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Daniel Grúň: Species of Exhibition Spaces and Artists’ Communities in 1970s and ’80s Slovakia

Space melts like sand running through one’s fingers. Time bears it away and leaves me only shapeless shreds… (Species of Spaces / Espèces d’espaces, Georges Perec)

 

The cultural politics of the normalization period (1970–1989) in Czechoslovakia limited the opportunities for exhibition making and influenced the character of artists’ social activities. If we consider the exhibition strategies first practiced in these art spaces in the 1990s, before the fall of Communism, they largely amounted to exhibitions that took place outside of the gallery, running for brief time periods, held in makeshift conditions or with alternative hosts. The Communist system functioned at the micro level of everyday life, as the intimate structure of the system affected the entire society.[1] This also had an affect on exhibition venues and on the artistic communities within the unofficial art scene. Meetings and short-term exhibitions were held in apartments, studios, or suburban areas, and places where state power, supervision, and control had limited reach. Provisional character of exhibition making, which often went beyond the institutional framework, leads us to speculate on the categorization of sites and locations; why they were chosen and how they relate to these activities. In several cases, which I will comment below, exhibition formats overlap with participatory art. Also because Slovak participatory art was already analyzed in other texts, I will concentrate more on situational aspects of the exhibition.[2]

This essay follows on from texts published in conjunction with exhibition and book projects. In particular, those published in: Mutually. Communities of the 1970s. and 1980s[3]Star City. Future Under Communism[4]; and L’Internationale—Post-War Avant-Gardes Between 1957 and 1986.[5] My aim is to articulate latent political projects—futurological projects, exhibitions in the form of posters, fictive institutions, activities in urban peripheries, and places beyond the control and reach of the state apparatus. Often such strategies were unavoidable, necessary for inner resistance and outer defense (against accusations of illegal activity).

Already by the mid-1960s fundamental initiatives were undertaken to form the conceptual and action art orientation of Slovakia’s visual art scene. Stano Filko and Alex Mlynárčik’s HAPPSOC 1. (Bratislava, May 2–8,1965) took the form of a “sociological happening” and manifesto. When the invitation for the HAPPSOC 1. action is closely read, one cannot help but notice that the main part of the text is a statistical register, a collection of objects— what were then the found realities of the city, conceptually limited in space and time. Pierre Restany characterized this nameless enumeration of objects (as a sufficient way to record and to reveal) as société trouvée, the found society.[6] In 1966, during the AICA International Congress, Mlynárčik was attacked in the press and investigated by the police after presenting his exhibition entitled Permanentné manifestácie II.–-Pocty (Permanent Manifestations II.—Tributes) in public toilets. Artists were invited by Mlynárčik to research the graffiti in these places—the spontaneous, often anonymous writings on the walls—as a popular plebiscite, and participants were encouraged to add further inscriptions on prepared surfaces.[7]

 

