Thursday, November 11, 2010

Bratislava Month of Photography 2010

Last week was the opening week of the Month of Photography in Bratislava. This is their 20th anniversary season so I expected big things. When I had been here 2 years ago, the festival had a few really first-rate shows, but the whole operation suffered from some shoddy administration and not a little bit of crony-ism. Still, there seemed to be a different perspective at play in this sleepy post-Soviet appendix of Vienna plus I saw some artists that don’t really get west all that much, so I hoped this anniversary edition would hold some hidden treasures for me. For the most part, no such luck.

Administration was again the principle roadblock. This is not a big festival – much smaller than the likes of Arles or Photo España – so one should be able to take in virtually every exhibit in one, well-planned day. But you can’t. Venues are open sporadically, and even sometimes not open when the schedule said they would be. Also, the festival has a tradition of sequential vernissages, so the whole festival doesn’t open on opening day. You have to wait until the official opening or after – which sometimes happens 3 days after opening day – to see the show. I would follow my trusty festival map, with its address and opening hours clearly printed, only to find the venue locked up tight with no one in sight. Arles gets this part right. All of the exhibits of the Rencontre are accessible from the opening bell, but there are celebratory vernissages spaced out over the course of the first week.

But finding the place when it was closed was, it turns out, a kind of victory. There were 3 venues I never found at all. There was a Witcacy portrait show I really wanted to see which was not exactly in the center of town. But I trekked out to find it and spent an hour hunting to no avail. Then I went back 2 days later with a friend who had more language skills than me. She, too, asked questions, pointed at the map, showed the page in the festival materials. No luck. We never found the show. It’s not like I can’t read a map or find an address in a foreign city. I found galleries in Tokyo, for heaven’s sake, but Bratislava didn’t give up its secrets. I wasted 3 hours, at least, looking for various exhibits, and heard similar complaints about phantom exhibits from other attendees. This is a failure on the part of the festival planners no two ways about it. I don’t think I’m setting the bar too high to expect that I should be able to find the shows using the festival map.

Ok, enough about logistical challenges, what about the art? There were some good shows. The best were three historical shows. The first was a Frantisek Drtikol essay from Czech archives. It really yielded no surprises but it was good to see some vintage prints of images I hadn't seen before along with some quotes by Drtikol and a few biographical details. 

The second was a fun assortment of work spanning the years 1840-1950 culled from the Russian State Archives of Literature and Art. The work ranged from early wet collodion glass plate prints made by Russian photographers to 1rst rate constructions and photograms by El Lissitzky. It was an uneven and loosely connected exhibit -- the only real thread was that they are all stored in the same archive -- but a pleasure to see nonetheless. 

The best was a super exhibit called “In the Shadow of the Third Reich” which were official photos of the Slovak State from 1939-1945. This was dramatic documentary footage of Slovaks eagerly accepting the Nazi program and forming their own units and paramilitary groups to support the German aggression. The photography was of a very high level and the message packed a wallop. 

On a more contemporary front, winners of World Press Photo 10 were predictably moving and powerful. As strong as the pictures were, the indelible image in this show came from the comment of one of the jurors. He stated that even the tens of thousands of images submitted for the competition did not give an adequate sense of the amount of suffering in the world. I am humbled by the thought.

The most contemporary work was part of group shows highlighting work done by students from two Eastern European art schools. The first, celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Institute of Creative Photography at the Silesian University in Opava, yielded little pleasure. But the show from the Poznan Academy of Fine Arts was chock full of exciting and promising work. As I write this, I'm sitting in a hotel room in Poznan looking forward to a meeting tomorrow morning with the director of the Academy. I'd heard that Poznan was the one of the best art schools in Poland (if not the best), so I shouldn't have been surprised by the show. I'll wait to comment on individual artists until I've gotten more background from the director, and I'll weave it into my larger overview of the Polish part of my trip which will be coming soon. 

I'm sure I'd have more to talk about if I'd been able to find and see all the exhibits I'd hoped to see. Oh well! You can follow the hyperlink to the festival site to see what was on offer and to perhaps get a sense of what was in the program. I'll take a pass on commenting on the shows I didn't like. Suffice it to say that the problem wasn't that they were bad (for the most part) or provocative, but that they were so bland and predictable as to not inspire comment. I think my disappointment in Bratislava is partly because I feel it could be so much more. I strongly believe in regional differences of style and perspective, a perspective which Bratislava has an opportunity to highlight and celebrate. I know that there are talented and accomplished Slovak artists that are excluded from the Festival, but that quibble is only a fraction of a larger gripe at the curatorial choices of the festival as a whole. Arles is a long way from perfect, but their choice to have a guest Commissaire who lends a guiding principle to each year is perhaps something Bratislava should investigate. In  any case, I hope future editions of the show will begin to provide a forum for that which is most important and new in photography especially work which originates from that part of the world. If that could happen, it would be a must-see stop on any curator's itinerary.

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