The Art of Contestation: Performance Art in Slovakia

Andrea Bátorová, The Art of Contestation: Performative Practices in the 1960s and 1970s in Slovakia (Bratislava: Comenius University, 2019), 219pp. 

The Art of Contestation: Performative Practices in the 1960s and 1970s in Slovakia is the long-awaited English-language monograph by Andrea Bátorová, the result of her extensive research and writing on performance art.(Bátorová’s PhD dissertation was published in German as Aktionskunst in der Slowakei in den 1960er Jahren : Aktionen von Alex Mlynkárčik (Berlin, Münster, Germany: LIT Verlag, 2009).) In it, she covers the work of key artists from Slovakia’s performance scene, during the heyday of its activity: Alex Mlynárčik, Jana Želibská, Ľubomír Ďurček and the DSIP (Temporary Society of Intensive Experience), among others. Although only appearing in paperback, the text is richly illustrated with color and black and white images, many of which have been published here for the first time.

This publication joins a host of national studies of performance art in English that have appeared in recent years: Ileana Pintilie’s Actionism in Romania during the Communist Era (Cluj, Romania: Idea Art & Design, 2000) and Pavlína Morganová’s Czech Action Art: Happenings, Actions, Events, Land Art, Body Art and Performance Art Behind the Iron Curtain (Prague, Czech Republic: Karolinum Press, 2014) immediately come to mind. It also aligns with a growing body of literature on performance art as an expanded field in general. As such,  Bátorová’s study will go a long way to broaden the knowledge of European performance practices among the global art historical and performance art community of scholars and practitioners.

The book is based on extensive archival research and work with primary sources. Bátorová has spent more than a decade working closely with many of the artists included in this study, in particular Alex Mlynárčik, on which her PhD dissertation (published in 2009 in German) was based. She has also been part of numerous research groups working on performance art in the region,(This focus on juissance as an aspect of performance art in East-Central Europe can also be seen in the exhibition Left Performance Histories at NGbK Berlin, 2018. The curators aimed to demonstrate the fact that performance in the region had other motivations and meanings outside of the political.) most notably Action Art Behind the Iron Curtain, funded by the German Research Foundation, and Networking Performance Art Histories, organized by Heike Roms and Dror Harari.

While Pavlína Morganová’s 2014 Czech Action Art first introduced the English-speaking world to performance art practices in Czechoslovakia, her study was focused on actions and artists from what is now the Czech Republic, and concentrated in Prague. Bátorová’s contribution by contrast focuses on activity in Slovakia, which was mainly centered around Bratislava. Bátorová divides her monograph into five discrete chapters, following a brief introduction. Her aim is to demonstrate action art as a form of creation for these artists, borrowing from a concept by Czech art historian Tomas Straus, “action as creation or even the meaning of creation” (11). To do so, she identifies the meeting points between the art of the “second public sphere” with the first public sphere, demonstrating how much of what is often discussed as “underground” art or activity actually takes place “above ground” (16), in the sense of being visible and often in plain view, and not hidden, like much of the alternative artistic activity in the region.

Bátorová brings to light the impact visibility has on the reception and production of contemporary art, as well as the notion of participation in contemporary society.The book’s first chapter involves an extensive study of the performances and happenings of Alex Mlynárčik, perhaps the most prominent performance artist in the country. This chapter focuses on early happenings, mainly those organized by Mlynárčik, but also others by Jana Želibská, Zorka Ságlová and Eugen Brikcius. Bátorová views these happenings as a form of “celebration,” which was, according to her, “the ultimate expression of action art in the former Czechoslovakia (ČSSR) and Central Europe” (19). This may be surprising to those familiar with the more politically motivated and politically oriented underground activity from the region,(This focus on juissance as an aspect of performance art in East-Central Europe can also be seen in the exhibition Left Performance Histories at NGbK Berlin, 2018. The curators aimed to demonstrate the fact that performance in the region had other motivations and meanings outside of the political.) but happenings such as Ewa’s Wedding by Mlynárčik, which centered around an actual wedding in Zilina in 1972. Ságlová’s 1969 action, Throwing Balls into Bořín Pond in Průhonice; or Brikcius’s Still Life With Half Liters of Beer, from 1967, which frames the everyday activity of drinking beer as a happening, both carved out a space away from the overbearing, everyday political environment for the enjoyment and appreciation of the mundane activities of everyday life, as well as some key celebrations. Even Želibská’s actions, which can have a feminist, and therefore political reading, were also often focused on pleasure and sexuality, as opposed to other aspects of gender-based art by women, such as equal rights, body image, or marriage.

