Michaela Thelenová: I Work In Two Ways

(Born in 1969 in Chomutov)

Michaela Thelenová currently works mainly with digital photography and computer technology, and is concerned with the manipulation of reality, and its affect on human thought. She is a professor in the Department of the Electronic Image at the Faculty of Art and Design of the Faculty of Art and Design of UJEP (Jan Evangelista Purkyně University) in Ústí nad Labem.

Q: I’d like to ask you about your artistic beginnings. Do you remember your first photographic series?
A: I went to high school in Chomutov, and as there wasn’t any real focus on art there, I didn’t really have any artistic ambitions. I remember that I liked to spend time drawing, but that was just within the framework of my education. I didn’t have any aspirations to attend art school. When I applied to university in the eighties, I ended up being somewhat limited, because during the application process my father was put in detention for two years for reasons that had to do with that time.
Because of that I couldn’t even imagine myself studying in Prague. I was just hoping to get into a school where I could study one of the humanities. As my grandmother had been a teacher, I decided to apply for the pedagogical faculty at UJEP, and I logically chose art education. The school offered many teaching certifications, but at the time art education was only offered in combination with Russian. Anyway, I ended up studying there, and I passed the state exams in Russian. I even spent half a year as an exchange student in Volgograd, which was quite an experience. After my studies I had the chance to meet a lot of interesting people, who at that time were teaching in the Department of Art Education. In the beginnings, the contact with Jaroslav Prášil and Jiří Bartůněk was really important for me. Basically from my first year I started to build relationships and form my own opinions. I started to create things, though the beginnings were not particularly striking.
My work at the start wasn’t clearly focused on photography, but I did tend to lean towards it the most. You asked about my first photographic series, and I think that was probably in 1987, or maybe 1988. In those first works, I altered the photos in various ways, working with developer, interfering with the photo.
At that time Gerhard Richter was a source of inspiration for me. That was when my work was really in its infancy, when photography had a more aesthetic value for me, but later I gradually began to find my own approach, to use photography as the medium which best allowed me to visualize my thoughts.
Q: Did you consider any further study in the field of photography?
A: When I was at the Faculty of Pedagogy my family situation was quite complicated. Actually, Jiří Černický and Pavel Kopřiva were also studying with me, and they got into AAAD (Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague), but I didn’t have those ambitions, as I had already started my studies in Ústí. Maybe as a woman I also partially just wanted to get done with the school I was in, and didn’t want to risk applying to another, because at the time there weren’t many art schools to choose from. The chances of getting into AAAD or the Academy of Fine Arts at that time were a lot slimmer than they are now.
So I finished my studies at the Faculty of Pedagogy and, as I had gotten involved with exhibiting during the last years of my studies, I didn’t really have much motivation to keep studying after that. Another reason, the most important one in fact, was that I was expecting a child. When my daughter was six months old, the Institute of Visual Culture – now the Faculty of Art and Design – opened, and in 1994 I was nominated to apply for the position of assistant in the new Studio of Photography under the leadership of Pavel Baňka.
Q: Was there there a significant culture of exhibiting in Ústí at the beginning of the nineties?
A: You know, the Emil Filla Gallery is doing well there now, and it was actually already open in the nineties. Of course, though, its beginnings were a reflection of the time. Since then the space has evolved into being what it is today, but the gallery was already in operation in the nineties. And that whole time Michal Koleček has stood behind it.
Q: So the conditions were pretty good, in the sense that there was a place to exhibit.
A: Yes, but the gallery didn’t just show local artists. Of course, most of us did exhibit there, but the program was based on the exhibition council’s recommendations, and was intended to show artists from all over the country. Adéla Matasová, Dalibor Chatrný, Jiří David, Petr Nikl, Václav Stratil, František Skála, and Jiří Valoch all exhibited there, just to name a few.
Q: How did you perceive the revolutionary atmosphere in the school?
A: It was a strange situation. During most of the revolution I was in Volgograd on exchange, so it was huge shock for me when I returned. One really couldn’t understand what was happening, because I had not been there from the beginning. It goes without saying that it was a huge release. When it comes to school structure, I finished in 1993, so those four years from 1989 were quite a short time, and during it the organization of the classes didn’t change that much. The personnel did change, though, probably like it did everywhere.
