As reflected by the exhibition title, artist, graphic designer and photographer Robert V. Novák identifies mainly with the status of collector. This project, however, is far more than a presentation of his collection. If anything, it is a gesture, a Duchampian intellectual provocation that concerns not only current issues of our relationship to our surroundings, but also the whole spectrum of creative activities thanks to which the artist and ‘collector’ combined in one is an important – though also relatively latent – figure on the Czech art scene.
Novák’s work straddles the boundary between fine and applied art, covering a broad field: besides photography and artistic experimentation, it includes graphic design (perhaps the best-known and most visible area of Novák’s pursuits) as well as activities that combine creativity with theory and conceptual thinking – curating, scenography and teaching. Over the course of more than three decades of intense work, often carried out at feverish pace, he has created hundreds of visual designs, books, exhibition and catalogue designs, as well as theatre, film, and music posters, many of which have earned prestigious awards. His work combines the broad scope of vision, creativity and reliability of a professional with a ‘punk’ approach; it combines an unorthodox take on the given subject and material with a deep respect for traditional rules and an emphasis on detail and hidden symbolism. He balances a necessary level of systematic thinking with the ability to absorb immediate impulses, to experiment and improvise. Novák’s work is loosely influenced both by his personal interests and by seemingly unrelated stimuli and inspirations, including his interest in collecting.
Collecting is always an autobiographical act. Something that looks like a mere collection of items on the surface may, when viewed closer, uniquely reflect the collector’s personality and thinking. It can often also reflect chapters in someone’s life over the course of time, chapters that the collection’s objects relate to at the level of ‘secondary personal memory’. Robert V. Novák isn’t a collector in the traditional sense of the word. He doesn’t collect systematically or intensively, but rather as a kind of afterthought, sometimes as the by-product of another activity, amassing objects of the same kind until he realises that he is actually the owner of a collection. The art historian and theorist Tomáš Pospiszyl has written that ‘his passion for collecting has the character of conceptual art projects’. This description perfectly captures the fundamental principle behind Novák’s collecting: he isn’t concerned with individual items; the accumulating material is primarily a source. Novák is interested in his own vision of an original, personal collection through which he simultaneously creates space for reflection; the collected material provides him with opportunities for various considerations and interpretations. In this way, Novák exists outside the usual territory of collecting. He is often interested in ‘non-things’ generally considered trash. Nearly twenty years ago, when he used metal rings to bind together dozens of plastic trays from the boxes of chocolates that he ate at work to create another of his sets of ‘dirty books’, he elevated plastic trash to the realm of art. His way of working fundamentally transforms the status of the material that he collects.
The exhibition in GASK’s Whitebox exhibition space presents a different waste ‘collection’ item: silica gel moisture absorption packets. At first glance, the glass display cases with silica gel packets pinned down using entomological needles may evoke nostalgic memories of school science displays. Their message, however, lies elsewhere. They inspire social and philosophical-ecological reflections on consumerism, overproduction and the industry of waste. The subjects of the ‘manufacture’ and aestheticisation of waste, its impact on the environment and the energy necessary for waste recycling and removal are inspired by the concept of the circular economy as formulated at the start of the millennium in Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things by chemist Michael Braungart and architect William McDonough. The questions raised by their book and by Robert V. Novák’s exhibition at GASK are aimed at our contentedly consuming society – and also at each and every one of us.