Wolves and Sheep

Art and The Public Outrage

/ by JAŠA (Mrevlje-Pollak)

Has Slovenia made it into the heavyweight contemporary art scene, to compete with the likes of the Turner Prize with its recent avalanche of angst? Hardly. But still, let’s juggle the idea for the length of this text. How many people have heard of the Turner Prize? Have you? I thought so. Even if one is not a museum-goer, a follower of art trends or simply ‘appassionato’, the Turner Prize almost singlehandedly revolutionized the British art scene in the 90s, promoting the worldwide explosion of the Young British Artists and their dominance which followed. If no one else, at least everyone has heard of the notorious Damien Hirst, who won in 1995. For a decade afterward, every year it was impossible not to have some sort of media outrage and critical battles around the never-dying question of whether the products made by Turner Prize-winners was ‘still art’ at all. As Charlotte Higgins wrote in The Guardian, ‘…the prize does provide a sort of rough-and-ready barometer of British contemporary art - and more particularly of the up-and-down relationship between contemporary art and the British public’.


Slovenia has bloomed late, and in a similar direction. But there are a few differences. In the recent case of Slovenia’s Prešeren Prize (the most respected and traditional Slovenian award for cultural achievement), a Turner-Prize-like reaction has followed.


In the past, Slovenia has faced an avalanche of hatred, internet bullying and trolling that occurred after the troll-in-chief, former prime minister Janez Janša, the die-hard right-wing Slovenian politician tweeted. The so-called ‘dark prince’ of recent Slovenian history has, for long now, embraced the strategies of populism and false propaganda and has been, in one way or another, shaping the political and everyday climate in Slovenia for far too long. The most important achievement, on his side, is that in its core of understanding of contemporary patriotic emotions, he legitimized anger and fear. The now well-known ‘rule of hatred and fear’ that is a problem in so many countries today. 


One important thing we need to understand is that Slovenia is facing new parliamentary elections soon. And the SDS party, navigated by Janez Janša, is gathering steam and all available tools to mobilize its die-hard fans (of the die-hard prince of darkness). The work of two female contemporary artists who won the Prešeren Prize (or better, extracted images of their work) could not be more appropriate for the times. Hence the vulgar and aggressive attack on Simona Semenič and Maja Smrekar which created an even more extreme explosion of contemporary ‘let’s all vomit in this room that we call the internet’. Of course, the images had been taken out of their context. Of course, it was seen as a perfect vehicle to infuse the pre-election debate with the usual talk of the corrupted liberals, who indulge in disgraceful acts of all possible hedonistic and unpatriotic activities. Of course, one more time, the main argument was that the artists, all funded by the tax-paying majority, deviate in rather devilish and most of all unpatriotic actions!


To use the momentum for what people really need, Janša concludes his tweet with ‘DOL S PARAZITI’! which, believe it or not, translates as ‘DOWN WITH THE PARASITES’! And so a running politician calls out for people to gather and slaughter the corrupted. Pardon my French, but this is precisely what it means. People, they have tricked us, all is corrupted, all is rigged, they have attacked the most sacred of our values, so it is time to organize ourselves, and save the holy nation (and doesn't it sound so frighteningly familiar!?)


Douglas Gordon. Photo by Patrick Strattner via The Saturday Paper
In the case of the Turner Prize, not all the artists had the same share of success, but their careers took off significantly. London in the 90s, art-wise, was a thousand light years away from the incredible art scene it is today. Of course, it is not only the success of the prize that made the scene, but great publicity propelled the start and its incredible development. Galleries exploded, the Tate Modern exploded, the whole art scene became a worldwide success. And let’s not forget, that it celebrates and awards only British artists (with two exceptions), but still the scene that followed is entirely international.


Let’s presume that this will be the case in Slovenia. The pool of excellent and acclaimed artists is broad and deep. The number of competent and spacious museums and publicly-funded spaces is more than sufficient (and rising). The opposition, the angry crowds are always there and now (it has happened in the past already, of course) it has even become political and personal.


