THIS TEXT WAS originally meant to be an interview with Alex Mlynárčik, founder of conceptual and action art in Czechoslovakia, friend of Pierre Restany, and brother of the New Realists. The upcoming release of his autobiography From Somewhere to Somewhere gave us the idea however to present some of the ideas from the book, which has now been completed. These are just a few fragments of the 300-page work. We still intend to feature Alex Mlynárčik in Flash Art CZ/SK magazine sometime in the near future.
I had hoped to put all that suffering behind me in my sixth year. And once again fate intervened. My classmate Filko, with whom I had never been particularly close, asked me one day if I wanted to exhibit with him. He had supposedly already made arrangements to use a hallway in the offices of Smena, a daily newspaper on Dostojevský Avenue. They sometimes had small exhibits there. I was surprised, especially that he had asked me. We went there to take a look. The space was pretty large, so we also invited a sculptor, our classmate Ladislav Gajdoš, and Ivan Vychlopen who was younger. The opening was only two months away and we had to come up with a lot of material. For Filko it wasn’t a problem, he had countless works of all kinds. I don’t know about the others but I had absolutely no idea what to do. It was a strange situation. Everyone thought I had God knows what at home. They brought in a young fellow from the university, an art historian named Bobeš Bachratý. He was there to evaluate us and select some of the works. He started right off with Filko. I ended up pacing back and forth, wondering how to get myself out of this situation (we were also busy working on our thesis projects).
I immediately felt like I had been knocked out of a tournament in the firstround.I saw the quizzical looks on the faces of Andrej Lišhák and Tono Zajac. Was I really such a wuss? The others had set high standards, rumor had it that we might even be able to get Radislav Matuštík to come look at our stuff. Matuštík was a leading member of the Galanda group, a famously hard and uncompromising theoretical outfitin Slovakia.AmI a wuss? Am I a wuss? I kept asking myself that question and became more and more pressed for time. Filko ironically began saying that he had stopped eating just because of me. At the time I thought that I had to get away. And I did. I went to Žilina with some old friends to theater workshops and had ten frames made and panels cut out of fiberboard. There were only 5 weeks left until the exhibition and I was back in Bratislava, locked up and hiding in my apartment on Kupecký Street with the blank panels.
The fiberboard had to be covered with organdy or canvas and then glued carefully following the recipe. Then the frames mounted. Then the gesso. Twelve layers of gesso, exactly according to Teodorik, alias Jirka Brodský. If the brush was semi-dry, the upper layers of gesso left bumps, different lines. When the gesso was drying it was possible to press and shape it, to work it with your hands. Mikuláš Medek! Walls appeared on the surfaces. It was suddenly like a piece of old plaster. In certain places the plaster would crumble and fall, all you had to do was scrape the gesso down to the base. And what’s beneath the plaster? What’s beneath the plaster? Kafka? A Kafkian beetle? I suddenly heard a scraping sound, like the sound of insects, creatures under discarded boards. If you lift up the boards there’s nothing but centipedes and other little beasties. Beneath the plaster, beneath the plaster. And what’s beneath the plaster? A pressing question. A hunch. Hidden life. Discarded boards – centipedes? Do they talk among themselves? Plaster, plaster. I press my ear to the plaster to hear them. I know that my entire being is concentrating on ˝what is beneath the plaster?˝ Should I reveal the truth or not? Do I even know? How can I reveal what I don’t know? Does anyone know? Maybe. If we break off a little piece of plaster we’ll see. But careful, let’s not destroy an entire other world. Let’s listen. While the gesso piled up on the surfaces, I wandered deeper into the labyrinth of questions without answers. Where exactly does the tension lie? Should I embark along on a quest to reveal the secret of what lies beneath the plaster, or should I leave that to others? When I look at these walls will I also think about what is underneath them? Kafka, Kafka, tell me what to do! Sometimes it seems to me that there is all together too much talk. I told myself, we’ll just throw some plaster on some things and see. I turned over a board and was frightened by the centipedes. Centipedes are so small but we are afraid of them because we don’t know what they’ll do to us. These centipedes stood on their hind legs and waved the other ninety eight in the air. I heard the steely snapping of their imaginary teeth. They were all standing there so menacingly that I dropped the board and ran. I was afraid of the unknown discovery and was sorry that I had found it. There was something of the Russian countryside emanating from them, but more complicated. In that countryside time stood still, and cloaked the tension of anticipation. Was it better to have hidden fulfillmentora battle of life and death in endless emptiness? The mystery of tension immediately concealed itself beneath the plaster, probably prepared to commence the desperate fight to protectits very existence if the plaster were to be removed. I didn’t bother asking myself ˝whether that was enough˝, never mind ˝whether it is art˝. I knew with certainty that it was the Truth!
