Review: Shining a light on common humanity
By Doug Norris/Arts & Living Editor
Friday, February 1, 2008

SOUTH KINGSTOWN - The existential thread that runs through "Close Encounters," an intriguing exhibition of Central European video art curated by Viera Levitt and now on display at the University of Rhode Island and Kingston Train Station, is a tightrope balanced by the shifting weight of fear and hope.

Whether confronting anxieties of aging and loneliness, the absurdity of war, the stifling nature of orthodox religion or the visceral power of the arts to transcend worldly limitations, the videos present human stories in styles that range from the surreal to the documentary.

Work by six artists from Slovakia, Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic mostly belie Cold War stereotypes of a grim, gulag existence. There is bleakness here, especially in "Transport," a 12:17 video projection by Pavlina Fichta Cierna of the Slovak Republic, in which we get a wheelchair patient's perspective of being carted around from one hospital room to another. Perhaps the most depressing of the videos on display at URI, it is the first you come across in the Main Gallery. Frames are filled with long, soulless corridors, industrial, rusting and paint-peeled walls, sterile, empty rooms and emotionless workers appearing as phantoms in elevator reflections, office windows or showing their backs only on the wheelchair journey. In one surprising instant, a man holds a door open stiffly to let the wheelchair through. Yet the incident serves as a counterpoint for the kind of bleak existence this must be, contrasting with the absolute isolation of the rest of the trip, the austere function of space that barely rates as shelter, much less a home.

The video raises fears in the viewer about the prospects of aging alone in an uncaring society, and serves as a kind of modern Sisyphus tale. There is no joy in it, only endless tedium, soulless purgatory and ominous resignation.

Cierna's companion piece, "Women Talk or Kitchen View," is a 14:50 video played on a monitor with headphones. In it, fears of aging, motherhood and illness are discussed as Cierna moves her existentialist worldview from a wordless, anonymous hospital to the intimate setting of a women's kitchen, where she visits a friend. The dialogue between the artist and the biochemist ranges in topics from evolution to DNA, the isolation that women feel during their maternity leave to their desire to protect their children and worries about the bird flu. The passionate conversation includes kids making noise and interrupting, while the two women talk intelligently about the paradoxes of human knowledge and understanding, and the sadness and fear that lies at the root of that knowledge.

Projected on the center of the Main Gallery's back wall is "Green Plateaus I" (3 minutes), depicting two older women dancing in a puddle-strewn town courtyard. On the floor nearby, a video monitor documents the Czech artist Milena Dopitova as she and her twin sister artificially age with the help of a makeup artist, wigs and costumes. The 17:30 minute video "Sixtysomething" plays alongside the shorter video (with four-hand piano played by the twin sisters in the documentary serving as the soundtrack to the dance). It's an eloquent exploration of identity and memory. The two young women go on a journey to experience a day as old women, delving into issues of aging while recreating Dopitova's memory of two older dancing women in the same park years before.

Aging, again, is the primary subject of Czech artist Katerina Seda's "It Doesn't Matter," a short but powerful video with an accompanying book. The project documents Seda's grandmother, who lost interest in life and lost passion for everything once she retired and her husband died. Seda searched endlessly for ways to reach her, trying to re-ignite the spark that she knew was still there, but her grandmother answered every question with, "It doesn't matter." The book recounts some of their conversations. "What do you wish for granny?" "To be content?" "What does it mean 'to be content?' " "To be left alone. Not to have to do anything or speak to anyone."

Seda finally hit on something when she got her grandmother to talk about her work. While employed as the head of a tool stock room at a home supplies shop in Brno, she was responsible for all of the goods that came in and out of that room. During her conversations, she remembered 650 types of goods, including their prices. So Seda gave her a drawing pad, and the grandmother began drawing item after item, often from different perspectives. She reports that there are now 176 items back "in the stock room." More importantly, she found a connection that keeps her grandmother active, alert and alive.

In "KR WP" (7:30), Polish artist Artur Zmijewski gives what appears at first glance to be a documentary about soldiers practicing the marches, songs and drill routines into a surreal fable inspired by "The Emperor's New Clothes." Scenes of the soldiers singing in unison and marching in lockstep suddenly morph into the same military choreography done buff naked (except for boots, hats and rifles). The sharply satirical nude soldier marching turns the act of military preparedness into an R rated Monty Python bit, while pointing out the absurdity and cosmic silliness of war.

Two other videos by Zmijewski, "The Singing Lesson I" (14 minutes) and "The Singing Lesson II" (16:30), reveal the artist's heart and compassion in the message that art can lift the Earthbound to the realm of the angels and that God loves those who sing the loudest. In these documentaries, deaf children are presented singing as soloists and choirs in a church to magnificent organ accompaniment. The sound is powerful and haunting - like winds howling through a barn door on a stormy night - but the voices and the faces are also a testament to the transcendent nature of creation at its purest and most heartfelt.

Hungarian artist Hajnal Nemeth, who lives and works in Berlin, provides one of the show's brightest moments with the eerie, unforgettable 1:30 short, "NataSsa." In it, we see a woman dressed in black walking across a green field under a patchy sky. She moves in a diagonal through the meadow passing a large Orthodox cross. She hunches over like a cat then, suddenly, shockingly, springs up to the cross and takes up the position of the crucifix. Nemeth's short, sharp film plays with the convention of video technology, in its use of reverse imagery that conjures up a supernatural mystery (or miracle), a literal lifting of the spirit. The patriarchal society that is mocked in the naked soldiers video is challenged here in the subversion of the woman on the cross.

"Close Encounters" will be on exhibit at URI's Main Gallery through Feb. 10, when guest curator Viera Levitt will give remarks during a closing reception from 2 to 4 p.m. The satellite exhibition, "Seagull," will also remain on display at Kingston Train Station through Feb. 10. An accompanying exhibition of staged photographs by Czech artist Pavel Pecha will be shown at the Corridor Gallery, URI Fine Arts Center, Upper College Road, Kingston, through Feb. 28. For more information, call 874-2775 or log on to


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