The Hysterical Realism of Martin Kohout


Iveta Hajdáková

The text was published by Jindřich Chalupecký Society in Jindřich Chalupecký Award 2017 exhibition catalogue. Czech original, translation by Jindřich Chalupecký Society, published with the permission of Jindřich Chalupecký Society. Martin Kohout is the 2017 laureate of the award. (Martin Kohout’s website:


Reality is full of noise which is reduced and filtered by the contemporary visual culture. Digital media offer new possibilities of documenting reality, however, they have also complicated our relation to it; on the one hand, they have undermined our trust in representation and reproduction of reality; on the other hand, they have produced the notion that reality as such is not interesting enough. We do not desire image to be true to reality but rather reality to be as good and intense as image. Due to the inflation of the visual currency, we demand that reality be hyperstylized. That results in various forms of “porn” ranging from detailed stimulating food pics to photographs of furniture details.

Martin Kohout goes his own way, carefully studying reality while disrupting it and letting it overflow. When viewing his work, a comparison with hysterical realism in literature suggests itself; it is characterized by a combination of depictions examining reality with forensic detail and hysterical elements – exaggerated, manic moments overflowing with energy. The typical representatives of this style include American authors David Foster Wallace and Don DeLillo and British author Zadie Smith. In the Czech context, Patrik Ouředník’s writing may fall within this genre.

Hysterical realism is also inherent in the online presentation of Kohout’s work: hypertextual chaos and humor between the lines are supplemented with precise works, photo documentation and numerous links to other projects. Kohout’s work is a universe one is happy to get lost in as it abounds in stimulation and inspiration. Even in person, Kohout brims over with ideas and seems like someone who injects information right into his veins in his free time.

A visual equivalent of hysterical realism in literature can be found in Kohout’s work entitled Free Mail. Filmed in an energetic way reminiscent of a video game, scenes from a military mission or a horror movie, the video follows the viscera of the mailboxes of the citizens of Berlin and offers a detailed look into people’s privacy. The letters and advertising leaflets call for a comparison with electronic mail and the modern form of spam. Thanks to their material form, they seem archaic and even embarrassing yet at the same time human. The violet gloves that appear in one of the mailboxes suggest a confrontation with a story that is untold and should perhaps remain secret. A similar effect is achieved by a leaflet with religious content evoking the fragility and vulnerability of human existence as well as its spiritual dimension. The viewers may experience a voyeuristic pleasure of peeping into someone else’s privacy as well as an empathy with people and their universal need of communication. Last but not least, the video documents the vanishing form of correspondence and provokes the disturbing feeling that mankind has surpassed itself by means of technologies and has become a relic in its own time.

The Fallout Original Soundtrack installation consists of stylized cages with crickets, as if these were pets and new companions of man. The work reminds of a scene from an apocalyptic movie and induces a dystopic atmosphere of a world where something really bad must have happened, since man builds a relationship with repulsive (though edible) insects with a very short lifespan. The installation reflects on the relationship between man and nature but primarily stages an absurd spectacle satisfying people’s desire to observe reality as if it performed only for them; which means that reality that does not perform according to human expectations most likely escapes our attention. The work is accompanied by a text by Filip Mayer who compares the spectacle in the ZOO with the gallery presentation of art: when watching a spectacle, the viewers feel like they rule the world, however, at the same moment, they also lower their guard, they lose control of their own environment and become vulnerable. These moments of vulnerability and unnaturality of man and his way of life give Kohout’s work an interesting anthropological dimension.

The new technologies employed by Kohout in his work could be labelled as hysterical-realistic in his rendition as well. In one of his latest pieces, he documents reality and reconstructs it by means of 3D modelling software. The original photographs depict an exhibition of artists from Kohout’s circle of friends; the photographs were installed in Dongsi Hutong in Beijing on blocks of wood used by the local inhabitants who prop them against the wheels of their cars to protect them from dog urine. The images rendered by Kohout include various glitches and noises which make the original seem remote, abandoned, unreal and imperfect. However, this “leaky” reconstruction and representation of reality is genuine in its imperfection and more authentic than the filtered reality of Instagram and other social media or a hyper-precise 3D model.

Kohout’s works can be characterized as playful and light while also being stimulating, energetic and non-moralistic. The artist addresses the unknown and uncertainty; which, in his rendering, seems like a challenge to expand outside reality and explore the unknown. On the other hand though, both the artist and his work exude curiosity and a desire to get even deeper within what we know today; to grasp reality not only as an object of observation but also as a material environment to which man is immediately and organically linked. Reality as depicted in Kohout’s work is imperfect and remote, however, it also flows over any simulations, reconstructions and representations and gives the human existence a chance for a certain solid base.

Kohout’s work radiates the joy of chaos; both the discovered and the created one. The artist’s personal perspective of the world is not obvious; his work rather reveals a fascination with a forensic view of the slightest detail and of how it fits within the bigger whole, story, or how it travels in time. Even if reality is dissected or pixelated, it still remains organic and human. When talking in person, Kohout has mentioned his fascination by the senses, metabolism and sleep, the most essential aspects of human existence in the world. It will be definitely interesting to follow the paths the artist will take on his search for the relation between reality, representation and human existence.