Interview: Maroš Rovňák
Luca Curci talks with Maroš Rovňák during FUTURE LANDSCAPES, third appointment of BORDERS Art Fair 2020, at Palazzo Albrizzi-Capello and The ROOM Contemporary Art Space.
Maroš Rovňák (1972, Sobrance, Slovakia) is a multimedia and interdisciplinary artist. In 2002 he graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Bratislava, Slovakia. In the same year, he became a finalist of the prestigious Oskar Čepan Award given to artists under the age of 36, thanks to which he established himself on the Slovak art scene. In 2003, he completed a several-month residency at the Headlands Center for Arts Sausalito California as an artist in residence, where he premiered his multimedia performance, The Mother of Harlots, devoted to the suppression of sexual minority rights and criticism of church power practices. In 2013 Rovňák’s efforts in the field of performance with overlaps in theater and his interest in the theme of death and the associated rituals of mourning resulted in the theater project Asile de Nuit (Dormitory; the name can be interpreted as a hiding place before the night or death), for which he created a screenplay based on his lyrics, costumes, stage and music, and at the same time performed in it himself. In this piece, through several narrators, he tried to grasp death as a metaphysical and an intimate subject and at the same time pointed out the fact that contemporary culture had pushed death so much to the margins of its interest that it had become an attraction for the media. The following year, Rovňák founded an informal group called The Transient Theater (Pominuteľné divadlo), with which he presented his other similar project called 10,000. The Gospel for Roses. Here again, he used several narrators, this time exclusively women, each of whom comes up with a different story and view of death. The project was, among other things, dedicated to the so-called femicides, the murders of women that have taken place since the early 1990s in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua. Rovňák remained faithful to the topic of death and in 2018 and 2019 he devoted himself to artistic research aimed at a shift in the perception of death during the Enlightenment, which conditioned the birth of modern cemeteries in Europe, the output of which was an exhibition of photographs and the lecture. Rovňák’s work is characterized by an interest in human as a being who is constantly looking for a justification for his being and his place in the universe. His latest project, performance and video entitled In Absentia (2019-2020) is dedicated to the young Slovak archaeologist Martina Kušnírová, who was murdered in February 2018 together with her fiancé, investigative journalist Ján Kuciak. Maroš Rovňák lives and works in Banská Bystrica, Slovakia.
Luca Curci – What are you currently working on?
Maroš Rovňák – Right now, I am preparing a small solo exhibition in a private gallery. At the beginning of this year, I had to deal with the death of my father and I would like to dedicate this exhibition to him. There will be a few photos of me in various costumes with deer antlers, a few objects that refer to the human body and death, and finally, a 30-minute experimental film using various photos of my father, mainly from the period when he was already totally dependent on the help of others. I wrote the text for the film and recorded it by myself as an audio track. It is a kind of record of my feelings and observations, which arose at a time when I had to deal with my father’s diagnosis. In many ways, it is so intimate that I have to wonder if it should have been created at all. However, this is probably not the right question at all and I just need more distance to see it from a different point of view. The death of the nearest person is something that few can avoid, so I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that when it comes to it. On the contrary, it’s just that in the context of my work it’s a completely new thing and moreover it’s quite fresh. At the same time, this project is, so to speak, very civil, without any stylization or theatricality that has been characteristic of my work so far.
LC – What’s your background? What is the experience that has influenced your work the most?
MR – I don’t think I could reduce it to a single experience. I would rather say that it is a long-lasting process consisting of many encounters and enchantments by other people’s creations or thinking and the subsequent liberation from this influence. I could name many visual artists, film directors, writers, poets, philosophers, designers and other personalities from different fields of culture, even people from my immediate area, who, at certain stages of my life, helped me to discover myself as an artist. The list would be too long. At some point, my artistic development was kind of surprising to me, because I originally went to study painting, but during my studies, I started tending to new media. It was not easy, because there was nobody to teach me how to edit videos, compose music, or even work with my own voice. I had to work on that by myself. Moreover, this happened when digital media, which simplifies everything today, has not been so widespread yet. However, I was strongly motivated because I felt that media such as video and sound offered me a much wider range of communication options with the viewer.
