IHT/NY TImes: Bratislavia’s Art Comes Out From the Shadows

(Originally published on 24 February 2011 in IHT/NY Times

BRATISLAVA, SLOVAKIA — The Bratislava art scene has always played second fiddle to Vienna — a 45-minute drive from the Slovak capital — and Prague, which for generations was where Slovak artists decamped for cultural enlightenment. But these days, small galleries are starting to have a big impact not only on the local scene but on the regional one as well. HIT Gallery is one of the most influential.
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“Dare I say that what HIT is doing is special,” said Ivan Jurica, a Vienna-based artist and curator, who recently organized an exhibition at the gallery examining colonialism and post-colonialism in Central Europe.

HIT is unique to the small Slovak contemporary art scene in its commitment to exploring social, political and cultural boundaries. A recent show featured the works of the German artist Michael Hopfner, who, through black-and-white photographs, explored the industrial decay of western Tibet. “HIT’s trademark is examining and contextualizing social issues relevant to both Slovak and international audiences,” said Lucia Gregorova-Stachova, a curator at the Slovak National Gallery. “HIT pushes the envelope with what they do and it’s very inspiring.”

Considering that Slovakia is a small country of 5.5 million people, there are a surprisingly large number of artists — including Roman Ondak, Ilona Nemeth and Marko Blazo — who have made successful careers internationally as conceptual artists, a genre for which Slovakia has increasingly become well known.

For such a small noncommercial gallery — it consists of three cramped rooms in a cellar behind the Bratislava Academy of Fine Arts and Design — with almost no budget, HIT punches above its weight by getting some of these big artists, as well as rising stars, to participate in its shows. Mr. Jurica’s exhibition in December had works from Irwin, a group of five Slovenian artists who take on highly charged issues like religion and immigration; and the Berlin-based duo Joanne Richardson and David Rych. Previous projects have included artists like Rafal Jakubowicz of Poland, Andreas Fogarasi of Hungary and Daniel Sean Fogarty and James Ashley Crewe of Britain.

“Taking into account that they have a very limited space they have made some truly ambitious projects,” said Daniel Grun, an art historian at the Academy of Fine Arts. “No one else does what they do.”

Tackling heady political and social themes was not the gallery’s initial remit. Though HIT was the first noncommercial gallery to be founded and run by artists in Slovakia — something that has since become the norm across the country — the focus initially was to promote up-and-coming Slovak artists.

“Our original idea was to hold a new exhibition every two weeks and to be a place for emerging Slovak talent,” said Dorota Kenderova, who as an art student co-founded the gallery in 2003 with the artist Lucia Tkacova. “There is a bit of a monopoly by curators in that you keep seeing the same Slovak artists over and over, so we wanted to not only show new trends on the art scene but also to push that curatorial” process, she added. The strategy was successful and the gallery — given to the artists rent-free from the academy — held several exhibitions back to back.

As both of the artists focused on their own careers — Ms. Tkacova moved to Prague while Ms. Kenderova spent a year studying in Portugal — they closed the gallery for most of 2006. Ms. Tkacova bowed out as co-director, but Ms. Kenderova decided to open the space again after persuading the artist Jaro Varga to help her run it. The two artists agreed that they needed to alter the gallery’s focus in order to differentiate themselves from the small but vibrant gallery community in Bratislava.

“We decided to change from being a gallery of emerging artists to a gallery of emerging ideas,” said Mr. Varga, who recently completed a residency at the Futura Gallery in Prague. “We want to do big topics in a small gallery.”

And tackle they do: HIT is now exhibiting “Jan Broz: Halo,” which investigates the issues of media transference in works of art including Kazmir Malevich’s “Black Square” and runs until the end of the month. Upcoming shows include a retrospective on the Czech artist Tomas Svoboda and a show looking at the architectural relevance of a Communist-built amphitheater in Bratislava.

“There is a lot of thought behind whom they work with and whom they choose to exhibit,” said Mr. Grun, who has curated two recent shows for the gallery. “HIT has become an important place for the cultural community to come together to discuss and debate.”

The reach of HIT’s community has been extending as well. Mr. Varga says the number of visitors to the gallery has increased 40 percent in the past two years, and art magazines in Austria and the Czech Republic have begun reviewing some of its exhibitions, an acknowledgement of its growing regional importance. Last year, when the gallery made an open-call for exhibitions ideas, it received more than 40 proposals, coming not just from Central and Eastern Europe but also from the United States, Germany and China.

The gallery relies mostly on grants and some donations — Sony recently lent 20 television monitors. Ms. Kenderova acknowledged that they sometimes had to pay for exhibitions out of their own pockets.

“What we are trying to be is not just a gallery that puts on shows but an example of how to treat artists,” said Ms. Kenderova, who complained that many galleries refused to provide stipends for accommodation and travel expenses.

The gallery hopes to set up a residency next year for younger artists. Such a residency would be a rarity in the art world as the majority of residencies are for established artists.

Mr. Varga said, “I would have liked to have had an opportunity like that when I was younger.”