat as muse and matter. These artists have made the ultimate Cartesian split, refusing to deify the human body by viewing it as merely another material in the penultimate vision guiding their creations. In an aesthetic universe, vision alone takes precedence over everything else, transcending all the conflicts and traumas imposed on the psyche by the meat we carry around inside us – the very meat that unites us with nature and guides us in our efforts to destroy this nature as loudly as possible. For it is in those desultory orgiastic explosions of violence – the ultimate desecration of the sacred body – that truth subsides on this lowly earthly plane. 

Pause/Gio + Superm in Norway

by Travis Jeppesen on April 16, 2008

I’ll be back later this week, I promise. Things are a bit hectic right now, as I’ve been working on final edits for Disorientations (the book) ever since I got back from London, plus a deadline for ZOO Magazine. The new subtitle for Disorientations, by the way, is Art on the Margins of the Contemporary.

I hope to write about the shows I saw in London, including No Bra, Derek Jarman, and the Martian Museum of Terrestrial Art, later in the week.

If you happen to be in Norway, meanwhile, check out this exhibition from SUPERM (Slava Mogutin + Brian Kenny) and Gio Black Peter. I interviewed Gio for the latest issue of ZOO, which is due out in May.


Galleri s.e is proud to present SPUTNIK 3, a collaborative show by the New York-based art collective SUPERM (Slava Mogutin & Brian Kenny) and Guatemalan-born artist and musician Gio Black Peter. 

SPUTNIK 3 is the name that SUPERM and Black Peter have been using for their collaborative work since 2006. They use all available media and source materials, ranging from reclaimed furniture and street art to personal fetish gear, hair and bodily fluids.

Opening on April 12th, the Soviet Space Day and coincidentally Slava Mogutin’s birthday, SPUTNIK 3 is a site-specific installation combining large-scale paintings on canvases and plywood, drawings, sculptures, photos, videos, and a permanent bathroom installation. The show features a new series of drawings by Gio Black Peter on New York City subway maps and SUPERM drawings on vintage American shooting targets made in collaboration with an international group of artists including Bruce LaBruce, Christophe Chemin, Sebastiano Mauri, Lee Adams, Christophe Hamadie-Pierson, Josh Lee, and Marko Brozic.  

Personal, political and transgressive, SPUTNIK 3 artwork reflects artists’ diverse backgrounds and aesthetics. It’s a direct response to a world of shameless war propaganda, media brainwashing, corporate censorship, state-induced paranoia, and shrinking personal freedoms.

Slava Mogutin (1974, Kemerovo, Siberia). He moved to Moscow at the age 14 and soon began working as a journalist for the first Russian independent newspapers and radio stations. At the age of 21, Mogutin was exiled from Russia for his queer writings and activism. He was granted political asylum in the US with the support of Amnesty International and PEN American Center. He is the author of seven books in Russian and two hardcover monographs of photography, Lost Boys and NYC Go-Go (powerHouse Books, 2006 and 2008). Mogutin’s artwork has been exhibited internationally and featured in a wide range of publications including The New York Times, The Village Voice, i-D, Visionaire, L’Uomo Vogue, and Stern

Brian Kenny (1982, Heidelberg, Germany). While growing up, Kenny traveled extensively throughout the US with his Army family. As a teenager, he was a competitive gymnast. After high school, he went to Oberlin Conservatory to pursue a degree in voice, but eventually left school to produce his own music, which combines elements of hip hop and ambient. Kenny works across drawing, graffiti, text, sound and video. In 2004, he moved to New York where he began collaborating with Slava Mogutin under the team name SUPERM. They are responsible for site-specific, multimedia gallery and museum shows in New York, Los Angeles, Berlin, London, Moscow, Oslo, and León, Spain.

