Performance Art in Czechoslovakia – Remembered, Described, Interpreted, Photographed and Filmed, Sometimes Even Reenacted

Performance Art in Czechoslovakia – Remembered, Described, Interpreted, Photographed and Filmed, Sometimes Even Reenacted

Pavlína Morganová
Barbora Klímová; Petr Štembera; Karel Miller; Jiří Kovanda; Czechoslovakia; performance art; action art; conceptual art; documentary turn; documentation.

“Performance opens its own space and time. Performance isn’t there where it happens. It is important to realise that it actually doesn’t exist. Performance has special status, because it is accessible only through recollection. The recollection is the image.”1

This quote from Helena Kontová’s interview with Petr Rezek, a famous Czech phenomenology philosopher and friend of a number of performance artists, opens my mind about Performance Art history writing. Can we write about something which doesn’t exist? How can we recollect events we didn’t live through? How can we put the image into words? Dematerialised works of 1960s and 1970s defy our interpretation, even though they were one of the most important art expressions of the period. Rejecting the final artifact and embracing ephemerality and intangibility was a challenge for traditional art-historical writing. Nevertheless it is an integral and even extremely important part of 20th-century art.

When it comes to Performance Art and its ‘history making’ in the West, it mostly happened in the 1970s when books by RoseLee Goldberg2 and Lucy Lippard,3 to name just two, were published. East ‘history making’ of Performance Art is a different story. In the 1990s in Central-Eastern Europe we were still waiting for such all-encompassing authors. Yet this doesn’t mean that the history of Performance Art wasn’t being written – the process started in the 1960s and continued in the 1970s as in the West. I would like to look closely at its turns and breaking points and to propose that we can determine four different stages of this performance history making. I will try to focus solely on the process of writing the history of performance art in the Central and Eastern Europe; naturally, it will be based mostly on Czech sources and my personal research experience, but I assume that with some exceptions it essentially applies to a number of other former Eastern Bloc countries.

Witness Stage

I view the first phase of history making as the ‘witness stage’. The history of performance art was first written by a number of its participants, direct witnesses and often friends of performance artists. They were art historians, theoreticians, philosophers, members of progressive art scenes of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s in Prague, Bratislava, Wrocław, Budapest, Brno, Warszawa, Belgrad, Zagreb, Ljubljana and many other cities. These people attended performance events at various venues and later wrote about them, whether in the official press during the rare periods of liberalisation in individual countries or in samizdat. The intersection of performers and theoreticians mostly occurred in close local circles, but it also had an international dimension. The network of progressive personalities in the Eastern Bloc was well-connected, especially in the 1970s. It was based on mail art activities and postal information exchange, which was able to circumvent information embargo and helped organise many unofficial activities in the totalitarian regime of the former Eastern Bloc.

One example is Meeting of Czech, Slovak and Hungarian Artists organized by László Beke in Balatongoglár in 1972.4 In the famous picture of handshakes we see a number of artists, as well as leading theoreticians of performance art, for example László Beke and Jiří Valoch. In other famous images we can see different ties between performance artists and theoreticians: Helena Kontová standing with Petr Štembera, Jan Mlčoch and Karel Miler in Prague or Alex Mlynárčik with Pierre Restany and the Slovak theoretician Radislav Matuštík in Paris.

Jan Mlčoch, Helena Kontová, Karel Miler and Petr Štembera in front of the Municipal Library in Prague, 1970s (archive of Karel Miler).

During my research on Czech performance art I try to identify viewers of performances from documentation of actions by, for example, Milan Knížák, Jan Mlčoch, Petr Štembera or Jiří Kovanda. Among other things, the documentation captures important theoreticians and art historians, e. g. Jindřich Chalupecký, Jana Ševčíková and Jiří Ševčík, Karel Srp, Milena Slavická.

Participants of Karel Miler’s performance Concert, left to right: Jarmila Kovandová, Jiří Kovanda, Jan Mlčoch, Karel Srp, Jitka Svobodová, Milena Slavická, 1979 (archive of Karel Miler).

During this first phase of interpretation, writers often focused on one personality or one series of performances. Their writing was up-to-date, often very provocative, considering the other art history context. Although we can find rare examples in the official periodicals, most of these texts were published in alternative media of the “unofficial” culture sphere.5 But these art historians’ writing ‘witnesses’ is a very important source of the second phase.