LC – What is your creative process like?
MR – My work is very intuitive. I often work with text, images or video and sound. I am interested in how they interact and which effect different combinations of image and sound can have on the viewer’s perception. I prefer to work alone, but I have also collaborated with actors, for example, I prepared two stage works. When I choose a topic I want to work on it, I can sit for hours at a computer to generate new sounds and try to make a composition, or keep re-editing the video because I’m seldom happy with something on the first try. I also tend to constantly question the informative value of the work I am working on. Sometimes it looks like I’m my own enemy. At some stage, however, you must eventually begin to accept the work as finished and definitive, submit it to the viewer and allow it to live its own life.
LC – How is being an artist nowadays?
MR – Being an artist who works with media such as video art and sound-art, which are not very suitable for the art market, is not easy at all in Slovakia. You need a steady income to make a living, but art can’t provide it for you. It is a complicated situation and I think it is a problem for many artists in many countries. However, when you perceive art as your mission, as a channel that is the best way for you to express your own thoughts, it cannot discourage you.
LC – Which art themes do you pursue? What is your preferred subject, if there is any?
MR – In the past, I have focused on the topic of social isolation resulting from the dominance of majorities over minorities, whether in relation to sexual orientation or any difference from what is generally considered “normal”. I think it gradually aroused my interest in death and its various cultural and social aspects, in how we perceive it in the 21st century and how we relate to it. I have dealt with this topic in many of my works and in a completely different way each time. For example, I wrote and staged the play Asile de Nuit, in which I dealt with various customs related to grief, especially in the 19th century; in another work, I dealt with the phenomenon of femicides, murders of women in the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua. I also devoted myself to artistic research into the origin of modern cemeteries which was very revealing to me because I found that our concept of burial fed into the perception of death during the Enlightenment. I want to say it with different approaches, and the subject of death raises a number of new questions and new topics. I think this topic is a means for me to explore who we really are.
LC – What is the message linked to the artwork you have shown in this exhibition? How is it connected to the theme of the entire festival?
MR – My video In Absentia is primarily dedicated to the young Slovak archaeologist Martina Kušnírová, the fiancée of the investigative journalist Martin Kuciak. But while Kuciak’s murder was a politically motivated order, Kušnírová became a victim of murder only because she was in the wrong place at the wrong time. In 2018, the case provoked a number of public protests across the country and it is still under investigation. However, the video also features a cemetery that romanticizes this death. This does not coincide with the fact that I chose a cemetery in Venice, built in the early 19th century, to replace the small cemeteries scattered in the city, which were believed to be unhygienic and seriously endangering people’s health. During the 1860s and 1870s, it was transformed into a garden cemetery, which was very fashionable at the time. In the 19th century, all city cemeteries in Europe were abolished and new ones were built outside the cities instead. Charnel houses with exposed skeletal remains of the dead, which we now perceive as tourist attractions, formed a natural part of the culture until then, and a busy life took place in their immediate vicinity. By transforming old burial grounds into modern cemeteries, the dead suddenly found themselves in the middle of gardens referring to paradise, and death turned into sleep or eternal rest, as evidenced by the epitaphs on the tombstones. The specificity of the Venetian cemetery lies in the fact that, while in other cities the new extra-murals cemeteries have been gradually incorporated into the growing urban development, this cemetery remains isolated as it lies on an island, thus bringing significant evidence of the time of its creation.
LC – What is your idea about ITSLIQUID GROUP?
MR – Unfortunately, due to the pandemic, I was not able to attend the opening of the exhibition, so my contact with the festival narrowed down to communication with the organizers. I like the idea of a virtual platform bringing together artists from different countries and cultures to help spread their work and ideas. I’m glad I can be a part of it.