Vít Havránek: Before we get to your work, I’d like to ask about your thoughts on the past and present direction and co-ordination of the Czechoslovak Pavilion. What is your view of the current agreement on separate national representation, the fact that now the exhibitions here are organized under the direction of the two independent states, when earlier this was a joint pavilion? Of course, your joint work is something that might suggest a degree of continuity with the Czechoslovak past? Or is this an issue that doesn’t much interest you?
Petra Feriancová: Of course it interests me, but it’s not an issue I bring into my work. It’s too complex a question and I wouldn’t want to elaborate on it. The pavilion is beautiful, but it’s just the type of architecture that isn’t very congenial to the function of the art that is supposed to be shown in it. For example the skylight is a very complicated thing. To me it’s like the House of Art in Brno, where the windows, the views from them and the surroundings, are far more interesting than whatever you findinside. It’s a sifthearchitects didn’t care much about that aspect. Maybe that was their right, but it makes the situation difficult for artists, who don’t, afterall, have the same need for beautiful and attractive spaces.
VH: It’s essentialist to read art through the lens of nationality or national identity, and it’s something contemporary art is trying to free itself from in the cause of universality or the critique of national identity. All the same, the pavilions in Venice continue to be interesting – for the very reason that the artist doesn’t necessarily identify with national identity, but can use critique of that identity as a starting point – as Santiago Sierra did a couple of years ago, for example. What’s your view of the past of the Czechoslovak Pavilion, Zbyněk? What do you think of previous installations and about the idea of dividing the pavilion?
Zbyněk Baladrán: Personally I don’t relate to national identity, and nor does Petra. As far as the pavilion is concerned, I see it more as an international exhibition, dominated by universal themes. Our particular exhibition doesn’t address the problem of identity in this sense. Instead you could say that the theme of national representation, and what that means at the Venice Biennale and in the world of art, is somewhere inside, under the other layers of our project. In any case I think the pavilion should remain Czechoslovakian, as a kind of idea of sharing and belonging together that doesn’t reflect the lines of state borders and purely national representation.
VH: How do see your artist-curator-artist triangle? What mode of cohabitation/ co-existence do you choose? Do you have common themes and work method or is it more a “confederative” approach: the idea of the federation of two installations, on the assumption that they will communicate across themes?
PF: This year’s constellation is in no way meant to be political. That Zbyněk is Czech and I’m Slovak is just a fact. I wrote Zbyněk a mail saying I had a certain quite large archive and I would like to systematize it in some way. Zbyněk responded with the suggestion that he could make a film out of the archive, which had survived various moves and fits of tidying.
VH: But how are the people who come to the pavilion and have no direct knowledge of your work supposed to read it? How are they to decipher the model in which two artists are collaborating? How do you see your mutual communication?
PF: I think that’s more a question for the curator. My own ideas change in the course of work, but it was clear from the outset that Zbyněk would be making a filmonthe basis of materials provided by me. So in a certain way the film rounds the wholething off. But I think Zbyněk treats my material rather like illustration, because he had a scenario already worked out from the start. I would read it like this – my things have two forms: one form is the catalogue, which organizes the content of the archive, and the second is the installation itself. Look at it as two ways of ordering the very same things. And Zbyněk can represent a third way. But for me the material itself became the theme, while for Zbyněk that’s probably not the case.
ZB: I agree that it’s not so true of me. When Petra and Marek first approached me – at least from my point of view it seemed it would be a common project in the sense that we would be working on something together. But soon, when it became clear what the content of the collection was and what Marek’s role would be, this in fact meant a division of labor into the more traditional roles of curator and artist. So now I’d be more inclined to say that this is a curated exhibition where two artists start from the same material and the internal connections are created through the logic of the course of the work.
VH: And so, in short, it’s a meditation, the reflection sof two people on shared material.
ZB: The material is shared – Petra is processing it on the level of evidence and she turned to me as someone who could sort it, or structure it in a different way. But I didn’t feel I could do that, because I had a sense that it was too heterogeneous a collection for me to put any simple grid on it and find that credible. A different approach occurred to me – that I could take a different view of this brilliant material by using it as a certain manifestation of my ideas. So I aimed for a kind of video-essay.
VH: Key question – what sort of material is it? What specifically does it represent?
PF: It’s a collection that belonged to my father with other things from my family circle. These are things brought back from travels – souvenirs, photographs, films and my own photographs, but who particularly created them is not so important: I’m processing the specific stories in the catalogue. Onthe other hand they are my father’s things: he was someone who didn’t travel himself, but collected objects that were not part of everyday life and the locality, and are actually very exotic – atlases, maps, African masks, dinosaur bones…
VH: From which period does the collection come?
PF: There are various different groups of objects in it: shells, masks, coins, stamps – the classic monothematic collections; and photographs from various corners of the world. For example, my aunt was in Africa and my father wanted to go and see her, but they took his passport away – that was in the 1970s. Every group of objects represents a certain period. Some have a teaching function – for example documentation of architecture (sports grounds, hotels, public spaces) because my father was an architect. The groups overlap and can be arranged in different groups, but each theme has its period – for example Creator series, the breeds of pigeons collected in the period 1948-62, the films are from the 1950 sup to 1970, the photos are from me too, and so from the 1990s up to 2000, the masks are an unfinished collection.