Investigators Stage

The second stage started in the 1990s, after the fall of the wall. The writing of performance art history was part of the enormous effort to rewrite, to reconstruct the postwar art history of the former Eastern Bloc. A consistent history of performance art didn’t exist in this territory, any scholar interested in the topic had to undergo extensive research, through existing articles and publications, often of a samizdat nature. It is worth mentioning that it was mostly done within the existing national borders. Materials in English were rare, and that is why the territory was mostly closed to international scholars.

Due to the lack of printed documents and texts, and with no institutional support and background, it was necessary to seek the artists themselves, find the way to their private archives, and listen to their stories. The language barrier played a considerable role as well. This was the Investigators Stage. The success of the research often depended on whether the artists kept meticulous documentation, despite nobody being interested in their work sometimes for decades. It depended on artists’ memory, on the willingness to share it, on their personal preferences. All problems of oral history were present. I was part of this exciting process and a number of artists refused to talk about the performances they did in the 1970s because it was over for them. We have to understand that most performance artists in the East created their works in isolation – not only in isolation from art in the West, but also from the public at large; with rare exceptions it was prohibited to freely present the work. Performance art for most of these artists was a kind of hobby usually done in their spare time, outside art institutions, at their own expense. Some had amazing personal archives, some had nothing (it was lost, taken by police, destroyed…). It took time to write complex art histories of performance. Plus it wasn’t thought to be the most urgent task at that time.

If we look at the Czech art scene in the late 1990s, a few artists, such as Milan Knížák, Petr Štembera, Karel Miler, Jan Mlčoch or Jiří Kovanda, received retrospective shows of their performance works. For others, such as Zorka Ságlová, their performance art was placed in the context of their other art and appeared in catalogues as supplements to their paintings or sculptures. When my first book on Czech Action Art was published in 1999, Jiří Valoch wrote in its epilogue: “All permanent exhibitions of modern art in the Czech lands have one thing in common – they pretend that in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s Czech art was represented by more or less adequate (according to the rules of Socialist Realism) paintings, sculptures or drawings. [...] In this way they were able to give an impression to the ‘normal’ public that nothing else really existed, and some theoreticians – either from conviction or opportunism – would agree. [...] In the Czech lands, intermedia, beginning with visual and phonic poetry and ending with events, happenings and the performances that are logically linked to them, as well as actions in nature and dematerialised conceptual works, still appear only rarely in ‘established’ art museums, and preferably not at all.”6 The same applied to the acquisition of performance art documentation, which was rarely made by Czech galleries until recently. .

But towards the end of the millennium there was a shift and this second phase developed. Important exhibitions like “Out of Actions”,7 “Global Conceptualism”8 and “Body and the East”9 took place. If we compare a random selection of publications from before and after 2000, we notice a radical increase of English texts, whether original or in translation.10 The discussion around the relationships between Western and Eastern art history was reshaped around the millennium. To give just two examples of this complex debate, IRWIN published East Art Map in 2006 and Piotr Piotrowski’s important book In the Shadow of Yalta11 was translated into English in 2009. Around 2000 we also notice an institutional shift, as performance art documentation began to appear in some permanent collections, and the first studios focusing on conceptual art, including performance were opened at progressive academies of fine arts in the former East bloc. This shift is apparent when we consider for example Jiří Kovanda’s work and his position on the international art scene. In the early 1990s, Kovanda was still almost exclusively viewed as a postmodern painter; he hardly ever spoke of his performances from the 1970s since he felt nobody was interested in them.12 He became an assistant of the painting studio at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague in the second half of the 1990s. But towards the end of the millennium, interest in his performances from the 1970s increased. In 2005 published his complete catalogue of performance and installation pieces from 1976‒2005, which included his new performances, which he started to create after 2000. The book was published in English in 2006.13

Documentary Turn

The turn of the millennium opened the third phase and, thanks to his performance art Kovanda became an international star. His case, I think, beautifully represents this period. It is connected to the so-called Documentary Turn. This broadly discussed change in the theoretical and methodological approach influenced the way we look at the performance. Documentation, which during the first two phases was an important player, suddenly became a key issue. Scholars started to examine it closely, for the first time asking who the photographers were and how the final photos were chosen.

