Štefan Papčo

Falling (up)on the Gallery

Only a short time ago, but extremely forcefully, Štefan Papčo entered upon the Slovak art scene. In a milieu which nowadays is somehow unable to define a respectable place for sculpture, what he represents is almost an institutional model: he is capable of creating and managing his sculptural-object works, which are free and at the same time large-scale, with purposes that have no external dependence - and this is something we rarely find in Slovakia in works of the 3D type. Numerous preparatory sketches and proposals come into being, but for the most part their actual completion is initiated by their commissioning agents: be they public, for particular spaces, or professional, for themes of particular curatorial exhibitions, normally on neutral ground. We can therefore consider Papčo's work as free sculptural and concurrently, in a certain context, free monumental. The axis of all Papčo's efforts hitherto, the central theme of practically all his works, is his activity as a committed mountaineer. No less fundamental is his analytic relation to mountaineering as an issue, and also, understandably, his relation to nature and to the mountains themselves. Papčo found here a world within a world: individualistic, elitist, risky and unattainable, but nonetheless democratic and de-facto accessible without distinction to all who want to do this and are brave enough. At the same time, however, he subjects it to rational criticism - especially for its commercialisation, dehumanisation and deromanticisation in the post-revolutionary period after 1989. Here he is criticising the loss of a certain sacred exclusivity and an unwritten code of decency which ought to be manifest in those charged situations that are frequently critical for the individual. Idealisation, indeed sacralisation of the mountain environment (and afterwards also the attempt to adopt a critical position) are very typical of Slovak art: they are found continually throughout the entire 20th century, and although the artists concerned have not always avoided an inappropriate cult of heroism (and indirectly along with that, alas, a cult of nationalism) one can say that in natural contrasts Slovak art has a neuralgic cultural theme12. It remains topical, with many young authors mapping it out, and I would say that it is one of the most deep-going fascinations one can find in our artistic milieu - as a rule it represents a life-long source of ideas and appears continually throughout the artist's work. Against this background it is interesting to follow the development of Papčo's thinking and his formal evolution from student times to the present day. As I see it, the priority in his opening phase was to transmit, connect or extend the activities of his life to his artistic practice - both of these being important areas of being, making up the identity of an artist of conceptual character. In Papčo's case perhaps one can designate a pattern: how his first attempts at thematisation in student work (a climbing wall) change into the first productive discussion between theme and work, although each are still separately treated (mountaineering symbols on water), leading on to their mutual interpenetration and the emergence of a fully meaningful artistic structure. Granted, in this analysis one would need to contextualise Papčo's themes and visual departures directly, e.g. with the land art authors, but on the other hand the position where he moves is so specific that the comparison would be purely formal13. The question is what is decisive for his work: staying and contemplating in a mountain environment/ or confrontation with the self measured with what surrounds him /

12Here I do not propose to discuss the activities of artists whose work resonates with the attempt at a national style during the period of the incoming modern. For an essay on a contemporary artist the most productive comparisons are with the conceptual initiatives of the end of the 1960s and the early and later 70s - the VAL group's activities (e.g. the prospective Heliopolis - Alex Mlynarčík collaborating with Viera Mecková and Ľudovít Kupkovič); Július Koller (e.g. Galéria Ganka); from the ecological standpoint, metaphorically, also with Rudolf Sikora (variously achieved topographies); and from the metaphysical standpoint with the work of Michal Kern, whose entire creative life was spent in the High Tatras. 13 In this text the objects of comparison will not be themes and visualizations, but rather motifs and situations.


or the attempt to surpass physical and mental limits / or socio-psychological investigation / or something else. In each of the options proposed there is the tempting possibility of an art-historical interpretation; the answer, however, will be a combination of several of them. One of the most reliable contexts is afforded us by the author's fascination, or contact through polemical citation, with minimalism, representing a very important perception (creation) of form, which he goes on to endow with symbolic meaning, and also representing an attempt to proportionalise the respondent (viewer), directly and emotionally, in relation to the work's dimensions

