Roman Ondák (*1966 in Žilina, Slovakia) studied graphic design and painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Bratislava from 1988 to 1994. He also studied at Slippery Rock University, Pennsylvania (1993); Collegium Helveticum in Zurich (1999–2000); the CCA in Kitakyushu (2004); he has had grants from the DAAD in Berlin (2007/08) and the Villa Arson in Nice (2010). After the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia in 1989 and the political changes that went with it, Ondák‘s installations, performances, and drawings were shown in many international exhibitions, most recently at the Tate Modern, London (2006), MoMA, New York, the 2009 Venice Biennial, the Kunsthaus Zurich (2011), the Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin, and the dOCUMENTA (13) (2012). Ondák lives and works in Bratislava.
In the Space between Art and Life
“It’s all about the mystery of how people behave in general. It’s not a mystery inside of my work, but it’s a mystery of every day life, you know—why we have partners, why we have families, friends, why we like this and dislike that. Somehow the mystery of these relationships is what leads me to seek ways to transform them into art works.” (Roman Ondák)
Roman Ondák’s subtle, almost poetic art usually begins with everyday situations. Minimal shifts in the everyday comprise the major stylistic means he uses to shake up the expectations of the audience and to question conventions, including the art market’s. An oeuvre that challenges us to see art and life from new perspectives, that raises philosophical and (socio) political questions—and “sends the viewer on a search for beauty in the invisible and the fleeting” (DIE ZEIT).
When the conceptual artist designed the pavilion for the Czech and Slovakian Republics at the 2009 Venice Biennial, he almost made it disappear, by allowing the vegetation from the Giardini—bushes, trees, and paths—to continue growing inside the building. Loop quickly became a favorite with visitors to the Biennial, as it dissolved the national pavilion and its original function and carried on the display of national achievement ad absurdum in a quiet, cryptic way. “It was not a work of creation, just to say ‘here, I’m art.’ Rather it was something that was just there, and it didn’t matter what it was. It was fantastic” (Udo Kittelmann).
In do not walk outside this area, a project for the Deutsche Guggenheim in Berlin in 2012, Ondák also challenged the art public to have experiences on the edge, even to transgress boundaries. Probably every airline passenger has seen the phrase “Do not walk outside this area,” when looking at the wing of an airplane. Visitors to the museum were able to cross over an original wing from a Boeing 737-500, which Ondák had had specially transported from the Netherlands to Berlin, to get from one gallery to the next. Only by ignoring the directions, by walking across the wing as if it were a bridge, was it possible to overcome the boundaries of the exhibition space—“not only that of the material space, but also of the conventions and power structures with which art is defined. Everyone knows the prohibitions, barriers, and boundaries that lend artworks a valuable, exclusive aura and thus fetishize it: Please do not touch!” (Friedhelm Hütte).
Although, in Berlin, Ondák installed a readymade of enormous proportions, most of his artistic interventions are usually light, inconspicuous, and often intangible works. Frequently, the Slovakian artist will engage a third party as co-producer. In Teaching to Walk, an exhibition in Prague in 2002, he hired the wife and son of a friend in order to—as the artist said—literally copy the ordinary process of learning to walk and put it into the context of an exhibition, so that it would become a performance.
In Good Feelings in Good Times, a work that Ondák first conceived for the Kölnischer Kunstverein in Cologne in 2003, he also receded into the background as the author. Here, the artist hired people to stand in line in front of the exhibition hall—an interventionist action in which he created a link to a long tradition in socialist Eastern Europe before the fall of the Berlin Wall, while at the same time, he alluded to his own history in the former Czechoslovakia. “That was also something that was full of promise. For instance, when my father said, ‘Next time I’m in line, you’ll get a bicycle.’” (Roman Ondák)
Finally, Ondák’s project Measuring the Universe, produced to great acclaim in 2007 at the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich and in 2009 at the MoMA in New York, also recalls an everyday childhood experience. Just as children stand in door frames and are measured by their parents, museum guards in this project used black felt pens to mark the heights and names of visitors, along with the date of their visit, on the museum wall. As the action went on, the white wall turned black as the fine pen marks condensed to form a broad band. The public itself “made” the art. To quote Ondák once again: “I think we can only guess what makes people attracted to this work. . . for them this might. . . represent the simple fact that with the most archaic means you can create a complex image, which can compete with the most contemporary high-tech media. And they are part of it.”
Our Son Watching His Parents, 1998
© Roman Ondák
June 26, 2012