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Boxers' Rebellion

How One Daring Czech and 244 Renegade Artists Foiled the Communist Regime


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This story starts with the mail lady. The time is the spring of 1984, the place a block of sooty apartment buildings in Prague. The elderly mail lady drags two shopping bags full of little packages. Each box is roughly the size of a small stack of CDs. Some feel light, some are heavy. Most have been sent as registered mail; all are addressed to one Joska Skalnik, an abstract painter.

The lady normally lugs one leather bag of mail, but for the last two weeks she's been hauling a growing number of these odd packages. There seems to be no end of it in sight. She doesn't see her job as heavy lifting and, this morning, she doesn't ring Skalnik's bell--she swings back her sensible black shoe and gives Skalnik's door a hard kick, then drops the two paper bags on the floor and heads out of the building. She doesn't give a hoot if this mail is registered with the chairman of the post office himself, or if anyone signs for the stuff, or if somebody steals the damn things. She ain't nobody's mule. This is, after all, the communist era: people are supposed to pretend to work while the government pretends to pay them.

It so happens that Joska Skalnik isn't home to hear the hard kick resonate through the dank, one-bedroom apartment he shares with his wife, three kids, and his mother-in-law. Today it's the wife, Jana, who has taken the morning off to wait for the mail. Hearing the booming kick rattle the front door, Jana rushes to open it and catches a glimpse of the mail lady, on the far end of the long hallway, marching out into the sunlight, her chin level with her ears, her body language clear--"I'm through with you, no more, this was the last time."

The mail lady's private strike presents a big problem for the Skalniks. They are in a delicate position. They can't afford to go and complain at the local post office. They don't want the authorities to find out about their packages, which have begun to form low ramparts around the second-hand sofa that doubles as a bed in the living room. And so Jana, thinking on her feet, throws on a coat and makes for the street too. She doesn't corner the mail lady to lodge a complaint, though. She heads for the nearest flower shop and buys a bouquet of carnations, then rushes to the candy store for a box of chocolates--only now does she feel sufficiently armed to face down her mail carrier.

"I know how hard this has been for you, ma'am," Jana says, catching up with the woman down the street. "You're so wonderful to be putting in all this extra effort. I'd like to thank you so much, ma'am." The haggard woman clutches her worn mail bag, startled by the candy and flowers. "This is just a small token of our appreciation. I know how tough it's been. But the end is in sight, believe me."

The mail lady softens up. She doesn't ask what on earth makes those packages worth all this fuss. She doesn't want to know because she knows enough already. She knows these Skalniks have been in trouble with state security--not only is Joska Skalnik an abstract painter in a country where abstract painting is considered subversive, but the man has been working with the Jazz Section, a cultural group closely watched by the plainclothes police. The mail lady has only one question to ask of Mrs. Skalnik: "How much longer?"

To answer her honestly requires a pause for calculation: Skalnik had sent out a total of 288 boxes. They went to various artists in all corners of the land, with a letter that spelled out their task: make the box your own, seize it with your imagination, do anything you want with it as long as you keep the results inside the box. By now, more than half of the boxes have come back, which surprised Skalnik, for his letter was a kind of a dare--responding to a challenge written on Jazz Section stationery is risky business in Czechoslovakia. They don't anticipate receiving many more boxes, so now Jana can truthfully say to the mail lady: "I think we've got most of them already. It really shouldn't drag on too much longer."

"Good," sighs the mail lady. She never kicks the Skalnik door again, and, all in all, 244 beech-wood boxes reach their destination.

Eleven years have passed since those strategic carnations had wilted in the mail lady's vase. Czechoslovakia has ceased to exist--the 60 Slovak artists who took part in the project now live in a different country. But while the maps of Europe quickly became obsolete, the beech-wood boxes kept their power. Jiri Zlebek's Orator still hits its target: a loudmouth bureaucrat barks banalities, while parts of him are filed down to fit the dimensions of the tiny enclosed space that could easily stand for his state of mind. In Bedrich Dlouhy's Irresolution, the fat fly stares from its tiny chair at a chunk of red meat hanging over a mysterious drum set. The folding cube in Jan Wojnar's Book of a Geometrical Shape tempts your fingertips to lift its feathery layers and create a phantom paper box inside the wooden one. Why do these images linger in the mind? Where does their power come from?

