Eugen Brikcius And the Word was Made Flesh
Eugen attracted the attention of the cultural public with a manifesto in which he invited people to seek out rooftop gardens in the streets of Prague and then take buckets of soil to these gardens for the planting of radishes. Chalupecký wrote to him at the time: “My dear friend, I’ve been looking for these rooftop gardens of yours for a week, but without success. You must be ingenious to have discovered so many.” It was the era of happenings in which, from the very beginning, Brikcius developed the two fundamental principles of his lifelong poetics. On the one hand, a mystification that is not a false, but rather a manifestation of a deeper truth and, on the other hand, the estrangement of the everyday by staging artistically meaningful events. Milan Knížák, who began his happenings in Czechoslovakia somewhat earlier, viewed this new competition with its differing poetics with displeasure. Soon, however, Eugen gladly relinquished the English term to which his rival had laid claim, and from then on Brikcius designated his creations “exercises” after the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius of Loyola. The first was a performance of Zeno’s famous paradox of Achilles and the tortoise, which paradoxically demonstrates that Achilles will never catch the tortoise (Brikcius played the role of Achilles, an aloof beautiful woman the role of the tortoise). Still Life with Beer followed in which half-liter glasses filled with yellow liquid were carried out of a pub and placed somewhere outside in order to beautify the surroundings, and his famous Thanksgiving in which an attractive girl is surrounded by a mound of freshly baked bread. This last exercise led to the artist’s criminal prosecution for offending the working class. Art experts such as Bohumil Hrabal, Ivan Vyskočil, and Jindřich Chalupecký testified on his behalf in court. Brikcius conducted his exercises until 1970, some even in England, where he studied philosophy at University College from 1968 to 1970. The last happening was Sundial in the style of Land Art. For an entire day and at regular intervals, participants marked the shadow of a post planted in the meadow of an abandoned quarry near Roztok. The event took on the character of a melancholic picnic — the group indeed suspected they were bidding farewell to happier times.
Brikcius’s message was neither straightforward nor unambiguous. It could be interpreted in a sophisticated manner both aesthetically and philosophically, but appeared quite playful and lacking an obvious political dimension. The organs of totalitarian power were confused; they felt threatened by something they did not understand and which they could not name or condemn. Eugen also put to good use his previous experience of escaping to other worlds. He played with masks and ciphers, and he constructed labyrinths of possible meanings, many of which were partially misleading. As a laborer’s apprentice and philosophy autodidact, he’d long ago become internally independent. The partial liberalization of the Communist regime allowed him to promulgate and broaden his internal freedom; he did not, however, intend to serve any slogans or programs. In the atmosphere of declining Stalinism, even thinking itself was considered subversive. Often and with pleasure he would repeat St. John’s comment concerning the “word becoming flesh.” His scripts, which were published in several art journals, possessed a verbal and even literary form, but the primary aspect was their “embodiment” in a certain place and time, and their realization was made complete through contingent events. When people later wrote about his activity, the flesh was once again transformed into words, something Brikcius considered a loss or failure.
Brikcius conceived his exercises as mysteries of beauty, playfulness, and poetry. He did not pretend to be a mystic, but rather a mystificator. Of course he advocated an innovative conception of mystification: the old form of mystification pretends to be what it is not, whereas his pretends to be what it is. It must be pointed out that this sly argumentation had its roots in Brikcius’s theological erudition: one cannot help but hear an echo of Tertullian’s paradoxical concept of Christian faith. Furthermore, we sense the theological connection in the background of the happenings, which can be interpreted as idiosyncratic ceremonies directed towards epiphany or miraculous revelation. The subtle web of such a refined poetics, in which ancient religious archetypes ironically harmonize with late modernist artistic expression, died out during the precipitous developments of 1968.
Viktor Šlajchrt, excerpted from the introduction to the collected works of EB, And the Flesh Became Word
If happenings are usually discussed in connection with graphic art, it is because its practitioners began, for the most part, as graphic artists. Eugen Brikcius was an exception — he came to the happening through philosophy, and even today his efforts are fundamentally nothing else than, as he himself says, “the word made flesh.” And what differentiates his work from graphic art is something that would seem to connect his work with it the most: the pursuit of aesthetic considerations and an emphasis on the elegance of execution, because the aesthetic and the elegant are precisely at odds with genuine graphic art. With the same cold passion with which he was later to engineer his happenings, Brikcius participated in Catholic and ecumenical discussions in the first half of the 1960s. It was the aporia of Thomist philosophy that led Brikcius to the categories of absurdity, which he decided to counter with another absurdity — the happening.
