I can tell you about a few of my experiences... 

Hans Ulrich Obrist interviews Karel Malich (2007)

May I ask you questions in French?

I don’t mind. I once knew a bit of French. I was a secondary school student when Czechoslovakia was under Nazi occupation, so I learned German and French. 

I can tell you about a few of my experiences that led me to another way of perception, but they wouldn’t be able to happen again. 

Where are you from?

I come from the countryside, from Holice, a village in Bohemia. I was born six years after the First World War and as a boy I wanted to fly. When there were still birds of prey around, I watched how they circled, the curves of their flight path… You see, as a boy I wanted to build a glider. I started with a glider; I didn’t want to have anything to do with engines. When I stood on the hilltop, my face could tell which direction the wind was blowing in, and then I let go of the glider. When you build a model, put it together and apply the covering, it’s just brilliant.

Whenever I’m feeling down, my mind wanders back to my hometown of Holice. 

On the one hand, you could look out onto the flat landscape and then to the foothills of the Orlické Mountains, which included the hill. There were fantastic names for meadows, fields and forests; all of this has stuck in my memory. Grandpa told me the names and they resonated in my head. This is why I have such faith in language, I think it’s magnificent. These childhood experiences are strong.

And then when you find yourself among adults, starting with school, you completely go stupid. When I was about twelve years old I was a very clever child. Then, as if suddenly stopped short, suddenly I said to myself – why, what everyone’s telling me is daft. I realised that these were things from past times or old things; they couldn’t keep up with the new things that were happening.

How do you view the relationship between art and architecture?

Recently I watched a programme about Frank Gehry on television – I did something similar in a sketchbook in the 60s, such as things in a storm, diverting lightning to sea currents. But I didn’t have the courage to give them form. When my friend Josef Wagner saw a sketch, he said, “You’ve got to remember that people are supposed to live in that, people have got to walk on an even floor.” Moreover, back then I made it transparent, which was also impossible as heat would have escaped the building. 

But everything ended when I got the idea of building houses on the hilltop I looked at from Grandpa’s garden when I was a boy; I realised that it’s so beautiful in and of itself that I would ruin it with those buildings. 

In 1967, when you were in the United States, you created an underwater city and cosmic city. What impression did this visit make on you?

In New York, everything is at a right angle. When the wind blows in from the ocean you can hear crashing, like cannon blasts, like a fight in the midst of those tall blocks. It absolutely doesn’t make sense. Then once I drew a city that was supposed to be for a country with no police. A city where it was impossible to shoot or take cover; everything was open. I’ve got everything written down in my sketchbooks.

But let me get back to New York. When we moved to a prefab block of flats in Kobylisy, where I felt absolutely mad, at first there was a certain open space in front of a woody area. While we were living at the housing estate, they built some tall blocks there too, and for the second time in my life I heard that crashing noise.

And what about your projects for an underwater city and cosmic city? 

It was supposed to be a city in the breaking waves and in the desert. These were my utopian hallucinations. If they had really meant to be built, it would have been quite difficult; I’d need someone to dissuade me more than anything else.

Once you also designed a project for a modern art museum in an undersea tunnel.

That’s an old matter, it’s already vanished.

Were your projects for your cities a mere utopian vision, or did you think that one day they could be implemented?

I thought that if science and technology would continue to flourish, perhaps one day they could be realised.

What role did light play in the city projects?

It was supposed to be without shadows. But when my friend Wagner told me that people have to walk and they walk on the ground, I let it be. 

It was the same with the hilltop. What were the houses for when the hill was beautiful in and of itself? As a boy I sat on it, looked and told myself that I’d never get up there to see everything from above. I could look down to the flat landscape from the cemetery hill in Holice, but that wasn’t the same. Before the war there was just a small field or tree avenue there, but from up above everything blended together – the vertical aspect was missing. When visibility was good, the farthest I could see were the Iron Mountains. Individual horizontal lines were layered one on top of the other, which was no fun for me. 

