Zuzana Jakalová: Jaro Varga / I found it somewhere, but I can’t find it
Published in printed version of Flash Art Magazine, Czech & Slovak Edition, English Issue no.3, Volume X, 2016-2017
Jaroslav Varga (born 1982 in Trebišov) is a commentator on creation and destruction. He enjoys seeking out subtle details of what is lost, and systematically looks after what is just being born.
The associative topography of disappearing
When contemporary art audiences hear the name Jaro Varga, they usually think of books or bookcases. And when they think “bookcases,” then probably his large-scale wallpaper of a bookcase with blank spaces on the books’ spines where visitors could write the names of any books they wanted to. Bur for Varga, books and bookcases are a functional tool or symbol for reflecting about what interests him – the possibilities, formats, and methodologies of knowledge and learning.
In his research, Varga explores more than just one field of study. His range of interest encompasses geopolitical topography, the production and archiving of knowledge, social faux pas, and forgotten moments in history. He illustrates the various interconnections between the objects, moments, situations, or places that he finds or consciously seeks out by working with both their form and content. Worth mentioning in this relation is his emblematic ready-made photograph Fuck Your School, Fuck You! (2010–2014), an image of chalk writing on the blackboard of his old school in Trebišov, taken from roughly the spot where he used to sit as a pupil. Amidst the decline and ruin of his now-shuttered school, he has focused on an anonymous author’s subtle protest against the school, a protest that has no audience and no witnesses.
Although this photography betrays a certain amount of nostalgia, Varga’s work in general contains neither idealistic alternatives to the established order nor apocalyptic condemnations of institutional rigidity. Instead, he is interested in the invisible mechanisms that determine what we know and what we don’t know, which information we consider important and which unimportant… and in determining why this is. He then carefully considers how to break down this information using focused ad hoc methods such as the targeted reorganization or deliberate manipulation of content. One typical characteristic of this approach is that the contexts that Varga seeks out in and formulates through his works do not form a coherent narrative but instead challenge us to interpret this hypertextual associative database of incentives.
Abstraction in proportion with subjectivity
Although in his earlier works Varga presented moments from the past, in his more recent creations he has begun to explore narratives and structures associated with the future. He is primarily interested in cosmological models and the rapid changes in our state of knowledge about the universe caused by developments in modern technology. At the same time, he is fascinated by how until recently our knowledge of the universe has been expressed through writing – speculations, theories or theorems without a solid foundation in exact science and research. The subject of the universe and its exploration would seem to be a logical continuation of Varga’s interest in the principles of how the sum of our knowledge is created, including the continued failure or inability to discover how things “really are.”
Recently, Varga’s art has begun to explore subjectivity and personal history, most significantly in the performance piece Situation 50 at Prague’s Galerie Pavilon (2014). For this piece, Varga returned to his favorite book from childhood, a collection of photographs from the Bohemian Forest that his father had brought home from his time in the army. However, the photographs’ untouched, idyllic South Bohemian landscape is an important geographic place in our country’s totalitarian history – it was part of the off-limits border region that separated Czechoslovakia from the imperialist West, and many people lost their lives in these woods. In his performance piece, Varga cut out pages from the book, carefully rolled them up and placed them in a row. The result was a new and constantly changing topographical visual landscape that, stripped of its pastorality, offered a commentary on the constructed nature of the book’s images. All this played out beneath a projection of scenes from Karel Kachyňa’s 1959 movie King of the Šumava (also known as Smugglers of Death), which itself reflected the historical significance of the Bohemian Forest’s status as a borderland. Varga edited the film into an intimate romance, thus rejecting Kachyňa’s themes in favor of his own personal expression.
Although many of Varga’s works are formulated from a critical-analytical perspective, they are reluctant to pass judgement on their subject matter. As a result, they rarely possess the pathos and hysteria that we often encounter in attempts at understanding history or predicting the future. “I found it somewhere, but I can’t find it,” says Varga in a recording when he asks the residents of the town of Martin where he might find a poster commemorating the Holocaust that someone has taken down. It is precisely the visible ambivalence of these moments “in-between” – between knowledge and ignorance, between success and failure, between past, present and future, between finding and not finding a solution – that is the most interesting thing about Varga’s work.
