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Interview: Zdenek Konvalina


Konvalina verdeelt zijn tijd momenteel tussen Londen en Berlijn, maar heeft tijd kunnen vinden voor het onderstaande interview. Hierin vertelt hij meer over zijn achtergrond als balletdanser, zijn interesse in de beeldende kunsten en de overeenkomsten en verschillen tussen beide.

Hi Zdenek, could you please introduce yourself? When and where were you born and what keeps you occupied?

I am originally from the Czech Republic, and I presently live and work in Berlin and London. I left my home country when I was nineteen, after which I have lived in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom and Germany. Therefore, I feel more like a global citizen than a resident of the Czech Republic, even though I am tremendously proud of its culture and history. My studio is currently located in Berlin, so by default I spend most of my time there.

You graduated with a bachelor’s degree in performing arts from the Brno Conservatory in the Czech Republic in 1997, after which you had a prominent career as a ballet dancer. How did you experience this period? How did this period shape you as a person and how can this period be seen in the context of you as an artist today?

Basically, I have been thrown into the world of theatre since my early childhood. I initially trained for nine years, after which I performed around the world for a period of sixteen years. On the one hand, it’s a profession that requires one hundred percent dedication and discipline, while on the other you are part of an amazing creative machine.

The theatre world combines a collaboration of different art forms in one performance. Choreography, music, scenography, costume design, lighting, storytelling − every element contributes to the communication of the idea, and under-appreciating just one detail can ruin the effectiveness of the whole performance. I think this is something I definitely apply to my current work as a painter and artist. I consider each of my artworks as a potential creator of an experience, and every detail contributes to that.

Moreover, I think that movement − being part of my life and language for so long − is something that stayed with me, even as I moved to such an ostensibly static medium as painting. Whether through the way I apply the paint, layers, textures or light, it is important for me that my artworks contain a sense of movement for the viewer, so that they can breathe with them as beholders.

In addition to living in different countries, moving around since I was nineteen taught me something about adaptation and resilience, as well as learning about and from different cultures and how they deal with making or facilitating art. These experiences have definitely made a lasting mark that I am now drawing from as a source into this new stage.

In 2014, you quit as a professional ballet dancer and you started to focus entirely on your painting practice. Why did you take this step − from the performing to the fine arts?

I have always been making art, starting with drawing when I was a kid and continuing with photography when I was a teenager. I picked up a brush when I was twenty-one. As such, I have been developing as a visual artist alongside my theatre career for many years. The concepts and ideas I couldn’t explore and communicate through dance, I would explore through my art. Furthermore, since a career as a ballet dancer has an expiration date, continuing painting occurred as a natural step for me when consideration about my further development arose.

Have you ever questioned your artistry, both as a ballet dancer and now, as a painter? Please elaborate on your answer.

Haha, always! I always jump between feeling uncertain, questioning and doubting the work, to feeling determined and thus confident. I try to strike a balance between these two emotions and appreciate the time while in each of these periods, as each state of mind offers valuable input into the creative process and work.

Does dancing or painting give you more satisfaction? Why?

Performing is far more physical and is, in a way, made for a young body. As I was getting older as a performer, my attention started to gradually flow into questions of “why” as opposed to “how”, so actually being able to express myself now on a more mature level through a different medium has allowed me to continue the art journey I have started when I was very young. I don’t look at the matter as being a choice between the art forms, but rather consider it to be a development. I am facing the same emotions and doubts and challenging creative decisions. Yet, I am looking at the time slightly more relaxed now.

What do you think are the greatest similarities and/or differences between the performing and visual arts? Are these art forms widely separated, or do you think this is merely arbitrary?

In both art forms, the goal is to capture the imagination of the audience and leave them with a particular impression, emotion or thought. I think that each artwork has the ability to perform, even if it is stationary and hung on the wall. With this idea in mind, I approach making art. Although the tools and platforms are different and often attract completely different audiences, for me, however, they carry the same goal.

How did your background and international experience as a successful ballet dancer influence your art?

I think more than anything it contributed to me developing as a human being. Collecting experiences travelling around the world, as well as collaborating with many fantastic artists in different art forms, definitely informed who I am today as a person. There is also the question of having discipline and a strict work ethic, which became unquestionable requirements when performing at that level. Furthermore, being in very stressful and physical demanding situations, needing to perform in front of five thousand people as the leading dancer, somehow teaches you to put other, smaller problems into perspective.

What motivates you to make art? What are your motives and how do they relate to what you are trying to achieve with your art?

For me, making artworks is a tool and a vehicle for communication. It is my way of saying something, expressing myself or perhaps searching for solutions to something that troubles me. I zero in on a subject that I identify as a concern or a problem and then use that as a starting point for a series of works. For instance, the “DisPlay” paintings resemble displays and screens we look at and into all day long. Sometimes, it can be difficult to look at them for so long, as our eyes get tired and our minds become overloaded with information. As a remedy, I reduce the thousands of images into a simple peaceful play of colours. My “Clouds” paintings are more about encouraging us to look up to the sky and take a deep breath. These are also very much created as a response to our constantly increasing digital way of living.

We have already talked about “art”. This is an extensive concept, varying from performance to visual art, figurative to abstract, historical to contemporary. What do you think is the definition of art, and what makes good art?

Art is a reflection of what our contemporary society is thinking about and what the challenges are in our world and cultures. Artists have a power to abstract and conceptualise broad ideas and serve it up to us for reflection or discussion. Good art can be anything that is able to communicate, using its unique form of expression.