VH: Was your father the compulsive collector type?
PF: No. For him it was a natural thing – as it is with me too – which went in parallel with his interests and documented them. That’s why you can look at the collection retrospectively as a work that is testimony to a life. Taken together, all the groups of objects together function chronometrically. They can measure out time…They are aids and material, something you can work with. I see no reason to look for other materials, because this is like a cabinet that you open and always discover something new in. At the same time, the way the things are stored in the cabinet is primarily utilitarian, i.e. there is no classification.
VH: So are we talking about a certain way of reading the collection and the conditions of its creation in an ethnographic spirit, focusing attention on the continuity of the stories (history), the marks of authenticity of place and some forms of ritual? The objects here have a dual meaning: first they represent (in the case of masks or a flint) their own functions in other cultures, but second they are the actors of a story about someone who was mapping the Third (and First) World through social and family contacts in Bratislava in the time of “Real Socialism”. How do you see these two layers?
ZB: I think the collection itself, as Petra has got to grips with it, has changed over the last months. It has become far more personal than it was at the start, when it functioned as a collection related only to Venice; since then it has grown in all directions and returned to Petra as a kind of personal encounter. By contrast I’ve tended to stay with the initial conception and I use the archive as a theme that can be deepened. I would call my perspective anthropological rather than ethnographic because I tried to find what Venice means as a universal symbol, whether culturally, historically or socially.
PF: Originally I too thought in terms of Venice, but there were so many artistic and literary references in the collection that ultimately what crystallized from it was the theme of travel. And with it Marco Polo, the Orient, romantics, tourists. I avoided material that directly originated in Venice, because this city actually becomes whatever it is for its observer.
ZB: It’s a kind of unending process of association, which has its center somewhere and then develops on from it – it begins in the Czechoslovak Pavilion but it can grow in every direction into infinity.
VH: But where is the angle of view that gives the viewer a sense of meaning? Is there some code, allowing one to recognize that this is about a collection offering a particular family and historically localized story, or are the installations supposed to work by a poetics which aims to challenge and to be a guide or inspiration for the viewer’s own narrative or imagination?
PF: How the viewer interprets things is not something of great concern to me. Obviously I put forward certain ways of ordering the things, and so certain systems are presented, but I definitelydon’twanttothink much about potential interpretations that a viewer might hypothetically make for himself. After all, each one of us is different and I won’t try to avoid measuring things by my own experience.
ZB: The installations are Petra’s business. I relate to them as to a heterogeneous “sea” in which all the individual drops of water or sediments provide a picture. I try to create cross-sections, as it were, through this sea. And so the whole film is a subjective interpretation of how I see Venice – as a social and cultural symbol of our time, our desire to keep coming back here. Venice has become a strange showcase of contemporary artistic representation. Yet I also thought historically about how the city was organized, what it meant for romantics, what for merchants and so on. I enjoyed making a cross-section and synthesizing it all into simple theses that are quite fragmentary because they are very broad.
VH: You both often talk about Venice while at the same time saying that this project isn’t about Venice. …
PF: Of course it’s about Venice, but in the spirit of copying Italo Calvino, who never names it. I’m also addressing another “problem” – I have what you might call one foot in this place. I lived in Rome for six years and the basic reason why I left was because I realized I was losing the euphoria of a visitor, and actually in general… my formative influencesare from else where and I want to look at Italy again from afar, through books.
ZB: I see the Venice of the present as a symptom. A symptom of the current state of the world. Maybe Venice vanishes from the whole thing, but only because we see ourselves mirrored in this city on the water. For me it is a precise localization, a matter of finding certain signs of our conception of the world and interfaces of the social order that I am trying to read. But I have a feeling that the universality of my approach means I would probably findsimilar ideas and insights in other places, and while films of those places would look different, the message would be similar.
PF: The place always played a role for me as well, but in the meantime I have made a kind of journey around the world. In my case I am getting further and further away from that principle [of universalization], and it is less and less interesting for me.
Now it’s as if this physical material that I have is speaking of its own accord, with its own idiom, and autonomy – this openness, which moves in a way I cannot control, is what I enjoy about it.
The interview took place in May 2013 prior to the opening of the Czech and Slovak Pavilion.
Vít Havránek is a theoretician and curator, the leader of the initiative tranzit.cz.
Zbyněk Baladrán (*1973) is a visual artist. He lives and works in Prague (zbynekbaladran.com).
Petra Feriancová (*1977) is a visual artist. She lives and works in Bratislava (petraferiancova.com).
They are exhibiting together in the Czech and Slovak Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennial.
PETRA FERIANCOVÁ, According to Ruskin 2013, from An Order of Things II, photo: author’s archive.
An Order of Things II, 2013, site specific installation, photo: Keizo Kioku
ZBYNĚK BALADRÁN, Liberation, or …, 2013, 11:42, HDV, video still.