I don’t believe

Interview of Ivana Komanická with Maroš Rovňák published in the catalog from the exhibition of the same name in the Ernest Zmeták Art Gallery in Nové Zámky

I.K.: Originally you planned just the text catalogue without the reproductions similar to the catalogues produced a long time ago before the invention of “photographic reproduction”, when art works were simply listed. Could we understand it as some kind of a protest against the visual hegemony and the photography as the democratic medium? Or, could we understand it as a concept taking into account that a contemporary conceptual photography often works with the history of photography and the way photography is used? Or, does this unrealized concept directly refer to the concept of the whole exhibition focusing on “immortality of art” theme? 

M.R.:  Yes, to some extent, it would also be a protest against the hegemony of the visual and even a catalogue without a register of exhibited art works would be enough satisfactory for me. A catalogue containing only text would also have a direct relation to my art which has been, for more than ten years, dominated by work with text, however, it is just one of its aspects. Thus, it could also function as some extension of the exhibition itself. 

It would be more precise to speak about the author’s immortality through his work in relation to this exhibition as I perceive art as something altering. The concept of art and works of art did not exist some hundred years ago. They were rather considered as goods, regardless their cultural value. I just want to say, that thinking about art will probably radically change in the future and people will work with a totally different concept of art, so distant from the one of today that we will not understand it, similarly as our ancestors could not understand that of ours. 

Currently I am working on a script for a theatre production in which there is a lot to say about death in art not only in a symbolic meaning. For instance, Tarkovsky quite certainly died from a carcinogenic disease, due to his stay in a contaminated environment when he was filming Stalker. Bas Jan Ader planned to cross the Atlantic Ocean in a small sailboat in his piece In Search of the Miraculous but he disappeared somewhere in the middle of the ocean. Only an empty sailboat was found. Later some speculations emerged – that his disappearing was the miracle incorporated in the title of the work. Also the same appeals to Giuseppe Zigaina’s concept about Pasolini’s death as a murder planned by Pasolini himself, though which all his work retroactively gained its meaning. His argumentation is farfetched but still, the truth is that Pasolini worked with the concept of death with meaning. It is enough to mention the Gospel According to Matthew or the theatre piece people are not familiar with in our country, Bestia da stile (Beast of Style). In this play the main hero, inspired by Jan Palach, voluntarily dies in protest against the system. His own death functions as his self-expression. 

All these three examples are totally different. Tarkovsky discovered an environment he considered to be the proper background for his film and he obviously had less thoughts about whether there is something that might endanger him, the actors, the members of the film crew or his wife who was present on the set, too. It was inevitable for him to shoot in such an environment, the existence of the film itself was conditioned by it. Shooting in a different environment would mean a betrayal of himself and what is more, of art. Thus, we could interpret his death as a sacrifice he placed on the altar of art. In connection to this, I remember an interview with Diamanda Galás, in which the interviewee quoted Jarboe in some point. After her concert she pronounced that she would do anything for art, she would even die for art. Diamanda reacted: “What? She’s ready to die for whoever’s in the audience?” that is a brilliant notion! And she went on as she immediately mentioned the film of John Waters Female Trouble, with a scene in which Divine is asking: “Who wants to die for art?” When someone stands up, Divine shoots him.

Theory of Bas Jan Ader´s death as a miracle by which his performance Search of the Miraculous is fulfilled is purely speculative. It relies upon Ader’s performances, in which he mapped the limits of the human body. People close to Ader denied whatever speculations about his death as a part of his art performance. 

