Against the flow of time
It isn't an easy task to write about the work of the photographer Jiří Stach. Its various layers of meaning and quiet self-contained character, set apart from the much-discussed trends of contemporary art, don't need to be stylistically classified in order to justify their authenticity. When Stach talks about himself, he is perfectly willing to share his knowledge and insights, though one can't help thinking that he doesn't fully reveal his core ideas. Instead it is up to us to make the necessary steps (each in our own way) to the centre of his labyrinth. On the way, we discover Stach's darkly poetic qualities, his original reflections on the human microsphere and cosmic macrosphere, and when it ultimately becomes clear that our aim - the heart of his creative imagination - still evades us, we realise that it is the path, not its definitively clarified conclusion, that is the essence of Stach's life and work. For this reason, a classical, linear biographical interpretation would fail to accurately describe the spirit and meaning of Stach's mystifying expression that flows against the current of time. It is only possible to look into his elegantly grotesque kaleidoscope from a wry angle. In the end, it is better to absorb his enigmatic messages without attempting an objective analysis - the chiaroscuro out of which his symbols emerge also represents the protective framework of his playful portrayal of phenomena and time. Although it is almost pointless trying to structure Jiří Stach's work in chronological order, his approach is not without a conceptual basis. During the past thirty years or so he has created several loose cycles that he has continually supplemented and enlarged. The three most important ones are 'From My Family Bestiary', 'Natura Magica' and 'Pinhole Blues'.
A path in photography
Since the age of eleven, when Jiří Stach first encountered photography as the sensual smell of developing fluids in the dark-room, this artistic discipline has been both the essence of how he perceives the impulses of reality and the medium through which he expresses his wealth of inner imagination. His photographic dialogue with the world began during the era of Bakelite in the second half of the 1950s, progressing to technically and conceptually more complex stages during his study at the Secondary Technical School of Graphic Arts in Prague (1958-1962) and at FAMU, the Film School of the Prague Academy of Performing Arts (1966-1972). Perhaps more than the formal framework of academic courses, it was the stimulating environment of Prague during the 1960s that inspired his development. At this point, when Stach the photographer came into contact with the world of filmmaking and theatre, we can sense a link, possibly only an indirect one, with a fundamental feature that has continued to characterise his work: the concept of an artificial world in which real and fictitious elements fuse in a metaphorical image of man corresponding to the vision of its 'creator'. Although Stach sometimes photographs the 'found' world without making any additional interventions, there is a prevailing feeling in his work that its playful, almost spontaneous quality is part of a carefully staged scene. This, however, represents the age-old skill of the artist - investing great effort in giving the viewer the impression of effortless ease while achieving a synthesis of the 'real' and the 'magical', thus drawing us into a symbolic sphere of signs and messages.
Source of inspiration
As a person whose life is closely linked with Prague, the city of Baroque metaphysical dynamism, the existential fragmentation of Cubism and the poetic juxtaposition of incongruous urban details, Jiří Stach doesn't have to strive for any conscious programme, not does he have to - the viewpoint that manifests itself in his photographs stems from the naturally (and almost genetically) determined context that provides his starting point. The complex cultural and social junction of Central Europe is the keen focus of Stach's reflections. In describing himself as a 'cosmopolitan' person, he has in mind the innate ability not to make artificial distinctions between 'domestic' and 'foreign' impulses and experiences. He doesn't cling to the exclusiveness of any one environment; on the contrary, his cultural memory and awareness are formed and supplemented according to how strongly a particular place inspires him. Two such places speak for many others. The first is a chateau in south Bohemia, a building in the style of 'rural Baroque' with authentic character unspoiled by attempts at modernisation. As one of the chateau's owners, Jiří Stach spends his summer months there, happily isolated from the distractions of life in Prague. The degree of solitude that he finds there undoubtedly benefits the process of sifting and refining his thoughts. In terms of his character, Jiří Stach could be described as a sociable introvert - these two seemingly contradicting qualities reflect themselves in how important strong bonds of friendship are to him, while at the same time he always discreetly guards the privacy of his inner self. One can't imagine a more sociable country than Italy, which, apart from being a country where he has family roots, is a kind of 'landscape of the soul' for him. Besides its cultivated lifestyle, which Stach enjoys during his trips there with his closest friends, Italy also provides him with vital opportunities to experience close up the finest examples of European culture, especially from the Renaissance era, and understand their meaning in situ, in their original context. This is exactly how understands his own work- as the focal point of a much broader human picture. The second place of deep significance to Jiří Stach is the small Tuscan town of Pitigliano, an Etruscan gem set in the landscape that continues to echo with Renaissance heritage.
