One Half and the Other

Within Reach of Hand or Eye, the title of Roman Ondák’s exhibition at K21 in Düsseldorf easily rolls off the tongue, but it also raises questions. Two different ways of appropriating the world are juxtaposed here. What the hand can reach is an allusion to our physical connection with the world – touching something, assuring ourselves of its existence, recognizing it. What the eye can discern has a much more fragile connection to the perceiving subject; this circle of perception switches freely between unquestioning recognition and illusion. Within Reach of Hand or Eye covers the full spectrum from fact to fiction, although it may well be impossible to say which organ provides which information. Not everything that the hand seeks to confirm is by definition certain, and not all the pictures that the eye paints are merely the appearance of things.

The title of the exhibition applies to three works that were made independently of each other and were shown here in an altered form, or rather, in new aggregate states. In Ondák’s work there are instances of just such transpositions from one mode to another medium or context, but not to the extent of constituting a general strategy. It is simply that documents and materials from particular works are preserved and may at some point in the future come back into use in a new constellation if the right situation arises. This has something to do with the precise observation and thoroughness that are characteristic of the artist’s methods, which could be described as an alert openness to anything and everything – including his own ever increasing body of work. Within Reach of Hand or Eye also addresses another set of issues that appears elsewhere in his work, namely the relationship between the unremarkable and the unusual and the construction of subtle instruments of perception that shed light on hairline fractures in reality.

The transformation of Across That Place, between 2008 and 2011, led through various stages to its final condition and might appear to have followed a well-trodden path: a performative work is documented and, as documentation, acquires a new presence in another place and thus lasts beyond the original moment of its making. But in this case, things are not quite that simple. In the beginning there was an action – part of a biennial – at the Panama Canal. The artist had put up posters inviting the local population to come out and skim stones on the canal. In fact this waterway is still a security zone and not freely accessible to ordinary individuals. It cuts through the country and divides it and the American continent alike. The present conditions still echo the incomparably more difficult situation that prevailed up until 1979, when the Panama Canal Zone was still controlled by the United States, almost like a colony within another autonomous state. For the next twenty years it was jointly administered by the USA and Panama before returning to full Panamanian control in 1999. The stone skimming on the canal can thus be read as a playful ‘removal’ of a geographical and political boundary, as the peaceable ‘conquest’ of a special territory in one’s own neighbourhood. The action in the afternoon of the appointed day marked the end of Ondák’s work at this site.

During the development and realization of the work he had already collected various materials relating to the Panama Canal; he also took photographs on site and made a video. In the years to come, a complex second version of the work evolved in the form of an installation set up like a museum archive. It comprised all the usual presentation methods: photographs, posters, paintings and a video screen on the walls and free-standing display cases with postcards, newspaper cuttings, more photographs, maps and other documents. In its entirety the installation creates the impression of a lovingly devised presentation by a professional cultural historian in a small museum. Yet it is not mimicking that type of display; for all its appealing order it does not seek to conceal its status as a contemporary work of art. Yet the longer one concentrates on its individual components, the more one is plagued by doubts as to the origins and authenticity of certain exhibits and as to the intentions behind this presentation. It is only gradually and indirectly that one can surmise from the array of documents on display that there may have been a stone-skimming event at the Panama Canal. Metal posters name the place, the date, and the time of day, and a handful of photographs and the video allude to the action, even if they are more about its periphery and circumstances. Numerous postcards addressed to Roman Ondák at ‘Panamska 9’ in Bratislava, apparently sent from Panama at different times and with a variety of messages, including references to the stone skimming, arouse one’s suspicion that there may be something strange going on here and that certain things in this collection may be fictions of some kind. And where do those little, rather naïve-looking pictures painted on wood come from, with images of Panama, the canal and stone skimming? Has an ardent stone-skimmer and fan of the waterway been at work here? And was it the same person who marked up various maps of the country making connections between the canal and other facts and notions? On one of the maps the canal seems to flow, in some fantastic way, over the Alps and directly into Lake Geneva. And on another, surprisingly yet unmistakably, an arrow pointing to the narrow neck of land is marked ‘CUBA’. Groups of private photographs direct our attention to real historical events, to demonstrations and unrest that (maybe) took place in Panama decades ago; on a sign marked ‘CANAL ZONE’ an image has appeared between the two words recalling an iconic scene during protests in 1964 against the presence of the Americans.