Zigaina’s theoretic speculation about Pasolini’s death, the details of which he had planned himself (such a plan must have had contained hiring his own murderer who would beat him to death and then hit him by car) is very interesting, but it is important to mention that Zigaina does not realize how he degrades Pasolini’s work. Its content (also with the interesting aim to write poetry in his mother tongue dialect) is lowered to an ordinary system of codes in which details of the future event are encrypted. Until Pasolini is alive, these codes (and the whole work as such) actually do not have any meaning as they have relation to something that has not really happened yet. Zigaina’s theory is not worth studying but the construction itself according to which the piece of art is fulfilled, or more precisely, it comes to life through the artist’s death – that the artist through his death becomes part of the work himself and he communicates with the living from the other world – is fascinating. The only thing that is disturbing to me is the cold logic by which this concept is to be fulfilled. In relation to this, I was thinking about a concept of art as an intelligent parasitic entity that not only parasites on its host/artist only until all his vital functions are preserved but it even retroactively nourishes it and protects it from physical death. 

I.K.: I consider your concept of return of the living artist as of something organic to be immensely interesting in the era in which the discourse of the artist disappearing in community work dominates. 

Your photography “I Do Not Believe” (by the way, it is the only photography in the exhibition) has a touch of modern poetry in which the author is the pilgrim passing through the world. How not to fall into the snares of modernist pathos and at the same time postmodern cynicism? 

M.R.: I was taken by Pasolini’s image of the artist as a workhorse of style. He himself summarized it in the play Beast of Style. Pasolini was active on more parallel front lines. He was a writer, poet, essayist, theatre and film director. He had a very serious attitude to his role. He was a staunch critic of the church but also of the communist party or consumism. Form was very important to him as for an artist. He brought a new language into each sphere he was active in as an artist. Pasolini, in the sense of of Truffaut’s definition from the 50’s was an “auteur”, who makes an irredeemable seal by his performance. 

I take quite a lot of pictures but I cannot find an adequate context for many of my photographs. Originally, I wanted to present more photographs on the exhibition but finally I decided just for one. It is a commentary to my perception of the world. It depicts me and a more or less a random segment of the surroundings representing what is surrounding me as a basic starting point of my relationship to the world, thus also to myself. I am glad you perceive it as poetic but I do not insist everybody should read it the same way. Most of all I attempted to express an unblurred process of perception from which any ideology is excluded as the title is suggesting. 

I.K.: But you directly work with modern poetry. As you write, within your archive you are exhibiting (in the concept “immortality of author”) it contains the basic text of modern poetry – Baudelaire’s  Flowers of Evil that you illustrated for yourself and accompanied it with your own texts. You are exhibiting the manuscript of your translation of Rilke you have used in your theatre play. In what is the turn of the 19th and 20th century fascinating for you? Could you say something about its poetics, also about the visual one and discover that poetics today, respectively where do you move it?

M.R.: For example I was interested in the habit of taking post mortem photographs that makes a very peculiar impression today, if we take into consideration that some people were able to visit photo studios with corpses of their children. Photo studios were even opened directly on cemeteries. It is important to note that this habit appeared to be sick to many contemporaries who had criticized it. Some habits representing part of mourning rituals in the 19th century were really exaggerated. It was common that mourning over the dead grew into obsession. In fact, it was something like a fashion trend coincidentally set by the British Queen Victoria from the beginning 1860s as after the death of her husband she sank into deep mourning and until the end of her life she wore only black. I was also impressed by the story of Maximilian I. of Mexico who was, after five years of his reign over Mexico, executed by the renewed oppositional government of President Benito Juárez. It happened in 1867 and the newspapers brought a detailed description of his execution. It was pure fiction. The report even brought description of how his dead body writhed on the ground in a post-mortem spasm. Photographs of his overshot and bloody shirt and coat preserved by people as almost saint relics were circulating in Europe. 

I have returned to his story in my second play 10.000. Gospel for Roses. There is a very long scene in which an art historian speaks about Manet’s series of four paintings and lithography depicting execution of Emperor Maximilian. It was a bit of a nasty joke from my side as it is not usual for the theatre visitor suddenly, in the middle of the play, to find themselves on a lecture about Manet’s work. 