So that’s how my series titled Walls and Aggressive Organisms came to be, and I finished it in time for the exhibit.
Some very important events occurred in connection with the exhibit. Matuštík accepted our invitation and visited us. We all took our works and brought them to our apartment. We wanted Matuštík to look at our stuff and maybe help with making selections. I can honestly say that we were all trembling in anticipation. At the time, I had only seen him and heard him fiercelydefend the Galanda group. I was also familiar with his articles, which ruthlessly tore into any attempts at compromise. I not only admired him, but I liked his radicalism. I thought that’s the way it should be. If you put lipstick on a pig it’s still a pig.
It was early evening and the bell rang at the appointed hour. We almost soiled ourselves. Standing in front of the door was a tall, skinny and slightly stooped man in Vibram hiking boots. Those boots were the firstthingthatI noticed, reminding me of the hundreds of hours when I had nothing else on my feet. He came in with a wry half-smile, the kind that lets one shoot from the hip. We tried to make small talk, but the general reaction was more or less an ironic smile. So we ˝presented˝ our work.. Nobody said a word, not even Matuštík. Then it was over and the question hung in the air: ˝Is that everything?˝. Silence, and more silence. I remember thinking that if at least a pin had dropped, it would have broken the embarrassing silence. We stood there grinning stupidly at each other. Finally he spoke: ˝Well now lads˝, drawing the words out slowly. We looked at ourselves. Filko spoke up: ˝We had wanted, Mr. Matuštík, for you to tell us what you thought.˝ Again silence. And then Matuštík: ˝Well, we’ll see how it turns out.˝ And nobody said anything else. Many years have passed since that time, and true enough, all kinds of things have turned out.
Even our colleagues at AVU in Prague talked about all manners of things, not just about football and girls like it was in Bratislava. One day they were analyzing a madrigal concert, the next an article by Leonid Ilyich [Brezhnev]. The richness of this cultivated atmosphere was incredibly interesting and alluring. I shamelessly admit that I was very slow to findmyfooting.It required a broad perspective. Knowledge. An opinion. Thanks to Volavkovský’s art history in Bratislava, I could at least take a stand every once in a while. On top of all this was the concept of the avant-garde, applied generally to culture, as well as to art. This was an entirely new experience for me. While at home ˝modernity˝ and ˝avant-garde˝ were primarily associated with the names of Picasso, Matisse, and maybe Cezanne, Gauguin or Van Gogh, here they were only talking about Dada or Breton’s surrealism. The counterpart to Breton in progressive Czech art culture was Karel Teige, who along with Štýrsky and Toyen has laid very strong creative and theoretical foundations. This ideological background from the legendary thirties allowed for the emergence of an exceptionally strong Prague wave of Neo-Surrealism in the late fifties an dearly sixties.
At the corner of Rue de Seine and Rue Callot there is a nice gallery called Lara Vincy. Lara, Lara, an odd name in Paris. Larisa? Who knows? I walked in. Walls full of pictures. In the corner the usual ˝office˝.Anelderly white-haired lady was sitting there next to a younger woman and a man – thick black hair, trimmed moustache. There was no one else in the gallery, and all eyes were on me. I muttered a respectful greeting and turned to look at the pictures. They continued talking. I noticed a little bottle of Russian vodka open on the table. It came to mind that they might know Russian, after all it was an original Stolichnaya label, not the ˝Western˝ Smirnoff. I made up my mind and headed over to the table to ask for some catalogues.
