Slovene week

The impossible human need to make sense out of nonsense

Interview with the Slovenian art duo Small but dangers

/ by Iza Pevec

Mateja Rojc, childhood photo.
Small but Dangers (SBD) doesn't mean anything – the name of the Slovenian duo is written wrong deliberately. And this kind of misleading deception, evoking possible meanings that are constantly evading us, represents a recognizable gesture of the SBD duo, formed by Mateja Rojc and Simon Hudolin Salči in 2004. They live and work in Cerkno, Slovenia and have exhibited at numerous solo and group exhibitions. In 2017, Simon Hudolin Salči was also honored with the OHO Prize, the main award for up-and-coming visual artists in Slovenia. The authorship of the winning work Frnikola (The Marble) is actually shared, but the rules of the award specify only one person can apply for the competition. 


Iza Pevec (IP): Let’s start with the name of your duo. Marko Stamenkovič wrote that “it is an intentionally misspelled and paraphrased expression Small, but Mighty (sitan, ali dinamitan), used in the context of the south-eastern Europe to denote a singular rebellious and powerful subject, capable of confronting and winning over an enemy who is usually much better consolidated.” How did you come up with the name, and what is the meaning of the double shift from the original expression (first with the translation and then with the mistake)? 

Simon Hudolin, childhood photo.
Small but Dangers (SBD): We found the name printed on Mateja’s panties, of course in English and with no mistake. We decided to use the English expression with a mistake, in order to stress the content of the name and to form the specialty and personality of the tandem. Everything is just a joke, irony. We may be small, but we are not dangerous, and the excessive use of English in public life irritates us. 

On the other hand, it is true that, within an environment determined by “big fish,” a person can regain some control by introducing mistakes into society. This is clearly evident when one searches for web pages that mention our tandem. Those pages are not difficult to find, despite the fact that we don’t sponsor any of the web browsers, but we are the only one adopting the expression with a mistake. However, the media world just doesn’t allow that kind of deviation easily – the editors and writers were correcting our name for many years, especially in the newspapers.

 

Is it possible to link your name with the common claim that your praxis is constantly evading, and that on the surface the meaning seems to be clear, but then this promise of the meaning fails to be fulfilled? 

 

Because we leave the meanings of our works precisely indeterminate, all elements, including our name, can be connected. But, for the same reason, these connections are not stable. We like what they wrote at Radio Student about the exhibition It's Not the Same in the ŠKUC Gallery: “The fact that it doesn’t mean anything, does not mean that it does not make sense.” Even if it is non-sense.


What kind of role do the titles of your work have in this kind of understanding of art? 

 

Sumasumarum.
How we choose the titles varies a lot. Sometimes they are just descriptive. The works can also be untitled, however also these kind of titles are ambivalent because, as viewers, we cannot resist the temptation to seek meaning in every detail. Our work is based on the unrealizable human need to make sense out of nonsense. The unrealizability of this need is the core content of our work, and speaks about the inability of judgement without interest. Not all of the works are conceived in this way, of course, some are less ambivalent. By the way, we use a distinction between the Untitled and the untitled works. 


How important is, in this context, the formal aspect of your work, since the form you use is often very modest, clean ...


True, usually even extremely modest, even though form isn't everything that is important in art. The ways of production and distribution are of the same importance. Nonetheless, the form is what the two of us pay the most attention to. On the principle of opposition, our works expose the megalomaniacal structure of the world of art and culture in which they are located. And when a small and simple form assumes such a great theme, it seems like a clown in shoes that are too big.


It is not easy to define something like national trends in contemporary art, but still: Where do you place yourself in the Slovenian art world?


Frnikola
Of course we are following the current and past art production, and we try to react to it, usually in a slightly unadjusted way. Our works often give the impression of something that has already been seen. We are pleased when we (intentionally or not) make something that looks like the work of another author. Innovation is one of the ideologies that we explicitly reject, as well as creativity.