The panorama of documents in this ‘museum’ seems to be set out in an entertaining rather than a didactic manner and in that sense reflects an open strategy where documents and ideas are combined at will. This type of procedure also has parallels in the way that memory works, with its gaps and inconsistencies, and in the way that a person might fantasize about the country, its canal, its history and the game of stone skimming. However, almost in the centre of the room there is an object that does not necessarily seem to fit into this collection: a relatively large, painted, photo-realistic image of the Panama Canal is presented as a table top. On it there is a 16-mm Krasnogorsk film camera made in the Soviet Union. It could be an allusion to espionage activities during the Cold War along this sensitive global trade route. However, because of the prominent placing of this ensemble, it can also be read as an allegory of the installation itself. The camera would thus be a symbol for documentary activity, for the truthful recording of facts. This would then be countered by the painting, which is rather uneasily related to the notion of photography for, as a hand-made picture – however realistic – it is associated with the imagination, fictions and illusions.

The title Across That Place originally referred specifically to the action at the canal, that attempt to subjugate the waterway cutting through the continent, the country and for a long time, that country’s political sovereignty. Moreover, the stone-throwers’ energetic movements and the in fact incredible flight of the stones skipping across the water seems to invoke a high-spirited sense of optimism. Together the action and the title become a gesture of appropriation in everyday life. It is as though the geographical, technical, historical, financial, political and social monster of the Panama Canal is brought back down to size – accepted as an exorbitant phenomenon but also, as it were, casually assimilated into ordinary life. In its second aggregate state as an installation, these verbalized resonances in the title become more profound and more complex. At the same time the title breaks free of the concrete connotations referring specifically to the canal and becomes a description of the work itself. ‘That place’ points to the veracity of the documents on show and to the claims of providing information that come into play in this museological display. However, the word ‘across’ instigates an ultimately poetic game with realities and ideas, with pictorial speculation and concrete archive materials. The side from which this game, with the supposed boundary between fact and fiction, is viewed is left up to the individual. Indeed as one penetrates the multiplicity of allusions one will constantly have to change sides.

The exhibition route leads out of the artificial, museum lighting of the archive into a much bigger, higher room, which is flooded with daylight from its French windows. The name of the work rising up in this space, The Hill Seen from Afar (2011), sounds a little like a paraphrase of the exhibition title. One is primed to expect a sight within reach of the eye. As a rule, distance turns a real object into a (reduced) vision. The eye alone – in combination with one’s memories and knowledge of similar objects – becomes the judge of reality. As such the experience itself is quite normal and not at all disturbing. But in this instance, upon entering the room one is immediately faced with an actual hill, with real moss growing on it and topped with a real tree. Contrary to its title, this piece of nature is directly in front of the viewer and also very much within reach of one’s hand. And yet, at the same time it is somehow in the distance, because the hill is not much more than 2 metres high and the little tree somewhere around 35 centimetres. But it is not only the implications of the title and the reality of the work that do not match. A gap, confusing to perception and comprehension, also opens up between known images of a landscape phenomenon and the miniaturised object. Of course, it is not hard to see through the ‘trick’ if one can recall the basic principles of optics from school, and then return to the order of the day. But what is the ‘order of the day’ in a museum and in connection with a work of art? Part of it is about making comparisons – which includes comparing things or ideas that one would never put together in the outside world.

In this piece of landscape, tipped out onto the museum’s parquet floor, everything is right and wrong all at once – the right moss but on the wrong scale, the right scale but at the wrong distance, the right distance but with the wrong nature. The first version of this work was conceived for an open-air site in a botanical garden in Mexico. In that situation the game was played out in a kindred setting: a piece of manipulated nature appeared surrounded by arranged nature. The cultural phenomenon of the garden creates models of nature and has since time immemorial also played with specially staged surprises, with unusual combinations, altered scales and fusions of nature and art. In this context The Hill Seen from Afar is unexpected but it does conform to the system; it draws attention to a ‘wondrous’ change of perspective in the way we view nature and its surroundings. In a similar way, the large amounts of autumn leaves strewn on the floor of the Winter Garden in Sheffield (Failed Fall, 2008) in the ‘wrong’ season subtly disturbed visitors’ sense of time and thus highlighted the artificiality of these glasshouses where it is always ‘summer’.

In the museum, however, The Hill Seen from Afar looks like an intruder that has overstepped the boundaries of the system. Even today the transposition of nature into a museum space still seems to break the rules, despite the fact that the invasion of the latter by the former has a considerable history of its own going back to the 1960s and 1970s. Yet Ondák’s hill is not about contrasting nature and culture as a form of institutional critique. Clearly we are dealing here with a miniature, which, as such, may be presumed to be just as ‘artificial’ as everything else one might expect to find in places of this kind. Or perhaps it might be more accurate to describe this hill as a faithful, true model of something – although this ‘something’ is not a landscape captured in a single, telling image, nor nature as such, but rather our own relationship to perception per se, as it is exemplified in this ‘hill seen from afar’. The hill is a thought model that nevertheless has sufficient aesthetic appeal, wonder and absurdity about it to effectively undermine any purely rational observation of it in terms of the perception issues it raises. The same might be said of Spirit and Opportunity (2004) where the replicated surface of Mars, covering the floor of the exhibition room, was not so much a model of the reality of that planet but rather of our notions of its scientific or utopian potential.

