Nausikaä El-Mecky on the censorship of art and a scandal in Slovakia
It’s not so easy to get rid of controversial art these days. Before you know it, people will call you an enemy of culture, a throwback to more sinister times. If you are to attack an artist or an exhibition, you better have some good reasons for it. Over 100 years ago, when a group of Viennese university professors protested against the display of three Gustav Klimt murals, they hastened to say their protest had nothing to do with the nudity in these works, but only with their gloomy character. Even in 1901, nobody wanted to be called a prude.
If an art scandal revolves around a worthier cause, e.g. discrimination, protests risk being branded as the “silencing of artists” such as when demonstrations and petitions erupted against the representation of black bodies in the Exhibit B exhibition at the Barbican in London in 2014.
Still, perhaps there are better ways of going about things. This summer, an entire avenue of artistic expression was shut down. No fingers can be pointed, no hard evidence exists about what happened, only assumptions can be made that this is censorship. The exhibition at the centre of this hidden scandal carries an ironically apt title in hindsight: Fear of the Unknown. Juraj Čarný, founding director of the Kunsthalle Bratislava since 2013, did not just “want to make exhibitions which will make people happy.” Prompted by the building political resentment and Slovakia’s rejection of meeting the EU’s refugee quota, he realised that “in Slovakia they are not touched by refugees at all, but politicians misuse the subject, so I realised that we have to bring culture to the discussion about refugee crisis.” And although Slovakia was hardly touched by the refugee crisis, ultimately, Mr Čarný says, “this is the topic that will probably change the future of all people living in Europe. And we don’t know in which way.”
And so, exhibition “Fear of the Unknown” showed works by 23 mostly Czech and Slovak artists and collectives which dealt with identity, migration and the idea of the “stranger.” The works ranged from the nearly abstract to large scale installations, such as Kateřina Šedás’ installation of bright orange life jackets.
A Scandal without a Scandal
Rather than creating an exhibition that was purely based on shock value, the goal was to create a dialogue with works that “were not for refugees and not anti-refugees, but they were questioning. And they were somehow trying to move, make people think about the whole problem.”
And indeed, during the run of the exhibition, Fear of the Unknown did not lead to a full-blown scandal by any means. There were no protestors picketing the Kunsthalle, no angry petitions, no aggressive attacks in the media or outraged politicians.
To foster dialogue, the exhibition featured a wall with sticky-notes, on which people could leave any comments and thoughts related to the exhibition. The responses here were “fairly cultivated”, with truly aggressive comments being the exception.
Meanwhile, what Mr Čarný considers the two most controversial works, were also the most inconspicuous ones – both of them were on paper and required a closer look to reveal their provocative content. One of them was a fictional account in five drawings showing Slovakia’s current prime minister Robert Fico promising to build a wall around his country, the other one is a portrait of right-extremist leader Marian Kotleba in pig’s blood instead of paint. The response of the press was restrained as well, with the most critical statements according to Mr. Čarný, stating that the exhibition was “too pro-refugees… and that we were educating kids that refugees are a good thing.”
And so, on the surface, it seems that nothing really happened. There was an exhibition about a hot topic. People saw it. Then it closed. On the Kunsthalle’s website, there are numerous photos from the exhibition opening, smiling people standing and sitting amongst the installations. “This exhibition Fear Of The Unknown is trying to overcome the barrier of non-communication,” it states, somewhat ironically. Only something is missing, namely: nearly half of the original team of the Kunsthalle Bratislava. They were fired in July 2016, allegedly without warning. The Kunsthalle, already semi-independent, was on a track to become fully autonomous. Then, to his surprise, Mr Čarný found out that they were to become part of the Slovak National Gallery. He says that he was never warned or reprimanded: “I saw in the eyes of some people that they were surprised that we are going to do this [exhibition] but they didn’t say anything.”
And so, he describes how one day he and his chief curator were summoned by the directorate of the Slovak National Gallery and informed “that they will not continue with the program we prepared and we were supposed to leave the institution by our own volition.” He refused and was subsequently fired, along with four of his colleagues. According to Mr Čarný, the majority of exhibitions, which had been planned until 2018, were cancelled. The Slovak National Gallery denies this and says that “only one show” has been withdrawn, Mr Čarný claims that six exhibitions were called off.
Meanwhile, the grounds for firing Mr Čarný were presented as purely administrative: there was no need for a separate director for the Kunsthalle now that it would become part of the National Gallery. Still, Mr Čarný also describes how he was discredited during a press conference given by the director of the National Gallery: “she said that I was not good enough for a state institution. I may be able to run a private gallery, but not a state institution with its economical rules.”
