Veronika Bromová: I Just Make Things

(Born in 1966 in Prague)

Veronika Bromová is a photographer and new media artist who works with a wide range of creative and technical methods. Her work deals with identity, body, erotics, and gender. She had worked as a profesor at the AVU (Academy of Fine Arts in Prague) from 2001–2010 at the time when the interview was conducted.

Q: How did your family react to the fact that you had artistic talent?
A: I am from a family of creators, my mother and my father were artists. Of course that was during communism, and they took the attitude that it is not easy or more or less impossible to express yourself freely. So although they had both studied at the academy, they eventually ended up focusing on illustrated books and functional graphics; posters and so on. They made black-and-white collages, they illustrated historical novels, but they also, for example, did things for the theater, like posters for Divadlo za branou (The Theater behind the Gate). Amongst others, they made illustrations for The Three Musketeers, and The Count of Monte Christo. So I grew up in an artistic environment. My parents also used many types of technology. They would take photos and re-photograph them over, collage them, then photograph the collages. They used a lot various graphic techniques. I used to love to draw princesses, dolls, and cut-outs, which I would then talk to and play with. My parents liked that, and encouraged me to do so. I wasn’t very good at school, and I didn’t even enjoy it. Primary school caused me rather a lot of suffering, and I failed year seven. My parents were always telling me that I was dumb, that my only chance of survival was art, and that my only hope of a higher education was at art school. So I ended up studying at Hollar’s graphic school (The Václav Hollar College and Secondary School of Fine Arts), and after that at AAAD (Academy of Art, Architecture and Design in Prague), and that was when things came together.
The revolution was during my third year at AAAD, and that made the world open up for the young generation. I was lucky that I belonged (or still belong) to the first post-revolution generation, of which there was a natural curiosity. In addition to that, there were a lot of options
in terms of ways of working and alternative spaces in which to exhibit.
Q: What occurred during the revolution in the school? In what way did the instruction and the faculty change?
A: A lot of things happened. Before the revolution I studied scientific illustration, which was in fact encyclopedic illustration. At Hollar’s school they introduced us to drawing from life. We would draw things like a coffee grinder with its tray open and screw visible, or a bolt from
an easel, and that was how we learned to construct and render hyper realistically. I enjoyed that quite a lot. Of course our professor was a communist, and his view of the world was kind of stiff. We spent the first three years drinking Becherovka somewhere in a café or a bar.
We didn’t give a shit about school.
This also had a point, though, because to this day I think that the role of pedagogues is highly overrated; I had terrible teachers and that motivated me to do something completely different, to get out what
was in me. I guess it was a certain kind of protest.
Q: I’d just like to return to that revolutionary moment at the AAAD…
A: Yes, it was really like we were tripping. What’s more, I fell in love, so I was completely zoned out. We didn’t sleep much, because we were always printing posters, so on top of everything we were stoned on the fumes. At night we would watch porno films that someone had brought there. Everything was new for us. What had been prohibited until that time was suddenly allowed… We occupied the school, the professors weren’t around. I spent days and nights in the study department, where I could use the phone. That was how I got all types of rumors about what was happening, like that the tanks were approaching, that they were on the other side of the bridge, and so on.
Q: That was when the strike committee was created, wasn’t it? Did any of the professors join your side?
A: I don’t remember it in such detail. I wasn’t on the strike committee, I was just one of many, and I helped with whatever was needed, like with those posters or with organizing the visits of various figures. Along with that, I opened a massage parlor in the study department where there was kind of this little mezzanine.
Q: A revolution of body and spirit.
A: I did that because although everyone was euphoric, they were also extremely exhausted. I have absolutely no idea how it worked this way, but we always had something to eat and drink. Different people would bring us tons of food, everyone supported us. It was because of that that I didn’t really experience what was going on outside. That happened only later, when I joined the large demonstrations in Letná. Other than that, we were always at the school, or we would stumble out somewhere, like for a coffee at café Slavia. Christmas and New Year’s there were amazing. We rarely managed to get much further than the front of the school, though some people did. I remember that some classmates had an accident on the same night that Potměšil got paralyzed. After that we all prayed for him, we all took that really hard. Now that this is all so long ago, I really regret not having kept a journal. I have a few photos from that time, but there aren’t many of them.