The universe in coffee, life in a stone
Possibly the most broadly conceived photographic cycle in Jiří Stach's work is his collection entitled 'From My Family Bestiary'. It is a gradually compiled visual chronicle of his intimate reflections, partly created by closely juxtaposing photographs, drawings and written notes, most of which are illegible. Here we see personal references jumbled together with artefacts of a more universal meaning in human civilisation, mainly taken from the most characteristic 'institution' of Central European life - the café, a place of ritualised and futile expectation and innumerable prosaic little myths, where diverse opinions clash and influence each other in a polemical atmosphere. During Stach's student years the celebrated Café Slavia in Prague became a place for meeting people and learning new things, and later he also grew to the Vienna cafés Sperl, Central and the Museum Café. Besides these cafés, however, there is another one, not real but literally dreamt-up, that figures strongly in his work: Café Stein. It is the motif from a recurring dream about a stone café. The original Café Stein stood on the bank of the Vltava river but then began moving in both time and place. Characteristically for Stach, the word 'stein' contains hidden symbolism: apart from its literal meaning of 'stone' in German, it has deeper significance for him as the original surname of his father who, having returned from a concentration camp, changed his name in order to ensure his family a safer life in post-war Czech society. Café Stein appears in various forms in Stach's diaries, whose pages are filled with drawings and photographs of diverse fantastic creations reflecting a mystifying perception of the world of nature. Here, planetary, architectural and vegetative forms make up a carefully arranged collage that indicates a complex mosaic of scientific thoughts explained with urgent (though unintelligible) annotations, graphs and mathematical equations. Fixed to the pages of a real registry book with columns and numbered entries, this humorously obscure chronicle recalls the heroic wonder of the forefathers of modern science, the elegant apparatus of Austro-Hungarian bureaucracy, though is possibly also a playful irony on the totalitarian era blighted by the demoralising power of the rubber stamp and the official file. Another prominent motif, 'Mon Chapeau', presents a hat mysteriously hovering over a cooking pot surrounded by a still life of worthless old objects. The hat thus acquires a peculiar presence ranging somewhere between nostalgic speculation and Kafkaesque (or Gogolian) fetishist independence from its original purpose. A small and banal object such as a peanut undergoes a similar process, transforming and growing to monumental scale, becoming worthy of 'serious' analysis. The cultivated absurdity of such images isn't for its own sake, how behind their subtle irony we sense a genuine amazement at the surprising and often humorously provocative forms that nature presents us with. Stach's enjoyment at making fresh discoveries and classifying them in newly created (albeit wholly fictitious) charts evokes the era of romantic discovery during the 19th century. At the same time, one can detect a fundamental step further, to the level of cosmology. Stach's fascination for the apparent chaos of the universe that, on the contrary, conceals order, is also a recollection of the epoch of Einstein's pioneering explorations into the mechanisms of the cosmos. The obscure and intimately myth-creating language of Stach's photographs and drawings represents a poetic challenge to re-evaluate the place of man in the colossal 'machine of the universe' that knows nothing about its hugely complex motion. Stach the visionary has both feet on the ground, however; he views the beautiful strangeness of nature like a person standing in an imaginary observatory.
Construction of the mind
Besides his fascination for the visually evocative potential of organic forms, another marked conceptual line can be found in Jiří Stach's photography and drawing, embodied for exam- ple by his Café Stein mentioned earlier. Here, he returns to a surrealistic conception of architecture as a fantastic materialisation of processes and events in human civilisation. The anthill, the habitable raft, the pyramid, the fortified city and other constructions depicted in minute detail all tell us of his narrative understanding of the world and its phenomena. His stories, however, are never explicit. He doesn't create illustrations, but rather creates space for myth that is played out parallel to our own reality. In his highly personal mythology, Stach presents us with the instruments of metamorphosis, a humorous faith in the impossible that in places recalls the Dadaist theatre of futility. The characteristic 'otherness' of Stach's photographs is reinforced by the fact that they are exclusively black-and-white, thus somehow lying outside a specific framework of time. In Jiří Stach's work, the freezing of time (something in any case so fundamental to the nature of photography) plays a key role in breaking the continuous flow of perception; his café still lifes especially, frozen in sudden movement (or flight), evoke a surreal feeling of disjointed reality. At the same time, it is impossible not to sense a distant echo of the Mannerist fascination for controlled instability and irrational spatial effects.
