“Just as in this corporeal world there is a light
by means of which whatever things continue to be preserved,
also in the archetype, that invisible
and super celestial world, there is a light from which,
as from an abundant source, all things proceed...
and of which this material light is, so to speak, but a symbol.“
Athanasius Kircher, Ars Magna Lucis et Umbrae (1646), Roma
Through the windows of the bus, the former Cistercian monastery in Plasy looks like some decrepit, battered specter on the banks of the river Střela, even though one might be outside in the twilight and the immense echo multiplies the sound of one’s footsteps into a fractured waterfall of noises. A visitor, who has traversed the high-ceilinged corridor towards the main staircase, leans over the stone balustrade and the building gives him one more surprise: below he can see the reflection of light on the surface of a shallow water reservoir which reflects the ceiling high above the his head. The underground bristles with the sound of water droplets, and the view through the tall windows offers a vista of a sun-bleached red tent standing in the central courtyard. The Visitor can then make his way through the labyrinth of hallways, ascend the stairs to the first floor, and observe the square walls of the convent through the tall windows. Kestrels race in the open skies above, and a figure moves within the corners of the ambit, only to disappear unexpectedly from the Visitor’s line of sight. The Visitor then makes his way to the far corner, and suddenly sees his doppelganger walking towards him. He stops in his tracks, sidesteps, and then sees his reflection on the surface of the mirror once more, but now from behind. He becomes even more uneasy as he hears the sound of a bell from far off, but luckily a door opens before him and he strides into a regular room and flees the phantoms in the mirrors.
VISITOR: (sits down) What is this mesmerizing of the sense, and whoever got such an idea in their heads? (he sips the offered coffee and peers with suspicion at the ceiling where blotches of sunlight dance, reflected from a small mirror submerged in a vessel full of water)
CARETAKER: (lights a cigarette) That is the constellation of mirrors by Michal Bouzek, pay no mind. The halls are a perfect square, and the four mirrors in the corners draw your gaze beyond the nearest corner, so that you can see the entire ambit space at once. The whole convent is interconnected visually and acoustically anyway. You scrape your shoe sole down by the entrance and the echo travels all the way to the second floor. Bouzek just elaborated on what the architect Santini began some three hundred years ago. In those times, he was building a sounding space, for the monks to walked its halls and mumble their prayers. The word of God must echo, there’s no two ways about it. And looking around the corner, well, that’s a similar sort of thing.
VISITOR: So if I understand correctly, you organize a symposium here – which, in its original Greek meaning, means feasting and discourse – and various people intervene into the old spaces of the convent. Isn’t it a shame? Can’t you damage it?
CARETAKER: It doesn’t have to be a shame, as it depends on the people and on us, on what we allow them to do. Of course we cannot trash a historical building, we can’t allow in those contemporary artists who might have no respect for the space in which they find themselves. They would hang up various pictures and sculptures which would be out of place here. But we try for people who come here to stay a while longer, so that they may become acclimated – that’s why the symposium lasts for two months – and also, they are people who have some experience with similar projects under their belts, and will not fall into the trap of megalomania. And if yes, then the sheer size of the convent will check them, as this convent is a force to be reckoned with – it survived the Hussite wars, Metternich’s hubris, the Red Army, and the socialist ‘conservation.’ These things all left their scars, but did not manage to destroy it.
VISITOR: Why is your event called Hermit? Isn’t it a bit of a snobbish, hyperbolic name, considering that there is a kiosk serving hot dogs just outside, freight trucks pass under your windows and the nearby meadow will soon feature, as I read, a concert of the local famous rock band Brutus?
CARETAKER: But it sounds good, doesn’t it? Hermit means a recluse, a loner, someone who has sequestered him or herself in willing solitude. The convent is thus a little settlement for hermits – a hermit commune, if you will. Each monk had their own cell in the convent, where he could go to be alone. But at the same time, he lived among a community of brethren, who all prayed, worked and ate together. The Cistercians who lived here originally used to be a slightly heretical, reformative faction which split from the Benedictines, when Bernard of Clairvoux left with a throng of his acolytes into the wilderness where the order purified itself to once again reclaim the evangelical simplicity of the holy Catholic Church. He was an ascetic, a mystic, and an iconoclast who lived in the 12th century. The rules of his order prescribed the members a fairly strict lifestyle, and the interior furnishings had to be very minimal and austere. Of course, such way of doing things had transformed through the ages, and the Cistercians were fairly well off. This monastery is a testament to that. But that austerity in the regulations remained active, and the artists who worked for them had to adapt to this original condemnation of all things luxurious, and to the banishment of ostentatious wealth in the monastery’s adornment and art works. Apart from that, the monastery was also a place for sculptors, painters, musicians, carpenters, poets, etc. The fracturing of art into various fields was at that time still not in place, as much as it is today. Hermit can thus mean anything.
