The Day After Yesterday

As a sort of a “private permanent exhibition” on one hand, and an indispensable resource of knowledge on the other, Roman Ondák obsessively maintains his archive of newspaper clippings, notes, and drawings about the everyday. Updating takes place daily, or rather, in his words, it is simply a “permanent activity.” Apart from the incredible joy this preoccupation with streamlining the unrelenting “flow of images” to the collection brings him, the archive serves as well as a mental, thinking space for his artistic work. It is not so much building a source of inspiration that motivates him; rather it is a desire to study the ways in which one could possibly infiltrate the mundane with the work of art.

When studying a local newspaper for clippings one day, Roman Ondák comes across a photograph of a street nearby his house. The urban scenery depicted is strangely familiar to him. He passes through it regularly, but recently the area has undergone swift renovation after decades of somewhat charming dilapidation and neglect. Now that the city center of the Slovak Republic’s capital, Bratislava, grows larger under the pressure of the insatiable, “East-European” version of capitalism, even its fringes take on the uniform look of tidy, nondescript order.

What is more important, however, is that in the picture Ondák recognizes his spouse walking with their two children towards their house. Photographed from the back, Ondák’s family—his wife with a toddler in a stroller and an older boy—unintentionally complement the ambiguous, uneventful “backdrop” for media commentary on (I would assume) the transformation of the neighborhood. Later, on a day that appears equally as sunny and warm as when the newspaper photo was taken, Ondák takes his relatives back to the same spot. Dressed in the same clothes, the mother and her two sons walk down the street in a similar way as they did when photographed by chance. Only this time they walk forward, “inside” the picture, towards the viewer. In fact, the artist is staging a performance with his family here. He does his best to instruct and inspire the family members to “act” as usual, to stroll down the street the way they always do. Ondák himself tries to do the work of the newspaper reporter so it seems; however, he is not so much interested in re-enacting the situation the media documented through the picture. Rather, the artist’s aspiration seems to be perfecting the image, so it could be given this status of representing the commonplace.

The Day After Yesterday (2005, newspaper cutout and photograph), a diptych of the newspaper picture and its “double,” thus hows two takes on the “same” situation shifted in time. Yet subtle conceptual and formal conversions within the image disclose a much larger picture of the social and ideological context, evidencing not only the difference between “yesterday” and “after,” as the title of the work proposes. The cobblestones that were yet-to-be-fitted into the pavement in the newspaper cutout are all fixed; the cars then parked alongside the path in a disorderly manner now conform to the fresh, newly drawn lines for parking spaces in the newer picture; and the “set,” unlike in the original document, is empty of passers-by, as if depopulated. If we were to believe the conceptual rigor in the work’s pretext, these changes, prompted by the new capitalism’s tendency to control and discipline through the public space design, took place in only a couple of hours. The truth is, however, that the time-gap between the recordings of the two images is not essential. In this very case, the reassurance of a possibility to “rehearse” what has taken place in the past, in order to provide chances for improvement, is of much larger importance.

The Stray Man
In The Stray Man (2006, video) a man in his forties is abruptly mesmerized by the powerful presence of a large building in a city center as he passes on his way. Although he tries to control his conduct in public, he cannot resist the magnetic attraction that the large building’s street level windows emanate for him. As if by an invisible power, he is drawn to the windowpanes time and time again. Temporarily he manages to wrest control over his behavior, and resumes walking. But this only lasts a brief moment, a couple of meters at best, as the building—or rather what it stands for—maintains power over him. He obviously has no capacity to resist this pull. Finally, he goes further. He shields his eyes with his hands or with a folded newspaper, trying to help his eyes adjust to the glittering and glaring reflection of the glass, the refraction of which also obscures the view through the windows. He seems firmly determined to find out, and presumably, to become part of what is going on inside.

