The End of Orsinia, the End of Autotelic Conceptualism
Exactly thirty years ago, the people of Ursula le Guin’s imaginary land, Orsinia, located somewhere in Central Europe, took to the streets and began to protest with jingling keys. This was in Unlocking the Air (1990), the last of the Orsinian short stories, and, most probably, the people finally brought down the regime. We may not know precisely where that land lay, but we can assume that the action is set in a Slovakian town.
I visited Bratislava and Košice during the thirtieth anniversary celebrations of the start of the Velvet Revolution on 17th November 1989. I was there to explore contemporary Slovakian trends in political and social art. I set out in search of visual expressions of change on many levels; direct, symbolic, shifts of opinion or (self-)reflection, the process of consciously setting personal opinions within the abstract sphere of a network of different possible choices and so forth. There were plenty of people in the streets, yet the discussions that took place in the public domain were rather muted and tended towards leitmotifs of “We are great heroes” and “The truth will win”, a symbolic narrative which plays the role of a new myth. Three decades later, is there no need for a new understanding of the process? Even an artist of the older generation, Rudolf Sikora, who was born in the nineteen forties, depicted himself carrying a cross on his shoulder. The cross bears the names of the heroes of the Velvet Revolution in his Verili sme… / We Believed… (19.11.1989, 6:00), created in 2019. We assume that the experience might be perceived as a burden.
During my visit, I listened to a great many comments about how the visual arts scene had been lengthily bogged down in autonomous, self-centred, meta-narrative, post-conceptual art. Prior to 2005 or thereabouts, signs of social and political engagement were discredited, being automatically associated with totalitarian propaganda. It would seem that this kind of conceptual neutrality endured for longer in Slovakia than it did in Poland. As an aside, might this have been because of the authoritarian policy maintained by Vladimir Mečiar?
The shift from the post-conceptual to works that raise deliberate, engaged narratives can be seen in the transformation which has taken place in the poetics of Ilona Németh. In the nineteen nineties, she created post-minimal installations with either no reference to reality at all or with only the barest of associations. Those traces became more evident after 2005. The disappointment felt in regard to the post-1989 period is interestingly shown in her Hmla / Fog (2013), a film which documents an artistic action she carried out on Bratislava’s Freedom Square (Námestie Slobody), an important space where people’s protests against the communist authorities took place in November 1989. During Németh’s action, artificial smoke drifted over the square, covering it. Fog is ambiguous when it comes to interpretation. The square is a space where different layers of memory clash. Although it is currently home to the Government Office of the Slovak Republic, it was rebuilt during the era of socialist realism, when it was named after a communist politician and became Gottwald Square. At the same time, the Fountain of Union (Fontána Družby) was erected as its centrepiece. So the square certainly played a role in socialist propaganda. New architectural plans for the square exclude the fountain, which is now severely damaged as a result of neglect, possibly deliberate. Fog could be understood as a representation of a short-lived collective memory, but it may also be interpreted as the state of ‘being in a fog’, of the sense of confusion felt in the new social and political situation.
Pickle and Bread Politics
The inferiority complex at work on the Slovakian art scene is palpable. Everyone is quick to mention its smallness and slowness to ‘catch up’. I believe that this limiting logic of centre and peripheries, this cheesy narrative of winners and losers, should simply be dropped. It is superficial and, in the long view, it is senseless. The question is not whether Slovakian art is ‘modern’, ‘new’ or ‘old-fashioned’, but whether it is interesting, moving and stimulating.
In an essay entitled #11 sprevàdzajù diela Slavs and Tatars, cultural anthropologist Ivana Rumanovà refers to Pickle Politics, a series of works by the Slavs and Tatars collective, and notes that fermentation can be used, either positively or ironically, as a metaphor for describing political transformation. It is a process of both decomposition and the creation of a new environment. It combines the traditional production method of pickling cucumbers, mass distribution, a physical process and an interspecies exchange involving bacteria, plants and animals. However, fermentation is an anaerobic process; it needs no oxygen. It is a transformation which takes place in a ‘closed’ environment. Is fresh air needed in order to enable Slovakian art to build up a head of steam? This figurative fermentation is also ambivalent. It is an uncontrolled process; take the example of botulism, a disease which is caused by a toxin produced by a certain kind of bacterium and often occurs in incorrectly preserved foods. It might be undesirable; after all, we may not wish to turn our favourite juice into wine or vinegar.
The question of fermentation also brings to mind a concept expressed by Dávid Koronczí in a work entitled DP.OCH – Dočasná platforma. O chlebe / Temporary platform: On bread, presented at the 2019 Oskár Čepan Award finalists’ exhibition held at the East Slovak Gallery in Košice. All the critical discourse focuses on… bread. It, too, is a result of interspecies exchange, which was the drive that led to cereals colonising Earth, using humans as their means. The production of bread is strictly related to technological development. Bread is a means for creating relationships between people in the form of shared meals. The want of bread is a primary cause of revolutions. A fermentation process is required for its making. Koronczí used the medium of the music video and the aesthetics of rap to express the concept. However, the interesting idea underlying this particular work seems not to have translated well into art. Is the table placed within the space effective as an invitation to a shared gathering? I doubt it. Nonetheless, I do see some potential in Koronczí’s visually attractive work. As a note at the exhibition says, he sets out to ‘transform states, things and values’, paying attention to relationships. In its entirety, the finalists’ show, which is entitled Ecology of Desire, frames the topic of dynamic interaction between organisms, their needs and their environments.
