A leading emerging Czech sculptor, Michal Trpák is known mostly for his public artworks—of large heads, office-goers, thinkers, even microorganisms. Michal often blends the sculptural form with painting and plays with dimensions. He is a lover of nature and an avid traveller.
Born in the city of České Budějovice in 1982, the artist obtained his master’s degree at the Academy of Arts, Architecture and Design in Prague. He spent two one-year periods as an exchange student in Lahti, Finland and Vancouver, Canada. He later completed a PhD at the Academy of Arts in Banská Bystrica, Slovakia.
I recently had the opportunity of discussing with Michal his major themes—from escapist tendencies and economic uncertainty to machine-men/women and dialogue in the age of social media.
It’s best to start at the beginning. At which age did you realise that art was to be your vocation? What are your earliest memories of creative work?
My earliest memories of creative work are from kindergarten where I would draw a lot. I liked to play with many kinds of materials—mother dough, sand on the beach, snow, clay. I kept playing and creating objects from anything. But the realisation that art was what I wanted to do in my life came when I went to art college on open day and saw the students working with stone in the open air studio. Playing with stones in the backyard seemed the best thing in my life at that time. Later on, I discovered that working with stone was pretty hard work. Well, I don’t work much with stone nowadays….
You have studied in four cities—Prague, Vancouver, Lahti (Finland) and Banská Bystrica (Slovakia). How have these places shaped your artistry and what do you like best about each?
Five cities in total. The first was Český Krumlov–-where I went to a secondary school of arts. I have no idea how the places where I have lived have shaped my artistry, but to be honest the reason I chose these locations was not so much the reputation of the art schools there as the reputation of the cities/countries themselves. Prague—that was obvious as I am Czech, I naturally went to the capital to study. But after that, I headed to countries with less population and more nature. Finland was lakes, forests and tough people. Vancouver, ocean and mountains. And Banská Bystrica is close to the Tatra mountains. I need to be close to nature in my life. Nature gives me energy, inspiration and the feeling of being alive and in true relationship…
The university in Finland was very well equipped with a lot of space, tools, but the students living in heaven continued to complain. Still, the art community there was nice. In Czechia, we had less space and less equipment but it was the place were I learned the craft and experienced many materials and approaches. Canada was more about learning the confidence of artists, how to defend oneself successfully. Sometimes I felt art was more about talking than doing. Also it was more focussed on money. Even in the school you had to pay for everything and people were taught how the “real” world works—unlike Finland and Prague where the environment was more social and the university was sort of protecting the students from real commercialised life.
So much of your art contains references to some kind of escape—Escape into reality (What does a painting think?), Escape from Crushing Certainty, Deserter, Private Life of a Painting. Figures or objects are caught in confined spaces and situations from which they want to break out or have just broken out. Are these paintings/sculptures supposed to be a commentary on modern life wherein people usually have to act according to the dictates of society (especially in matters of education and occupation choice)—and the average person rarely gets an opportunity to follow his heart?
It is crazy for me to see all those pieces like this together as I’ve never thought my works are that much about escape. But you are right, since infancy we are manipulated into some kind of system, getting the birth number, insurance number, the list of vaccinations we are supposed to receive and so on. But I believe there are still a lot of options and opportunities to follow your heart. It is just that sometimes we don’t see the ways in which we can try to escape from the system.
The truth is that I am sometimes unhappy in some situations in which I find myself or in which the system is pushing me and then I reflect it in my art. I think I don’t work that much with the theme of escape nowadays, although society is still a subject for me.
I read that you love visiting remote areas of the world such as Alaska, Kamchatka and the Himalayas. Have your travels made you a better artist? If yes, how so?
I am not sure if my travels have made me a better artist, but I learned a lot about this planet and the people who live on it. Also, it has made me happier. For some time, I had the feeling of a need for adventure, exploration and of being lost in the nature with its elements—to have the power of nature on my body—rain, wind, cold. It makes me feel more present and real after I get back to civilisation and start creating again. I think everyone has a different approach. A friend of mine, a German sculptor, does not need to travel at all. He loves to be locked in his studio and work day and night on his sculptures, but I need to travel, meet people, because travelling is more about people and their stories than about the places. If you find a soulmate in the ugliest place on earth, you will like that place.
Slight Uncertainty is quite an interesting design. People—sometimes holding briefcases—with umbrellas are suspended in the air. They are either flying or landing. You’ve written that this “might be kind of a paraphrase of the economic crisis”. Tell us more about this. How did you get the idea for your piece?
The first time I came up with this idea was when I got commissioned for the project of an office house—EBC Office Center in Prague, where the old house was demolished, just the front facade remained and two metres behind it a new house was built. This gap between the facade was the space for my work and I came up with the idea of office-goers with umbrellas flying down. (I felt a kind of compassion for the people who were closed in their offices, maybe not very happy with their work and worried about the stability of their jobs.) So I made people who were escaping from their offices. In the title “Slight Uncertainty”—slight stands for the seeming lightness of flying and uncertainty refers to the unsure landing and unknown length of the flight.
Later on, I made these sculptures bigger, more than life size, and exhibited them in many public places—Arezzo in Italy, Prague, České Budějovice, Arles, France, Manchester. Three of these pieces are installed in the atrium of a cruise ship.
