On Monuments and Memories, Flags and Fire: The Art of Tom Pazderka
Tom Pazderka’s (NAP #117) work is quietly disturbing. His mixed media and wood installations have a haunting presence, suggesting isolated cabins in the woods, lone wolves, and ideas or dreams gone astray. They feel threatening, yet on the other hand, they are also somehow unassuming and peaceful. – Ellen Caldwell, Los Angeles Contributor
As an artist from the Czech Republic who is living and practicing in the U.S., Pazderka addresses history from a liminal space, processing, rethinking, and revisiting time, memory, and memory-making itself. With recent attention on the Confederate flag and the public outcry for its removal from a growing list of state buildings, retailers, and public spaces, I was particularly interested to ask Pazderka about its relevance in his work.
Ellen Caldwell: I am really interested in your mixed media approach to your current work, such as "Cabin Fever (Visual Essay on Landscape Individualism Nationalism)," “The Gated Community," and “The Disquieting Monument to Southern Discomfort." Could you speak to your process a bit and discuss how and why you started working with photo collage, wood installation, and burned images?
Tom Pazderka: I think the wood is a remnant of what I used to do right before graduate school, [as] a construction worker, furniture maker, house painter, working in places where this material was abundant and constantly discarded and I started to collect it. Philosophically it is a reflection of my fascination/obsession with cabins and people like Thoreau, Heidegger and Ted Kaczynski and the entire anarchist-survivalist milieu. Wood is the basic building material for our homes and many people choose to live surrounded by it because it feels alive and it holds memory. This is why I started burning images into the wood, as a kind of repository of the actual memory depicted, but also because I had lots of it just hanging around and I was looking for other means to ‘paint.’
Photography interests me because it is tangible memory, but photographs are really residue of the photographic process, a sort of memory itself, a memory of memory, so when I burn images into wood, they are really the residue of the burning process. Fire has this force to transform materials and the burning process is that transformation visualized...as a destructive force it has the strange quality of being the first creative force. Here you have to think of something like forest fires, they are terribly destructive, but in the end, the ash that remains acts as the fertilizer for the next forest that will grow in the place of the old.
EC: Wonderful ways to think about and incorporate the transformative properties of fire. In your artist statement, you describe a continued intricate reflection on time--how the past, present, and future commingle in complicated ways:
"Understanding that the past is full of instances where the promise of a better future was a set of missteps, missed opportunities, chaos, war and suffering, we tend to be wary of the future and therefore of becoming. It is rather comforting and fulfilling to think of the world in an abstract sense as a world in which everything happens simultaneously or never actually happens at all. The present is all there is in the end. To live with the ramifications of the past, present and future is to live with the traumatic notion of what authentic unmediated life really is."
What motivates you to do so with your work?
TP: I’m mostly motivated by a sense of history. My other fascinations are utopia, utopian thought and humanity’s quest for some kind of elusive truth -- and what is the search for truth, even absolute truth, if not a utopian idea? I make this work in order to critique this notion of truth by using history as a vehicle. We give so much energy to this idea that the world ought to operate based on some kind of universal truth and it does not matter if one is a pagan, Christian, Muslim, atheist, communist, capitalist and so on, all of them work through some sort of universal truth.
So when a giant system like Soviet-style Communism collapses, it takes its particular truths with it, and I say particular because this is what they became, they move from universality to particularity immediately after the fall. For example, communism fell because the people rebelled, or because the system was too corrupt, each country in the Eastern Bloc collapsed in its own particular way, some violently, some peacefully, but the universal truth of communism remained, this is why communists are once again back in politics, in no small part thanks to nostalgia, voted in through the democratic process. If capitalism falls, it will do so based on its own specific particularities, but the universal truth will remain. In reality, it is the universal truth that is unattainable.
EC: How do you feel you are addressing this in your art?
TP: My work addresses this indirectly, perhaps with a sense of irony or self-reflection because I think that maybe I believe a little bit of everything and I think that in order to properly critique something, one ought to be a believer first. I make “monuments” out of old decaying wood, found pallets, old rugs. I call them “cenotaphs” now, graves without bodies and they signify the precarious nature of our worldview. Collapse could happen anytime the way it did in 1989, or during the Arab Spring, we comfort ourselves with the idea of universal truths and anaesthetize ourselves with entertainment to prevent the world around from getting too “real.”