More Air. The Hidden Potential of a Storeroom
There is little in the way of institutional critique in Slovakia nowadays. The institutions are regarded as weak, so the need is not for transgression, but for support. This is the case with Stojíme pri kultúre / We Stand By Culture, an activist movement calling for the regeneration of Slovakian art institutions, itself an issue which demands separate attention and a separate article to address its complexity. The most interesting site of an institutional critique is also the most unexpected and involves a project that has no specific political vector and is open in many directions. What I have in mind is the tiny Jozef Kollár Gallery in Banská Štiavnica and its year-long curatorial programme, Zlaté časy / Golden Times, led by Lucia Tkáčová, during which, it into a contemporary branch of the HIT Gallery.
Tkáčová explored the Kollár’s non-artistic objects, cluttered in the corners of the exhibition spaces and used them in the installations. The idea of the project was to declutter and ‘liberate’ the gallery. She also emptied the storeroom, with its accumulation of forgotten objects. Then she removed some of the accumulated ‘lumber’, leaving the storeroom itself to become the site of an installation. It is situated in the basement, which was once part of the tunnel system of a mine. The walls are weeping with damp. Fragments of impressive, modern-day bas-reliefs lie there in piles, abandoned. A whimsical sound installation, Silent Tide, fills the space. The work of a Polish artist, Zorka Wollny, it was created in collaboration with thirteen local women. Those human voices in the obscure tunnel could be taken as an evocation of the ‘small-town’ stories about the supernatural forces which lurk unseen in the corridors of the mines. At the same time, clearing out the storeroom might be seen as an extensive metaphor for changes which reveal aspects of the functioning of the institution.
Tkáčová and Németh used what had been found there and in other nooks and crannies of the gallery to construct a site-specific installation spread through the museum, creating a number of works which included a quasi-minimal sculpture of frames in the entrance hall of the gallery, an object with old furniture as its component parts in the corridor on the second floor and the structures they built with the display system designed for the Jozef Kollár Gallery in 1989 by Vojtech Novotný and Ján Mutkovič. The elements of the system are massive, old-fashioned and almost surreal. Németh and Tkáčová made figures of them, similar to totems. Real totems serve as an emblem of a group of people such as a family, a tribe or a clan; in this case, they are the emblem of the institution.
Totems also operate as a representation of the connection between human beings and atmospheric phenomena, a symbolism that is reinforced by the third of Tkáčová’s and Németh’s installations, which features twenty-two of the kind of indoor environmental control devices that are responsible for maintaining the proper microclimate in museums. In the installation, they come on every hour to create a show of sound and air. They were found in the exhibition premises, ‘hidden’ in the corners of the museum. They were bought with money from Norway Grants, but had rarely or never been used. They are a symbol of unnecessary purchases made because of looming funding deadlines, a real sign of the times. For the installation, they were placed in the part of the gallery where Edmund Gwerk’s and Jozef Kollár’s landscape paintings are displayed. Both artists paid special attention to the weather and the different conditions of humidity in the air, clouds and wind. Those traditional works correspond to the devices, which create an artificial storm in the room. Németh’s and Tkáčová’s entire intervention is entitled Time solidifies in its core [sic]. It can be understood as a reflection on the accumulation of objects over time and the assertion that fresh air should be let into art institutions.
 Philip Smith calls this process “narrative inflation”; in other words, a tendency to search for motivations which are transcendental and mythological rather than commonplace. These causes become more idealistic and abstract, as in ‘The Fight for Freedom’, ‘Power’, ‘The Fight for Truth’ and “The Fight Between Good and Evil’; Philip Smith, Why War? The Cultural Logic of Iraq, the Gulf War and Suez, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, London 2005, p. 21.
 We Believed… is Rudolf Sikora’s second version of the cross. In the first, My verili… / We Believed (2017), he inscribed it with the names of Russian avant-garde artists and the abstractive figure he is holding is more similar to a cross, whereas, in the second version, it also resembles an arrow.
 It is not that there is anything wrong with this kind of art, but a lack of pluralism may quite simply be cognitively unstimulating.
 Vladimir Mečiar (b. 1942) held the post of Prime Minister of Slovakia from 1990 to 1991, 1992 to 1994 and from 1994 to 1998.
 This is my own opinion, formed on the basis of Ilona Németh’s portfolio; cf.: https://www.ilonanemeth.sk/, retrieved on 10.01.2019.
 See Vladimir Beskid, The Situation of Visual Culture in Post-War Slovakia, in: East Art Map: Contemporary Art and Eastern Europe, IRWIN (ed.), London, Cambridge 2006, p. 307. In my view, since the social agreement between millions of people which we call a ‘state’ is not a track athlete, it cannot race and can neither catch up nor lag behind. The logic of ‘catching up’ is both completely wrong and self-colonial, while the tendency to claim that Western ideas were ‘better’ because they enjoyed greater popularity is a misunderstanding based on the assumption that the more popular a phenomenon, the ‘better’ it is.
 Ivana Rumanovà, #11 sprevàdzajù diela Slavs and Tatars, in: “Kapitàl” No. 11, November 2019, p. 3.
 It seems that the music scene is an important transmitter of artistic ideas in Slovakian art, much more so than in Poland. For the youngest generation, concerts and music pubs and clubs like Fuga and A4, for instance, appear to be the real centre of new ideas, rather than arts institutions.
 The cleaning of the storeroom was a minor part of the project, which concentrated on the all non-artistic objects in the museum.
Translation by Caryl Swift
Cover image: Dávid Koronczí: DP.OCH – Dočasná platforma. O chlebe / Temporary platform. davidkoronczi.com
This article was written and published in the frame of East Art Mags programme with the support of the International Visegrad Fund.