One of the most difficult things to evoke in an art show is a snapshot of a culture. On the other hand, when I write about zines, I find it difficult to separate the object itself from the ephemeral culture that surrounds it. In Samizdat: The Czech Art of Resistance, 1968-1989, curator Daniela Sneppova brings American viewers in to the heart of a print-based resistance.
Organized as part of Roads to Freedom: Czech Alternative Culture Before November 1989 (an event series in commemoration of the Czech holiday known as Struggle for Freedom and Democracy Day), Samizdat is a multimedia show featuring independently published print works (books, pamphlets, zines, photographs, flyers and posters) as well as films and underground Czech music, all created in the USSR and Soviet Bloc under communist rule. The books were a crucial medium for anyone who was interested in culture outside of that sanctioned by the government, and they proliferated because of the scarcity of these materials.
I visited the Czech Center on a Thursday in the middle of the day, and the gallery was quiet. With no one around to crowd me, I spent an hour in the space, peeking at every possible detail. As the work is pre-1989, this is a predominantly analogue show; it felt like I was digging through someone’s secret attic of activist ephemera.
Political resistance in underground print culture is interesting in its own right, but one of the most pleasant surprises of the Samizdat show is that nearly every piece of work on display is a product of great design. From typewritten words to lithographs to woodcut carvings, each book grabbed my attention with its fresh and clever approach to print.
Viewers have a wealth of information to dig through: three walls of shelves as well as coffee-table style cases filled with books, posters on the wall and a beautifully hung screen projection.
There is yet another component to the visually and content rich show: a recreation of the very rooms in which this work was made. With a wallpaper pattern silkscreened directly onto the wall, this section quite organically (and unobtrusively) fits in with the other intimate aspects of the show.
One of the “rooms” provides a reel-to-reel listening station that plays underground Czech bands of the era on a loop. I was seriously surprised with what I heard: bands that fused the pummeling sounds of the Stooges with the likes of my favorite riot grrrl bands. This inclusion of music is no mere footnote: it gives the viewer a sense of the sheer amount of culture that was bubbling under the surface during this particularly repressive regime.
Two days after my visit to Samizdat Vaclav Havel, the leader of the “Velvet Revolution,” revered “man with a guitar” and President of the Czech Republic, died. Fortunately Sneppova’s tasteful, jubilant and powerful exhibition pays tribute to the “power of ideas” that Havel so believed in.
Samizdat: The Czech Art of Resistance, 1968-1989 runs until January 12, 2012 at the Czech Center (321 East 73rd Street, Upper East Side, Manhattan).