apexart :: Conference Program :: Viera Jancekova

Retaining Regional Differences
Viera Jancekova

While I was preparing this lecture in our garden, my neighbor was whistling as he put in his roof. Always just a few notes of the song, starting with the Soviet national anthem, then fluidly switching to some pop song. There are probably cultural influences that we cannot see, or somehow do not wish to see. On the one hand, it is exotic to know the Soviet anthem, and we can have fun at parties trying to remember the words, which emphasize how the country will stay united forever. On the other hand, we feel ashamed, as our parents lost the possibility to be proud on their past, except of the private family sphere. One could easily be successful by producing art with images of Lenin, but given the skepticism inherited from the late regime, one might be hard pressed to really appreciate it. I will provide further examples from my curatorial praxis later.

How much art in Slovakia, perceptions of it from within and expectations from without, is influenced by our Communist past and capitalist future? What does cultural hegemony mean in a small country that is hardly recognized internationally as an independent republic, even after more than ten years of separation from the Czech Republic, and even after joining the European Union? How can we understand our identity, preserve it, and still be able to compete with other countries, especially those from the 'West,' without becoming an specimen from some folkloric or post-Communist zoo?

I remember one 'Western' curator saying of the international position of Slovak art, 'It is a pity you don't have a war; that would bring you more interest.' 'Unfortunately' we had no war, but at least the political changes associated with the extension of the European Union caused interest to temporarily increase, so that usually under-represented Eastern European artists without stronger economic support from local foundations (as is typical of the British Council or Pro Helvetia) had the temporary opportunity to be in fashion.

It is challenging to think what we might bring to global art spheres from our local experience. But, to be honest, could Andrej Varhola, the son of a mother who left our republic before the Second World War, have succeeded without having changed his name to Andy Warhol? Should we change our identity in order to have success in an imagined Western world? Could an institution with a name like Galeria Jána Koniarka from a town called Trnava from a country called the Slovak Republic be an equal partner for established international art centers or artists?

I would like to introduce an example of a type of collaboration that dealt with regional differences, even as it unifies with an international community, without big words about helping the 'integration of New Europe.' It is a cultural collaboration between art centers from seven different countries and disparate artistic circumstances, within a network called Art Centres of Europe. Re:Location 1–7 / Shake is a three-year project between very different European institutions based on respect of local differences: Casino Luxembourg–Forum d'art contemporain, Luxembourg; Centrul International pentru Arta Contemporana, Muzeul National de Arta Contemporana, Bucharest and Fundatia ArtStudio, Cluj, Romania; Centrum Sztuki Wspólczesnej Laznia, Gdansk, Poland; migros museum für gegenwartskunst, Zurich, Switzerland and Halle für Kunst, Lüneburg, Germany; O. K Centrum für Gegenwartskunst, Linz, Austria; and Villa Arson–Centre National d’Art Contemporain, Nice, France.

The principle overcame limitations on artistic exchange between countries, and was usually implemented on a simple administrative basis. The project tried not to impose any particular standpoint on participants, but rather enrich their diverse circumstances by introducing them into each other's specific situation. During a process of close collaboration, paved by the gradual expansion of the European community, universal Internet access, and increasing language readiness, new experiences emerged amidst issues of hegemony, common narratives and individual differences. It became clear very early on that our curatorial group needed to try and combine several existing models: exchanging artists for a long residency, naturally, during which the conception and realization of an exhibition in which all the artists would take part would be encouraged, and initiating a dialogue that once started, should be ongoing. This meant, from the very beginning and before any selection process, paying particular attention on both sides to the respective cultural contexts of each institution. Therefore, during seven bi-lateral projects between the centers mentioned above, not only did each curator visit the other's institution, but also met with the artists, examined dossiers, spoke with various members of the art scene, so as to grasp what was happening beneath the visible surface. We thus confronted and compared our respective situations, our possibilities, our working tools, our difficulties, and our financial means, in order to better understand the specifics of each other's contexts. Finally, for our project we chose artists who we felt would display a maximum of energy in this framework, and whose approach would be enhanced by such an experience.

