Lesson of Relativity
(Milan Adamčiak, APART, Peter Bartoš, Mária Bartuszová, Stano Filko, Matej Gavula, Anetta Mona Chişa / Lucia Tkáčová, Július Koller, Denisa Lehocká, Roman Ondák, Boris Ondreička, Milan Tittel, Martin Vongrej, Jana Želibská)
Curated by Nina Gažovičová
ZOYA Gallery, Ventúrska 1, Bratislava
September, 21 – October, 16 2016
Open daily 2PM – 7PM
Lately the art of central and eastern Europe has aroused increasing interest. Its reputation spreads among art historians, curators and artists established in the western milieu. The neo-avantgarde’s achievements in the onetime Eastern-bloc countries are gradually being written into European art historiography. Having been ignored for decades, this territory of ours now has the satisfaction it had been waiting for since the fall of the Iron Curtain in November 1989.
Hitherto our art had been almost an unknown quantity in the broader European sphere. Slovakia is a young and small country which, before the culmination of its own self-identification process, had always been on the periphery – marginalised not only by several larger and historically more important neighbours but also within the united Czechoslovak state. Although Bratislava had once in distant times had a phase of historical importance, its modern history unfolded principally in the shadow of Budapest and Vienna, and eventually also of Prague. Foreign observers have only recently begun to discover the autonomous character of our art, its particular evolution and strikingly experimental orientation. There is a growing perception of Slovakia as one of the focal points of central European conceptualism, with a remarkably strong concentration of authentic, though not exclusively conceptualist, artistic programmes (Milan Adamčiak, Peter Bartoš, Mária Bartuszová, Stano Filko, Július Koller, Juraj Meliš, Alex Mlynárčik, Rudo Sikora, Jana Želibská...).
Lesson of Relativity (the exhibition title is taken from an article in DOMUS magazine by Pierre Restany, Bratislava : une leçon de relativité, where the author gives quite a detailed report on art in Slovakia after the year of rupture 1968) does not aspire to be a cross-section and overview of Slovak art in the past fifty years. Our aim has not been to disturb an art-historical canon nor artificially to create a new one. Rather, we have tried to direct attention to examples of visual art which on reflection, and in an overall evaluation of the art of eastern Europe, may be considered authentic, and which despite the change in the situation they began from, still retain their vitality in our setting. Along with selected artistic programmes of the founding figures of Slovak art of the 1960s, the exhibition presents artists from the first “free” generation, making their entrance following the change of regime in November 1989, and their younger successors, who show a natural partiality for the historically tested but still currently applicable heritage of the domestic avantgarde.
The work of creating such interaction became an opportunity, without regard to historical associations, to conduct dialogue and to communicate and mediate combination among artists, some of whom had been in occasional or long-term collaboration, while others were meeting for the first time on the occasion of this project. Such a rearward look to past times, and in particular to the artists who played a decisive role in the formation of Slovak visual art in the 20th century, is not a novelty in Slovakia. As far back as 1997 the young curators Petra Hanáková and Alexandra Kusá presented their ambitious exhibition project 60/90, which premiered the intergenerational linking of art couples with Filko – Ondreička, Koller – Ondák, and Bartuszová – Lehocká.
One might have the impression that the individuals represented have no points of contact in their ultimate product, and that given such individual programmes, showing a divergent and broad range of themes and media, it is almost impossible to find common denominators. And yet unquestionably the selected group of artists generates an outline of common themes, trends and considerations, and even common functioning in the artworld context. Here is evidence of an affinity of creative principles, formally and conceptually. Proof is given of a certain local tradition, a common effort of thinking across various decades. It confirms that a common encounter need not be achieved at a single distinctive point but may be enacted wherever configurations that are at first sight incompatible find a way to one another.
Given that the osmotic model – where the public permeates the private – manifested itself in socialist society, so also for the key figures of our 1960s art (Koller, Filko, Bartoš, Adamčiak etc.) life and art, the personal and the universal were interwoven. In the entirety of their work there is a confluence of creative art and life, a conscious extrication of oneself from fact, an adoption of positions beyond reality, a fanatical inner sense of duty... These artists showed that one could exist and survive without any kind of institutional support or market environment, purely by faith in one’s inner vision. One could function in difficult circumstances (conservatism, animosity of the official scene, incomprehension by the theoreticians, insufficient reflection) on the verge of destitution. Despite everything, they remained convinced of the truth of their art. To this present day they defy time-space coordinates (with projects that are unfinishable and unbounded, older works repeatedly taken up again, antidating, reversions, unlimited time of duration) and they convince all in their environs of the validity and timelessness of their individual system, conception, structure, or personal repertoire of symbols.
