Ivaniskinova, Michaela: By The Way 2006

It seems that nowadays one can come across machismo in places one would least expect – at contemporary art exhibitions, for example, and particularly those deemed unofficial. As with all true heroes, the contemporary artist’s life is devoted to serving a higher purpose (art), which includes enduring one or two misfortunes (such as lack of public interest) along the way. The contemporary artist is a person of action rather than words, whose actions (exhibitions and other public displays) betray clearly formulated opinions, however. The artist-hero model represents the logical result of evolution, culminating with the onset of the avant-garde and the open declaration of the artistic pursuit as a struggle. It is not without interest to observe what happens when this environment is contaminated by the female element. When, in other words, instead of another opponent, the very opposite arrives on the scene. Like all controversial elements, femininity has at its disposal the savoir faire to reverse situations and their meanings. I consider the exhibition of Slovak artist Petra Feriancová in the Prague Svestka Gallery the most interesting recent variation on this theme. Reversibility is already contained in the name of the show – “By the Way” – which gives an impression of nonchalance, insignificance, lightness, in direct contradiction to the gravity normally assigned by artists to such an event. Petra Feriancová herself was no exception at the show opening - she was nervous and her hands were sweating.

The final selection of works for the exhibition consisted of ten older photographs and several entirely new videos. Apart from the artist’s solo projects, some of the videos screened were collaborations with Norwegian artist Jesper Alvaer whom Petra Feriancova – in line with gallery tradition – invited to be her guest. Part of the gallery premises were reserved specifically for the guest artist, creating the effect of an exhibition within an exhibition. In a departure from custom, however, Jesper’s project was installed in the first room of the gallery.

The photographs exhibited come from the cycles “Victorian Boredom” and “Almost Blow Up” produced in 2002 when Petra was mostly spending time in Rome and London. Consisting of snapshots taken with a disposable camera, clearly without any artistic motivation, they depict floods in Bratislava, wedding guests having a picnic, a flock of birds, a fountain, a city park, yet another city park…  The spontaneity and ineptitude inherent in the photographs, stemming from the very nature of the medium employed, which does not give the photographer much room to influence the result, is emphasised by their mounting and installation. All the photographs have been enlarged to 150 cm by 100 cm and fixed to the walls without frames, further highlighting their technical imperfections – blurriness, inaccurate colours, creases on the original photographic paper etc. This apparently illogical methodology, opting for entirely opposite means to those normally employed to achieve the desired effect, is reminiscent of seduction, when interest manifests itself, and is provoked by, a display of lack of interest. In reality, Petra Ferenciova’s deliberate naïvité is not naïvité at all, but rather a kind of intrigue.

Intrigue is often wrongly considered to be unethical, but this is a misinterpretation ensuing from an incorrect understanding of the rules of seduction. As shown by Jean Baudrillard, who devoted an entire book to the subject, seduction is not ruled by the laws of ethics, but rather those of aesthetics. Seduction excludes openness as a form of communication, but then again why not - openness is its very essence. Not in terms of being easily comprehensible, but rather as a willingness to be vulnerable. In Petra Feriancova’s work, this form of openness is already apparent in her choice of themes, which are often highly personal. In the three-part video “To Whom It May Concern” (from the Love Letters cycle) – “I Like My Mornings, Early Afternoons”; “24 Can Be Good”; “Under Constable’s Sky” – she essentially deals with the disintegration of her relationship. English text runs on a black screen, underscored by apparently unrelated sounds recorded while walking the dog, or during a train journey, for example. These sounds indicate movement, as do video sequences shown in between the pieces, forming intermezzos composed of moving images. The first shows the view of a room, curtains casting shadows and a settee; the second shows part of a train journey; the end of the story is marked by the view of a wall. The narrative is provided by the already mentioned English text (Czech translation and voice-over by Marek Tomin), consisting of fragments of love letters which the artist received between 2002 and 2004. Confessions, records of everyday events, confessions, direct and immediate observations and thoughts, more confessions, and then reproaches, reproaches, reproaches... Despite a formal minimalism and a certain banality, which are somehow part and parcel of all emotional confessions, even this strange imageless film grips the viewer. Such is the nature of love stories.

Besides focusing on emotionally charged subjects, Petra Feriancova’s work is characterised by its methodology, the moment of creation preceding intention, a technique common to postproduction. Her collaboration with Jesper Alvaer in the Svestka Gallery also came about in a similar way. Petra gave Jesper several videocassettes with unedited footage and left him to his own devices. We could perceive this as a gesture of collegial trust, and that was also the way it was intended. But such trust requires a perfectly symmetrical relationship, including symmetry of gender. And this is where the trouble arises, because the feminine statement “Do as you like” could also mean “You wouldn’t do anything I wouldn’t like, would you?” which, according to the rules of seduction mentioned above, could also mean “So you’ll do what I want, won’t you?” Instead of being open, the invitation has an underlying motive, leading to yet another reversal of meanings. In addition – and I haven’t said this yet – the intention is not directed outwards, but rather inwards. This also changes the nature of collaboration, however – trust no longer means freedom, instead bringing limitations. Jesper solved this social and creative problem in a brilliantly simple way. He edited the tape with Petra’s private footage of her daughter in such a way that all that remains are a few seconds after the camera is turned on and a few seconds before it is turned off again. The compelling nature of the result, in my opinion anyway, is not so much in the radical nature of the editing, as in the level of empathy achieved. His approach was also similar in tackling videos from her time in Rome. Here he also added something to, rather than re-making, the raw footage by focusing attention on the person behind the camera, even though the frame is that of an ordinary view of building works from the top of a hill.

There are several reasons why Petra invited Jesper Alvaer of all people to work with her. Besides an affinity of creative methods, they both prefer a simple and raw form of presentation, reminiscent of the aesthetics of documentary. A certain role was probably also played by the fact that Jesper is a foreigner. Petra Feriancova spent five years in Italy and after that she lived for some time in London. Long enough to be beg the question: Where does one belong? Moreover, the art scene in Prague, and possibly in Bratislava, consists of a relatively closed community, so it takes anyone coming from outside a while before they learn its rules and language (even if they happen to speak Czech or Slovak). The video shown by Jesper at the Svestka Gallery directly concerns the way we (mis)understand language. During journeys through Algeria and Morocco, he filmed a sort of travel documentary, underscored by the commentary of a local guide which, however, is in Arabic, a language of which the artist has no command (although he speaks French fluently!). An interpreter is provided at the show to assist the audience. In view of the length of the exhibition, almost every time a different person is doing the translation. A potentially endless series of stories thus comes to life, depending on the concentration and commitment of the translator, as well as on the linguistic abilities of the audience, since the translation is into English, rather than Czech. One can trace a certain absence of the need to be intelligible in the majority of Jesper’s work. In this case the approach is simply taken to the extreme. And, by the way: a lack of intelligibility leaves the work open to a distortion, i.e. misrepresentation, of meaning…

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