Dominik Lang: Awakening Art at the Venice Biennale

Czech Position

Czech artist’s exhibition in Italy a reflection of two generations as a son embaces the work of his father, who died far too young

A father’s work re-created in his son’s. The Sleeping City by artist Dominik Lang is now installed at the Czecho-Slovak pavilion at the Venice Biennale. A completely new work, Lang drew on history as part of his interpretation.

“The basic concept is the statues, my relationship with my father (as my father, not as an artist); these layers, including the concrete situation of the biennale, are in an international context,” Lang told Czech Position.

He answered an open call from the National Gallery for artists to exhibit at this year’s Biennale. There was some controversy however when then-National Gallery director Milan Knížák rejected Lang’s proposal (chosen by an expert committee) and tried to push through artists he preferred. The artists turned him down, and Culture Minister Jirí Besser stepped in, putting the Biennale under his ministry’s control.

“From the start, the director said ‘no’ to my project, but my friends supported me, said they respect the committee’s decision and it was a dead end,” he explained. “I wasn’t sure how it would come out, but the minster of culture called me and said ‘I respect the committee, please do it.’”

Lang’s father is sculptor Jirí Lang, who was most active in the 1950s; he died when Dominik was a teenager, and he never had the opportunity to relate to him as an artist.

“I really miss my father; he was older, the statues existed for me, but they were like frozen, like in a sleeping form,” he said. “I know his work as a document of time, from black and white photos, so I started thinking about how to have a discussion between me and my father, as well as between our two generations. I wanted an intergenerational dialogue and I wanted it in a modernistic atmosphere.”

Melding old and new

Lang’s work as an artist tends to involve space and form versus the figural work using materials of his father. The Sleeping City takes his father’s sculptures and displays them in a new light – repositioned, and sometimes cut to pieces. Dominik made the work his own by putting his trademark architectural angles into the exhibit – walls, furniture and other physical barriers. This site specification installation takes the form of a hypothetical never-realized exhibition as well as a visualization of the relationship between the two artists.

“The 1930-1950s aesthetic is very strong and interesting for my generation; my father studied in the ‘50s but was inspired by the ‘30s and the social modernism of that time, a connection to the figurative,” Lang said. “I’m also working with the ‘50s, which is when my father worked, but inspired by the ‘30s — it’s just waves which keep coming back.”

“I also tried to imagine the time, the bad atmosphere, difficult for artists, no connection with other artists, I can’t imagine it for real,” he added. “This project was me trying to imagine all these things, all these layers started me working.”

Lang spent about two to three months on thinking, planning and developing his idea, one month of physical work in Prague and then three weeks installing in Venice. The Czechoslovakia pavilion was designed in 1926 by Otakar Novotný, who also designed the Mánes Galerie. Lang appreciates the atmosphere the pavilion added to his installation and thinks the two fit together well.

“There were many possibilities to work with the statues; maybe bring them there and be in the shadow, but I wanted a form that was half and half, my installation but using material from my father,” he said. “For this project, it was the situation of the statues, his life and this period. But now I’m working with the statues, like the material or documents of that time.”

Relationships, of all kinds

Doing this exhibition was an emotional experience for Lang in a number of ways, not the least being in some instances he was dismantling his father’s work. He said that the statues were a physical representation of his father and he was looking for how to work with something that has a connection to a time and things he doesn’t remember.

“His work represented something frozen, I respect his work, but I felt in his studio a little anxious, so I moved this feeling to Venice, to a pavilion labeled Czechoslovakia,” he said.

Two photos played a big role in this installation — one of Dominik and his father in his studio when the boy was around 8-years-old and the second recent one of Dominik alone in his father’s studio — which looks more or less untouched. The photo of the two artists together is included in the exhibition.

“There’s free space to walk around it and the photos and their connection with the exhibition,” Lang explained. “Then visitors enter it and can read the details, analyze the situation; this fact was very important, it had to be possible to understand it.”

Looking back on the experience, including transporting his work by truck, then by boat, Lang feels he has learned and experienced, a lot. “The statues are now in Venice, it’s funny, leaving them there, a complete opposite of the previous situation when almost no one had seen them and now thousands of people see them everyday,” he said.

Lang, who also works with visiting professors at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, is currently working on his next exhibition – he’s been named a finalist for the Jindrich Chalupecký Award for young artists. The work of the five finalists will go in display in November at Dox, Center for Contemporary Art.