This is why I admired analytical cubism. But what did Picasso make out of it? He did make sculptures, but he didn’t dare to challenge them, so he made them flatwise and marked how they should look. It was Gutfreund who made a few decent heads.

You’ve drawn all your life. Could you say something about that?

I constantly draw, it’s a permanent activity. I go to draw at this one café... But now I’ve been poorly, so I just made smaller pastels.

What about sculpting?

Grandpa and his four brothers, my entire family line, worked in a quarry – they were stonemasons. Grandpa has “Sculptor” inscribed on his gravestone, but I don’t have anything to do with matter, I mean stone. I may collect stones, I like them. But wanting to make something out of them? No way. Everyone chips away at a number of layers, but still don’t what’s inside. Nor do I, and so I’d be able to start in all over again.

I don’t hate stone, but it just doesn’t occur to me to make something out of it. There are materials that give me goose bumps. Once I touch them, I’ve got dry skin. 

The body simply chooses the material. I don’t mind wire, of plastic materials I don’t mind Plexiglas, but I have to have it made for me.

Do you occasionally have experiences that lead you to another way of perception? Could you describe some of them?

One day, after moving to Braník, I sat in a beautiful new studio that I had to take out a huge loan for and I desperately wondered how I would pay for it. It seemed to me that it wouldn’t work out and it would end in embarrassment. As I sat there and was probably outside the realm of time and everything, suddenly inside me I saw a rainbow cylinder and six glowing verticals handing inside it that disappeared into some sort of powdered grey matter. But it wasn’t matter. This was the first time. I told myself this couldn’t be; I saw light where there should be lungs. 

This all repeated one more time, in Holice. Before I got up, I saw three curves inside me, each a different colour, but I saw them from all sides at the same time. I couldn’t have been able to look with my eyes as one of my senses; something inside me was looking. Which shook my convictions so much, I told myself – okay, some sort of geometry, instruments, computer, systems aren’t for me, that’s beyond my understanding. I was so shaken up, I went on in a different way. I no longer believed that an intellectual can think up something.

You’re in the middle of something you’ve got here. What is it?

It’s also the hill near Holice, which I continue to make. It’s a strange thing. When I sit at the desk and draw, I – who doesn’t actually know who I am, nobody really knows who they are – depict people I don’t know at all, so I think them up. This is why I don’t dare make faces. But I assigned one colour to each eye. And to the others, too. THEY – depending on where they’re sitting behind the table, and each looks somewhere else and at others – finish moulding and forming them from their points of view. So some, though they are not sitting behind the table with others at the same time, can’t reveal themselves, even though they are present. Those who look directly at themselves finish moulding and forming themselves. And those who see just a part of the others from their view participate in the moulding and shaping with their colours. And those who aren’t looking finish moulding and shaping the ones who are observing them, but they miss others. In all actuality I don’t know who it is. 

How do you write the texts for your drawings?

For example, these days I go to a wine bar on Týnská Street. I sit there and suddenly it comes. At first I just draw in pencil, then use colour on some at home. Sometimes it starts with a word, but sometimes it doesn’t. It’s not that I would think up these texts myself; they seem to come on their own, as if a word caught fire from a word. At other times I draw first and the text comes later. But if I don’t write it down immediately, I don’t make it to do it at home. There is a certain connection between the drawing and the text. 

I’ve always admired Czech; I don’t have proper command of any other language. If you aren’t able to write a poem in a language, you merely know the language – but that isn’t enough.

I heard you had a dream with Rembrandt.