In Loop (2009), in the Czech and Slovak Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, the relationship of inside and outside, nature and culture was reversed. With the horticulture of the Giardini extending throughout the interior of the building, the pavilion became a kind of model-like construction, a perception device. In an artist’s book documenting the project, numerous photographs of this work are interspersed with drawings and collages revolving around the act of seeing, be it into a peep box or through different lenses. In several instances the pavilion itself becomes an optical device for viewing the outside world, which is also usually the natural world. The importance of the conditions of seeing and observing for Ondák is underlined yet again when he includes in these collages references to earlier works on the same subject, for instance a drawing of The Stray Man (2006). In this work a man walks up and down outside a gallery, sometimes looking in through the window, but never actually goes into it. His curiosity is satisfied on a purely optical level, which is to say, from a distance. But a boundary (the windowpane) has to be crossed and a device (his own hands cupped like blinkers) is needed to cut out the distracting reflections on the surface of the glass.

At this point one could make the connection with an astonishing number of works by Ondák where a window or, more precisely, a pane of glass is at the centre of pictorial reflections on boundaries and transitions. Glass can provide one of the most ephemeral and subtlest formulations of the notion of a boundary – ‘inframince’ (ultra-thin) was Marcel Duchamp’s description of just such transitions from the possible to the becoming. It separates the senses of sight and touch from each other and yet creates a connection between ourselves and the other side. As an action – all too easily overlooked in the bustle of daily life – the man wandering up and down draws attention to the institutions of galleries and art and to their relationship with the outside world. As an isolated gesture his searching gaze, focusing on the interior, points beyond the actual situation.

A wooden peep box (the first of its kind in Ondák’s work) features in a later version of an intervention – consisting of a stone slab in a real place – that raised the subject of a ‘virtual museum of contemporary art’ (Site, 2003/2007). The viewing cone fixed to the inside of a window contains a large slide of this ‘memorial stone’ against the backdrop of the Darsena Grande in Venice as the light is starting to fade; exactly in the vanishing point of the scene there is the sharp needle of a campanile. The virtual nature of the museum is poetically echoed in this rather elegiac photograph, which is dependent on natural light for its visibility. At the same time, the peep box presents a scene where there is no knowing whether – paradoxically enough – a museum of that kind had once existed in this spot or might in fact exist there in the future, or whether the inscription visible in the foreground is only a trigger for yet another form of virtuality, that is to say, a discussion of the suggested construct, as might seem to be implied by the figures sitting on the seats beyond the stone slab.

A similar peep box is at the heart of the second aggregate state of Eclipse (2011) in Düsseldorf. This, too, allows us to gaze upon something in the far distance – both spatially and temporally. We see into a relatively dark room with an upside-down pitched roof that seems to be sinking down into it from the ceiling. It is not easy to fully decode this baffling construction but one soon has the feeling that the stack of beams, metal panels, tiles, screws and bolts in the exhibition space must have something to do with it. And in the photograph we can also see the same strip lighting as is used in the museum space. But what is the relationship between the materials and the image? Does the photograph depict a real but no longer extant roof structure, the remnants of which are now stored here? Or could the building materials be used to construct a roof of the kind seen in the photograph? Are we faced here with a memory or with a projection of a future situation? In 2011, in the basement of the Galleria Civica in Trento, Ondák did in fact have a section of ceiling panels removed and replaced with an upside-down, traditional pitched roof. The ceiling panels were used to ‘tile’ the roof and the existing columns in the basement room were turned into ‘chimneys’. Thus a piece of traditional architecture from that region in effect broke into the modest, all-purpose modernity of the gallery space. The outcome was an uncomfortable medley of times and cultures, dysfunctional not only within itself but also with regard to the usual role of this space. In combination with the lighting that barely illuminated the room as a whole and, not least, the title Eclipse, the exhibition came to a dark, rather impenetrable conclusion in this strange artistic cul-de-sac. An ‘eclipse’ implies a loss of light, the onset of darkness (it can also refer to a decline, the onset of obscurity) and is seen at its most dramatic and intense in eclipses of the sun and the moon. There is no denying the tendency here towards a minor key, which initially takes one aback in a work by Ondák. However, in that same year he made two more works that involve but also resolve a combination of darkness, confinement and claustrophobia: Time Capsule, with a replica of the capsule used to rescue the trapped workers in the catastrophic Chilean mining accident of 2010, and Stampede, comprising a video of more and more people entering a darkened room until it almost filled right up, only to slowly leave it again.