Re:Location 1 between Galeria Jána Koniarka in Trnava and the Casino Luxembourg–Forum d'art contemporain in 2001 marked the beginning of a 3-year collaboration. Initially, the specific goals of the project were unclear. However, we knew that we wanted to create a dialogue reflecting the diverse influences to which we were all subject, and the efforts we were willing to make in the mutual exploration of new possibilities. Our success in this endeavor would depend, we felt, upon our ability to listen to other perspectives while being comfortable enough to articulate our own. In many ways the collaborative model was new to both institutions, neither of which had any experience with an artist-in-residence program or the infrastructure to support one.

Trnava, once an important medieval town and later a significant Baroque and university center with an important Catholic church, is not a typical example of a contemporary-art Mecca. While there is a strong literary and theatrical tradition, the visual arts in Trnava are typified by the Baroque. Despite being the capital of Trnava District, with an important economic and administrative history, Trnava is not a tourist destination. On the contrary, running into a foreigner there is quite rare, although this is gradually changing. Trnava has at times a dual nature: on the one hand, it is a highly competitive town, and on the other, like the Slovak nation in general, it tends to have a rather passive approach to its relationship with the rest of the world. Occupation by successive empires (Austro-Hungarian, Fascist, Communist) has always made it difficult to find an authentic national voice. This uncertain identity also applies to the Slovak art scene. The concern of the Art Centres of Europe network, originally Centres des Marges, to respect and take into account art scenes located on the periphery, sits comfortably with the state of contemporary art in Trnava, itself on the periphery of Bratislava, the capital of Slovakia. Even though the term 'periphery' is highly problematic in itself, we cannot deny its influence on the perception of those who produce and observe art.

Unlike Trnava, Luxembourg is a cosmopolitan city where you never know whether a waiter in a restaurant will speak French, German or Letzeburgesch. The population is similar to that of Trnava, approximately 80,000, with an equal number of people commuting in daily to work. The Grand Duchy of Luxembourg has its own independent history as well as its own pride, despite being one of the few countries in Europe smaller than Slovakia. It is not possible to pin down a particular art scene or typical features of Luxembourg art.

Slovakia, on the other hand, has its own art scene, although one primarily linked to the capital, Bratislava, situated 50 kilometers from Trnava. The natural focus of the Bratislava art scene is the Academy of Fine Arts and Design. After the so-called Velvet Revolution of 1989, visual artists from Slovakia (Czechoslovakia until 1993) awaited the arrival of curators from the West who would discover the intrinsic qualities of their work, which had developed in isolation from any influence or collaboration with Western Europe. The short period of enthusiasm sparked by the fall of the Iron Curtain was followed by a time of disillusionment. Suddenly, one needed to know how to sell oneself rather than wait for discovery, and there was a need to know languages other than the until then compulsory Russian, and formerly praised character traits like self-restraint and humility became old-fashioned.

Re:Location 1 brought together two institutions, along with their backgrounds and contexts. This intense collaboration helped each art center to define its respective strengths and weaknesses. At the same time it allowed the curators to explore another country's art scene. Discovering artists who demonstrated an ability to work collaboratively within another social context guaranteed a process of cross-fertilization. Keeping in mind the original idea of 'de-centralisation,' the curators were not necessarily looking for 'stars,' but for artists whose work would be most likely to benefit from the experience.

Luxembourg artists Jerry Frantz and Dany Prum collaborated on a project intended as an intermediary between the world of art and that of everyday life. Lisie, a 'newborn' doll representing an actual child born in Luxembourg in January 2002, was at the center of the project. The doll, which traveled from Luxembourg to Slovakia and then on to the United States and Iceland, passed from one 'adoptive' parent to the next. It was like a blank canvas onto which visitors could project themselves, and with which they could share their own daily lives. Documented with video and photography Lisie's travels became a window into many worlds. Jerry Frantz, who traveled with the doll to Slovakia, also became an actor in this created stage of cross-cultural interaction: first-grade children sang them a winter song, and while the eighth-graders were more skeptical, some embraced Lisie despite themselves.

