Exhibition Fear of the Unknown

People who aid refugees are subjects of obscene slogans: the comic illustrator TOY_BOX address this in a series of images.
People who aid refugees are subjects of obscene slogans: the comic illustrator TOY_BOX address this in a series of images. | © Dom umenia / Kunsthalle Bratislava; Photo: Zuzana Štibranyiova

The refugee crisis is dividing Europe. In Slovakia there has also been a rise in fears of Islamization and terrorism. Refugee policies dominated the campaigns before the parliamentary election in March. The exhibition Fear of the Unknown at the Kunsthalle Bratislava addresses the growing xenophobic mood in the nation and brings Slovaks and refugees together at one table. Juraj Čarný, the director of the Kunsthalle spoke in an interview about whether that can go well.

Mr Čarný, they say that the Kunsthalle Bratislava is the first state art institution in eastern Europe that is offensively taking up the issues of refugees and xenophobia. Why did you decide to do so?

The issue is very important for our society and for Europe. But until a few months ago, there was no public discussion about it in Slovakia. We wanted to change that. The Kunsthalle Bratislava opened in 2014. When we began our work, we realized that our city’s important art institutions such as the National Museum and the City Museum plan their programmes three years ahead of time.

For us, this was the opportunity to depict subject matter that is otherwise not treated. When I travelled to Vienna after the Violet Revolution of 1989, I noticed that people of all nationalities can be seen in the streets there. That was not the case in Slovakia and it still is not today. I moved to Copenhagen to study in 1996. There were many projects there to help refugees integrate in society. Sociologists, curators and artists made efforts to work with immigrants. The Slovaks have absolutely no experience with this. Many have no idea who or what a refugee could be because most of them have simply never met a foreigner in their lives.

Stimulating thought processes

There are hardly any asylum seekers in Slovakia. The number of approved applications for asylum in 2015 was less than twenty. And yet there is a great deal of fear of a refugee invasion. What can an art exhibition do about it?

Artist Mario Chromý’s sculpture “Family on the March” is based on a protest march against the Roma minority.  Artist Mario Chromý’s sculpture “Family on the March” is based on a protest march against the Roma minority. | © Dom umenia / Kunsthalle Bratislava; Photo: Zuzana Štibranyiova During our preparations, we became painfully aware that everyone in our families or circles of friends has an immediate opinion about refugee policy, either pro or contra refugees. They all believe that they know the truth. The issue divides families, friendships and society. Artists can reveal new ways of seeing things. It is very important to me that the exhibition does not take a stance for or against anything, but that we instead motivate people to think about a problem. We want to integrate the public in a thought process.

You did not communicate the exhibition in advance. There were no posters or announcements as there usually are. What were you afraid of?

Shortly before the exhibition launch there were parliamentary elections in Slovakia. Many political parties took advantage of the refugee problem in a very populist way. We did not want to be a part of this election propaganda. We were quite aware than many people have a negative attitude towards refugees. We wanted to avoid people forming an opinion about the exhibition before they see the art.

How is the exhibition laid out?

The show was curated by the Slovak curator Lenka Kukurová who was formerly working at the Galerie für Zeitgenössische Kunst in Leipzig. She selected photographs, installations and videos by Slovak, Polish, Austrian, Romanian and German artists.

Containers and fences in the exhibition

The exhibition shows quite critical art that really lays things on the line. There are a number of video works. One of the videos of Tomáš Rafashows German Pegida protesters, which seems quite threatening at first glance. The Slovak artist Ján Triaška shows a portrait of a Slovak, right-wing extremist politician painted in pig’s blood. How will these art works be received in Bratislava?

The broad public in Slovakia is not accustomed to contemporary art. I am also quite curious as to how the audience will react. I could easily tell you how people use art to provoke in Vienna or how to stir up the Catholic public in Poland. But I cannot say what will happen in Slovakia.

An installation with embroidered life vests by the German artist Birgit Rüberg An installation with embroidered life vests by the German artist Birgit Rüberg | © Dom umenia / Kunsthalle Bratislava; Photo: Zuzana Štibranyiova The Czech artist Lukas Houdek is presenting a container similar to the containers in which refugees are illegally smuggled to Europe and in which hundreds have perished. The Slovak artist Oto Hudec has hidden one of his art works behind a fence that not every exhibition visitor can pass. To play refugee in a safe art context is quite dichotomous.

For me, participation in the museum is extremely important. We don’t just want to show pretty pictures. If we want to reach the people we have to begin to play a game and turn exhibition visitors into active participants. Visitors are locked up in Lukas Houdek’s container for an undetermined amount of time; they don’t know when they’ll be let out. This kind of work helps us understand what it means to be a refugee. And with Oto Hudec’s fence, the exhibition guards deliberately let some visitors through and others not; a selection process like those at the borders and the asylum application process.

There are also countless works dealing with everyday life in refugee housing and photos showing the border fences and camps. Refugees living in Slovakia will guide people through the exhibition, there are shared dinners with refugees and Slovaks, city tours, language courses and special programmes for school classes. Sounds like an educational mandate.

I would say that we have an educational mandate with regard to art. Perhaps it is even more important for us at the moment to be an educational institution than an exhibiting institution. We’re no experts on the refugee crisis. But we give the artists a space in which they can deal with the subject. The curator Lenka Kukurová purposefully chose artists who have been grappling with the issue for a long time. Daniela Krajčová, for example, has been working with asylum seekers abroad and in Slovakia for seven years. So her art is not a reaction to the current crisis; her participative projects, her videos and drawings, are about something more fundamental, about artistic collaboration with people outside the art context.

Juraj Čarný is a curator and art critic. He has operated the Galéria Priestor for Contemporary Arts in Bratislava since the late 1990s and advocated, for example, the promotion of art from eastern and central European countries. He founded the Czech and Slovak edition of the art journal Flash Art and organized the Crazycurators Biennale in Bratislava and other shows. Juraj Čarný has been the director of the Kunsthalle Bratislava since January 2014 alongside chief curator Richard Gregor.

Mgr. Lenka Kukurová, PhD. is an art critic, curator and activist. She studied history of art in Bratislava and at the Charles University in Prague. Her research is aimed at reflecting on political and social themes in Czech and Slovak art. She was curator of various group exhibitions connecting art and activism (violence against women, racism, sustainable transport, feminism, national history, etc.). She writes and publishes articles and art reviews in Slovak and Czech art magazines mostly about contemporary political art. She has been working for several international non profit organizations including Amnesty International and Greenpeace. In 2013/2014 she received a scholarship to work in Museum of Contemporary Art in Leipzig. Currently she is a free lance curator and co-curates exhibitions in Artwall Gallery in Prague in the public space.

The interview was held by Birgit Rieger, sociologist and arts journalist for the Tagesspiegel in Berlin.