A family of sinewy black branches scuttles across a polished gallery floor, emitting a nauseating battle cry, like nails on a chalkboard. Their globe heads teeter back and forth, fiberglass arms akimbo, scratching walls and colliding with each other as the alien lifeforms stutter to life and die out at whim. These anthropomorphic agents are part of an infinitely expanding network of Nervous Trees (2013–17), a sculptural series by Prague-based Krištof Kintera, and just one of the pseudo-sentient creations dotting the Czech artist’s solo show at Ikon Gallery in Birmingham.
THE END OF FUN!, an exhilaratingly ambiguous slogan that may as well be airlifted from the pages of George Orwell’s Animal Farm (1945), is an appropriate title for an exhibition taking place at a time where little is clear. Best known for his large-scale public installations, here Kintera has conjured a small army of multimedia kinetic works: post-apocalyptic cities, bewitched mob boss crows, head-banging anarchists and a techno-Goliath made from some two hundred and fifty lamps are but a few characters awaiting visitors to this nineteenth century neo-gothic school turned gallery. Like a high-tech Noah Purifoy blended with the playful radicalism of Gutai Group, Kintera muddies the lines between human and animal, public and private, organic and artificial in his quest to complicate popular understandings of the relationship amid nature and technology.
The artist’s interventions begin outside Ikon’s spaces. Paradise Now (2009), an unruly series of crowd control barriers sprouting antlers, is scattered down a thoroughfare that has become the gallery’s post-pandemic exit route. Ascending to the exhibition hall, the first work awaiting visitors is less a polished project than an in-situ presentation of Kintera’s artistic process. Postnaturalia Laboratory (2016–17) offers a transplanted studio set-up: wooden scaffolding and a makeshift workbench frame the room, which is piled high with boxes of hard drives, old batteries, and frayed copper cables scavenged from junkyards in the artist’s native Prague. Drawings for sculptures, scraps of interviews, and clippings from various research materials are tacked to the walls. Exhibition notes come scribbled on greasy pizza boxes, while foam sponges and cast resin shrooms poke out of whey protein tubs lined with empty spray paint bottles. Airborne earbuds, USB cables and aux cords seemingly defy gravity, rising up from a tangled mass of black cables stationed atop a mobile dolly in the center of the room.
Scooting past the studio, visitors will notice the false wall that typically splits the exhibition space from Ikon’s loading zone has been removed. Prayer for Loss of Arrogance (2013), a taxidermied fox perched atop a partially deflated exercise ball, tumbles out from a wooden shipping container while the guts of the gallery and its installation hardware are here laid bare. Kintera seems to take a particular delight in exposing the hidden seams of exhibition operations; indeed, peeling back the surface veneer of the white cube reveals a much more interesting architectural anatomy.
The same can be said of Postnaturalia (2016–17), a sweeping techno-dystopian landscape that unfurls in the next room. Made of discarded electrical components, the work constitutes only one third of the actual sculpture—and required use of the Czech Embassy’s diplomatic lorry to arrive safely in Birmingham (shipping artwork in a pandemic, it turns out, is a fiendishly difficult endeavor). This is a topography of welded motherboards, zip-tied cable highways, and battery islands sprouting copper flowers. Recalling the view out of an airplane window, the sprawling mass of Postnaturalia dilates the longer you look, as additional details come into focus from the writhing mass of hardware. TV boxes split at the seams, while rusting transmitters, cooling fans, and stacked corroded batteries find an unlikely counterpart in the artificial nature of coral, sponges, and cauliflower florets cast in semi-opaque acrylic resin. These organic forms burst out from the motherboard metropolis, rising skyward in clusters. It’s impossible to tell how many layers of technological flotsam lie underneath the surface; the sculpture is like a sedimentary rock sample of the Anthropocene era.
A jittery encounter with the anxious planets next door primes visitors for what follows. The Gollum-like croak of an ominous raven echoes down Ikon’s glassy stairwell; reaching the second floor, visitors come face-to-beak with a feathery salesman perched atop the building’s steel bracing and dressed in an appropriately seedy leather jacket. “Big value, small value, no value!” The raven barks to an imagined audience, swinging its feet with gusto while rattling off a litany of various corporate slogans, from Nike to Philips.
