In Conversation with Veronika Čechová : Curating 'The Alchemist'

Edited for length and clarity.

'The Alchemist' is on show at Gossamer Fog in Deptford until the 16th of May, 2021.


M: I want to ask how you got involved with the project, and how did it all begin?


V: I work for the Jindřich Chalupecký Society. We are a Prague based institution working in the field of contemporary art, and we have the Chalupecký Award for young emerging artists under 35. We organise this and we have several other lines of programming. We have a project called “Islands : Possibilities of Togetherness” where we organise group shows in various foreign art institutions. We also try to work further with the artists who are selected for the Art Award. So this is how this particular show happened, because Matyáš Chochola won this award in 2016. This show is the outcome of a long-term collaboration.


We contacted Gossamer Fog based on their previous shows, thinking it might be an interesting match for a practice like Matyáš’. This particular space seemed like it clicked. This is what we do as an organisation, we try to find opportunities to give local Czech and sometimes Slovakian artists ways to present their work abroad as well, because there are not that many institutions here in the Czech Republic who do that.


M: So Matyáš, he is Prague based as well?


V: Yeah.


M: And he's going to be traveling to London soon, do you know anything about it?


V: Yeah, I think it's going to be quite adventurous actually because of course he's an artist, but he's just the sort of a guy who does the whole thing himself if possible. So he's the kind of artist who would bring his own works, install them, he would even interact with them. He does performances a lot. So what you're gonna see on the 15th, if you're at the gallery, is him interacting with the pieces, the workshops that are set up there, and the audience.


M: That makes sense with his work because it’s a very holistic and physical thing. To set up an exhibition like that you’d want to know: “the blanket lies here”, “the axe lies this way in the wood”, and all the interactions of the space have to be really guided by the artist - which brings me to the question - what was your role as a curator in that?



V: I think you described his approach very well. I think that's one of the big added values of his work, with the materials that he uses, he tries to really understand them and master the techniques that are used in the show. He's not one of those artists who have an idea and then have objects made. He's really the type of person who actually came to the glass making place to make the acorns in the show, trying to get to the core of the process of making things. That’s what I personally like about his practice, that the pieces and the setup are not there to create only some kind of environment. They’re also there because he, in this role of The Alchemist, is capable of interacting with them the way was meant to be. So it's not like a stage, artificially set up thing to make him look more skilled or something. This is something I think is really nice because his practice is very honest in that way. He can work with various types of media, and the ones that he can't work with he tries to learn. I personally find it very unusual when I compare it with some other artistic practices


As to my role in the exhibition, we created the whole narrative together. The mythical figures, or archetypes, that are all in our shared conscience are something that Matyáš has been working with for a long time. Using the Druid, or the Alchemist, is not new in his practice, he often channels this type of energy. But, we built the narrative around the situation and the gallery together, because for him it was natural to create this type of environment that would accommodate the archetype that he would later embody in both the video and the performance. For me, it was important to get there, but if I’m speaking completely frankly, in a way that was more “exhibition like”, because at the end of the day, we are creating within a gallery space. Trying to make it look like it's just a workshop or whatever made by some mythical creature doesn't stand, I think.


So of course we had to take into consideration the context of the space, and also the context of the gallery itself. Building an acorn bearing tree, an oak, in Great Britain, with all its Stonehenge's and this type of history can bring other connotations than it would do in Prague. Matyáš works quite freely, with hunches and and nuances. I try to make it more focused and to bring in the aspect of the wider context of the show in this particular setting.


M: You know, that's interesting, it’s not something I thought about at all. I saw the show like you said, as this very reconstructive space of these almost Jungian archetypes. When you think of things that exist in this space of the collective unconscious, like the figure of the Druid or The Alchemist or the Builder, that are almost prehistoric, you tend to remove them from their specific location. It’s a kind of a balancing act, because you have to consider: “How is influenced by his Czech background?” “How is it going to present itself now that it's in London?” And I guess your role is really to try and strike that balance.


V: I think so too. Or that's the way I see it because of course, in the narrative, you could perceive it as a rip in the fabric of time, as if something just appeared there. I think that goes well with how Matyáš perceives and works with these symbols and archetypes. My role is to say yes, but at the end of the day it is a gallery, it's here, and you can't expect one specific type of visitor coming and reading it the way you might find natural.


My role is to frame his work, which is very intuitive. He's really the type of artist with restless and creative energy that needs a physical outcome. You can feel it in the show. My role was to frame the topics he naturally works with in some wider line of art-making which you can see nowadays, because he's not the only person turning to these historical, archetypal, magical means when creating artworks.


M: Absolutely. That’s something I was thinking about, and I was wondering if you could speculate on why there is this urge cropping up everywhere to return to hyper-materiality, to a historical perception of what it means to be and create.


V: If we're talking about a speculation from my point of view, there are two aspects.


