As his contribution to the Secession exhibition Ausgeträumt (The End of Dreaming), 2001-2002, the Slovakian artist Roman Ondak had Skodas-Czech cars-parked behind the Secession building in Vienna; at Museum Ludwig in Cologne in 2002, he set up a fake radio broadcast asking visitors to please, as a gesture of solidarity with recent world events, not interrupt their present activities; and for a show in 2003, he arranged for huge queues of “visitors” to wait half an hour each day in front of the Cologne Kunstverein beginning at 4 PM. So what would he do for his first substantial exhibition in a Vienna gallery?
Well, the entry room contained an oversize table. Has Ondak moved on to sculpture? Not at all. During a residency in Japan, he gave each of five hundred steel-workers a bar of chocolate and asked them to make a little sculpture out of the wrapping foil when they were done. Several hundred of these fascinating figures now stand on the table: little glasses, miniature animals, flowers, weapons, balls, even archers and dragons. Passage, 2004, is the title of this creative reappropriation. In the next room, Passage (Inventory of Production), 2004, a suite of thirty-five photographs, showed something of its backstory: views of the prior negotiations between Ondak and the management of Nippon Steel.
Everything fits into place and yet everything is somehow a little bit off – Ondak is a master of this method of subtly twisting the everyday. Without great fanfare, without moralistic gestures or didacticism, Ondak blurs our familiar surroundings and leads us inexorably to an imaginary mirroring. What we then see are our own perceptions of reality, which are too often satisfied with sweeping generalizations or pragmatic understandings. For Ondak, the opposite is true: Nothing is simply self-explanatory. In The End of Dreaming he played with all-too-facile xenophobic prejudices; in Cologne, he played with our presuppositions about exhibitions (to wit, that we are there not to see other people waiting to see artworks but to see artworks themselves). This time Ondak delivered exactly what we expect to see at an exhibition: artworks – small sculptures, photographs, drawings, and an interview between the artist and the gallerist. The drawings are a series of portraits; you might think of them as self-portraits, or perhaps not. Ondak had a curator ask then people to make drawings of him based on a spoken description. The images are obviously the work of amateurs, but you could easily believe they are all portraits of the same person. The interview seems to reveal information about the artist’s personal preferences and habits but in fact was taken verbatim from an English-instruction textbook; the sole personalizing touch was the addition of the names “Martin” and “Roman”. Both the drawings and the interview seem to sketch an image of the artist, but as it turns out, they reflect only hackneyed conventions.
And so Ondak guided us slowly alongside the theme of production, from the steelworkers to the inner workings of art institutions to the question of artistic productions, its preconditions and methods.
Then, at the close of the exhibition on the second floor, one stood before a string that cordoned off an empty room. A plastic sign hung form it: DEADLINE POSTPONED UNTIL TOMORROW. That’s good news. Tomorrow’s a long way off. But just a second: What deadline?
Sabine B. Vogel: Roman Ondak. Galerie Martin Janda, In: Artforum, September 2005, p. 316.