But let us return to Rilke. As an author, he is attractive for me most of all by his imagery. In one of his poems he mentions, as if only incidentally, a lake that is hanging above its bottom. In The Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge there is a whole passage dedicated to faces some people are carrying in their pockets in order they do not wear away. In the poem Blind Woman he speaks about time that is flowing through hair, about silence that sounds in glasses or about the breath of a big white rose blind woman feels to pass near her hand. In the epitaph he wrote for himself he speaks about sleep under thousands of eyelids from petals of white roses. All these are very inspiring images. In this, I dare to say, Rilke is perfect. The poetics he works with is not possible to shift further; to attempt this would not make sense. It is only possible to interpret it. 

I think we can perceive poetics even in the most prosaic things. It is the question of how our perception is set. 

I.K.: You do not exhibit very often; you had your last solo exhibition Private Communication in 2011. You are puzzled when people from your field ask you if you are still active. Is this media multi-presence of the author something you are determined about? 

M.R.: I didn´t apply for a solo exhibition for a couple of years. I got the offer for this exhibition from the gallery in Nové Zámky and I appreciate it a lot and I cannot give a simple answer to why I am rarely present with my works at group exhibitions. Except for that, in the last years, my focus has been more on theatre projects. In 2013 I staged the premiere of the theatre play Asile de nuit that took me two years to prepare. I created the stage set for it, costumes and music and I acted in it together with professional actors Lenka Luptáková, Jana Oľhová and Tomáš Mischura what was quite obliging and also it was a totally new experience. Last year I had the premiere of the next play 10.000. Gospel for Roses. It loosely follows the first one. I cooperated in it also with the opera singer Dominika Doniga and again, it was something new for me. I established the Fleeting Theatre under which we introduced my second theatre play. I did not want to introduce another play only under my name as it was not only my own work as the script script demanded real rendering of characters. On the other hand, I have to say that theatre is not the environment I feel at home in. In general, theatre is defined differently as I do perceive it. For instance, I have realized I am tired of reprises. It is as if I would do the same work more times. For instance, Carl Orff’s attitude is interesting in relation to this. He introduced some of his operas only as premieres. He composed them at order for music festivals and he did not return to them after their introduction. Unfortunately this is the reason many people know only one of his pieces and it is clear that only the most commercially successful ones. 

During the previous period I could also reassess my performances I used to present variously as thanks to projects with the theatre I could have a look at them from a different angle. 

I.K.: What conclusion did you reach? 

M.R.: Working on my theatre plays brought me back to work with materials, the activity which has been absent in my art for some years, respectively it was present in it only to a small extent. Certainly also thanks to this objects from the series I Do Not Have Any Illusions About Immortality were created. For instance, I have returned to the painting canvas in them, not to mention the project The Red Dialogue that originally had to lead to a series of photographs, video and sound art – all this really exists but it is not finished, but instead I have created a textile object in form of a book with embroidered text as this way it represents the theme I wanted to express more aptly. And also the tone of my expression has changed. While some years ago I had tendency to a dramatic and even aggressive expression, in Asile de nuit I was made to choose a totally different attitude. For example, music I created for this piece can be be described also as meditative, even though subliminally, there might be something worrying in it. I wanted to create something what would correspond with the latin memento mori, that should have been a stimulus to contemplation over our own mortality. You might not fully agree with me, but I think aging and death are humiliating. Just because it is an inevitable and irreversible process. If people were able to accept death unconditionally, we would not need any memento mori and we would have no vampires who are some sort of personification of the hidden desire of immortality and maybe we would not dream about artificial intelligence and there would be no cyberpunk literature. The present is displacing death to total margin. However, media are full of it, but death in them is presented as a market attraction we can observe from comfortable distance. It might evoke compassion in us through which we can feel to be more interesting and better. But in reality it is cruel. I wanted Asile de nuit to be about death that is in direct connection with us. 

