A powerful camera lens would have been a useful visual aid for visitors to Denisa Lehocká’s exhibition at the Slovak National Gallery (SNG). Such a tool would have allowed them to zoom in on her small sculptures, which recall scientific models of atoms and molecules. With the right depth of focus, it might have provided an optimal view of the white cones that hung from the ceiling, positioned as vertical counterpoints above empty cubic plinths. And the ordering influence of a camera’s focus would have tamed the chaos of drawings, sculptures, tools, items of furniture and paintings that extended over an entire floor of the museum.
At first glance, Lehocká’s show resembled an untidy studio or laboratory. The paint-spattered floors and the materials laying about made it seem as if the artist might appear at any moment, wearing a white lab coat – white being the dominant colour of this theatrical installation. In the middle of one of the show’s six rooms stood a white cube on which lay a piece of folded, gauzy fabric. A scrap of the same material hung beside it, like paint oozing downwards. The walls were painted white in a slapdash manner (hence the paint on the floor). Here, the artist was clearly retracing historical terrain: in the period of repression following the Prague Spring, Slovak artist Stano Filko created White Space in a White Space in Bratislava in 1973, unrolling lengths of white fabric on the gallery floor, standing white cardboard tubes on their ends, and hanging white linen flags on the walls. For the doyen of Slovak contemporary art, this work was a mystical attack on the materialism prescribed by the state. Though Lehocká’s work similarly paid homage to the colour white, it was less clear which adversary she intended to fight.
With Roman Ondák and Boris Ondreicka, Lehocká belongs to a younger generation of Slovak artists who have produced their work under the unfavourable conditions of a strongly market-oriented, post-socialist Slovak society in which contemporary art has a low status and receives little state funding. In spite of these restrictions, these artists have managed to make names for themselves internationally. The SNG’s decision to host a solo show of Lehocká’s work might indicate an increased openness among conservative state institutions in the country.
Against this backdrop, the apparent emphasis on formalism in Lehocká’s work takes a different turn. The artist calls her exhibition an in-situ installation, simply dated ‘2011 – 2012’. By not providing a list of works, she underlined the unity of this show, which consisted of newly made works, older pieces from recent years, and objects from the collection of the SNG. This recycling and re-presentation of fragments reflects Lehocká’s scepticism towards completion and closure. Plasterboard panels of the kind commonly used to build exhibition architectures stood against the wall or lay on the floor, as if the exhibition was still being set up. Pieces of Perspex and MDF plinths stacked against and on top of one another, seemingly at random, recalled the emptying gestures of classical Minimal and Conceptual art, but without imitating their anti-subjectivity. While these larger elements played on the monumentality of sculpture, their function as memorials or monuments was undermined by the brittle fragility of plaster-cast objects, reminiscent of stones or pine cones, that hung from the ceiling or rested on tables. Seen through one’s inner viewfinder, the network of visual references in this exhibition gradually began to take on a certain order. Small drawings of geometric patterns pointed to an engagement with Constructivism, and the bulbous quality of the plaster objects revealed an eye schooled in Surrealism. Although the installation as a whole seemed improvised, or at least influenced by an aesthetic of gestural arbitrariness, Lehocká’s art is less like a snapshot than an elaborate studio photograph. In this subtle visual drama, Lehocká erected a triumphant monument to the ephemeral.
Translated by Nicholas Grindell
Matthias Dusini is a writer and editor of the magazine Falter. He lives in Vienna. His most recent book, written jointly with Thomas Edlinger, is In Anführungszeichen – Glanz und Elend der Political Correctness (Quote Unquote – The Splendour and Misery of Political Correctness, Suhrkamp, 2012).
First published in Issue 147