Photography is often the only medium that is exhibited in connection with performance art and that works on the art market. Actually, very little film footage of performances exists in Czech or Eastern bloc action art. Film and later video cameras were very hard to obtain in socialist countries – they were scarce and expensive commodities. That is why photography is usually the only ‘proof’ that the action took place. The myth of photographic documentation has sometimes even become more important than the original action in terms of filling a role within the art world’s modus operandi. The original documentation of Jiří Kovanda's actions can serve as a good example. Kovanda consistently documented his performances and installations in the 1970s and 1980s. He would designate for each a sheet of paper on which he would type the action's title, year and approximate or precise date. Sometimes he would even provide a short written description of the action. The text would be supplemented by either photographic documentation or a drawing depicting the described situation. But he also used single photos to illustrate performance. Today these sheets of paper, which he once carried around in well-worn folders to show those interested, are viewed as artifacts in themselves. Indeed, they possess a certain aesthetic quality since Kovanda conceived them as a kind of collage, and the typed text elevates them to another aesthetic level in today’s digital age. Yet they were only records and documents, proof that the action took place.

Documentation of Jiří Kovanda’s performance An Attempt at Meeting a Girl, 1977. Among those watching were Karel Miler, Jiří Tichý, Dagmar Mlčochová, Jiří Ševčík, Jana Ševčíková and Lumír Hladík (archive of Jiří Kovanda).

It is worth asking if these sheets of paper can now be perceived as a substitute for the distinct artwork that was the original action? The art market certainly sees it that way, and, pressured by this market, the artists themselves have changed their view of the documentation. This leads to an amusing story. In the late 1990s Kovanda sent by standard mail his complete documentation from the 1970s and 80s for an exhibition in an undisclosed Paris gallery. The gallerist was shocked and called Kovanda on the phone immediately: What were you thinking sending these by standard mail? As Kovanda told me, he replied: “What is the big deal, it is just the documentation.” Given the prices these vintage documents currently fetch, Kovanda probably wouldn't do that again. But it doesn’t change the fact that the documentation originally was of a secondary nature, it wasn’t the art itself.

The role of the original documentation has radically changed, not just for the artists but for viewers as well. As Amelia Jones wrote in her famous 1997 article “‘Presence’ in Absentia: Experiencing Performance as Documentation,”14 she was just a child when all these important performances were taking place and could not attend them. Neither could I and like Amelia Jones and dozens of other researchers, I essentially have to rely on these ‘imperfect’ and often misleading records. Nevertheless, like her, I believe that the documentation enables me to feel the power of their message and rediscover their meaning in today’s age.

As previously mentioned, the photograph is, among other things, proof that the performance took place. There were few ways in which analogue photography could be manipulated and therefore, in contrast to contemporary virtual visuality, it was perceived as proof. For art created behind the Iron Curtain this proof was often absolutely essential. Most Czech performers photographed their actions themselves using a tripod (they would simply ask someone present to push the shutter release button), or would employ the services of friends who dabbled in photography. In many cases, today's visual representation of the individual performances consists of peripheral or random shots. The photographer’s role in this case is traditionally seen as secondary, on the level of repro-photography of the artwork. The author of the photograph is usually the performer him- or herself. In the case of Czech performance art, probably the only one who had her actions professionally photographed was Zorka Ságlová, who was married to the photographer Jan Ságl.

This presents a dilemma from today's perspective in which the performance’s documentation possesses its own uniqueness. The photographs of the performances essentially form our ideas about this kind of art. The chosen angle, timing and lighting inherently create the tone of the performance for us today. Many of them take the form of petrified spectacles, perhaps of the performance’s least important moments. Plus, there are problems with missing documentation. What about the performances that we can rediscover only through oral or written history? Are they less valuable than the ones with perfect visual documentation?

As Peggy Phelan mentioned with regards to the ontology of performance in her book Unmarked: “Performance’s only life is in the present. Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations: once it does so, it becomes something other than performance.”15

I recently participated in two types of research, which challenged documentation in a new way. Czech Performance Art: Film and Video, 1956198916 is an attempt to gather together rare visual records of interventions, performances, pieces and happenings from the communist period. Unlike photography, the moving picture records not only what an action looks like visually but also how it plays out over its duration. Although such visual documentation is rare in the former Eastern Bloc, we can find examples of films and videos. Because of its comprehensive nature, it is an important source of our understanding of Performance Art of the East today.