One, when dealing with these historical figures and symbolism, there is science and research available if you really want to understand them. You would find many books written on them and their meaning, you know? But I think the common shared belief is that we all sort of understand these things naturally somehow. People often feel about these super old symbols that it's in their capability to grasp their meaning, just by looking at them, feeling something about them, being able to recognise some basic shape in them.They don't go as far as to learn more about the various meanings they can have. This is one of the reasons that with very old history people feel like they can just operate with it freely, they can add their meaning to it without having to explain too much, or learning about it too much, because they can address it as something very basic that is somehow in our common understanding.


Quite often people go off the very natural meaning they see in them, all these nature-based symbols and symbolics that you can find. It's something that we partly know from upbringing, you have hints of it in fairy tales and myths that you naturally encounter. So you somehow feel that you know this stuff. But not really right? That doesn’t bother many people, I think.


Now I'm not talking about artists, I'm talking about the society. When you look at how many people are turning into these self-made, like, gurus almost, trying to teach others how to make their life better, more grounded, all these big words, these basic words that they try to fill with new meaning. And yet, at at the same time, invoke their original meaning by using the sense that again brings us the association with something very old, so we have respect for it. I think when you look around you see so many of these things in pop culture and the society in general. So, of course, it makes sense. It leaks through the art as well.


I think it makes our everyday life a little bit more interesting, feeling like you're connected with something super old and magical, even.


That's one of the reasons. Another one is probably just the need to escape the current reality, because as comfortable as it is, and amazingly developed in terms of technologies that make our life easier, you do have many studies showing that the devices that we’ve made are not, at the end of the day, really making us happier. They make our lives easier, but we don't necessarily feel better. So I think this is a twist that I find very weird, but it also totally makes sense to me that you have Instagram communities based on sharing just scans of super old, magical, alchemical books. You stare at the screen of your super expensive, highly-developed iPhone at something that's like 800 years old and try to see some meaning in it.


That's a classic example of what is somehow circling in our society today. And again, it finds its way to the Arts naturally, as big topics and currents running in society always have.


M: I guess that these are intuitive sites of knowledge that people feel they can repossess because of their distance. It gives a strange sort of flexibility to everyone to mould them because they're so separate from the rigidity of tech and all this more recent history that we have recorded so ‘well’. There’s a mystery of the past because of the lack of tech that was there. It creates this space that we can't even fully conceive living in because it's so different than what we currently interact with, and I think that's really attractive.


V: Yeah, yeah.


M: And the irony of then seeing that through a device that is so concrete and modern creates this amazing kind of duality.


V: It's also super typical of today’s society with such a short attention span that we only focus on these things. I think it makes total sense that you would just look up certain symbol and suddenly feel ‘that's it’. You don't feel the need to go deeper and follow a whole explanation for possible meanings. It's also something that I think is super strange because these effects are very recent, and are actually put onto us by the devices that we use.


These new patterns that we developed for perceiving and interacting with the outer world -which we now apply to these very old practices and teachings - the contrast couldn't be bigger. Back then only the very top scholars were able to study, and they usually devoted their whole life to transcribing one book. Nowadays someone just looks up the scans and goes “Yeah that makes sense, I understand it now.” This contrast for me is something very funny, and I think in The Alchemist show you also feel this touch of humour. It's not meant to be making fun of anything, but I think you can sense that it's not taking itself super seriously either.


M: You can really see that in the visuals of the exhibition with the way things are positioned, the massive acorns and all the extra dust on the bottles. It's a hyper-physical caricature almost.


V: Yeah, hyper-magical as well.


M: That hyper-physicality interacting with the digital, especially in the second room with the screen and the lights, what was the process of thinking about that?


V: There are two levels to that as well. One very practical one was the effort to insert the person of the Alchemist himself into the show, because you enter a space where you can somehow feel ‘recent’ touches made by someone's hand. Parts of the space can feel like somebody left a minute ago, not finishing the work. So we wanted to get this aspect in it. How do you do that? If you can't have the the artist present for every day's interaction or performance, the possibilities aren't that wide. We thought we would work with the video that shows his journey as the Alchemist, him as the artist absorbing this identity then interacting with pieces which are later going to be the exhibition. It adds this past layer, but again, also adds this element that tells you that you shouldn't take the whole thing so seriously.


Yes, we are hinting on some big topics and archetypes, something that is playing on the deep strings in our understanding of history. But, at the end of the day, you’re in a gallery space, you watch a TV where the artist is playing the role of a Druid, and it's a little bit funny.


This is also something that has been present in Matyáš practice for a while. He likes to mix very contemporary pop culture means with this practice that is often based on very old historical influences. So, for him it totally makes sense to have something as current as a TV set next to medieval glass, a distillation column and things like that.


