Untitled (1975–2064)

Untitled (1975–2064), 2008, short story, a A2-format poster with perforation that fold into A5 format, published by Gallery U Bílého jednorožce, Klatovy, 2008, photo: author's archive

He woke up about an hour ago. He is still in bed and little by little, it dawns on him that that instant will probably be the most important one in his life. A few moments ago, a thought flashed across his mind. At first he was hardly able to get a handle on it, but in the minutes that followed, it grew more and more intense until it became quite obsessive. He tried tackling it with logic and then casting it away with purely irrational speculations, but it resisted each effort and became increasingly entrenched instead. He realised that he would have to make it a reality.

After that morning, he decided to buy a house big enough to allow him to spend the rest of his life covering its walls with drawings.

We should fill in some important details about our man: he is an artist who has devoted himself to performance and drawing ever since he completed his studies at a Czech art school. With time he was able to combine the two media and at his last exhibition he presented a series of large monochrome drawings with a covering of cross-hatching so dense that the individual lines were indiscernible.

At the outset, he focused on two things: securing the financial means to allow him to spend the rest of his life working on a three-dimensional monochrome and undergoing all the medical and scientific tests he could with the aim of determining the length of his life; based on the result, he would calculate the total area of all the walls of the house he would buy. He could not countenance either leaving his work undone or finishing his drawing much earlier than planned.

In the early nineteen nineties, our man's family acquired three houses looking onto a small, nineteenth-century Prague square as part of the restitution process in which the government returned properties nationalised in the late forties and  early fifties back into private hands. At first, his parents took charge of them. When they died, his sister, fifteen years his senior, took over their maintenance. The man never got into the habit of helping to look after the houses. On the contrary, he would not allow himself to become dependent on them economically. For that reason, when both his parents died, he started working for a foreign advertising agency. But now, having experienced that decisive moment, he threw all his resolutions regarding financial independence to the winds. He went to see his sister and the family solicitor and offered to sell his share of the properties to his sister and her family. It was far from easy. He knew they would reproach him for his filial impiety. Nonetheless, he had made up his mind and refused to back down. His sister was forced to sell all the flats in the entire half of one of the houses, something she had never wanted to do.

Having gained his financial independence, he put a portion of the money in the bank and invested the rest in state bonds and the stock market. He put his money to work so it would provide him with a regular income.

Now he had to find out when he would die.

It was not easy. First he turned to specialised medical centres, but there he encountered nothing but incomprehension. The doctors had no patience for what they considered a frivolous endeavour and objected that they did not have the oracular abilities needed to determine exactly when he would die. But he was no fool; he knew very well that there were unpredictable dangers – such as viruses, bacteria and accidents – lurking behind every corner. Having had no success with the doctors, he decided to turn to research centres devoted to investigating the genetic code. He hoped he would be able to determine the length of his life based on his genetic code. After several months of searching, he contacted a private research institute in California. Following another few months in which he gave explanations and discussed terms, he was given permission to visit the institute. First, they took a blood sample to determine his gene code; then, with the aid of a large battery of tests, he was confronted with his everyday habits. A week later, he returned to Prague to await the results.

It is a quarter to four in the afternoon on the twenty-fifth of October of the year two thousand and seven. He is sitting down, reading a letter—the results from the institute. He is surprised: about fifty-three years of life await him still, give or take five months. Now he is thirty five years old. He makes a quick calculation: that means sometime between March and December of two thousand sixty-three. He is overwhelmed. He can feel how his brain and then, little by little, his entire body are overcome with panic. He has already experienced the emotion attendant upon the strong realisation that he would die many times. The first time was when he was eight and the last was when his parents died. Now it is even stronger. He does not know what to do.

He thought things through for two years and prepared everything he could. With the help of yearly trial runs, he calculated how many square metres of wall area he would be able to cover with drawings in a year. The result was eight point four square metres. For his calculation, he took into account the rest the muscles in his right arm would require every day and the eventual slowing down of his labours with age. He also divided up the day painstakingly into several segments: nine hours of sleep, five hours of work, two hours of office work and the rest for miscellaneous activities. By miscellaneous activities, he meant visiting friends, spending time at the library, going to the cinema – in short, the social life he did not want to give up. He also made up his mind definitively regarding the instrument he would work with: a ball-point pen. He liked its peculiar ultramarine ink, even though he was aware that it was just about the least fitting instrument for drawing on plaster, as the ink would very quickly become clouded with the plaster. So, he had the walls of his future flat covered with a special coating that would serve most fittingly as a foundation on which to draw with a ball-point pen.

Eight point four square metres times fifty three years meant a flat with four hundred forty-five point two metres of wall area. Then he calculated the size of the flat once more. He realised he would need time for renovation and a year seemed like it would be an optimal period, so he used fifty-two instead of fifty-three in his equation. The result: four hundred thirty-six point eight square metres. Finding a space corresponding to such exact measurements was a truly difficult task. For each month he searched, he had to recalculate the dimensions of the flat. It took him two years to find it. It was a functionalist house from the thirties with a terrace. The surface area of all its walls added up to four hundred twenty-two metres. He reconstructed it completely, making sure as best he could that nothing would get in the way of his drawing. Everything was placed at least seventy centimetres from the walls. The reconstruction took him a little bit over a year.

The whole process had taken five and a half years.

It's eight thirty in the morning on the seventeenth of April, two thousand thirteen. The man, lying on some scaffolding, starts to draw. Yesterday afternoon, he set up the scaffolding about a metre from the living room ceiling using two steel poles placed horizontally, spanning two walls. He has chosen this type of hanging system so nothing will get in the way of his moving freely around the flat. He has marked out the first sixteen-by-sixteen-centimetre square on the ceiling and, with slow gestures, beings creating a lattice of parallel lines a forty-five degree angle, then doing the same along the perpendicular diagonal. Next he draws a series of vertical lines and then another of horizontal lines. He repeats the whole process until each individual line merges into a single solid blue square. It all takes five hours, including programmed breaks. He feels a bit worn out. That is precisely why he has decided to cover each ceiling surface with his drawings first. He could not imagine doing so when he  on his last legs.

