I Lost Five Years of
An interview with Jiří Surůvka
For the first time since the break-up of Czechoslovakia in 1993, the shared Czech-Slovak pavilion at the Venice Biennale was not divided into two separate national presentations. The commissioners, the National Galleries in Prague and Bratislava, called a joint competition for the exposition and set up an eight-member committee (three representatives from the Czech Republic and five from Slovakia). The committee chose the exhibition proposed by Slovak curator Katarína Rusnáková, which consisted of a joint project by Jiří Surůvka from the Czech Republic and Ilona Németh from Slovakia. Ivan Mečl and Vladan Šír spoke with Jiří Surůvka about his experiences during the preparation and organization of this year's exhibition, the role of curators, ladders and a chunk of cheese.
How did you become part of this year's Biennale?
I won a national competition. I won this national competition because the project was proposed by the Slovaks. The committee consisted of three Czechs and five Slovaks. There were two ladies from Prague, [Prague City Gallery curator] Olga Malá and [National Gallery curator] Marie Klimešová-Jůdlová, who supported me but Kaliopi Chamikola, director of the Moravian Gallery in Brno, voted against me. I also got a lot of votes from the Slovaks.
Did all of the other proposed projects also consist of a pair of artists?
There weren't only pairs there. For example, [Slovak curator] Vladimír Beskid's project was with six artists. Stanislav Diviš, Laco Teren, and Ivan Csudai as a theoretician submitted a joint project. All three of them made paintings on one canvas. They had a pretty sophisticated campaign. I saw billboards all over Slovakia and everybody said they'd win. They had this managerial approach to it. Perhaps the committee didn't choose this project because it had already sorted everything out for the members beforehand; it felt too commercial.
Do you think that uniting the Czech and Slovak parts of the pavilion worked?
I think that the decision to take down the wall is a step forward. It used to be embarrassing. The space was always divided into two parts but it hadn't been conceived like that and it always came out looking like a pavilion within a pavilion. It was much better this year. So, exhibiting together without walls — yes, but a joint project is too much. In the end I had to watch [Ilona] gulp down blood-pressure pills and I was having such fits that I almost fainted. It definitely wasn't easy. We all took it very emotionally because it's a prestigious event. There were a lot of arguments.
Between you and Ilona?
Between the two of us, yes, because as time went by we found out that it wasn't quite possible to make a perfectly joint project. Each of us wanted to present what we could do best and didn't want to get into things we've never tried. For example, I was forced by Katarína Rusnáková to make videos, which I had never done before, plus using technology that nobody had experience with here — DVD. I realized that I couldn't find a cheap company in Prague that would burn a DVD for me. In the end I found one in Bratislava, but they'd never done it either. But they had a Macintosh G4 so they tried it out for the first time with me. It was a great risk and it took a lot of effort and nerve. This shouldn't be happening in Venice. You can't try out new things in the national pavilions. Even though the videos ended up working out quite well, judging from the response during the first days of the exhibition.
So you think a joint pavilion is a good idea, but not a joint project?
First of all, there should be two curators. There should be a Czech curator and a Slovak curator, a Czech artist and a Slovak artist who agree on a common exposition, concerning space, and how it should be conceived, so that both can show the best work they have. I don't think they should be forced to make a joint project in the concept, materials and production and subordinate everything to the joint project. They were using [the argument of the joint project] like a hammer against me.
When I wanted to install a large-sized print under the airshaft, curator Rusnáková would tell me: "No, no, this is an architectural installation, you can't place a large image here because you would clobber the subtle ambience created by the architecture, the space." And I would respond: "Well, that's why you hired me — to somehow unhinge this canon, this classicist concept of Ilona Németh." And she'd say: "Yes, but there's a limit to everything, you can unhinge but not too much, just complement it." I'm basically an anarchist who can't stand being tied up, being framed.
But on the other hand, I was stepping on Ilona Németh's toes and she was stepping on mine. When you want to put yourself in the shoes of another, if you want to understand how another person works, you begin to subconsciously create something in line with his or her intentions. She ended up throwing toys around, trying to somehow disrupt the installation while I was putting the toys back to make it sort of puristic. Through cooperating we got to the point where we didn't know who was who. In the end, we did it, but it cost me five years of my live and maybe Ilona's too. It was pretty destructive.
