Prague City Gallery’s “Probe 1: The Story of Slovak (Post)Conceptual Art” (12th December 2018 – 24th March 2019) came and went unnoticed. This is hardly surprising, despite the prime location of the museum’s 13th-century Stone Bell House site: a corner of the Old Town Square beneath the piercing spires of the Church of our Lady before Týn.
The exhibition was ignored by the international art press and received little attention from the tourists merrily chomping burgers and fries under the Astronomical Clock. The obscure title doesn’t help, either. Slovak contemporary art is almost unknown to most locals, let alone visitors. Post-conceptual, meanwhile, only adds to the confusion, since the very idea of conceptual art is still undigestible for many.
Parts of “Probe 1” make a captivating account of how fringe practices from an overlooked country can stand the test of time next to better-known artistic movements. It tells its story across four themed rooms covering reductionism (minimalist sculptures, monochromes, and “anti-paintings”), text works, visions of outer space, and media art asking what counts as an “image” in the first place.
Any take on this is shaped by two factors. One is the inescapable context of the political thaw of 1960s Czechoslovakia, the 1968 Soviet invasion, and the twenty-year period of purges, censorship, and economic centralization known under the eerie name of “normalization”. Another is viewers’ low expectations for anything that comes out of provincial former communist states like Slovakia.
These assumptions come down in part to what historian Ezequiel Adamovsky calls “Euro-orientalism”. This describes how the west portrays Russia and Slavic nations in general. Euro-orientalism is not, however, just a style of talking about “Eastern Europe”. It is rather how the west organises its relationship to these places. This occurs partly through moral judgements defining Eastern Europe by what it supposedly lacks: modern, liberal, “western” values.
By “orientalism”, literary theorist Edward W. Said meant that “European culture gained in strength and identity by setting itself off against the Orient as a sort of surrogate and even underground self.” To maintain an image of itself as the rational centre of knowledge, Europe had to define itself against a mysterious Other. Writers, artists, and historians thus produced a caricature of the Middle East and its sensuous, exotic people. Euro-orientalism, Adamovsky argues, does the same to Eastern Europe. Developing in the 1910s, and accelerated by the Cold War, Euro-orientalism tells the story of Eastern Europe’s inferiority according to the norms of bourgeois class society.
To the Euro-orientalist gaze, “Slovakia” is shoeless peasants tilling the muddy soil; sultry, passionate women swanning down cobbled streets in impossibly tight jeans; the faint sound of orphans howling from some damp, crumbling factory annex. This projection ignores real history. After all, Slovakia was variously under the yoke of the Hungarian crown and Habsburg empire, a Nazi puppet state, and the developing half of a socialist regime sandwiched in time between two short-lived Czechoslovak democracies. To Euro-orientalists, Slovak contemporary art doesn’t exist and would merely imitate more exciting western art even if it did.
Euro-orientalist ignorance makes it difficult to tell the story of Slovak contemporary art from the beginning. Na tom našem (At Our Home) (2007) by Marek Kvetan gives us a starting point by ironizing attitudes towards Slovakia. The installation comprises house-painting equipment (two buckets of paint, brushes, rollers, bubble-wrap for the floor) and the gallery wall, painted pink. Each bucket, labelled with the Czech or Slovak flag and dictionary definitions of the country and its heraldry, contains paint mixed in a perfect ratio of the flags’ red, white, and blue color schemes.
At Our Home plays on a chain of unexpected associations between Slovakia’s self-image and how outsiders might see it. This begins with Ludovít Stur, codifier of the Slovak language in the mid-19th century, who called his people “a nation of farmers and builders”. It ends with Slovakia joining the European Union, when the nation of farmers and builders became a source of the west’s painters and decorators. From a Euro-orientalist perspective Slovaks are merely cheap labor, as indistinguishable from each other as the colors in Kvetan’s paint, perfectly mixed by a computer program.
Though Kvetan’s house painting equipment condenses all this historical baggage into one piece of visual data, his main interest is with the relation between art making and computer technology. This concern is one of the things that makes his work “post-conceptual”. To make sense of this, however, we need to place Slovak post-conceptual art in the larger context of the Slovak avant-garde.