In Slovak fine art the intentions of object and installation are determined by a tradition (which even today has not reached its saturation point) where the object mostly has made reference to concrete reality14. There are very few who have managed fully and thoroughly to deny their relation to reality in a 3D work15. Despite this, much of what we today identify with this form of artistic expression in Slovakia, whether historically or in the contemporary scene, shows an eagerness to set out on the road towards univeralisation of various kinds and the associated generalisation. For example, in the 1960s abstraction, archetypisation, and reduction of the symbol to its “fundamental” unit of measure; afterwards, in post-1989 art, directly in the declared affinity with the new forms of neo-constructivism, and in a certain sense also in thoughts adverting to minimalism and post-minimalism as the acknowledged “extreme. On another level, the variables in this duality of referential and non-referential (i.e. with respect to reality) can be replaced with the concepts idolic vs. critical,16 which for a change is our neuralgic cultural polarity.17 From this aspect Papčo belongs to the idolic group - though admittedly it is the thematics of his work which first of all leads me to this consideration, and only secondarily the history of the art object in Slovakia. The referentiality of Papčo's objects, the way their significance is connected with the chosen form and figuratively also with its context in art history: this I find interesting, almost maddeningly so, precisely because of its idolic nature. On the one hand the first plane of depiction is deliberately and demonstratively not overstepped, but any potential objection of the viewer (reader) to this superficiality is overwhelmed at the moment of first visual contact - y the giant scale of the object (statue) or installation (also enlarged video detail). Likewise Papčo's dwelling on a theme - the coherence of the limited range to which he devotes himself and his faith in its indisputable content, immanent or incidental - all this is ambivalent even by virtue of that restrictedness. Between the lines we still find his authorial measure of permament self-heroisation (something many artists are inclined to, though mostly the necessary proof is lacking), which is also controversial in a positive sense, because the author in question is very young. One must be aware that by now Papčo is not

14 From the 1960s e.g. the informel object acknowledging its origin as an assemblage element (Jankovič's key); mirroring in a constructivist object (Dobeš mobile); reaction to sound or to a basic anthropomorphism in a haptic object (Štěpán); reference to a pictogram of a lightning flash or a star map (Bartusz); political allusions (Filko); feminine connotations (Želibská); concrete topographical reminiscence (Sikora) etc.; and afterwards in the 1990s architectonic anabases (Németh); fundamental narrativity of the object's references (Ondrák), and so on. 15 In the 1960s apparently only Rudolf Uher; afterwards mainly in works by authors of the short-lived neo-geo episode of the 1990s (Kovačovský, Tittel, Gavula, Ondrušek); some objects using principles of physical laws (Čierny); objects as results of certain material shifts (Kvetan), and so on. 16 The reason is one's need to free oneself from the logic of depiction and from reflection on depiction as such. In Papčo's case this could be a deceptively attractive option - to reflect on form without preceding examination and designation of its motivations, detachment and overview. 17 For this moment and for the purposes of this essay, we consider as idolic the specific bond to the monumental sign (sign of monumentality), and we consider as critical its putting into question. Independently of how thoroughly any given artistic programmes have carried out their intentions so defined, their conflict (difference) has always been an object of polemic (e.g. Tatarka vs. Belohradská, 1967).


looking for themes for his works: he has a long-term theme (in his sport), while the main actor (or action), model (portrait), standard for metaphor (for depiction), and arbiter (of the relation to the mountains) - he is all of this himself. In Slovakia one cannot find many artists who are so specifically concentrated. Meeting the objection which arises when the work is of such a character (that it is monothematic), we can argue against it with an attempt to plunge more deeply into the issues at stake. Jozef Jankovic once drew my attention to Papčo's quality as a figurative creator. And I think that hitherto his most consequent work is precisely the figure he has placed upon rocky outcrops on various mountains - previously on Lomnicky štít, while currently the camera has been snapping it for more than a year on Norway's Jossingfjord. With this work a question emerges that has hitherto lain in the background - the question concerning the work's bearings in politics. At first I took Bivouac (from 2008) to be apolitical, just like Papčo's other works. In our culture this has a certain historical logic - if we ascribe an anti-political spirit to art, it is most of all (apart from ludic18 works) where there is a connection with sport.19 But when we grasp the fact that Papčo (1) himself places his wooden figure in an inaccessible place, where it may only be reached by a mountaineer's ascent; (2) basically decides for himself where he wants to put the statue and how long it will remain in its place, and that basically nothing stops us (3) from considering it as a memento (I am deliberately not saying a monument) - then it isn't quite so anti-political.The sculptural graffiti in inaccessible places employ no spray; they have a statue instead. Equally, however, we are given proof that even for academic ar in a certain sense there still exist paradisiacal autonomous places for uncensored decisions. In this connection one can also speak of creating and surviving the so-called Second Nature.20 Internet transmission of the current state of the statue, according to the weather and the alternation of light and shade, refers furthermore to a virtual ephemerality: the work is as it were the reverse of a computer game, where the virtual is trying to be real - this object is real, but in reality not many people other than the author have hitherto seen it in the life. The question of the origin of the lost (abandoned) figure also remains of continual interest. Standing outside this figurative context is the new instalation of the site-specific Moraine. It is distinguished by the paramerters I have mentioned: especially directness of expression and gigantic scale. And furthermore, by a pleasant paradox, Papčo's Judd citation in his 2009 work Arena Reload persuades us to ponder an (attractive) attempt to put in question (develop) a minimalistic work, as the postminimalists used to do in the past (most notably Eva Hesse). The principle of Sublime, which is distinguished by a typically mimetic reference to a concrete phenomenon, turns out to be in reality an opposite gesture, polemicising with the minimalistic non-fixation (sublimation, movement) of the perceptor's experience.21 The code of language is similar in both works, though not equally exact (real topography inscribed in Judd's strictly anti-traditional work on the one hand vs. imaginary topography, constellation/composition in the traditional space of the stone-built gallery on the other). In a sense this contradiction, almost half a century after minimalism was in bloom, remains proof of the strange effect of this extreme modernistic expression working upon our art scene, which is distinguished by a high degree of contemplation towards what surpasses us (in its mental or physical measure). The effect of the rounding-over of space (above us) is one of the main goals of this project. It approaches the logic of Merzbau by Kurt Schwitters, who was the first to signpost many

