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Images of stolid iron workers, sturdy collective-farm girls and the glory of the communist state: These are the things that Socialist Realism is made of. Looking at the wry, eclectic work of Czech artist Martin Zet, it's hard to imagine him as a product of the Socialist Realist art academy, but he is. Zet was 30, four years out of art school, at the time of the 1989 Velvet Revolution, and that became a turning point for his work.
"Martin Zet: Necessity," at the Station Museum of Contemporary Art, presents a survey of his work. Zet's art is restrained — nothing is overproduced. The artist has a make-do esthetic. He uses a lot of found objects, but he's more influenced by the privations of communism than Rauschenberg's combines. If you think your Depression Era-raised grandmother saving bread bags was over-the-top, imagine the don't-throw-anything-away mind-set of former communist countries where, even if you could afford stuff, you couldn't get it.
A corroded flashlight, a broken glass coffeepot, a disembodied television tube, a wooden hanger and a deflated soccer ball are among the objects arranged on a couple grubby folding tables. They're from the series Free Martin Zet, and each object is etched or marked with the phrase. The impetus behind the project was Zet's brief arrest and rearrest on visa technicalities, which took place while he was trying to attend an art symposium in Macedonia in 2000. Zet turned the incident into an absurd ongoing crusade to free the actually unimprisoned artist, emblazoning the slogan on a variety of objects and staging "protests." In a video of a protest/performance, cars fly by as a pitiful handful of people stand behind barricades and chant "Free Martin Zet" at the artist's behest.
Walking past the tables of crap, I turned the corner and saw a granite bust of an attractive, broad-faced Slavic woman. It's the kind of thing a Socialist Realist would title "Portrait of a Factory Worker," and it's also the kind of work Zet learned to make at his art academy. Maybe he even made it. "Free Martin Zet" is inscribed across her forehead. Free him from his artistic past.
Zet has certainly done that. His work is highly personal and filled with wry humor. In a masterfully subtle series of photographs, Saluto Romano, the artist inserts himself into interiors and landscapes, using his body as an object and creating images with a dry wit. In one photograph, the artist's feet stick out from a massive hedge, as if it had legs. In another, he lies prone on the sidewalk like a barrier, a peaked orange cone covering his head. In others, he crams his body onto kitchen counters or stuffs it into corners.
Zet's body truly becomes an object in Být Nástrojem (To Be a Tool) (2007). A video documents a cluster of friends (I'm assuming they're friends) holding the artist's body like a paintbrush as he dips his hair into a bowl of India ink. With difficulty, the friends use Zet to write "být nástrojem" on a massive white paper banner, displayed next to the video. Rather than making art that is a tool of the state, the artist becomes the tool of his art.
Another video, Lenin (2008), presents an image of a seemingly blank sketchbook page. You can barely make out an embossed line on the paper. Reading the label text, it seems that Zet attempted to draw a picture of Lenin in his Moscow tomb, and a zealot mausoleum guard ripped the page out of Zet's sketchbook. The only thing that remained is the faint outline of the drawing left on the underlying page.
A worn end table is placed, somewhat perplexingly, underneath the video. It took me a bit to get it, but Zet has essentially constructed his own tomb of Lenin. That junky end table serves as a "mausoleum," with the artist's faint sketchbook image of Lenin in a Plexiglas case underneath it, dramatically lit by a cheap metal spotlight. It's not unlike the way the corpse of Lenin himself is presented. It's an ironically ignominious memorial.
"Necessity" is filled with work like this, work that allows the full import of Zet's finely tuned sense of the absurd to slowly dawn on you.