The Insight of Ivan Pinkava


„For someone who is past experiencing, there is no consolation” (Walter Benjamin)[1]


“All the mortals I saw were alone and as if sunk in themselves. It must be a common sight, but mixed with something else I imagine.” (Samuel Beckett)[2]


“What a poet writes, an angel or demon does …

Thus dreams revenge themselves on uninterrupted consciousness!” (Vladimír Holan)[3]


The work of the Czech photographer Ivan Pinkava[4] (b. 1961) is, as a matter of principle, built upon ambivalence and ambiguity. It contains contradictions that make it distinctive and unique. Characteristic of it is a reduction of forms, an orientation to the traditional black-and-white photographic tonal scale, to simple pictorial composition, and the repetition of selected motifs in larger sets on various themes. But this apparent “simplicity” is not an end itself. It conceals within it a space for the refinement of expression and broad potential for making reference to things.

The structure of this “reduced space of expression” has its own genesis, which re-enters each subsequent Pinkava photograph at two levels – as a recurring new beginning of this “created world“ and as a recurring experience that becomes complexly immobilized and settled in the photographer’s work. This genesis thus fulfills an internal chronological development (a genetic course) and substantiates the causality of other chosen motifs and thematized series entering the context of his œuvre.[5] It makes precise his œuvre’s “axis of orientation.” A powerful tension thus arises here between the chronology of making art and the independence of the individual works that by contrast seem to go against time[6] and, in their own way, separatefrom time and liberatethemselvesfrom it. By this approach of moving in the opposite direction, which he consciously continues to work with, develop, and manipulate, Pinkava achieves what is in fact the “dual time of photography”. This is the key to understanding his artistic method, because it is directly linked with his choice of thematic groups.[7] For this reason alone one cannot separate form from content here. On the contrary, one must look for the unifying principles present in Pinkava’s work.

Everything in Pinkava’sœuvre in some way touches upon the allegorical nature of time, its articulation and transformation. Here, time is put into the light of human experience. It is observed as a motif that creates space and myth, but is also destructive. Again from two angles – the immediate (personal) and the historical (from a distance) – Pinkava brings under control the consequences that the perception of time has for human consciousness and experience. Time is a space of interpretation and also a space of concealing (disguising) meanings. We exist and live with time and in it, but we also need defense mechanisms that protect us from the “shock”[8] of time’s flow.

In Pinkava’s work, the relationship between the perception of time and space is transferred to refined allegorical compositions that operate with generally known cultural codes. He freely borrows iconographic archetypes – signs, symbols, and attributes – as well as fictitious and real figures from the history of art and ideas, in order to recast them in his own art and to actualize them at the semantic and meaning-making level (Adam, 2002; Noah, 2002; Portrait for Vladimir Mayakovsky, 1986). He invests them with new bodies and new objective vessels. We gradually discover that the specific names, figures, and objects used in his photographs have been stripped of their identities as part of historical time (that is to say, measurable or imaginable time) and they are instead used as elements containing synthetic, timeless, self-transcending experience. It is precisely this “synthesis” that has been released by removing objects and figures from their measurably graspable milieu.[9] If, however, experience has been released in its “generalization,” that was in order to make it recognizable from contemporary positions and shapeable directly through our consciousness as independent material; in order to make it possible “to touch” experience, albeit only with one’s eyes. Pinkava has initiated contact with something that in all senses and at various levels goes beyond human measure and time, and evokes mixed feelings in the recipient. Here, anxiety when faced with the unknown is integrated into the means of expression used in the photograph.[10]

One must bear in mind that historical attributes here are only a repository, a vessel for passing on a message. That’s why the historical ballast has to be shed as if it were theatrical camouflage or a disguise that mutes the real exhortations or entreaties being made. The historicity of the figures has to be broken apart for them to speak in a living tongue.[11] It is the same with the prejudices inherent in claims to exactness regarding products of nature and products of man. Pinkava thus works in an apparently simple way. By presenting objects and figures in new, different configurations, in altered relations and bonds, he changes the code of their testimonies, and opens up the field for the objects’ potential to make reference to other things in the language of the photographic image.

