Jan 17, 2013 6:00 PM - Feb 23, 2013
Life in Blue
Evžen Sobek: Life in Blue. Photography exhibition at the Clampart Gallery, NYC.
Evžen Sobek: Life in Blue
The Polish-born sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, in his insightful The Individualized Society (2000) argues that contemporary ‘West European’ society finds itself in a radically different situation from the one experienced by previous generations. Those before us had an opportunity to continuously hand down cultural complexes (information, customs, rituals, knowledge, patterns of behaviour, instructions for living life correctly), and they therefore lived lives more linked to the past. This state of affairs no longer quite holds because of the radical acceleration of all social, economic, and technological processes. Contemporary society finds itself in new social conditions without any real opportunity to be tied into the collective experience of previous generations. That is also why no one has a clue what direction society is heading in; everything is relativized, there is no longer a single authority, a single aim, or a single correct way to achieve that aim; each orientation thus becomes legitimate.
This also applies to works of art and to the adoption of social and individual values, which undergo considerable change. Apart from still valid fundamental values like health, security, basic social certainties, there also appears near the top of the scale of values a considerable need for autonomy, for example, freedom of choice and internal coherence, in all areas of individual and social life. This value includes the individual’s freedom to decide the quantity and quality of his or her leisure time. Research in some countries has shown that at present considerable groups of people value leisure time far more than any possible economic gain, and they therefore often choose employment with lower remuneration, but with a shorter working week. Today’s leisure trends include the active and attractive use of leisure time. Travel agencies react flexibly to this with offers of fully organized group activities, ranging from ‘adrenalin attractions’ to the evocation of deep emotions. Clearly, vacations of most people till recently comprised a predominantly ‘passive’ sojourn in one place but that is now but one of many possible ways to spend the holidays.
None the less, even today, there are leisure-time phenomena that seem to go against these dynamic trends or consciously ignore them. Such activities preserve established rituals of leisure which have been handed down from one generation to the next.
The spectrum of leisure activities in Czech society is broad indeed. Part of society imitates trends abroad; another part is now returning, after a brief diversion, to time-proven models of recreation. The legendary Czech obsession with cottages has also undergone changes. Some owners of cottages or chalets realize the restrictions on time and mobility, which such real estate entails, so they rent out these second homes for the short or long term. They themselves, at least for a while, then become tourists, wanderers, hobos, modern nomads.
Another noticeable Czech vacation trend, made possible by the opening of the borders in the early 1990s, was travelling abroad, but this has experienced a decline in interest. After the initial euphoria, this almost social obligation is now saturated and born-holidaymakers can therefore return to their favourite campgrounds, cottages, gardening huts, or not travel at all. Everything they need for the social rituals of their leisure time (the BBQ, the pool, the gazebo, the folding-chair, the playground) is right on their own front lawns. This brief list of leisure and recreational activities of Czech society suggests the end of a single predominant model of the use of leisure time.
This outline is not the result solely of the research interest of sociologists, culturologists, cultural anthropologists, and psychologists in the tourist industry. Some photographers have also considered the continuing social changes, and provide us with visual information about them. In his project ‘Life in Blue’, the photographer Evžen Sobek has devoted himself to one of the leisure activities, which a certain group of people has been enjoying for decades on the shores of the Nové Mlýny reservoirs and thus creating a phenomenon we see in other places, albeit in other historical, cultural, and natural contexts.
Sobek’s set of photographs raises questions that upon closer inspection multiply and become more pressing. At first we may be made uneasy by the many layers of information and the ambiguous messages in the photographs. A number of the photos evoke the minimalistic pictures of the New Topography. Others elicit smiles and amazement at the subtle depiction of unwanted or, actually, wanted charm. With time, however, we realize that the photographer has presented us with an interesting social phenomenon – a view of a special leisure activity of people who have decided to create their second homes in bizarre architectural artefacts in a chosen place in the great outdoors.
My little essay does not aim to adopt a critical attitude to this phenomenon. By formulating questions that arise when reading the photographs, I merely attempt here to understand the texts of a photographic report on a way of life of a community of people. Though we sense the individual story contained in each photograph, we need to perceive Sobek’s set as a whole.
The community of ‘former’ caravanners photographed here, who for reasons unknown to us have given up their freedom of movement, wandering, the nomadic life (which was, after all, the original aim of the travel trailers, mobile homes), and have settled down in their chosen locality in south Moravia, cannot be included amongst the cottage owners, who have clear characteristics. Who, then, are the owners of these dwellings, who for their buildings use recycled material similar to that used by the inhabitants of the slums of Latin America and Africa or the ghettos? What motivated these people to build their kind of house in an environment whose charm vanishes (except for the ever-changing water levels) after a few stays, and most probably will become as uninspiring as any colony of allotment gardeners? A precise answer will probably be provided only by diehard anglers. But what is it that leads other members of the community (wives, children, other relations, acquaintances) to a voluntary weekend or summer stay in this milieu? Is it out of a need or a duty to follow the family or kindred spirit anywhere or out of the joy that may provide? Is it from a desire to meditate in the great outdoors? Other questions arise when observing the urban plan of this place. What is the attraction, then, for the inhabitants of the caravan ghetto? Is it the need to continue informal contacts in a romantic environment? Perhaps here, unlike in a town or city, the longing for community life is fulfilled. Or does a grounded caravan offer space to put legendary Czech DIY dexterity into practice?
Shall we try and imagine the everyday life of the locals and how they spend their leisure time? Even though in Sobek’s photographs we do not see the insides of caravans, their additions, improvements, decorations, accessories, or details, they express a special pataphysical charm. The answers to these questions might be provided by the caravanner-settlers, but our intuition tells us that most likely they themselves do not know why.
The second part of Sobek’s set depicts the same locality of the Nové Mlýny reservoirs and the lives of people in the recreational facility there. Whereas Martin Paar’s set of photographs about the leisure activities of English families evokes not just contemplation but also elicits an ironic smile, Sobek’s documentary photographs are dominated by feelings and moods bordering on sadness, hopelessness, loneliness, and emptiness. And again, questions arise.
I would conclude with the modest recommendation to try to do something not usually done at galleries – namely, to go round the exhibition of Sobek’s photographs one more time, for one more reading. You’ll see how the apparently isolated bits of information in the symbols of the individual photographs gradually come together with other meanings to form a coherent text. This may not provide us with answers to our questions, but it will certainly lead us to a profounder contemplation of what we have seen.
More information about the exhibition
Clampart Gallery, 521-531W 25th, New York
From: Jan 17, 2013 6:00 PM
To: Feb 23, 2013
Czech Center is a coorganizer of the event