Arts Desk

Michael Borek’s Unnerving Photos at the Czech Embassy

Kafka1It’s been more than a quarter century by now, but my recollection of reading Franz Kafka’s The Metamorphosis in my freshman-year European literature class remains fresh. Even for a cocky college kid, reading about Gregor Samsa’s transformation into a “dung beeeeetle”—as my eminent, French-accented professor enthusiastically pronounced the creature—was unnerving.

There’s nothing quite as absurd, or creepy, as Kafka’s famous insect character in the photography exhibit at the Czech Embassy by Michael Borek, which commemorates the 90th anniversary of Kafka’s death. Still, many of the works exude an uneasy vibe.

One image features the shadow of an older man who’s sandwiched between a translucent window dripping with water and a wall covered with unsightly brown stains; another image documents an emptyKafka 3 room with an ominously toppled lampshade. A third (middle) lays bare the scarred surface of a wall where a metal silhouette had once been affixed; it now reveals several drilled holes that suggest bullet wounds.

A photographer and freelance interpreter based in Bethesda, Borek is originally from Prague, so the the Eastern European emptiness also captured in the work of Yugoslav-born Vesna Pavlovic haunts some of Borek’s photographs, too. Some images feature lonely furniture in deserted buildings, while others show empty gardens inhabited by weathered humanoid sculptures.

Borek’s most appealing work comes when he locates what Paul Simon calls “angels in the architecture”—a bit of whimsy in an otherwise sterile context. One photograph finds what appears to be a small bit of rococo grillwork casting a shadow on a stretched sheet, while another (bottom) reveals the whitewashed surface of a building arranged in a pleasing geometry that suggests the stripped-down, planar shapes of Charles Sheeler.

Through at least the end of July at the Embassy of the Czech Republic, 3900 Spring of Freedom Street, NW, Washington, D.C.


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  • Robert W. Doubek

    Louis Jacobson thinks that Prague is located in some place called "Eastern Europe." It's now been a generation since the Velvet Revolution, so I had hoped that such ignorance had for the most part been dispelled. Indeed, Prague lies to the west of a beeline between Berlin and Vienna. Are these cities in "Eastern Europe?"

    The Czech nation was Christianized from Rome, not Constantinople, and has always been part of Western thought and culture, except for the 42 years of its involuntary servitude in the Soviet East Bloc. The Czech Republic is a member of both NATO and the European Union. Labeling the Czechs as “Eastern European” is like forever referring to an ex-convict who made good as a criminal.