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The Sound of Jingling Keys
Slovakia’s Journey From The Velvet Revolution to #AllForJan
On November 17th, 1989, thousands of students across Czechoslovakia went out in the street, jingling their keys in the air. This gesture later became representative of the Velvet Revolution, which led to the fall of communism. Almost 30 years later, tens of thousands people in Slovakia and thousands more across the globe, come out into the streets to protest the murder of a young journalist and his fiancée and the government corruption. Jan Kuciak, after whom the #AllForJan movement was named, was investigating precisely that - the government corruption. Just how our parents fought for the better future of Slovakia, the post 89’ generation hopes to do the same. This exhibition explores the art that happened after the fall of communism, the split of Czechoslovakia, through the 90’s and 2000’s until now. The back of the gallery is transformed into a library/archives, where the audience can look at photographs from the Velvet Revolution, the #AllForJan protests from 2018 as well as literature on the art and politics of Slovakia is provided.
The event that defined the 90’s for the most part was unarguably the split of Czechoslovakia. On January first 1993, Slovakia became its own country, with its first president Michal Kováč. It was however, the prime minister Vladimir Mečiar after whom this particular period is named. Mečiarism brought Slovakia deep down into a black hole and filled the country with corruption and fraud. During this particular era of the 90’s, artists started drawing from Western philosophy and avant-garde art. Although painting is still present, installation art is the most dominant during this time.
Julius Koller’s exhibitions were even described to give a feeling of a Western institution. The conceptual artist, known for his drawings of question marks, was also one of the founders of Slovakia’s new conceptual art. The significance of the question mark started after the year 1968 as a response to the political situation but continued through the 90s, also as the sign of confusion. Koller’s piece Vážna Kultúna Situácia/A Serious Cultural Situation was made shortly after the Velvet Revolution, in 1990. The canvas with stripes painted with the colours of Slovakia’s flag and a question mark, questions the unknown of the next decade, asks what is next for Slovakia. Similar topics are address by Peter Rónai, who too was a pioneer in the Slovak conceptualism, in the piece Nová Vážnosť/New Seriousness. The name of the piece was also the name of a collective he started with Koller. In the photograph he indicates what does a serious person look like.
The work covering the floor of the gallery space is Ilona Németh’s Naše Sny/Our Dreams. The viewer is invited to walk on the layer of white pillows, as if to walk on the dreams of the Slovaks who so desperately tried to remain hopeful. In Sated Table, Roman Ondak discusses the Western critical theorists Slovak artists drew inspiration from. Silkscreening names such as Foucault on every day kitchen essentials like butter and milk, he points out the necessity of texts by these theorists.
After the fall of Mečiarism in 1998, the situation in Slovakia was still not ideal. Mečiar got replaced by Mikuláš Dzurinda and Michal Kováč by Rudolf Schuster. Perhaps it was around now that the people gave up on the concept of a government without corrupted politicians. On the bright side, Slovakia joined the European Union in 2004 and converted to euros in 2009. The art made in the 2000’s often draws from folklore tradition and remains critical of both the past and the current circumstances as well as the people themselves.
Jarmila Mitríková takes one of the oldest Slavic rituals that is still practiced to this day as an inspiration for her piece Procesia s Nemcom/Procession With Nazi (2013). Before the Red Army liberated Slovakia from Nazi German, Slovakia was under Hitler’s rule. During the ritual, which happens on the day of spring equinox, the Slavic goddess of winter and death, Morena, is either burned or drowned. The Morena is usually made out of hay and dressed in traditional folk clothing. In Mitrikova’s piece, Hitler is placed instead of Morena and therefore killed by the people, letting spring (= new hope) into the country. Again drawing from folklore is Ivana Sláviková, her piece Národny Symbol/National Symbol looks at the embroidery practices rooted deeply in tradition. The contrast between traditional embroidery and Sláviková’s piece is its quite large dimensions and the use of metal sheets instead of fabric.
In 2007, Martin Piaček took an iconic photograph of Slovakia’s hero, Milan Rastislav Štefánik, who was a politician, scientist and pilot, and inserted Anna Daučíková’s face over his. In a country, where feminism is still seen as an insult rather than empowerment, she was one of, if not the first feminist artist and therefore a hero herself. This piece was the cover of the first feminist exhibition in Slovakia put on by a largely recognized local institution - Kunsthalle Bratislava, in 2015. Ivana Šáteková, who herself was included in the exhibition mentioned above, is one of the youngest artists in this exhibition. Included is her most recent work Hore hajl, dole hajl/Up heil, down heil - embroidered imagery featuring characters dressed in folklore costumes, in contemporary settings. While these images come off as humorous at first glance, they deal with heavy topics such as alcoholism, domestic violence and racism. Ilona Nemeth’s performance piece Ked/When addresses similar behavioural patterns. A group of young adults walks around Bratislava’s city centre with signs that confront the viewer. Among the signs, one of them reads “When they were attacking homosexuals, I was quiet” and another one “When they were killing Jews, I was quiet”. Nemeth’s piece responds to how passive the people are when it comes to helping minorities, yet it was not too long ago when Slovaks too, were oppressed, begging for help.
Erik Binder and Viktor Frešo started making art and collaborating around the beginning of the new century, but their collective Binderfresh did not gain too much attention until much later. Their vulgar paintings with elements of graffiti are not too popular with the older generation, however the millennial audience welcomes their practice as a nice change from the traditional landscape paintings that usually occupy the gallery walls. Slováci Uvolnite sa, Úsmev/Slovaks Relax, Smile is the key piece in their body of work, quite literally telling the viewer to not take them too seriously. Another piece installed by Frešo is a metal pipe between the pillars and walls that goes through the middle of the room. It is a longer version of Nemyslíš, Že Si Stary?/Don’t You Think You're Old? (2007). The viewer must go underneath the pipe to get to the other side of the room.
Photographic document too is a fairly popular medium. Boris Németh’s work is possibly the most well known contemporary example. Although his documentary photographs from all around Europe frequent pages of magazines, he does find the time to travel across his home country. His work often shows the juxtaposition of the new and old in Slovakia, like the piece showing folk dancers bearing the European Union flag. Ján Viazanička has similar photographic interests and mainly works with the themes of Slovakia and its transition from Eastern to Western. His works in this show were taken between 2012 and 2013, in some of Slovakia’s smaller villages.
#AllForJan and next steps
What comes next is hard to tell. The government is falling apart as thousands of people in the streets show that they have had enough of corrupted, vulgar politicians. In 2014, Slovakia elected the most humane and presentable president - Andrej Kiska and recently the far right, neo-nazi party lost its seats in the government too, which just like the 1989, brings new hope to the prople. Whatever will happened afterwards, the artists will be ready to respond. The new generation is making their way onto the international market and they have a lot to say.