On entering Eva Koťátková’s and Dominik Lang’s collaborative exhibition Wasteland the initial feeling is that there is a lot to see and make sense of, all scattered about a small space. Miscellaneous clutter, mysterious parcelled objects, branches and chipped railings serve as the main components of this site-specific installation, which presents the viewer with the task of navigating its disparate parts, dodging obstacles and making one’s way amidst the rubble. At the threshold of the installation, a collection of small rectangular cardboard boxes filled with sand, pebbles and bark shards nestled in tissue paper, impede the entrance, as though accidently deposited and waiting to be unpacked. The viewer steps around the boxes, careful not to tip them over but perhaps also tempted to plunge a tentative hand into their earthy matter. At the upper centre of the space, a tree with a bulbous base springs from a railed-off enclosure propped up on wooden crates. Packaged in brown parchment, its papery branches reach outwards and inadvertently poke passers-by like crinkly, intrusive fingers. Surrounding the centrepiece in a semi-circular pattern, are smooth white slopes, like miniature skateboarding ramps, that further hinder the viewer’s movement around the space.
The mechanisms and rituals of a given environment, and the complex relationship between viewer and object are what particularly interest Koťátková and Lang. In presenting a space encumbered by sculptural objects and detritus, Joseph Beuys’ theatrical approach to sculpture immediately comes to mind. In thinking of Beuys’ work – in particular his dynamic room environments such as End of the Twentieth Century (1983-85) and Hearth I and II (1968/74 and 1978-79) – Wasteland can be appreciated in terms of how it engages the viewer through direct involvement and movement within the space. There are visual cues that evoke Beuys too: the irregular slices of cement are reminiscent of Beuys’ infamous wodges of unctuous, slippery fat; the employment of everyday objects, including umbrellas and bicycles, albeit sheathed in brown paper, can also be considered as a Beuysian element; and the railings that line the back wall again recall the metal rods that feature in many of Beuys’ environments.
Beuys’ work is frequently considered in terms of traumatic memory and the dangers of its repression. Whilst this aspect is not necessarily made explicit in Wasteland, ideas of concealment and covering over are central to the experience of the installation on both a visual and figurative level. In the lower left hand corner of the room, an obsessive smattering of round objects of varying lumpy shapes, wrapped in ubiquitous brown paper, are loosely organised in size, with the occasional larger oblong package obstructing the neatness of the order. The assortment of paper parcels provokes a childlike curiosity to peel back the paper and reveal the prize underneath. Yet, at the same time, these boxes and parcels, in some cases carefully tied with string, are troubling for what they conceal: what is hidden underneath and do we really want to know?
As the title suggests, an atmosphere of doom and gloom permeates the space, almost as though there is in fact a hidden trauma here that one is not yet privy to. The brown-papered rails at the far end of the room, evoking perhaps the Gothic fencing of a graveyard, suggest a state of constraint or imprisonment . Through the use of displaced tree trunks and bare branches, salvaged objects and the mound of rot-brown leaves in the enclosure, a dreary air of decay and desolation pervades Wasteland; so much so that it is impossible not to be reminded of T.S. Eliot’s bleak imagery in his eponymous poem: ‘What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow out of this stony rubbish?’ (The Waste Land, 1922).
Yet the sense of the dismal disorder of the installation is perhaps only a surface appraisal of what Koťátková and Lang are actually trying to achieve. A series of 32 framed letters on black A4 paper hang on the right wall nearest the entrance. The letters reveal one side of a conversation written from what we presume to be the artists’ perspective, or some fictionalized version of it: the letters are signed ‘E’ for Eva or ‘D’ for Dominik – to some anonymous ‘Sir’ (as in ‘Dear Sir’). Whether one opts to read the correspondence on entering the installation or after having wandered about the space for some time (as I chose to do), one’s perception of Wasteland is irrevocably changed on encountering the documents.
From reading the letters, Wasteland somewhat bizarrely emerges as a park in limbo, a ‘hypothetical place’ awaiting a suitable relocation. Following the closure of their local park, the letters record how ‘E’ and ‘D’ are looking to transfer the objects of the park to a new location, and eventually how plans have been made, approved and then halted. Among the correspondence is an itemised list of man-made and natural objects that comprise a typical park, many of which can be identified in the given surroundings: ‘a young apple tree’, ‘a book that someone has forgotten on a bench wrapped in paper’, ‘a forgotten umbrella’, ‘236 stones’, ’10 fence segments’ and even a ‘fragment of sidewalk with a rain puddle’.
Wasteland, then, effectively presents a storeroom, and there is a poignancy to the items’ unrealised status. Yet even more than that, Wasteland, as park-to-be, invokes a scene of grim but playful absurdity, not unlike that of a Beckett play. A bench propped on its side, an enormous steely crescent (presumably the ‘metal playground structure’ on the itemised list), turned sideways like an oddly spherical ladder, and a soundtrack of water trickling yet not a single drop to be found, all suggest the sort of mischievous humour characteristic of the absurd.
On exiting the exhibition, that familiar feeling of ‘what was all that about’ creeps up, and one cannot help but feel a little deflated. It is not so much a feeling of let-down as it is confusion tinged with the tragicomic nature of it all. The typed correspondence does not only illuminate the ways in which our lives and spaces are dictated by bureaucratic structures and institutions, but, somewhat ironically, how the viewer’s sense of space is equally governed by the rules and practices imposed by the gallery as institution. In light of this, Wasteland precariously exists as both exhibition and store cupboard.
However, in drawing attention to how our perception of space changes through knowledge and involvement, the experience of Wasteland, much like Beuys’ project of ‘Social Sculpture’, is transformative. By way of the viewer’s active engagement, Wasteland, with its strange alignment of park facility, bureaucratic site and art gallery, propels its visitors to reconsider the ways in which space is shaped and framed by institutional structures as opposed to passive acceptance of their rules and authority.