Milena Dopitová: We Were in the Right Place at the Right Time

(Born in 1963 in Šternberk)

A conceptual artist dealing with the themes of social, physical and gender identity, Milena Dopitová focuses, among other topics, on the phenomena of adolescence, aging, death and violence. She is the only female artist who became the member of the Pondělí group in 1989. She teaches at VŠUP (Academy of Arts, Architecture, and Design in Prague) and Západočeská univerzita v Plzni (University of West Bohemia in Pilsen).

Q: What formed your future life and profession?
A: I come from single-egg twins. What formed me was a harmonious family and the very tight relationship with my sister, which is still the case today. We spent all of our time together all the way to adulthood, when our lives and hobbies took different directions. I only now realize that my first experiences with visual arts, if I skip the obligatory two-hour session in school, was as late as eighth grade of elementary school, when I was sick with a cold and decided to paint. I stayed home alone and spent my time looking for objects, keepsakes, important yet unimportant things in an overstuffed cabinet. I found old postcards depicting landscapes of various times and places that were also part of the collection. I was surprised by the perfection and what emanated from those postcards. I couldn’t put my finger on it at the time, but now in retrospect I see that back then the main reason was plenty of time and good color photography. I told myself why not try drawing it?
That was sort of the first impulse. Gradually I started to perceive nature as an interesting motif and imagined which section or which composition would be the right one. I come from Šternberk in Moravia and there was a very good visual arts club at the local high school. Open air painting held an important role in the program. During the summer workshops we painted nature in the open air. It was a great bunch of people and I think that this community became my main impulse in selecting my future profession.
Q: You also collaborate with your sister. Do you think that being single-egg twins has some special influence on you and your work?
A: Probably yes, we were together from the first moments of life and that surely has to leave a tie in both individuals, which is not an easy state in the time of becoming independent. Until we were eighteen, we lived with our parents, then my sister got married and shortly thereafter she gave birth to a son. After high school, I went to art school and then continued to the Academy of Fine Arts. Suddenly I felt that I saw her completely differently, than when we were seeing each other before. I felt, that the closeness we had before we were separated changed. It wasn’t that my sister would love me less; she just distributed her love among several people...
It was harder for me than for her. Suddenly we didn’t share our little room and some “strange” guy took her away into a different home.
The separation of twins is probably always difficult, which is why a number of them live with their partners close to each other... But it was interesting that the connection kept working and it’s intense even today. For example, at the time of my studies, when I came home after a month, she came to meet me at the train station in the same skirt that I bought the same week in Uherské Hradiště – it might seem strange to some people for us it’s commonsense, we function even at long distance and perhaps even with the passing years, it’s become even more intense. We both live in different cities, different lifestyles and this naturally forms the look and behavior of each of us. My sister had her son very early on and I started doing art at the time.
Q: And then you applied at the Academy of Fine Arts? Which studio did you select?
A: I first applied during socialism, so it wasn’t as easy if one didn’t have some political background. There was the opportunity to attend consultations. You could arrange an individual meeting in a selected studio, where we presented our homework. That was my first experience with professor Kolář. It was a great stress to even go there, as those were “master” professors. After presenting my work, professor Kolář told me nothing positive; he more-or-less chewed me up. He also said I had dishonest eyes. That was my first experience with the Academy. Then I realized why he did it; he had to show his greatness, so that a person would have to come back for more consultations. Someone with a weaker character would perhaps not show up the next time. I did come back but to someone else. I had fellow students who tried it six or seven times. And it’s true that our class, which was admitted two years before the revolution, were mature adult people who knew what they wanted to do. I was lucky to be a part of that strong year. This then became apparent throughout the entire studies, when our generation actively participated and still participates today in contemporary visual work.
Q: Who else was with you in the strong year?
