© Čestmír Suška
The Czech artist Čestmír Suška is known for creating magnificent sculptures by painstakingly cutting delicate patterns into abandoned metal industrial tanks. Now, as Suška contemplates a new direction, works in his “Rusty Flowers” series are on show for the final time at “Outside/Inside,” an exhibition at Prague’s DOX Centre for Contemporary Art.
Suška’s signature perforated and welded sculptures – including a massive lookout tower – have been installed on the terrace and in the yard at the gallery (“Outside”), while far smaller pieces are on display on three floors indoors (“Inside”).
The “Rusty Flowers” series (some of which were shown at Prague’s Tham Hall in 2007) began when the sculptor was invited to an artist residency at the Vermont Studio Center, one of several such stays that attest to his reputation in the U.S.
Suška, who attended Prague’s Academy of Fine Arts and was a founding member of the renowned Czech artistic group Tvrdohlaví (“Hard Heads”), has also taught in the States and received the prestigious Pollock-Krasner Foundation Fellowship there in 1995.
While in Vermont in 2005, the sculptor – then working primarily with wood – was strolling through a scrap yard when he chanced upon a hemispherical heating fluid tank common in America but rarely seen in Europe. He describes it as a life-changing moment.
“I had a dream that I had to go back and get it – that it was meant for me!” the softly spoken Suška told Czech Position, adding that he was only in Vermont for two months and time was of the essence. “I had to learn how to weld in a matter of hours, and then gradually as I worked I learned the techniques that I needed.”
At first he stripped the original metal objects of paint, before coming to the conclusion that such an approach was misguided. “It was nonsensical – I was working with scrap and I shouldn’t try to rework it and somehow aestheticize it, by sanding it down for instance.”
The artist uses a plasma cutter to carve intricate patterns, sometimes inspired by the floral patterns found on curtains and lace table-cloths (the design seen in one piece at DOX was lifted from an overcoat), into industrial containers that once used to transport oil, gas, and beer.
In some cases the majority of the surface of the original objects is removed, so the sculptures appear almost frail, despite their enormous size and weight.
Suška, who incidentally also has experience as a theater designer, director, writer, and performer, is visibly tickled by a question as to whether he ever fears messing up a cut when one of his large pieces is close to completion.
“In metal everything can be corrected [laughs],” he says. “And anyway, there’s no such thing as a mistake. I take it as a process – not something I have to try to get an A in.”
The sections that have been cut out do not go to waste, as he recycles them into entirely new “twin” objects. The companion pieces being exhibited at DOX are spherical and were slowly and carefully welded together with the use of hemispherical “moulds.”
The sculptor actually lives and works by a scrap yard on the outskirts of Prague and walks by daily to peruse any new arrivals. Its staff also put aside pieces they think might tickle his fancy, while he also gets tip-offs from other people.
One example of the latter was when he got a call to say an oil tank at the small Bubovice airport near the capital was surplus to requirements. Suška transformed the container into the remarkable lookout tower now standing in the yard at DOX.
Visitors can climb a transparent spiral staircase inside the 10-meter structure – the sculptor’s biggest ever piece – and peer across the short distance to the terrace where most of the exhibition’s “Outside” part is on display.
Such mammoth structures can take the artist up to two months to complete, and he says creating the relatively minute pieces comprising the “Inside” section allowed him to take something of a breather during the winter.
“I had been collecting small tanks for two or three years with the idea of eventually doing something with them – and at the start of this year I finally got around to it,” says Suška, adding that the “Inside” works could even be described as figurative.
The DOX exhibition is the last time that any pieces in the sculptor’s trademark “Rusty Flowers” series (numbering about three dozen in total) will be shown together, though some – like the lookout tower – may eventually find permanent homes as public art.
As for what the future holds, Suška, who is 60, claims to have no idea what he will do next. “Let’s leave it open,” he says.
“Inside” will run until 3 June 2012, while “Outside” will remain on show until 31 August 2012.
Poupětova 1, Praha 7
— Ian Willoughby is a Prague-based freelance journalist