"My idea at the time was to take a sort of a snapshot of the state of the Czech culture because so much of it was invisible, underground," explains Joska Skalnik, in town recently to open Minisalon, an exhibition of the boxes at the Chicago Cultural Center (through April 2). "You certainly couldn't get any sense of what people were doing in the official galleries."

Skalnik is short, bearded, one-eyed, and quick-witted, a slightly diabolical man with an angelic smile. He wears black and limps a bit when he's tired. In his 46 years he has been through jail, alcoholism, and high politics. For one year after the Velvet Revolution of 1989 he had worked as Czech president Vaclav Havel's cultural adviser, but that came long after the Minisalon.

"The year of 1984, with its Orwellian resonance, seemed like a good time to take such a shapshot," he says. And the relatively tiny dimensions of the boxes "also fit our conditions. It reflected how hemmed in we were. We always had to be thinking small. We were sort of compressed too."

At first Skalnik had hoped to exhibit the Minisalon on the sly in the basement of a house on the periphery of Prague, "but just as the ball got rolling, the state security really clamped down on us." So Skalnik had to put the boxes in storage. "I started thinking of the whole thing as a sort of a canning job."

The beech-wood boxes were beautifully crafted by an old Slovak carpenter whom Skalnik never met. The man was obviously "an ace craftsman," but he was only the first in a long string of people whose anonymous help had made the project possible. "Most of the boxes were hand delivered to the artists by various Jazz Section members. I'd hear that someone was going to Bratislava and I'd ask them to take my letter and three or four boxes to some painters there."

The important thing, as Skalnik saw it, was to run his box through a sieve of the strongest artistic personalities in the land, "even if in the end we would just have to stick them all into some attic somewhere and keep them there." He had always regarded his cultural canning job as a very long-term project. "We all knew the communist system couldn't last forever because the whole thing was just too damn absurd, but we thought it still had enough energy to kick for a long time," Skalnik says. "So I figured we'd probably have to hide the Minisalon somewhere for decades. I certainly didn't expect ever to see it publicly shown . . . not in my lifetime."

A few years later, in 1989, it would take a mere push of a hand to topple 50-meter sections of the iron curtain, for the heavy posts that supported the fearsome miles of barbed wire on the Czech western border had rotted through. But in 1984 no one in Czechoslovakia fully realized how precarious communism had become. Back then, when the Skalnik doorbell rang at six in the morning and you sensed a group of people in the hallway, it was usually state security with a search warrant.

"There'd be five or six of them, all bright eyed and bushy tailed, with their typewriter, and right away they'd set up shop in the kitchen," recalls Jana Skalnikova, a petite redhead with clear blue eyes and the hands of a working person--she's been restoring the golden surfaces of old Prague churches for a living. "All our kids were still in grammar school back then, so you can imagine how bug-eyed they were. They'd eat a little something for breakfast and then they'd get dressed and drag themselves to school. And then they'd come back in the afternoon, and the plainclothesmen would still be there, turning the place inside out."

The police were looking for subversive literature, letters, documents of any contacts with the West, or anything having to do with the Jazz Section. Joska Skalnik was the secretary of the cultural organization, working closely with its head, a good friend by the name of Karel Srp.

"The communist regime had proclaimed that anything which wasn't expressly allowed was illegal," says Karel Srp over a humming telephone wire from his office in Prague. "We argued that it was the other way around--that whatever wasn't forbidden was allowed, and we acted accordingly. For example, we tried to enlarge the "gray zone.' This was the area between the white, sterile official culture of the communists and the black world of the dissident underground, between the hustlers with the Lenin prizes and guys who always had one foot in jail like Vaclav Havel and the [rock group] Plastic People of the Universe."

The Jazz Section tried to stay out of politics. They published histories of rock 'n' roll, esoteric papers on earth art, poems by Jaroslav Seifert, novels by Bohumil Hrabal. They booked blues concerts on steamboats. They sneaked art exhibits into the cloakrooms of theaters or the back rooms of bars in blighted neighborhoods. Meanwhile, high above them, the communist government kept dreaming its old totalitarian dream: the ministry of culture strove to make everybody in the country get a stamped permission for everything. The Jazz Section ignored the stamps, or it forged duplicates, "and, by 1984, the regime began to freak out about us," Srp remembers fondly. "We were resolved to push the envelope, though."

