Aleš Zapletal: Permaculture
Curator: Pavel Kubesa
Aleš Zapletal´s painting idiom is determined by his primarily philosophical, analytical mindset. His representational and figurative painting often relates to established philosophical problems and dicta, appropriates subjects from national literature, bears upon the modernist tradition which it systematically charts and revises, and whose contours it constantly re-creates through immanent confrontation of ideas. In an earlier series of paintings, Earthworks, Zapletal drew on anachronistic landscape motifs (with explicit quotes from the work of Robert Smithson), architectural elements and portrayal of human or animal figures, in producing expansive narrative scenes charged with an often thoroughly specific sense of intimacy. The format of painting came to serve Zapletal as a space for “museum-style” presentation, a display area fit to present in its showcases at one time fragments of diverse civilizations, mutually unrelated in terms of both time and substance. With the passage of time, however, Zapletal has evolved towards an ever more distinct emphasis on subjecting this “screenlike” format to radical reassessment: there, he proceeds to break it down into elementary functional elements which are subsequently, in restructured cohesive union, set to generate new, complex and viable pictorial systems.
Importantly, the issue of viability and sustainability of various categories of (eco)systems stands at the centre of permacultural thinking. While permaculture - being an empirical discipline of learning (i.e., being grounded in observation), as well as an applied one (i.e., a discipline prescribing certain types and processes of behaviour with a view to accomplishing desired goals) – did become in the 1970s primarily a theory focused on long-term sustainable nature-oriented economic behaviour, it has also continued to evolve into a broader philosophical platform and lifestyle that has become increasingly popular in the milieus of the various long-avowedly openminded subcultures and communities. In contrast to the dominant Western growth-oriented strategies geared towards the maximum economic profit derived from industrialized exploitation of agricultural land, the permacultural perspective builds up entirely new structures of approach to the “outside” world of the natural environment and the role of humans in it. Permaculture augurs a change of the conceptual pattern of the Anthropocene.
The permacultural approach to the building of selfsufficient and lasting self-regulatory ecosystems relates to the need of bringing to an end the dated anthropocentric paradigm of viewing the relations between matter and farming land, and human life. The understanding of permaculture calls for a change similar to that involved in the switchover of theories of the burning of substances which occurred at the end of the 18th century. The mid-17th century witnessed the formulation and subsequent general adoption of the phlogiston theory postulating the existence of a primary element which came to be known as phlogiston, which is contained in the matter of all combustible objects and which is released into the environment in the process of combustion. Phlogiston (from the Greek φλόξ, flame) is thus seen to be a generator of energy: a flame, an initiator of heat and light. Burning and combustion is interpreted in terms of an alchemistic process of releasing a hidden underlying element, a way of “giving” this element to the environment, or in other words, of extracting an object´s material substance. However, it was only the development of analytical chemistry in the late 18th century that led to the discovery of the real principles governing combustion as a process of burning oxygen, i.e., as “taking away”, consuming the matter of the environment, and in that sense as something similar to, say, irrigation. This revolution in science inevitably had to go hand in hand with the simultaneous abandonment of the alchemistic teachings on matter and with the birth of modern-age empirical science entailing its general acceptance.
A similar kind of reversal is present at the core of permacultural reasoning which has in its turn recognized the untenability of extraction of nutrients from soil, and arrived at designating nonhierarchical ecosystems drawing on the symbiosis and synergy in the cohabitation of diverse animal and plant species, including a non-dominant role assigned in this system to humans. The human role consists in the observation and imitation of nature (mimesis), and in creating natural conditions for its auspicious growth and enduring self-subsistence. Under such system soil is no longer depleted but, as a result of an initial human impulse, is once again irrigated and enriched by its own environment.
The workings of an analogical principle can be traced down to the creative output of Aleš Zapletal, most manifestly so in his concern with the possibilities of depiction. In his endeavour, Zapletal does not pillage the repertory of time-tested or trendsetting forms of painterly depiction which are embedded, like the phlogiston theory, in the matter of history of (post)modernist painting and expression; much rather, he aspires to an ecological reconstitution of the format of easel painting. The pivotal point of his work is the need to come to terms with the category of surface (i.e., soil), in every respect, whether in terms of the twodimensionality of a painting per se, or as regards surface as a subject for work. Consequently, he inhabits his paintings with diverse cultural symbols (traces of human presence in the forms of hand imprints, primitive stone menhirs, frames of dwellings, or cultivated gardens and flowerbeds), alongside depictions of archaeological and geological monuments (such as skeletons of prehistoric animals), or transformative moments of local and global history (such as volcanic eruptions or atomic bomb explosions). The individual scenes depicted there are instrumental in building up a functional and sustainable ecosystem of a given painting´s narrative content. This holds true notwithstanding the fact that his working method is based on the principle of reduced depiction, often straddling the border of naive and primitive modes of seeing things. In a similar way, he spreads all across the painting´s surface variously conceived gestures which oscillate around the edge separating representation from purely nonillusive painterly strokes.
At the same time, however, he now begins to see the surface in terms of a 2D index of a more comprehensive 3D object – indeed, as a trace of soil. In depictions of planary surfaces he proceeds to revealing even their deeper, underlying layers, sediments of organisms or purely abstract, concretistic forms. Similarly, he strives to compensate for painting´s twodimensionality with a series of painted wooden boards in which a flat-surface sketch is enclosed within a cyclical threedimensional painting in a form resembling some sort of “hard-edged globes” structured in virtual landscapes.
The recurrent leitmotif of the present gallery installation as well as of the paintings on view is Robert Smithson´s Spiral Jetty, of 1970, which Zapletal regards as the ultimate expression of modernist aspirations to reduced depiction, and as the definitive point of departure from the approach to art work as a self-contained, unalterable system destined for gallery or museum exhibition. In Smithson´s work, six thousand tonnes of limestone were used to create a walk-on coil ending in the waters of the Great Salt Lake in Utah. It is by design intended to be actually entered rather than merely consumed and exploited by voyeurist observation – it is meant to invite the viewer to become an active participant in its completion, by moving within its perimeter. For Zapletal, this spiral has come to represent a metafor of the development of modernist tendencies, a dead-end pier beyond which there remains nothing else but barren soil left behind for postmodernist exploitation. For his part, Aleš Zapletal wishes to set out on a backwards journey along this spiral, on the way contributing to a resuscitation of its parched soil, by means of observation (empirically) and imitation (actively, by way of mimesis) of the vestiges of functional ecosystems. We have run out of phlogiston, what´s needed now is to kindle the flame of imagination.