In their catalogue essays, exhibition curators Vladimír Beskid and Jakub Král describe three turning points in Slovak visual culture. Each reflects the liquidation of a once stable way of life. This begins with the avant-garde artists of Košice, east Slovakia, who rejected traditional rural Slovak imagery for the strange new world of machines and nonchalant city folk.
Next came conceptual art in Bratislava (c. 1964-5). Slovak conceptual artists not only extended but even anticipated American innovations, contributing to what art historian Piotr Piotroswki has called “a golden period of Czechoslovak art,” including from the Slovak side Stanislav Filko (b. 1937), Július Koller (1939-2007), Peter Ronaí (b. 1953), Rudolf Sikora (b. 1946), Dezider Tóth (b. 1947), and Jozef Jankovič (1937-2017), all featured here.
“In conceptual art,” wrote American artist Sol Lewitt, “the idea or concept is the most important aspect of the work.” How it looks (colour, surface, texture, shape) or the “emotional kick” we expect to get from it are not only less important than the idea, but even deter us from understanding it. This provokes, as critics Lucy Lippard and John Chandler put it, “the profound dematerialization of art.” The material reality of conceptual art is in the documentation of the artist’s thought processes in photographs, plans, diagrams, or instructions for a piece’s installation, and not the hallowed physical presence of a work of art.
Slovak conceptual artists defied any and all conventions. They scorned expressive abstraction and technical mastery, and refused the limits art institutions place on displaying works of art by performing in public. Take, for example, indefinable rebel Július Koller and his friend and later rival Stano Filko.
Koller’s “anti-paintings” snub the spiritual elitism of modern abstract painting. With the six-part series “Game – Painting (Anti-Happening)” (1967) and Question Mark (anti-image) (1969), Kóller tried to level all artistic hierarchies. He did so by purposely making clumsy paintings with very basic imagery, such as paint splatters and question marks (his signature symbol), using poor materials like latex paint, cardboard, fibreboard, and unprimed and unstretched canvas.
Filko, likewise, developed a series of “anti-performances”, the “Happsoc” series (1965-8). Like anti-paintings, anti-performances continue the avant-garde aim of collapsing art into life. All an artist has to do in an anti-performance is “remove” an experience or event from the flow of everyday life and say it is art while at the same time encouraging everyone to take part unselfconsciously. Happsoc I (1965), produced with Alex Mylnárcik and Zita Kostrová, for example, was held between two public holidays filled with pageantry and celebratory parades, May 1st (International Workers’ Day) and May 9th (the Soviet liberation of Slovakia).
Filko claimed that the whole of Bratislava was taking part in an “expression of unstylized reality, in its original form unaffected by direct intervention.” What this means is, however, unclear, since there is no documentation apart from photographs of the events set up by the government. Even if the artistic content of this anti-performance meant nothing to anybody else and only existed in the minds of the artists, the fact that they said this is what they were doing is what makes it a significant moment in conceptual art.
The third turning point is the collapse of communism. Beskid claims Slovak post-conceptual art responds to this explosion (c. 1990-93). This is debatable. Philosopher Peter Osborne explains that “post-conceptual” art is not a medium, form, style, or movement. There is nothing that looks or feels specifically post-conceptual. It is, rather, a general artistic situation reflecting a new experience of time, “global contemporaneity”, produced by the worldwide reach of capital and telecommunication networks. Post-conceptual art thus radicalizes the dematerialization of the art-object. Making and even looking at art is, under these conditions, about asking what it is for these kinds of works to be what they are, a matter of transcendental reflection more than an edifying aesthetic experience.
Beskid explains that artists’ first taste of this was the new image culture emerging as Czechoslovakia opened up — photocopiers, fax machines, VHS cameras, and early PCs. Roman Ondak’s (b.1966) Letter (2003), for example, is simply a printed copy of an official-looking letter sent by the artist to the Slovakian Ministry of Culture with the question “could you support my intention to establish a Virtual Museum of Contemporary Art?”.