Exhibition as Process

Rudolf Sikora’s house, with an adjacent courtyard, was located on Tehelná Street in a working class quarter of Bratislava, and originally served as the artist’s private studio. On November 19, 1970, the collective exhibition 1. Otvorený ateliér (1st Open Studio) was held there to introduce the generation of young artists who were trying to circumvent restrictions on planning exhibitions, and who were trying to overcome the never-ending bureaucratic approval process and prohibitions that had stunted exhibition activities over the past decade. The exhibition was preceded by discussions that were provoked by feelings of discontent in society after 1968, and by the need to consider unconventional visual arts categories which could extend opportunities for free expression and authentic experience.[8] By responding to the location of Sikora’s house and its environs, the artists produced a whole series of one-off, site-specific interventions. In terms of the local art scene, 1st Open Studio introduced participatory processes and collective artworks. Involvement by members of the public, even those belonging to artistic professions, was limited. Rather, the exhibition happened within a narrow circle of artists, friendly communities, and invited experts.[9] A brief seven-minute documentary, shot on 8 mm film, was produced on the initiative of Marian Mudroch. It records the preparatory work before the opening of the exhibition and footage of the memorable evening of November 19, 1970. Owing to fears of police intervention, the opening of the exhibition was held one day before the date on the printed invitation. Nevertheless the exhibition 1st Open Studio challenged participants through dialogue and mutual confrontation, in particular for the generation of artists who had come on the scene by the mid-1960s: Peter Bartoš (b. 1938), Václav Cigler (b. 1929), Milan Dobeš (b. 1929), Július Koller (b. 1939), Alex Mlynárčik (b. 1934), Ivan Štěpán (b.1937), Miloš Urbásek (b. 1932). Also, for the  generation that followed: Milan Adamčiak (b. 1946), Róbert Cyprich (b. 1951), Igor Gazdík (b. 1943), Viliam Jakubík (b. 1945), Vladimír Kordoš (b. 1945), Ivan Kříž-Vyrubiš (b. 1941), Otis Laubert (b. 1946), Juraj Meliš (b. 1942), Marián Mudroch (b. 1945), Jana Shejbalová-Želibská (b. 1941), Rudolf Sikora (b. 1946), Dezider Tóth (b. 1947). In the second minute of Mudroch’s film, the swiftly moving camera catches a cluster of participants standing together in front of the house on Tehelná Street as they look at smoke rising from two chimneys. By using red and blue smoke bombs, the smoke coming out of two chimneys, framed by white foggy background of sky, marks out the colors of the Czechoslovak tricolor flag; this work by Mudroch is titled Upriamte pozornosť na komíny domu (Fix Your Attention on the Chimneys of the House). On the threshold of the period of normalization, in the stifling atmosphere of a closed society and ongoing political purges, and following the cancellation of the Bratislava Young Artists’ Biennale “Danuvius 1968,” the artists’ studios became, not only a place to confront individual artistic practices, but also a space for participation in creative, collective experiences.

Establishment of a space for collective experiences through sports activity was Julius Koller’s domain. The exhibition “J. K. Ping-Pong Club” by Július Koller deliberately erases the boundaries between sporting and artistic events. In March 1970, he used an independent exhibition space at the Galéria Mladých to play table tennis with visitors at regular intervals during the exhibition’s duration. He turned the gallery into a sports club setting complete with ping-pong table, sports flags decorated with the initials J.K., and an written announcement about the conditions for playing.[10]

 

Exhibition as Poster

The idea of collective participation in Slovakia had emerged somewhat earlier in the work of Mlynárčik. Immediately after 1st Open Studio, studio-based discussion groups began forming again. This occurred from Sikora’s initiative: he distinctively took up the ideas of collaboration that Mlynárčik had brought forward. In this way, a loose working group was formed. A research team, principally composed of artists, aimed to apply scientific knowledge—especially from geophysics, mathematics and futurology—into the creation of social projects such as ?!+ … Dotazník (Questionnaire) (1971), …Čas I… (…Time I…) (1973), and …Čas II… (…Time II…) (1973). In a large-format print entitled …Time I… a natural underground space, the Sloupsko-Šošův cave became a venue for the conceptual propositions for site-specific works. Based on the exact measurements of the underground space and applying time lines, neon lights, sounds and written statements they are created as photomontages. The printed poster is made up of a grid of regular square fields, each containing one work, which are messages designed to be transmitted to the universe. This work was a communal, cosmic meditation on human civilization from the perspective of the past, present, and future. …Time II… contains textual information only—which offer a vision of the distant future. The text, written in a number of languages (Slovak, English, French, German, Russian, and Spanish), and arranged in the form of an exclamation mark, is a utopian vision of the future, a reconstruction of the universe by scientific communism.[11] Not only were conceptual ideas symptomatic features of these team projects, but also scientific abstraction, and the absence of any social or political concerns. According to Fredric Jameson utopian fantasies need to be taken seriously because identification between socialism and Utopia very much continue to be unresolved topics.[12]

Here, it is not a matter of personal time, social time, or the lifetime of an individual, but rather the totality of time—on an abstract level—where artists could look toward a future empty of social facts.[13] The poster as exhibition format made an impression. A record of a friendly meeting entitled Symposion ’74 was printed in identical fashion as a conceptual work on a shared surface. The shift toward cosmic, artistic thinking based on a strategy of Duchampian appropriation of reality and human production in the given moment of social practice, remains one of the feature characteristics of Slovak Conceptualism, spearheaded by Stano Filko and Július Koller. [14]

