Caged Lessons – Show probes kids’ repression

EVA KOTÁTKOVÁ at Scrap Metal Gallery (11 Dublin), to June 28. 416-588-2442. Friday and Saturday noon to 5 pm or by appointment. Rating: NNNNN

Eva Kotátková’s memories of growing up in Czechoslovakia during the transition period from Communist rule fuel her powerful sculptures and collages.

Her artwork on the subject of childhood and repression brings to mind the restraints and braces Alice Miller described in her 1983 book For Your Own Good. Miller saw the torturous devices children were strapped into in the early 20th century to correct such infractions as slouching and nail-biting as laying a psychological foundation for the rise of Nazism, but they served the same function of breaking the spirit and compelling obedience in other restrictive societies.

Kotátková’s only in her early 30s, but her work draws heavily on imagery from the period Miller evokes. In collages that have both a Dadaist and Kafkaesque absurdist feel, she applies white lines that seem to encage, bind or blindfold the figures in old black-and-white photographs or their cut-out body parts.

Two sculptures feature children’s sweaters: one is punctured by metal tubes that hold tree branches, a violent yet graceful metaphor for growth; another is encased in a metal harness from which rods project holding children’s books at a just-out-of-reach distance, embodying the confusion of indoctrination. In a third sculpture Kotátková comments on the crippling effect of institutionalization and schooling by adding various cages, including one at head level, to a child-sized wheelchair.

At the centre of the space is a pyramidal assemblage of child- and adult-sized tables. On its own the sculpture would seem abstract, the forest of metal legs recalling the patterns of early Mondrian paintings. But in the context of Kotátková’s show it becomes a kind of 3D classroom or playground climber, a potent metaphor for the aspirations at work in the education system and children’s irrepressible urge to scramble to the top.

Like the three women in Scrap Metal’s previous exhibit, Kotátková showed at the 2013 Venice Biennale. We have the gallery and curatorial group Art en Valise to thank for bringing this eloquent artist to Canada for the first time.