The sophistication of this approach is, however, further multiplied by the fact that the objects themselves, removed from the matrix, are veiled (shrouded) in their essence as phenomena or in their original functions (Vanitas, 2008). Their conventional, lexically described ability to be shaped (a form identical with the titles, that is, with their being given names), changes when viewed from another angle or in a different light (Chair, 2010). With figures, it is changed by veiling identity, applying striking makeup, changing costumes, and so forth(Untitled, 2007; the TeatrNovogoFronta series, 2000). Pinkava thus in new ways interlinks not only “transformed” objects and figures themselves, but also their “auras,” which he strips of their encyclopedic (lexical) dimension and thus points to their eclipsed ritual function.[12] For these “new relations” to be legible by the viewer, they had to be extracted from all spatial and temporal continuity with the phenomenal events around us and to be set in some kind of temporary vacuum, and also had to be stripped of the chaos of events and the “order of history and science,” in order to be relieved of the burden of description and descriptiveness and to be cast into a state of actualized knowledge – new analyses and syntheses stemming from other points of departure, in conditions set by the artist.

That is why Pinkava chooses a hermetically sealed space for his photographs. In this sense he proceeds as a modernist, because he works with a kind of laboratory stage intended for replaying specific observed episode-ideas. That is also why in his work one cannot make distinctions between the individual photographs according to genre criteria like the nude or the still life. What is essential here is the “evocation of a relationship” amongst selected elements extracted from the ungraspable matrix and by changing their configuration. They are situational moments, which can reasonably be called materialized “experiential tissue” that goes against the flow of time and the illuminating sphere of some kind of “sharing,” which is concealed under a layer of phenomenal events. Here, living figures, like dead objects, are objects in an observed relationship. This dead-alive polarity acquires completely different connotations, similar, for example, to the polarities past-present, large-small, serious-banal, true-false, open-concealed. In its contradictoriness this unification of the relational polarities in Pinkava’s means of expression puts the emphasis on the individual ability of the viewer’s inner eye[13] as opposed to the external, presented, objective situation, which instead puts the emphasis on contradiction, contrast, and ambivalence (Foucault’s Pendulum, 2009). Natural objects are also taken out of their natural circulation and are involved in new contexts in which their formal appearance and inner structure suddenly have a different resonance for the viewer, in another “key” (Weinachtsoratorium, 2008). As if we were looking at the same familiar thing with different eyes or as if a controlled deformation of the known objective world had taken place before our eyes. What we see makes us uncertain about the correction about the corrections automatically made by our consciousness. An example is the photograph DiisManibus!(2009), in which the lexical designation of the plant is secondary and the metaphor of death (by uprooting) is primary. We have death before us in a live transmission, “frozen” in the medium of photography. It is, then, a double death or, more precisely, a “split death.”

For Pinkava the format of the photograph is chiefly the place, the place of showing or of appearing. That is why the place recalls a stage, a setting, or a ritual ground – an altar table. Thus prepared by the artist, this “space of hospitality” often contains the recurring motif of the horizon as the background for the figure-objects that are shown or appear (Egg and Wax, 2002). The horizon is, however, transformed into an illusory ambiguous game, because it is not the real boundary dividing space, but merely an instrument that in part gives this impression and in part corrects it. It is a veiling of the original separating function.[14] It is precisely this “openness” of perceptions in their general human experience and also a correction of their validity by their being enclosed in a specific artificial configuration of analogical forms, which constitutes one of Pinkava’s characteristic strategies of expression, based on the totalization of contradictions. Here arises the characteristically compact ambiguous style of his photographs, which at times turns into irony or even sarcasm and thus ranks itself with kindred spirits like Charles Baudelaire, Samuel Beckett, and the Czech poet Vladimír Holan.[15]

What is the Pinkava seeking to achieve with this approach? Chiefly, he is dismantling the viewer’s conventional thinking and perceptions, which are connected to established “ideas” about the objects, their museum-like description and “once-and-for-all” inclusion, their statically enclosed, unchanging nature, and thus their “recognizability.” From an apparently well-known, measurable, and thus recognizable world that can allegedly no longer surprise us with anything, the photographer again creates an allegory. Under the weight of the commonplace, he renews the “sense” of mystery. He complicates the viewer’s ability to reflect on what is seen by means of what is thought, in order to initiate a new view of objectivity and, through that objectivity, a new view of himself or herself, figuratively speaking, in order “to revive man.” He seeks to achieve a view of the unburdened, inessential, secondary things with which human consciousness is clogged and in which it is imprisoned. He seeks the liberation of human beings from the mechanisms they himself have created by the degradation of their own culture. He wants to find the beginning of human innocence by looking back. There is, then, no more suitable place from which to step into introspection than the moment of dying and death (Salome, 1996).

