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Jana Koko Kochánková: American sculptressUmělec magazine 2009/2
Katarína Uhlířová | new face | en cs de
I’m hesitating how best to introduce Jana Kochánková (born 1979). I want to touch on, but not slavishly recite, everything surprising and fun about her work. So, by way of a very short, cursory introduction: Jana Kochánková, AKA Koko, American sculptress, graduated in 2006 from Vladimír Skrepl and Jiří Kovanda’s studio at the Academy of Creative Arts (AVU) in Prague. This article is supposed to be a exploration of Jana “Koko” Kochánková’s spacial installations, so I won’t be covering her fine drawings, silicone paintings on glass, or lively outfits. I’ll examine her textiles only to the extent that they can be used freely; mainly I’ll concern myself with their spacial
potential in combination with the body, something that for Koko is completely natural.
Prologue. Mickey Mouse:
Wearing nothing but a Mickey Mouse mask and her birthday suit. Just because it’s fun. Black and white photos in a frame, mounted on pages from a calendar. Like kouros or kore statues, without draping, just the mask and gloves. It was precisely this tongue-in-cheek beginning that made Koko, for me, once and for all, truly American.1
First time in New York:
Dressed as Mickey Mouse, or rather as Minnie, but without a mask, Koko bursts into the Metropolitan Museum of Art. She’s interested in the Indians of both Americas, whose applied art is classified and thrust into display cases by followers of Claude Levi-Strauss. She spends days immersed in all that, drawing and writing in her diary. Beyond that, there was a brief interlude in Mexico, land of skulls, spirits, masks, and cacti. Koko had just abandoned her study of Biology, as she literally tattooed ceramic pots into her journal. Dinosaur bones. Hours and hours spent in the Met. She gets into the movies for free, wearing a sombrero. One day she’ll come back to New York.
Academy of Creative Arts in Prague:
The Academy of Creative Arts is a place where it’s best to try out everything. Ask about anything and meet anyone. It’s possible to not worry too much and to take in what’s around you. I agree. I’ll quickly note what I can dig up out of my memory: for example, the performances of Zajíc and Mrkev, 2004 (with Eva Koťátková), the figurine “Dead Dogie,” 2004, the performances of the Mummy Twins, 2004 (with Federika Fiorny), also the photographic series Who Am I? And again masks come into play. On the boundary between introversion and exhibitionism. I especially liked the rich, motley installation “Bunkr,” from 2007, which hardly anyone has seen in person, and also “Dipkomka obhájená,” 2007.
Once again in New York:
Koko returns. Koko is no longer just a nickname: she’s becoming a brand, and not just a clothing brand. In 2006, she completes a residency at the Cooper Union in New York, where she develops performances for the city of New York. She’s sort of like a 3-D VJ, combining parties, photography, videos, and sculpture in motion (moving statues, if you will), right in the middle of the City of Cities. This one appeals to me. Messrs. Grass, Cloud, and Sun go for a walk through New York, take a seat in a café, relax in view of the sidewalk, before pausing at Astor Place, one of the city’s busiest locations. Nutty, hirsute characters: the touchy-feely Mr. Grass, the pallid Mr. Sun, and shiny blue Mr. Cloud, complete with limbs. Colors and senses intermingle; the characters are rendered life-size. These three, for me, represent a very pliable variation of sculpture in public spaces. Koko, dressed as Mr. Grass, is going shopping in a luxurious boutique. So beautiful. So sweet. Crazy and Green.
It’s snowing on Coney Island. There’s a gentle, dreamy valkyrie being shot by a photographer. The beach, snow sculptures. And Koko has herself once again become a statue. I like these photos from Coney Island’s beach. Some of them were in an exhibit that caused quite a stir in Jan Sudek’s Prague studio on Újezd street: the “Mirek” series, carefully set in fiery Ferrari-red frames, was presented as part of the joint exhibition Příroda se na něm vyřádila.2 But back to Coney Island. It’s early morning, cold morning light. Jana is posing as Cloud in striped knee-high stockings and black boots. There’s fruit on the beach: lemons and melons on the seashore. Jana as Mirek. A quiet, sensual figure. Her statue-like body whispers something. Everything is being photographed by another SuperStar, Mark Ther (born 197?), who’s just nipped over from a festival in Brooklyn and is having
a fine time. Jana/Mirek sits like a passive object in front of the camera lens. Is that a question in her eyes, or a challenge?
Self-portraits on snowballs, next to white toadstools. Visual snacks. Snow for its own sake and also snow as a metaphor. Salt water. The snow-mushroom has red polka-dots, made with the absolute cheapest ketchup. Jana chooses to conquer America her own way. Coney Island, that’s her art space.