The post-conceptuality of a piece like this is, ultimately, about how the artist condenses multiple experiences of time and space in the here-and-now of looking at them. Slovakia then becomes a test-case showing the fractured unity of time under globalization, which is what determines how art is now made, displayed, and perceived.
Letter assumes the viewer is aware that contemporary Slovak art is underdeveloped by comparison to other places. It does so by turning a reflection on its relative lack of progress into an object of artistic reflection in its own right. This, paradoxically, uses the provinciality of the Slovak scene as a means to shows up the viewer’s own provinciality, since it is impossible for any individual to access the full utopian “presence” of virtual global interconnectedness anyway.
The fact that it is probably impossible for the Slovak Ministry of Culture to meet Ondak’s request connects him to the earlier generation of conceptual artists, who often played with local and cosmic scale by using words and images that showed up the regime’s short-sightedness. To appreciate this, however, we need to scrutinize the “dissident” status of Slovak conceptual artists.
Historian Tony Judt preferred the term “opposition” to “dissidents”. “Dissident art,” he explained, “acquires a romantic aura which, while accentuated in societies which demand conformity, is still surely something distinct from a conscious opposition to the system which sustains that conformity.” Calling Slovak conceptual artists “dissidents” would overstate the works’ political content, unjustifiably making them seem heroic, compared to younger artists who remember little if anything of the Velvet Revolution or Velvet Divorce, let alone the Prague Spring and normalization.
Slovak conceptual artists were neither brazenly political nor “anti-political” in the sense advocated by Czech dissident authors Václav Havel or Václav Benda; they did not denounce really existing socialism in moral terms. This is in part due to the different conditions in the two halves of Czechoslovakia. What is now Slovakia suffered less under the post 1968 “normalization.” It rapidly industrialized under communism and developed more quickly than the Czech lands, and its people expressed much greater satisfaction with their lot.
Without taking too many risks or fully denouncing the system, Slovak conceptual artists challenged the regime’s regulation of what could even be imagined, let alone said or written. They did so by subtly satirizing what historian Marci Shore has called the “uninspired simplicity” of its visual language and slogans.
Jozef Jankovič’s drawn architectural diagrams, likePlan for a Communist Party Hotel on the Moon (1976) orProject No.10 – Plan for a Slovak Eros Center (1974) parody the utopian aspirations of modernist and brutalist structures by placing them in the most inhospitable cosmic conditions. Rudolf Sikora’s screen print Exclamation Mark (1974) and digital print series “Exclamation Mark I-III” (1974/2018), meanwhile, show us exclamation marks made of images of planet earth, lampooning socialist internationalism by reducing the whole world to a piece of punctuation without any slogan to give them meaning.
The most effective satirizer was, however, Július Koller. Koller’s “antihappenings” are text-cards made from plain pieces of paper with slogans printed in official-looking green stamp typeface. The slogans reading Antihappening (1965) and Nevystava ( Non-Exhibition) (1969) take a stance against art institutions. Those saying Permanentné Mystifikácie (Permanent Mystifications) (1968) and Oznámení — Socialistická okupace subjektu (Announcement — Socialist Occupation of the Subject) (1971) are, as I have said before, more directly subversive.
“Probe 1” is a valuable effort showing how contemporary art developed in a neglected part of Europe. The work of Slovak conceptual art lived and died under really existing socialism. Slovak post-conceptual art, meanwhile, depends for its substance on continuing technological progress and the distributive networks of global capitalism. Even if the conceptual artists were not dissidents, they still took a critical stance to the present and believed in a liberated future. The post-conceptual artists who came after face a pincer movement of Euro-orientalism and new kinds of illiberal democracy. Slovakia may have just elected its first female, progressive president in Zuzana Čaputová, but there are still no guarantees.
Max L. Feldman is a writer, art critic, and educator based in Vienna, Austria. He writes an art column for The Hannah Arendt Center for Politics and Humanities at Bard College and has taught at Heythrop College (University of London) and The University of Roehampton, London. He is a contributing editor for Public Seminar. Signal: The Story of (Post)Conceptual Art in Slovakia is at Ludwig Múzeum, Budapest, Hungary from 19th April-23 rd June 2019