VISITOR: (shaking his head incredulously) So you think that something like this is necessary nowadays? That culture should decouple from business and market institutions, from pleasure and glitter? Isn’t that just another utopia of returning to the past?
CARETAKER: It does contain a certain level of utopia, but what would we do without utopia, without an ideal or a myth? But let me finish: what we are doing in “Hermit,” or what it should be about, is some myth of mutual interconnection, of serenity and normalcy, not some exceptionality or superiority over regular life. The word ‘hermit’ does have some connotations with hermeticism and also hermeneutics, in the sense of explaining something through allusion to something else, but it can also be a model of a person who, despite his or her loneliness, searches out opportunity to converse with someone else, with their surroundings, environment, and who had curbed their needs in order to not be distracted. Although today we have various technologies which allow for easier communication – faster, more colorful, or whatever – people speak to each other less, and more superficially, because they don’t have time. A hermit has time to listen and watch, and he or she might see with normal eyes much better than the man behind the camera or a scientist behind a telescope.
VISITOR: And what does that have to do with art?
CARETAKER: It might just be a postmodern malady or a revelation. So-called avant-garde art has, since the beginning of the 20th century, entertained the idea of absolute separation from normal life, which is never normal anyway. Fearing banality, it returned to banality. It lacked a context, because it wanted to become the absolute essence of progress – it had rejected the contextuality of the world, so to speak. When an artist works only for exhibitions, galleries or museums, they focus on the consumers/experts and they use an empty space intended for exhibitions. When a musician works only in the studio, and is only seen by television cameras, they will lose themselves in that separate world of technology. An old, specific place on the other hand, one much like this here monastery and its environs, is not an empty, sterile space, but offers space for dialogue with someone else, someone ancient, someone who was a master at their craft. The monastery forces the contemporary person to grapple with such a message, and must either respect it or lose all hope of understanding it.
VISITOR: And what does that have to do with normality?
CARETAKER: Well, this: Hermit is an opportunity for people who want to work in non-conventional ways with space and sound, and so they chose to distance themselves from mainstream mass culture. There is no museum or gallery in Plasy. The participants come and find themselves in an environment which does not accommodate them in any way they are left to their own devices, to their own skills, and must deal with their project all on their own. Everyone works by themselves, but can ask the others for advice any time, learn from them, ask them about their opinions... But there is no curator who would be telling them what to do. It is a craft in some sense, one which requires much thought and pondering in order for it to finally work. Everyone must know why they are doing what they are, whether it is an installation, a performance, a concert or a lecture. Each act is naturally compared with what the others are doing. It is not a safe artistic haven, like that of a gallery, where the audience member is expecting art, and is thus able to accept almost anything. Being inauthentic in a building such as the convent is hard... everything comes to the fore. The confrontation with the surroundings can take the form of the metal-heads assaulting the monastery after the concert, and tip all the statues they can get their hands on. They are definitely iconoclasts.
VISITOR: OK, but back to the point. You helped set up Hermit for the second time now. How were things different between the two years? Last year, was it just as much connected to sound and space?
CARETAKER: Last year it was a bit of a lunge into the unknown. The idea to organize something like an artist-in-residence program here, which the rest of the world has been doing for a long time, sort of came about naturally. The illustrator Jiří Kornatovský was born in Plasy, and so he was a main initiator. Because the monastery was empty, we got the idea to draw some people here, ones who do interesting work with sound, whether as an installation or some various musical forms. Finally, we managed to get some sixty people together – sculptors, object artists, performers, musicians who lived and worked here during a span of three months. They also partly cleaned certain parts of the monastery, emptied out the spaces of the baroque granary, which became available last year, restored the fountain on the courtyard, etc. Towards the end of Hermit, we featured the musicians Fred Frith, Pavel Fajt, Phill Niblock, Paul Panhuysen, Ann Homler, Jo Truman, Oldřich Janota, Orloj Snivců and others, and there were also a few theater performances. These were people who do things which do not fit in any premade category. It is not the academic modernity, nor “umpapa” music. I think that for most people it was a pleasant experience, and that during the first days they were walking around quite wide-eyed.