Bátorová points out how joy and positivity were key features of these events, a rare phenomenon in the action art of the period elsewhere in the region, which often manifested anti-art tendencies and destructive characteristics. For Bátorová, “positive emotions” and “consent to the world” are “characteristic signs of Slovak action art” (35). While this certainly does not apply to all actions in the Slovak context, it is a distinctive characteristic of many by the artists noted above, both during the relatively free context of the 1960s as well as in the 1970s, the period of “Normalization”, which was marked by strongly political and visceral performances elsewhere in Czechoslovakia, in particular by Jan Mlčoch, Petr Štembera and Karel Miler in Prague.

The second chapter of The Art of Contestation focuses on Jana Želibská, an artist who has worked in performance and happenings, installation, two-dimensional work, and video. The chapter offers a close reading of one installation and exhibition by Želibská, The Possibility of Revealing, which was the artist’s first solo exhibition, at the age of 26, in 1967. The installation consisted of several independent works that can be read separately or taken as a whole in the exhibition, and Bátorová provides both readings. In discussing both these elements, however, she focuses on the performativity of the images and exhibition, and the manner in which the viewer is directed and led to interact with the objects and the room as a whole.

While it is refreshing to have such a close reading of the work that focuses on formal aspects of the work, rather than simply the socio-political context—which is often the first context in which this work is discussed—there were some missed opportunities when discussing the Želibská’s work in relation to the body and gender. While Želibská has never described herself as a feminist or as having any part in the feminist movement in art that was taking place in Western Europe and North America in the 1960s,(While feminism and feminist art had little traction among audiences in East-Central Europe, many artists were connected with feminism and feminist art internationally. For example, Polish artist Natalia LL met Carolee Schneemann when in New York in 1977, and was invited to be the Polish or East European representative of feminist art. Orshi Drodzik from Hungary and Natalia LL both participated in the Frauen Kunst – Neue Tendenzen exhibition in Innsbruck, Austria, in 1975. So, while there were links with Western Feminism, Želibská does not claim to have been a part of these networks.) her work is nevertheless a unique expression of female sexuality and eroticism at the time, and so a discussion of her work from this angle would have been instructive. Instead, the author provides a Lacanian reading of Želibská’s use of mirrors in relation to the Gaze, as well as a juxtaposing this piece with Marcel Duchamp’s final work, Étant donnés (1968), which employs voyeurism similarly to Želibská. While interesting, this reading is not as instructive as examining the artist’s work in relation to gender, feminism, or the context of other artists in the region working with the body and gender at the time would have been.

 Bátorová admirably provides a reading that does not contradict the artist’s intentions, as she claims her “views on a woman are the same as on a man,”(Jana Želibská, quoted in “Jana Želibská: A Piece of Land” (exhibition text), Slovak National Gallery: ) much like, interestingly enough, her Polish counterpart, Natalia LL. That said, a reading of Želibská’s work through the lens of feminism and gender would not necessarily belie the aims of the artist’s work; rather it would provide a more multi-faceted view, especially considering the fact that there were so few women artists from East-Central Europe dealing with the female body in terms of sexuality at that time.

