The World According to Mark
To enumerate all the possibilities of meaning and pathos one finds in the vast oeuvre of Mark Ther, who, in his late 20s, has already become a prolific video artist in the Czech Republic, one would have to write an entire book. Rather than producing a body of work that boasts a coherent message, Ther’s videos—incredibly short, cinematic, hilarious, and confusing – have concerned themselves with the enunciation of a definitive style, a style that is marked by the joyful revivification of a camp aesthetic that is as sophisticated as it is playful, and a flippant sense of humor that has its roots in Eastern European absurdism. What distinguishes Ther’s work from that of other contemporary Czech artists is its fearless exploration of sexuality and transgenderism, topics that he manages to engage without politicizing his commitment. Unlike most video artists belonging to his generation, Ther experiments with narrative in all of his videos; his is a liberated—and liberating—approach, one that isn’t blinded by the conceits of age. Although they frequently, through music and visuals, hearken back to the 1980s, perhaps the kitschiest decade yet, there’s something timeless in so many of these pieces that make them work so well in the here and now. Perhaps we’d do best to call it Ther’s time.
But Ther is not alone. In his many collaborations with Ondřej Brody, an artist he worked so closely with at one point that it is sometimes difficult to tell their work apart, Ther became a leading figure in EGO ART, a sort of scam movement developed by Slovak artist Viktor Frešo, the main purpose of which is to create artworks celebrating one’s own personal glory. Brody and Ther became key players in the movement by effectively subverting it, blending their egos, identities, even their names, in a series of collaborative efforts. A young boy in white underwear lays in a white bed. An older woman, presumably his mother or grandmother, enters the room to straighten up the piece of white shag carpeting laying on the floor. The boy covers himself up. The boy and the woman stare at each other for a while. The old woman is heavily made up; in fact, she looks like a clown. Suddenly, she sticks her tongue out of her mouth and makes the most unbelievable sound—somewhere between a fart and the blast of a shotgun. The camera slowly moves along the length of the floor. On the other side of the room stand Brody and Ther, posing like supermodels. The ‘80s pop classic “Creature of the Night” comes on.
In Miss Krimi, a scrawny old woman wearing a purple sweater, blue jeans, and too much make-up walks through a snowy forest. As she gets closer, she is intercepted by the camera and the person behind it. “Show your cunt!” a juvenile voice demands. The old woman complies, pulling down her blue jeans to reveal a hairless pussy and her sweater up to show off a pair of saggy tits. Next, she is directed to turn around, so that they can get a nice shot of her ass. Then she’s told to turn back around once again, so that they might get a shot of the victimized expression on her face. “Don’t move any further from the camera!” Then they hand her a piece of chocolate, tell her to eat it. Miss Krimi does what she’s told. A man’s hand (with red nail polish on the fingertips) reaches out to finger her face. “She is really ugly,” says the voice. She is told to pull her pants up as she continues munching on the chocolate. The director speaks: “Move out. Slowly, slooowly!” She begins walking slooowly down the path she came from. She disappears around the bend. Fade to black.
In the next scene, Miss Krimi’s in the greenhouse with a hoe. She looks like a dirty ho. She’s wearing the purple sweater and make-up, but this time has no pants on. She hoes the dirt. Suddenly she groans and falls down. She lays there for a while. The camera goes up and down her limp body. Someone’s foot walks past. Then, the second character, a man, appears; his hands, which have red fingernail polish, feel her bare legs. Miss Krimi opens her eyes and asks, in an exasperated gruffy deep (male) voice, “What are you doing to me?” She looks up at the skies.
This video was made in collaboration with Ondřej Brody and was originally shown at the March 2006 New York Underground Film Festival. In real life, Miss Krimi works as a model at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, where Brody and Ther were studying at the time. Although the video is short, running at less than twenty minutes, the pace is agonizingly slow, as in most of Brody and Ther’s other collaborations. At the same time, we never get bored watching this pointless, highly enjoyable exercise in depravity. The slow pacing, an intrinsic part of the piece’s stylization (the other main part probably being Ther’s kitschy costumes clashing violently with the natural environment), allows us to ponder the simple premise underlying the extended joke: an old woman being tormented by the art-making process itself. The inherently exploitative nature of cinema. The ultimate pointlessness of every gesture.
Indeed, Ther is something of an absurdist philosopher in this realm. His videos are full of pointlessness. Most of the time, what comes to the forefront isn’t philosophy. It’s dancing. In a series of videos made during the artist’s residency at the Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art in New York City, Ther’s love of dancing merged with his discovery of retro American cars. In Chevrolet Caprice Classic (2004), a beautiful boy (Christian Dietkus), wearing black tights and a neon pink and green windbreaker, vogues gaily in the middle of the ghetto. But what is it that he has his eye on in the distance? It’s a white Chevrolet Caprice Classic. He approaches it, then starts dancing next to it, while a boogie woogie Motown anthem plays. The camera, however, is more interested in the car than the boy. It moves up and down the car’s sleek exterior, quickly, then moves away into the grass, where a boot lands. That’s all. Chevrolet Malibu (2004) gets rid of the boy altogether in favor of moving close-ups of the interior of said car, to the soundtrack of “Two of Hearts” by Stacey Q. All of these works seem to be rooted in glorious impulse. Ther effectively updates Dada to the digital era, managing to produce a string of works that don’t feel the need to align themselves with any particular movement or school of thought, but are free to fluctuate through a childlike foam of silliness via the artist’s highly individualistic pursuit of pleasure.
Ther is probably the first Czech artist to explore queer themes so explicitly and openly in his work. In drag, the young artist bears an eerily striking resemblance to the aged Maria Callas. In fact, he exhibited a beautiful series of portraits of himself as the late Callas earlier this year at Gallery Estro in Padova, Italy. In one of his more fantastic short films, the artist imagined what would happen if Madonna and Maria Callas (played by Ther himself) were forced to share a hotel room one night. Another piece, purportedly made in 1983 (when Ther would have been a small child) and titled simply Maria Callas, the opera singer (played again by Ther) is seen emerging from a building in Paris and walking down the street, while a handheld camcorder shakily records her movements.
Beyond all the silliness in these works, there is also present a very poignant strain—a longing for the untouchable, which is one of the hallmarks of queer desire. In Love Story, a lone figure walks across a long frosty field to a Kawai keyboard, where he plucks out the theme to the famous film Love Story before slowly walking back across the field and disappearing into the forest, from whence he emerged. Ther’s most poetic moment to date occurs in the short film Der kleine blonde und sein roter koffer. Two women sit on a bed recalling a trip they took by train. A young blonde boy sat in front of them carrying a large red suitcase for the entire journey. Flashbacks of the boy with his red suitcase are interspersed with scenes of the girls’ reminiscence, in German and English, forming the crux of this very simple yet powerful film. For it is the most meaningless occurrences that ultimately lodge themselves in our memory, that we turn back to again and again when we’re feeling nostalgic for a past we may not have even been a part of. It’s the sadness that comes along with that longing that somehow preserves us in the integrity of the present; without looking back, we have little impetus to move forward; yet becoming too caught up in the past can also impede our movements. What, after all, is more tempting and yet more untouchable than the very fabric of our lives?
If, as a fine poet once wrote, a good poem makes nothing happen, it could be said that Mark Ther’s films are a very particular kind of poetry. They make nothing happen in the most extraordinary ways.
Mark Ther’s latest solo exhibition runs through June 11th at Karlín Studios in Prague.