This is, in its own way, a method of paradox, for by means of establishing an evocation of death and complications in the perception and reception of external impulses through photographs a crystalline version of the pure and impure principles of human behavior are disclosed. The reasons and causes for this behavior are then found in the relation between time and corporeality – in moments of communion and also in situations of sharp contradiction. This relationship and its changeability thus model the transformations of human consciousness like defenses against the “threat of shock”[16] (Knife, 2002). This relationship is therefore directly culture-shaping both at the personal level and at the more general. It also permanently renews and supports the atrophied ritualistic component of human behavior.

At the same time one is left with the continuously posed question of whether the measurable[17] is for human beings synonymous with the natural, and whether measurability in consequence leads to uncontestable (exact) human knowledge, which would make one master of one’s fate.

Against this view, it is as if Pinkava had built up a whole arsenal of proliferating evidence not of the opposite of this claim, but of its allegorical imprecision, which is, however, precisely what makes a human being human. In Pinkava’s work, the intentional imprecision and conscious disruption of the axial symmetries is not merely a game of form with select elements; it is, rather, a distinctive expressive metaphor linked with chosen biblical, classical, and Christian themes (The Lamb of God, the End of Time …, 1996; Adam and Eve, 1994). The clarity and precision of “dogma” are disrupted by human error, living imperfection, an attempt at imitation that is keen to learn, in which traces of humankind are always mirrored.

The disruption of the center, the diversion of motifs from the axes, the observation of imprecision in the symmetry of the human body, and so forth (Sebastian, 2002) are set against the precision that, it seems, is not of human origin, but can have its primal origin in divine creation, as is carefully and indirectly suggested in most of the photographer’s works (They Shall Look on Him Whom They Pierced, 1997). Precision in Pinkava’s works consists, it seems, only in the immaterial idea, yet in the realization of the idea this precision comes into conflict with the matter into which it has first been transformed by the process, and then again vanishes from it or regroups in it according to certain laws. The precise then paradoxically becomes immeasurable, because one cannot measure the fleeing protean vitality of an idea (except perhaps analogically in the form of a set algorithm). This fundamental malleable principle – precision and symmetry – can, however, be revealed and recognized below the surface of everything that lives, in all that exists, as archetypes of phenomena, actions, and processes, as well as from the static (that is, “dead”) objects that emerge from them, from remnants, left-over vessels, remains (or even relics). Objects and organisms contain traces of the original creative process. Frozen by means of photography, they become fossils in dual time.

There are various places to “observe” these phenomena, but time is always part of them, time as an independent malleable medium, the only medium we can perceive as an analogous to superhuman (inhuman, meta-human) creation. Hence Pinkava’s interest in the “growth” of the human body in childhood (Little Charon, 1996; Adult Charon, 1997), its transformation in adolescence (Narcissus, 1997), its aging and death (Memento mori II, 2001; Ecce homo, 1995). Hence his fascination with the finality of the physical existence of man, which touches us inwardly (Revelation, 2009), and, on the other hand, his fascination with the vagueness of the physical demise of objects, a fascination that passes our inner experience by, and does not identify with “our defense” against shock (Chair, 2004). What is this imaginary boundary between the conscious mind and the unconscious, which separates the living from the dead (the organic from the inorganic), and what part does it play in human life?

Related to this question is Pinkava’s casting doubt on geometry as an instrument for the measuring and knowing of a place.[18] In his photographs, simply the definition of place, in any way, encounters insurmountable difficulties (for example, the SpiritualExercises series, 2003).[19] Could it be perhaps that the staged horizon creates the illusion of place? Or does the touch of an object and a mat completed with a shadow do that?[20] Is it the intersection of planes? What kind of planes? Where do these planes really lead? The blanket with the ornamental pattern (Untitled, 2004; Bed I and Bed II, 2008) is suddenly some kind of spatial error.[21] The ornamental pattern breaks and creates another space in a space (for example, the photographs with the blanket theme, 2010). The simple model of three-dimensional space here suddenly collapses and, with it, so too does the idea of the firm, clear architecture of matter and in general the principle connected with the unambiguous orientation of man in space. Space becomes an uncertain changeable place beyond control (the Spiritual Exercises series, 2003), a site of continuous reversals and a site of the movement of human consciousness, of defenses that have been broken through. The laws hold and are verifiable only under “certain conditions” and in “certain connections.”