Working every day, he gradually covered the ceilings of all the bedrooms in the flat with his drawings; then he moved on to work on the kitchen, the bathroom, the pantry, the toilet and finally the entry hall. He spent almost twelve years in the process. After that, he went on to draw on the walls in the entry hall. Everything proceeded according to his plan. He never omitted one single day.

The man's name is Karel Brož.

He was born in Prague in nineteen seventy-five.

Under communism he lived with his parents and sister in a small rented flat from the 1940s. When the political and economic system changed, he enrolled at a graphic design and advertising college, where he began acquainting himself with visual art. He took a liking to certain Czech artists of the sixties like Jan Mlčoch, Petr Štembera, Adriena Šimotová and Jiří Valoch. He sensed something in their work he had never felt before or would ever feel afterwards: a radical gesture – rare in the Czech context – based on the fact that most of those artists had been active during the communist normalisation of the seventies. Of the following generation, it was Václav Stratil and his large-format, full-scale drawings on parquet that captured his attention. It was from him that he gleaned his working method. Several years later, thanks to international magazines and catalogues, he familiarised himself with the art of the sixties and seventies abroad – mostly from the United States. He was absolutely fascinated by it. At the time, he was studying at the Brno Academy of Arts. The Academy would organise regular trips abroad to institutions in Germany, France and Italy and thus got the chance to see Documenta 10, the Venice Biennale and other major modern art exhibitions. He became depressed. The last drop was an exhibition he saw in Berlin titled Sensation. He started pulling back from the colossus of Western art, which he was not quite able to figure out. He stopped delving into contemporary art and turned to science fiction instead. He re-read the books of his childhood – even those he had wanted to read but had never had the opportunity to. He read more and more authors. Over the course of a couple of years, he got fairly well-acquainted with science fiction. In the end he was most fond of the classic authors who defined the genre, like Stanislaw Lem, Isaac Asimov and Arthur C. Clarke. At that time, he graduated and started working as a graphic designer at an advertising agency. He worked his way up to the position of art director. He started putting on exhibitions as well. He had several solo exhibitions and was selected for inclusion in a few collective exhibitions of Czech art abroad.

The ninth of December, two thousand eight. The man is lying on an institutional bed; he has been hospitalised with a serious case of pneumonia. Several weeks ago, in November, he got soaked on the way home from the cinema. After that his condition deteriorated until he was constantly gasping for breath. He has been in hospital two weeks and he is getting better. They will be letting him go home next week already. Although his body is getting better, his thoughts are becoming rather confused. That is precisely what he had been hoping to avoid by working without surcease on his drawings. He begins thinking about the decision he made twenty years ago; many people appreciate his work. Curators from Czech institutions bring foreign visitors to his flat – he never turns them away. He knows full well the interest concealed behind their visits; they need to show foreigners someone who has been working on one thing systematically and is uninterested in commercial success within the system. That always comes in handy on their programmatic tours of Prague's ateliers. But the people he really cares about are young people, and they scorn him. He knows this all too well thanks to his young mistresses. From time to time they tell him bluntly about some new rebuke with which the young artists sneer at the decision he made long ago. As if he were a symbol of a period which had accepted, without resistance, a different type of conformism than that which was condemned to disappear long before nineteen eighty-nine. He sometimes wonders how he might reasonably justify his decision to them. Maybe the problem lies not in the decision, but in the way he has decided to present it.

After his return from hospital, he had to force himself to work for a few days. Gradually he settled back into the routine involved in his oeuvre, which had been interrupted for a few weeks. For the first time in twenty years after having made his resolution, he felt the definitive quality of the change. He was afraid to change anything. He was scared of losing face before other artists. And above all, he did not want to give the young artists the pleasure. That especially was the concrete fear that goaded him on.

It is six o'clock in the evening of the second of September, two thousand forty-two. He is sixty-eight. He examines an ultramarine square and then looks over the entire room, which he started covering with his drawings earlier this year. He has almost twenty-two years and one hundred eighty-two square metres to go.

That day he is constantly hounded by the memory of an essay he read thirty years ago. He vaguely remembers parts of it and tries to piece them together like a mosaic into the original text. Try as he might, he can only reconstruct the main idea: he is sure it involved the author's subjective description of how physical space in the European novel ended up losing its sense of secrecy in response to five centuries of scientific cartography and the concomitant bureaucratisation of the Earth – that is all; he cannot remember anything else. He also tries to remember the name of the author; perhaps it was Kundera, he is not quite sure. He says to himself: in science fiction that 'lost' physical space is being rediscovered – in much-neglected outer space. The universe as a place for life. After all, had not the astronomers themselves publicly declared the hope that they might one day discover extraterrestrial civilisations? Maybe by filling his flat with his delicate meshwork drawings every day he is erasing everything that might connect him to the definitive character of his space here on Earth and replacing it with the infinity of unexplored outer space.

He realises that he has probed, polished and simplified what was originally surely a very sophisticated thought to the point where it has re-entered his thoughts as a possible key to his entire life. He decides that he will not work the next day and look for the book with that essay in his rather neglected library instead.

He spends not a day, but an entire week looking for it.

At first, he browses through all the books in the library, one by one, some several times. Then he tries to remember the person who might have lent it to him and finally decides to visit several Prague libraries – all in vain.

Karel Brož died on the seventh of May of two thousand sixty-four. One year after finishing his drawings and five months after the date the researchers had predicted.