Q: How did new faculty get selected?
A: I don’t know all the details, but a lot of people definitely applied. Kulhánek and Šalamoun put in applications to lead our studio. I had known Mr. Šalamoun from childhood, as he was a friend of my parents, and I had always loved his work. I really respect him as an illustrator. Anyway, at that time Mr. Šalamoun seemed more interesting to us than Oldřich Kulhánek, and he won the competition. Our studio then became the Studio of Illustration and Graphics. I don’t remember exactly if there was a commission. I do know, however that we had a say in who was selected. It was similar at the Academy of Fine Arts.
These days I find it silly that students can’t even give their opinion. I think that when it comes to choosing an instructor, it is important to consider what the students of the studio in question think. They don’t have to have a direct or even representative vote, but still, they are the ones who are going to be taught by the future professor. Today no-one thinks about the students’ opinion, and definitely not in this school (the Academy of Fine Arts). What’s more, as soon as someone expresses themselves or starts asking questions, the school leadership immediately takes it as an attack. Yet all the students want to do is to communicate in some way. I guess there’s some kind of fear at the top.
Q: Which artists did you like at that time?
A: Long before the revolution my parents took me to see exhibitions, which were partly banned. Then those that weren’t completely prohibited started. I think the first one I saw was by Oldřich Kulhánek and his generation. I don’t remember exactly, though, it might even have been Anderle; the artists in my parents’ generation in general that were neither completely banned nor completely approved of, most of them sort of on the edge. I also visited artists at their houses. One of the first things that really impressed me, which I still think about today, was Tomáš Ruller’s performance in Smíchov in a villa in a park, where there was a gallery. He built these pyramids out of glass, which he then destroyed. Then of course Tvrdohlaví (The Hardheads) were important for me, as they had been since high school. They were kind of icons for us, a revelation. They exhibited in some industrial hall somewhere in Strašnice, I think, and that was the first time I saw one of their exhibitions. Then there was strong generation of photographers from FAMU (The Film and TV School of the Academy of Performing Arts in Prague), most of whom were Slovaks: Župník, Švolík, Tono Stano, and I guess Jano Pavlík. I’m not totally sure about him, but I did know him, and he photographed me. I also knew Saudek from the time I was thirteen. He took pictures of my sister and I. I wasn’t even in high school at that point.
Q: Is the photo you are in well-known?
A: I would say that there are about 14 photos that are famous. They are in the big monograph that he published. I can definitely show you, if you want.
Q: What was the experience of being a model like?
A: I enjoyed it for a while. He took photos of me for about ten years, until about the time of the revolution. That was the end of that, though there may have been one more photo. I no longer enjoyed it, and I wanted to stop. It’s a bit of a controversial topic for me, and he himself is a controversial personality. At the beginning it fascinated me, in the gray of communism, he had this cool car he drove around, he poked fun at everything, he did his own thing, he was just this big personality. At that time he was pretty young, too; he was around forty, a bit over forty, I don’t know exactly. He was living in a villa in Podolí, and he had a lot of props there, a nice wife and two sons who were always hanging around. He was able to live his free life here in the odd place that it was. I mean, he did go to work in a print shop every day, but he still lived the free life of an artist.
Q: I’d be interested to hear about your experience from those shoots, as you know both sides of that context; you take photos yourself, but at that time you were a model.
A: I definitely think that Saudek influenced the way I work. For a large part that was because I somehow wanted to do something else than him; I was tired of letting myself be put in works and situations that didn’t really fit me. In those circumstances you become a kind of material for someone else, who is able to realize their ideas and thoughts thanks to you. After a while you start to feel like utilitarian, worn-out goods. At times he also disappointed me a little in a human sense. So I stopped co-operating with him. I also felt that I had worked with him for too long, despite it being just an occasional collaboration. After that I took some photos with Jano Pavlík when I was about fifteen or sixteen. I think he shot me at Chmelnice, where there was a good club. During communism, that was probably the only place where you could hear alternative types of music, and later they started having exhibitions there, too. I think Mrs. Fárová put together photo shows there, too.
