Matěj Smetana looks upon his working method as a kind of conceptual game, and play is the principle inseparably linked with his work. Using the game he analyses certain processes and procedures linked with the way we perceive, while eschewing complexity and ensuring his work is characterised by simplicity of resources and intelligibility, combined with meaningful depth and imaginativeness. Every work of his asks the question: “What would I do if...?” or “What would happen if...?”, as though we were wondering how to cure boredom, play a game, or think of an idea, and an infinite set of possibilities opens up. The artist then creates certain rules and procedures according to which the work emerges. It is for this reason that his approach is sometimes compared to scientific research.
One of the resources and themes that he often takes apart and analyses is animation. This does not always involve the moving image or classic film animation, but, for instance, objects in which animation is present in some way even if only hinted at. He began with animation in an early work It’s Only a Film (2004) in order to cure the boredom he experienced while learning classical drawing required on a research fellowship at the Faculty of Fine Arts (FaVU) in Brno. He decided that he would redesign the trailers to horror films of the 1970s and 80s, and this is how his short animated films with an original soundtrack, though free of drama or horror, arose.
In the animated film Smutek je unavená radost / Sadness is Tired Pleasure (2011) the plasticine hero finds this tired pleasure in simple games and activities. On the blades of a fan he draws the individual phases of a closing window and attempts to animate it. In order to wink, he has to make a sacrifice and poke a finger in the fan, so drawing blood. Despite the highly personal, subjective character of this work, it also features a conceptual approach in the form of a depiction of the principle of “animation within animation”. The injured finger replaces the Geneva drive (or Maltese cross), which suspends the film frame for a moment and allows for the illusion of movement.
The search for and comparison of art, animation, technical and other processes in everyday situations is typical of Smetana’s work. It is true of the series of three videos Taylorism (2013), in which the principle of animation within animation appears anew in different variations. In the first two it is a video that the actors manipulate with drawn objects. In the third video it is drawn hands that move photographed figures within the film strip in phases. A kind of conception and definition of animation is expressed: “The principle of Taylorism as it began to be used in nineteenth century factories is the breakdown of complex activities into simple, repeating procedures. I found it interesting that this principle is almost exactly the same as the action of the film strip during projection and the procedure that the animator is obliged to follow when creating individual phases of movement.” This is a principle that can appear above and beyond the recorded moving image, the film strip or video and can be found in ordinary life. Taylorism shows that Smetana is unafraid to address serious social or political themes, as we see in his other work. However, he does so in a light and, as he himself humorously describes it, “ignorant way”. Art is not for him an instrument of political or other change, but is something much more fundamental and at the same time amusing.
As we have seen, Smetana’s work is reminiscent of scientific research combined with DIY, and the artist sets himself relatively difficult and sometimes intentionally unrealisable objectives. For instance, he attempts to encompass movement in static objects or installations (Podzimní zoom / Autumn Zoom, 2010) or create a realistic blurred object (Myslím, že tento objekt není možné vyrobit / I Don’t Think It’s Possible To Create This Object, 2010). In other works he does not even attempt to make the objects himself, but creates animation inspired by an instruction video with the accompanying elevator music and offers precise instructions as to how to make this artwork at home (Návody / Instructions, 2009).
Just as he finds art outside the world of art, so he takes an equally irreverent approach to the art and architecture canons (Antika, 2010) and modernist directions (e.g. minimalism in his work Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt and John McCracken Are Like Us, 2005 / 2012). In this respect one should mention the animated film Poslední malíři na Zemi / The Last Painter on Earth, 2012, created on the basis of an older comic strip. “It recounts the short stories of four people shortly before the destruction of Planet Earth. They are inadvertently to be found committing an act that in a certain context it would be possible to label painting.” [see: the artist’s website] Smetana is not interested in mocking or diminishing art, but more in finding a kind of basic principle or essence and using it to make art more accessible and to locate it outside the sphere of the institution..
Despite his age, Smetana has already built up a large portfolio of work involving both solo and group projects (whether in galleries, public space or elsewhere) that cannot be done justice here. Recently he has been concerned with the transformation of human perception in connection with technology or the virtual world. We had an opportunity to see this in autumn 2016 at the exhibition S leskem v očích / With Shining Eyes at the Fait Gallery in Brno, at which he addressed the expansion of our optical experience thanks to modern technology. The optical phenomenon known as lens flare became an object with the same name suspended in the gallery. The curator Jiří Ptáček wrote: “Its suspension in free space above the ground simulated a situation in which this phenomenon does not appear in a camera record but in the human eye.” [see: www.faitgallery.com]
In addition to his own work, Smetana also gives lectures and at present is a specialist assistant at the Intermedia and Multimedia Department at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design (VŠVU) in Bratislava. He and Barbora Klímová head the Environment Studio at FaVU in Brno.
Matěj Smetana studied the School of Creative Arts (FaVU) in Brno at the Painting 3 studio of Petr Kvíčala as well as the Intermedia studio. He is the creator of installations, comics, and videos. He expresses opinions on artistic institutions, focusing on the themes of error and inappropriateness. For example, he photographed scratches in works of minimalistic classics by Donald Judd, Sol LeWitt and John McCracken.
He often addresses the relationship between purposefully set limits and happenchance. He sorts out the spatial relationships of 3D bodies, created from a specific shift from existing symbolic shapes. His series of wooden objects, Flags / Vlajky (2002) is based on the form of four national flags elaborated with the help of an intersection of geometric bodies. The object, Czechoid / Českoid (2003), stems from the premise of a rotating surface for the Czech Republic; the piece Hradčanoid (2006) builds upon it. It is an extended cylindrical mesh object, created based on the rotating silhouette of Prague Castle.
He worked his way into the field of motion pictures with the video, It’s Only a Film / Je to jenom film, when he redrew three trailers for classic horror films on tracing paper and complemented them with their original soundtracks. The themes of coincidence can also be found in the installation, Remix, which toys with the idea of the existence of a special intelligent conscience in media reports. Their decoding takes place with the help of selecting and marking word or letter order from copies of books, photographs of film subtitles or from a label on a lawn mower, which together create an „existential“message.
Tvoje věc (s Jiřím Ptáčkem), vydala INI Gallery
Polojasno (s Terezou Kabůrkovou), vydalo Sputnik Editions, AMT Gallery
Jiří Ptáček, Matěj Smetana, In: Umělec 3/2004