in Features | 12 APR 05
Featured in
Issue 90

Taking a Line for a Walk

Roman Ondák’s interventions into the patterns of daily routines are both existential and politically pointed

in Features | 12 APR 05

Life has its patterns and procedures, and so too does Conceptual art – Roman Ondák makes the two connect. His simple but carefully thought-out and symbolically charged acts and interventions are designed to scrutinize some of the institutions and practices that shape our daily life.
It is the conceptual rigour with which Ondák approaches these practices that gives his works their imaginative power, enabling them to pinpoint hairline cracks in the surface of normality and to highlight their underlying instabilities. The minute displacements and subtle twists that he introduces into the nooks and crannies of quotidian life can be electrifying in their implications, demanding and at the same time defying interpretation. His works demarcate an area of human experience where basic structures of social exchange touch on existential issues about presence and absence, interiority and exteriority, as well as parentage and filiation – and where the time-scale of political history intersects with the immanent temporality of individual lives.
The queue is one of the everyday occurrences that Ondák has worked repeatedly with. For the duration of his exhibition at the Kölnischer Kunstverein in 2003, for example, he arranged with associates of the institute for a line of people to form outside the main entrance between 4.00 and 4.30 pm (Good Feelings in Good Times, 2003). The result was quite a sight. With no clue as to its purpose, passers-by couldn’t help but wonder what had prompted it. Were people queuing for some spectacular event – the opening of a major art exhibition maybe – or were they just waiting for something more ordinary, like cinema tickets? Or perhaps something more basic was on offer, such as free food. By teasing out this moment of ambiguity, Ondák accentuated how the simple practice of standing in line points to the limits of social normality: it epitomizes unspoken social contracts that ensure the steady flow of daily life, but at the same time it can indicate the breakdown of the very normality it is meant to sustain. Queues also form in exceptional moments of anticipation or of crisis: when people, for instance, wait for the chance to see a star perform or wait for their share of limited resources.
The queue has in fact inscribed itself into our collective visual memory as a cipher for times of economic depression. In ‘Awaiting Enacted’ (2003) Ondák explores the historical implications of this fact. He took 16 different pages from various Slovakian newspapers and cut out all the pictures, replacing them with images of queues, taken from papers from a range of different times and countries. The resulting series of collages was reprinted as a free newspaper, showing individuals of all ages, from a range of ethnic groups and wearing all sorts of styles of clothing standing outside shops, schools, government buildings or tourist sights but also in anonymous corridors, on nondescript streets or behind desks and doorways. On this day, it seemed, the whole world was waiting in line. But why? Had there been some cataclysmic global event? Was there a worldwide economic crisis? Or perhaps everyone was being given some sort of free hand-out? The sense of time that Ondák’s paper conveys is deeply paradoxical: the suggestion of social crisis implies history in the making, yet this crisis also represents a lapse in time, a moment when the natural flow of events is temporarily arrested in the inertia of the queue. History is shown as both unfolding and on hold.
The act of waiting in line blurs not only the perimeters of time but also those of space. A queue marks the threshold between outside and inside, a symbolic boundary that (as every bouncer knows) constitutes the difference between exclusion and inclusion, frustration and fulfilment, impotence and power. Many of Ondák’s works play with and undermine this boundary. In Occupied Balcony (2002), for instance, he had a Persian carpet hung over the main balcony of the town hall in Graz, Austria, for one day. The gesture of casually airing a rug in a setting designed as a showcase for political power is grotesquely funny but also full of meaning. On the architectural perimeter of the banister the symbolic distinction between the homely and the outlandish is lost: given that the Persian rug is a symbol of bourgeois domesticity, the thought of the mayor having one in his office is not unrealistic. Put on public display in this way, however, this cosy item of interior design becomes a sensitive political symbol of the cultural Other – especially since the defeat of the Ottoman invaders represented a decisive moment in the history of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. As a piece of symbolism, the Persian rug on the balcony straddles the conceptual boundaries that demarcate the world of the comfy home from the realm of the former empire, subverting the political maxim of ‘divide and rule’.
Tickets, Please (2002), at the Spala Gallery in Prague, involved a different way of questioning conventional boundaries. A replica of the ticket desk in the entrance hall was installed on the first floor. The usual ticket-seller worked upstairs, while his young grandson took his place at the regular desk downstairs. Each of them asked for half the price of the entrance fee. The visitor would cross the symbolic entrance into the exhibition only to encounter it once again upstairs. (The conventional exhibition timing was also displaced: as the boy’s school timetable would not allow him to start work before 2 pm, the gallery’s opening hours had to be amended.) The work clearly played on the expectations generated by entering any exhibition space, yet the idea of paying half-price twice could also be understood as a kind of pun on the circular logic of bargaining, a comment on the countless little deals and private arrangements that create the social bonds that make up everyday life. Above all, though, the situation of the grandson sharing his grandfather’s job evokes the idea of a family trade handed down from generation to generation. The effect is to emphasize how alien the idea of inheriting on your profession has become today. Could it be that we young, flexible, creative types work so hard today because we are greedily trying to accomplish in the course of a single lifetime what had previously been the work of several generations?