 
You work in different mediums – what kind of role do they have for you? Can this be connected with the aforementioned “slippery meaning?” You also play with pointing to another medium. An example in photography would be the series of photos entitled Slike (The Paintings)… 


Our starting point is mainly the painting experience. The painting is a still, clearly-enclosed object which is, at the same time, an image. It has, of course, no useful value. It is requisite to look at it. We use this principle in different kinds of media, even in performances. We use the art mediums in a very archaic way, without virtuosity, so that the medium framework is clearly present. We come from a well-known idea that nothing is hidden behind the medium surface – all the magic happens on the surface. Therefore, the choice of the medium is extremely important. 
We made the series of photos titled Slike in collaboration with Matija Brumen; we took the portraits of our paintings in different locations in Cerkljansko and Grosuplje. Paintings are considered as a non-multimedia project. It is not just about photographing, it is about two extremely different media that have very different presences. If the photography is present positively, the painting in the photograph is present negatively. It becomes clear that the negative or apparent presence of a photographed object is extremely strong.


You also make artist’s books – a medium that is not very well-known in Slovenia, but is lately gaining recognition. How do you see it, and how do you create the narrative within it, considering the fact that your books are made by ripping out the sheets of your sketchbooks? 


An artist’s book is an interesting medium that has its place and publicity in Slovenia. The point of the book is, among other things, its reproducibility. And peculiar is the impossibility to grasp it whole at once; it is revealing itself, page after page. Our Performance Books are not graphic works. These are our sketching books, from which – after we fill them – we pull out most of the sheets. Thus, books are produced by removing, deleting. But not so much in order to reduce the form to the essential. More specifically, in order to create gaps – concretely present gaps that create the dramaturgic narrative with the pages that capture them.


The way in which your works are exhibited is no coincidence. How do you conceive of the exhibitions, in order to achieve explicit avoidance of meaning? 


The displays of our exhibitions are usually explicitly gallery-like. Dramaturgy is determined with carefully-chosen transitions between art objects, as well as between art objects and the gallery space. We try not to create the impression of an installation which takes up the whole gallery space, and in which the visitor automatically becomes the participant. We would like to save some of the space for the viewer, and that’s not easy to do in a gallery, where the stage and the grandstand interfere. In order to highlight the difference between the viewer and the participant, between life and art, we form our works and their setting in a way they look almost as an imitation of art, an image in the image.

The awarded work Frnikola (The Marble) is approximately a centimeter-large ball of dung made by a dung beetle. It seems to be typical work of yours: Small and formally clean, it evokes a meaning – the old Egyptians connected the ball of dung the beetle rolls around with the daily cycle of the sun – the literal title evades ... How do you interpret it and what kind of role does the title have in this case? 


Frnikola is the newest part of the series Natura morta – a collection of found objects which define the phrase natura morta in a special way. The objects in the collection didn't get their meaning or become aesthetic after we moved them into the gallery. That happened before, when they were still in use. That means that also the world outside the gallery is trapped within the system of values and meanings. To exaggerate a bit: We could say that art has eaten the life.


The collection consists of the objects that are, in different ways, connected with the theme of death. This is also the case with Frnikola. The dung beetle, with its dung ball, was once seen as the eternity of life, today it represents its end. The sun, in the form of the dung ball, has stopped turning, glued to the gallery pedestal. Life died while it was still day, so its death is bright. The title Frnikola is misleading. It’s a joke. But as IRWIN wrote, the only real joke is a serious joke. The Marble represents the same myth as the dung beetle with its ball. Like many other games where the rolling and rotating element is predominant, it derives from a forgotten ceremony of fertility, birth and rebirth.

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Iza Pevec

(1987) finished the studies of art history and comparative literature. She has been writing about art and culture for some time; she was writing for Radio Student and since 2014 she is also working for Radio Slovenia – program Ars. As a young curator she was a part of the project Zagon at Gallery Škuc and a programme for young curators at the Centre and Gallery P74 Incubator. Since 2013 she has also been writing for the Fotografija magazine.