“Slovak Art is Super Great”

BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA–It’s a breezy late September day when I meet Daniel Grun, an intense yet dashing art historian at Bratislava’s Academy of Fine Art, at an outdoor café next door to the school. As I down goulash with white dumplings, Grun tells me that there are a lot of discussions about the asymmetry of the common art history between Slovakia and the Czech Republic. “We were always regarded as a whole but the art scenes had very different developments,” he says, stroking his goatee absentmindedly. “All of Czechoslovakia was [mentally] damaged after the Prague Spring but in Slovakia it was even more so. Everything was centralized so Slovaks had to go to Prague for art, which led to much intense exchange and influence with Slovakia always looking to the Czech Republic. But now for the first time that is changing, it’s no longer one sided.” He describes the current Slovak art scene as having radical invisibility. “We are a new country in CEE and no one knows who we are—so that makes us invisible. And we have no traditions, so therefore, no boundaries and that can make art radical.”

My chat with Grun inspires me to find some of this so-called radical invisibility so I head down the cobbled side streets of Bratislava’s small but charming Old Town to visit one of the newest galleries in the city, the AMT Project. Owned by young Italian collector, Alberto Matteo Torri and run by artist Petra Feriancova, the gallery is in the midst of preparing for the opening of “Moss Grows in Shadow”, a show featuring the work of famed Czech artist Jiri Kovanda and his student Stanislava Karbušická. When I enter the gallery I have to carefully step around several small installations of troll-like figures that are placed on the floor. I do have a deep appreciation for contemporary art—as long as I can understand what the concept is behind a work. This show, however, is beyond me and I’m a bit stressed that not only do I not get what the work is about but I am also worried I may ruin the opening by accidently crushing one of the installations with my flip-flops.

I start to relax once I sit down for an interview in the back office with Feriancova, Kovanda and Torri. “Artists in Slovakia have felt that they had to travel to other places to have success,” Feriancova says, dressed in a flowy black dress. “But I think things are starting to change and there seems to be more interest in art from this region.” Her bespeckled boss, Torri, perfectly reflects this point. Already a gallery owned in Milan, he wanted to expand but says he found other locations in Western Europe like London and Paris not compelling enough. “I find Bratislava challenging,” he tells me. “I saw a strong scene here. I think there is an interesting wave at the moment and there is a lot of spontaneity, maybe because the scene is so small.”

I was initially inspired to come to Bratislava after a conversation I had in Prague with gallery owner Jiri Svestka. “Slovakian art is super great at the moment,” Svestka, tells me when we have coffee in his gallery close to the city center. “No one really knows about this but the country right now has by far the best young art scene [in the region].” If Slovak art had a trademark then conceptual art –originally becoming popular in the 1960s the genre focuses less on the aesthetic and more on the ideas behind the art—would be its calling card. The current popularity of the genre in Slovakia can be traced back in part to the late Julius Koller, a groundbreaking Slovak artist who helped develop the local conceptual art scene. Though not internationally recognized until late in his life, artists like Roman Ondak –arguably Slovakia’s most famous contemporary artist who has been exhibited at Tate Modern and New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA)—credit Koller with being a major influence.

Part of the reason that conceptual art really took off in Slovakia is because the country never had its own art history. Until Slovakia and Czech Republic went their separate ways in 1993, Bratislava was seen as a rural outpost, its palace a weekend retreat for the royal families of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and its cathedral the location of coronations for the Kingdom of Hungary. Artists who wanted successful careers had to relocate to places like Prague, Vienna or Budapest because until 1949 there was neither Academy of Fine Art nor a National Gallery. Beata Jablonska, a professor at Bratislava’s Academy of Art, has written that the uniqueness of Slovak boils down to the contrasts between rural and modern traditions— something that she feels makes their art look more authentic and possibly a bit more exotic than the country’s neighbors.

While people like Jablonska and Svestka predict that Slovak art will become a specifically recognized brand of art, others like Boris Ondreicka— a poet and artist who also serves as the Slovak director of the non-commercial gallery Tranzit that also has branches in Hungary, the Czech Republic and Austria—totally disagree. “Slovakia is like the Liechtenstein of the East Blok,” he jokes as we talk in one of studios in the Tranzit complex on the outskirts of Bratislava. “To say there is Slovak art sounds like it actually means something specific, as if there is a difference. Sure, there was a wave of interest in the 1990s but Slovak art means nothing now.” I’m not sure I agree with him but I do think there has been a real struggle in Slovakia to define what separates them from their historical, regional and cultural big sister, the Czech Republic.

Because the scene is tiny, people like Jaro Varga find it impossible to make a full time career as artists. Varga has been co-director of Gallery HIT, a cavernous-like space in the courtyard behind the academy, since 2007 and he tells me that it’s a fairly typical in Slovakia to be an artist as well as a gallerist. “To build your own career here is very hard so that’s why a lot of artists run galleries,” Varga says as we walk around an exhibition of black and white Tibetan photographs that he has curated. “The concept of art as a business is not very strong. But maybe this [liberates] you to know there are other ways to survive. There is not the pressure here of a strong art market and that creates a kind of freedom.” Many artists run galleries because its not only a chance to curate gallery shows (which Varga also admits is a way to highlight their own works) but also it provides great opportunities to make contacts on the international scene through art shows, exhibitions and fairs.

In Slovakia there is also a realization that building strong ties to other scenes in nearby Vienna, as well as Prague and Budapest, is the only way to develop and survive. “We are so close to other places, which gives us an advantage, yet we can still also develop a scene here too,” Lucia Gregorova-Stachova, a curator from Slovak National Gallery, tells me over coffee. “For such a small place there are a lot of things going on and that makes us feel like we are part of something important.”

Photo courtesy of Hit Gallery