Q: Did you find any artistic inspiration in Volgograd?
A: Honestly, no. I was more concerned with completing my exchange at the school there successfully, because otherwise I wouldn’t have been able to graduate. My primary aim there was to survive because that was a time when you could only get even basic goods like milk in exchange for vouchers. When I tell people about it now, the idea is unimaginable. The poverty there at that time was terrible, and on top of that prohibition had been introduced, which meant that you could only buy alcohol once a week, and only in big shopping centers that seemed more like prisons, where you would buy bottles of vodka through iron bars.
Q: Still, it must have been interesting to associate with students from other countries.
A: Yes, definitely. It was 1989, and until then we hadn’t had many opportunities to meet foreign students or people of our age from other countries. At most, we were able to meet German students from near the border in exchange programs, but that was all under the eye of the regime. In Volgograd we were suddenly able to meet with people of many nationalities. It was quite a dangerous city, though; many crimes were committed daily, including murder.
Q: Did the local students at all notice that the system was essentially collapsing? Did you talk about politics at all?
A: We didn’t really communicate that much with the Russian students, but I do recall having debates with professors. It was interesting to see how stubborn some of them were. They were really convinced that that regime was the best that could ever exist. Then there were some enlightened ones, people who had been able to travel abroad – even to the West – on exchange programs. They had a better understanding of the situation.
Q: I have read a number of interviews with you, and it always seems to come up that you are a North Bohemian artist, or that you are an artist from Ústí nad Labem. How do you react to being pigeonholed like that?
A: Honestly, it doesn’t bother me. And I don’t take it as being pigeonholed, but rather as just classification. It’s important for someone who doesn’t know me to know that I am from the north Bohemian region, and in fact from the region of Sudetenland. Maybe it seems like a cliché since it has been coming up in articles for ten years, but it isn’t an unpleasant thing for me. It’s more just a bit of introductory information for the reader.
Q: You don’t take it as a drawback. After all, you are based here in North Bohemia, but your work is known all over the country, as well as abroad. Has the fact that you have never lived in Prague and don’t go to the pub with people from the art scene there ever caused you problems?
A: I would partly say that the fact that I am from North Bohemia doesn’t necessarily preclude me from working also in a different context. Have I ever regretted not living in Prague? No, I haven’t. Living here suits me because my work is connected to the region through the school where I work. When it comes to making the contacts I want, I can do that without having to live in Prague. For example, I did have a really good experience working with the Hunt Kastner Gallery, specifically with Katherine Kastner and Camille Hunt. To tell you the truth, perhaps I’m a bit of an introvert when it comes to this; I don’t need to take part in every event, and I don’t need a huge amount of contacts.
I tend to collaborate with quite a small circle of curators, people like Michal Koleček, František Kowolowski, Ludvík Hlaváček, and Zbyňek Sedláček, to mention some Czech names. I can’t forget Martina Pachmanová, either, whom I guess as a woman I should have mentioned first. These are people I have worked with on a number of exhibitions and projects. Some foreign curators I have worked with, for example, are Andrea Domesle, Barbora Geržová, Margarethe Makovec, Anton Lederer, and of course Radek Váňa, who also works abroad now.
Q: You were speaking about Sudetenland. Have you planned to reflect this topic in your work even more?
A: It has appeared in three works, one of which was conceived as an exaggeration, which was Geist und Schönheit. That came out of these old magazines I had found that had been published in the ‘30s, before the war. They propagated the beauty of the human spirit, form and the interconnection between them. Basically, I had my husband re-create the positions of the bodies in those photos; he was watering the garden, chopping wood. Our house is in Sudetenland, and it had previously been lived in by the Germans. I used texts that I had found in the magazines to complement the photos. Things like “Courage to Will”, and other such rousing slogans.
That work was made with certain ease. For me it was a way to deal with the topic not by being severe, but rather by being light-hearted, which even the Germans who saw it noticed. Another work I made was about mapping space, for which I took photos of old German graves. Actually just their remnants, gravestones without names, stripped of their association with a particular person, approaching a general, almost abstract level.
Q: It seems that your work comments on things that are happening, or things you are experiencing. Have you ever wanted to activate people, to tell them directly that something awful is going on?