 

Exhibition as Disembodiment

In 1973, together with Miloš Laky (1948–1975) and Ján Zavarský (b. 1948), Stano Filko (b. 1937) formed an independent group to encourage a “return to painting.” Biely priestor v bielom priestore (White Space in a White Space) recalls the radical return to the zero point of painting, which was already conducted by such artists as Kazimir Malevič, Yves Klein, Lucio Fontana, and Ad Reinhart at that time. It evokes something that had been played with in avant-garde art decades previously. But, if at first sight one has the impression of an anachronistic effort, these artists were seeking to formulate a time-free gesture, associated with the articulation of a non-objective world. White Space is characterized by the combination of artistic realization and conceptual expression. Its goal was to dissolve the artist’s subject, negate objectivity, and to scrutinize feeling and the faculty of perception. This radical gesture was a return to the autonomy of art. White Space was gradually realized in successive, individual stages: Sensibility (1973–74) presents a horizontal painting done in white latex on a white canvas and paper tubes; Sensitivity (1974–76) presents a vertical painting on white felt. After the death of Laky in 1975, Filko continued alone on two further stages of the project: Emotion (1977) and Transcendence (1978–79).[15] White Space was thoroughgoing, as evidenced by the precise sketches and spatial models for the individual stages. Unquestionably, the project was intended for public exhibition; exhibitions were held in Brno, Budapest, and at the Youth Biennale in Paris (without Filko’s participation). Afterward, Filko put on independent exhibitions in a number of Polish cities (Lublin, Gdansk, Warsaw), and in 1982 he presented a version of the project in Kassel at Documenta 7.

 

Exhibition as Fiction and Mystification

Július Koller’s U.F.O. Gallery project was developed between 1969 and 1984. Even before Koller took the initiative to found a fictional gallery located on Malý Ganek, one of the mountain peaks of the High Tatras, he had tried to put on an exhibition directly on the street, in the display window of a stocking repair workshop. In collaboration with Peter Bartoš, the project called Permanentná Anti-galéria (Permanent Antigallery) came into being. Koller used the most varied settings for his activities, but very often his choice was a playing field or court. The playing surface—with a strategic division of fields for players—is an important motif in his work. Another fictitious gallery project titled U.F.O. Galéria—Galéria Ganku, Vysoké Tatry / U.F.O. Ganek Gallery, High Tatras best conveyed Koller’s institutional critique. The project’s concept originated in 1971. At first this took the form of a prepared copy of the natural history magazine Vysoké Tatry / High Tatras (named after the well-known Slovak mountains). Koller cut off parts of the magazine and assembled them into a new composition to create a fictional exhibition catalog, which circulated by post visualizing the situation in which a natural setting mutates into the U.F.O. Gallery. Later, between 1980 and 1983, Koller laid out statutory principles and assembled an organizational board to propose an exhibition plan for the fictitious gallery.[16] The articles compiled by the gallery imitated administrative and bureaucratic jargon used by a typical state art institution to create an impression that this was a real project, rather than a fictitious one. The discursive wording used by the gallery follows the premise that if one wishes to understand the totalitarian character of the art institution, the most reliable source is the institution’s own testimony. Petr Fidelius, a Czech literary critic, presented an analysis of the language used by the Communist regime and showed that this language reflected not the real world, but rather a specific ideology constructed as a cohesive system. He maintained that in Real Socialism a mechanical relationship is established between words and the reality to which they refer. Ideas are reduced in content: they become void, intermingle and fuse, until finally becoming interchangeable codes for one and the same thing.[17] For this reason, the language conveyed by the fictive gallery stands in deliberate contrast to its aim, which is to facilitate the contact among participants and their works dedicated to communication with unidentified phenomena. The Ganek Gallery project might seem escapist to some, but its double reference to reality and fiction forms a parallel dimension for free thinking.