Q: So school let you out into the world, and then what happened?
A: What happened? I had already started exhibiting while I was still studying. I had my first significant show in Behémót. Before that I had had a very small exhibition in the Modes Robes boutique, and also in a club on Opletalova Street on Wenceslas Square.
Q: What did you exhibit?
A: I exhibited black-and-white photos that I had been taking, which one could say were quite classical. Most of them were of my friends. It was called Secret Album, and the pictures were taken in my small room, which served as the stage onto which I stylized my beautiful friends, men and women. It was subtly erotic, and to a certain extent had maybe been influenced by Saudek. They were classic black-and-white photographs, without coloration. Some of them were just details, like an open eye, or the hairy chest of one of my male friends.
Q: So you were studying scientific illustration at the same time were making your own art?
A: I guess that had to do with the change of leadership in the studio after the revolution. Before the revolution we more or less just drew, but then Šalamoun gave us a lot freedom with regard to what media we could use, so I started to use photos in my illustrations. I would draw on them, or cover them with various foils that had simple drawings on them. For example, I illustrated a book by Jana Krejcarová, and an erotic letter by Egon Bondy. I used poem May, by Karel Hynek Mácha, for my diploma project. For that I combined my photos with collage, I guess sort of in my parents’ style, or in a surrealist style, something akin to Jindřich Štýrský, who I admire to this day.
I also started to work with serigraphy, and actually that was when I did one of my first Amputations, Implantations; I cut out faces from magazine photos, and switched them between each other.
Q: How did you actually work your way to your famous series from the nineties, where you work with your body and combine it with digital photography?
A: I came to that work thanks to the fact that after the revolution I was able to get my hands on one of the first computers available here. I think I had an Intel 386, and then the 486. You couldn’t really do that much
on those things. Somewhere in the mid-nineties we had something more advanced, but I can’t remember what it was exactly. Anyway, there was a program called Photo styler on that machine, which was something new. I tried it out, and I made an album cover for the band Šum Svistu, with Dan Nekonečný. I think that combination of theater and music was really good. Later it slid into being kind of this embarrassing TV show, but back then it quickly got popular, because there wasn’t that much of that stuff around. There was Laura and Her Tigers, the Yoyo Band, and then the Fantastic Gaslight Theater BAR, with Otakáro Schmidt. Working with them was fun. I made backgrounds for them using lots of different slides, and I also made posters for them. But I’ve gotten off topic.
Q: We were talking about those manipulated photographs.
A: How those came about, right. I think I made the first attempt sometime in 1994, or perhaps just before. They were first exhibited at the Municipal House. Their title was a bit awkward, Assumptions about Realities, or something like that. I made sort of an installation of photographs in those beautiful spaces of the Municipal House. I had found these pictures of girls in a magazine that seemed to be dancing around a medicine ball. I played with the raster of the original small photos, so that the medicine ball disappeared, and all that was left was kind of this hole.
Following that I was invited to take part in the Biennial of Young Artists in the house At the Stone Bell, which might even have been the first such exhibition, in fact. I showed the rasterized girls there as well. They were sort of walking, and so to complement that I installed an object that evoked a catwalk. I wanted to represent the moment in a woman’s life when she is young, beautiful, and on the top of everything, but which then remains just a sentimental memory. Those women have gone through that stage, but we have no idea where they are now. They could now be old women, or they could be dead. In parallel to the photographic installation, or perhaps as a continuation of it, I showed a large format color slide, which I had also manipulated with the computer. That depict-
ed women in skirts and stockings, whose legs continued in a long row, and you could see men’s balls hanging out from their skirts. That was supposed to kill the sentiment that had been evoked in the first space.
