Uncovering the Real Politics of Art with Dalibor Polivka
Society has a tendency to ignore smaller countries. And considering that there are 195 countries out there — it’s not a big shock. Despite this, there’s still a massive imbalance in the amount of attention society gives to artists from the UK and US. Which is exactly why this interview is worth your time, attention, and even participation.
When I discovered that Dalibor Polivka was a US-based artist who grew up in Slovakia during the communist era, I was intrigued. Polivka is a painter, graphic designer, conceptual artist, and a “man of theatre”. His preferred medium of expression is the art of installation, but his latest project opens the conversation between traditional and digital art. (More details on that further into the interview).
While going back through Polivka’s answers to my probing questions, I was struck by his innate depth of character and culture. There was a sudden reminder that authoritarianism existed (and indeed still exists) within the world, that the freedom of expression we all enjoy was once suppressed. I was engaged and excited to remember that there are large swathes of peoples, cultures, and ideology that even the most educated of society haven’t encountered.
Dalibor Polivka has committed himself to the long road of incremental evolution without falling into the trap of false sincerity. His honesty and authenticity are reflected in each answer. Whether you are a professional artist, a hobbyist, a student, an enthusiast, or just passing through, I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did.
If you’re short on time and need some transformative creative career advice, skip down to the second last answer. You won’t be disappointed.
Also, if you want to get a sense of how Polivka curates his galleries, experience them virtually on D Emptyspace:
Tell us your artistic story — where did it all start and what’s the journey been like?
When I was three years old I got a box of color pencils for a birthday and I immediately realized that I want to be an artist…
[laughs] That fairytale is not my art story.
I grew up in a family of scientists and doctors. But regardless of their logic-heavy professions, it was an environment filled with respect and admiration for culture, arts and liberal thinking.
Despite — or perhaps as a result of — the political situation in the 70’s and 80’s, the city life of my small hometown Trnava, Slovakia (which is in the heart of Europe), was charged with an underground artistic energy. Its cultural vibrancy was in direct opposition to the official communist establishment. This climate became a foundation for my path to the arts.
I started to form my ideas about art in high school. I had long, exciting and inspiring discussions with my peers, analyzing everything related to eastern and western culture and their juxtaposition. I think it was that “creative dialog” that started my art journey.
Slovak art and politics often make their way into your art as a common theme. Can you talk us through how you balance delicate political commentary while staying true to your innate beliefs and culture?
I’ve lived in the USA since 1997, so I carry more issues of cultural alienation and identity concerns in my art. Slovak art and politics make a way to some of my works, but not all.
Free speech — including political commentaries in the US — are part of democratic development and we have our right and responsibility to address all of our concerns. During the communist era it was a very different story.
But I see all artworks as political in their nature — they are an expression of inner belief. So there is no contradiction in balancing political commentary and staying true to some kind of artistic inner belief. But it is true that I always felt attracted to the concept of free thinking, underground happenings and an avant garde community. Perhaps it is a direct expression of freedom to contrast the regime that I grew up in.
“I naturally lean toward everything that rebels and breaks the norm of the ‘usual’ way of doing things in art — but also in real life.”
My inclination towards existentialism and conceptual art did not help me get accepted into art school during communism, and it was only after the fall of the Berlin Wall and Velvet Revolution in 1991 that the door finally opened for me.
Since then, I was able to study, practice and lecture art at the academic world in Slovakia, France, Belgium, and now in the US.
You’ve been called “a man of the theatre” — how has that theatrical sense influenced your art and your creative process?
As a student I established an independent theatre group, influenced by studies of Tadeusz Kantor, Peter Brook, Eugene Ionesco, and Samuel Beckett.
Rob Mintz wrote in my recent monograph “Dalibor Polivka: Sketches and Installations” of how my production of Ionesco’s “Exit the King” was a highlight of our official theater festival — but the authorities insisted that it be performed in a cafeteria, after hours, late at night, and for a preselected audience, rather than the general public. They were trying to keep any seemingly subversive manifestations under wraps. Needless to say, anti-regime friends of the theater were keen to spot any government spies or infiltrators.
“During this era of so-called “normalization” things were far from normal — and never quite what they seemed.”
I think this phenomenon of working in secrecy or underground, working with hidden meanings, the encryption aspect — as an inherent aspect of art — fascinates me and is a vehicle through which I like to communicate.
What do you want people who go to your galleries to feel? How do you aim to change their perceptions and conceptions through art?
On average, most of the people who walk into a gallery stroll by the works and spend very little time — often just a few seconds — in front of the artwork. Many people feel competent to criticize art because criticisms are so easy to make. Or they simply take their words lightly.
“If people decide to come to see an exhibition, they face a proposition from the artist — and they can decide to have dialog with it or reject it.”
The ability to have quality dialog with art and artworks requires some preparation on both sides and it depends on the level of sophistication of the gallery visitor. The artist and the beholder are equally responsible for this communication.
On larger scale we fail to explain the art and its role in society. That is why the state budgets for arts and art education are decreasing and why we need to fight for art support.