I started speaking Russian. Everyone looked around in surprise and the old lady answered in perfect Russian. I mentioned something about Prague and the man jumped up and exclaimed: ˝Vous etez monsieur Mlinarcik de Prague? – Moi, je suis Restany.˝ He rushed forward and embraced me. I remember I was leaning backwards somewhat rudely on their table and started to feel faint. We all looked at each other with eyes agog, I guess I was pale and I think my lips were trembling. I don’t know why or how, but I whispered ˝My God˝ and embraced Restany once again. He offered me a seat and poured me a shot. Nobody said anything, the moment was too pervasive and moving. Aside from birth, it was most certainly the most precious moment of my life! When I think back after many years, I know that it means to be ˝at the right place at the right time˝. And I also know that it was the will of fate!
My enthusiastic working relationship and close family friendship with Restany lasted for the next 39 years – up until his death!
My experience in Paris particularly resonated with the knowledge that the world goes on! That art moves onwards, not stopping or waiting for anyone who might, for this reason or that, say that it cannot, or that some ideology is even ˝prohibited˝ to move forward. The unhappy Medek for example, who created such unbelievably intense work and a movement, but through no fault of his own missed the train (!). And I must be very, very honest when I say that at that time I didn’t have any opinion at all about ˝modern˝ and contemporary art in Slovakia! Maybe someone will say, hey, he was in Paris for five days an dnow he’s too big for his britches! Well, what can you say when someone in the second half of the twentieth century slaps together things done at the end of the nineteenth century? What can you say about ˝chunky Eastern brides˝ painted sixty years after the discovery of Cubism? If someone is involved in the creative process, and understands it in the most fundamental sense of the work, then can this person really not think about variations of variations, or alternative alternatives? And what of the quest for social recognition and accolades, or possibly positions of power? This is a completely different path with an entirely different meaning. It has absolutely nothing in common with any notion of creation.
I was born in Slovakia, and have already mentioned that I don’t feel like a ˝pure-blooded˝ Slovak, but at any rate I am a Central European. Xenophobia of any kind is a useless waste of energy. I thought before and today am deeply convinced that the degree of national identity in the international art scene depends on the specificcontributions one makes to its treasure trove. For example, Chagall was a Russian who lived his entire life in Paris, yet he brought a piece of specific flavor,ofjoyand sadness and the longing of the Russian soul. Think of the Spaniards, such as Tapies, or the Americans like Jackson Pollock and others. Come then to the world’s kitchen and add your own special spices to the mix!
So what then was I fascinated by at the happening? It was the degree of initiative, the free and easy collective creation! That someone would invite somebody somewhere was normal in that regard, but it bothered me when someone was told ˝what˝ they were to do. The charades of many artists acting as self-anointed gurus was not very beneficial.I have clearly stated that the creator of an event or happening is only a participant, who also happens to be performing the function of organizer. It is presumed and expected that actions are shaped and to a large extent created through the collaboration of those present, known or unknown. The audience becomes a creative participant. The degree and form of this participation is enabled by the organizers who breathed life into the initial concept. The finalformisa project of joint collaboration! Similar to the author of a dramatic work, the director, and then the actors. Or a composer, the conductor and the musicians. The participation and activity of all becomes an indispensable prerequisite for the emergence of art!
But what I want to point out here is that the fundamental concept of intelligibility, making statements and impacting the ordinary consumer, meant a lot more to me then, and means more today than anyone thinks. To clarify, I have always believed the principal mission of art to be that which serves and really belongs to people. Simple, ordinary people! That which can enrich ordinary people with a dreamlike vision, which can uncover the secrets and surprising beauty of the other side of reality. However, I will certainly return to this question in relation to art history and other follow up else where.
In the late fifties Pierre Restany,criticofthe ˝Paris School˝, warned of the impending danger of decadence due to a kind of false security. Certain older figures attempted to curb development and declare the status quo to be the definitive modernesthetic. In other words, to establish a new academism and dogma.
Certainty – there is nothing definite,thereis only death!
The danger of certainty is the treachery in stopping. Only uncertainty forces us to constantly move, driven by fear to vigilance and courage. The entire unending battle between old and new, between conservatism and progress, is the battle of certainty against uncertainty, comfort against effort. And whether we like it or not, the only way is forward.