For me personally, the show would work without this story as well, but the contrast between the old and the new, and the situation, wouldn't be as clear without the TV. It really reminds you where you stand, and I don't mean that in a pejorative way, but it is just a story, not reality, it's not real glimpse into some kind of mysterious past.


M: That's a good insight because on first entering the show, you could think its meant to be an immersive space where you’re meant to completely submerge yourself in the setup, as is usual with installations. But then, when you go into the second room, and you see the TV, and even the sequin curtain, it’s very new. It reminds you exactly of what you said, of where you stand, and the fact that you can't immerse yourself because you live in 21st century London.


V: It’s little bit like, yeah, this is all amazing, and maybe it reminds you of some mysterious things that you yourself were at some point interested in, but then it's like “okay, so here we are, wake up a bit.” I was hoping that it would be the physical parallel of what we talked about previously, of the weird contrast in the interest of our current society in these topics without necessarily following through with trying to understand their real meaning, and respecting them enough to be dealing with them. It’s a parallel for all the complex topics and symbolism that nowadays so many people use so freely, where it’s almost demeaning, a little bit.


M: Yeah. That's something that I find a lot in my personal writing about the tension between art and social media, that tendency of the digital to aestheticise these things that are way deeper. We have become such a visually consumptive culture that we just feed off of image really. There's something built into these old symbols that creates these little visual clicks when we see them, and that's why they're so impactful. But because of the pace of modern society we stop at that and we're satisfied by it, and we don’t, for some reason, feel the need to go deeper conceptually.


We’re satisfied by the visuals, and that was something present in the show too, with the glossiness of the blown glass and the richness of the carpet. That could make it very easy to see the show on this one level, but talking to you now I realise that the intention was actually to say “this is a presentation.”


V: Hmm. Yeah, I totally agree with you in what you said about being so visually oriented nowadays, people have a “yeah, that's it, that makes sense” attitude to so many of these elaborate symbols. We surround ourselves by them and feel like we want to use them and show that we somehow feel connected with them, but we don't take the next step in really trying to understand them, and what kind of knowledge and effort, complex development, is behind them.


This goes back again to the question of why people are using the old symbols and their archetypes so much. Because yeah, I mean, they work. We feel like they speak to us on some level. But there's always another level.



M: Maybe people gravitate towards these ancient things because of the very projected, mythicised idea of simplicity in the past. We perceive Pagan cultures and their symbols as a time before everything got so messy, so complex, so deep as it is now. There's a real failure to understand that complexity doesn't evolve in a linear fashion, it’s a fallacy that we’re now more complex than we ever were. There’s a romanticisation of this naïveté of the past which is completely false, but easy.


V: Yeah, exactly. That's also the fascination of the past, when people imagine time traveling to the Medieval period, how amazing it would be. I think the only thing most people imagine is wearing elaborate dress or something, not realising that only a very tiny percentage of people lived the life they are imagining, and most of them would just be labouring on some field in dirt, having a bath once a year in the summer.


I think this applies to the symbols as well. It's super easy to draw the third eye on your notebook and feel enlightened but come on.


M: It’s flattening, it's very reductive.


V: But I like it, I mean, I find it funny. I find it interesting. I see it all around myself. I feel myself gravitate towards it as well. There is something very attractive in it. I try to think about not just why, because I can partially understand it, but how. For me personally it's not enough, if I find some symbol I don't understand, even if I feel like I can grasp some meaning, I would never feel comfortable just using it or pointing it out to someone else before learning more about it. It seems like the majority of people don't have these needs. They feel it's enough to just take it, just take it and use it in a way they feel. That's what I find really fascinating, the easiness with which some people just appropriate these things.


M: It’s definitely tied to this culture of gratification that we all live in, which is very consumptive and less about fully understanding something than using it to fulfil this very basic need that we are all a little bit starved of. That seems to be instinctual because of the world we live in.


V: Yeah, that’s probably right, I agree. I don't mean what I said as a judgment, I just observe it and see that people act like this with such ease, they don’t find it problematic. I'm not judging because I think it's the majority of people. What happens when a majority people of people does something, does it become the right way? There's also the contrast, who says that the people who feel they should discover more are right - if it's only a minority of them? So there's a weird imbalance in commenting on these things. The aim of it isn't to come out as the right one, or to say who's seeing it the right way.


I just really find it interesting, this movement to fascination and escape. Instead of trying to change what you're unhappy about in the current situation, you just romanticise the past.


M: It’s an analysis of a social condition that the majority of people drift into. What the show does is make that physical, puts it into a space. I suppose coming out of the show, maybe your intention was for people to have that moment of dis-attachment and realise that there is this very obvious distance between them and these scenes that they intuitively think they possess.


V: Yeah, for me, yes. For Matyáš, I can't speak on his behalf that much, but I think it's different, because he has the direct connection to the artefacts that he makes. I believe we somehow found a good balance in these things.