Large heads with closed, meditative eyes are all over your portfolio—Mental Insight, Atheistic Prayer, The Head Manager, Faces of Worlds, On the Waves of Intuition, Memento, Shoshones and the Others. They reminded me of the statues on Easter Island. I loved the simplicity of these sculptures. They are actually very powerful. We live in a very fast-moving, materialistic world where people are always chasing external things and often fail to contemplate what it means to be human. Your giant faces are wonderful disruptions to this trend, compelling the viewer to take a moment and look inward. Where did you get the inspiration for these statues and what was your motivation behind making them?
Sculptures are also, in a way, external material things, irrational, and usually very expensive. I love my work but still have many doubts about it sometimes. Probably this is natural.
Anyway, the initial inspiration for my heads came out of my father’s painting. After I learned about Modigliani, I made my first long head at high school and since then I have been making variations on these long heads. The face can express emotions and the head is the house for the mind and thoughts, which are the most powerful tools in this world and in everyone’s life. But when you think big and do nothing, nothing happens. Unfortunately real work is needed too.
Humanoids is a very cool installation. You write on your site: “Humanoids—people, machines or tools serving the system. Crowds, deliberately permitting control by media and general trends. Man stopped to be the individuality and in chase for ‘better’ life more likely forms existence of the system…Are people creators of their own lives or just puppets led by the system?” Again, the issue of modern life comes up. You reveal the ghastliness of soul-sucking, creativity-crushing corporations that have reduced so many of us to sheer automatons. How did you end up making this attractive installation?
Humanoids was my final project at university and I was fearful upon leaving the safe protective area of the institution. I was afraid I’d become one element in the money-making machine outside.
Now I am part of the system, of course. Sometimes it is fun, sometimes I want to be a teenager with my backpack, having nothing except it and being lost in the world. But being an artist you have many excuses in society and people are willing to forgive your behaviour—much of it—just because you are an artist…which is quite nice.
Conversation and interaction between humans are themes that you seem to be very passionate about. You show the condition of impersonality that emerges through digital talk in Online Communication and Online Romance—people have no real sense of the concrete personhood of their interlocutors, who appear abstract on the screen. Then, in pieces like Dialogue and Dialogues of Spaces you attempt to bring individuals face to face so that they can learn to engage with and learn about each other from up close. What are your thoughts on relationships (person to person/nation to nation) in our contemporary pixellated age? Do you believe we have overall come nearer or gone farther away from each other? If your answer is both. In what ways have we come nearer and in what ways have we gone farther away from each other?
Farther away we are getting because of virtual digital communication and closer also because of it. You can share pictures from your holiday in Thailand within a minute, but you are not living the moment with other people on holiday who do the same because you are online. With technology it is like with fire. It is a good tool but a bad boss and it is easy to get addicted to virtual sharing and living, but I think it is still important to spend more time in the real word not because you will have material to put online, but because we are biological machines not electronic ones. And our body was designed by nature to experience things, not just to sit in front of the screen. But maybe our evolution will continue or we will accelerate it by creating cyborgs out of us. Hopefully, people will still make love with each other and not with robots.
Anyway, back to conversation and dialogue—I like to have space in my sculptures which you can walk in. Also our life is always about interaction with someone and I like to put this energy in my works.
In What is Happiness? you place a large golden fly on the window of a tower. I found it intriguing that in your golden fly you combine opposite entities. A fly is dirty and annoying, something we want to immediately get rid of. Whereas gold is precious and delightful, something we are willing to chase after for extended periods of time. What exactly were you thinking when you made this sculpture?
There is a poem by a Czech poet Adolf Hejduk (1835–1923), which talks about a little golden fly hovering around the head and bringing happiness in and out–making it very precious, though elusive—this was the first inspiration. I like to have discussions about happiness. A 3m golden fly on a house is not as small as the one in the poem but it can bring many ideas and questions to an observer.
Is there an overall message you try to convey through your art? If yes, what is it?
Art is just another language, and through my work I tell stories which I see and experience in my life, only not with words. I am trying to be more positive lately, I hope. My topic nowadays is the game, because life may be a game. Although for most artists, art is a therapy for and an expression of their soul. It is a need and it is important, because to make art only for art’s sake produces nonsense.
Who are your favourite creative people?
Javier Senosiain, Hundertwasser, Giacometti, Rodin, Michelangelo, Jason deCaires Taylor, Gormley, Plensa, Kaplický, Elon Musk, Gaudí…
What are you working on right now? And what would you like to try in future?
I am working on sculptures for two private gardens, also on a livable sculpture, which will be an organic dentist lab and next, making a proposition for sculptural city hall in a small spa city.
I have always liked to try new things in terms of technique, technology, different fields. I would like to design a futuristic and sculptural city. To build a houseboat and an airship and 3D print my sculpture on the Moon!
What are some of the major locations in the Czech Republic where the public can find your art?
In Prague—National Library, Mosaic House hotel. Then Klenova Castle, České Budějovice pedestrian zone, Lomeček Quarry.
Also, given that you are a scholar with a PhD—are there any books you’d like to recommend to emerging artists or to the general reader who wants to learn more about art?
I don’t have many books in my mind right now, but I would say go to the art section in any library or bookshop and read everything, whatever seems interesting. And it does not need to be art. Philosophy, testimonials, travelogues, all can be inspiring. Here are a few books that I have lately found interesting: Elon Musk, Siddhartha, $12 Million Dollar Stuffed Shark: The Curious Economics of Contemporary Art and Auction Houses, Naked Came I: A Novel of Rodin and Steal Like an Artist.
Learn more about Michal on his website (www.michaltrpak.com), Facebook (www.facebook.com/m.trpak), Wikipedia (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michal_Trp%C3%A1k) and Saatchi Art pages (www.saatchiart.com/michaltrpak).