Contemporary Slovak artists in their own work willy-nilly follow on from these programmes. They rely on personal, artistic or autobiographical, sometimes self-enclosed connotative systems; individual coding, vision, or “merely” concentrated observation of the world (Lehocká, Ondreička, Vongrej), confrontation with fact, relationship to reality. Similarly there is a “reverence” for the everyday, the uniqueness of the moment (Gavula, Tittel), an inclination to intimacy, fragility, what one has personally been through (Lehocká), processes of detailed classification, or conversely cumulation (Ondák, Lehocká), visual poetry of shapes (Lehocká) or words (Ondreička). The key theme continues to be the question of one’s own identity, with reflection on the concept of art, cultural practice, and criticism of how they are conventionally conceived (Tkáčová/ Chişa). Situations and collaborative activities (APART) reappear on our scene after the 1990s, in a new, contemporary form... It is precisely this perseverance in values which are transgenerational and timeless that is the most important, and to this day still vital, heritage of the art of the 1960s.
The APART art collective in its praxis favours diverse forms of collaboration and a collective perception of an experience. Collaborative projects, situations and performances come into being in an egalitarian model where the question of authorship is not fundamental. A common feature of these microinitiatives, covering a broad range of media and thematically un-bounded, is their performative character, thematising various forms of temporariness, evanescence, unrepeatability. Apart from the basic team, which comprises Denis Kozerawski, Peter Sit and Andrej Žabkay, APART has had collaboration (long-term) with Erik Janeček and (occasional) with Milan Tittel, Matej Gavula and Martin Vongrej.
For the members of APART the artistic act (art?) represents a certain form of totality: it is a synthesis of a relationship to reality, a quest for associations, a way of considering the role of the artist in contemporary society. The ephemeral quality of initiatives (frequently nothing objective remains from the actions) only confirms the radicalism of their thinking. The authors’ transgressions, actions and interventions are an intelligent expression of engagement within the social, political and cultural context. With remarkable sensitivity they work with the genius loci; being local is “enough” for them, and that is one of the attractive things about their initiative. They direct attention to things which are familiarly known, and they do not shirk confrontation with the past: in a surprisingly complex and apposite way (especially considering their age) they respond to the history or collective memory of the place.
Erik Janeček’s situation It’s not certain whether she’s dead or only sleeping (2014) is played out in a location which in past times was a space for spectacular military and sporting parades. Afterwards it became an urbanist symbol of socialist Bratislava, especially because of the architectural design of the square with its principal dominant: the monumental marble sculpture group in honour of Klement Gottwald, the first communist president. That was blown up in November 1990, following the change of regime. Today the square is a half-abandoned and dilapidated space in the city centre. In November 2014 Janeček placed a thousand sparklers in the centre of the fountain, which he subsequently lit. This was not simply a wordplay: the fountain as an architectonic element or a pyrotechnic term. The dramatic exchange of elements (fire instead of water) is equally a visual reflection on whether changes return in waves and the posing of a question when will the dead, expired element come newly to life and begin doing damage… What results is a highly effective aesthetic moment: a photograph recording an eruption, relating to the launch of a space rocket, showing the starting ramp for a common flight to the cosmos…
And similarly with the situation You cannot touch property in personal ownership (2016). Here the artists E. Janeček and A. Žabkay respond with a sculptural intervention to the shape of a monument which suggested to them the paw of some prehistoric animal with its claws sawn off. By completing it (filling in the claws as a symbol of power) they respond to questions of freedom, its fragility, and its unclear future, and they draw attention to the political and power-centred manoeuvres of the present day. Indirectly they advert to the inviolability (in the western world, needless to say) of private ownership, which was liquidated in Czechoslovakia after 1948, being changed to collective, socialist ownership. It was precisely this act which was the main ideological and also economic instrument in the seizure of power by the state administration. On the morning when the claws were installed their activity was reported by a woman out walking her borzois; later the city police removed the claws from the monument, put them in a car and went off with them forever …. You cannot touch property in personal ownership….