In the old Victorian building’s most church-like room, sixty some “drawings” made by Kintera over the past thirteen years are shown in a salon-style hang. Like an overworked internet browser with dozens of open tabs, the drawings—more like 3D collages—pull at whim from popular aphorisms, personal reflections, and political debates in the media. A rigged-up lighting system gone haywire adds a frenetic energy to the already schizophrenic work, which is as playful as it is self-effacing: sagging pillows nailed to painted plywood spout phrases like “I Doubt my Contribution to Evolution” and “Do Not Overestimate Your Own Existence.” Much less complex than the artist’s larger-scale sculptures, the one-to-oneness of these works may seem less interesting to some. But in an electrified, buzzing, and maximalist show, the drawings’ pared-back and lo-tech approach creates a space for the artist’s creeping anxiety to briefly touch down.
Kintera’s techno-dystopian architecture hits Gotham City heights in two new sculptural works squaring off in the next room: Tower of Unsustainability Development and Neuropolis (both 2020). Made from his signature scrapyard finds, the wall-based Neuropolis is like Blade Runner meets Miami Beach. A graveyard of soldered Nokia flip phones, camera viewfinders with bar tags still on, and burst cables bristling neon pink like palm trees frame vertical fluorescent tube lighting that mirrors a city skyline. Tower, meanwhile, plunges down like a subterranean skyscraper crossed with rhizomatic patterns of mycelial networks. Both sculptures hint at the idea that the true environmental debt of human actions remains to be seen, festering far beneath the surface.
Viewers will hear the staticky hum and feel the electric heat given off by Kintera’s My Light is Your Life – Shiva Samurai II (2009) before entering the final room. Two hundred and fifty lamps salvaged lamps comprise this hulking four-meter-tall beast, which flickers and glimmers to its own tempo even as it seems primed to short-circuit Ikon’s power grid. Seen from various vantage points, the anthropomorphic figure dissolves into a sea of luminous parts: chalet-style chandeliers, sticker-coated school lamps, and IKEA clip-on spotlights emerge from a mangled mess of extension cords and power sockets.
Like a supersized Gutai suit, the sculpture is both vampiric and benevolent. Sucking light and heat from the rest of the building, it wields an old Prague streetlamp, which periodically illuminates the room in a dazzling brightness. More than any of the other works on show, Shiva encapsulates Kintera’s constant battle between individual cynicism and collective hope. The supersized creature embodies the waste of a plugged-in society; its frantic flickering frame is also a visualization of the human nervous system under a constant state of panic. There’s a cruel irony to this pathetic fallacy: in order to educate us on our own systems of waste, Shiva must generate heaps of wasted energy. Is there any way out of this apocalyptic jumble? Perhaps the clue is to be found in the show’s title—to begin with an ending.
Krištof Kintera (b. 1973, Czech Republic) lives and works in Prague. His works refer to doubts expressed in societies under authoritarian or communist regimes who find themselves in economic boom, yet leave behind local concerns. In the artist’s work, a sense of observation, often caustic, helps to establish a critical distance between oneself and the world, by using everyday objects cleverly diverted. Amongst his recent solo shows: Am I also responsible for all that shit around?, Kali Gallery, Lucern (2019); No One has Nothing, z2o Sara Zanin Gallery, Rome (2019); Do Not Litter, Do not Feed Birds and Do Not Push the Help Button Yet, Czech Centre New York (2018); and Naturally Postnatural, Ron Mandos Gallery, Amsterdam (2018). His works have been acquired by several prestigious public and private collections, amongst others: Maramotti Collection; Barbierato Collection; Boghossian Foundation; Rosenblum Collection & Friends; Jerry Speyer Collection; Rubell Family Collection; Fogg Art Museum of Harvard University, Boston.
Alice Bucknell is an artist and writer based in London. With a background in social anthropology and critical practice, her current work uses speculative fiction to investigate the role of architecture in contributing to the climate crisis and systems of global inequality. She participates in international exhibitions, symposiums, and residencies, most recently in/at Ars Electronica, White Cube, Annka Kultys Gallery, the Canadian Center for Architecture, Serpentine Galleries, and the MAAT. Her writing appears in publications like frieze, PIN-UP, Rhizome, and the Architectural Review. She is currently a staff writer at Elephant Magazine and the Harvard Design Magazine and a member of the artist-run collective HQI in London.