Were you happy with what you made?
I'd have been happier if I could have put up the large-sized prints that I had previously proposed [for the competition for the last Biennale]. When I was going through this year's commission, I just didn't come up with anything better than that. I was supposed to create the external side of the installation and Ilona was to make the intimate side, the dwelling. I was supposed to be that which pushes itself into your apartment through channels like TV, radio, media, and the Internet. And, again, I came up with large prints of a sort of retrospective of the 20th century, how we were killing each other here and blaming it on higher forces.
If you were to come up with your own joint project, with anyone, would you think of Ilona Németh?
No. But there's a third person too — the curator. Curators today don't know their place. The curator acts like a third artist. Katarína Rusnáková wanted to create and used us as some kind of prosthesis. I've noticed this with many of today's curators; they place themselves above the framework of reflecting the reality of the art that's surrounding them. They want to influence it, manipulate it. The curator wants to make art using the artist. You can see this at exhibitions like Manifesta and Documenta. [Curators] take artists out of context, damn it, and plant them like beeches among firs, one goes here and the other there. I have to admit that I said from the beginning that I didn't recognize the role of the curator because, coming from Ostrava, I'm self-taught. There's never been a curator in Ostrava and perhaps there never will be. I ignore the role of the curator; I know everything best. The curator to me is just an organizational manager, nothing more.
So you felt you were forced to cooperate on something that wasn't inherently your project?
This was no cooperation; it was a three-month-long struggle. Each of us got what he or she could get out of the others so he or she wouldn't look like a moron. It was a battle in which I lost the big picture, but they let me win in smaller quarrels. But I never gave in so much that I wanted to back out all together. In the end the installation wasn't that bad. Ilona and I are both somewhere completely different and it was hard to come to a consensus. We finally reached a consensus but it was politics. Without even knowing it, the Czech-Slovak pavilion became part of some kind of political game.
How could the committee select a project in which you were supposed to make something you'd never done before?
How could they know it would be good? Katarína was running a great risk in that respect. I got the DVD just a day before leaving for Venice. I didn't feel like an artist selected to show at the Biennale but an artist locked up in a concentration camp. It became a personal hell for me. But the same goes for the others too. I don't think Rusnáková and Ilona Németh got much pleasure out of it. It was an appalling experience for all of us. Plus, we were going through incredible stress because of a lack of funds and because the institutions that were supposed to support us and provide services didn't arrange anything at all.
How was this year's joint exhibition financed?
It was basically financed half-and-half. The Slovaks gave SKK 1.8 million [EUR 42,000] and the Czech Culture Ministry gave CZK 1.1 million [EUR 32,000] plus an additional 200,000 [EUR 5,800]. They told me at the Ministry that all the money was earmarked for my presentation. The National Gallery, on the other hand, said the money was going towards maintenance, and that I was supposed to be paid from the Slovak budget.
The National Gallery should have its own money for the maintenance. And anyway, this maintenance was non-existent. The pavilion hasn't been maintained since it was built. They just give it a new paint job every year. I did find the tools lying on the ground there: two poles wrapped up in sticky tape with a roller at the end that they dipped in paint and slopped around on the walls. By the way, transport of the paint, the roller and the two sticks cost CZK 22,000 [EUR 640], transport of all this with a gondola was CZK 7,800 [EUR 230] and the work itself, that is, pulling the roller up and down, cost CZK 150,000 [EUR 4400]. It looks like five deadbeats vacationing in Venice took turns.
There was also this big hole in the roof. They took a large, heavy piece of fortified glass and stuck it into the hole with silicon. They said they'd cover it with a soffite so it wouldn't be visible. Of course they never put any soffite there because the curator wanted to have a clear view of the airshaft, which didn't happen either because there was a lot of filth falling from the trees, but that's another story. When it started to get hot, the silicon, or filler paste, began melting and this big sheet of glass started sliding downward and it could have fallen on somebody's head or back, pierced the person through.