VISITOR: Last year, not many people knew about it. You had bad PR.
CARETAKER: That was because we didn’t have the time or money. But the best advertisement is always when the people who come have a good time, and go on to tell others. The competition in the media is large and Hermit should never become some sort of mass event. As soon as there are more than 200 people, the monastery loses it magic and its easy-going atmosphere. A certain sense of solitude must remain.
VISITOR: But let’s get back to this year’s Hermit. What was your main concept? And what’s a growth ring, anyway?
CARETAKER: Because this year is the international year of the Baroque, we decided to make a statement about that. The title Growthrings is related to the flow of time and establishes connection with the past, and they are also a symbol for resonance, as they are also aural. As Borges mentions somewhere, the Baroque is a style which consciously overextends its potentiality (or at least attempts to do so) and thus flirts with self-caricature. Each era of art which denudes its underlying processes and exhausts its means is baroque. Many people imagine that the Baroque is all about curls, plump and fat angels hovering in baby blue ceiling murals. But Baroque art is much more complex, and has a strength which the later classicism and rococo do not have. Maybe our postmodern society shares something with the crisis from the 17th century Baroque grew out of. Also there is this feeling of catastrophe and the abyss being somewhere just around the corner, the need for illusion or virtuality, the focus on bodily pleasures and erotica, and on simulated feeling. And also on the need to restore something sacred. We wanted to know how people would react to that.
VISITOR: Did you have in mind some non-conventional form of the Baroque?
CARETAKER: The patrons of the Growthrings were two personages of the Baroque era, ones which are both a bit obscure but all the more interesting. One of those was the priest Athanasius Kircher – a master of illusion, and of optical, light and sound installations – and F. X. Messerschmidt – a sculptor who, during his lonely life in Bratislava, made a series of self-portraits with those unbelievable grimaces. Both of them can be seen as very modern today.
VISITOR: What actually happened this year in Plasy? Who came, and what did you focus on?
CARETAKER: We originally expected some fifty participants, but that number gradually increased to about one hundred. That was a bit too much, and various disharmonies surfaced, but that is the price you must pay for openness. We originally wanted as many people to come from distant countries as possible, so that it would be a meeting of various opinions, forms of expression, and skin hues. But it eventually showed to be quite difficult to get some natives from Australia here, or a musician from Mali or from Indonesia. The process eventually yielded a few Japanese artists, one Chinese, some Americans and one Australian. So we expect greater diversity at the next Hermit. Regarding the types of art, there was a bit of everything. As per the music, Slovakians played some folk tunes from Čadec, Jo Truman played her didgeridoo, and we had Baroque lute accompanied by voice – Lewitová, Měřinský, Sarah Fraser on the harpsichord, Tibor Szemszö, M. Groeneveld’s xylophones, the rough guitar and flute of LaBerge and Drama, the trombonist James Fulkerson, the Japanse excentric Keiji Haino, Pavel Fajt, Luboš Dalmador Fidler, Oldřich Janota, Orloj Snivců, Richter band, sound installations by Rickels and Wentinck, Christof Schläger, Bambuso sonoro of Hans van Koolwijk and others.
VISITOR: But music was only a part of the symposium’s program. What about the visual artists?
CARETAKER: If we consider someone who makes something an artists, then I accept that definition. But it shouldn’t have been strictly demarcated here. The image, space and sound are all interconnected. For example, the installation which Ron Haselden made in the Baroque cellars under the granary: he placed a constellation of yellow lights which, at certain intervals, made images and the intensity of the light reacted to the strength of the sound played from the tape which played the sounds of bees, like in some French garden.
To descend into the cellar with flickering yellow lights, and you suddenly realize that something is not right. Because where could the bees have come from in such a cellar space... It’s fiction, but one which is subtle, and you have to fill in a lot of the blanks for yourself. And then you climb up the stairs again in front of the granary, and there is a blooming linden which has the exact same buzz about it. You at first think that it must be some sort of installation, but upon closer look, you see real bees and they fly to the hive which they made in the granary’s bow window. Such sudden synchronicity is the most beautiful, despite the fact that Hanselden and the bees never actually knew about each other.