Well, once I had gotten used to working with a computer I was invited or maybe chosen for an exhibition in Baden Baden, and it occurred to me to make those anatomical works, which put the spotlight on me. I was definitely reacting to what was around me, specifically the boom in pornography and the mindless way in which the female form was being used in advertising. All of a sudden there were huge billboards everywhere that seemed to be shouting at you. After all that gray communism, in which there hadn’t been any business or advertising, that was still something new. It was the mid-nineties when things really started buzzing, and I think my work was a reaction to that. I was also reacting to Baden Baden, where there was a huge, luxurious gallery, something like 20x15 meters, which was a challenge for me to deal with.
It occurred to me to make big billboards or photos using the language of advertising. It was my intention that the people who had come to Baden Baden to rehabilitate their body would be confronted by the work. I wanted to show the body from the inside and outside, like a world that more or less lives independently of us, yet which influences us, but which we don’t give a shit about. At that time I noticed that we start to be more deeply concerned with what is going on inside of us when we fall ill or feel unwell.
Q: This was only after you had participated in some of those purely women’s exhibitions?
A: Those women’s shows started completely naturally. We girls from the Academy and from AAAD, who were friends, simply decided to have an exhibition. I guess at that time that was pretty uncommon, because until that time women hadn’t done any shows at all. It was totally normal for group exhibitions to be made up only of men, and for women to be absent. We of course noticed that, and so we put on a show with I guess seven or eight girls. That automatically attracted attention, and we were written about as if we were feminists.
At that time there wasn’t much known about feminism, or at least I didn’t know much about it, about what its deeper meaning was and so on. Nonetheless, we were confronted with it. It was natural for us; we didn’t see it as anything radical. It was more that it evolved out of the time. Suddenly you had a chance to exhibit, and as there were a good number of energetic girls who wanted to put something together, they did. I have to say that that was the start of a boom in women’s exhibitions.
Q: Like the Women’s Homes show, for example.
A: Yes, like Women’s Homes. That took place in Smíchov, and I worked directly in response to the spaces of those homes. I made these enchant-ed princesses in coffins, and I was thinking of the women above, who for the most part were social cases. They were living there alone with their children, and I gave it this sentimental, fairy-tale quality. It was like they were actually waiting for emancipation from their situation. I also saw it as a confrontation between public and private spaces, because the girls were in intimate, prenatal positions, as if sleeping.
Q: That was actually after Vlasta Čiháková-Noshiro put together Columbus’ Egg exhibition.
A: I don’t know exactly, but it was probably after that. Columbus’ Egg was also a purely women’s exhibition. I got involved in that completely by chance, and I have to be grateful first to Mrs. Čiháková, but even more to Margita Titlová and Vladimír Merta, who had seen my photos in the boutique where they used to party. They wanted Milena Dopitová for that show, but at that time there were only two private galleries: Behémót, which was run by Karel Babíček, and MXM, whose owner had tragically lost his life, and the Ševčíks later had a hand in it, I think. Anyway, as is to be expected, there was a rivalry between the two; MXM didn’t want to let Milena Dopitová take part in the show at Behémót, so I came in handy, they took me and that was actually the start of my artistic career. From that time on, I didn’t have to tell anybody that I wanted to exhibit, one exhibition just led to another. That was how things went for the rest
of the nineties.
Q: And did you ever think about why that show consisted of only women?
A: It must have been more conscious decision then that it was a women-only exhibition. I remember that it was Easter, and the symbol of the egg itself impressed me. I made a triptych of my boyfriend using that shape, which was drawn over him. It was actually a hermaphroditic symbol; an embryo where you can’t tell if it is going to be a boy or a girl. Then there were also two women in adoring poses, who were my mother and sister. They looked really similar, only that my sister was pregnant at the time, and my mother was larger, so they both had potbellies; my mother had hers sucked in, and my pregnant sister had hers sticking out.
In that period I wasn’t really thinking that hard about those works, and maybe I don’t even think extremely deeply about what I do now; I just make things. They come to me intuitively. At that time I was musing on figures like the Madonna and Venus, as well as prehistoric icons of womanhood and motherhood. The woman is the bearer of life, life continues because it flows through her. To me the egg corresponded to that, as it itself is the start of another life.