I can’t resist, I have to confess: that trip I also met Louise Bourgeois. Both women are fascinating spiderwebs, both young and bold and lively, each in a different way. Two spider-women.3 It’s said that Louise is already “of a certain age,” but don’t believe it: she isn’t.
Gallery Jelení, Smíchov, Prague:
Two gallery rooms, fully under Koko’s charge, who is sporting a fake moustache. Is the mustachioed Koko more Mirek, or rather Jonathan Meese? Step inside, for the igloo is both a private notion and space. Intimate. Internal. The bubbling pond inside softens the whiteness of the interior and makes the popping of the styrofoam snow more bearable. The other room is the exterior. What’s happening outside? The green grass is a reminder of New York. The trees are filmed with a filter, as if they were childhood memories. Is it Mr. Grass that’s green, or perhaps a punk polar bear? Jana’s name is carved into the trees’ bark. Jana “Koko” Kochánková is modeling not only the newly altered space of the Gallery Jelení, but also her own memories and the movements of the newly-arrived. Forget about it. Become special Eskimos and forget about the politically correct terminology. Become special, visual Intuits. I chilled out for about an hour inside and wrote a review just for me. Stuck it in my pocket.
Kokoland-1, the land behind the gates of Karlín Studios, Karlín, Prague:
At the time, I thought it was going to be just a sculptural exhibition.4 But it meant far more for me. There were several times when I walked through the exhibit in Entrance, both while it was being prepared and when it was ready. The sculptures changed, and Koko gradually added new material: carpets on the floor, a lamp, posters on the wall, a doll, candles, plush, a flowered tablecloth, and toilet paper. On several constructions, impaled stuffed animals and shoes disappear into the plaster. The plaster avalanche conceals the soft, furry bodies. The process is slow, but faster than molasses. Sometimes a tiny shoe, furry ear, or mini-antler will work its way into the space. Bit by bit, the plaster changes state, tension, density, and temperature. Curved forms, arching downward, succumb to gravity. Delicate like statues dreamed up by a skier on the brink. This environment has really won me over. The fruity, ice-cream flavored sculptures made me feel good.
The opening in Kokoland was an endless dinner with food, tea, and good wine. It was quiet while people ate and spoke, and even a tiny dog came to join us. Among the sculptures and dishes, pillows and flowers, sometimes sitting, sometimes lying, both man and beast lounged.
Are you one of those people who, justifiably, trust neither the press nor word of mouth? Then check out www.kokoland.org. Welcome to the dream-land of Koko, the American sculptress. No cover charge, no lines, just click and move freely about the net. Koko takes her art space and regularly flattens it into a surface just about big enough for your screen. Just be aware that the site has its glitches, and they are entirely intentional. Welcome to Kokoland.5
In (tear-jerking) conclusion, a tear-jerking string of adjectives: Koko is wild, gentle, impulsive, astonishing, intense, unforgettable, concentrated. Day-dreaming, stubborn, uncontrollable. She’s made of clothes, and ketchup-y snow. Spiritual and sporty. Theatrical and metropolitan. From Studio Barrandov, from Coney Island, from the Island of Fun. She’s also a camp leader, a phenomenal cook, well-balanced in both yoga and capoeira. Visually exotic. Inhabiting Kokoland. With, and especially without, sculptural inhibitions. Koko is Jana Kochánková. She reminds some people of Josefin Baker, but she could easily be Louise Burgeois’s sister. Koko is also Mirek, but other times she looks more like Jonathan Meese.
Koko is my favorite American snow-and-whipped cream sculptress.
1 The adjective “American” here has special meaning. It was used for the first time in the title of the stand-alone exhibition Koko the American Sculptress in 2007 in Brno’s Potraviny gallery. I recommend reading Matyáš Chochola’s own short definition of the modifier “American.” I agree with him: Koko is totally American.
2 The group exhibition Příroda se na něm vyřádila (Nature had a go at him), in the Josef Sudek Studio, consisted of the photographic series “Příroda se na něm vyřádila” (Ondřej Brody), “Wiener wurst” (Mark Ther) and “Mirek” (Jana Kochánková) www.sudek-atelier.cz .
3 Of all people, Lenka Vítková knows best that Koko is a spider-woman. The spiderweb was a primary motif of the elegant stand-alone exhibit Jana in Olomouc’s exterior gallery, at Booth #36. www.36.cz. Lenka has also had the opportunity to watch the author in action up close during last year’s project Cargo in Bucharest.www.cargo.org .
4 The accompanying conversation about the exhibit was conducted by Sláva Sobotovičová, and I consider it an excellent introduction to the problems of doing work for this space. Even in that context, Koko is completely elemental: she stirs up energy and then silences it.
5 “Koko is an artist from Prague. Welcome to her web site and enjoy it.”