The other research developed around the question of where the performances took place. In 2014 I published a book called A Walk through Action Prague in which I located all the known performances which took place in Prague from 1949 to 1989.17 This research was interesting mostly because I visited almost all the places of the performances in Prague, often accompanied by the artists themselves. Changes to the socio-political-urbanistic situation made me understand better the nature of the original performances and I learned a lot from this experience. While visiting the places with the artists, trying to identify the original spots, I realised how sometimes the original documentation is misleading. I will never forget when Karel Miler showed me the tree on which Štembera spent the fourth night, after three days without sleep.

Petr Štembera, Sleeping in a Tree, 1975 (archive of Petr Štembera).

I always imagined it as being somewhere outside the city or at least in a big park. How surprised I was to find it in the garden of a small suburban house. It totally changed my perspective of the action. I realised how significant the space, and social and political situations are to the performance. This research enabled me to formulate new questions and definitely brought new answers.

The place where Petr Štembera performed his Sleeping in a Tree, 2014.

But despite these reservations about the role of documentation, the Documentary Turn opened new ways of interpretation. It also opened the field to a number of international scholars who were able to examine the published documentation and derive new interpretations. It also became a material and inspiration for other artists working with their own history and heritage of conceptualism. Artists like Barbora Klímová started to work with performance art documentation as with any other art material. Interesting examples of re-enactment appeared from contemporary artists as another source of possible interpretation.18

One such instance is a remake of Kovanda’s 1977 Untitled action when he spread his arms on Wenceslas Square in Prague. In 2006, Daniela Baráčková assumed the same position on Times Square in New York and captured her performance in a short video. We can see how the change of exterior and different socio-political background highlights the context of the performance. In contrast to Kovanda, whose performance in socialist Czechoslovakia went unnoticed, Daniela Baráčková's performance was interrupted by the New York police within minutes.

These experiments could be placed in an international context. Marina Abramović performed her Seven Easy Pieces at the Guggenheim in 2005 and thus, along with other artists, opened the discussion on the essence of performance. Can it be perceived as a musical composition whose reenactment in a new space and time with the participation of new performers and viewers gives it an unrepeatable intensity of experience without restricting it from it being performed again? Or is only the first performance valid, so that each reinterpretation represents a new artwork? Or does it exist only in the present, as Peggy Phelan states, and it becomes something different, when it is documented or repeatedly represented? How do we retrospectively exhibit these works that are now an iconic part of post-war art history? I think it is extremely difficult to find clear answers to these questions. But it is obvious that even though performance art resists traditional art-historical treatment because of its rejection of a final artifact and accentuation of ephemerality and intangibility, it is an integral and extremely important part of 20th-century art. In the Central and Eastern Europe milieu it even represents one of the most authentic positions of the unofficial scene of the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s, and the fact that its artists had to wait a few decades longer than their Western counterparts for official recognition changes nothing about this.


We are living through the end of the third stage. Remarkable research is being done from all different sides and in projects like Fluxus East,19 Antipolitics in Central European Art20 or The Green Bloc,21 to name just a few. The recent book by Amy Bryzgel Performance Art in Eastern Europe since 196022 is an attempt to do for the East what RoseLee Goldberg did for the West.

Conceptual and Performance Art research became, as any other subject in global art history, a very specialised field, which can be investigated from many angles. The question remains what is coming next and what will be the next step of performance ‘history making’.

Translated from Czech by Dan Morgan

Pavlína Morganová
Academy of Fine Arts in Prague


1 Helena Kontová, interview with Petr Rezek, Karel Miler, Jan Mlčoch and Petr Štembera, April 4th 1977, published in the catalogue Karel Miler, Petr Štembera, Jan Mlčoch, 1970‒1980 (Prague: Gallery of the City of Prague, 1997), pp. 78‒79.

2 Rose Lee Goldberg, Performance: Live Art 1909 to the Present (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1979).

3 Lucy Lippard, Six Years: Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972 (New York: Praeger, 1973).

4 [25.01.2020].

5 See Pavlína Morganová, “Fluxus in the Czech Period Press,” in Petra Stegman (ed.), Fluxus East. Fluxus Netzwerke in Mittelosteuropa (Berlin: Künstlerhaus Bethanien GmbH, 2000), pp. 177‒196; also Pavlína Morganová, “České akční umění 60. let v dobovém tisku” (Czech Action Art of 1960s in the Press), in Akce, slovo, pohyb, prostor / Experimenty v umění šedesátých let (Action, Word, Movement, Space / Experimental Art of the Sixties), catalogue of the exhibition, Gallery of the City of Prague, Prague 1999, pp. 54‒60.

