1997, Vladimír Beskid (ENG)

Miro Švolík: Technician and Poet

First, the technique

From photography’s entrance into the world of the visual arts, as part of the industrial ‘iron age’, changes have taken place in the structure of that world; the centre of gravity has shifted to the mass-media market, and omnipresent photography today has played a large part in bringing about the shift to a ‘telematic’ society (to use the term of the late critic Vilém Flusser). In a desire to be objectified, everything pushes its way to a place in front of the lens. What is a wedding now without a photographer, or holidays without snapshots? And what in fact is an event if it has not been televised? Photography and other visual technology (film, video, TV, servers) have significantly changed the way we communicate. Through the media we watch actions and events, record them and play them back. We look through cameras, we perceive reproductions.
    These ‘technopictures’ have upended many categories of the visual arts such as the concepts ‘original’, ‘signature’, ‘experience’ or the problem of the dematerialization of the artwork. Important, too, is the context of the presentation of mechanical pictures. And in the work of Miro Švolík (b. 1960) we find photos which initially do not make themselves accessible by artistic sketches in the sense of the aesthetic categories of the fine arts. They are documents, banal moments, snippets of reality (landscapes). Only with use, combination, and connection into another programme, do they become the bearers of meaning and visual poetry.
    The dominant factor for Švolík has been the staged photograph, as it has been for the majority of his contemporaries in the Slovak new wave of the 1980s living in Prague (colleagues such as Rudo Prekop, Vasil Stanko, Peter Župník and Kamil Varga). Staging means combination, a private show, the artificial linking of ordinary things. Staging more clearly moves photography towards its classification within the sphere of art. Švolík’s work uses two main approaches.
    The first is manipulation before the lens. It is characteristic of the cycles of the 1980s (for example Construction, Industry, Healthcare, 1987–89). It has to do with staging before the camera, simulated environments and the story as a whole, a picture formed before the shutter is released. Typical is the use of the high-angle shot, the bird’s-eye view, for photographing composed figures on the pavement below. It is frozen pantomime directed by Švolík, a fine-art epigram recorded on film.
    The second method is manipulation of the negative (a process behind the lens). Typical of developments of the 1990s (such as Scenes of Slovakia, 1989, and To Do Battle with a Dragon, 1992). This has to do with linking, adding, and adapting several pictures into a new whole. The individual shots lose power, do not have value, are only part of the single organism of the photograph. Their relentless analysis will not lead us to any meaningful conclusions; as when one removes the music from the violin till all that remains is a piece of lacquered wood with strings, the photographs too are only raw material.
    If you know how to form one picture, that’s good. If, however, you put two or more together, it’s a demanding and risky ‘venture’ in creation. Švolík has successfully realized his photography in two ways. The first is the traditional use of individual shots like components in a system, the development of ideas in several stages, drawing them out in a series, narrating them in a compound sentence. One photo merely represents a single sequence to which others are spliced so that the story does not collapse. Švolík develops a cinematic effect of ‘running’ shots, in the literal and figurative sense, through the combination of at least two shots in one picture field (the principle of collage, rather than montage), in which the actual elements create an imaginative whole; the epic of the series is replaced with the metaphor of the photo-poem.
    Švolík actually goes against the usual sense of the camera and the nature of documenting and reproducing. The chemical and physical processes drop by drop successfully dilute its creativity, fiction, and arrangement. They open an actual visual field in the world and in the light of the instruments. It is a liberating gesture, as in Martin Šulík’s film The Garden, 1995 where a girl quietly levitates above a table and ‘everything is finally as it should be.’

Now, the poetry

It is difficult to understand how Miro Švolík manages to create a ‘pure work of art’ full of emotion and sensitivity using the mechanics of an instrument. He has his way of perceiving things and capturing the world; here Švolík the technician meets Švolík the poet in a garden made for taking pictures. He certainly has no lack of verve, humour, irony, naivety of vision, and cunning of combination. He gives a first-hand account of everything, lightly and lively. It is a brilliant dance on red-hot coals, a creative visual burlesque built upon short and simple words of ‘pictures in light.’
    During the most recent period, beginning in 1994 (which our exhibition maps out) Švolík often – and with evident pleasure – links the landscape with figures. Although landscape details form the basis of his work, Švolík is no landscape artist. The look of the landscape interests him as a starting point (free of the excess of disturbing elements), and as a single component which he works with and places into his system like the link in a chain (that is also why his work is in series). Švolík seems to be following on from Leonardo da Vinci’s Meditations on Painting, where he advises on how to inspire the imagination: in a battered and dirty wall or an uneven stone one can see figures and landscapes (maps), battles, people’s movements, facial expressions, and an infinite number of other things. Švolík demonstrates not only his ability to see and to understand things and their relationships, but also stimulates our imagination and inventiveness. Most of his attention is focused on capturing space, distance and bridging it, then modelling relationships, linkages. In the background one can perceive a desire for harmony, internal and external, in coming to terms with the world around him. He creates magnetic poles, where things and people attract and naturally complement each other.
    Švolík in the small space of his flat (Avg. 5.6 sq. m./person), in his key series, generously illustrates the ‘play on the epilogue’ of the landscape with the fragments of figures (Animals and People, 1994–95, thirteen photos). The bodies of figures and animals here complete the main landscape subject, or appropriately form the contrast with it. In any case he comments on it inventively and humorously, setting out the imaginary wanderings of disembodied hands and feet across a photographic field where the section of landscape is now secondary. With ease he discusses difficult movements in the unknown terrain of the world (My Well-known Path into the Unknown, 1994–95, six photos). Then the ‘rayograms’ of spots of a jumbled path and of each person’s own way forward (Who I Am, Where I Come From, What I’m Doing, Where I’m Going, 1994–95, four photos), only to find an affinity of human souls and natural forms and vice versa (Back to Nature, 1997, four photos). Here everything is concentrated in an Archimboldo-like placement of heads with growing trees of hair and shaky stones of lips, and one organic texture emerges. The personal Family Album, created in installments (from 1985 to the present, nine photos), depicts the intimate and slightly melancholic relations of a man and a woman, with children, in their own microcosm (such as One Body One Soul, 1990, You Is Me and I Is You, 1993, Ring Around the Roses, 1994, All My Dolls, 1997). Where it works, it is the ‘belly-button of the world’.
    Švolík convinces us with his imagination that when he ‘had learned to walk and to fly’, ‘on his journeys he often went by ship and an airship’. And when he’s ‘not afraid of anything’, he sets out on further expeditions to the idea, to the adventure of the work of art, and brings back new reports from fictive landscapes and stories. He composes them into magical pictures, full of imaginative, charming power. One is also suddenly ‘neither fish nor fowl’; he is relentless and always ‘looking for his own face’ in the looking-glass of photography.
    It is the continual ‘beginning of the end’ and a coiled snake devouring its own tail; it seems to be his sign. The pictures of associations, of homonyms of forms and of paradoxes, he composes again, and something anchors him like the ‘the Hron river of his childhood’. Time and water flow slowly, everything vanishes, only the picture of trees on the bank remains above water, because it is actually not there. The ugly duckling will suddenly turn into a white swan; if not, a white goose will do just fine. But in any case, his swansong is a long way off.

Vladimír Beskid

(translation into English by Derek Paton)

(published in Miro Švolík z Kozároviec, catalogue to the exhibition of the same name, at the Vojtech Löffler Museum, Košice 1997)

Copyright © 2007 - 2023, Miro Švolík