A: Petr Lysáček, Petr Zubek, Petr Písařík, Tomáš Hlavina... It was the time of Confrontations, Perestroika and the revolution was about to drop. The atmosphere was charged with energy, full of upcoming changes, with the hope of better times... That’s also when the Pondělí (Monday) art group formed.
Q: You actually co-founded the Pondělí art group.
A: Yes, that was not even a year before the revolution. Besides our strong year, the group was co-founded also by two older schoolmates, Pavel Humhal and Michal Nesázal. There was a great library available at the Academy, where we could read Flashart, Kunstforum and other foreign magazines. And mostly we had the need to communicate in a free way, compared to what the Academy accepted and enabled us to do. We drew inspiration from everyday life and used various means, media, to make the concept communicable. I think that was the most important thing for us. And we were a great community.
Q: Jana and Jiří Ševčík wrote that, besides the fact that you were a group of artists at the time of a generational divide around 1989, there was also a shift in the media in the Czech context.
A: We focused on the ordinary, what surrounded us and hence the name, Monday. The inspirations were social themes we came across every day and in this way we reacted to society and its development. The form of the object, installation relates to this, where aside using the ready-made, we combined various materials, but also media; in the beginning, for example, photography, later video. In return, we expected a reaction from the audience. We didn’t present some mysterious symbols, the world of fantasy... as we knew it from previous generations. We were interested in the momentary, everyday experience and from this confrontation with reality developed further impulses and space.
Q: What was the response from society?
A: It was in time just before the revolution and as a student of the Academy, I was not allowed to exhibit at events of types such as Confrontations... They weren’t politically correct. So I participated in these events under a different name. To be active in those fields meant being invited to the office of the chancellor Hána, and be told that if you don’t stop with these things, you’ll be kicked out of the school. So, ahead of time, we planned different names to use.
But the first exhibition in the gallery u řečických was already legally alright. An unstoppable change took place, not only in politics, but also across all fields, including art. We liked creating objects, changing their material, meanings and so we gradually got into space installations, which was fascinating. The exhibition activities and projects we created on the spot, without either form or content being known to us ahead. The space itself was the inspiration and often we didn’t even have any materials with us, we just used whatever was around. And the installations would grow under our hands through mutual connection and intertwinning of things and their meanings.
Q: You had the Western form, which brought you to the attention of gallery owners and collectors from the West. The form itself then didn’t surprise them, they knew it. Was the content so different and exceptional then?
A: I don’t think it can be categorized like this. We were extremely lucky that we were in the right place at the right time. That was our huge benefit. And we were completely free, we weren’t burdened by any concepts, by some “color washing” and “doing what would be liked”.
We hadn’t seen the foreign exhibitions, so we did what we felt. And if we addressed the right people, then it was because the Czech Republic also received much attention thanks to the Velvet Revolution. Journalists, curators and collectors were simply curious about how it looks here. That’s why there was this boom of interest and organizers of biennales, gallery owners, museum curators started to come here... It was a big chance for the Czech Republic, incredible, which subsequently wasn’t much utilized.
It was a space for wonderful opportunities. Unfortunately, because there wasn’t any previous experience in how to work with this material and treat it, many opportunities were lost, which were hard to catch up with later. Nowadays, the important people in this field often never even cross our borders and head next-door, where the continuity and constructive approach keeps going and wasn’t so wasted.
Q: May I return to the library in the Academy and ask which international sources and artists you remember?
A: Annette Lemieux, Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons – the generation today in their fifties, mid-forties. The generation of Rosemarie Trockel and Cindy Sherman.
Q: You are mentioning female artists. Did you already think at the time that you were interested in other things than your male colleagues?
A: I wasn’t dealing with that at all, because I had no reason to, but mostly I found inspiration within myself. The language was, logically, female and at that time everyone was intuitively looking for their own means of expression. Everyone in the Monday group was a bit different, but we weren’t worried about that at all. It’s true that some things one feels more. That’s why the female approach is a bit different, in its sensitivity, its perception, but it can’t be generalized.
