Running a nomadic museum is a romantic trade, but that doesn’t make it easy. As director of the Denver-based Black Cube Nomadic Museum, Courtney Lane Stell is constantly puzzling out ways to exhibit art in unexpected spaces that dissolve gallery walls and sometimes cross state lines and even oceans, as in the case of Black Cube’s latest foray, Czech performance/intervention artist Jirí Kovanda’s All the Birds of North America. The pop-up opens in an RV in the Civic Center area on September 13.
It’s part of an exchange with Prague’s Centre for Contemporary Art FUTURA, which hosted an exhibit by Denver artist Devon Dikeou in the Czech Republic this summer, and has Kovanda exhibiting here this fall.
A new experiment for Black Cube, the exchange is meant to shake up Denver audiences with new ideas. Stell first connected with Futura director Michal Novotny five years ago as an art-curation student, long before the advent of Black Cube, and spent some time in Prague visiting studios and getting to know its artists and galleries. She always had the idea in the back of her mind to arrange an overseas exchange.
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Later, finally planning to bring the idea to fruition through Black Cube, she researched several European cities before hooking up with Prague’s unique sphere. “It’s not necessarily that Prague is an important city to exchange with,” she notes. “But Prague is outside the main art world.” Like Denver in its cultural bubble, “it’s a city that has developed its own contemporary art scene.” And that scene runs on its own clock, apart from most major art cities on a spring/fall schedule, by favoring summer as a key season for exhibitions.
Once arranged, Stell and Novotny crossed paths in their curation of the exchange, but going in opposite directions for respective audiences. “I thought Devon’s work was right for Prague. There’s a dry, conceptual tendency there, and the people are also interested in capitalism. Devon and her work bring out that conversation in ways that resonate with the Czech audience.”
On the Denver side, Stell says, “Novotny wanted to challenge sensibilities in Denver. He looks at Denver and sees a lot of big blue bears. “Jirí Kovanda came to prominence in ’70s for work that was almost invisible in the public sphere, due to repression against the avant-garde.” His interventions were subtle, she adds, like “gestures of sitting a certain way in a public space,” or turning around on an escalator to stare into the eyes of the person behind him.
"His work is so romantic, all about the freedom you find in yourself,” Stell explains, and as art trends have changed over time, it’s become “shockingly different from work we’re familiar with now in Denver.” There’s a sense of risk involved, and that’s Novotny's intent. “We decided to play a game with Jirí’s work,” Stell continues. “We have been looking at locations for the past year, and in discussing sites, we decided not to share it with the artist until he got here. He would pack a bag of materials for sculpture interventions or performances or whatever without knowing how they will be used.”
Doing so subverts the rules for curation, she adds: “Usually shows have to be booked a year and a half in advance; the curator needs to know everything beforehand. It needs to be a measured thing. This is us going against that. It’s an interesting exploration, because the opportunity for failure is much higher – and not only because the work is hidden in plain sight.”
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After scouting several possible sites for the show in Denver, Stell and Novotny settled on a “thirty-foot super-corporate Cruise America RV” positioned in a parking lot. “We looked at motels and storage units,” Stell recalls. “We looked at warehouse spaces, but Jirí’s work is too delicate for a large vacuous space. Part of the challenge was to look for something related to Americana, so we looked at airstreams, campers and trailers, and decided to get the biggest RV we could find. Travel seemed Americana-related."
Kovanda has been hard at work on his spontaneous project this week, which he learned only days ago sits in the RV in a parking lot near 14th and Colfax avenues. Stell calls the site an “interesting location with a very diverse public,” peopled by “busloads of school kids getting dropped off for tours, people who work in the Capitol. There’s even an area known as the crack wall. It’s an area that engages diversity. Being nomadic, we have the ability to seek out places like that.” Deal done.
Seek out Jirí Kovanda’s All the Birds of North America at Time Park, 1422 Grant Street, adjacent to the Newhouse Hotel and across the street from the state Capitol Building, at the opening reception, Thursday, September 13, from 6 to 9 p.m. The High Society Pizza truck will be on site, and drinks will be served around the corner at the Dikeou Pop-Up space, 312 East Colfax Avenue. The exhibit remains on view from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Wednesdays to Saturdays through October 6. Learn more at online at Black Cube's home page.