It could all have ended there if it wasn’t for the decision to also cancel the follow-up to the exhibition: a programme of performance art dealing with art and crisis at Slovakia’s biggest music festival, Pohoda. The programme had been planned since 2014 and was curated by Mr Čarný’s colleague Lenka Kukurová. It was cancelled only a few weeks beforehand. This was a big, international project, in cooperation with the German foundation Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung Brandenburg and funded by the EU.
“Of course, we cannot prove anything, but it was clear that it was an uncomfortable exhibition, even scandalous… It is very odd that the project was cancelled at such short notice. I have never seen a EU-funded project being cancelled like this before, and all of this is quite the coincidence,” says Inka Thunecke, managing director at the Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung. “and although we cannot say anything for certain, the whole sequence of events is suspicious to say the least.”
The Slovak National Gallery has denied cancelling the performance programme: “participation on [the] Music Festival was cancelled by its curator…there was no reason to cancel anything (as far we know, nothing was prepared, but this was absolutely not due to SNG).” Mr Čarný, Ms. Kukurová and Ms. Thunecke reject this version of events, stating that their work was made impossible by the organisations –including the SNG– overseeing the Kunsthalle Bratislava, who, according to Mr Čarný, “were trying to paralyse all processes.” Ms Kukurová describes how she was “forced to cancel the project,” since “two weeks before the project [was about to start], there was not a single contract signed with the artists,” a number of whom needed the confirmation for their visas to travel to Slovakia.
And so, the exhibition programme about refugees and migration itself had to find a new haven in another country: the Kunstpunkt gallery in Berlin, with a new title, Mirror of Alterity. The organisers were determined not to sweep what happened in Bratislava under the carpet and the press release for the Berlin exhibition starts with describing it as the cause of “a scandal in Bratislava” and “extreme political pressure.” Whereas the supposed repression of this exhibition has been fully denied in Slovakia, in Berlin it has become one of its most prominent features. This has prompted the Slovak National Gallery to release a statement condemning the “marketing” of the exhibition based on the “unreflected feelings” of Mr Čarný, stressing that “it is the first [time] we hear anything about a scandal,” and that the exhibition finished its run “without any political manipulation”.
But perhaps it is this precise lack of scandal and overt repression that makes the entire matter so problematic. Ms. Thunecke confirms, that it is impossible to make a simple accusation: “Of course, I cannot say this with certainty, but it is very unlikely that there was any other reason for the firing of Mr Čarný and the ending of this exhibition programme except out of censorship… It does not make any sense as an economical, strategic or artistic decision at all.”
Despite putting the alleged censorship of the exhibition in the foreground, Ms. Thunecke was well aware of the risk of appearing self-congratulatory. “I did not want to make an exhibition to show how good we are in Berlin and how bad Slovaks are, but instead to change the stereotype. To show, that it is far from homogenous in Slovakia, whereas in the news, we only hear about the extreme statements from politicians”.
And so, Fear of the Unknown is now on show in a smaller space in Berlin, a place which is the stage for its own political battle regarding the refugee crisis. Mr Čarný hopes to return to Slovakia, “I was not invited to go elsewhere, but I think I am needed [there] to work, so wherever I’ll end up, I’ll have to help with the situation.”
We will never be able to say for certain whether what happened in Bratislava was repression or simply an organisational chaos. Ultimately, could it be that, whoever was in charge of this decision, got censorship right? Fingers cannot be pointed, only allusions can be made. Could this be more sinister than an all-out rejection of controversial art?
The treatment of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei caused an international outcry, the explicit withdrawal of art funds in the US for controversial art works drew widespread condemnation. But we know very little about the subtle ways in which artistic expression can be influenced. The relationship between sponsors and museums, to give an example, is shrouded in secrecy. We do not know, for instance, to what extent curatorial decisions are influenced by wanting to keep a sponsor happy.
As such, suppression of art does not just happen out in the open. It can also be a game of redundancies and reshuffling. It makes you wonder how many initiatives and ideas in the so-called free, democratic world have simply disappeared, with the most oblique of bureaucratic arguments. Like the perfect crime, could there also be perfect censorship?
Mirror of Alterity, the Berlin version of Fear of the Unknown can be seen at Galerie Kunstpunkt, Berlin until the 31st of October 2016.