Portrait of the artist
Occasionally Jiří Stach himself appears in his photographs; these are not self-portraits, however, but the motif of the artist sucked into his own mystifying actions. Here. We see him conducting his 'research experiments', while elsewhere he appears like a guinea pig in X-raying his lungs with a home-made contraption. In this respect, his photographic concept has something in common with performance art.
In looking at Stach's mystifying treatment of nature and the universe in the theme of his 'Natura Magica' series, another intuitive link springs to mind the pseudo-scientific mystery of the Rudolphine alchemists. The dramatic use of light strongly emphasises the plastic qualities of the photographed objects, evocatively shaped fruit and vegetables, which in this (literally) different light acquire a magical and often erotic appearance; pears transform into a sensuous female nude, a gherkin hovers in the air like a cosmic body, a turnip strides through the landscape on long spindly legs, a 'wild' carrot with sharp claws flies though a dark sky and the inner flesh of a walnut gazes contemplatively at us like a half-human face. Out of a mirrored cluster of fruit there emerges an Arcimboldoesque portrait. In these works Stach makes fullest use of the photographic transcription of natural phenomena, loading them with associative meaning. We can possibly find (typically ironic) traces of the 19th-century Gothic novel in his Natura Magica photographs in their emphasis on mystery, darkness, eccentricity verging on madness, and on the transience of life and its beauty that falls into dust. The rough, uneven margins of these scenes recall the photographic works created at the very beginning of modern photography.
Any eye on the world
Taking Stach's intimate, 'chamber' vision of phenomena around him into account, it is no surprise that the photographic apparatus that best suits his innate creative character is the camera obscura or pinhole camera - a bare box with a hole instead of a lens that captures the world as an inverse image directly projected on its rear surface. An instrument that, as carly as the 11th century, helped observe the eclipse of the sun and in the 16th century served as an artistic aid in the perspectival drawing of nature, remains in close contact with nature as it travels with Stach on his journeys, recording his visual experiences. The pinhole camera provides both the technical medium and the title of Stach's photographic cycle 'Pinhole Blues'; the painstaking approach it requires is the best challenge to his thoughtfulness, patience and thorough professionalism. A scene photographed this way is sharply focused throughout, with a peculiar depth that seems almost deformed. The dream-like quality of these works doesn't stem from a lack of clarity in the photographs, but from their concreteness. It isn't, though, the concreteness of rational realism but the elastic concreteness of a kind of surreal metamorphosis. Although Jiří Stach doesn't consciously see himself as continuing in any historical or Modernist trend, his visual language based on the disintegration of coherent reality into individual signs and their reconnection in a language of subtly hallucinatory visions recalls the comparable expressive mechanisms of Surrealism. With their faintly unreal character, Stach's camera obscura photographs capture a more complex image of the world than an immobile fragment of portrayed reality, instead indicating a sensed psychological whole in which time, space and movement play equal roles.
In his work of the past thirty years, Jiří Stach has created a wholly unique world of the imagination. He has never devoted much effort to promoting his position in the culture scene; he doesn't actively seek out chances to exhibit or make himself visible to the public. On the few occasions he has shown his photographs, however, he has left a strong impression in the minds of his viewers. He belongs more to the special Czech tradition of the lone artist who makes his own pilgrimage through the landscape and doesn't pay too much attention to 'topical' events going on around him. The principle of mystification runs through all his work, defining the boundary of his own particular domain which is not as detached from the 'real' world as it might at first appear. In our everyday life we continually find ourselves among the 'habitual' mystifying processes of society, subconsciously allowing ourselves to be fooled by deliberately false consumerist or ideological signals. In his personal statement, Jiří Stach openly and wittily plays with the phenomenon of mystification - though the smile he brings to our lips is also accompanied by a more serious question concerning the deceptive interpretation of reality and its historical consequences for the fate of humanity.
RICHARD F. DRURY