It might seem paradoxical that an artist who is committed to ecological thinking has a work about the pollution of rivers in the Museum of Failed and Abandoned Ideas (MOFAI), which he launched in 2014 to give a home to his own and other people’s incomplete or unrealised artistic projects. His work If the River’s of the World, that aimed to bring awareness of perilous environmental damage to rivers by releasing mini hot air balloons in front of pollution sources, found its way into the Museum for several reasons. On the one hand, the balloons failed to behave as scripted since air currents blew them out of view of the camera, as in the case of the Nitra river action, while on the other the artist realised that the project itself risked resulting in more damage to nature than benefit, as a balloon set loose near a dam in Spain almost set fire to a tinder- dry national park. By preserving such works in the Museum rather than keeping them out of sight, Oto Hudec (Košice, 1981) reveals the complexity of his artistic practice and awareness that well-meaning interventions in both natural and social settings can trigger unexpected consequences.
Hudec’s practice is ecologically-attuned, but goes beyond functional and practical environmental intentions to explore the utopian purpose of contemporary art in imagining alternative scenarios. Although often dealing with specific local situations, foremost in the Slovak context, he also draws on his wide international experience gained from having lived and worked in the United States, Europe, Africa and Asia to create transnational juxtapositions that reveal the interconnectedness of planetary systems. He works with video, installation, interventions in public space and community art projects, as well as drawing and painting, to explore interrelated social, political and ecological issues, from the global plight of migrants to the environmental impact of globalisation.
Taking such daunting topics into account does not mean that they cannot be addressed with a liberating sense of humour, as was the case with Plant a Tree in Your Truck (2011), for which the artist walked around the San Francisco Bay area placing posters together with a packet of Japanese maple seeds and instructions for planting on the windshields of pick-up trucks. Although the artist admits being ‘attracted to these cars for their beauty,’ he adds with understated wit that ‘in the time of global warming I consider driving them a little irresponsible.’ The fact that the owners of these gas guzzling vehicles symbolising the consumerist values of the American dream would be unlikely to be swayed by Hudec’s guerrilla action make this bitter- sweet eco-activist project particularly affecting, while pointing out that the spread of SUVs and pickups cannot be reconciled with the demand for environmental sustainability.
The effects of climate change driven by the carbon emissions of the industrialised world are felt most immediately by the inhabitants of some of the world’s poorest countries. Hudec’s project The Price of Water (2012) highlights the worsening water shortage in the Saharan nation of Mauritania and is based around an animated film that portrays a local water seller filling plastic bags for sale. Made using stop-motion animation of a continuously repainted canvas, this piece alludes to a future in which water is more valuable than oil and questions widespread assumptions that certain natural resources are unlimited. The film is part of an installation and reached through a doorway that is built of cardboard boxes representing spurious Mauritanian products, namely ‘distances, wind, sand dunes and stardust’, of which there is no shortage, but also no demand.
Revealing the connection between environmental problems such as desertification brought by climate change and their effect on excluded and displaced communities is an underlying motif of Hudec’s artistic investigations of social ecology. His installation Long, Long Road (2012) makes visible the pressure points that are emerging between the areas of relative prosperity in the West and migration flows from the South at strategic border crossings. The artist creates fragile figures made from cotton and wood and films their journey across deserts, seas and the physical obstacles of anti-migrant defences in their flight from war and extreme hardship increasingly caused by global warming. His model of a desert checkpoint is reminiscent of the border fences between Mexico and the United States and Spain and North Africa, but also troubling in the context of the European migrant crisis and the uncaring razor-wire fences that now guard the Eastern borders of Hungary from refugees.
The temporary shelters of both migrants and indigenous communities are the subject of Hudec’s Nomadia Travelling Museum (2012), which brings together fifteen textile models of tents, mostly sewn in denim, which today stands for the universal fabric of the world, and in effect equalising and unifying these temporary architectures. The work vividly demonstrates the precariousness of both the lifestyles of traditional transhumance peoples affected by the merciless mechanisms of globalisation and the fate of refugees fleeing military conflicts, as well as the effects of environmental degradation. The epistemological clash between the ecological cosmologies of indigenous peoples and the self-serving logic of global capitalism
is also at stake in Corn Song (2012), a film in which we see the artist playing a guitar to a field of corn crops with smokestacks in the distance. The environmental melancholy of Hudec’s revival of the Native American tradition of singing songs to the fields to make the crops grow better lies in the fact that here he plays for the genetically modified corn destined for flawed industrial food production.
The increasingly problematised issue of mass food production and the alternative proposed by small, sustainable gardening is also addressed in the installation If I Had a River (2012), a project realised for the Oskár Čepan Award exhibition. Consisting of a scale model A meditative and receptive approach to the places the artist visits can be observed in the work Nor Tortoise Shell nor Blades of Grass (2014), which resulted from a five-month artist residency in Seoul, South Korea. The artist took long strolls and bicycle rides through the city in order to experience, portray and understand a distant Eastern culture, to get away from preconceptions, and at the same time be aware of the limits of the familiarity gained from a temporary stay. The work consists of a library, however not of books, but rather of paintings, made by the artist on his perambulations. Significantly, the focus of these paintings is not buildings, streets or people that are usually captured as representing the particularities of a place, but instead the subject of the paintings are individual trees that he encountered in various spots of the city, native fauna that belong to specific local ecosystems. The enigmatic title refers to an ancient Taoist story in which a prophet, on being asked for guidance on the right way of living, answers that there are some questions that neither ‘tortoise shell nor blade of grass can answer,’ underlining the need for an attentive and self-critical approach. This is an essential principle not only for environmentally-attuned artistic practice, but also for considering the impact of all our actions on the natural environment in the time when anthropogenic changes to our planet have become acute.
Maja and Reuben Fowkes are curators and theorists of art, founders of the Translocal Institute for Contemporary Art. Oto Hudec (1981) is a Slovak multimedia artist. His participative. social and environmental work often reacys to particular places in Portugal, Cape Verde, South Korea, Spain, the USA and of course Slovakia. Oto Hudec completed doctoral studies at the University of Fine Arts in Bratislava. He is represented by the Gandy Gallery. He has exhibited in the Slovak National Gallery (Two Landscapes) 2014, tranzit.sk, Bratislava (Comitted to Change) 2014, MAP, Make Art with Purpose, Dallas, USA 2012, Threewalls Gallery (Voices from the Center), Chicago, USA 2011 and at the Biennal Mercosul, Porto Alegre, Brazil 2009. In 2012 he was a finalist for the Oskár Čepan Award. He lives in Košice.
Oto Hudec Corn Song/Kukuričná pieseň still from video, HD video 8:23 photo: author, courtesy Gandy Gallery.
The Price of Water/Cena vody projection of HD video, 20 min, installation of cardboard boxes 300 × 200 × 100 cm, photo: author, courtesy Gandy Gallery.
The Library/Knižnica from the project Nor Tortoise Shell nor Blades of Grass/Ani korytnačí pancier, ani steblo trávy selection of paintings, oil and acrylic on textiles, 20 × 30 × 2 cm photo: author.
If I had a River/Keby som mal rieku 500 × 200 × 100 cm wood, mdf, textil, soil, plants, seeds, watering cans photo: author, courtesy Gandy Gallery.