A: Well, you more or less said it for me. No, I never needed that type of direct engagement; I was never much attracted by that. I have always just wanted to point things out, and let the viewer make up their mind. I think that as soon as you aim to make something in the way you say, to literally cause excitement, it is obvious what the message is. What I do like is that hesitation you have when only a hint is given as to what the meaning is, and it’s up to you to decide. It’s either the intended message, or, let’s say, another idea is indicated behind it. That way of working really suits me.
Q: How do you come up with ideas that relate to specific places? Do they come to you in dreams, or do you come across them in real life?
A: Well, I’d like to say, and this is probably obvious, but I basically like to work in two ways. I have never enjoyed just moving in one thematic line, which I would develop and ornament along the way; I have always worked in two ways. One of them is more personal and relates to changes in my life, like to my becoming a mother, or to my co-existence with my husband. The second is kind of more general, where I am looking for completely universal topics, or for subjects connected to
the region.
I don’t think anything comes to me in dreams, because in general I am quite systematic. I will sometimes just tell myself to come up with something. Sometimes my approach to things can be incomprehensible to other people. I simply choose an objective, and concern myself with that. Of course sometimes the theme comes to me by chance as the result of some experience, but sometimes it arises in that systematic fashion.
Q: Motherhood isn’t a theme that would be very popular in contemporary art, even though it is an experience that most women go through or are affected by. Your installation The Never-ending Umbilical Cord was one of the few works made on that topic in the nineties.
A: That’s true. I’d like to mention that though I may work with a concrete person, with a model or with someone from the family, I don’t want the result to be about that particular person. I try to bring it to a sort of universal level. So even if I use actors, you can’t identify them by their face or anything else. I just don’t want it to be too personal. I want it to evoke a particular feeling, to hit a spot in people.
Q: Like motherhood, it seems to me that matrimony and family relationships are not dealt with very much in contemporary art.
A: That’s true.
Q: However, you used your daughter in the videos that are in the exhibition at Hunt Kastner. I take it she models for you, then?
A: She has in fact done so continuously since her childhood. It’s of course somewhat practical in that I know her well and I can work with her easily. I originally made that video with a friend who I also know well, and who was also easy to work with, but it didn’t turn out well. At first I didn’t want to drag my daughter into it because she’s seventeen, and I wasn’t sure she’d be interested. I have to say, though, that the video I made with my friend just wasn’t what I wanted. Working with my daughter, however, was completely natural and the work came out exactly as I had imagined it.
Q: In the beginning of the nineties people started to talk about the fact that there wasn’t only one universal art, but rather that it could be different depending on whether it was made by a woman or a man. Do you remember reflecting on the discussion about women’s art, or perhaps thinking that you were working differently than your male counterparts? Did any curators choose you for an exhibition because you were a woman?
A: I think I was chosen more because of topics I was working with, and not because I was a woman. Even with things I am working on, I am not trying primarily to stress the fact that I am a woman. It comes from the fact that I am one, and themes find their own way to me.
I do remember that at that time I was working on a project with Radek Váňa in the MXM gallery, and the selected artists were all women. I showed my series At the Photographer’s there, which had been printed on canvas. That series is made up of cut outs of photographs, details of hands or gestures that implied a specific situation. Most of them were old family photos, for example of my grandmother, of my great-grandmother. Regarding the hand gestures, some were taken from anonymous photographs.
Q: You were recently chosen by Martina Pachmanová to take part in the Formats of Transformation 89–09 exhibition. How did it feel to exhibit in a purely female context?
A: That show suited me, probably because I had discussed it with Martina beforehand, so I knew how it had been conceived.
Q: And do you think it makes sense to show art using that criterion?
A: I don’t think that was the primary criterion for that exhibition.
Q: So what was Martina Pachmanová trying to say?
A: The text in the catalogue is written from the point of view of women in that time period, in the specific atmosphere of the time. It had nothing to do with discriminating against our male colleagues, the concept was very clearly thought-out. Of course, all the artists exhibited were women who had started working before 1989. There was a female experience during that time that had a certain aspect of connection to it.
Q: In the nineties, there were many women who refused to be labeled “women artists”, because they were afraid that once their work gets labeled this way, it would never be seen as anything else. Did that debate concern you as well?