During the 1970s, another artist who was drawn toward team projects and inspired by Fluxus concerts, was Róbert Cyprich (1951–1996). Cyprich was an experimental poet, performer, and art theorist who collaborated with the Fluxus Center in Nice. In 1969, together with Milan Adamčiak and Jozef Revall, he organized series of events titled Večery novej hudby (Evenings of New Music) in Ružomberok. Also in 1969, in collaboration with Eugene Brikcius, he organized the Čas slnka (Time of the Sun) happening that was staged simultaneously in two places (Ružomberok and London). Cyprich undertook a number of projects in collaboration with Mlynárčik such as Záhrady rozjímania (Gardens of Contemplation) in 1970, taking an active part in many of his events, and was the author of socio-performances, acoustic concepts, and concepts of team participatory events. From the 1960s to the 1980s he communicated actively with representatives from Fluxus and action art, distributed samizdat literature, and provided information on the alternative arts scene in Czechoslovakia. In the 1970s he developed socio-critical “etudes” in the form of censored books, dictionaries, banners, and posters (a book was entitled CCC—Censure Cyprich Copyright, 1976-78). The conceptual poster-calendar 1979 Red Year—International Festival of Socio-Cultural Processual Feasts (printed in English) came about as a creative collaboration between 365 friends from around the world and was conducted via post. The work originated as a confrontation between the Communist utopia of the international avant-garde legacy and the reality in Czechoslovakia— the official “red” ideology imposed on everyday life. Cyprich organized an international festival without regard for borders, as an ideal model of cooperation.

Similarly, in the 1980s, the performer and action artist Peter Meluzin (b. 1947) used mystification as a working method. Whereas Cyprich sought to employ this through verbal means, disseminating samizdat translations and critical texts (especially) about action and avant-garde art, Meluzin directly created situational games that involved other artists. In the early 1980s he found a variety of settings in the socialist periphery for his actions: a gym, a water purification plant, a bus stop. Meluzin was one of the founders of the Terén action group that was active from 1982 to 1987 (Artprospekt P.O.P.—Ladislav Pagáč, Viktor Oravec, Milan Pagáč, Róbert Cyprich, Ľubomír Ďurček, Michal Kern, Július Koller, Vladimír Kordoš, Matej Krén, Radislav Matuštík, Peter Meluzin, Dezider Tóth, Jana Želibská).[18] As part of the Terén grouping, he staged several events between 1983–1984 for a closely limited circle of Bratislava artists, using found environments—such as the partially constructed concrete building of the water treatment plant in the Bratislava suburb of Vrakuňa. By gradually improving and perfecting the original script and adaptation of the events to the state of completion of this edifice, he created situational drama titled Čierne diery (Black Holes) consisting of individual action pieces Black Hole, Schwarzes Loch, and Sitting Bull in which members of artistic community participated. In the interior spaces of the construction, heavily insulated against outside surroundings, full of anxiety and potential violence, Meluzin staged a situational drama for the participants that imitated socialist bureaucracy and the everyday life of citizens living their lifes under constant surveillance. This left participants feeling helpless, isolated, and controlled. Meluzin’s events were organized on participation and often felt like “out-of-town trips,” similar to events by the Moscow Collective Actions Group. While Terén (Terrain) brought together individual or group activities, located on the urban periphery or in a natural setting, Su-terén (Basement), which happened in 1989, represented a symbolic return to exhibition activity. However, the exhibition was not situated in a gallery, but in a basement cellar. Nonetheless, this marked the end of artistic communities using non-gallery settings.

 

Exhibition as Spontaneous Activity

During the scorching summer days of August 1978, members of the Bratislava underground met by a lake in the village of Rusovce, not far from Bratislava. These artists included: Peter Bartoš (b. 1938), Ľubomír Ďurček (b. 1948), Stano Filko (b. 1937), Vladimír Havrilla (b. 1943), Juraj Mihálik (b. 1949), and Ladislav Snopko (b.1949). Later, Ľubomír Ďurček entitled his archive collection of documentary photos of these meetings Rusovce. Viacgeneračné priateľské stretnutie pri jazere (Rusovce. Cross-generation friendly meeting by lake) with footnote Ďalší z mnohých pokusov byť neviditeľným (Another of many attempts to be invisible). Participants created ephemeral works using accessible materials from the lakeside location (gravel and water), together with the plactic microten bags and instruments that the members had brought along. Discussions, brief lectures, situational performances for photo camera, and temporary compositions were the non-material bonding agent of the collective exhibition organized exclusively for the given moment of mutual communication among the participants. Viewing the sequence of shots from the Ďurček’s photographic archives brings to mind the question of documentation. Narrative sequence recalls a diary in the form of visual essay— actions that are barely worth documenting are captured by the camera and preserved; they are something special. From a retrospective point of view by the record leisure activities are shifted to the plane of meditation on common time, community and mutual sharing.


