Ján Mančuška, the conceptual artist who toyed with the conventions of durational time and narrative, died June 30 of complications from a rare blood disease according to the artist’s gallery, Andrew Kreps. He was 39. Mančuška is survived by his wife, two children and his mother.
Mančuška often used text to subvert his videos and installations. He made all meaning explicit as a way of questioning the very presence of meaning. His first show at Andrew Kreps, “Read It,” included the installation The Space Behind the Wall. Mančuška built a wall and projected onto it the words, “The space behind the wall on the left side is about three meters deep. On the left side of the wall hangs approximately one and half meters from the floor a picture. On the left side under the picture there is a chair and the cabinet. The chair is made of wood as is the cabinet. The right side of the back wall is empty. And nothing hangs on the wall. In front of the wall there stands two meters high cabinet in light colored wood with top cupboard section doors and below two book shelves are empty.” Peep-holes provided the viewer with a glimpse at precisely what the text describes. Mančuška did not suggest a platonic ideal that is represented by the synthesis of image, object and text—as with Joseph Kosuth’s One and Three Chairs—but rather offered a cynical alternative: perhaps no ideal exists at all.
He was, however, as playful as he was cerebral. In The Other, strips of 35 mm film hung from gallery walls documenting Mančuška’s wife blacking out all the parts of his body that he couldn’t see; by the end, the photographs turn gleeful as most of his face, neck, back and buttocks are covered in black paint: He feigns expressions of fear and anger and yet he appears liberated, as if at some masquerade where his identity is forever unknown.
He was born in 1972 in Bratislava and spent much of his working career splitting up his time between Prague and Berlin. He studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague. His work has been exhibited at Kunsthalle Basel, the Museum of Modern Art, the Czech Centre in New York and Karin Guenther Gallery in Hamburg. He had several projects in the works at the time of his passing, including a public project for the city of Warsaw and a solo exhibition in Paris. He had been ill for many years.
In his later works, the presence of words continues to undercut the reality of a room, but if anything, language becomes increasingly more menacing. In Reflection, two nameless characters narrate exactly what they are doing on camera.
Woman: He opened the door.
Man: It was completely dark.
Woman: Light penetrated into the corridor from the open door.
Man: For a moment nothing could be seen.
Woman: The first thing he caught sight of in the space was himself.
The dialogue is interspersed with moments of silence as a camera moving slowly through different living rooms. The movement is so steady, the silence so drastically tense after the chaotic exchange of words, that the domestic space becomes inexplicably menacing. Likewise, there is an underlying anxiety in the dialog that is never spoken. The words are redundant, endlessly refining the action on camera, but explaining nothing. The film ends with two men who believe they know one another having a circular dialogue about how they know one another, only realize by the end that they have mistaken one another for someone else. The screen goes black and a voice says, “All is played out in conversation. Even a pause is conversation.” It sounds frightened, like conversation is not only unavoidable, but futile as well.
For all his interest in the inherent flaws of narrative, he was a great experimental writer. One can only hope the scripts for his films will someday be arranged into a story collection. Killer Without a Cause, for instance, is as stark and foreboding as anything Donald Barthelme or Ann Beattie ever wrote. The text describes in great detail what is happening on screen, as a man named V sits at a table. “If someone were sitting across from him at the table, and was looking in his direction, V’s body would form a silhouette against the window, but the person would not see what V is looking at on the floor.” This is precisely what the viewer sees, the imagistic narrative both commingling and mocking the textual one, but the words are completely stripped of exposition. Like much of Mančuška’s work, we know exactly what his happening; we have no idea why. V watches the shadows move across a bare room. He arranges by color various medications he was supposed to be taking to treat a mental illness, but hasn’t for years. He takes the pills all at once. The scene cuts to five people standing around him.
Even the death itself is undefined. V is described as lying “in a sleeping position.” One of the five people to enter the room can only respond to the absence of detail by increasing that lack: “I don’t get it. We were together almost every day. He never said a thing.” The death is a tragedy, but greater than that is not knowing why. Mančuška always forced his audience to ask why, even when there was no answer.