When an average teenager gets braces on her teeth, she is given a dental hygiene toolkit to complement the typical toothbrush-and-floss combo. It includes an assortment of odd-looking accoutrements, such as floss threaders, dental picks and little "go-between" brushes that look like tiny pipe cleaners, all of which ferret out hidden bits of food. In "Out of Sight," Prague-based Eva Koťátková's exhibition at MIT List Visual Arts Center (May 22-July 26), the toolkit becomes something else. For the semi-fictional teenager who records and hides worries in her braces in an installation combining text and sculpture called Words staying in the mouth (Klara's letter-box), 2015, the dental apparatuses become torture devices designed to probe the cage-trap that is now the mouth.
Indeed much of the drawing, collage, sculpture and installations in this solo show—Koťátková's first in a U.S. museum—points to the mental and physical enclosures we wear or inhabit throughout life. In the case of poor Klara, concealment becomes a nightmarish trap made evident in a tabletop installation of text on fragments of paper strewn amidst enlarged plaster-cast teeth, welded metal braces and a cruel dentist's extraction instruments.
To create her signature visual vocabulary, recently exhibited in projects at the New Museum's current Triennial (through May 24), Modern Art Oxford and the 2013 Venice Biennale, Koťátková culls from a range of sources. She plucks pictorial and textual information from outdated books on psychology, medicine and social science and finds narrative inspiration in the archives of local institutions, like the Bohnice Psychiatric Hospital outside of her native Prague. Some of these new works—graphic compositions reminiscent of Czech Surrealist and Bauhaus art on white or black backgrounds—depict cage-like corsets, mouse traps re-designed to catch humans and blindfolded people tangled up in strings and wires.
"I am interested in traps. They have a strange nature, being products of negative creativity," Koťátková tells A.i.A. The artist's oeuvre emphasizes so-called inadequacies like disobedience corrected by societal structures and institutions such as the family, cultural traditions, governments, schools and prisons. The artist—whose childhood years overlapped with the Soviet totalitarian regime's control of the former Czechoslovakia—materializes site-specific installations and performances with a distinctly Czech point of view, a cultural perspective developed over centuries of living in occupied territory. More recent projects consider the personal confinements created by any individual in order to meet given standards, whether real or imagined. "By constructing some physical restrictions, I try to speak about the invisible boundaries, restrictions and limits that . . . we build in our heads."
Though the vignettes in "Out of Sight" present one terrifying form of entrapment after another, Koťátková admits that she is not actually "pointing to some drastic imprisonment or actual physical violence, but rather to the invisible, mental cages that we carry in ourselves supported by inner fears, anxieties or those that others build around us because we do not fulfill society's expectations."
In addition to the exhibition at MIT and another in June at the Joan Míro Foundation in Barcelona, the artist will release a book of collages through the imprint JRP Ringier this July. Her source materials include altered images, excerpts from 1970s and ‘80s textbooks and guides from institutions like prisons, post offices and retirement homes. "As a whole, the book forms a sort of para-institution," says Kot'átková, "walking the body, often by force, through different rooms and scaffoldings."