I was drawing a pastel the other day, but it was too dull and I spent two days deciding whether to create some substance there with tempera. I had a beer on Old Town Square, rode home, squeezed white paint out of a tube and put it on the picture. And then I had a dream that Rembrandt was standing there, a pile of stones next to him, between us a huge, 76-metre elliptic lake, white, full of light, I’m alone at home in the yard – I’m a boy – I’ve also got stones ready and Rembrandt is throwing them at me. I said to myself, this idiot’s out of his mind! That’s because you create substance and I see light as powder. For you it radiates out of the substance, but I see it in myself and it isn’t that kind of light. So he threw stones at me and I didn’t have a chance against him. The yard I was standing in was grassy, three white geese were behind me and the town was behind Rembrandt.

You’re interested in Giacometti; you said you were looking at yourself. Is there something subjectively existential in that? 

But Giacometti worked with material. I liked his drawings. But his works don’t feature that aspect where he doesn’t see himself. For instance, he did a portrait of himself, but it never occurred to him that he himself is just light. 

As I’ve had lots of similar interviews, I don’t speak about it much with anyone. Some people tell me to go look in the mirror. But what would I be looking at in the mirror? I simply walk the world and don’t see myself. So when I’m doing myself, say, sitting behind the desk, I see myself from the waist down, I see the tips of my toes or my hand holding a cigarette. That’s something he didn’t come up with. 

The last time I was in Paris was about five years ago, and I saw an exhibition there. A figure there fascinated me, featuring a white ellipse as the surface; otherwise, all his works are material. No such problem exists there; Giacometti would not have had some doubts that he actually sees nothing of himself. I see you, but I don’t see myself. And you see me, but you also don’t see yourself. These are problems that practically can’t be done. Nevertheless, on some drawings I tried.

What is your relationship to surrealism?

None at all. When I was a boy I admired analytical cubism.

What’s that drawing over there?

I wasn’t able to do that one. An angel with a pulsating body.

Black and white cracks opened and closed in his body. In some sort of rhythm, black alternated with white – simply pulsated. 

When did you start with pastels?

Already back when I was making collages, so in 1960. I loved bad, cheap materials. I got into pastels when the communists were in power, in 1960. Back then I was registered as a printmaker in the Union of Czechoslovak Visual Artists, and as printmakers we could buy pastels, watercolours and paper. We weren’t allowed to buy oil paints. So I bought two boxes of Rembrandt pastels, but they never arrived till just now. So when my wife travelled to Amsterdam, Vienna or Copenhagen, she brought back paper and pastels for me.

What is your relationship to colours?

Colour fascinates me. It’s interesting, for example, how long I couldn’t paint in red. I despised green. I could live from the autumn, when the trees were denuded, the snow fell and black rocks were whitewashed against hares – you won’t remember that. And then the spring, that was a wedding of nature for me, and then vegetables, greens... so I detested green. One day I told myself this couldn’t go on and I made the effort to start to use green as well. And suddenly it came: red, violet…

Dematerialisation is important in your work, the emphasis on spirituality, the non-tangible. You made airy cities. Could you comment on them?

I only made some instruments that float in the air; I’ve got them in a sketchbook somewhere. In case of cities in the air, I couldn’t imagine how I’d be able to make them. The city always arose from something, not like a normal house. Perhaps like in that Rembrandt dream.

Dreams are certainly important for you.

Sleep is the medium for instructions from the heavens. I read that somewhere and adopted that for myself. I accepted that I live 24 hours a day and that those hours belong to me. The white of day is good for shopping and making money. The night is full. When I had dreams that sometimes were beautiful, especially colourful, I would wake up because of them. Like when I made the landscape with eternity and saw all of that…

You are an artist who writes. Do you write often?

I write, I’ve got a whole stack over there, but those tend to be things just for me. Writing comes on its own. I wrote something about the house I grew up in, for example. I’ve got also two cousins in Prague, one older and one younger, who knew the house and have experiences similar to mine. It really was a miraculous house and I simply had to write about it.

Have you got a project now that you’d like to execute?

Not right now. I abandoned those sorts of things along with the hill.

In your opinion, what is art?

When I look around and see all of the activity, I think that art is in fact an imitation of life.