Born in what was then Czechoslovakia (now the Czech Republic) in 1949, Kosek worked as a typographer and drew occasional satiric cartoons. At about the age of forty he became afflicted with schizophrenia and had to quit his job. The particular form of his illness was the conviction that he had a duty to master meteorological problems and had a central role to play in the maintenance of universal order. (His obsessive charting of weather patterns resembles that of Henry Darger.) Under the influence of this condition, Kosek began to produce the drawings for which he is now known, including the seventeen in the Cavin-Morris exhibition.
I use the term “drawing” advisedly, because these works hover between map, diagram, chemical formula, and sketch. Compositionally they appear as conglomerations of cartoon thought bubbles, with directional arrows, dotted connecting lines, numbers, and phrases. Unlike the paranoid but plausible mappings of the late Mark Lombardi, Kosek’s figures do not so much describe a set of relations as act them out, or perhaps constitute them. As with an outsider like Wölfli, one gets the impression that the artist (if that is what Kosek is) may believe in a preexisting order but that this order keeps shifting as the drawings are made. What gives the productions their desperate poignancy is the sense that order is ceaselessly unmade by the very intelligence that seeks to articulate it.
Cavin-Morris provided me with some partial translations from the Czech of works belonging to a private collector. These made it possible at least to begin to examine the contents of Kosek’s “system.” His fragmentary expressions include “pigeons which flew over at 19:10,” “big price cuts,” the names of towns and mountains within the Czech Republic, and such enigmatic statements as, “She was eating them with great appetite as an individual who has no hope for survival.” Bird species figure prominently. For Kosek, birds apparently represented a stark contrast to human beings, with greater intellect and capacity for self-sacrifice. As with many primitive mythologies—and with Christianity, where birds are associated with the Paraclete—they mediated between realms of force and material, and human beings, specifically Kosek, could exert control of nature through communication with them. I use the past tense here not because Kosek is dead but because once he was admitted to an institution and began to receive drug therapy for his delusions, his compulsion to draw (which he had done since childhood) and to communicate his visions diminished.
The work of a Kosek or Wölfli is as much linguistic as visual and so explicitly solicits us to symbolic interpretation, but unlike the stories told by so-called primitive societies, the invitation of these artists leads to a dead end. Myths are collective and organize preindustrial experience in coherent ways precisely because they are not the product of one consciousness. They embody a symbolic order and specify, sometimes obscurely but with great particularity, the realms of experience and their relations. The maplike “Dreamtime” drawings of Australian Aborigines are a good example. On the other hand, Kosek’s drawings (and Wölfli’s) collapse those categories, mixing and equating them, showing us at once the compulsion to categorize and its arbitrariness. Wölfli’s system may be more rewarding and less arbitrary, but I am not convinced of its coherencies. Kosek’s elements remind me of Jorge Luis Borges’ description of the categories of animals listed in “a certain Chinese encyclopedia,” which include those that belong to the Emperor, embalmed ones, those that are trained, suckling pigs, mermaids, fabulous ones, and stray dogs, among others.