Thanks to a generous gift from Jiří Kolář, the photographer Jan Ságl was able to buy a camera and he immediately made a few films. Besides a film documenting a happening by Zorka Ságlová called In Hommage to Fafejt (1972) he also made the extraordinary film Underground, which has been newly dated 1971. It is a twenty-minute film recording a common, everyday situation in the centre of the town. The camera on a tripod recorded women, men and children coming up on an escalator from the subway at Wenceslas Square from the then still non-existent underground station Můstek. Their faces reflect everyday commonness and their passive bodies are brought up to the surface in a continual stream on an escalator. Through those people Ságl showed the resignation of Czech society during “the normalization” period. In April 1969 Gustáv Husák became the Secretary General of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia and a new era began in the political development of Czechoslovakia, during which almost all the achievements of the liberalization process in the mid-1960s were abolished. In the late-1960s Ságl could take photographs for the periodicals Výtvarná práce and Výtvarné umění, but in the 1970s he had to go underground. Ságl´s work underground spanned from the art scene to the music scene, he worked with his wife, the artist Zorka Ságlová and her brother Ivan M. Jirous. His photographs became key visual documents of the Czech underground and the film Underground became a film metaphor of that period.
The film was shot in Prague, in the place where the first subway with escalators was built, at the crossroads of Wenceslas Square and the streets Jindřišská and Vodičkova, a popular shopping mall. The stream of people walking down from the National Museum to Můstek had to sink underground there because it was not possible to cross the street there. They had to go downstairs into the subway and on the other side they went up on a constantly full escalator. In 1977 Jiří Kovanda performed on the opposite side of the subway his iconic performance Untitled, in which “on an escalator…. I turn round and stare into the eyes of the person standing behind me…” A moment, when you can draw out of the everyday flow of people forced to act according to the establishment, is still powerful today. Today the subway is empty, a zebra crossing was made in the 1990s and the escalator which Jan Ságl used in his film no longer exists. However, his film remains a powerful memento of the lack of freedom at that time and of the resignation but also of occasional revolt.
The original film was without sound. When it was shown on December 11, 2013 at the Academy of Arts, Jan Ságl recalled that he was invited by Ivan Bierhanzl to a concert of the band DekadentFabrik whose music accompanied the presentation of the film Underground. Thanks to this music the film got a different dimension and dynamics and consequently Ságl decided to enrich his film by the music of this band. The film is presented in Okno in this version.
Jan Ságl (1942) is a free-lance Czech photographer who documented the Czech art scene in the 1960s and took part in the stage design of concerts of the bands The Primitives Group and The Plastic People of the Universe. He documented and also took part in Zorka Ságlová´s performances. In the 1970s and 80s he worked as a free-lance photographer and published a series of photographs Domovní prohlídka (House search) (1973) and Vlaštovky (Swallows) (1975), and a book called Tanec na dvojitém ledě (Dance on double ice) (KANT, 2013). From 1984 Jan Ságl cooperated with photographic agencies in Vienna, Paris and Milan, his photographs were published in Geo, Smithsonian Magazine, Zeit Magazin, The New York Times or the National Geographic. In 1989 he became one of the founding fathers of the Prague House of Photography.
The newly restored films by Jan Ságl were introduced by the curator Martin Blažíček in 2016 at the exhibition Jan Ságl – Obrazy z podzemí. Films 1971-74 in the Gallery of the Academy of Arts in Prague (7. 12. 2016 – 15. 1. 2017).
We wish to thank Jan Ságl for lending the video to the video-archive VVP AVU.