VISITOR: But I saw some wooden sculptures, and there is one totem which stands at the convent’s entrance.
CARETAKER: We had a number of sculptors working on Growthrings – Sjoerd Buisman, Erik Wijntjes, Thomas Jacobs, Pavel Opočenský, Martin Janíček, Gees Gunsing, Peter Jacquemijn, and others. There was some miscommunication about an intervention into the sculpting craft, but many of them actually came with a chainsaw.
VISITOR: And what about performance and theater?
CARETAKER: During a number of weekends in June and July, there was a whole series of performances in various parts of the monastery. Petr Nikl and his theater Mehedaha staged their performance with the Lampáks in the chapel a number of times. There was Říčanová and Vítek, our best puppeteers, the Amsterdam-based underground collectives Zyklus, Hilary Vexil... Ryo Takahashi from Japan did a wonderful performance with candles, Marian Palla and Petr Kvíčala played as part of the Florian group, Tomáš Ruller set the water in the convent on fire and reached the monastery’s underground where he then proceeded to act in alchemical fashion, and Vladimír Kokolia, for example, staged an antiperformance towards the very end of Hermit when he receded to a self-made cell – there he drew and did exercises without any food or contact with the outside. That may have been the most fitting act for encapsulating the spirit of Hermit. Apart from that, there were a number of lectures which made contact with our themes. Mr. Haakman is a specialist on priest Kircher, Henri van Zanten lectured on F. X. Messerschmidt, Dr. Horyna presented on the work of J. B. Santini – the genius who rebuilt Plasy. But this wasn’t about sharing trivial facts, but it was all rather aimed to present the information which might shed light on certain historical connections, and to inspire the people to ponder for themselves. That was, after all, the intended aim of this whole project.
VISITOR: That is certainly necessary... but another utopia... (accepts a glass full of a glinting honey liquid from the CARETAKER). Is there any chance that Hermit will take place again in the future? (sips carefully)
CARETAKER: Let’s hope so. This winter, we founded Hermit as a foundation, and received support from the Ministry of Culture. The Prins Bernhard fund offered us some money and technical equipment, so we can buy even a fax and photocopier. The building of the granary, which is unfortunately in desolate shape, should become a center for contemporary intermedia art, if we manage to find some money for its renovation. There should also be a documentary department there – a library, audio library, video library, a furbished office, an exhibition space and some place for accommodation. So artists from all over the world could meet there, maybe for a month, and work on their projects in peace. In the summer, there would be workshops and exhibitions. We are in contact with similar places in Germany, France, England and Holland, but they probably don’t have such a beautiful building anywhere else.
VISITOR: (rolls the mysterious liquid around on his tongue) But that will take a long time, if it happens at all... What about next year?
CARETAKER: (pours him another shot of the brown liquid) The next Hermit will be much more concentrated and shorter. We want to bring to Plasy whatever we didn’t manage to this year. We are cooperating with various organizations which are focused on non-European art, and we want to collaborate with them on bringing artists, musicians, dancers and others from, for example, New Guinea or Mongolia, so that they can meet in a monastery in the so-called center of Europe. Thus we will manage to bring to this environment, one which has always hated anything foreign, those cultures which we Europeans have for ages called barbaric. The project is aimed at being as colorful as possible, as there is much more to the world than what we are used to. Because the monastery used to be Catholic, it is a great place in which to attempt at ecumenism.
VISITOR: (finishes the liquor until the last drop) And the last question: what is this schnapps, anyway?
CARETAKER: (brings out a rounded bottle from a cabinet with a faded label on its side which depicts an acoustic cylinder with two people communicating through it) That is a monastery secret. The herbal extract was made from the local spring water, a sunny meadow bristling with thyme and centarium, and the help of one distilling installation which was part of the alchemical project taking place in the convent’s underground. It is not so bad, considering it is the first attempt, and considering it’s art...
VISITOR: (accidentally tips the chair) Right, it’s not bad for the first try. (He leaves, and by accident sets out towards the winding staircase filled with whispering voices. Upon looking upwards into the spiral’s receding perspective, he gets even dizzier.)
Editing: Lubomír Drožď - Čaroděj OZ
Taken from the Vokno magazine: Vokno No. 29 / 1994,p. 28-31