Bad News Is a Thing of the Past Now (2003) explores this relation between the generations further. The work consists of two black and white photographs presented as a diptych. The left-hand image shows Ondák on a park bench, reading a newspaper. In the picture on the right his father has taken his place on the bench. Not only is he wearing the same clothes, but he is also studying exactly the same paper, a facsimile of one published after the suppression of the Prague Spring in 1968. Read from left to right, the arrangement of the pictures implies a perplexing reversal. The son precedes the father, insofar as he not only sets the pose that the latter copies but also passes on his clothes. Conversely, the attempt of the son to re-live a decisive moment in the past of his father makes the father seem to take over his position in the present. This twisting of the historical timeline, the photos suggest, occurs in the a-historical moment of the ‘time out’ taken to read the paper, a moment that potentially recurs on a daily basis across generations. The work imagines the possibility, and acknowledges the impossibility, of going back to a crucial moment in history in order to understand it. It speaks to the historian’s ambition to grasp how past events shape the present just as much as the individual’s urge to know the origin of the experiences, hopes and dreams that parents tacitly pass on to their children.
Another dividing line in human relations that Ondák investigates is that between people who travel and those who don’t. ‘Common Trip’ (2000), for instance, is an installation comprising a series of 128 drawings and hand-crafted models representing recognizable tourist venues and views from different cities. All the exhibits, the caption to the work explains, were ‘made by people to whom the artist described the most memorable places he has ever visited’. And for Slowed-down Journey (2003) Ondák asked eight friends and relatives, the caption says, ‘to imagine and draw him walking in different cities while he is on his travels’. The amateurish character of most of the drawings and models brings out the full suggestive potential of the imagined geographies they picture. In these scenarios the traveller appears as a messenger who (like a child acting out a parent’s unfulfilled ambition) lives out the dreams of those who do not travel or of those who for years were not allowed to. This romantic notion of going abroad, however, is offset by ‘Anti-nomads’ (2000), a homage to people who simply prefer to stay at home. Ondák asked friends and relatives if they thought of themselves as nomads or anti-nomads. He then took photographs of the latter wherever they felt most comfortable, surrounded by their most treasured possessions: books, plants, toys, a bed or a PC with Internet access. These pictures were then printed as a series of 12 postcards and freely distributed. The disseminated image of anti-nomads visibly taking pride in their lack of wanderlust becomes a gentle act of defiance of the new global economy, which has made travel virtually mandatory.
SK Parking (2001) deals with cross-border traffic. For two months seven Skodas with Slovakian number plates were parked behind the Secession building in Vienna. Ondák asked friends to lend him their cars and reimbursed them from his exhibition budget; he then made the one-hour drive from Bratislava to Vienna in the car with them. Any vehicle parked in a semi-secluded place for a longish time and with no owner in sight can attract attention these days. Moreover, in the Austrian capital the sight of these foreign cars prompted the imagination to explore the foggy area between prejudice and experience that shapes our perception of the vibrant black market economy. And indeed, to understand what the inner and outer borders of Europe stand for today one would have to grasp the micro-politics of the small-scale trafficking of goods and labour. The work gestures towards this sensitive issue, but unlike most media coverage, it does not make a scandal out of it. After all, we are only talking about a few parked cars.
Most of Ondák’s works, including SK Parking, involve transactions: it may be an agreement with members of a Kunstverein to form a queue at a particular time, with a mayor to use his balcony, with a ticket-seller to share his job with his grandson, or with friends to trade dreams for drawings or confessions for postcards. Ondák understands Conceptual art as a method to implement a concept into reality in the form of a social contract. What comes out of these transactions is neither a product nor profit, but the potential for other views of reality to emerge. In 1974 Július Koller, an early exponent of Conceptualism in Slovakia, coined the beautiful formula Mini Concepts of Maxi Ideas for this kind of method. In a way that is not dissimilar to what Koller calls the ‘anti-happening’, Ondák’s Conceptual incisions into reality expose and subvert the boundaries of institutions, countries and individuals. They frame the intersection of social, historical and existential experience, opening up the actual to the possible.