Kunsthalle Praha aims to give a spark to Prague’s art scene

PRAGUE – The Kunsthalle Praha, which opened on Tuesday in the former Zenger power substation, is not the first exhibition space in a former power station. Yet from the start, this privately funded redevelopment opposite Prague Castle put electrical art in the spotlight with its opening exhibition “Kinetismus: 100 Years of Electricity in Art”, which runs until June 20.

Featuring nearly 100 works of art, the exhibit shows how electricity has transformed art over the past century, enabling artificial lighting and movement. With the arrival of household electricity in the 1920s, artists had new options at their disposal: they were no longer limited to static images and depended on external light sources.

The amount of electricity that revolutionized art is not always well appreciated, said Peter Weibel, the exhibition’s curator. Unlike the field of music, where electric instruments and amplifiers have been adopted, he said: “In the art world, unplugged art – such as painting and sculpture – is highly valued, and the art that uses electricity is demystified.”

“There’s a lack of understanding,” Weibel said. “This hegemony of painting and sculpture”, he added, was “an injustice to art”.

The inaugural exhibition at Kunsthalle Praha shows how the rapid technological advancements of the last century have inspired successive generations of artists, from the beginnings of cinematography to computer art. Works by Marcel Duchamp, Man Ray and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy sit alongside contemporary works by Tokyo-based art collective teamLab and Danish-Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, whose “Lightwave” installation greets visitors upon arrival.

Weibel, who runs the ZKM Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe, Germany, said the starting point for the exhibition was the work of Zdenek Pesanek, a Czech artist who died in Prague in 1965. Pesanek was a pioneer of what is called kinetic art – art that depends on movement for its effects. (His 1941 book “Kinetismus” gives the exhibit its name.)

Pesanek had a direct connection with the building of the Zenger electrical substation: in the 1930s he designed a cycle of allegorical sculptures for the facade of the building, made of industrial materials with embedded neon tubes, and symbolizing concepts related to electricity, such as the principle of an electric motor. However, the sculptures never reached the facade. They were shown at the International Exhibition of Art and Technology in Modern Life in Paris, 1937, but later disappeared under unclear circumstances. (The exhibition opens with preparatory models of the sculptures.)

Another work by Pesanek, “The Spa Fountain”, composed of two translucent torsos in synthetic resin, lit from the inside by colored bulbs and curved neon lights, sits at the heart of the exhibition. It was created in 1936 to celebrate spa culture in what was then Czechoslovakia.

“Electricity was such a symbol of modernity,” said Matthew Rampley, professor of art history at Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic. This is why Pesanek and his contemporaries found him so appealing, he added.

The exhibition is part of a plan by the founders of the Kunsthalle Praha to brighten up the local artistic landscape. The institution was founded by Petr Pudil, a Czech entrepreneur whose career spans from coal to real estate, and his wife, Pavlina Pudil. The Pudil Family Foundation, which the Pudils created to promote modern and contemporary Czech and international art, bought the building in 2015. The purchase and renovation cost 35 million euros, or about 40 million dollars, the couple said in a joint interview.

“Our mission was to create an institution focused on contemporary and partially modern art in an international context,” said Petr. In addition to bringing top quality art to Prague from abroad, the Kunsthalle Praha will also provide a platform for emerging artists from Central Europe, he added.

“We have a lot of freedom, because we are a non-governmental and non-profit institution,” Pavlina said, adding that Kunsthalle Praha will be financed by the foundation and by membership fees.

There is a dearth of privately funded art spaces in Central Europe, Petr said, because “the culture of giving back is still quite new in post-communist countries.” He added: “The reality is that a public institution does not have enough acquisition capital to acquire important works of art – not just in the Czech Republic, but I would say in the whole region.”

“The best of post-war and contemporary art is in private hands, and it’s very difficult for the public to see it,” Petr said. “We would like to fill this gap.

Private ownership also means financial independence in a region where nationalist governments have pressured cultural institutions in recent years. “While public institutions should be independent, they are funded by governments, and this often has consequences, to varying degrees in different countries,” said Ivana Goossen, director of Kunsthalle Praha. “We’ve seen examples in Hungary or Poland, where art scenes are being hit pretty hard.”

Petr said he and his wife expected their investment to have a wider impact on Prague’s artistic landscape. “It’s hard to predict how, but we certainly expect new galleries to open and that will somehow be reflected in the pattern of other institutions,” he said.

“As an entrepreneur,” he added, “I strongly believe that if you make a basic investment, you definitely create an ecosystem.”

Berta D. Wells