Katarína Poliačiková about Roman Ondák, about time, about Niecéphor Niépceau, about the attention and about project Measuring the Universe.
Sväg to go is a small café opened in place of a former baguette/sandwich place on Kozia street in Bratislava. I remember eating my very first dried tomato and pesto there; then it still had that exotic feel. Last summer, there showed up a place I’d always missed in the district, a place where I could drink (good) coffee, while observing life in the street.
When I was sitting in Sväg a couple of days ago, I lay my eyes on the signs drawn with a black felt-tip pen on the glass door. The signs stretched all over the glass facade of the café. Each of them had a date, as if one measured somebody’s height.
I was looking at the door and it all seemed really familiar. Suddenly I realised that it wasn’t for the first time. And that the moment just before the illumination is always the best.
Is it life or Ondák?
Perhaps theoretician Igor Zabel had the best grasp of it: “Being able to read these artworks as art is, in my opinion, both profit and loss.”
I recalled these words now when I was looking at Ondák’s Measuring the Universe in the café. Later I found out it took place in two different spots at once: in the micro-world of Sväg on Kozia street in Bratislava and in Foundation Louis Vuitton in Paris. With one little difference: it is not the custodians who take your measurement in the café, but Jozef.
I came across the works of Roman Ondák live for the first time in the Tate Modern in 2006. I came into one of the spaces, not knowing that it was it: I found myself inside a model of the interior of some architecture. It was strange – I felt too big in the environment that reminded me of something. I have never forgotten the moment when I realised I was standing in the middle of the miniature of the Turbine Hall – in an identical copy of the Tate space, a “matryoshka doll” model of reality. And time.
Time is the most vital aspect of Roman Ondák’s art. His works do not only (just like others) exist in time, time sometimes becomes the only matter: both a form and a content.
It reveals the flowing of things that usually remain unnoticed in the background of events: waiting time, time of imperceptible change and growth. Time inside and outside the gallery. Ondák often intensifies our awareness of time with barely visible interferences that question its one-way flow.
I see this Ondák’s time as an analogy to the latent image in photography. Like a film with not yet seeable, but a fully present image of reality.
I like to imagine photography as a metaphor for the principle of Ondák’s approach and the author as a “photographer” that focuses our attention on otherwise overseen fragments of reality. The position of a viewer is, however, doubled: we are the ones who look, but also the ones who stand in front of an imaginary lens.
Time loop: France, summer 1827. The experiments of Niecéphor Niépce and his fascination by lithography and camera obscura lead to a day when a reflected image was fixed for the first time in history. It was the view from a window, known today as the first photograph in history under the title View from the Window at Le Gras.
Niépce places camera obscura (with a pewter plate coated with an asphalt-like mix inside) in the window of his countryside estate in Le Gras and opens the lens. In eight hours, a latent image of the outside reality emerges on the plate. Niépce later makes it visible by washing away with a mixture of lavender oil and white petroleum. The lit areas of the surface is hardened, while the mixture on the unexposed surface is removed by washing away. He calls this method heliography. The exposure lasts as long as eight hours due to the low photosensitivity of the material; that’s why we see that the sun lights the houses on both sides in the final image.This is the first photography; a long period of time compressed into one image.
Ondák’s Measuring the Universe was first exhibited in 2007 in Pinakothek der Moderne in Munchen. Although the expression “exhibited” in connection with this work would be a misnomer. It started as a white cube with a glass ceiling that illuminated an empty white space. However, there was something inside: a latent image of the future exhibition. What was at stake was its duration in time and the viewers who would visit the gallery.
Similarly to the Niépce’s view from the window, Measuring the Universe is “exposed” on the empty walls during long hours, days, weeks. The visitors enter the space and the gallery guards mark their height, name and the date of their visit on the wall of the exhibition space. Just like parents do with their kids on the doorframe.
The whole time-space of the exhibition, otherwise invisible, gradually transforms into a final image – an object, which is affected by the number of visitors and the size of the space. The duration of the exhibition together with the viewers’ presence are behind the alchemy that little by little reveals an image on the gallery walls. Day by day, they get filled and darker, taking a form of a black band at the level of an average human height. Just like the spots on a film that catch the most light. In 2009, I ran into Measuring the Universe in Museum of Modern Art in New York. I visited the gallery on the eighth day after the exhibition opening and the band of records on the wall was already getting denser.What is fascinating about Ondák is the way he approaches interactivity. His artworks are such a smooth transition to the shifted reality that the viewers tend to participate in them without even knowing they become a part of the art world. The reason is that Roman Ondák has a knack of offering this irresistible experience of being able to discover the world as a child once again.
There were many people wishing to leave their trace in the MoMa, so I stood in the long queue in along the wall. While waiting with the rest of the visitors, I realised the funny irony: the queue itself was actually an artwork within an artwork. Quite accidentally, it was a repetition of the Ondák’s work Good Feelings in Good Times: an artificial queue of waiting people, one of the first artist’s performances performed many times in different places and contexts.
The artwork accidentally, in a magical way, repeated itself in the Museum of Modern Art in the form of a perfect semantic twist and a temporal loop. Or else: maybe we cannot but look at certain things only through Ondák’s eyes.
Here, American photographer Stephen Shore comes to my mind with his answer to the question what he wants the viewers to take from his exhibitions. He says that one of the things to take is what he tries to pass to his students at Bard College: “It’s a liberal arts college, which means that these people later become doctors or lawyers. That’s why I don’t try to make photographers out of them. It’s only one aspect of it. So what can I offer them? My role is to make them learn how to consciously pay earnest attention to the reality of everyday life. And photography may be one of the ways how to achieve it.”