Gio Black Peter (born Giovanni Paolo Andrade Guevara, 1979, Guatemala City). At the age of 5, Gio illegally emigrated with his family to the United States and moved to New York City. In 2005, he formed his music band Black Peter Group. He has exhibited his artwork and performed in New York, London, Paris, Berlin, Antwerp, and Turin. He’s the star of James Bolton’s independent feature Eban and Charley (2000) and the new Bruce LaBruce movie, Otto, or Up with Dead People! Black Peter’s artwork, videos and music incorporate his experiences living as an outsider in the United States. His first album “It’s Fucked Up” is scheduled for release in 2008. He divides his time between New York, London, and Paris.


g a l l e r i  s . e

Kalfarveien 76, N-5018 Bergen, Norway

+47 55 31 57 55 (Office)

+47 958 53 680 (Mobile)


by Travis Jeppesen on April 11, 2008

HANES, the film that Mark Ther made about my move from Prague to Berlin, can now be viewed in full online.


Mark Ther

In the Cold

by Travis Jeppesen on April 9, 2008

True North

Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin

Through April 13th, 2008



Ameland-Pier X by Elger Esser (C-Print, 2000): When you stand away from it, it looks like a white painting with a series of thin black lines bisecting it horizontally. When you move closer, you realize it is a photograph of the horizon itself, the lines being the remains of a pier jutting out into the icy nothingness.


Palindrome by Orit Raff (Video, 2001): This video riffs on Joseph Beuys’s I Like America and America Likes Me. A woman inside an igloo applies slabs of brown felt to the ground, while outside, a coyote hovers near the entrance. Near the end, a second coyote appears. The woman inside the igloo, meanwhile, continues her performance, stacking the slabs of felt on top of one another.


Glaspass by Thomas Fletchner (C-print, 2001): The artist goes on walks in cold cold places. He traces the topography of various snowfields with his skies, then uses long exposures to “freeze” the imprints. The most beautiful image in the show, one can readily lose oneself in the swirling lines on this snow-capped hill, which varies only slightly in color from the sky crowning it.


Ski Dome, Tokyo, Japan by Armin Linke (C-print, 1998): Like Esser’s, a painterly photo. The white of the slope and blue of the ceiling, the rainbow-colored lights, everything, all the lights and colors, down to the red and yellow suits of the people on the indoor slope, it all comes together to form an image that is simultaneously composed and open. A chaos that coheres.


Glaciers by Olafur Eliasson (photos, 1999): Pictures of glaciers. Probably the only boring thing I’ve ever seen Eliasson do.


Pi by Roni Horn (photos, 1997-1998): Arranged around a circle in a room. It is the Arctic circle. An old couple living in Iceland and their life together there. They watch a soap opera, Guiding Light. The light guides them through the day. A profound disconnection with reality, the movements until darkness. Nature does its thing, another episode, we are back to where we began.


Nut-ka- by Stan Douglas (video, 1996): The story of the colonization of Vancouver Island in Canada told through a barrage of literary texts read simultaneously, the camera molests the landscape.


So far far north. A land where there are no squirrels. You have to eat the ice in order to survive. Even when there are people, they are never far enough away from you.


Biennale Blasé

by Travis Jeppesen on April 5, 2008

The problem with this Berlin Biennial – and every one I’ve seen so far, to be honest – is the fact that the curators can somehow never resist falling into the pitfalls of an unhealthy preoccupation with the city itself. As though we need to be told time and again the harsh lessons that history has taught us all in Berlin, that there are ghosts on every street corner, that we still have not come to terms with the past, ad nauseam. (Imagine if the Venice Biennale were organized around the theme of “mercantilism” year after year. People would revolt!)

To compare Berlin to another low budget biennale in the region – the most recent installment of the Prague Biennale – the differences in quality are glaring. The Prague Biennale curators made an effort to engage in the local, as well – but their curatorial efforts were not geared so much to the city of Prague as towards the artists living and working there. I’m not sure how many of the artists featured in this year’s Berlin Biennale are actually from Berlin, but it seems that those who are were selected from among the least interesting.