Q: And when did you first realize that you are different from your male colleagues and classmates through this otherness? Did you think about this yourself?
A: No. I didn’t admit this to myself at all. The fact that everyone was original reflected the colorfulness and distinctiveness of the group members. I was dealing with, for example, identity, hygiene, or those wasteful things, the questions of why some objects even exist and how they are actually important to life. Besides the social projects, there were periodically repeated themes relating to danger to life, or death.
And when someone labeled my projects as feministic, I thought why not? The more people the work can address, the better, and then it has a wider space for communication.
Q: In 1993 there was an exhibition of female art at the Old Town Hall, where you also exhibited. You felt the need to react, to question the choice, or were you pleased?
A: I was always more focused on the concept of the exhibition and the context in which it occurs. If it had a meaningful foundation, I didn’t worry about whether it’s a female exhibition or non-female and so I don’t even have reasons to deal with this issue in retrospect. I can’t recall exactly if I was there, but if I was, then only because it was an interesting project.
This issue always developed in the press conferences and I always replied that if it’s a meaningful concept, then there is no reason not to participate. And if only women are invited, then why not of course? But the difference is, when it is a feminist exhibition – a radical one,
that is supposed to systematically follow a certain line, a goal with which I don’t currently identify in my work. I’m not sure if I was ever in such a situation. We would have to talk about some very specific cases. The fact that I’m a woman is apparent in my handwriting, in my thinking. It is naturally given. It was never, that was never a programmed image or a radical form of fight for women’s rights. The work is the reflection of feelings, moods with which society deals; it feeds itself of the events that are taking place or are about to happen. For me, art is communication and confrontation with reality I can express myself about thanks to my profession and give it a name.
Q: Within the questionnaire “There Is No Such Thing as Female Art” organized by Věra Jirousová for Výtvarné umění (Visual Arts) magazine you recall your experience from a women’s museum that felt downright unpleasant to you. You describe it as some sort of a sanatorium, where they treat strange illnesses and that illness is femininity.
A: I felt it as a crutch at the time. That was in Bonn. I didn’t have many experiences and respected everything new and unknown. The feminist museum was a multistory building filled with art. I think there were partly also studios that were very busy. And suddenly it all started to fall on me. All the pictures from kitchens, still lives of laundry rooms, unwashed dishes, violence... Some paintings were of varied quality. And suddenly I felt it as some form of a complex or therapy. I was asked to register when I was leaving. Among my favorite artists were also women and so I asked – do you have Annette Lemieux here or Cindy Sherman? And these names weren’t on the list. And because I didn’t know the women in Bonn and I didn’t have a good feeling from it, I told myself that this is not a place where I’d have to be. In our society, feminism was a derogatory term and the public had no understanding of it, but all that is about development and I think that much changed in this area and keeps changing.
Q: It’s still derogatory.
A: Generally perhaps, but I think that for example male artists wouldn’t easily dare to say at an exhibition “that must have been done by some woman” or in the dialog of renowned artists the well established idea that a woman belongs in the kitchen is almost gone... True, there is still the derogatory label “oh well, you are a feminist” or “it must be a woman who drives so badly,” but also the increased respect toward women is apparent. There is still no equality, for example, in financial remuneration in workplaces or in the distribution or roles in the structure of families in general or in the ration of women, for example, in managerial functions.... Nowadays I already appreciate that feminism can help open many issues. So it’s certainly good that it’s on the scene, that it points out the things that are not alright and can help those who need it.
Q: When you graduated from the Academy, which work was it? And what was the transition from a student to practical adult life like?
