Children are taught, at an early age, how best to behave. Those lessons come out of necessity — to thrive in this world, we must learn how the world works — and they come out of fear: What if my child isn’t normal? What if the neighbors find out? Czech artist Eva Kot’átková’s work, now up at the MIT List Visual Arts Center, embodies socialization’s traps and cages.
The artist was born in 1982. Czechoslovakia was still behind the Iron Curtain, under the sway of the Soviet Union. She was a small child when the communist regime collapsed in 1989. Amid that upheaval, what was she taught as a tot — even implicitly — about how to act, what to say, how to stay safe? If we can read a bit of autobiography into this show, whatever it was had teeth.
“Eva Kot’átková: Out of Sight” is the first solo museum show in the United States of an artist on the rise. She had an installation at the 2013 Venice Biennale and one in the just-closed New Museum Triennial in New York. Her sculptures, collages, and assemblages touch a nerve, evoking the fugitive inner life of children as a threat to adults and to society — and the hammer that can come down on that threat.
When Kot’átková gives rules, restrictions, and societal systems physical form, they are ferocious and scary. The first installation in the exhibition, “Words Staying in the Mouth (Klára’s Letter-Box)” consists of oversize dental instruments (great pincers, a saw, and cage-like braces) alongside big casts of sets of teeth and scraps of text: “No one hears me. No one sees me. I do not speak. But I can hear. And I can see.”
If you fear the dentist, walk right past this one.
Internal yet accessible, the mouth is a most vulnerable place. It can be powerful, too, if we use it to speak up. Kot’átková does research at a psychiatric hospital outside Prague, where she has interviewed staff and patients and dug into the archives. She uncovered a case file from the 1950s with a brief description of a girl who tucked anxious notes in her braces, like messages in bottles.
The braces, meant to straighten teeth, suggest control. The notes are hidden, their words not spoken aloud. With gothic power, “Words Staying in the Mouth” describes the obliterating power of silence.
This is dark stuff. Most of Kot’átková’s 3-D pieces look like instruments of torture. “Mouse” and “Out of Sight” are versions of metal animal traps, just the right size for children. “Walk” describes a small figure with boy’s clothes and small plaster hands, all strung into a leather holster held up by a pulley. Instead of a head, an empty cage rides on his shoulders. If there ever was a boy here with any agency, what’s left is a mere husk.
Thankfully, humor enters the picture in her collages. They capture intimations of restrictions — binding, masks — while remaining often whimsical. Kot’átková collects old books about psychology, medicine, and social science. She uses these in surrealist black-and-white collages in the “Out of Sight” series. In one, she places a young man’s head on a bird’s body, and draws a white cord around his eyes and neck. In another, a girl emerges from a ceramic vessel with her hands to her face, as if holding a book Kot’átková has drawn in front of her, making it into a mask with straps. These recall the works of Edward Gorey and Maurice Sendak — playful, yet menacing.
Images such as these, and those in the multi-level assemblages of images and text on strings, “Child’s Dream,” celebrate runaway imaginations and what they can do, even as they whisper of shutdown and censorship.
Whispers are the vital element of the show-capping installation, “Corridor of Ideas.” A book bag and an open notebook sit on the floor in a hallway lit by fluorescent lights. The institutional green walls have small handprints, streaks and smudges. It’s not much, until you tune into the audio: Two children whispering anxiously.
The corridor, it seems, is akin to the magical wardrobe in “The Chronicles of Narnia.” The children speak of entering the wall, of openings and cracks, of finding messages on crumpled paper. They fear the wardens will discover its power. At the same time, they question each other. “Sometimes I feel you exaggerate things,” one says to the other. “You embroider them.”
What they find in the corridor is sometimes enticing, sometimes frightening. “My mother’s face appeared in the plaster,” says one child. “She said I’d been really naughty, that my ideas would somehow destroy her.”
That language is too obvious; the story of a parent’s mighty influence is more compelling when it’s less melodramatic. Still, these two children are on the cusp of a choice: claiming their imaginations or giving in to parental and societal recrimination. In “Corridor of Ideas” and in her collages, more than in her condemnatory sculptures, Kot’átková finds a rich tension between the fertile wildness of a child’s dreams and establishment’s threats to raze it and pave it over.
Eva Kot’átková : Out of Sight
At: MIT List Visual Arts Center,
20 Ames St., Cambridge,
through July 26.