By the curators’ own admission, they decided to go about as though they were simply organizing a large-scale group show, rather than a biennale. Whether this was done out of a willful arrogance masquerading as disregard for convention, or intimidation in front of the daunting biennale concept (and perhaps it was a little of both), the curators have put together a slapdash production that doesn’t bother to cohere on any level. Not as an index of current trends, a showcase of the best and brightest, nor even the most provocative tempered with disruptions of stillness and subtlety. Everything is so blasé, but not blasé in an academic sense – blasé as in uninspired.

The “night and day” theme is inspired only insofar as the night program seems a lot more thrilling than what’s on offer during the day – as even the title of the exhibition, Mes Nuits sont plus belles que vos jours, plainly admits. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I have to say that my nights never come at the expense of my days; rather, the two are interdependent. This is a delicate balance that this year’s Berlin Biennial fails to attain.

London April 5-6

by Travis Jeppesen on April 4, 2008

I’ll be doing two readings in London this weekend.

Saturday, April 5, I’ll be reading with Adelle Stripe of the BRUTALISTS at Foyles Bookshop at 4pm. It’s part of some short story festival. I’ll be reading my story “What the Witch Doctor Says” from the Institute of Psychoplasmics exhibition catalog (the exhibition itself opens April 8 at the Pump House Gallery in Battersea Park.)

Then, on Sunday April 6 at 2:30pm, I’ll be reading at a Literary High Tea Event at The Fitzroy Dolls Restaurant, Hotel Russell, 
1-8 Russell Square, Bloomsbury, London WC1B 5BE (nearest tubes: Russell Square, Holborn)
Entrance: Readings and burlesque performer come free with your Afternoon Tea (£17.50)
To book your seats, go to:

Come to one or both of these readings, say hi — I don’t bite.

5th Berlin Biennial for Contemporary Art: 1st Impressions

by Travis Jeppesen on April 3, 2008

Today was the first day of the press preview for the latest installment of the Berlin Biennial, curated by Adam Szymczyk and Elena Filipovic. I generally make it a rule to see a show at least twice before I review it, but first impressions can also be good a gauge of things, so before I start going into the high points and low points, I just thought I’d hazard the warning that I’m planning on going back a few more times, so the opinions offered below may change over time.


As far as I understand it, the curators’ concept is to divide the exhibition into two segments – a day program and a night program. The former – situated at KunstWerke, the Neue Nationalgalerie, the Schinkel Pavilion, and Skulpturenpark Berlin_Zentrum – features more or less a static exhibition of works (with the exception of the Schinkel Pavilion, which will be the site of revolving exhibitions curated by selected artists), while the night program will consist of a schedule of lectures, readings, screenings, and performances. Based on what I saw today, I have to say that I’m looking forward to the night program – it seems that this is where the real curatorial energy has been invested.


If pressed to sum up my impression of the work in the KunstWerke and the Neue Nationalgalerie: shabby. Albeit, it’s a very Berlin type of shab that would easily be at home in many of Mitte’s fashion boutiques. There are no well-known artists at all in the exhibition; much of the work looks very studenty. Heavy on the installation side, with hardly any painting, and quite a few videos thrown in for good measure.


One of the few pieces that really stand out is a video by Zhao Liang, City Scene. The artist wanders through Beijing at night with a video camera in hand, filming whatever natural “scenes” he happens to stumble upon – fist fights outside of bars, shady incidents with men forcing women into cars, a punk rock club…. At 23 minutes, the video is powerful, disturbing, and poetic – it could have gone on for much longer. You can’t say that about much video art these days.


To be continued…

Guma Guar

by Travis Jeppesen on April 3, 2008

Guma Guar

Guma Guar is a Prague-based art collective. Through their live actions, interferences, exhibitions, breakcore activism, and resplendent energy, they continue to expand and revise the possibilities of art in the 21st century.

This conversation recently took place via e-mail, as Guma Guar was making preparations for their upcoming exhibition at Prague’s Old Town Hall (April 23rd – June 1st, 2008.)

