Mark Ther | Alight⁄Svítí⁄Lejchte

curator: Michal Novotný | Black Cube

In the Silesian German spoken around the town of Broumov in the Sudeten region of the Czech Republic, the word “alight” is translated as lejchte. We might perhaps imagine Mark Ther carefully screwing in a light bulb and, with palms facing up in an elegant, but comical, gesture, stating that the original light borrowed from a first Czechoslovak Republic villa for an exhibition at the Gallery of Modern Art in Hradec Králové, is alight. The Czechified spelling of lejchte, a word which, in standard German, would be leuchtet, points to something grammatically incorrect. This deviation from the norm is also testament to the emergence (or perhaps betrays the emergence of) a specific cultural identity, in this case that of the Sudeten region.

Mark Ther experimented with television aesthetics of the 1980s and 1990s and, at the turn of the millennium, was among the first contemporary Czech artists to combine this medium with questions of homosexual and transgender identity. From about the year 2010, he has focused on issues connected with the German Sudetenland and how the idea of this region solidified in Czech culture. He works with this theme through intentional cinematic dramatization. Ther’s installation at the Hradec Králové gallery demonstrates how he uses large gestures and overacting to push boundaries and expand ideas about what is natural and about the historical legitimacy of various identities. He always does so with emotional and anxious conflict between fantasy and reality. “It’s a very terrible thing to be oneself, because it’s a question of trying to understand something you can never really understand,” is a quote by Maria Callas, which Ther used in an installation in 2021 at the DOX Gallery, dedicated to the opera singer.

As is typical of Mark Ther, the display of two of the artist’s videos in the Black Box of the Hradec Králové gallery goes beyond merely presenting the two films and becomes an
installation of its own. The older film, Kim (2002), from the gallery’s own collection, which features an Asian manservant, not unlike Cato from the Pink Panther films, is an intentionally exaggerated homosexual fantasy, told through overacting and cinematic clichés, while employing the film techniques available at the time, which today only add to the film’s charm. A later film from 2004, Pick a Wedgie, also from the Hradec Králové gallery’s collection, is based on a gesture known as
a ‘Wedgie’, an English-language concept of the prank of pulling someone’s underwear up from their backside. In this piece, the author developed the genre of commercial or, rather, short clip aesthetics, complete with their typical rhythmic accompaniment, which was at the time unique in the realm of videoart. Similarly to the vogue dance, which emerged from the gay and trans community of Harlem and which consists of a series of exaggerated theatrical poses, the theatricality of Ther’s films is an expression of freedom and the possibility of freely constructing one’s identity. At the Hradec Králové gallery, both works, however, are intentionally miniaturized and placed within an installation which consumes them, but also further deepens their meaning which, with open humor, always oscillates between dramatic tension and comedy.

Mark Ther employs references to the eclectic nature of modern Sudeten architecture, with its, possibly unintentional, resistance to functionalist cleanness and naturalness, which is to say its fake “historical” elements. These also fit into the author’s theatrical strategies, which oppose the ideal of the natural. This is what forms his constant effort to exaggerate the scene and the genre in both magnitude and detail, literally “overdoing” it, like a comedy sketch or a dance gesture, and thus, without fear of inauthenticity or self-ridicule, pushes its boundaries further. This is also reflected in the intentional set-like quality of the mint-green walls, the fake appearance of the two windows, and the ever-present disproportionality and provisionality of the setting, which further deepen the sense of the intentionally set-like space. The pleasure of constructing identity is further strengthened by an excursion into the old-fashioned works of Czech Sudeten painters (such as Alois Kirnig, Augustin Bedřich Piepenhagen and Alfred Justitz) from the collection of the Hradec Králové gallery, whose works Ther incorporates into his exhibition. Hopefully, no one will take offense at the assertion that these works are, from the perspective of the development of painting, second-tier pieces. Their rusticity and pathos are enjoyable, however, in the context of Ther’s installation where they once more stand in relation to our own national identity, which almost always resists pathos, only to often hopelessly succumb to it. Ther, however, isn’t afraid to go even further, either to the rustic kitsch of ceramic figurines or, as in the case of the “pretzel,” to some kind of animated cuteness, which spins the entire scene into the next level.

Though Ther is always working with theatricality, unnaturalness, and some kind of comic nostalgia for something that never really existed, what we see is not just a sophisticated mannerism-like game with symbols and meanings, but also a serious testimony about personal and historical identity. It’s as if overacting serious themes were mutually enforcing, like the simultaneous presence of sweet and salty tastes. His work therefore consists of a constant subversion of internalized rules and set identities. It can’t be denied that he often has a sexualized or, rather, in the context of play, an eroticized edge, but never pornographic or politicized. Ther never seeks refuge in a programmatic stance but, rather, escapes the rules of normativity of any type again and again, even in cases where such refuge might be expected, as in the normativity of his own identity. He does not assume a lecturing or critically oppositional position but, rather, reflectively denies any genuineness. He does so in a very functional and flexible way, even in conjunction with the issue of the Sudetenland, its irrecoverability and its status as a projection, fantasy, and political manipulation. And perhaps that is also the source of the artist’s continued fascination with fictional histories and pseudo/historical figures in ambivalent dramatic and romantic situations, as is the case in his latest film (Golo, 2020).