[1] Igor Zabel, “Intimacy and Society: Post-communist or Eastern Art?,” in Igor Zabel Contemporary Art Theory, ed. Igor Španjol (Zurich: JRP Ringier, 2012), 107.

[2] Claire Bishop, “The Social Under Socialism,” in Artificial Hells. Participatory Art and Politics of Spectatorship (London / New York: Verso, 2012), 141.

[3] Filip Cenek, Daniel Grúň, and Barbora Klímová, Mutually. Communities of the 1970s and 1980s (Praha; Brno: tranzit.cz & Dům umění města Brna, 2013).

[4] Daniel Grúň, “Red Planet. Cosmic Imagery of the Slovak Neo-Avant-Garde,“ in Star City. The Future under Communism, ed. Łukasz Ronduda, Alex Farquarson, and Barbara Piwowarska (Nottingham; Warsaw: MAMMAL Foundation, Nottingham Contemporary, tranzit.at, 2011), 52-68.

[5] Daniel Grúň, “Július Koller. Dialectics of Self-Identification,” in L’Internationale–Post-War Avant-Gardes Between 1957 and 1986, ed. Christian Höller (Zurich: JRP Ringier, 2012), 189-195.

[6] Pierre Restany and Alex Mlynárčik, Inde / Allieurs (Bratislava: Slovenská národná galéria, 1995), 22.

[7] Ibid., p. 25.

[8] Eugénia Sikorová, “The Coming of a Generation,” in 1. Otvorený ateliér (Bratislava: SCCA, 2000), 31.

[9] The Czech theoretician Jindřich Chalupecký also participated in the opening of the exhibition. Ibid., p. 23.

[10] Klaus Groh, Aktuelle Kunst in Osteuropa (Köln: Dumont Verlag, 1972).

[11] According to Wikipedia Scientific communism was one of the three major ingredients of Marxism-Leninism as taught in the Soviet Union in all institutions of higher education and pursued in the corresponding research institutions, and departments. The discipline consisted in investigation of laws, patterns, ways, and forms of class struggle, socialist revolution, and development of socialism and construction of communism. See also Jiří Průša, “Abeceda reálného socializmu” [ABC’s of real socialism] (Praha: Avia Consultants, 2011), 555.

[12] Fredric Jameson, Archeologies of the Future: The Desire Called Utopia and Other Science Fictions (London / New York: Verso, 2005), 12.

[13] Tomáš Štrauss, “Konceptuálne umenie ako analýza média a model skutočnosti. Poznámky k vývoju umenia 1970–1975,” [Conceptual Art as analysis of medium and model of reality. Notes on the development of art 1970–1975], in Slovenský variant moderny [The Slovak variant of Modernism] (Bratislava: Pallas, 1992, orig. 1978-79), 94.

[14] Jiří Ševčík, “Decentralizace umění,” [The decentralisation of art], in Kontakt… aus der Sammlung der Erste Bank-Gruppe / Kontakt… Works from the Collection of Erste Bank Group (Wien: Museum Moderner Kunst Stiftung Ludwig Wien, 2006), 38–46.

[15] Grzegorz Sztabiński, “Stano Filko,” in Stano Filko—Transcendencja 1978 (Gdańsk: Galeria GN ZPAF, 1979).

[16] The organisational and advisory board of the UFO Gallery—Ganek Gallery was founded in 1981, and its members included Milan Adamčiak, Pavol Breier, Igor Gazdík, Peter Meluzin, and Július Koller. Documentation from the archive of the Július Koller Society.

[17] Petr Fidelius, Řeč komunistické moci [The language of Communist power] (Praha: Triáda, 1998, orig. publ. as samizdat 1978, 1989], 196.

[18] Radislav Matuštík, Terén. Alternatívne akčné zoskupenie 19821987 [Terrain. An alternative action grouping 1982–1987] (Bratislava: SCCA, 2000).

 


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