Juraj Čarný: Your project for the Venice Biennale reminded me of one of the basic strategies of the work of Alex Mlynárčik, who endeavoured to elevate the banal everyday activity of people to art. Is the viewer the most important thing for you, or do you try to use and manipulate the viewer?
Roman Ondák: I think that all art is created for people, and every artist cares about the viewer – the difference is only in which form this or that artist uses for it. I was always personally interested in the Slovak conceptualism movement of the 1960s and 1970s, especially Július Koller, Stano Filko and Alex Mlynárčik, and their probing of everyday reality. Although similar trends already existed in the world, they were relatively fresh, and Slovak artists reacted to them quite early. What’s more, their work bore many specifics of the Slovak environment. When I was starting out and was looking for the right model for myself, something that would suit my nature and could hold my attention for several years, I was attracted to the problems of everyday reality and the search for various forms that could represent it in a creative language. I had always been interested in sculpture and the shifting of boundaries of what could still be considered a sculpture. Many of my installations or performances therefore either act as a cut-out of some existing reality, transferred to the exhibition space, or as something that could in unchanged form exist somewhere else – outside the context of art – and perform there
an entirely different function. The viewer is extremely important for me in this system; he often completes the work with his presence, or voluntarily place a certain role in it. It’s hard to say whether he can feel used or manipulated in this game. Certainly not more or less than when he comes to an exhibition and looks at a picture or sculpture.
JČ: What was the genesis of your project for the Venice Biennale? Did you have several ideas that you were working with or was the path that you were going to set out on immediately clear after the commission invited you?
RO: The idea came almost immediately, on the very same day as if provoked by the offer. I wasn’t working on anything for the Biennale. I didn’t even know that the deadline was approaching for judging the projects for our pavilion. I had always ignored this process of “competing for the pavilion” in other years too. This is to say that I had certain reservations toward the system that worked in Slovakia. I told myself that maybe the commission would someday approach me too, maybe after I became a pensioner. This offer surprised me as well. I saw it as the commission’s attempt to change something in the existing system. I certainly didn’t understand it this way because they had invited me, but I saw it as an attempt to move over to a system of direct nomination and a system of switching back and forth between the Czech and Slovak artist, instead of the attempt to build on a dual principle at all costs, which followed the tradition of Czechoslovakia. In my view that had constricted artists and curators.
JČ: You’d actively taken part in obtaining international respect for Július Koller. Do you feel that you carry on in your work his spiritual message? What is your relation to Jiří Kovanda?
RO: Július Koller has probably influencedme more than any other artist. I saw in his work the potential of reaching far beyond the borders of not only our art environment, but also of that environment so complicatedly defined as “Eastern Europeanart”. Hisattitudes toward art, the forms that he used, the double meaning of his testimony, etc., were very inspirational for me, especially at a time in which I was trying to find my place in art and when I was trying to understand our local scene. I discovered Jiří Kovanda a little later – in the latter half of the 1990s – and his things are just as strong and important for me as Koller’s.
JČ: Your exhibitions and public art projects strangely avoid Slovakia. Have you ever considered a public art project for, for instance, your native Žilina or another “Central European” city?
RO: They certainly do not avoid Slovakia. In recent years my things haven’t had such a strong response and at the end of the 1990s the interest curve in what I was doing took a plunge. But I don’t see any problem in that. In the early 1990s I exhibited quite a lot in Slovakia, and then the younger generation came and, as is the custom in a small environment like ours, everything loses its shine after a few years. But I continued to create most of my projects here in Slovakia, which is for me more important than if I exhibited them here.
JČ: The start of your career was very much supported by the Soros Center and Mária Hlavajová. How would your art career have developed without their support?
RO: That’s a myth that I’d like to refute. I don’t know why some people think that the Soros Center here in the 1990s paved the way abroad for a few “chosen” artists. I did receive the main prize for the firstannualexhibitionin1993,buttherewere at this exhibition a dozen other and more renowned artists and we were all, as they say, in the same boat. The fact that I received the prize was therefore merely a coincidence. The Soros center had at that time a database of most Slovak artists and if someone came from abroad to Slovakia, he had access to everything that was going on in Slovakia in contemporary art at that time. The fact that foreign curators chose me for international exhibitions at that time was certainly because of what I’d done as an artist. I’d already at that time been in direct contact with some curators, which is why I could never understand why people could think that the Soros Center provided a personal service for some at that time, or championed us abroad. The only thing that can champion any artist is his work. Nobody can “arrange” things for us. But back to your question: I do think, however, that if the Soros Center had not been here in the 1990s, certainly many things that we’d begun at that time would have happened at a slower rate than they did. The Soros Center provided a chance to carry out some projects or provided significant grant support that went toward the finearts, as well as to theatre, filmandliterary areas. In my view, however, the change would have come sooner or later because everything was opened, and there was increasing interest everywhere in what was happening in art in other parts of Europe.
Roman Ondák (born in 1966, in Žilina) lives and works in Bratislava.
Loop, 2009, view to the installation of the Czech and Slovak Pavilion on Venice Biennial, photo: archive of the artist.
ROMAN ONDÁK, Measuring of the Universe, 2007, performance in Pinakothek der Moderne, Muenchen, photo: Haydar Koyupinar; Pocket Money of my Son, 2007, coins, shelf cut from part of a table, 30×21.5×2.5 cm, photo: artist‘s archive. Courtesy the artist and gb agency, Paris; Janda gallery, Vienna and Johnen gallery, Berlin.
Juraj Čarný is editor-in-chief Flash Art Czech and Slovak Edition.