What does the group Guma Guar stand for? What is it that you do?
The origin of our 3-member art and music group Guma Guar began in 2003 and was initiated by the inner need to publicly express our opinion on certain controversial and problematic public issues, rather than navigating ourselves through the art world based solely on an egoistic presentation of our own inner worlds and building careers, as it is done by most artists these days. There are many artistic groups on the Czech art scene whose art is often described as political or tendentious – according to our view, they are not critical enough and their criticism is too often focused on “official goals” convenient for the current power elite. The initial central theme of Guma Guar’s work is the disputation of the function of the capitalistic world system, criticism of western militarism, questioning gender, issues of minorities, a critical analysis of the cultural industry, and a commentary the function of mass media in today’s society.

Who are the people behind Guma Guar? Or, if your members choose not to identify themselves, can you explain the reasons behind your anonymity?
The group consists of three white heterosexual individuals of male gender living in Prague. Even though the names of these individual members are not explicitly secret, we do not like to mention them in connection with Guma Guar projects. After all, the group was created partly as the expression of a certain skepticism towards the model of the individual artist. At the same time, it seems that our collective identity offers kind of a better legitimacy as commentators of political happenings than we could accomplish individually. Our group activities do not exclude solo activities of individual members.


How does the collective function? Are ideas thought up and executed by individuals in the group, or is everything conceived and executed by the entire collective?
Essentially, we function through both of these principles. Once in a while we have a meeting, which we call brainstorming, as a funny reference to work in advertising agencies. During these meetings, we discuss topics that we consider important. Eventually, we develop concepts that are already partly concrete. It also happens sometimes that one of our members comes with a finished or almost-finished work and there is no need to finalize it if other members agree.

Many – if not most – of your works seem to be rooted in an aesthetics of disruption. Is Guma Guar affiliated with any particular ideology? People often speak of you as anarchists. If this is so, do you adhere to any particular branch of anarchism?
Although we don’t conform fully to any concrete “meta-narration,” we would most likely localize ourselves somewhere on the intersection of moderate anarchism and neo-Marxist tendencies.

In every case, cornerstones remain mainly the (revised) teachings of the so-called Frankfurt schools (Marcuse, Adorno, Benjamin, Fromm), the soft-anarchist theory of The Temporary Autonomous Zone by Hakim Bey, texts by Noam Chomsky, essays by the sociologist Immanuel Wallerstein, and the Czech philosophers Václav B?lohradský and Antonín Kosík.

Lately, we have found interesting some opinions of the duo Antonio Negri & Michael Hardt, or the new book Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein. We could follow name dozens of other texts that are reflected in the work of Guma Guar’s work.

To put it simply, our fundamental “program” is “a critical view of society.” In our opinion, without it, the current society will fall into a morass of consumer totality.

Do politics really have a place in art? Aren’t you “preaching to the converted,” in a sense, as most of the people who see your work already hold similar political views as yourselves?
We are not really sure that the majority of our hypothetical audience shares the opinions we present. We think that the spectrum of our viewers is fairly unmonolithic in terms of the places we use, such as galleries, the street, clubs, free parties… Even the opinions of gallery visitors do not fully correspond with ours. Often controversial exhibitions are discussed in the media, thanks to which the discussed topics reach a wider public.

We believe that there is a space in art (as it is a mirror of society) for everything that creates this society – and politics is important mainly in a democratic society. All art has a political dimension.

This interview is reprinted from Think Again magazine.


The “Lost” Art of Art Criticism

by Travis Jeppesen on March 31, 2008

In a recent editorial addressing the endless debates over criticism’s role in the current art world, Damon Willick argues that such debates often reduce the so-called crisis to a binary opposition – Greenbergian formalism vs. postmodernism. Proponents of the former accuse the postmodernists of academic obscurity, political correctness, and an inability or unwillingness to pronounce judgment on the quality of a work, while the postmodernists accuse the formalists of being elitist and conservative in their defense of the canon. Reverting to a past model – i.e. Greenbergian formalist – is inappropriate for historic reasons, as much of the art being produced today is coming out of a worldview informed by postmodernism, post-structuralism, and all the other posts we lug around with us, whether out of laziness or a sense of defeat. Willick denies that there is anything remotely resembling a crisis in either art or art criticism, arguing that criticism must adapt itself to the conditions of the present rather than prolonging a never-ending debate that is binaristic, and hence reductive. (In arguing thus, Willick is of course aligning himself with the postmodernists, whether he realizes it or not – ultimately, one cannot escape one’s education or position in the historical present, and this is something that Willick argues as well.)