I.K.: This imagination of death is supported by the idea which often displaces the topic of death in art into the sphere of art therapy, into a non-transferable personal experience. In places it is acceptable. It has an image of depersonalized statement without pathos. Your works with their impact on birth, death and forms of consciousness as basic human experiences reminded me of Bill Viola’s works…

I would mainly mention the video installation Blood of Space. I always wanted to record the connection with my own children but I could not find the angle of view that would not be distorting. You succeeded in it as you recorded it in the “rhythm of life”…

M.R.: It is a very personal thing and it might not be easy to speak about it. I have to admit I had a strange feeling when I started to make a recording you with your little daughter in an intimate moment but I could not make anything but do it. Originally I had a thought the whole installation will be accompanied by a recording of my reading of a text I wrote for that occasion but also after your verbal interventions I abandoned that intention and what remained were the original sounds. Thanks to that all is authentic there, literally a documentary, which is a totally new moment in my work. It is probably the only way how to speak about very personal themes without unnecessary emotions. For longer time I have been thinking about recording my way through the countryside of Lower Zemplín I come from and which I left approximately twenty years ago. Always, when I travel through it, I have been fascinated by the view on the vast plane that is bordered by the mountain Vihorlat in the North and is disappearing behind the horizon in the south. This video is symbolizes my arrivals and departures and also it is a portrait of the countryside that inevitably formed my consciousness. Also, it is a kind of micro picture of those arrivals and departures, the sequences in which you are breastfeeding your daughter and my mother is cleaning graves are referring to. Except for what this work is depicting and what its content is, it is interesting for me that all the three videos were made spontaneously without any previous preparation. 

I.K.: Can we understand your theatre productions as some modern Gesamtkunstwerk? You are a script writer, director, painter, actor, you create scenes, make costumes, and prepare trailers. In your plays you are making a further process with many works some painters would consider to be finished. It is a mixture of attitudes and strategies – an archive of post mortem photographs of children from the 19th century that appear in the play Asile de nuit, your interpretation of Manet’s Execution of Maximillian from point of history of art in the play 10.000. Gospel for Roses… You let two of your characters speak about the aesthetic utopia of the Sun State in the latest play you are presenting at the exhibition…

M.R.: If we considered Richard Wagner’s operas to be the peak of Gesamtkunstwerk, in my case we could speak about Gesamtkunstwerk on the playground, I am afraid. Wagner created a special wind instrument for his compositions and he managed to enforce building of his own Festspielhaus for presentation of his operas, adjusted to special requirements regarding acoustics. Regarding my case – well, why not? Finally, I am making only what fulfils me internally. In the theatre – and not only there – it is important all things function together and therefore it is inevitable to have constant contact with them. It is a big challenge but as long as there are no large productions, a single person is able to manage it. It can also transform into a very enriching experience as every sold problem widens my horizon and opens new possibilities for me. 

When I bought the first post mortem photography and first funeral notice in an electronic auction, I did not know I would once use them as part of a theatre performance. The initial incentive for writing the script of Asile de nuit was Rilke’s book The Notebook of Malte Laurids Brigge and the novel of Robert Walser Jakob von Gunten and to a large extent also the film of the Quay brothers Institute Benjamenta loosely based on Walser’s novel, I have to say. In the very first script I wrote there was a large amount of characters and dialogues. But later I have realised that it is a classic, well-established and harmless dramaturgy that serves first of all in order the viewer would not get bored during the play and my work should be about something else. Although primarily I do not want anybody to be bored nor do I want to adjust to the anonymous viewer. I can only follow the line of my own statement. Thus I cancelled the story line and crossed out all the character figures and what remained were some kind of narrators. A minimal amount of dialogues is going on between them. One after another, I incorporated various materials about post mortem photography, including mourning letters into the script from my archives in order the whole play might appear to be more authentic. For example here is a letter in which an unknown man describes the last moments of his mother and details about her funeral or, it is possible to describe it as almost funny – a letter of a 15-year-old girl with detailed description of her last farewell with her father, she writes even grave diggers wept during it. There are notices of an unknown woman about births and deaths discovered in a catholic songbook. Asile de nuit became a meditation about death as loss of a close person that is inherently touching everybody and about the attention it got in the 19th century. 