I am still interested in the body in some way. At the moment I am intrigued by the combination of the human body and the body of a tree. That has to do with moving out of the city and, as my boyfriend works with wood, I have been able to see how he does that. Wood seems really similar to the body to me, especially when the surface has been refined. It becomes so lovely, so smooth, almost like skin…
We are very close to nature, to the trees; we are somehow bound to each other. Trees themselves are like sentient beings, they have legs, a body, a crown of branches for a head, and they have been here with us for many millions of years. I am intrigued by that symbiosis of two different species, that are in fact very similar.
Q: That was also quite a common theme among many women artists in the seventies; I mean that correlation between human beings and the natural elements. Could you perhaps talk a little about the impetus for your Kingdom project?
A: Kingdom. Well, to certain extent that had to do with moving a little bit out of Prague, to Martin Mainer’s place in Limuzy. I feel that he brought me back to nature. For one thing he had this magical place behind his house, where these huge boulders were lying, some of which were maybe four hundred tons. He was really into mysteries, mysticism, the esoteric, and various other powers that nature has that we either refuse to notice, or refuse to accept the existence of. As humans we have incredible abilities, but we don’t know how to use them. Martin has learned to work with them. He had a friend who practiced psychotronics, and he was the one who helped him to learn about those things, who introduced him to automatic drawing and to diagnostics, which
he started to use in his painting.
For me that was all very new and intense, and I felt very deeply connected to that place, to nature, and to hidden powers. I started working completely intuitively. I would carry my camera and perhaps some props with me, but I never had any concrete plan. I just let myself be inspired by the place, by the feeling, the light, the season. I was simply fascinated with nature, and wanted to somehow be in harmony with it. My emotional states also got intertwined in that too, whether it was being in love or feeling sad. After that I guess I consciously started working with those princesses. We read this book by the German author Holger Kalweit who was kind of an investigator of shamanism, and who was concerned with the mythology of the Celts and who wrote, I think, The Celtic Book of the Dead.
The first book I read that focused on the esoteric was Women Who Run with the Wolves. I made fun of it a little, of the way women are seen as these ideals of beauty, that “paradise, para-radise”, that parody of Eden, of Eve. Maybe some Asian movies influenced me too, where you see those flying ninjas. I don’t know. I’m not able to put it all together precisely, but that time with Mainer was important, as he introduced me to those books. He says that until that time I had only been a reader of novels, and that he took me more towards the spiritual side of life.
Q: How do you see yourself as a teacher?
A: I’ve never thought that I’m that brilliant of a teacher. I do, however, try to deal with people in a friendly manner and give them space and time to find what’s inside them. I don’t try to get them to use my methods, and in fact don’t really even show them too many things. The students sometimes get annoyed, but I have my reasons for that. Since the time that I started working in this field, I have seen the massive influence that instructors have, the result being that you end up with mini-Sopkos, mini-Rittsteins, and so on. That was never really my approach. A few years after they graduate, we’ll see what my students are doing. I think that an artistic life is a long journey, and I don’t believe in things happening overnight. What I think is most important, though, is that young people find their own way. The fact that they spend a few years in a studio at an art school is only a small fraction of their journey. What is essential is to find that which is really yours. It’s also important to try and separate yourself from what is not entirely your own: that which your education, your parents, or some other outside influence has implanted in you. One must be wary of people who try to get you to think their way, who want something from you. When an eighteen or nineteen-year-old enters school, of course they are impressionable. They are like a fresh material which you can work with and shape as you like. I really do think, though, that one should try to get out that which is fantastic, authentic, and special in each of us. I think it is a long, almost alchemic process of looking for a life path, searching for what one is really supposed to bring into the world. So after school, my opinion is that people often have to forget everything and basically start all over again.
Q: Do you think one can live off art?
