A red foam training mat spans the main floor space of the Migros Museum of Contemporary Art in Zurich, the inviting ground floor gallery of the Löwenbräukunst, one of the European contemporary art biennial Manifesta's two primary exhibition halls. Boxing gloves, heavy bags, and televisions acting as platforms for trophies and combat-born clay sculptures hang from chains affixed to the ceiling. Each TV plays a fight video, but these aren't YouTube's greatest knockouts. Instead, shot MTV-style, complete with neon lights, smoke machines, and pulsating pop music, they document a month of sparring between Czech artist Matyáš Chochola and 14-time world champion Muay Thai kickboxer Azem Maksutaj. Instead of the ass-kicking I expect, sporting electric green shorts, a tanktop, and a thick black beard, in the face of the fact that the Albanian-Swiss Maksutaj has a documented 57 wins by knockout, Chochola actually puts up a pretty good fight.
In fact, himself a longtime disciple of kung fu, Chochola is perhaps the best possible sparring partner for Maksutaj in his later career as a kickboxing trainer: the ultimate reason that the artist picked the fighter to host him—each of the 30 projects commissioned for Manifesta 11, which follows the theme "What people do for money," involved a monthlong "joint venture" between an artist and working professional in Zurich—was the pursuit of a role-reversal. In spending four weeks becoming his own vision of a kickboxing champion, Chochola sought to unleash Maksutaj's inner artist.
From the looks of both Chochola's combat-readiness and the clay sculptures, glazed, pulpy, and energy-packed objects that were literally punched and kicked into existence by the artist and his kru (Muay Thai teacher), the transformation was complete. At the opening weekend of Manifesta 11, of which I was a guest, I talked to Matyáš Chochola about art, fights, and the point at which the student becomes the master:
The Creators Project: Can you tell me a little bit about your own background in martial arts before the project began?
Matyáš Chochola: Oh yeah—I started doing kung fu many years ago. Last year in China, I practiced for a whole month in a temple in the Wudang Mountains. When Christian [Jankowski, the curator of Manifesta 11] asked me for this project, and directly asked me who I was gonna choose and which profession, I immediately answered boxing trainer because I feel there’s a lifestyle cliché behind the image and career of being a champion. After that, the personality of the trainer must be changed—and he has to deal with doing something else, like have a training gym and not fight anymore. This is everything I was interested in exploring: I wanted to see how many parallels or differences there are in between the character of the fighter and the character of the artist, and I was super curious as to how art and the fight can work together. This is the result.
It’s incredibly high-energy—I think that’s maybe the most striking thing when you walk in. Did you try to charge it with the emotion of a fight?
You know, I’m not doing art just to bore people with shit you’ve seen everywhere else. I always try to do something people haven’t seen, haven’t thought about before, and when I think about how things look, I always want something that kicks. You don’t go to a gallery to lose your erection. When you see my art, I want you to be as excited as I want to be when I see it myself.
Now, all of the individual pieces here were created for this?
All of the installation was created and set up during this project, just for this project, yeah.
Can you tell me about a few of the different types of objects?
Yes, absolutely. So the videos, which are here on the screens, work as small shelves for the trophies. I got this idea to catch the atmosphere of the fight—to ask Azem to fight—and bring colored lights and smoke machines to the gym, because for training he usually uses kind of speedy pop music. So I thought, ok, I’m gonna do music video-style videos, kind of hip-hop, kind of lifestyle, to see the cliched image of the fighter and how we fought together. These are the videos made from that performance, and also from how we held the trophies at the end of the fight, Azem giving me his championship belt, saying, “Now, you are the champion. You fight well.” This is how we exchanged the role of the artist for the fighter, as well as the symbolic process of fighting, where those opposite opportunities were shared between us.
The ceramics collect the life and energy from the fights from different perspectives and were made as documentation of the whole process. Fighting, kicking, punching the clay with [the other] people training, I gathered all the energy inside. Then, there are the colors of their glazes, quite wild-striped.
After the time in the gym, I wanted to invite people into my kind of situation. As an artist, I usually work with performances and rituals, so I arranged a ritual on what is said to be the legendary hill where Azem ran every day for 25 years to build up his career. I made a fire there, we said some prayers together, and I invited people from the gym into my situation. There, with some esoteric music, some UV lights, and a diesel engine making noise and pollution in the forest to support all the psychedelic stuff, we took the glazes and put them on the sculptures so they’re also documentation of that moment as well. Both the gym fighting and the artistic situations are merged here in one point.
You yourself had a background in fighting, so it wasn’t too hard to get into the fighter’s mindset. But for Azem, was it a challenge to take on the role of the artist?
Yeah, yeah. Actually, there was a was nice moment of an absolute flip of our roles at the end, in this [first] fight, where Azem is obviously in condition, and I was just blocking his kicks to my head the whole time. He said it was a good fight. I know that the second one was much better—I got fit after one month, and because of my previous kung fu experience, I went for a good fight, really good. Even he said, “Matyáš, you are really getting better than me because I am older and you are young.” And I realized while we were punching color onto the [paintings], I wanted to destroy them. He said, “Please don’t. Explore them—they are so cool, they are so nice I want to keep them.” I realized I was more in the fight mood while he was more in the creative, artistic mood I knew he had inside from the beginning. In that moment, I was so surprised, I of course said, “Yeah, let’s keep it.” And we opened bottles of prosecco and just enjoyed, y’know?
And that was when you knew it was finished?
...And now it’s finished, and we both came back. He’s back for the fight, I’m back for art, but we exchanged something: I got his power, he got this gratifying moment was here taking selfies of the installation, telling me, “Oh man, it’s my first time that I’ve been in this kind of museum in my life.” And he was really surprised. So that’s it.