I.K.: I have the impression this actual exhibition is rather graphic, returning to the book in its materiality, to the archive, manuscript, moderate colour scheme, while colour is the carrier of meaning (as gold and black), a return to printed character. You glued your older objects, for instance, on canvas…

M.R.: Gold and black were one of main visual elements in the scenic design of Asile de nuit. Their utilization was very symbolic. Black as a symbol of death or emptiness, of nothingness and gold as a symbol of rebirth in Christian tradition, thus as the motif of hope in reunion with those we lost. This part of my work on Asile de nuit resulted in the cycle I Do Not Have Any Illusions About Immortality that is some king of meditation about the work of artist and the destiny of his work. I recycled two of my older works in it, but what is perhaps more important to me – I have used pieces of a sheet woven by my grandmother in it. My parents got it before I was born so it is possible I was conceived on that sheet. The idea I could cover such a sheet by slices of gold was very attractive for me. I also used it in the object Red Dialogue that is about the theme of blood. In it, I re-narrated the original fairy tale about a little girl Charles Perrault later named the Little Red Riding Hood and which he “improved” with a happy ending with a moral lesson. In this fairy tale the little girl is wearing iron clothes, she eats the meat of her mother and drinks her blood. I have embroidered that text with red thread in two places, directly through the embroideries of my mother and grandmother. The Red Dialogue is thus a dialogue between me and persons who gave me life and the embroidered story represents some kind of frame for contemplation about the circle of life as also about the victim every generation brings in order to preserve the next one.  

I.K.: You work with drawings and contemporary depictions of Christian iconography in marginal genres as the depiction of Adam and Eve on a medieval tile you purchased at a market… 

M.R.: Despite the fact I am an agnostic there are many references on Christianity as a religion that significantly influenced thinking and culture in Europe in my work. Sometimes they function as critics of institutionalized religion, sometimes they refer to the spiritual dimension of man. For instance, there is a textile object on the exhibition – a golden rose on which bees are walking. I got inspired by the Rosicrucian allegoric depiction of rose and bees accompanied by the Latin text Dat rosa mel apibus, meaning The rose is giving honey to bees. These allegories should have function as some picture of the universe in small dimension and it reminded the followers of this teaching their role in it in a simplified way. The bee as the symbol of purity could find a well established place in European esoteric, but not only in it – thanks to a perfectly functioning system of work division and transformation of pollen into “divine nectar”. Within this division of work there are bees that are responsible only for production of honey. They do not replicate, from religious point of view they live in celibacy and in this “bodily purity” they fulfil “God’s work” on earth. If we purify this from any ideology, we speak about spiritual dimension of man who wanders in a labyrinth (of rose, world, life…) and searches his fulfilment. The plaster cast of a medieval tile you are mentioning is also part of the cycle about “immortality”. Adam and Eve are depicted on it. I have covered their lower body parts with gold. I would not like to under thrust someone my own interpretation. I just say that it is a reference to Jewish-Christian tradition according to which the lower part of the body is not clean. 

I.K.: I consider this to be a very important turn in approach to things. Michel Maffessoli, the French sociologist and theoretician of postmodernism suggests handling affections of postmodern irony and scepticism with new forms of theoretic sensitivity when he speaks about thinking with skin and even about thinking with the lower part of body…

M.R.: I think the question is if everybody gets by with him or herself, without supportive crutches of systems detached from reality. In this, some of eastern religions are impressive for me, without my flirtation with them as they strongly emphasize personal experience. Even humour is an important part of Zen Buddhism. On the contrary, what exceeds personal experience – namely faith – is important for Christian religion. This is the same for me as denial of reality.