A: I found my inspiration in the theme “Some just live and the others are in the sea.” I targeted an individual, who is often on the edge of plus and minus. And to drop someplace down is easier and faster than returning back again, that requires a lot of effort. It was generally about the society, about relationships, about the power of individuality, about the path to reconciliation with everything that comes. The installation was composed of monster objects of something like spiders that, instead of heads, had these bowls for vomiting. I was not inspired by Louise Bourgeois, my work was created a bit earlier, but there is a certain connection that’s intuitively similar. My spiders were also partly inspired by my hometown. I come from Šternberk, where there is an anti-alcohol rehabilitation center. I came to know the treatment methods in an excursion and it was quite shocking to me. Those methods are still used these days to treat patients.
At the time, I didn’t pay much attention to the transition from my student years, because I was active and participated in many exhibitions. It’s true that I was in the seventh year in the Academy and kept extending it, I didn’t want to leave school, so then they threw me out...
Q: And with whom did you study?
A: At Knížák’s.
Q: And how was it? How did the revolution take place at the Academy?
A: The revolution was an unforgettable time. It was euphoria and excitement from the change that became outlined clearly. In all fields the public sphere was entered by individuals who were well-founded, open and who represented a change for the better. Radical changes took place in the school and the artists who were respected, not only in the Czech environment but also abroad, were invited to the studios. Whoever wanted to work in Academia at the time was in the right place.
And in regard to Knížák, he offered the Intermedia studio, a field I couldn’t quite make sense out of at the time and I was interested in that. It was a challenge, because he’s quite a character. When he went to school meetings, no other speaker had much of a chance. He described things accurately and meaningfully and we believed him. And it’s true that he fulfilled the expectations in the beginning, during my time there. For example, the way he led the studio was wonderful. We sat around in a circle where the energy just pulsed. And it wasn’t just about the fact that one had to be in the picture when it comes to art, we discussed literature, film, social, political issues... We sat and trembled a bit, hoping to handle the discussion well.
The studies were meaningful, energizing and provoked activity which now, in retrospect, I perceive as the gift to teach and pass on. Over the course of the studies, he led us to formulate questions and answers; why we liked something or not. It wasn’t easy for some students, to have to tell the colleagues openly what’s not ideal about their work and why. The teaching was based also on critical feedback and that suited me. From what I heard from following generations, this energy gradually suffered from tiredness and the overall atmosphere in the studio didn’t have such “juice”, but I can’t evaluate that because I wasn’t there. In any case for me the studio was an important communication, confrontation and an asset for the future.
Q: Can we go back to your generation? I know that you participated in the exhibition called Born in 68. Do you think you have a common theme as a generation? And now, when you teach, do you see a generational theme in the works of your students?
A: The 1990s was an explosion, objects, installations, large spaces, working abroad... We participated in exhibitions that filled huge halls. Then it went into more reduced forms and then even the concept begun to change. Students live in a world where they perceive the current state of things and work with it. What was once a given is now over and they’re fishing in new waters – differently than it was before. When we produced large voluminous installations, besides the spatial aspects, the major role was played by their financial basis. In the 1990s we were paid for those installations. Museums abroad provided financial funding for the production. That time didn’t last long, so suddenly the artists had to finance their projects themselves. Also this fact certainly contributed to development and change of the art form. The works didn’t sell, so even that played a role. The market works primarily with certainty and one essentially gets that for merit. It’s a long-distance run....
A student is a free person. He or she is led in such a way as to develop and gain the most during studies, then has the space for their own path. So the school opens a spectrum of options and if the student uses them, the path to their own work is quicker. Someone may not succeed in it, but that’s why they’re going to school so they don’t necessarily do “Art” with a capital “A” from the first year, but humbly absorb as many approaches and information as possible...
Q: Do you perceive a difference between foreign and Czech students?
A: I don’t see any huge difference there. Naturally, they are influenced by their environment, but even if it’s someone from India or Turkey, then they’re open, they’re interested in contemporary art, so they’re informed. I also teach in Pilsen at the university and the students there are immensely active and grateful. I’m always touched when I see them get after-school jobs so that they can produce their work, which after exams usually ends up someplace in the attic among the trash and unwanted stuff. The motivation for further work isn’t easy then, when I deal with questions such as: “What are we supposed to do with it now?” Often it’s not very satisfying to say: “You’ll have it in your portfolio and can present yourself with it your whole life...”