I agree that it would be pointless to revert to a Greenbergian mode of formalist discourse when writing about art. It would be almost like if a novelist, bemoaning the state of the novel in the 21st century, reverted to penning novels in the style of Charles Dickens. But I also feel that Willick misses some important points – as did Clement Greenberg, and all the other “authorities” typically cited in these endless debates.

What is at stake here is language and the ways in which it is deployed. The debates over the purpose of art criticism seem to ignore the simple, basic fact that the art of art criticism is in fact a literary art.

Greenberg decried the poetic obtuseness of criticism in his time in favor of a direct form of plainspeak that was meant to convey the critic’s judgment of the artwork’s aesthetic worth.

The postmodern, or late 20th century/early 21st century model of art criticism, according to people like Willick, is rooted in the verbosity and heady conceptual paradigms of (mostly French) critical theory – a language that the layman could never comfortably enjoy.

By insisting on aligning yourself with one of these two camps, Willick infers, you are limiting yourself as a critic.

What Willick neglects to observe is that, if there is a threat to art criticism, it is neither the formalist impulse, nor the jargon-laden antics of the posts, but the social conditions of the art world. Most of what passes for art criticism these days is not criticism at all, but propaganda. The dialect that has been adapted by most working in the art world is PR-speak. When concepts borrowed from critical theory creep into this language, it is almost always in a debased, watered-down form that shows little understanding of these concepts’ potential applicability to the works under scrutiny. The malaise that art criticism in fact suffers from does have a name, and it has nothing to do with the binary described by Willick: in a word, it is a lack of integrity. Once you are in a position where the market dictates all the terms and conditions, then language follows suit, and you are no longer living under conditions of great possibility, but under intellectual slavery.

Another point that Willick fails to pick up on – and this might have something to do with the fact that he is writing as an academic – is the fact that not only is Greenbergian formalism outmoded, but so is the po-mo discourse that he assigns to such figures as Arthur Danto and Katy Siegel. No one but the most naïve undergraduate is going to be impressed by your “deconstructive reading” of a work of art in 2008. Readers are much more interested in the prices that works fetch at auction than they are in that sort of (pseudo-) mystification. The monetary value naturally also takes precedence over the aesthetic value that any one critic may attempt to assign.

I’m not about to argue that criticism’s central task should be to take on all the corruption rampant in today’s art world. But anyone who practices art criticism today should be mindful that it is not their duty to uphold individual careers, but to find new ways of engaging with works of art through the medium of language. If there is anything to complain about, it is the fact that in most criticism these days, one finds a stunning lack of multidimensionality in writers’ ability to think about language. Every sentence construction conforms to a certain crude type, readers become bored with the monotony and give up on criticism altogether, and the writers gripe about being ignored.

Art criticism must continue to grow and develop alongside the art that it takes for its subject, while remaining mindful of the seemingly paradoxical premise that history is not a linear progression, but comprised of cyclical occurrences. Rather than dismissing Greenberg or anyone else out of hand, such writers should be acknowledged as useful referents – but not as a foundation. Each critic must build their own foundation in seeking out new languages and new forms with which to engage – and pass judgment on – the objects and images they surround themselves by. Only then will we see a solution to what I suspect the real problem that Willick and so many others are grappling with – the lack of a veritable renaissance in contemporary art criticism.


IN MEMORIAM: Jan Jakub Kotík (1972-2007)

by Travis Jeppesen on March 29, 2008

In December, the Czech Republic lost one of its most promising young artists to cancer. I first came into contact with Jan Jakub Kotík when I was commissioned to write an essay on his work by Umelec. I did not know Jan well, but I quickly became a fan of his work, and was fortunate enough to spend a few hours in his presence. While I have never been a huge fan of conceptual art, and have long felt that it is needlessly overdone in this part of the world, Kotík’s work was imbued with a freshness and fierceness that is frequently unsettling. Kotík wasn’t merely a brilliant conceptualist; he was also a highly skilled craftsman – a combination that has become increasingly rare in this age and milieu.

