Teeth or Horns

Anna Hulačová a Václav Litvan

27.02. – 22.03.15

For never did beast, with all kinds of teeth his upper
Jaw bone bedecking, bear horns on its forehead,
And therefore a horned lion the etenral mother
Could not possibly fashion though she apply her full strength;
For she has not mass enough, rows of teeth
To fully implant and antlers and horns also to push forth
“Johann Wolfgang Goethe – Metamorphosis of the Animals”
Anna Hulačová and Václav Litvan chose the title of their joint exhibition by coincidence and the name does not intentionally determine the selection and meaning of the exhibits. Despite its “unintentionality”, we can still perceive the name as a significant moment for further interpretation.
Goethe presents in his poem a charmingly straightforward thought (or a metaphor, to be precise) – nature cannot endow a horned herbivore with teeth of a predator and vice versa, simply because it does not have enough matter for both. Nature thus economises in a perfectly balanced way – it gives and takes – in order to maintain the fragile equilibrium. Teeth or horns.
Thinking of an enlighted thinker will certainly not surprise us by the principle of duality, according to which he characterizes the economy of nature: he presents two mutually incompatible options without including a third one (or even more) in this relation, e.g. a beak.
This dialectic balancing of opposites is firmly anchored also in traditional art history and science of style. Heinrich Wölfflin defined them in his Principles of Art History (1915): (linear-painterly, plane-recession, absolute clarity-relative clarity, multiplicity-unity, closed form-open form) and this binary method of thinking about the art (which is, naturally, much older) is also popular in today’s reflections on contemporary art – although often only as a rhetorical term. This model of interpretation may be applied almost universally – two aspects that could oppose each other can be found almost at any time. This may also apply to the double-exhibition of Anna and Václav, where we can see the following opposites: cubic or oval, plane or volume, horizontal or vertical, eyes or ears, sight or touch, man or women…
However, what does this description actually tell us? It does facilitate our understanding of the constellation of the exhibited works in conceptual terms, but at the same time it is fundamentally reductive. Although the artists themselves use the principle of opposites (sometimes consciously, sometimes sub-consciously) it is no umbrella concept that would be an aim sui generis. Perceiving possible opposites is only a part of the complexity of the works, of the exhibition.
In addition to white and black there is also brown colour; a circle and a rectangle but also triangle, a polyhedron or a semi-circle; a woman and a man but also a child, or an asexual a figure; wood and iron but also soil, dough, synthetic colour…
Not only the opposites do not “exclude” each other, but their information value is called into question by a range of other possibilities. An artist can create an animal that has teeth as well as horns.
In his assay Metamorphosis of Plants from 1790 Goethe actually formulated the principle of homology, i.e. an inherited feature from two or more species that is crucial when determining phylogenesis, i.e. the evolution. The evolution was considered to be a continuous progress, a succession that goes linearly from lower to higher. Positivist historians had similar views of art evolution. Nevertheless, it seems that art evolution is following rather the form of a spiral than a line. How else could we explain that after neo-avant-garde experiments that tried to surpass traditional plastic art using light, air, sound, magnetism etc., young artists today use traditional techniques or figurative themes without being blamed of reactionism. Even from the perspective of time opposites such as old and new, before and after do not seem to be adequate. If Anna and Václav use today the “traditional materials and techniques” or motifs that resound with the past (ancient times, Christian tradition, Renaissance, folklore…) it happens so in an inseparable union with present. From the perspective of phylogenesis, it is a peculiar phenomenon when “a species” evolves, but it also shows homological features seemingly lost in the past.

It thus seems that Goethe’s metamorphosis of animals and metamorphosis of plants seen as rational, scientific principles do not match with the grouping of works we have in front of us. A mere formalistic description of features and opposites is not sufficient and as a complement to what is missing, a metamorphosis may appear, but rather an artistic one, as depicted by the poet Ovid: that is a mythological metamorphosis. Ovid’s Metamorphoses are a mixture of stories, narrations within narrations, where things transform into something else and vice versa and anything can acquire its symbolic meaning – a bird or a tree, a river or a stone, teeth or horns.
Therefore, let us not look at this exhibition with the eyes of a scientist and philosopher who praises purposeful organisation of nature, but rather with the eyes of a poet who tells myths going “against nature”. A girl becomes a man, a man becomes a flower, teeth are horns.

Text by Tereza Jindrová