Q: I also wanted to ask about your participation in the Global Feminisms Exhibition. It can be said that you represented the Czech Republic there. There was no other Czech artist. Do you feel that you are more a global or local artist? Do you rise from our specific context? Is there a theme in your work, which is perhaps different from foreign artists and isn’t understandable the same way everywhere?
A: The Project Sixtysomething looks like a female project, but I think it’s applicable also for men. I perceive it as a society-wide theme, which is understandable not only in America, but also, for example, in Sweden, Finland, Denmark or the East. Even though the interpretations may differ slightly, based on the cultural environment, historic, social, political context. I received various reactions and their interpretation was always interesting and enriched the project with additional layers of meaning. As to whether I’m local or not local, I don’t deal with that. It’s important for me and I appreciate the fact that I can represent the Czech Republic at exhibitions such as the Global Feminisms in the company of internationally renowned artists in a place such as the Brooklyn Museum in New York. But at the same time, each exhibition for instance in Blansko or the Moravian Gallery in Brno or in Prague is always a challenge and I approach it with the same effort.
Q: Aging is a theme that’s universally understandable.
A: I was surprised about the degree to which it doesn’t affect just women. “Even men have their days,” this slogan perhaps also captures the development in the awareness of realizing one’s own potential and position in society, as well as giving space to one’s own body.
It deals with age, the roles men fulfill – husband, lover, father... Some deal with age-related problems at the age of thirty, at forty they get on the question of whether they haven’t missed something and at fifty, according to research, they feel threatened by aging, which they often solve through obvious means such as exchanging one wife for a younger one... Sometimes I feel that this is even more intensive in men than women. And basically the project opens up the theme of the behavior of society towards old age. To what degree it reckons with this life period, which naturally and certainly is a part of society. Old age doesn’t offer as much and can’t give as much. And we, the younger ones, are in eand this exchange of roles seems to be in many countries and many cases somewhat unpopular. Advertising agencies usually hire employees under 35 years old, the newspapers are full of ads, looking for young, healthy and fully capable individuals. In America, I wouldn’t fail to add also “beautiful” individuals. Luckily, this experience is not the same everywhere, for example in the Nordic countries, the respect and honor of age is more exemplary. That’s the kind of place I’d go to grow old. I think it’s a very topical theme, because in essence it affects each one
of us with the difference that some get affected earlier, some later.
Q: But I still think that there is a difference. Earlier you spoke about equality, but the value of a woman to some degree depends on how well she looks. In the moment she is no longer able to maintain her looks, she’s disqualified in a much more critical way than a man.
A: Yes, in the case of a woman that has a certain goal and wants to achieve something, her look naturally belongs to and is an obvious part of her personality. It gives her self-esteem in behavior and work performance. I think that everything is connected to everything and the ideal state is the harmony of all levels together. There are many women as well as men, who don’t take care of themselves, but the number of the ones that do care is growing. And for me, it’s always pleasant to meet men or women who catch my interest with their looks, their perfume... I remember the times of socialism, how horrible it was. Sometimes we’d faint in trams... These days, we gladly conclude that even men take better care of themselves and are sometimes better equipped than women... On the other hand, we actually all lose, both men and women, in the race with time for eternal youth. And yet, aging is unstoppable. We all know that when someone at sixty wants to look thirty, it’s an unnatural mask.
A woman somehow has to deal with more things at the same time. The trend is such that a man smells nice and is well dressed, which is fine, but they don’t take notice of many errands and unimportant tasks in the household. It’s as if she still carries a bigger burden. Naturally, we cause this ourselves to some degree, but sometimes it seems to me, that unlike women, men wouldn’t have much chance to manage everything together when I think of the functioning of a family, maintaining the household, a job, the desire to succeed in society and if at the same time, he was supposed to look well. There are exceptions, of course.
