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ART CRITICS FROM SLOVAKIA AND NEIGHBOURING COUNTRIES GATHER TO ANALYSE THE CULTURAL DEVELOPMENT OF THE REGION

Breaking the art waves since 1989

TRYING to follow a discussion between art critics and theorists about gender paradigms and the relationship between language and visual images, a layman might feel lost. But when one sees an illustration used by one of the speakers, pictographs of a man and a woman used on toilette doors, with the wrong description under each figure, one realises what the discourse is all about: Is it the symbol or the text that we use to decide which door we would open?
Art from a gender perspective was only one of several topics debated in Bratislava on May 21 and 22 at a conference hosted by the Slovak section of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA) entitled The 1990s+ Reflecting on Visual Arts at the Turn of the 20th and 21st Centuries. Curators and critics from Slovakia and its neighbouring countries, with the exception of Austria, met at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design to share their views on specific aspects of art in central and eastern Europe.


IN A HURRY, would you believe the symbol or the text?
photo: Courtesy of AICA

TRYING to follow a discussion between art critics and theorists about gender paradigms and the relationship between language and visual images, a layman might feel lost. But when one sees an illustration used by one of the speakers, pictographs of a man and a woman used on toilette doors, with the wrong description under each figure, one realises what the discourse is all about: Is it the symbol or the text that we use to decide which door we would open?

Art from a gender perspective was only one of several topics debated in Bratislava on May 21 and 22 at a conference hosted by the Slovak section of the International Association of Art Critics (AICA) entitled The 1990s+ Reflecting on Visual Arts at the Turn of the 20th and 21st Centuries. Curators and critics from Slovakia and its neighbouring countries, with the exception of Austria, met at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design to share their views on specific aspects of art in central and eastern Europe.

"The idea for the symposium was to map out the artistic developments of the last decade. Because we didn't want it to only be a retrospective, we wanted to gain perspective, so we added a plus to the 1990s in the title," says Jana Geržová, chairperson of the Slovak AICA section and the event's organiser.

"We were aware of the fact that 1989 was a breaking point in politics, and we wanted to see how much it influenced the visual arts. It is a fact that democracy and the free market have changed the structure of fine arts but the question was whether the statements made by art have also changed.

"We were sceptical about this, because on the domestic scene, there are not many artists who comment on the political and social changes in society [in their work]. It seems as if art has closed up, as if it was more concerned about formal aspects. But our symposium has shown that it's not fully true. Even though the percentage is small, there are works that criticise the social and political context," Geržová explains.

All the themes on the conference's agenda, like the expansion of mass culture and media and the new ways in which contemporary art is presented in museums and galleries, were examined with globalisation and the changes that the former Eastern Bloc countries have undergone over the last decade in mind. But there was one theme that particularly dominated: looking at art from a gender point of view.

"One conclusion the symposium came to was that gender-specific art was very important in the 1990s and still is now. And it was not only feminism, which was a dominant theme in the early '90s, but gender questions in general as well," says Geržová.

One of the speakers who analysed gender-specific art, the Czech curator and critic Martina Pachmanová, argued in her lecture that its definition is rather flexible and often used interchangeably with the term "feminist art".

"It is not quite clear what the criteria are for feminist art. Is it that the artist is a feminist, which would be self-definition, is it gender-defined content in the artwork, or is it an interpretation of a curator?" asks Pachmanová.

Pachmanová, who is also the head of the department of history and art theory at the Academy of Arts, Architecture, and Design in Prague, does not see the ambivalence of the definition as the major obstacle.

"The problem here [in the Czech Republic] is that many female artists are afraid to be associated with the term of 'feminist art'. Even if they sympathise with it, they are afraid of the label, which places them in a certain category. It is more difficult for them to exhibit in a gallery or sell their works because most managers of galleries are men, who often wouldn't want to deal with an emancipated woman making feminist art," Pachmanová says.

Feminism in art means that artists deal with personal, intimate statements. The artists, gays and lesbians as well as heterosexual women and men, want to show their physical and emotional world, and therefore reflect on topics such as home life, intimacy, and sexual relationships.

"Since the [beginning of the] 1990s, questions that have to do with sexuality are no longer a taboo. They became part of public debate, and that's something we have started to respect. Before 1989, gay and lesbian artists belonged to the underground scene, and their works were banned," explains Katarína Rusnáková, a freelance curator.

"Now that artistic freedom is respected in Slovakia, all the phenomena that once were oppressed are now coming out into the open. The same goes for gender issues, which are showing up in fine arts more often. I think that artists and curators don't have a problem with it. The problem lies in the acceptance of this art by society. People have to learn to read and decode these works," Rusnáková says.

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