Srp and Skalnik had already gone through a number of interrogations by state security. The secret police had a few agents with art history degrees on their payroll to keep informed tabs on dissident artists. But these experts were quite busy, so "the state security used to send their junior people to get me," Skalnik says a little reluctantly, not wanting to dwell on the downside of the past. "They were guys about my age. They'd try to make conversation. Like in the car they'd say, "Was that fox who opened the door your wife? She's a looker.' I'd just keep staring out the window, so they'd shut up again."

The junior people would take Skalnik to offices in different parts of Prague, wherever their senior man, the agent who knew his art, happened to operate that week. "It was usually the same guy, but sometimes he'd introduce himself with a different name. They'd offer me coffee. I never took their coffee. Then the senior man would float a friendly question: "So, you've been talking to Mr. Hrabal about his novels, huh?'

"Me, I keep quiet," says Skalnik. It was a common dissident strategy to refuse to say anything in these interrogations. "So the guy repeats his question. I just look at him. After a while he blows up: "What the hell is this? So you won't talk at all, or what?' And I say, "No, no, I'll talk.' So he shuts up and we look at each other. But now he's pissed, so it doesn't take long before he blows up again: "So what is this? Are you going to talk or are you not going to talk, damn it?' I remain calm and say, "I told you I was going to talk.' So he goes, "All right! So can we get around to it this year, you think?' So I look at him and say, "Do you mind repeating that question? I forgot what you said."'

It comes as no surprise to learn that in 1986, a couple of years after the Minisalon had wrapped, Skalnik was arrested with Srp and four other Jazz Section members and held in "investigative detention" for four months in the tough Ruzyne prison. (In those days of Gorbachev and glasnost, Srp would wind up serving a year and a half in prison. "I didn't get a single minute off for good behavior," he says. "I did my time to the day . . . no, to the hour, practically.")

It's more surprising to learn that 85 percent of the Czech and Slovak artists approached by Skalnik had the nerve to rework the Minisalon box in their own image and mail it to the Jazz Section.

When the packages started arriving, the Skalniks entered "one of the most exciting times in our life, definitely," Joska says. "I just couldn't wait to get home and see what came, what people had done with their boxes." Jana says, "I put a nail in the living room wall, and every day I'd hang up the box that I liked the best. And of course then Joska would come home and say, "Don't you even think about it! You're not keeping a single one of them!"'

Suddenly the Skalnik apartment was teeming with visitors. Playwright Vaclav Havel, the future president of the country but at that particular time just a jailbird with writer's block, "showed up several times," says Skalnik. "We saw a lot of each other back then anyway, but Vaclav was just consumed with curiosity about the boxes. Every time he saw me he'd be asking, "What came? Anything really good?"'

Joska had set a firm date for the closing of the Minisalon and he kept it. He had all but one crate of the boxes safely stored with a photographer friend when, in the small hours of a cold summer night in 1986, state security pounded on his door once again. The first thing that jumped into his mind was that the very last crate of the Minisalon collection was still sitting on the floor of his kitchen. It was a moment of sheer, hyperventilating dread.

The secret police had come to conduct their most thorough search yet. They'd go at it for 16 hours straight, shifting the furniture, leafing through every book, opening every drawer, checking every last shirt pocket, tapping on the floorboards. These were the house-search specialists and, at some point in that long day, Skalnik watched a junior agent peer into the Minisalon crate. The agent reached in and pulled out one box, then another, then a third. And, as Murphy's Law would have it, every box was decidedly different--one was sculptural, one conceptual, and one was painterly and decorative. "What is this?" the junior agent turned to Skalnik.

"Oh, that's just something I've been fooling around with lately," he replied, shrugging his shoulders nonchalantly.

"Hmmm," said the plainclothesman as he put the boxes back in the crate. He then lifted the crate and carefully examined the floor around it. The agent didn't have an art history degree, and thinking wasn't on his job description, so it never even occurred to him that all these boxes had gone through different hands.

"Thank God he was so ignorant!" says Skalnik. "Anyway, I whispered to Jana to put the boxes away the first chance she got."