A lot of contemporary art does not make sense for average gallery goer. Art could have a persuasive power but I don’t care to explore that.
Gallery visitors, in my opinion, are not expected to change their positions or conceptions.
It’s not easy to make an exhibition if you want to be truthful about it. In short, I feel that a gallery visitor should focus on context. Context is everything.
You originally created digital sketches on Instagram as pre-work for traditional media pieces. Have you found technology fundamentally changing the way you perceive and create art?
Yes. In art history, technology was always a big part of artist practice. David Hockney talks about this in his book “The Secret Knowledge: Rediscovering the lost techniques of old masters”.
My Instagram page is one specific project where I post a series of sketches made by app called SKETCHES. It is a personal diary of ordinary events and observations as well as my notes about contemporary art. I paint images with my finger on my iPhone. These are originals. Then I exercise my ability by making reproductions of them in acrylics or oil on canvas. This reproductive effort is a unique situation and experience.
In this case, technology allows me to produce faster, cleaner and brighter than traditional media. But the main point of this project is to build a comparison of traditional (oil on canvas) methods versus digital. This creates a unique frame for the context of art creation.
In short: technology provides a new tools for expression and it changes the way we think about the world. It has the power to fundamentally change our collective understanding of art. But technology alone does not have that power. Certain historic and philosophical conditions had to be in place as well.
For example Andy Warhol made us believe that any industrial object could become a work of art. So technology of that time (such silkscreen or serigraphy) allowed him to produce multiples, which in the context of new conceptual possibilities, gave rise to pop art culture that forever changed our perspective on art.
Briefly take us through your “Appearance of Wisdom” installation, what comments on society and technology are you making there?
In this installation I worked with cutting-edge, medical imaging specialists from Mission Hospital and Mission Viejo. Digitally manipulated X- rays were arranged in symmetrical compositions as “ornaments,” evoking visual interpretations of ancient spiritual wisdom related to clarity of mind, equanimity, and emptiness a fundamental tenet of Buddhism.
A twenty-foot long scroll with wooden handles, resting on a red velvet pillow, was composed of x-rays of humans and animals, merging the sacred and the profane into a philosophical object that requires philosophy in itself to be understood.
Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen, the inventor of the x-ray machine, and Atīśa, the great Buddhist sage, are converged in a dialectical synthesis. My comment is about the interrelationship between technology and spirituality, and how our ideas of unity and wisdom meet.
You do a lot of installations and exhibitions. What does your process for that look like? How do you decide what goes where?
My practice is both outside and inside of gallery and exhibition circles. Interplay of life and art is important for me. When the right condition arises and space is available I am ready to react whatever format seems to fit the gallery.
If conditions for external space is not available I try to find different “spaces”. One of them is D Emptyspace. It’s a great tool and also could serve as a catalyst for frustrated artist who has no opportunity to get into brick white cube.
Online spaces are interesting and more and more proverbial white caves will become available. We can practice and get different experiences from these empty spaces. I really liked the idea of having a simulated gallery wall, an illusion of the real gallery. It might seem like a small thing but it can have a great impact.
Do you have any advice for aspiring fine artists? How do you suggest they navigate the elite art world’s elaborate “system of filtration”?
There are many art luminaries, art critics and celebrities that give advice to aspiring artists, and I was always eager to read them. Most of them are true, but none of them is a roadmap for you.
I think everyone is successful in their own world, and yes, there is an external temporary elite art world that creates the history of art, writes the news, and set trends etc…. These makers of so called “art world” protect it because they want to keep the profits for themselves…
Alternative spaces and your own communities and friendships have far more value and are more truthful about art than big galleries and museums. We all want to be in it, be recognized for our efforts and get a piece of the pie, but look — it is not the only way.
I support small organizations, alternative spaces and I love to share my experiences and help artists and the general public get more educated about the arts. The educational aspect is important for me. Dave Hickey gives a pretty good advice to young artists and paints an alternative picture about art schools and art market. Watch his videos. Getting “in” is not the only thing you need to think about.
Lastly, build your network. Find a friend who is an art critic and knows more than you.
How do you stay balanced working as a fine artist and living in a fast-paced world full of bright, shiny distractions?
I do not see new world full of superficiality, consumerism, flat screens, gadgets and other shiny distraction as a problem. It is our mind who is distracted after all.
So if we know how to control ourselves, problem solved.
“Everything you can think of can become an inspiration and potential material for you, and gives you the opportunity to understand the world we live in, to become better humans and live more profound and meaningful lives.”
Is there anything else you want to mention? Perhaps an upcoming exhibit or some parting advice?
I appreciate D Emptyspace time and effort in which we became closer to each other. Due to their app this dialog was possible and that in itself is a piece of art. This is how technology makes bridges between people. If we can use it to create art communities and engage people in dialog than it is worth it.
Do not worry about your next show, and do not worry about my next show.
Life itself is an art form, that should be enough, the truth is not in white cubes, its beyond their structure, beyond the frame, beyond your screen.
Hear more from Dalibor Polivka
I am preparing art retreat workshops at galleries and museums. You can find out more about my workshops by emailing me or visit the links below for more info
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