There is an unmistakable wit that permeates Czech and Slovak contemporary art. A signature. A serious but minimalistic gesture of tongue-in-cheek rooted in a drive to push irony and explore a hardened layer of underlying melancholy with a critical poignant eye. Roman Ondák is situated within this play. A recipient of this year's 2012 Deutsche Bank “Artist of the Year” award, Udo Kittelmann, member of Deutsche Bank’s Art Advisory council and the director of Berlin’s Nationalgalerie, praised the artist’s success and assured his longevity and influence in the contemporary art world today. With these accolades plus his latest exhibition do not walk outside this area at the Deutsche Guggenheim, the Bratislava-born Ondák writes another chapter in an already successful, internationally-exhibited history.
Divided into three rooms, the exhibition on Unter den Linden can be best described as a play on the meaning of travel – the movement through space, time, and the means by which these movements and events are recorded and therefore remembered. The first room in the exhibition houses Awaiting Enacted (2003) a series of framed Slovak newspaper clippings, three conceptual sculpture works commissioned specifically for this exhibition – Wall Being a Door (2012), Leap (2012), and Keyhole (2012) – and a work on paper, the medium the artist usually employs to draft and document his works. This first gallery fiercely focuses on the botched potentiality of movement through somewhat surreal quotidian spaces. A door has become an impenetrable wall, a railing recalls where a staircase might have been, and a keyhole taunts a viewer’s desire to transcend the white space of the museum. Instruments that usually are guides between spaces have here become markers – false symbols of potential movement – like the documentary newspapers, only pointing at something that was or could have been.
Roman Ondák, installation view at Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin; Photo by Mathias Schormann / Courtesy of the artist and Deutsche Guggenheim
Acting as an oppositional bookend to the first space, Ondák’s work for the 2010 Fondazione Sandretto Re Rebaudengo Turin exhibition, Un’Espressione Geografica, takes up the entirety of the last gallery. Balancing at the Toe of the Boot (2010), a series of seven postcards and a collection of fictitious newspaper articles based on the artist’s trip to Calabria, Italy, are meticulously exhibited as cold artifacts. Each postcard, addressed to Francesco Bonami, the curator of the 2010 Turin exhibition and artistic director of its governing foundation, bears a single sentence: “WE ARE STILL ALIVE.” At the Deutsche Guggenheim the work functions beyond the artist’s intended homage to conceptual artist On Kawara’s similar telegraph works. Included in do not walk outside this area, the collection is activated as an important opposition to the first gallery’s promise of mobility, bearing witness to a trip and the “reliable” documentation that has resulted from that journey.
Roman Ondák, do not walk outside this area, 2012, Boeing 747-500 wing; Photo by Jens Ziehe / Courtesy of the artist and Deutsche Guggenheim
Connecting the initial space with the final room is the wing of a Boeing 737-500 aircraft. Unpretentious and almost matter-of-fact, the wing acts as a bridge between both doorways, inviting visitors to traverse while balancing on the usually forbidden space: a space that as a child I would imagine to be a diving board into the sea below, a balancing beam, a surfboard – a place for my imagination to rest and stretch its legs during a three- or twelve-hour flight. The path has clearly demarcated warnings that insist you stay in the center and “do not walk outside this area,” making the testimony on the postcards all the more charged with an eerie situational meaning. The wing is a space that has always been out of reach to us, impossible to explore, and an unintended point of meditation for many window-seated travellers. It has become, in the context of Ondák’s exhibition, the vehicle by which one travels from the world of diminished capability to a landscape of fictional and enhanced possibility.
(Image on top right: Roman Ondák, Keyhole, 2012; Photo by Jens Ziehe, Berlin / Courtesy of the artist and Deutsche Guggenheim)