In your work you make extensive use of acrylic and spray paint on canvas. Why did you choose these materials?

In general, I am a little bit impatient and always like to move forward fast. So acrylic suits me, as it dries faster and is quite versatile. My process is a lot about overlaying, and with acrylics I can build layers much quicker. Moreover, spray has become a very intriguing tool for me. In some ways, the smooth application of paint without seeing the brushstrokes replicates the digital world for me. Likewise, I like the contrast it creates with the brushstrokes, and also how it allows me to control the thickness of the layers and create evanescent impressions.

You have been working as a professional visual artist for more than six years now. Have you observed any changes in the way art is created during these years, such as through the use of digital media and video installations?

Yes, definitely. I am driven by exploring ideas and observations through making art, and as my environment changes, so does the way I create. Although I am predominantly drawn to painting, video, photography and even sculptural objects sometimes find their way into my practice. For instance, I have collaborated with my wife, prima ballerina at Staatsballett Berlin, on a project called “Tanzenden Stern”. This is a video and painting installation that took its inspiration from Nietzsche’s quote about chaos and the birth of ideas, which I wanted to capture through both physical and visual emotions.

Did the art world bring you what you expected from it? How did you experience your first years as a fine artist, and what really disappointed or excited you?

I didn’t have many expectations, as I knew that recognition is slow to come. I am constantly inquisitive about how the art world works and develops, yet at the same time I am finding out more and more that it is better to focus on the work itself and keep finding a balanced path forward.

It’s safe to say that 2020 is a strange year, not least for the cultural sector. Does the COVID-19 pandemic have (or did it have) consequences for your work as an artist?

As an artist who works alone in his studio, I was fortunately able to continue working during this time. So supposedly not much has changed in that sense. However, it has led me to start exploring a completely new series, which I’m developing now.

The situation has inevitably affected all of us collectively, and as I am aware of how this virus could negatively shape our future, I am hoping for a swift and logical conclusion. I am wary of how events like these could create precedents that will become part of our lives in the future. Our current situation definitely raises a lot of questions I want to pose.

You are a young artist. What ambitions − concerning your art − do you have for the future? What is your goal for the coming years and where do you hope to be in ten years’ time?

That’s a tough question to get into. I can only speak of my desire to keep working and developing my ideas and, most importantly, to getting my work appreciated by the audience. My goal is to develop a platform to share my work with the audience, facilitating it as part of a broader dialogue.

Zdenek, let’s take a moment to explore your upcoming show. Previously, you explained that the “DisPlay” paintings resemble displays and screens we look into all day long. Why did you think this was an interesting concept, and could you tell us something about the process from idea to execution?

I see how the recent arrival of digitalisation in our life is changing the way we live and operate. The fact that we encounter the major part of our visual information through screens inevitably influences how we experience and perceive the world around us, while new photoshopped (computerised/generated/unnatural) colours, blue light, scrolling and an overload of information are all becoming part of our daily visual impressions. With “DisPlay”, my aim is to organise all these blurred impressions, to make sense of the overload and to turn these phenomena into simple meditative escapes. For me, addressing this topic is in some way a call to consider how we eventually will have to strike a balance between experiencing the physical and digital worlds.

I can imagine the concept will not lose its actuality within the coming years or even decades. Do you have plans to continue developing this series? What comes to mind thinking about future developments?

I must say that in my work I react to my environment and what’s happening around me, and consequently, this makes my work evolve. For instance, the lockdown and present condition of everything taking place online urged me to look away from my screens, and made me start to look more into nature. This translated into new series. But, absolutely, the concept of “DisPlay” is a topic that will be with us for a while. However, there are different ways to address it. So although I think it is an ongoing series, I do think “DisPlay” will evolve. For example, I have recently started turning “DisPlay” paintings inside out. The painted structure of “DisPlay” suddenly became part of the canvas itself: you still see the grid, but it feels imprinted, ingrained. One might say that their appearance became more peaceful in some way. The result of this practice may be considered as a metaphor for the digital world, which is becoming more of an ingrained part of our existence.

How does the “DisPlay” series relate to your more recent concepts, for example the “Clouds” paintings?

The “Clouds” paintings actually came very recently as a result of the desire to get away from the digital world, especially in the recent condition during lockdown where we suddenly had to transfer our whole communication system online. I turned to the sky and clouds as a place to breathe. With the sky, I remind myself to look up more, while clouds remind me of the few constant challenges that are always present but can be dealt with and blown away.

To me, the “Clouds” paintings seem very relevant in current times: it seems the pace of life is getting faster and faster. In this series, the call for reflection and evaluation in life, business and media is strongly represented and made important. Yet, it seems that these moments are easily caught up by life and forgotten. From an artistic point of view, how do you personally relate to this subject?

Perhaps every one of us will need to develop the particular discipline to practice being in the moment and with one’s self without the constant presence of the devices we are connected to. As an artist, I want the audience to understand that something unique and special can be experienced while fully engaged and being more in the moment, connected to the present. Visiting the theatre or cinema is a good example of time you fully invest in engaging with something for a particular period of time.

With the “Clouds” paintings I wanted in a way to provide people with a calming tool for their busy lives, to give the energy and permission to take a deep breath and relax.

What is it that you would like to transfer to the audience during your show at COVA Art Gallery?

“Just take a deep breath” is a sort of a call to action to pause, reflect and be in the moment, slow down and engage with the real world.


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