Q: How was the collaboration with your son? Do you think it perhaps enriched him somehow?
A: Certainly. When I worked with him, he kept saying: “Mom, it will be my honor.” For example when he was building that structure from sand, the waves kept washing it away and he couldn’t build what he wanted... then it was his honor as well, but when I asked him later: “Why do you do this, what is it?” he got up and said: “That’s futility, mom, isn’t?” So it gave him something, even though these days he doesn’t want to draw and go to exhibitions... He goes through puberty, so the collaboration would perhaps be more difficult. I’m waiting until after this period is over. Right now everything is boring...
Q: Michaela Thelenová also collaborates with her daughter and told us that she will never find such an ideal coworker.
A: Yes, it’s practical, and if the two people are connected, then the situation is ideal.
Q: And does your son have any artistic ambitions?
A: Given that both parents are in the artistic field, he doesn’t seem that way right now. Perhaps in the future, in a different media, but I made a mistake somewhere... We took him too often to openings and then one day, he said: “Mom, I won’t come here anymore, I’m unhappy here.” You talk to people and in all that social buzz, you try to show and explain something to him about what is art...
Q: Don’t you see an unnatural overproduction in the large amount of students leaving arts academies and the large amount of small alternative exhibition spaces?
A: Thank God they’re here. Both the students and the spaces. The mesh is merciless and it will ensure the quality is separated out. I think the spaces are closing more, there’s never enough of them and I congratulate and appreciate anyone who is running a smaller or bigger space. It’s amazing when someone has the energy for it, because contemporary art is hard to sell and it’s therefore dependent on grants or state institutions. It’s very risky for private galleries, that need to survive, to get into promoting young art, so I cross my fingers for as many as possible surviving in the future.
Q: There are fewer women exhibiting on the Czech scene. Mirek Vodrážka made a movie called Fog and Power about the Rudolfinum Gallery, and it turns out that in the last 11 years not a single Czech female artist had a solo exhibition there as opposed to fourteen Czech male artists. Doesn’t this make you uncomfortable?
A: Sure, it’s a reason to be uncomfortable. As you say, in those eleven years or however long was the same management there or not? Perhaps that’s the answer... Prior to this documentary being shot, I heard an opinion from certain circles, that there’s not enough female artists here, so why make an exhibition for them? That’s sad...
Q: When we look at the schools, how many female students are there?
A: At the moment, many. Sometimes I feel that increasingly more compared to male students. It’s more an issue of the teachers in institutions such as the Academy of Fine Arts, Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague... How many women teach there? Let’s look at the job openings at the Academy. There wasn’t a single woman on the committee. That says something as well.
You work, you do everything the best way you can and then you think: “This door is not open for me here, that’s true, but maybe it will be elsewhere...” That’s the reality and you can always deal with it, or not. Politics, power relationships and on top of it narrow space, narrow overview, narrow insight... And we could find a number of such examples and experiences. If you omit the job openings at the Academy, then in politics, how many women function there? The natural implementation of individuals into systems according to their qualification and professional level should be commonsense, regardless whether the person considered is a man or a woman. If that’s not the case, then this calculation of gender shows the condition of an unhealthy society.
Q: The universal answer is usually that women aren’t interested.
A: They were raised to get used to not being interested...
Q: I think it’s only a matter of time. It’s probably a matter of exchange of generations. It’s getting better in the institutions, for example. The younger generation needs time to get to the level of today’s artists and employees working in
A: Perhaps. I never felt this in my generation at all. When they asked me abroad whether I feel as a woman artist, that there’s a problem compared to men artists, I always had to say no. We weren’t dealing with it. But then when you compare it with other fields, then the problem can appear. And now what?
Q: We’ll fight.