The odd thing about his happenings is that they actually remain in the sphere of philosophy. They possess a flawless philosophic subtext, which is, however, sometimes endowed with a body, which does not deserve such a scholarly interpretation. This, of course, is only my opinion — because one cannot speak meaningfully of a happening without personal experience, and I have not participated in one.
Perhaps the problem of Brikcius’s internal makeup could be elucidated through a superficial comparison with Milan Knížák, who was often referred to as Brikcius’s rival. Such a comparison, however, is meaningless because each was trying to accomplish something different. The primary difference was that Knížák was coming from the perspective of graphic art. There was also apparently a difference between Brikcius’s and Knížák’s public, that is, their collaborators. Knížák worked with people “from below,” with those who were a spiritual tabula rasa — people who had no access to education. On these blank slates, Knížák could arouse mysterious feelings and states. Brikcius, in many instances, worked with pseudo-intellectuals — but it would be difficult to see this as a reproach — in reality, despite his fame and the frequent visitors to his happenings, he was not interested in the public. Brikcius is fundamentally antisocial and used people only as instruments and executors of his ideas. In the same way, he would use “low” forms of communication to advertise his happenings. We must be more specific, however about the character of Brikcius’s antisocial behavior to avoid a misunderstanding. He did not disdain people or even people organized into crowds. Instead, he possessed a fidelity to and obsession with his own ideas. Brikcius could not and did not want to view the social aspects of his activity. He acts as if alone with his ideas in a world that is distant and undoubtedly arranged — at least topographically — differently than it should be.
Previously, Brikcius verbalized something of this conviction. Today, if he feels that things are not properly arranged, he immediately begins to put them in the correct place, as he did in a hotel in the rural town of Děčín, where he and a colleague from the geophysical lab in 1972 began moving furniture from the first to the second floor and visa versa at two o’clock in the morning.
And here we find another paradox of Brikcius’s situation in the world and his activity: although I must insist that he is asocial, in the end, he places his environment into question and arouses a certain amount confusion and indignation — and sometimes even understanding — more than he would have achieved by more planned and thought out happenings. Because this is only an appeal or a challenge and not — as earlier — a manipulation of people.
But Brikcius is a person so contradictory and complex that even in his earlier activity (I call this his public activity, which ends around 1969), precedents of his current position appeared in which he succeeded in distancing himself from art altogether and tending in the direction of thought and action, something that could perhaps be called dandyism in the area of the soul. I have in mind his wedding-mystification of February 1968, which took place not only because the father of the bride, by an unfortunate accident, learned of the ceremony only the day before the ceremony and locked his daughter up at home. We find prefigured here an important consequence of Brikcius’s internal makeup: a person to whom mystification is dearer than intimate communication remains, in the end, alone with his creation and his ideas. Otherwise, Brikcius realized several happenings, which are celebrated enough that it is not necessary to describe them in more detail here. Thus an overview: Brikcius began with the theater of the absurd, which led him to the happening. His two most famous are Thanksgiving, a happening in which bread is offered to a girl-goddess in the gardens of the baroque Ledeburský Palace in Prague and the happening Still Life on Kampa Island in Prague with arrangements of half-liters of beer (the puddles caused by rain the day before the happening were one impulse that led Brikcius later to Land Art). This was accompanied by a series of so-called picnics — the most famous was the Picnic on the Castle Steps in Prague, in which Brikcius spiritually “mapped” the city.
Besides the philosophical foundations, which through his absurd deliberations led him to the happening, there is another component that fundamentally influenced and defined his development — an obsession with the environs of the city, specifically the topography of Prague. “I am Prague-shaped,” proclaimed Brikcius in an interview concerning his reasons for returning to Prague from abroad in 1969. Brikcius’s reactions to the city in the early phases of his activity had a more civic character — for example in his Happening #7 from 1967, participants were supposed to watch the electric clock on Jungmann Square, cross on the crosswalk near the Powder Tower, wait for a train on the railway bridge across the Vltava, and so on. But his passion for Prague gradually shifted towards the sphere of myth, or — as he himself put it — “real myth,” the culmination of which was the adoration of rooftop gardens — a partially imaginary and partially real plane extending above Prague. Here, Brikcius is entirely alone, which corresponds to the logic of his development from public activity in the labyrinth of the world to his anchoring in the paradise of the heart. Those who knew Eugen Brikcius in the period of his public performances perhaps believe he has left the scene. The opposite is true: his life and work have become so perfectly intertwined that he no longer finds it necessary to differentiate his private thoughts and expressions from his philosophical or artistic ones. The consistency of his approach has led him to a fortunate synthesis, which is granted only to a few: it led him to a state in which he can devote himself entirely and consistently (even if the basis is mere mystification) to pure non-creation.
July 1973, Magor