A: I never felt like I was being pigeonholed. There were indeed some works there that focused on female intimacy and motherhood, but did I feel like I was only being taken as a purely female artist? No.
Q: How does photography work for you as a medium? I think it was Michal Koleček, who wrote that you take advantage of the mistakes, the failure in the medium.
A: That’s true of some of my works which come from the medium of photography itself, like Landscapes and Weekend series. In those I enjoyed working to a certain degree with clichés, with composition, panoramic shots and so on. It’s clear that those works are not so-called “good photography”. In that sense I enjoy working with the medium and stealing from it a little bit.
With other series like Satellites, however, I just use photography as tool for expression, because if those images were drawn, they wouldn’t work. For me photography is important in those cases. But it is just a photographic statement, it isn’t about the photos. What’s more, when I make series that aren’t like the Landscapes or Weekend series, from the initial concept I have a clear idea of what the work is going to look like. All I have to do then is realize it. I know what will go where, how it will be colored, I know exactly what the result is going to look like.
Q: Are you the type of person that waits for the ideal lighting conditions?
A: Not at all. I make the shooting conditions just right so that the result is as I had imagined it.
Q: I have been thinking about your series On Freedom for a long time. Did you consciously decide to work with that theme, or was there a more intense impulse that made you do it?
A: Well, this goes back to the idea of working in two ways, one of which is more personal, the other more universal. When it comes to using media, those two ways always figure. One is more photographically oriented, and as I described, the other is more deliberate; I know precisely what the outcome will look like. The more photographic approach applies in the series On Freedom that maps the space around me, yet it is in fact looking for certain moments, the borders between freedom and non-freedom. It was at this sort of fragmented level, however. In its own way, it is a very intimate series.
Q: I was interested if you took the photos first and then you decided to frame them in that concept, or did you first decide on the concept, and then take the photos?
A: In most cases I take photos only after I am clear on what subject I want to deal with. There have been exceptions where I incorporated photos I had already taken into series, but usually the work comes about more systematically.
Q: You work is very systematically organized. I think we could even draw up some charts on the subject.
A: It’s not even intentional, though. Working this way just suits me. I never enjoyed saving photos or just shooting for myself and then using the results to put together a series.
Q: Have you ever kept a photographic journal? I mean, some people take pictures every day.
A: No, no, no. I was never much interested in that. I feel that even though the method I use may be more laborious, it is still more genuine than it would be if I put it together from piles of photos I already had. In that way I pose challenges for myself, and I guess that’s what I enjoy about it.
Q: Do you ever have problems creating the photos as you envision them? Do they ever fail to be what you had in mind?
A: Usually not. The conditions required are not that complicated.
Q: And do you ever stage your photos?
A: Of course. The Wives’ Considerations series, in which you see a lot of different hands, was staged. Not everything arises completely naturally. The work that was in the exhibition By the Time You Return Home From Work, It Will All Be Nicely Tidied Up… at Hunt Kastner was generally made up of reconstructed situations.
Q: I just wanted to ask you about this show as well. It’s not your first experience with video, but how do you perceive that medium?
A: I used to work exclusively in photography, and based on my knowledge of it, I was able to come up with method that allowed me to handle the medium as I needed to. I have been attracted by video for a long time now; something like four or five years. I had a clear idea of what I wanted to do, but I wasn’t able to realize it. I kept putting it off perhaps because I wasn’t ready for it, or perhaps because I had never used video. It was only here that I succeeded in taking the next step, and actually trying to use it. I guess I needed to grow into it, and perhaps it also demanded a more private theme, but in the end it worked out.
Q: And are you satisfied with the results?
A: I’m satisfied. I succeeded in working with video in the same way I do with photography in that it turned out how I wanted it to. Of course we had to take multiple shots, as not everything in the process always works out perfectly. Still, the result met my expectations.
Q: How do you compare the two media? What does video give you that photography doesn’t?
A: For me, photography is about a given moment. When you have a hidden story behind a photo, it is up to the imagination of the viewer to decode it. Using video, however, suddenly allowed me to tell the complete story, and for me that meant that there were immediately a lot more layers to work with. In that sense, I suppose I have found what was missing in photography for me.