A: Of course doing that is very demanding. Some people live off it, some don’t. There are many paths, many possibilities, it’s not an easy field to be in at all. Art actually isn’t for anything, it has no clear purpose. Nonetheless, I think it is indispensable for society. Things have to be balanced, and it’s not possible to live only off business and consumer goods. People need art for their soul, so they can progress, so they can cultivate their sensitivity and emotions, so they can open their eyes. Art has many functions. One of them is of course the evolution of aesthetics, but artistic political activism also has its place, as it acts as a mirror of society.
Art plays many roles, has many possibilities, and has tremendous power. I tell any of my students who seem more inclined to doing commercial work or to working in advertising that they should try to do something worthwhile for society. There can be a lot of power in that, in trying to change society in a positive way. Advertising just sucks you in, takes advantage of you, and throws you out. One can get out of it, but if you develop a taste for money, then you are more willing to make compromises.
Q: What’s you criteria for selecting new students for the studio?
A: Well, the combination of technical ability and artistic talent is ideal. You can’t always recognize that, though. People submit many types of things for the entrance exams, and you often have the feeling that it hasn’t yet matured, and at other times it just isn’t enough. Sometimes you see weak work, which is very difficult to find any interesting moments in. Still, my experience is that I am always able to choose more or less ten people out of forty who I think would fit the studio, and whom I invite to come. Unfortunately, though, I can only take two or three of those ten. In the end you usually decide based on personal interviews with the applicants, in whom you are looking for intelligence and potential in their thought. You want them to be receptive, you want to see how they react to things, you have to feel that you can talk to them, and that they will evolve.
Q: The majority of students in your studio are female. Have you noticed that?
A: Yes, I have noticed, but there have also been less male applicants, and there are usually more girls. They tend to fade away more, though; they get married, have kids, then give most of their attention to the family. That imbalance wasn’t my intention, I tried to have a reasonable mix, to give both the boys and girls an equal chance, but the girls tended to seem better, so I took them.
Q: I’m wondering if there is some kind of mutual affinity at play here. If girls are choosing between applying to your studio or to New Media I, where Markus Huemer teaches, perhaps they choose you because you are a woman.
A: That’s probably true. I think the fact that I work with the body, which is more of a female perspective, so yes, it may attract girls, as they feel closer to that.
Q: Are you interested in any other themes than the body at the moment?
A: My most recent works have also involved the body, or the body has figured in them somehow. For me, that is still the most direct way to express yourself, to communicate your thoughts through your body. After all, I feel and experience everything through my body and mind.
I am now working with the topic of rehabilitation, which has to do with my age, with the beginning of health problems. I was going to rehab for my knee, and I had to exercise there on a wooden half ball, and that thing seemed to me like an interesting symbol of a balance between technology, art, and nature. Here again we have the body connected to the Earth through wood. I was amused by the idea of the planet as a sphere with that other sphere on it, on which we are all balancing, trying to find equilibrium in our lives.
I started making extensions for the body, sort of stumps, bits of trees… Actually I was again linking the human body with trees. I want to make stumps on all my extremities, and take photos like that. Perhaps it’ll be a performance about moving through the world using these stumps.
Q: So you are moving back to reality, and away from manipulation.
A: Manipulation seems really tired to me. Two of my students have actually just started working with manipulation, but I advise them against it. I tell them that it’s good that they have been able to find ideas with that method, but I want them to go directly to the place where those ideas came from.
Working with computers all of a sudden feels fake. I still think that someday it might work, but those techniques are worn out at this point because that type of image manipulation is so commonplace.
In the nineties it was something else. At this point I’d rather return to something material. I don’t even like sitting in front of a computer. At the moment I am working with a piece of wood. I need physical contact with the material, and working with wood is very nice, it’s such a wonderful material.
Q: So you went to the digital and then back to the material.
A: I don’t think I have written anything off, and in fact it’s interesting that everything can be combined. I am still compelled by the border between photography and self-performance. Actually, when I was on that residency in New York in ‘98, I realized that what interested me about what I was doing was that the photographs were not photographs in and of themselves, but rather records of my private performances. I like the shift in time, the movement that is caught in those shots. Something like that.