Review / UNCLEAR IMAGES OF CRISIS IN THE RECORDS OF REALITY
Ján Skaličan: Eyewitness, 1–29 March 2023, tranzit.sk, curated by Judit Angel
The exhibition Eyewitness in Bratislava’s Tranzit.sk communicates the urgency of the environmental crisis, develops the possibilities of working with visual and audio material, and at the same time sensitively, but all the more intensely, emphasizes the meaning and role of art towards engagement. Ján Skaličan’s work does not stay with illustrative imagery, it is collaborative and critical. The artist’s position is proclaimed here with the help of mapping and mediation of materials, letting the very entities of the affected natures – environments – speak. Along with a reminder of the need to develop a discourse of climate issues on a planet-wide scale, this is confirmed in the accompanying text by the exhibition’s curator Judit Angel, who also raises questions about the role of art in relation to resonating problematic aspects in society. The exhibition project thus outlines answers in three rooms, but above all it blurs the boundaries of post-atelier research and investigative scholarship.
Skaličan seeks the possibilities of an active, yet non-invasive artistic practice, aimed at appealing to the issue of the climate crisis and the state of nature, confronted by the anthropocene-capitalocene. It does not focus on global aspects, which are certainly no less urgent and are dealt with by a large part of “ecological” contemporary art, but focuses on specific areas, individual parts of a large mosaic of problems. In the local context of Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Iceland, these are metaphors or indicators of larger disasters on a global scale. Their suggestive visibility brings the important, but unfortunately for many flatly repeated topic of the devastation of ecosystems and natural environments into tangible and comprehensible frameworks for the less interested audience. At the same time, it is communicated in a highly rational, artistic-research language. The hyper-object of environmental problems is thus brought into the concreteness of the landscape and environment close to us, which is given a “microphone” for its intimate confession in the exhibition.
The introduction of the exhibition presents a selection of literature compiled by the author himself, which gives an insight into the thought framework accompanying the research. The intervention consists of publications containing different angles of theoretical discourse by authors such as Jussi Parikka, Britt Wray or Jiří Sirůček, which develop the contexts of contemporary ecological, cultural-political or otherwise critically oriented topics.
The photographs placed on the wall of the room are the only ones that explicitly document the presence of a person, an artist and a research team, in the joint work carried out in the coastal area of Iceland. However, the video related to the project, as well as the other works presented in the exhibition, develop Ján Skaličan’s approach of becoming a guide, witness and mediator between nature and society. The footage presents shots of the environment of a kind of sad “post-life” accompanied by a resonating soundtrack. It discusses plastiglomerate as an anthropogenic type of rock that is formed by devastating human activity, as a fossil record in the geological layers of the Earth.
Videos in other rooms have a similar principle of talking about a specific location. By presenting them on screens installed next to each other, they act as living images in the exhibition, which in this way play with the visual aspect present in the artist’s works. This can in some cases have an aestheticising effect. A form of aesthetically appealing imagery is also present in the videos, which depict several parts of the infected ecosystem of the city of Ostrava or the watercourse of the Vydrica River. However, when they are watched for a longer period of time, the image changes into disturbing references of the devastated places themselves. In the first case, the artist focused on the area of Dolné Vítkovice and the environment marked by mining, the Czechoslovak Army Mine or Halda Ema. In the Slovak environment, through the field record along the entire course of the Vydrica River, we are directly confronted with an artistic approach, a research without depicting the person of the artist or any other person. The documentary records, in the form of a visual-acoustic journey, the transformation of the environment around the watercourse, which is obviously transformed as one traverses the landscape. In addition to the regulation of the watercourse, other changes are also evident, disrupting the original narrative of the biodiversity of the area.
This disturbing yet initially harmonious form of projection in the last room of the exhibition can convey other levels of meaning besides its investigative character. The sight of a mixture of images of a stream, a forest and their fragments, together with the natural sound layer of nature speaking, will make the viewer stop. However, standing still in the gallery setting and watching the organic becomes a captivatingly misleading mirror of the present. In the exhibition space, further interpretive layers of the works present develop freely. Is it not possible to think of the visually appealing and disturbingly realistic images as a metaphor for the privatisation of nature, but equally of time and souls, symptomatic of the contemporary reality of the workings of late-form capitalism? For the interested viewer, Jan Skaličan’s works become critical, unsettling yet necessary material that sensitively yet sophisticatedly proclaims the need for change. Initially pleasing images, they provide a momentary stimulus, a much-needed moment of pause in the flow of an aggressive everyday. However, with their realistic content, they subsequently remind us of the constant need to act, or at least to consider active solutions to an urgent situation. They thus contrast several complex themes of the problems of the current state of society – the capitalocene, which is responsible for more than the globally alarming state of nature, cumulated in the issue of the climate crisis. The process of devastation is taking place on multiple levels.
The exhibition as well as other projects by Ján Skaličan, for example the photograph referring to the project Temporality as a perspective, from the environment of the Dunajské Luhy [Danube Meadows], let nature and the environment itself speak. Here, specific areas communicate their stories and mirror the processes that force them to change their natural character in the conglomerate of human society’s activities. However, unlike some figurative or purely appealing approaches of ecologically oriented art, the artist adds a layer of activism and interdisciplinary collaboration that breaks through the frameworks of artistic discourse. He thus remains a mediator, a silent guide, but at the same time an organizer of the communication of relationships that can and hopefully will lead to real change, albeit in the longer term. At the same time, through the exhibition project, it reaches the minds of the audience, who, despite their awareness of the adverse state of environmental crises, can perceive these aspects at the local level of specific areas, presenting authentic statements without the need for further commentary by the entity of the human being. The latter remains present here through the actions contained in the geological layers of time, the decaying ecosystems of waterways or between the boundaries of a disappearing forest. In this way, Skaličan uses the layered medium of image and sound to continuously continue his conversations with nature, listening to its organic urgency.