18 e.g. Milan Adamčiak's performance. 19 e.g. Július Koller's thematisation of ping-pong. 20 Popelár, R.: Double Fall. In: Cyprián Majerník Gallery Yearbook 2009, Bratislava 2010 (curator's text for the exhibition, held in September-October 2009). 21 This fixation of experience would certainly be an interesting topic for any broader study.


site-specific approaches. Papčo's original project involved the complete construction of an attic; eventually, however, only a fragment came into being, though a coherent one. The project thus partly retreated from its ambition of an environment (or large installation) towards an object, which is at any rate more romantic in terms of how the work thus delimited turns out overall. Even if we were to perceive this as a retreat, or a further goal set aside for the future, in any case it is precisely this object which, of all the author's works hitherto, brings us closest to his position/situation (of mountaineer). In this instance one of his main aims, as I see it, is to try to transmit an atmosphere - that which Caspar David Friedrich best captured - to the third dimension. A side effect is the transmission of a symbolically dense structure - the sculptural installation in a gallery attic full of beams is by way of being a ruined temple, blocking off the view upwards, pressing the human being close to the earth. In his author's statement Papčo defines his attitude to the question with the help of Kant: Bold, overhanging, and as it were, threatening rocks, clouds piled up in the sky, moving with lightning flashes and thunder peals; hurricanes with their track of devastation; the boundless ocean in a state of tumult; the lofty waterfall of a mighty river, and suchlike; these exhibit our faculty of resistance as insignificantly small in comparison with their might. But the sight of them is the more attractive, the more fearful it is, provided only that we are in security; and we readily call these objects sublime, because they raise the energies of the soul above their accustomed height, and discover in us a faculty of resistance of a quite different kind which gives us courage to measure ourselves against the apparent almightiness of nature.22 Hence the yardstick of the works for their author is above all the translation of his feeling from the measure of his own possibilities; it will certainly be interesting to watch the further evolution of his work from this standpoint. The conceptual phase in the origin and evolution of every work has various modes of inspiration and acquisition - incidental or targeted, diffuse or concentrated, and so on; put simply, it has a great range of possibilities. With Papčo one has felt hitherto that what plays the crucial role is physicality. His preference for a physical approach to action is bound up with the phase of conceptual harvest and equally with the phase of its formal materialisation, literally objectivisation. Somewhere here we find the context for a future answer to one of the most interesting questions touching on his work - the question of the disarming transparency of his works, their unambiguous significance bordering on indubitability. Maybe it is more a challenge than a question - a challenge to seek ways of mediating the full breadth of discourse that Papčo is aware of, which he is constantly studying and mastering. At the same time it is a challenge to maintain his legibility and forcefulness, which stem precisely and only from the paradigm of physicality. In future, with the growing complexity of further responses, which will not take long to become manifest in his work, that will be one of the main criteria for progress.

Richard Gregor 4.9.2010

translation: John Minahan

22 Kant Immanuel: Critique of Judgment, tr. J. H. Barnard (London 1914) p. 83.

Artist statement
Biography
Bibliography
Richard Gregor: Falling Up to Gallery