During his stay in Trnava, Jerry Frantz took part in a birthday celebration, visited local pubs, and attended art openings, quickly integrating into the social life of Trnava. Coming from a country with a long-term commitment to capitalism, he was very interested in Slovakia’s recent Communist past. Seeking out relics and artifacts from the period prior to the Velvet Revolution, Frantz documented some of the architectural 'wounds' inflicted by overly zealous and arrogant Communist planners, as well simpler stories from everyday life. This footage, filmed by Frantz and edited by Dany Prum, was shown at the Casino Luxembourg in the installation entitled Who is Lisie? The living room represented a typical interior from the socialist era.

Ultimately, Frantz's collaboration with the Galéria Jána Koniarka developed into an exploration of distance and of politics. Intrigued by 'ostalgia' for remnants of socialist aesthetics, his discovery of an image of Lenin in a pile of garbage became a lesson on how the same image can be seen from different historical perspectives. For Frantz, Lenin's image was a quaint reminder of a Cold War enemy now long gone and rendered toothless. For Slovaks, who experienced life under socialism, the picture triggered shame and embarrassment, and the memory of a time filled with political repression and personal and artistic caution. However, as time passed, and as Frantz came to understand the meaning of Lenin's picture from the Slovak point of view, Slovaks used Jerry's perspective to become more detached from their own negative feelings. By gaining some distance from the pain of life under the previous regime, Slovaks were able to experience some of the '(n)ostalgia' for socialist æsthetics so ‘fashionable,’ for example, in East Berlin.

Like the majority of Slovaks, the Slovak artist Juraj Dudás does not make any effort to seek out his roots. He is a child of the globalized world and its media, filled with noisy television jingles, information and capitalist strategies. The figure of DJ Giorgio, a fictitious pop star admired by celebrities all over the world, is one of his strategies. On one side, there is a wide-open 'Western world,' with its temptations, speed, and ambitions, while on the other, Dudas seems perfectly aware of how tiny we are in this world. In his Cubes, he works with the aesthetics of minimal art and combines it with the world of the media. In fact, those works represent enlarged parts of microphones, specifically the parts carrying the logos of television channels. At the time, the logo of the Al-Jazeera channel was particularly evocative, especially in relation to the better-known logos of the BBC, CNN, ARTE, RTL, or the former logo of the Slovak television channel. His quotation of minimal art, a movement often described as quintessentially Western, seems paradoxical, but it reminds us of our own carnality through the change of scale in the installation. Indeed, the size of the piece played an important role. In Slovakia, where the production of large works of art is financially quite difficult, Dudas' work could be regarded a shy comment.

Despite obvious differences (for instance, the admission fee for the exhibition in Luxembourg was 4€, whereas in Slovakia it was only 10 Slovak crowns or 0.46€), the project proved that collaboration on an equal footing can successfully be achieved, and that this form of collaboration can lead to more than simply a work of art.

This year, the collective art exhibition prepared by the seven art centers set out to create a large-scale European art show, Re:Location Shake, with no centralist hierarchy and characterized by equal relationships based on the abilities of every curator, artist or art center. Parallel shows were organized throughout Europe. In Trnava, the topic of the show dealt with public taste and its expectations of art.

As part of our effort to counteract the usual apathy of ordinary people in Trnava and the lack of interest in contemporary art, we included Eva and Adele, 'hermaphrodite twins from the future,' in Re:Location Shake in Trnava. In addition to their installation at the gallery interior, these two artists, walked the streets of the town, thus creating a public art space. As they themselves put it, "Wherever we are is a museum." The appearance of these Berlin-based artists in the center of culturally homogenous Trnava certainly attracted attention and provoked reactions. However, sheer provocation was not our goal. We felt that having two self-consciously 'different' individuals interacting with our citizenry will stimulate discussion about gender and identity issues. We hope that with this import from the West, positively seen, we can get attention more like the events that Eva and Adele usually visit, such as the Venice Biennale.

In fact, our aim was to be equal, that is, to be voluntarily globalized. Did we succeed?