There was nothing on [the pavilion]. On the contrary. It's had the same large permutation lock since the 1920s; there is no protection, no bar, and no alarm. Any small kid could open it with a hooked wire. So some small kid did open it with a hooked wire and robbed the place, everything that was there. So of course there was nothing there except a boiler, a ladder and a bench. We said they had to buy a new ladder but that will never happen. Otherwise another crew would have to get a van and transport it there for CZK 20,000 , take it on a gondola for another CZK 7,000, and for an additional CZK 150,000 they would lean it against the wall for about a week until they all got a nice tan.
The more likely scenario, however, will be that Czech artists from now on will go and borrow a ladder from the French pavilion or the Scandinavian pavilion, just like we did. After about a week they liked us there like a thorn in the ass; when they spotted us coming, they went running away and shouted from afar: "no ladder, there's no ladder." We were really embarrassed.
What was the budget then?
I have the budget right here in front of my eyes because there are some breathtaking items. For example, CZK 150,000 [EUR 4400]: winter maintenance of the pavilion. As I found out, winter maintenance consisted of giving some money to the manager of the French pavilion who would peek in from outside from time to time just to check whether everything was in place, whether somebody hadn't kicked the door in. Another CZK 200,000 [EUR 5800] was spent on painting the pavilion. But it wasn't listed as painting but as preparation of the pavilion for the exposition. This suggested that much more work was done there. Then they charged CZK 65,000 [EUR 1900] for fixing the toilet, which was only done after the fact. When the Biennale is over, they will fix the toilet!
During the opening, great Czech curators were going to the toilet even though we told them that it didn't work. The toilet would immediately start overflowing and piss was leaking into the pavilion right from the first day. Then Ms. Jůdlová arranged with people from the Canadian pavilion that the cleaning lady from the Canadian pavilion would sometimes come and clean up in the Czech pavilion. We saw from the beginning how this was going to go. After paying some CZK 150,000 [EUR 4400] the cleaning lady never came.
Then some Italian guy was supposed to wash the roof. He was this little punk with a mobile phone. He stood, staring at the pavilion but he didn't have a ladder; we couldn't lend him the ladder because we didn't have one either. So we went to borrow one from the French pavilion. The punk climbed up at 9 a.m. and said: "The filth is too wet, I won't be able to wipe it off, it has to dry up." So we waited until noon. At around noon, the little punk came with his mobile and when he climbed back down, he said: "It's too dry now, I won't be able to scrape it off. I don't think I can do anything with that." The budget allocated CZK 10,000 [EUR 290] for this — well, that's next to nothing, isn't it.
In the end [the artist] René Rohan and [the gallerist] Jan Černý bought a 10-meter hose, hooked it up to a faucet at the French pavilion and washed it. Then we found out there was no electricity because the National Gallery hadn't paid the bill from last year. So the budget had to cover the debt for electricity from the past. Plus there were items like the audit report, and so on; some of them look quite serious and necessary. This was all paid with the money from the Ministry of Culture that I was supposed to use for some kind of production.
How much did the artists receive for making their works?
I got CZK 53,000 [EUR 1500] from the Czech camp for making my video but I only received it two months after the opening. Nothing more. From the CZK 1,300,000 [EUR 42,000] I got CZK 53,000 [EUR 1550].
And what about the Slovak budget?
There was an agreement that the Czech National Gallery would take care of the operations and the Slovak Gallery would take care of organizing the exhibition. The Czechs were also supposed to pay CZK 250,000 [EUR 7400] for making the wooden platform, because it made the VAT lower, which I understood. The vice-director of the Slovak National Gallery must have really enjoyed herself too. They paid for my trips, my technician and my accommodation. But even if I'd quit — which I wasn't far from doing because it wasn't cooperation but sabotage on the part of the National Gallery — the money would have been spent anyway, because it didn't go towards the installation but towards the maintenance.
I guess I got about CZK 200,000 [EUR 5830] from the Slovak budget. I also received a down payment towards fee. It's supposed to be SKK 60,000 [EUR 1400] that I extorted. I detest this kind of hypocrisy when you win a competition and are supposed to give up your fee. But how are you supposed to come up with a good project when you devote three months of your life to it and you still have to make some kind of living. I got half of my fee and anyway used it on paying for stand-ins, tapes, a microphone, renting space for shooting. I had estimated my overall budget at CZK 350,000 [EUR 10,000] including the fee.