The Gaze, for Lacan, was not gendered, but for film critic and theorist Laura Mulvey, it certainly was. Bátorová reads Želibská’s work through Kaja Silverman’s critique of Mulvey, who argues that the male viewer is the intended viewer of the vast majority of visual work created within the patriarchal structures of Europe and North America (East-Central Europe included). Mulvey, however, has argued that it is the male gaze that normalizes the phenomenon of female viewers looking upon the eroticized woman with desire, as can be seen throughout the history of Western film. It is interesting that Želibská modifies this by refusing to provide the viewer with a naturalistic eroticized view. Rather, her figures, though anatomically accurate in some ways, are less desirable in others—completely flat, and akin in this respect to works by Tom Wesselmann. Furthermore, Želibská not only takes agency as the artist in controlling, or attempting to control, the viewer’s journey through the exhibition, but she also offers agency to her female viewers, who are able to take on active roles in peeping and pulling back curtains in the exhibition—turning the tables on those positions traditionally reserved for men.

Bátorová’s subsequent three chapters provide a significant shift in tone from this rather formalist reading of Želibská’s work. In discussing the work of two significant exhibitions in the 1960s (II Permanent Manifestation and Danuvius), and the work of Ljubomir Durcek and DSIP, the author turns to a socio-political reading of the work, providing background to the political situation in Czechoslovakia in the 1960s and 1970s, including the shift from the relative freedom of the Prague Spring to the much more restricted atmosphere of the Normalization era of the 1970s, and the impact of those contexts on art production.

Among the most interesting chapters is chapter four: “Exhibitions as (Un)political Media: II Permanent Manifestations and Danuvius ’68 (Alternative Art in Slovakia in the 1960s).” The author here describes these two events as both performative and political, not to mention subversive, and offers them as examples of the manner in which artists were able to use their art as a means of voicing their dissatisfaction with the regime. II Permanent Manifestations was an installation by Alex Mlynárčik in a public toilet in Bratislava, protesting the lack of inclusion of young artists and experimental art in the exhibitions taking place in Prague and Bratislava during the AICA conference.(An exhibition of young artists was staged in Brno, but due to the tight timing of the conference, leaving little time between the events in Prague and Bratislava, this meant that most participants in the conference would not be able to make it to Brno to see the exhibition.) The exhibition sparked an extended debate in the popular press, in which journalists, art historians, and lay people contributed to the debate. In many ways, this reaction was precisely what the artists were craving: the public discussion of contemporary art. Bátorová’s inclusion of the translation of these dialogues is fascinating and offers a unique glimpse into the art historical landscape Slovakia in the 1960s.

While the individual chapters as case-studies work well to focus the readings on the artworks, some linkage between them would have helped to contextualize the artists discussed within the Slovak art scene. For example, while the author provides a lengthy discussion of Želibská’s use of mirrors in her installation, when discussing Mlynárčik’s use of mirrors in II Permanent Manifestation, a comparison with his female counterpart is absent. There were also artists that are absent from the study entirely, including Róbert Cyprich, Milan Adamčiak, Július Koller and Peter Bartoš. And while of course complete inclusiveness is impossible to achieve, it would have been useful to have some mention of these artists in the first English-language book on Slovak performance art. The fact that they are included in Bátorová’s first book, published in German, leaves one to believe that perhaps these artists were not included here due to editorial restrictions coming from the publisher.

All told, this study makes an important contribution to the literature on contemporary art, performance art, not to mention East-Central European art history and global art history, by widening the sphere of artists who have contributed to the development of performance art to include artists from Eastern Europe, normally excluded from the canon, and by highlighting connections with other performance art scenes. Bátorová brings to light new material that most readers will be unfamiliar with, utilizing not only her first-hand knowledge of the artists, due to extensive time spent working, conversing with and interviewing them, but also archival materials. The author’s thorough and unique readings of these works, finally, presents them as fresh material to an uninitiated audience.

Amy Bryzgel
Amy Bryzgel is Lecturer in History of Art in the School of Divinity, History and Philosophy at the University of Aberdeen. Her area of specialization is contemporary art from Eastern Europe and Russia from the second half of the twentieth century. She has published widely on performance art in Eastern Europe, most notably her monograph, Performance Art in Eastern Europe since 1960 (Manchester University Press, 2017), which is the first comprehensive academic study of the history and development of performance art in the region. She also published the first monograph on Latvian painter and performance artist Miervaldis Polis in 2015.