He could already sense he'd be arrested as soon as the search ran its course. That night he was marched into a paddy wagon and driven to the Ruzyne prison. He soon learned that he wasn't "cut out for jail. I wasn't nearly as cool as I'd thought I was." He was the target of constant harassment by the guards. He was bullied during interrogations. He was shown false confessions and told lies about his family. He lost one-third of his weight. And then he started to lose vision in his good eye--he thought he was going blind, but he was refused medical care. In despair, he tried to cut his wrists with the shards of a light bulb. "That was the lowest point," Skalnik says. "I owe my life to the other two guys in my cell."

When he was finally released, in his summer clothes in the dead of winter, he was traumatized by the prison ordeal. It took months before he slowly nursed himself back to artistic ambition, using the Minisalon as his balm.

"Over all those years, there were only three people who knew where the boxes were," says Skalnik, "Jan Maly, the photographer who was hiding them in his old studio on the outskirts of Prague, my wife Jana, and myself." "I didn't even tell Karel Srp about it." The men of the gray zone had come to value the basic conspiratorial rules and to live more closely by them. "The photographer and I would sometimes take an afternoon off. We'd drive around till we were sure no one was following us. Then we'd go to the studio and I'd open one of the crates and just look at the boxes. . . . That was always great. They seemed just stunning to me. I used to tell my buddy, "They're aging like good cheese."'

What goes through Skalnik's head when he sees his Minisalon here in the cold and vertical city of downtown Chicago, far away from the baroque towers and rolling hills of Prague?

"Oh, I'm still amazed at how many different people we were able to engage," he says. "I wanted absolutely everybody to take part in the Minisalon. I didn't care which art camp they belonged to. The only condition was that you had to have created something interesting already. But you know how the folks in the arts can be: some of these guys would probably have a hard time sharing a saltshaker, yet now their boxes hang side by side."

Weren't the big name artists nervous about being lumped in with such a mass of other people? Weren't they risking some damage to their reputations? Didn't they worry about upsetting the pecking orders?

"No, you have the big guns of Czech art, like Adriena Simotova, or Vaclav Bostik, or Alena Kucerova, right beside all these "marginal' people," Skalnik says. "And sometimes the famous people don't come off looking the best, it's true. Not that it matters, but I suppose that that was pretty brave of them."

You have seen the exhibition hundreds of times. What do you look at when you see it now?

"I'm amazed by the wonder of artistic identity. You take one small thing and give it to so many people. And yet when it comes back you unwrap the package and right away you know whose box it is. You'd have to work really hard to suppress the personality and sensibility of someone who is good."

Anything else that strikes you?

"Well, the other thing is the huge power of the whole. Some of these boxes could hang in a museum by themselves maybe, many could not, but as pieces of the greater whole they all belong."

All the participants in the Minisalon were modern artists, who presumably believed in originality if they believed in anything at all. And yet a surprisingly high number of the Minisalon solutions seem alike--a couple of the boxes have two identical mousetraps inside; several entries have been boarded up at the top; you see matches and burns and rabbits and fingers poking through the backboards and identical staircases. What does that say about the state of the visual arts in Prague in 1984? Does it reveal the constricted imagination in that time and place? The obsessive patterns of thought cut off from outside influences? A remarkable synergy of artistic vision? A lack of interaction for a group show, where it always pays to step back and evaluate how common one's first impulse may be?

"No," says Skalnik, "I think all it shows is that some people are lazy: some of these folks didn't want to be bothered while other people gave the boxes a lot of time and thought. . . . But you know what? It's perfectly OK, it takes all kinds."

In November 1989 Czechoslovakia zipped right through its orderly Velvet Revolution. And as communism was rolling over to die, Skalnik was in the thick of things. He sat in Vaclav Havel's kitchen cabinet, and when Havel was elected president Skalnik was asked to become his adviser for cultural affairs. "The first thing I had to do was to buy a suit for Vaclav's inauguration," he chuckles.

Skalnik's next order of business was to redesign the lion on the Czech national symbol. He doffed the red star the communists had drawn over the animal's head, prolonged his split tail, and added the male member to the traditional beast of Czech heraldry, which had been neutered by the prudish communists. "It sounds funny now, but that was no easy thing to do, even in those revolutionary times," Skalnik says. "You can't imagine how many meetings it took to bring back the lion's sex."

Skalnik also oversaw the making of new stamps and army uniforms. He put his two cents into the everyday work of the presidential office. He shook hands with the Dalai Lama, the pope, the queen of England, George Bush, Gorbachev, and crowds of other headline politicians.