EC: In “The Disquieting Monument to Southern Discomfort,” you pair a burned image on wood with a towel painted like a Confederate flag, and a broom. Could you please discuss and explain how this ties in to your thoughts about our historicizing moments?
TP: This has a lot to do with my bittersweet relationship with the South. I love the South for its soul, people, culture, food, some of best friends live there, my wife was born in Mississippi, but it is also a place of great ignorance, strange politics, horrifying history and stupefying violence. I would like for this piece to remain somewhat ambiguous, but I do believe it to be a kind of metaphor. It was one of the last pieces I made before I moved to California to attend graduate school. The broom has the power to sweep stuff away and the shop towel I used on all sorts of mess in my studio before I turned it into a flag, they are both worn down and quite dirty. You can make what you want out of it I think. For me, the kinds of everyday objects, when turned into nationalistic symbols, act as a metaphor for the complicated relationship we all have to them...
EC: In light of everything that has gone down with the Confederate flag in the past month, I wanted to revisit our conversation and see if there is anything you would like to add? After the killings at Charleston’s AME church, were you surprised by how quickly the move to take down the flag spread?
TP: Not that surprised. To be honest, I don’t watch the news too much and when the “news” finally does get to me it’s usually a while after the event. I prefer it this way because the initial shock and outrage that usually accompanies such events had time to settle...
The move to take down the flag seems to me was a reaction to a moral outrage as well as a political move, and these acts are never genuine because they stem from a reactionary mindset and they treat the effects of racism as a symptom. Here conservatives and liberals are equally culpable because there is no consensus on how to deal with actual racism and inequality and the focus is then on the symbols that represent them. The move is to erase the symptoms of racism, the flag, the names and everything is going to be fine, but historically the opposite is always true. If anything this is a clever way to deflect opinion and responsibility while leaving the system exactly as it was before, broken, unequal, opaque...
EC: Do you feel that being from Eastern Europe, but practicing in the U.S. and looking to American history impacts the way you are filtering and analyzing historicity?
TP: I think that this is the entirety of my work today. It was not until I realized that within me are these two halves that are in constant communication and struggle with one another that I began to make work that meant so much to me. The artists that I look to like Beuys, Kiefer, Kabakov, or Mike Nelson for example, all share this desire to analyze history, especially the very problematic kind, and to come to terms with it, despite the fact that it is virtually impossible to do so. I am also from Czech Republic, a country notorious for a pessimistic and even cynical outlook on life given its long history of subjugation and oppression by various empires outside its borders. The only place that the Czechs ever got to “oppress” was Slovakia when the two countries were still one, but the Slovaks got sick of it pretty quickly and decided to leave.
The American outlook is its direct opposite, the never-ending optimist, it is the empire. I was born on the eve of communism in Europe however, so most of my direct experience with it was as a child, I got the rest from books and my family. I do think that these formative years were crucial and it’s the images of the revolutions, the signs in the streets, the gray buildings that gave way to the unbridled elation of the post-communist years, a true capitalist free-for-all that eventually grew into a simulacrum of the West, a new kind of subjugation. The way I look at history these days is as a cynical optimist or a pessimistic idealist.
EC: What are your current projects these days? Are you continuing similar work or taking new direction?
TP: I started making books recently. I am also working with video, but not sure where it will lead. I feel like there is still so much to explore with wood and fire and being somewhat obsessive, I continue to read about cabins, Thoreau, green anarchy and anti-technology, especially the work of John Zerzan, paganism, some other very obscure subjects, and I’ve been writing a lot recently, hoping to publish some work soon. I wrote an essay that goes with “Cabin Fever” and which explores the images in the work itself and the relationship between German romanticism, tiny houses, Heidegger, Thoreau and Kaczinsky among other things. My wife and I are going to be resident artists at the MeetFactory in Prague, Czech Republic during July and August, and in October I will be in a two person show at CSU Channel Islands.
Tom Pazderka is Czech-born interdisciplinary installation artist, painter, sculptor, musician and writer. He is an MFA graduate student and Regent Fellow at UC Santa Barbara.
Ellen C. Caldwell is an LA-based writer, editor, and art historian.