Art Guide East

A Seat of Honour or the Bench?

The economic situation was never rosy in Bratislava, which is why an art market still doesn't exist. Nevertheless, this fact frees artists and producers of culture; they don't have to live with the burden of a grand cultural heritage. By Manuela Hötzl and Antje Mayer

»Small causes create complex phenomena«: Rarely did any thesis hit the nail on the head more accurately about the complex cultural networking that emerged from small beginnings in Bratislava. And yet! The capital of Slovakia suffers more than other former Eastern Bloc cities from a lack of dedication on the part of its cultural politicians. After 1989, they were more interested in an unswerving profit-oriented commercialisation than in any sensitive development of an emancipated cultural scene. It may also be for this reason that the past and future of any Slovak identity has always been, and continues to be, unclear. The Slovak architectural historian, Henrieta Moravčíková, expresses her scepticism over the city’s future when she says, »Bratislava is lacking, as is the whole country, a vision of the future. Nobody has any idea as to what role Slovakia generally, and Bratislava in particular, are to play in the European Union. This is compounded furthermore by Bratislava’s inferiority complex that it is seen as a mere suburb of Vienna on account of its size.« Jan Tabor, a Czech native who lives and works in Vienna as a curator, architecture critic and theorist and is involved as a visiting professor in the Vysoká šcola vytvanrných umění (Academy of Fine Arts) in Bratislava, is generally sarcastic as regards the rapprochement of East and West. »The Viennese know the nearby new countries in the East primarily by their cheap shopping facilities. In Sopron you can get new teeth for a reasonable price, in Brno a new hip joint, or in Bratislava, inexpensive bumpers for your car.«

However, Bratislava, with its 450,000 inhabitants, is not merely a small town, it is the youngest capital city in the European Union, presenting itself as a very pleasant urban village with a youthful metropolitan flair. The history of the city and its buildings is marked by none of the extravagant indulgences encountered elsewhere, and the exaggerated excesses of Historicism and postmodernism prevailing in many other Eastern European cities are rarely spotted here at all. Conversely, there is to be found the odd jewel of Modernism, Functionalism or Socialist Realism. Situated on the Danube embankment, the Hotel Devin, a good example of Modernism, and the nearby Slovenská Narodná Galéria (Slovakian National Gallery), deserve special mention. The erstwhile charm of the Eastern Bloc is encountered only sporadically now, like in the shape of the grey concrete slab jungle of the district Petržalka. Investments have gone less into architecture recently, but more into an infrastructure that has been concerned less with aesthetic qualities than with the motto of »making it work«. Maintaining the city space as a symbolic reference point for the development of a local identity has been kept rather on the backburner.

Bratislava was, by dint of its geographical position at the centre of Europe, a meeting point for the most diverse cultures of the East and West for many centuries. Slovakia shares borders with five countries – the Czech Republic, Austria, Ukraine, Poland and Hungary. The influence of all these cultures can be felt in Bratislava. In his book of travels entitled Danube, writer Claudio Magris quotes the Slovakian writer Vladimir Mináč on the occasion of his stay in Bratislava: »Over centuries, the Slovaks have been an unheeded and unappreciated people, the dark fertile ground of their own country, much like the stuff compounded of straw and dried manure that holds together the drevenice [or wooden houses that made up the rural dwellings in the country]. We have no history in terms of kings or emperors, dukes or princes, victories or conquests, deeds of violence or buccaneering raids.« 

So, what history does Slovakia look back upon? What future is there to be derived from it? Two exhibitions in the past – as unalike as they may be – demonstrated the need for a search for clues or traces at various levels. On the one hand there was Slovak Myth, a show at the Slovakian National Gallery in 2006, which cast a telling light on the Slovak past from an ethnographic perspective, while on the other there was Július Koller – Univerzálne Futurologické Operácie (Universal Futurological Operations) at the Kölnische Kunstverein in 2003, where the internationally well known Slovakian contemporary artist Roman Ondák delved into the role of art in Slovakia during the ’60s and ’70s for the first time. Ethnographers and art historians in the West often tend to smile condescendingly on shows of this kind and this manner of coming to grips with the time before the fall of the Iron Curtain. But in Slovakia these shows are taking place for the first time, forming »the basis for a new self-discovery, which is immensely important«, says Bratislava artist, curator and musician Boris Ondreička. »The economic situation here was never overly rosy. That is why an art market still doesn’t exist in Slovakia. There’s no long tradition of art training, which is a pity, but it also frees us up. We’re freer than the Czechs, who have to live with the burden of their grand cultural heritage. Basically, Bratislava is a small, insignificant city, barely taken note of by the world. You might say we Bratislavans like to define ourselves more from within.« 

The writer Claudio Magris, however, takes an optimistic view: »Despite all, Bratislava is serene and full of life, a vital and expanding world, one that does not turn its face towards the melancholy of the past but firmly towards the challenges and developments of the future.«

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