Objects and figures are increasingly presented, and increasingly openly, as suspended motion or action (Untitled, 2010 [See the List of published photographs, no. XXX]; Wrestling with an Angel, 2009), or, better said, as a kind of movement (action), which human consciousness is unable to be aware of within the frame of “one’s own time,” but thanks to the technology of film, one can reconstruct and imagine how it was.[22]

Against a concrete static place, Pinkava sets an intersection of actions, of functions that are regrouping, and the hitherto unseen sides (and also the deformation of perception) of known reality.[23] He demonstrates this approach in the manipulation of objects and their functions – a chair, a sofa/sitting, reclining – and also with the manipulation of the nude figure, which he sets against the darkness of the background or an artificial horizon. The degree of the depersonalization of the model (a shaved head, a veil, make-up, a mask) and the degree of its anatomical disfigurement – merging it with an object or a shadow, light, darkness, and so forth, refers to the latent transformation that the body as an object undergoes, a transformation that escapes the “static and hieratic in the divine,” because it is human experience and that takes place dramatically in measured time. Against this impassioned action Pinkava sets situations of recurrent calming and the unification of the human and the divine, in moments evoking regularity, symmetry, and also asexuality, a unification that occurs through death.

The test of whether the soul surmounts this suffering and finds the way to the light and spiritual awakening, or instead chooses resignation and falls, is a kind of metaphor for crossing the horizon in the right or wrong direction. It contains one of the fundamental cultural codes of Western civilization, the theme of Christian salvation or damnation.

Pinkava’s photographic work is mainly a critical report on the state of an individual human spirit in “Western culture.” The artist is searching for the cultural essence of this Western man or woman, and therefore offers certain generalizations for which he uses the generally comprehensible cultural codes of the West as his means. He breaks apart their conventional applicability, however, for the sake of possible transformations. He creates a series of propositions about the identity and the doubts of Western man, who goes through historical experiences – crises, rises and falls, – only so that he or she can always return to the generally valid rules of human existence, whose precise appellation, it seems, eludes our possibilities. If these rules (dogmas) defy naming, then, by contrast, their visual evocation in photographs is often stronger, simply because this evocation enables one to disrupt their static structures.

By offering another view of the static system of rules that were once set, Pinkava’s photographic work shares in the renewal of the dynamic process of spiritual awakening. It does so without forcing the incomprehensible to leave human life. On the contrary, his work recurrently places what remains incomprehensible into the light of human attention as something fundamental: Vanitas and Memento mori. Pinkava’s work thus acts ritually at a time when the whole Western world is experiencing one of the greatest identity crises in its history.

Petr Vaňous


[1] Walter Benjamin, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,”Illuminations, trans. Harry Zohn (New York: Schocken Books, 1969), p. 184.

[2] Samuel Beckett, “The Calmative,” in Samuel Beckett, Stories and Texts for Nothing, (1967; New York: Grove Press, 1994, p. 38.

[3] Vladimír Holan, Noc s Hamletem, (1964) Prague: Československýspisovatel, 1969, p. 27; A Night with Hamlet, trans. by Jarmila and Ian Milner, London: Oasis, 1980.

[4] Ivan Pinkava was born in Náchod, Czechoslovakia, on 1 February 1961. He graduated, specialized in printing, from a Prague secondary school for graphic design (Středníprůmyslováškolagrafická) in 1981, and then, with a degree in photography, from the Film and Television School of the Academy of Performing Arts (FAMU), Prague, in 1986. From 2005 to 2007, he ran the Photography Studio of the Academy of Art, Architecture and Design in Prague (VŠUP). His works have been shown in a number of solo and group exhibitions, for example, in Paris, Athens, Bologna, Tokyo, Bonn, Helsinki, Berlin, Moscow, and Copenhagen.

[5] Family, family relations, and the “genetic program of man” are of great importance in Pinkava’s work. See Petr Vaňous, Ivan Pinkava, trans. Derek and Marzia Paton, Prague: Torst, 2009, pp. 8 and 15 (note 9).

[6] This has to do with Benjamin’s idea of “brushing history against the grain.” “History is the subject of a structure whose site is not homogeneous, empty time but time filled with the presence of the now [Jetztzeit]. Thus, to Robespierre ancient Rome was a past charged with the time of the now which he blasted out of the continuum of history.” Walter Benjamin, “Theses on the Philosophy of History,” in Benjamin, Illuminations, pp. 257 and 261.

[7] See Vaňous, Ivan Pinkava, pp. 8 and 15 (note 9).