Who paid the artists then?
The Ministry of Culture sends money to the National Gallery, which organizes the exhibition. They told me at the Ministry that I could demand a down payment. But it's too difficult to get anything out of them [the Gallery]; I have to complain very carefully. But I'm not very careful about it. Ms Jůdlová reproached me for public criticism, for hurting the arts. I'm hurting the arts! I don't know who's hurting the arts here but I think it's the National Gallery. They are the frog sitting on the spring. I don't know whether [General Director Milan] Knížák knows about this. The National Gallery reminds me of the story of Sleeping Beauty. You've got six floors there and each floor has these long, white corridors with doors like in Kafka's novels. From time to time a bug walks out and goes to another office. The National Gallery provides them with a musty atmosphere, safety, a salary, their life's work and they debate there while eating their bread and butter, and babble and do nothing.
Were there more multinational pavilions in Venice?
There were more of them and they had about ten-fold the money and nobody was forced to make joint projects. Most artists had their space within the divided space. The Scandinavians were probably even worse off because they have to work with a very distinct space — there are three trees in the middle and the pavilion is a kind of low, large space with glass on two sides. But they had a performance on the roof and a performance on the stairs.
Which pavilion did you like the best?
A number of pavilions were of interest to me because I felt money behind them. For example the American pavilion: polystyrene made of bronze, staircase into the ground, a suggestion of things American. It was apparent that it must have been made with a lot of money. The same is true for the German pavilion, the French pavilion. They completely destroyed the construction of the pavilion. It was obvious they were gigantic projects. Each great power considers it a prestigious event and lets the artists realize expensive projects. That was interesting to see.
And what about countries of the former Eastern Bloc?
They were all better off than we were. They came to understand long ago that an artist can succeed in representing the country. They were all professionally made pavilions. By the way, Belgium and France operated several spaces. They didn't just rely on their pavilions and rented out a few palaces in Venice that they included in their exposition. And each country threw a party, which was important because they invited art people, their own art people and artists who communicated there until morning, ate, drank and feasted. We were planning on doing that too but nobody gave us money for it. We wanted to do it together with the Polish and the Hungarians but it didn't work out.
The Czech Embassy gave DEM 250 [EUR 125] for the refreshments and the Slovak Embassy gave DM 250. So we took DEM 500 [EUR 250] and bought a large chunk of cheese and about 15 liters of wine. Local experts said that it wasn't as bad as in previous years [in the Czech-Slovak pavilion] when we only served wine in plastic cups and only had about two liters of it to go around. Nobody wants to go to the Czech-Slovak pavilion because they know they they're not going to be served anything. This year, they said, we outdid ourselves with that cheese. We were really embarrassed, something different every day.
Had you anticipated that it might end up like this?
I thought that I'd won something amazing, that I'd be carried on shoulders. An artist wouldn't survive here if he or she only made art. For all I care, I can say that everybody is an idiot because I've never sold anything here in Prague, except to the National Gallery, but that won't happen again. I can say whatever I want. Everything is wrecked because of the constipated bureaucratic monsters. Bureaucratic monsters of some kind suffocate all activity in this country. Let's hope they eat a lot of beef and a pandemic rolls through the offices and everybody croaks from mad cow disease.
What changes in organization and funding would you suggest for the future after your experiences this year?
I'd suggest a united installation and I'd call the tender a year and a half in advance. Within the next six months, the next artists representing the Czech-
Slovak pavilion should be selected so that they have enough time to look for sponsors, to look for money for the party, for their own installation so they don't have to wait for the state to take action. The state, too, should mobilize its forces a year in advance so that they can send money somehow in time rather than after the fact. When the artists are selected they should push the state bodies, the Ministry, the National Gallery to let them pay for the organization themselves. It's useless for the Ministry to give the money to the National Gallery first. The artist should be represented by an individual, a gallery or a company that would take care of production. The National Gallery won't do any production work; they just tunnel the money out.
Ivan Mečl and Vladan Šír
This article originally appeared in the journal Umělec.
All reproductions: Ilona Németh, Jiří Surůvka, Invitation for a Visit, 2001, view of the installation at the 49th Venice Biennale, courtesy of the Slovak National Gallery.