The ˝Paris School˝ is in essence an atmospheric force which enables you to harness the poetic spirit of an age and its progress. Thinking. To be a member of the Paris School means to participate in a process which breathes, taking in a belief, and just as quickly expelling those which cannot keep up. The Paris School is not a goal, but a journey! To ˝be there˝ means to ˝move˝!
Pierre Restany has not only grasped the full breadth of this principle, but he has preached it, drawing upon the broad international group of artists who keep coming back to Paris again and again. So we may almost speak of a kind of epicenter of a vast international school, directly tied to the growing and unstoppable globalization of our world.
I belong to those who survived forty years of socialism and everything that it entailed. I belong to those whose creative efforts were branded for all of those forty years as hostile or even damaging to socialism, without anyone ever making any effort to discover what they really were! As a decadent infiltrat or of western culture,I was finally expelledin 1972 from the Slovak Artists Association. The SFVU Regulatory Commission ensured the ˝prohibition˝ of my work for public contracts. There are ways around everything however, and I continued to work, albeit under the names of colleagues and friends who were members of the Communist Party.
In spite of everything though, I would like to clearly refute the ever popular claim that under socialism it was not possible to create. Whoever wanted to create did so. And thus some incredibly valuable works were created in Slovakia. And later when the borders were opened they became a great surprise for the West. The spiritual values of these works were deep, the artists zealously sought and found sources which were clean, true and free. They were film makers,actors, writers, musicians as well as artists! And in this regard I would also like to voice the sneaking suspicion that those who claimed they were not allowed to create are simply masking their creative impotence.
There is nothing uncommon about what is happening in the Slovak art scene. Youngsters have arrived, most of them graduates from the Bratislava University of Fine Arts. There is also a new generation of theoreticians, graduates from any number of art history departments of the many universities now in Slovakia, today numbering 32! These young people, although full of youthful verve, are students of their professors, who are in turn students of communist professors. In the field of art history, following the forced departure long ago of the Volavkovs from VŠVU or Radislav Matuštík and Tomáš Štrauss from Comenius University, the art history departments were abandoned to those Party slaves who dutifully swam the muddy waters of socialist-communist ideology. They hadn’t the slightest clue about the actual development of art in the 20th century, and if perhaps a little, then they still lacked the courage to say anything. Thus the torch of ignorance and lack of information was passed down. Today’s young Slovak theoreticians may be very confident, but they make˝discoveries˝one hundred years old! Then they go make learned speeches at opening. The public is politely silent for a while and then industriously seeks out the refreshment tables.
In this regard it must sadly be said that contemporary Slovak art in its current form has but a slim chance to impact the international scene. The artist of the future will be ˝global˝, not only living on a planet without borders, but fully integrated in terms of education and awareness. Then it will be entirely up to him whether he adds at least a small pebble to the great mosaic of art as the legacy of his ancestors, his nation. The smell of its mountains or sea, sand or ice. And somewhere there is hope, perhaps even a starting point, heralding the transformation of our age.
Alex Mlynárčik, the high priest of urban folklore, founder of the land from nowhere – the monarchy of Argília, author of happenings, action, celebrations, interpretations and the first conceptual works in Central European art. He was born in 1936 in Žilina and lives in Paris.
Lola II, 1966-67, combined technique, interactive sound object.
ALEX MLYNÁRČIK, Marriage of Eva, 1972, Žilina, celebration, In honour of Ľudovít Fulla.
Gardens of Contemplation, to honour the 10th anniversary of New Realism, 1970, Please accept this invitation to our „open studio“, from 27 October 1970 you can show up each evening at 9:30 pm at the city’s Technical Services, at Bazová 6, Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, Street Sweepers Division (50 Czechoslovak crowns per night per person). Photo: archive of the artist.
STANO FILKO, ALEX MLYNÁRČIK, HAPPSOC I, Bratislava 2.-8-V-1965. Down: Permanent Manifestations II – homages, 1966, Public WC – Hurbanovo Square in Bratislava, exhibition upon the ocassion XVIII. Congress of the AICA in Bratislava.
Juraj Čarný is editor-in-chief Flash Art Czech and Slovak Edition.