In the Düsseldorf exhibition Eclipse again forms the conclusion and the turning point for visitors and in terms of the lighting is the darkest of the three rooms. However, the large slide in the centre of the room takes the visitor’s thoughts far beyond the feel of an out-of-the-way storage space. Having passed through the two previous bright rooms, one has a sense that this space must be lit from outside, that it has access to changing daylight because the peep box in the wall connects to a real window. The documentary nature of the photograph thus gains an extra, wondrous touch, for one would normally expect a transparent image of this kind to be consistently bright. It is not for nothing that the viewing tunnel recalls early forms of cinema and home movies, when ‘another world’ would appear inside a peep box. In the present case the ‘spectacle’ is confined to the changes in the lighting conditions when dense clouds pass overhead or as the image gradually dissolves into darkness when evening approaches. However, the darkening of the photograph and the lightening that follows again are not just optical phenomena. As metaphors they refer back to the subtle scepticism of the exhibition title, which seems to imply a rationally graspable world where things and actions all have their own place, but which also brings into play the inherent traps and contradictions and imponderables of our judgments.

Yet in Ondák’s work this implicit scepticism takes the form of a particular kind of pragmatism. His works are rooted in ordinary life, be it the world in general or the special realms of art and art institutions. Accordingly it is hardly surprising that many of them are barely noticeable; one of the things about ordinary life is that it is in a sense invisible. In the first instance his works conform to the patterns of life. They have a healthy dose of common sense about them, which makes them appear perfectly natural, even reasonable. And even if they are not readily classifiable, one has the sense that they are a meaningful part of reality. In art-historical terms, one might therefore describe Ondák as a realist who paints, as it were, his work into everyday life. And this pragmatic approach is not least informed by a desire ‘to deconstruct the notion of the artist as a romantic figure’, as he once put it, and to see himself in his own work more as a ‘visitor, filled with expectations’ than as an artist hoping that his unique proposition will introduce something completely new, incomparable, and outstanding into any given situation. It would probably be going too far to describe his additions to ordinary life as disturbances. For the artist docks onto reality in relatively unremarkable spots, where he then alters sights and ideas by a few degrees and, in so doing, opens up new perspectives on that situation – albeit not perspectives that turn reality on its head or somehow exceed it. If anything, they lay bare existing properties of a situation that are hidden, forgotten or avoided because they supposedly make no sense. The outcome is the liberation of the individual from the compulsion to submit to reality as it is. The smile that often appears on the faces of those who have spotted a work by Ondák could in fact be a reflection of the release they feel as a field of newly liberated perception and interpretation opens out before them.

Within Reach of Hand or Eye—that is what one would normally wish for in one’s encounters with the world and it is what gives one a reasonable sense of security in the judgments one makes, with the hand and eye momentarily taking precedence over the other senses. Of course this title also denotes, not least, the realms of visual art. As we see, and not only in the works discussed here, Ondák introduces other observational tools or perception devices into the supposed naturalness of daily life, which in fact extend it, rather than merely questioning it. The archive Across That Place, with its wealth of documents open to so many interpretations, is one such device, which makes it possible for one to seek out ‘the truth’ somewhere between facts and fantasies, between history and stories – without having to find it. Meanwhile the hill is a necessarily elaborate observation model for the relationship between facts and vision, absurdity and rationality. And Eclipse is an experimental lens that frees the present, the past and the future from their rigid temporal axis. However, in Ondák’s hands these seeing and thinking ‘mechanisms’ are anything but mechanically rigorous apparatuses designed to serve rational analysis and strict aims. For in them there is a crucial element of incidental surprise and wondering thoughtfulness, of seduction through lightness of touch and wit – in the old sense of precise observation, intellectual flexibility and spirit – as opposed to a present that has become (only seemingly) homogenous, flat and impenetrable. With a sideways glance to Charles Baudelaire’s famous essay of 1863 – and removing it from its historic context – one might describe Ondák as a ‘painter of modern life’. In his essay Baudelaire spoke of ‘particular beauty, the beauty of circumstance’ and of ‘its essential quality of being the present’. He also pointed out that: ‘Modernity is the transient, the fleeting, the contingent; it is one half of art, the other being the eternal and the immovable.’ Translated into contemporary terms and applied to Ondák, one might talk of the pragmatism of the everyday and of his ability to take the concrete things and situations of present-day reality and to infiltrate these with that ‘other half’, which causes viewers to stop in their tracks, to wonder at its compressed aesthetics and to reflect on what they are seeing. And why ‘painter’? Everything in these works, including – and specifically – all those things that look like swift, easy gestures are thought out and executed with the greatest attention to detail; they are ‘painted’ in the sense that a craftsman uses his skill to realise, as faithfully as possible, his idea of a vision that runs close to and even outstrips the surface of our ‘world’.

Translated from the German by Fiona Elliott