For a year he saw a spiffed-up world through the windows of official limousines, yet he went on living in his old Dickensian apartment. And it was there that he started getting odd phone calls late at night. "My mother would call up and say, "Joska, we just saw you on TV. For God's sake, kid, can't you smile a little bit? You've got a beautiful smile! Why don't you use it? You always look like you've just murdered somebody!"'

When his unpaid media consultant was through speaking her piece, Skalnik's father would get on the phone. "I could tell that he was feeling no pain," says Skalnik.

"Heeeeyyy, Joska!" his dad would yell. "You frown as much as you want on that idiot box, but listen: do you think you could get me some stones for my old cigarette lighter? They're out of them in every tobacco shop, but I'm sure a presidential adviser could get 'em no sweat, am I right? Just a hunch."

Skalnik lasted in the presidential adviser's job only for a year--"they were trying to make a little bureaucrat out of me"--but he had enough clout there to quickly set up the first public showing of the Minisalon.

In the spring of 1990, six years after the furious mail lady had kicked the Skalnik door, the Minisalon finally opened in the Nova Sin Gallery in Prague. Eight of its original participants had died by then, but most of the others came and, for the first time, saw their boxes in the context of the whole project.

"It was pretty funny to watch them," says Skalnik. "Most of those guys would walk in, glance around to get their bearings, and make a beeline for their own box."

Since the exhibition became the event of the year in Czech art, several famous artists "suddenly showed up clutching our old boxes." Back in 1984 they had been too scared to have anything to do with the Jazz Section, but now the art world of Prague was more interested in who didn't have a box in the Minisalon than who did. Jiri Anderle, a masterful graphic artist ("He's a little too productive, though; his etchings hang in every dentist's office in Germany," says Skalnik), brought an elaborately painted box. "I was keeping this in the basement for you guys for all those years," he announced jovially.

Skalnik told Anderle that he was sorry, but that the Minisalon had been closed off a long time ago. "It did give me a certain peevish joy, I'll admit that," Skalnik confesses. The period right after the revolution was a heady time for the members of the Jazz Section. "Actually, all that buzz went to our heads a little bit," Skalnik says, and the Jazz Section, now renamed the Artforum, went hugely into debt to print a spectacular catalog for the Minisalon. They were sure that the Czech public would snap it up, but they had a lot to learn about the free-market economy.

In the past anything that the Jazz Section had put out quickly sold out, but the end of communism brought a flash flood of suppressed publications, films, exhibits. The wave of information from the last 40 years broke just as the borders of the country opened and most Czechs and Slovaks were seized by a fit of collective curiosity--not about their past, but about the world around them. At the same time high culture was quickly losing the allure of political protest, and so the Minisalon catalog went over about as well as the collected works of Friedrich Engels.

"We almost went under as an organization," says Srp, describing how pallets of the Minisalon book gathered dust in a printer's warehouse. "We're whittling away at that debt even now." In fact, you can still buy that very first edition of the Minisalon catalog at the Chicago Cultural Center.

The strange axiom of modern art holds that the more you bring to a work the more you get out of it. And this also applies to the Minisalon--the more you know about the work of its participants, the longer their boxes reverberate in your mind. Take the inconspicuous box of Ivan Kafka: he had decided to quarter the basic square, making four smaller boxes, which he stuffed with sawdust. Each pile of his wood shavings has a different grain, so they all clearly come from different trees. If you happen to know something about Kafka's outdoor works, his box sets a pinball bouncing off various associations: he created a stunning temporary artwork in a grove of bare October trees by surrounding a particularly beautiful tree with precise concentric squares of differently colored leaves. Its pitch black trunk stood inside a tight square of cobalt leaves, inside a larger square of golden leaves, inside a big square of russet leaves, inside a huge square of spotted burgundy leaves--a startling injection of order into the random beauty of the autumnal landscape. Its human geometry sings a melody of calm serenity over the pulsating cacophony of the natural setting. When you step up to Kafka's simple box at the Minisalon, suddenly you hear the whine of circular saws, yielding the four piles of sawdust by cutting through four different kinds of wood, which had once sprouted the four colors of leaves for the four four-sided figures that had, for a few delicious hours, underlined the wild beauty of a young forest.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo/Michael Persson.

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