[8] Benjamin’s quoting Sigmund Freud is relevant here: “‘For a living organism, protection against stimuli is an almost more important function than the reception of stimuli; the protective shield is equipped with its own store of energy and must above all strive to preserve the special forms of conversion of energy operating in it against the effects of the excessive energies at work in the external world, […].’” To which he adds: “The threat from these energies is one of the shocks. […] Psychoanalytic theory tries to understand the nature of these traumatic shocks ‘on the basis of their breaking through the protective shield against stimuli’.” Benjamin, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” p. 161. And, in connection with the poetry of Baudelaire, Benjamin writes about “the figure of shock, indeed of catastrophe.” Ibid., p. 169.

[9] This is meant as the milieu that is “structured according to scale,” and “structured by becoming distant,” for example, by settling either into history or into a concrete space on a certain scale (an interior, the frame of a landscape).

[10]That is to say, the “unique phenomenon of a distance, however close it may be,” as Benjamin explains the “concept aura” in historical and in natural objects. Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” p. 222.

[11] “The uniqueness of a work of art is inseparable from its being embedded in the fabric of tradition. This tradition itself is thoroughly alive and extremely changeable.” Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” in Benjamin, Illuminations, p. 223.

[12] Consider Benjamin’s idea: “It is significant that the existence of the work of art with reference to its aura is never entirely separated from its ritual function. In other words, the unique value of an ‘authentic’ work of art has its basis in ritual, the location of its original use value.” Ibid., pp. 223–24.

[13] In connection with the group of traits characteristic of a certain objects and phenomena, Kandinsky talks about an “inner vibration.” Wassily Kandinsky, Concerning the Spiritual in Art, trans. from the Germany by M. T. H. Sadler, (1912) Mineola, NY: Dover, 1977, p. 49. The whole being of the perceiver synthetically participates in this inner vibration or inner resonance. One cannotat first catch what exactly the viewer is reacting to in the presented photographs and why; that is a question of subsequent progressive deduction, if it comes to that. One can, however, definitely talk here about a reaction to an externalprovocation and a state of “psychic shock.” See also note 8 in the current essay.

[14]That is to say, the separating function, in the sense of a “description of a situation.” Otherwise, the existence of a true spatial division or boundary is problematic. Is a genuine landscape horizon some kind of real spatial boundary or only a “boundary in certain conditions,” which we simply take for granted? See Petr Vaňous, “Ještěmísto – pustázem,” in Bolf / Pinkava. Ještě místo – pustá zem/Wheretheplace –upontheheath, Pilsen: Západočeská galerie, 2010, no page numbers.

[15] One thinks again of Benjamin: “The spleen […] exposes the passing moment in all its nakedness.” Benjamin, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” p. 185.

[16] See note 8.

[17] Measurable in the sense of “exact,” in other words “based on precision,” “scientific.”

[18] One of Pinkava’s solo exhibitions was tellingly called “The Insecurity of the Center” (held at Galerie 5. patro/5th Floor Gallery, Prague, 2009/10).

[19]In this sense, the photograph Untitled (2010), where “place” is rolled up in the form of a cylinder, functions as an ironic abbreviation. (See the List of published photographs, no. XXX)

[20] For the absurdity of shadows in the identification of a place, consider, for example, Beckett: “My shadow, one of my shadows, flew before me, dwindled, slid under my feet, trailed behind me the way shadows will. This degree of opacity appeared to me conclusive.” Beckett, “The Calmative,” p. 39.

[21] Benjamin remarks: “The [Bergsonian] durée from which death has been eliminated has the miserable endlessness of a scroll.” Benjamin, “On Some Motifs in Baudelaire,” p. 185.

[22]Benjamin suggests that the “cameraman penetrates deep into [reality’s] web” like a surgeon. See Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”, p. 233.

[23]Didi-Huberman mentions “form as operative violence,” and quotes the German theorist Carl Einstein, who proposed the idea that form-work was the “justified destruction of an object”: “‘Evidently art-making comprises many elements of cruelty and assassination. For every precise form is an assassination of other versions: mortal anguish cuts the current. More and more reality is decomposed, which makes it less and less obligatory; the dialectic of our existence is reinforced […]: it is a traumatic accentuation. Every precise form is an assassination of other versions:’ this admirable proposition states the dialectical character of all form-work, that is to say, of all decomposition of form by itself.” Georges Didi-Huberman, Devant le temps: Histoire de l’artetanachronisme des images, Paris: Editions de Minuit, 2000.Englishtranslation by C. F. B. Miller, Papers of Surrealism Issue 7, 2007, p. 2.< > Accessed 10 March 2012.