Paradoxically—due to the way the artist positions his camera— we know there is not “much” happening inside. It looks like a meeting has just finished, judging from the disorderly chairs around a large conference table, and a couple of half-empty bottles of mineral water scattered about. Yet, we are not made aware of what the location precisely represents; it is the artist’s decision not to reveal the identity of the place. What if, for example, the building in question is a gallery or a museum? That would be a scenario driven by immense idealism about art as irresistible or unavoidable for a casual passer-by. Yet, the man returns daily (Ondák arranged the contract with the man for a performance taking place every day for the duration of one month), repeating the ritual of looking through the window at the same time of the day, as if in search of other views that might emerge from this reality.

The deportment of the wanderer is bizarre, yet his obsessive conduct passes unnoticed by the otherwise populated street. A viewer can even readily perceive the situation as two incongruent realities, separate time- and mental frames that are superimposed on top of each other. And although this could well be a citation of a real situation, Ondák’s “stray” man is rather the abstraction set apart from concrete reality, testing the boundaries of inclusion and exclusion, as well as the possibilities of overcoming such dichotomies through unassuming yet insistent perseverance.

Lucky Day
In what at first sight seems like a found footage, in a slightly slowed-down motion and in stridently filmic atmosphere, the following scene unfolds in front of us: a man walks out of his house shortly after the sun rises. Carrying an open box made of cardboard, but not without weight, he purposefully moves across the streets framed by buildings that breathe historical significance. Headed towards a fountain in the midst of a square, the man pauses briefly, just to stroke the reflection of his concentrated face on the water surface with his own gaze. And then: he empties the box, filled with thousands of metal coins, into the fountain. As the alleys gradually fill with people, he returns back to his home.

Legend has it that tossing a coin into a fountain brings luck, and without a doubt the man has been “saving up” for this somewhat grand gesture. So on a day that for some reason seems right for testing fate, he undertakes a sort of a pilgrimage. Yet both the “inspiration” for the gesture and the gesture itself appear worldly rather than spiritual. Indeed it holds no special significance that the man’s hometown is a famous pilgrimage destination, to which hundreds of thousands religious devotees head in a long journey every year.

A pilgrimage traditionally means undertaking a (long) journey to some place with the purpose of venerating it, to discharge a religious obligation, and to ask for mystic or spiritual aid. It requires both emotional and physical investment—a temporary, conscious withdrawal from the quotidian in search of a sensation of renewal and a triumph over what one thinks the limits of the body and mind are. We see little of this in the way our man rushes to the fountain: unsentimental and without reflection, he stands out in the crowd, as if enveloped in another set of motives that bring him into negotiation with the present-day, post-secular context. Viewers identify this scene as a staged scenario, which takes place according to the instructions of the artist. Not immediately visible but nonetheless significant is the fact that the offering the man is “delivering” to the fountain consists of thousands of foreign coins, the volume of which, while impressive, does not correlate to their low value as currency. In the end, no matter if one tosses one coin or thousands, luck, fickle and fleeting, cannot be bought. By pouring the box’s contents into the fountain this way, the man makes a radical gesture, bringing spiritual meaning in direct confrontation with superstition and a somewhat fanciful faith in luck. It is as if he embarked on a “journey” to respond to religious tradition and its loaded historical connotations in order to test individual agency against the institutionalized systems of belief. (Lucky Day, 2006, video)

The Day After Yesterday (again)
In all three works presented in the exhibition at BAK, the adventure of discovery, of gaining insight or knowledge into how things are, functions as a prerequisite for engaging in a dialogue with other possibilities—about what might happen if one embarks on an expedition in another direction. Ondák seeks invisible ruptures in what we perceive as the casual order of things in order to infuse the ordinary with the imaginative potential of other trajectories. The work carries the unusual potential of empowerment: an idealist belief in one’s ability to participate in shaping the world. To explore these options, Ondák stages “non-events,” micro occasions for subtle detours from familiar settled meanings and patterns. It is here that a real space of imagination can emerge. Ultimately, Ondák’s works address the future through efforts of renegotiating the past. It is like asking ourselves every morning whether it is already tomorrow. Despite our desire to touch upon the future, if only in our imagination, in reality we are bound to “today.” No matter what, it comes after yesterday.

Maria Hlavajova

Part of The Day After Yesterday, an exhibition by Roman Ondák