David Fesl

The weakest nest robber

Karel Císař

Although it might seem that David Fesl’s work displays two contrary tendencies, i.e., the creation on the one hand of subtle objects and, on the other, institutionally critical texts and performances, in reality, these tendencies are internally interleaved in his work. While Fesl, together with Sláva Sobotovičová, placed himself, on the occasion of an awards ceremony, in a catalogue text and in performance, in opposition to various stereotypes of contemporary art (such as spectacular installations in which the works of art are quite interchangeable, or the commodification of identities by which artists are reduced to mere representatives of class, gender or ethnic groups), he has also thereby set benchmarks for his own work. Under the surface of his objects, on the verge of jewellery and souvenirs, we should therefore be seeking a critical attitude.

In Fesl’s recent works, exhibited this year at Karlin Studios, the Academy of Fine Arts and the Georg Kargl Gallery in Vienna, we may look for a critical attitude in the external conditions in which the artist set his objects. While in the case of the first Prague presentation and the occasion of its Vienna reprise, he accompanied them with a performance in the guise of guided tours directed by the artist, in the Academy he presented solely a film documentary of this performance. In it, we are guided by twins who – following the pattern of the overused format of exhibition auxiliary programmes – mechanically enumerate lists of things and materials from which the objects were created, from sandalwood to the silicone tips of interdental toothbrushes. However, Fesl also included short subversive stories in these enumerations, pointing to the power relations inscribed in the art world, such as the hierarchical relationship between artist and curator. This is also indicated by another of the external frameworks of the exhibition, i.e., the text by Edith Jeřábková. It was the artist himself who invited the curator to collaborate, thus overturning the established hierarchies. In addition, he printed her deliberately misleading description on the wall using hand-carved potato stamps, so with the degradation of the material, the text then turned into an illegible image.

The last subversive framework was the choice of installation, because, contrary to the expectations raised by Jeřábková’s text, which promised “a multiplicity of environments”, Fesl decided to devote most of the exhibition’s budget to reconstructing the space to bring it as close as possible to the neutral “white box”. By doing so, he not only set himself in opposition to the “immersive scenographies” of contemporary installations, but primarily thereby created ideal conditions for detailed viewing of his little objects, which he sparsely hung at eye level along the perimeter walls of the gallery. And it is these very exhibited objects that are ultimately, despite their aesthetic, the most subversive element of the exhibition. Not only in that they defy categorization, when it is not clear what we are looking at – whether a found object or a carefully constructed assemblage – but above all by what an unusual amount of attention they demand. Just as we had to disclose all the layers of the outer frameworks of the exhibition, we must also disclose the inner layers of the exhibited objects, whether their morphology and construction elements, or the way they are interconnected. Especially since, in contrast to the author’s similar objects in the series presented in the National Gallery (2016) and in the Emil Filla Gallery in Ústí nad Labem (2017), which were mounted on horizontal plinths, the more recent objects are intended for vertical hanging, and different requirements were therefore placed on their tectonics. It is only then that we can fully appreciate the precision with which the discarded everyday objects, such as plastic spoons, artificial nails and chopsticks, are combined with natural ones, such as pistachio shells and poppy seeds, or the precision with which the individual elements have been made, such as a stick made of walnut wood with rosehip thorns and a blue-stained pole made of matchsticks.

If this “distribution of attention” represents the fringe position of Fesl’s critical attitude, then it is not a critique from the outside, but from the inside, also due to the fact that the author has personal experience with the criticized immersive installations, having participated as an author and architect in the exhibitions Everything Means Nothing (2018), in which he covered the walls of the UM Gallery of the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design with mirrors, and Work on the Future (2019) in the Fait Gallery in Brno, where he created a monumental co-working platform. And Fesl does not shy away from the politics of identities either, when, by means of some deliberately phallic objects, he subscribes to the imaginativeness of queerness. He does not, however, interpret this policy as a separate value that approaches the work of art from the outside, but on the contrary understands it as an internal quality of creative processes and the resulting fabrication of the work of art. From this point of view, we may interpret David Fesl’s attention to the discarded objects of everyday consumption and discredited jewellery and arranger’s procedures not only as a defence of minority attitudes and practices in art, but also as a defence of minority in general. And he invites the viewers of his works to do the same, as is apparent from the appeal with which the representatives of his performative guided viewing address us at the end: “When you leave this room, reach into your pockets and carefully examine everything you find in them. Be alone with your findings for a while.”

– Císař, Karel. “The weakest nest robber.” Art Antiques, vol. 12/2020+1/2021 (December 2020 and January 2021): 63–65.