Jana Želibská

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Jana Želibská (3 May 1941, Olomouc, Czechoslovakia) is a visual artist.

Jana Želibská grew up in Prague and moved to Bratislava at the age of 13. Jana Želibská studied at the Academy of Fine Art and Design in Bratislava and graduated in graphics and book illustration in 1965. In 1968 Želibská received a scholarship for a residency in Paris, where she witnessed the 1968 protests. Belonging to a generation of progressive artists in Czechoslovakia, she was inspired by nouveau réalisme as well as pop art. Želibská rapidly moved on from experimenting with lyrical painting and prints in her early years, to creating immersive environments, using mixed media and non-art materials.

Jana Želibská created the first of such environments, entitled The Possibility of Exposure (1967), for a solo exhibition at the Cyprian Majernik Gallery in Bratislava and comprised paintings, assemblages and freestanding objects. Viewers could manipulate elements of the exhibited paintings and assemblages, featuring fragments of female bodies, divided by sheer curtains. Inspired by nouveau réalisme’s use of non-art material, the work combined mirrors, fabric, neon and plastics. In one of the paintings shown within the installation, entitled Breasts (1967), a breast adorned with lace and a patterned fabric is shown with its mirror image lightly concealed behind a sheer curtain. The viewer is encouraged to move the curtain to reveal the painting in its entirety, emulating intimate moments and engaging with the tactile qualities of the work.

Similarly, in Nose I-II (1967), two diagrammatic images are shown next to each other, reminiscent of ‘before and after’ pictures depicting cosmetic surgery or self-improvement techniques. The two noses are, however, identical. Other works within the environment include Object II (1967) and a column entitled Kandarya – Mahadeva (1969), which refers to the eponymous temple in India and draws in elements of tantric Hinduism and erotic rituals. Covered in neon-outlined bodies of female dancers, with mirrors in place of their private parts, Želibská originally intended this work to be shown on the street, but was prohibited from doing so as the work was deemed too explicit. (Source)

Her works Toilette I-II (1966), Venus (1967) and Object I (1967) were included in the International Pop exhibition in the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis in 2015. Her work Triptych (1969) was shown in the Ludwig Goes Pop + The East Side Story exhibition in 2015-2016 in the Ludwig Museum Budapest, which focused on East and Central European Pop artists of the time. Her Kandarya Mahadeva, together with objects from the Possibility of Exposure, was included in The World Goes Pop exhibition at Tate Modern in 2015-2016.

In the 1970s and 1980s, when for political reasons she could not exhibit in Czechoslovakia, Želibská found creative ground in land art, actions and video art. Her happenings Betrothal of Spring (1970) and Small Fashion Show (1980), with participation of many other artists such as Milan Adamčiak, Alex Mlynárčik and Miloš Urbásek, Ľuba Velecká, became legendary. In 1973 Želibská created the installation The Taste of Paradise for the Biennale des jeunes créateurs in Paris in the style of the urban folklore of Nouveau Réalisme. She used all kinds of artificial materials (tree, grass, sky) and a radio sound. As a woman she played with the meaning of the mythological tree and the apple of temptation as the heavenly fruit which in Jewish-Christian tradition symbolises temptation, sinful desire, forbidden knowledge and original sin. In 1970s and 1980s she was searching for sexual iconographic motifs from her environment in found natural objects, for example in The Piece of Land (1974).

By using photography and a video camera for her graphic sheets, events, objects and (video) installations in the 1980s Želibská demonstrated her close relation to classical and alternative music and theatre. Her experimentations of the late 1980s with photography and video art explore intimacy and overlap several levels of reality and time simultaneously, with intended imperfections, disturbing elements and deformations. Her eye detects hollows, spirals, crinkles, cracks, fractures and correlated constellations of contrasting qualities in material and form. Her installations frequently respect the symmetrical order of the human (in particular the female) body (Dialogue, 1993; Concert for Cymbals and Breasts, 1994). All Želibská’s work since 2000 has considered the human desire for deeply investigating the riddles of life. In her installations, such as Time Flies… Save Time (2016), inspired by the rapidly changing world in times of climate change, massive migration and the globalization. In the composition of nostalgic, macabre and kitschy motifs, in both what is seen and heard, she employed her sense for theatrical absurdity and paradox.

For her solo show in the Czechoslovak Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale in 2017, Želibská created a post-apocalyptic installation Swan Song Now, dominated by a projection of the sea, filmed in Venice. An array of luminous swans rest on islets, representing the implacable human yearning for constancy in a world driven by perpetual change, bringing in its wake unavoidable losses as we traverse the breach between past and present. The double video image of the pubescent girl holding a loud police siren as lightbringer, the installation of socially distanced quietly dying old swans, accompanied with the music by Matej Gyárfáš (three years before the Coronavirus pandemic) also suggest the unstoppable loneliness of human beings and the slow dying of the world as we have known it.

Jana Želibská’s works are in the collections of the Slovak National Gallery, National Gallery in Prague, Linea Collection among others. (Source)

She lives and works in Bratislava.

  • Zora Rusinová, "Jana Želibská", in Umenie akcie 1965-1989, ed. Zora Rusinová, Bratislava: Slovenská národná galéria, 2001, pp 41-52. (Slovak)
  • Lucia Gregorová Stach, Jana Želibská: Swan Song Now, Bratislava: Slovak National Gallery, 2017, 145 pp. Pavilion of the Czech and Slovak Republics at the 57th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia. [1] (English)