Everyone knows that the English tabloids are among the worst, and if one digs into the archive of reactions to the Turner Prize winners, it gets juicy. Something similar is happening in Slovenia.


Hmmm. The problem is that this is not a talk about the art or the artist. Superficially it is, but deep down it is nothing but a mere exploitation of somebody else’s achievements for a political agenda. It is nothing but a vehicle for a very angry politician who wants power back so badly that he will use anything in order to stir a shit-show, a tornado worthy of its word. In a world that it is governed by tweeter storms (which equate to mind farts) blasted out into the world by the sitting American president, Berlusconi’s third (third!) comeback on the broken backs of immigrants and propaganda propelling more and more hatred…no wonder we all need our own fight, our own mud ring. If one would utter this, as their elaborate argument of a ‘different’ point of view, it could add to a development of a debate. Art is out there to look at, to listen to, to be watched, and yes, to create reactions. Different reactions. But when the president of the resilient and hate-driven populistic right-wing party uses the work of two respected artists and calls for the annihilation of the entire Slovenian art scene with ‘down with the parasites’ then it is nothing but an open call to arms. The most worrying thing is the overwhelming reaction of his followers, who now compete to be more direct, chauvinistic, aggressive, racist, vulgar…or do I mean patriotic!?


Let me go back to my far-fetched comparison with the Turner Prize. In 1993, Rachel Whiteread won for her acclaimed and still-stunning work, House. On the same day, she was given an embarrassing award of 40,000 pounds by the K Foundation as ‘the worst artist in the world’, voted by the people (through notorious KLF propaganda). On that same day, the borough where House stood voted for its demolition. Britain's fight of the ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’ is notorious (just think of the Brexit outcome). But the other side fought back, and Rachel is doubtless and rightfully one of the most respected living artists in the UK and worldwide now.


I am an optimist, and I think that all the new generations rising in Slovenia, and those already here, will soon enough find the courage in the public and private sector to create something that is now still in its pre-adolescent, overly-shy phase: A proper, circulating and proud art market. That all responsible and involved will get together and decide to use the momentum and push the whole scene to the next level, relevant to its own local and international community. I believe that this is actually an opportunity to condemn, with no reservations, and call out for what is right. The Slovenian art scene did not and should not, at any price, stay silent. We live in times when anything can become a reason to depart, fight and collapse. Art, above all, offers an option of distance, of mediation with everydayness, uses a language that, yes, should evoke emotions and provoke reactions. But using art to publicize one’s agenda of fear and hatred is utterly wrong, corrupted and dark. And this is not a concert one can walk away from, a book you can close, a painting you decide not to look at, these are politicians who shape our daily realities. So, once and for all, let us not take things too easily or in any way for granted. Let’s call them by their names.


Douglas Gordon, who won the prize in 1996, had a falling out with the institution which staged his latest work, back in 2015. A grand theatrical production that cost roughly 25 million pounds. The critics destroyed his professional endeavour, and he decided to take it up with the institution (HOME) by attacking a part of the external architecture with an axe. He managed to cut out a smaller chunk of the concrete wall and then drew a wolf-like claw around it and signed his name.


Since it was pretty obvious who did this and why, the director of HOME issued a statement:


‘We do not support or condone reckless, inappropriate or intimidating behaviour and will work with our co-commissioning partners and artistic and producing teams to ensure that this doesn’t happen again’.


In our case, it should be loud and clear, from all the artist and those who work in the art scene in Slovenia, in one way or another that:


‘We do not support or condone reckless, inappropriate or intimidating behaviour and will work with our co-commissioning partners and artistic and producing teams to ensure that this doesn’t happen again’!

JAŠA (Mrevlje-Pollak)

is a Slovenian artist who lives and works in Ljubljana, Venice and New York.