6 Jiří Valoch, Epilogue to Akční umění (Action Art) by Pavlína Morganová (Olomouc, Votobia, 1999), p. 143.

7 Kristine Stiles et al., Out of Actions: Between Performance and the Object 1949‒1979 (London: Thames and Hudson, 1998).

8 Luis Camnitzer et al., Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s‒1980s (New York: Queens Museum of Art, 1999).

9 Zdenka Badovinac (ed.), Body and the East (Ljubljana: Moderna galerija, 1998).

10 After 2000 the following books were published: Zora Rusinova (ed.), Action Art 1965‒1989 (Bratislava: SNG, 2001), Amy Bryzgel, Performing the East: Performance Art in Russia, Latvia and Poland Since 1980 (I.B.Tauris & Co Ltd., 2012), Andrea Bátorová, Aktionskunst in der Slowakei in den 1960er Jahren. Aktionen von Alex Mlynárčik (Berlin: Lit, 2009).

11 Piotr Piotrowski, In the Shadow of Yalta: Art and the Avant-garde in Eastern Europe, 1945–1989 (Reaktion Books, 2009).

12 Pavlína Morganová, „Untitled“, in: Jiří Kovanda – I Haven’t Been Here Yet (Wroclaw: Muzeum Wspótezesne Wroclaw, 2013), pp. 29‒38.

13 Vít Havránek (ed.), Jiří Kovanda, 2005‒1976. Actions and Installations (Zürich: tranzit & JRP Ringier, 2006).

14 Amelia Jones, “‘Presence’ in Absentia: Experiencing Performance as Documentation,” Art Journal 56 (no. 4, 1997), pp. 11‒18.

15 Peggy Phelan, “The ontology of performance: representation without reproduction,” in Unmarked: The Politics of Performance (London and New York, Routledge, 1995), p. 146.

16 Pavlína Morganová ‒ Terezie Nekvindová ‒ Sláva Sobotovičová (eds.), Czech Performance Art: Film and Video, 19561989 (Prague: VVP AVU, 2015).

17 Pavlína Morganová, Procházka akční Prahou (A Walk Through Action Prague), 1949‒1989 (Prague, VVP AVU, 2014). The book is going to be published in English at the end of 2017.

18 See Epilogue in Pavlína Morganová, Czech Action Art. Happenings, Actions, Events, Land Art, Body Art and Performance Art Behind the Iron Curtain, Karolinum Press, Prague 2014, p. 233, also Tomáš Poszpiszyl, “A Replica Does Not Represent Merely a Copy but Part of a Dialogue,” in Barbora Klímová (ed.), Replaced, Brno 2006, p. 74.

19 Petra Stegmann (ed.), Fluxus East. Fluxus Networks in Central Eastern Europe (Berlin: Künstlerhaus Bethanien GmbH, 2007).

20 Klara Kemp-Welch, Antipolitics in Central European Art. Reticence as Dissidence under Post-Totalitarian Rule 1956‒1989 (London‒New York: I. B. Tauris, 2014).

21 Maja Fowles, The Green Bloc. Neo-avant-garde Art and Ecology under Socialism (Budapest‒New York: Central European University Press, 2015).

22 Amy Bryzgel, Performance Art in Eastern Europe since 1960 (Manchester University Press, 2017).


Pavlína Morganová is director of the VVP AVU Research Centre and Vice-Rector at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague. Lectures on Czech Art of the 20th century and worked as curator of exhibitions featuring Czech art of the 1990s and noughties. A Walk Through Prague: Actions, Performances, Happenings 1949−1989 (Prague: VVP AVU 2017), Czech Action Art / Happenings, Actions, Events, Land Art, Body Art and Performance Art Behind the Iron Curtain (Prague: Karolinum Press 2015).

Suggested Citation

Morganová, Pavlína. 2020. “Performance Art in Czechoslovakia – Remembered, Described, Interpreted, Photographed and Filmed, Sometimes Even Reenacted.” Sandra Frimmel, Tomáš Glanc, Sabine Hänsgen, Katalin Krasznahorkai, Nastasia Louveau, Dorota Sajewska, Sylvia Sasse (eds.). 2020. Doing Performance Art History. Berlin: Apparatus Press. DOI:


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