Jan’s work was not the only thing that made him an enigma in the Czech art scene. An American by birth, a New Yorker by training and default, Kotík was ultimately a Czech – and from one of the country’s most distinguished families at that (his great-great grandfather was Tomas Garrigue Masaryk.) While the biographical details surrounding Kotík and his family are intriguing, it is for the extraordinary body of work left behind that Jan will ultimately be remembered.

Kotík first caught the attention of the artgoing public in 2000 with his solo exhibition, Economies of Scale, in which he exhibited tiny household appliances intricately constructed out of model airplane and tank parts. What seemed at first like a joke was actually a startling commentary on the corporations that produce mundane household objects – the same manufacturers responsible for the development and production, in collaboration with the U.S. government, of radar technology, guided missiles, spy ware, satellites, and various other militaristic technologies employed in the wars of the last century.

Kotík’s best-known work, however, is probably Hail to the Chief. The piece is comprised of a floor-to-ceiling stack of “Marshall” amplifiers that the artist actually built himself, with the American presidential emblem emblazoned on the center in gold. The speakers blare a modified sample of the guitar intro to Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man,” which is digitally manipulated to evoke the sound of air raid sirens and planes flying overhead. Heavy metal and fascism converge in a singular synaesthetic invocation of the global political deity himself. The piece not only transmits an ironic political message through its loud appropriation of national imagery, but provokes a range of contradictory emotions that the viewer is forced to confront.

From talking to Jan, I got the impression that he truly loved Prague. Like a lot of gifted young people living in this city, however, I think he also felt frustrated at times by the fact that artists here are only reluctantly given the attention they deserve – and seldom in doses that one needs to develop. Jan enjoyed being a part of the local art scene and loved to indulge in gossip about its protagonists, just like the rest of us. At the same time, having spent his formative years in New York, where he studied at the prestigious Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art, I think he also felt stifled by the pettiness and provincialism that often shades foreigners’ impressions of the Czech art scene.

Outside of the time I spent admiring his work, I’ll always cherish the precious few memories I have of the time I spent with Jan. We bonded over our mutual love of heavy metal, and shortly after I finished writing my piece on his work, we celebrated by attending a Cannibal Corpse concert. We always promised to hang out more often, but as sometimes happens, our lives wound up taking different paths. I stopped seeing him at art openings for a while and imagined that he had retreated into artistic seclusion. That was when I began hearing that he had become sick.

The last time I saw Jan, however, he seemed happy and healthy, and casually referred to his illness in the past tense. We bumped into each other on the number 12 tram at Strossmayerovo Námestí. It was a beautiful day in the sweltering summer of 2006, and as the tram eased along the side of the Vltava, the sun’s rays shimmering on the surface of the water, we talked eagerly about art and life. Things seemed to be going well for Jan. He was being represented by the newly established hunt castner artworks, which was already being invited to display its artists’ work at respected international art fairs. His wife had just given birth to their first child; a second would be born before he passed away on December 13th. We talked excitedly about my upcoming move to Berlin and eagerly agreed to meet up for a beer before I left town. But life does its thing, and for whatever reason, we were unable to fulfill our promise to each other. I stepped off at Švandovo Divadlo, and waved goodbye for the last time.

Death is unfair. It has robbed Jan Jakub Kotík’s wife of a loving husband, his two children of a father they will likely have no memories of, his parents of a son, and his brother of a sibling. But for most of us, the real tragedy of Kotík’s death at such a young age is the fact that his work never got the recognition it deserved in the course of his lifetime. Like Eva Hesse, Steven Parrino, Jason Rhoades, and so many other artists who were taken away from us while in their prime, it is now up to history to call the shot that is rightfully his.




This piece originally appeared in the magazine
Think Again.

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