Jana Sterbak’s conceptual sculptures work in accordance with or opposition to her body, raising valuable questions about power - who holds it and what impact does that have?
Born in the Czech Republic in 1955, Sterbak’s artistic language is influenced by the cultural and social climate of the predecessors from her homeland - Kafka, Čapek and Kundera. There is an undeniably reserved aspect to their works, like Sterbak’s. Although none of the above have fears over exploring abstract and off-the-wall ideas, there is something guarded about what they do too.
This sense of reservation comes across in a lot of her works, which are often presented with an overriding pessimism, a feeling that was prevalent in a lot of art during the long-drawn-out cold war era. Throughout this period, there was a globally overwhelming sense of not knowing what would happen from one day to the next - a pervasive feeling of helplessness and loss of control.
One of the Czech’s most revered creations, that encapsulates so much of her artistic identity, is her 1989 Remote Control. The wire-frame and remote-controlled dress, almost like an exoskeleton whereby the wearer levitates in the centre of, allows the artist to explore notions of control, not simply who has it, but what the pros and cons of this scenario are.
A wire-framed dress is iconic, but comes without the controversial legacy of another dress she created - this time of raw meat. Beating Lady Gaga to the punch by about 25 years, Vanitas: Flesh Dress for an Albino Anorectic caused a storm two years prior to her remote-controlled dress' public appearance.
By stitching together raw flank steaks, meat that decomposed in real-time, the artist could draw parallels between the behaviour and biological strain of people suffering from anorexia - drawing a clear distinction between what can be seen as beautiful and what must be seen as dangerous.
Yet, almost as a joking finger pointed at the art establishment - the dress became big news, drawing people to see it. Just as the same vulture-media would be drawn towards unhealthy bodies in the fashion industry which Sterback was lampooning. They just couldn't help themselves.
Just as we are drawn to conform to the structure that we exist within, the meat, through its natural process of decay, lost its colour and form, drawing itself in closely to the mannequin on which it hung. A lightning-rod of criticism from politicians, who saw it as celebrating food wastage, and from health authorities who claimed it hazardous.
In what became one of Canada’s most controversial artistic events, a newspaper printed the address of the show’s curator - in which the dress was featured - as a way to goad their readers into approaching the woman, to which they obliged. Faeces was sent through the mail, alongside threatening letters - none of which came to fruition.
For a reserved, thoughtful, yet deeply provocative figure, Sterbak’s legacy is largely silent, yet thought of not as an artist of sculpture, but as an artist of thought, she must be named up there with the greatest to have ever come from her home of the Czech Republic.
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