Orient Express From Eastern Helsinki (and Eastern Europe) with LOVE

TRASH ART AND POSTHUMAN LANDSCAPES IN BRATISLAVA

  • Petrzalka termite housing
    Petrzalka termite housing
  • Trash art by Matei Fabian
    Trash art by Matei Fabian
  • Alexandra Barth's new work
    Alexandra Barth's new work
  • Benedictus XVII doing pedicure
    Benedictus XVII doing pedicure

Have you ever woken up following the noise that a 6’4 giant (tattooed) replica of Andy Warhol makes when he enters your hotel room to fill up your bar cabinet? After having to get up at 5:45 AM to make it in time for my flight I just wanted to take a short nap in the afternoon, but after this surprising ‘visit’ I could not sleep anymore.

 

When the toaster, the following morning, caught fire in the breakfast room and an gray-haired chef, lost in smoke, worked his a*s off trying to get things straight, I did, for a second, think that my favorite hotel in Bratislava had lost its profound charm.

 

On the other hand, the beginning of my trip could have been directed by David Lynch and/or Emir Kusturica. I just needed a couple of hours of distance to the events before I was able to appreciate it. And even the most enchanting places on earth can for a day or two drift into dangerous waters, and then just, in one night, get back to normal like nothing would have happened (next day was normal). Only one hotel I have seen (in the High Tatras) have come closer than Devin to the pastiche of the cozy grandeur director Wes Anderson portrays in his movie The Grand Budapest Hotel (2014). And in a way the aforementioned sequence just reinforced the experience.

 

Actually Hotel Devin has been renovated in a tasteful way, but the building just happens to be such a holistic product of warm-hearted Central European modernism (I have less taste for Finnish white cube architecture), that one easily feels like being in a 40% Post-Communist and 60% Austrian-Hungarian Back to the Future in its corridors. I will return, for sure - its one of my favorites globally (link here).

 

Anyway, it was April 21, and I had arrived to my dear Slovakia for two reasons. I was writing, with my philosophical twin Jozef Kovalcik, an article on what art scenes are. This might sound stupid (and it might be), but when you start asking what art scenes are composed of (agents, sites, local classics, etc.), why we say that some cities don’t actually have a scene and why scenes are not mentioned in art theories (which are presented as universal, although many of them, like Arthur C. Danto’s The Artworld, comment on only one or two scenes), you get the point. I was also in Slovakia to launch our new academic journal, Popular Inquiry: The Journal of the Aesthetics of Kitsch, Camp and Mass Culture.

 

I started by eating duck, red cabbage (boiled in wine) and pancakes in Verne, which lies in the basement of the main building of the local art academy – after 18 tasty trips to Bratislava I can recommend this – but proceeded then to take the infamous nap in my hotel room and to enjoy the landscape.

 

From the window of my hotel room I could see the Danube, which, for us Northern Europeans, is a mythical experience. I couldn’t stop thinking about Friedrich Hölderlin’s (1773-1843) and Martin Heidegger’s (1889-1976) philosophical adventures ‘on’ the river, the way the poet-philosopher (Hölderlin) discussed the history of technology (Roman bridges) and the history of culture (the Hercules statue in the Romanian end) of the river, and then the way the philosopher-poet (Heidegger) extended the text (appropriating Hölderlin for his own philosophical purposes), side-by-side with the original, to the Black Forest and the European metaphysics discussed in his own cultural philosophy. Heidegger did here (1942) not break for the first time with what he considered to be the “metaphysical interpretation of art”, but for me the text on Hölderlin’s Ister is the most important text in this respect, as it really accentuates the lack of distance to Hölderlin’s poem. These texts have inspired many other interesting works, like David Barison’s and Daniel Ross’s film on Heidegger, Hölderlin, Stiegler, Nancy and Cyberberg, and the contemporary life of the river, The Ister (2004).

 

A lot was happening in Bratislava, but the older I get, the more I am interested in following up what the people who I know or who I have met are up to – so I increasingly end up visiting studios where friends and colleagues work. I noticed that someone who I did not know that well but who’s art I have liked, Matei Fabian, had an exhibition quite close to my hotel, so I mailed him and received a guided tour straight from the source. Matei Fabian is a Bratislava-version of Anssi Kasitonni, but as Kasitonni (link here) is more camp, Fabian’s relationship to (material and cultural) trash is more craft-driven and seriously self-reflective, although it includes comical elements too.

 

If there’s something which I really like in the Bratislava art scene it is the way people create and present light-hearted works, and Fabian is one of the young artists doing it in a nice way. Different scenes really have differing relationships to seriousness.

 

I spent two long days working on our journal and the article – and one long evening at Café Putika – and now when I think about it, although we have worked for the journal for just a bit over two years, the idea for it popped up in Bratislava already in October 2010. It was then when we (me and Jozef Kovalčik) drove from Stanica Žilina, after a seminar where I was the guest speaker (I had to speak in a house made out of beer boxes where a bridge serves as the roof) to Bratislava, and spent a long evening discussing how tired we were with current academic systems and institutions and how we wanted to establish e.g. our own journal.

 

Popular Inquiry: The Journal of the Aesthetics of Kitsch, Camp and Mass Culture takes its publishing model partly from art journals (e.g. Art Africa). We will run texts in a simple-to-read format in a blog and then archive the issues (Spring/Fall) as PDF’s with a more traditional layout. The blog makes it also easier for us to reach new audiences. I myself believe that one reason for the lack of readers which most academic journals face is just due to the fact that even the journals that are in the internet don’t distribute their content as well as they could. Many seem to believe that having a grey page and not using social media makes research more serious. (I have news for you: it just makes it ethnically Central European ‘high culture’ of the 20th Century.)

 

We made long walks in Mokrahajska together with Jozef’s dog, Benedictus XVII, who I truly love. He, as most dogs, are so well developed in being happy about small things. A tennis ball is enough. When will we reach this stage?

 

The last day, I did a long walk by myself in Petrzalka. Petrzalka is the second biggest socialist suburb in Europe, conquered only by the charmingly townish Nova Huta in Krakow (which I visited last summer with my wife and stepson, and received one of the best portions of dumplings I have ever had at the restaurant in the town square). One of the nicest galleries in town, Photoport is moving to this area, and I noticed that at least one hipster restaurant had opened on the way to the space, the first IKEA beards sipping coffee at a terrace facing the dirty mini-river which pierces the neighborhood. One of my favorite local artists, Alexandra Barth, had moved together with Photoport to this futurist area. It resonated well with my walk through the silent township where enormous socialist housing blocks look like post-Egyptian monuments, to see how the artist who used to paint women (looking like her) in leisure spaces had abandoned human beings: she now paints mostly only buildings and rooms.

 

As I caught my last goulash in Verne just before leaving for the airport I bumped on some friends from the art academy. Bratislava is one of the only cities (besides Riga) I travel to where I don’t actually feel like being a lonely wanderer in an architectural environment. When you don’t know anyone, people are somewhat just facades, or ‘strange’ (like Jim Morrison sings), and when no one is warming up your world, there is a feeling of de Chirico (the surrealist painter who’s landscapes have almost no human touch) in the air, the rest of the people being just your statists.

 

I finished the day by walking up to the hills and enjoying the view to the city from the posh Embassy-driven upper class territory. The sun had not really yet hit Helsinki at the time, so it felt like massage for the brain.

 

God damn Bratislava, you are such a nice city!

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