Psychogeography of Memory: Jaro Varga in conversation with Kaśka Maniak
Published in printed version of NOTES na 6 tygodni, nr. 101, 2015, Translated by Tomasz Bieroń
Kaśka Maniak: In your artistic practice you concentrate on analysing various aspects of common knowledge. The tangible manifestations of this knowledge – such as books, monuments or commemorative plaques – you juxtapose with ephemeral, conceptual forms. You use them to point at stories which are forgotten or unable to occur. For example, in the project I found it somewhere, but I cannot find it, on the walls of buildings you created traces of non-existent plaques commemorating the Jewish community living in the Slovak town of Martin before the war. Do you want to supplement the official, usually one-sided visions of reality or are you more interested in observing the mechanisms of remembering and forgetting?
Jaro Varga: Memory and processes of constructing knowledge are the essence of my work. I am interested in how memory is created in specific situations. Memory which is not static, but constantly changes, restructures itself. To answer your question: I am interested in both attitudes. The first stage of my projects is deconstructing official histories, and this usually involves analysing the mechanisms of their emergence. I am not a theoretician, I am using artistic practice, which is a very peculiar instrument. Art has the potential to create a new reality, new circumstances. The work you mentioned highlights the absence of a certain discourse. I did not add any content to the existing context, for I did not want to build any new constructs. I only pointed at a certain gap, I created a topography of memory which does not exist.
You choose intangible and short-lived forms of intervention. Is it because you don’t want to create new constructions usurping historical memory?
Yes, although on the other hand pointing at absence is in itself adding a certain content. Let’s take your previous example: leaving traces of non-existent plaques was like making question marks. A question about absence, about something you cannot identify or which you regard as untrue, leads to the emergence of new themes. And this makes me believe that ephemeral interventions can be very productive.
Because they don’t provide unambiguous answers?
They require imagination and may reveal more than one solution. I don’t want to give answers or suggests solutions. We once talked about perceiving the artist as a demiurge, about expectations that he or she will produce suggestions as to how the world, society, or politics should function. I don’t want to take such a position.
What is more important for what you do: individual experience or collective memory?
I am interested in combining both perspectives, because social memory is always connected with individual memory, with subjective experience. A good example here is the project Situation 50, concerning the town of Sumova, located at the border between Czechoslovakia, Austria and Hungary, between East and West. Of course, there is a collective memory surrounding this place, but I also invoked the story of my father, who served in this town as a soldier. So collective memory may be inscribed in your own story. I have an impression that the community gives the kind of immunity to collective memory, which leads to the dispersal of responsibility. An individual perspective retrieves this responsibility. Zygmunt Bauman wrote about this in his book Modernity and the Holocaust.
In your projects centred around books you show mechanisms of creating theories, you demonstrate their impermanence and entanglements. For example, in the project Endism and the album summarising it, called artist book (untitled), you collected 500 pages of publications with titles containing the word “end” (end of power, end of poverty, end of books). With this gesture you disarmed their seriousness and undermined confidence in them. You seem to be fond of Michel Foucault’s writings, especially his analyses of the relationship between knowledge and power.
Every regime change involves this mechanism: burning books, destroying information, removing “incorrect” things. Every library is constructed of a certain knowledge, which is characteristic for its time and the ruling ideology. References to Foucault and the relationship between knowledge and power are very important to me. Using the library as a certain space for collecting knowledge, you can describe many histories, for there is something more in it. For example, the books selected for the Endism project originate from one collection, although they lived on various shelves, in various locations and times. The perspective of “endism” placed them in a new context, showing how their value and significance may change. My library putting together publications containing the word “end” again is not the answer to anything, but a proposal or asking a question. One of the books I selected is Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man, which describes liberal democracy as the best of possible systems. After the 2009 crisis we know that Fukuyama’s hypothesis and prognoses proved to be a complete failure.
So how should we approach various theories describing the world in a new way?
We should not trust them completely, we should be cautious towards them. Libraries and books serve as a medium for storing knowledge. It is an abstract space which can be used for the sake of a new imagination. But I always think also about the knowledge which has not survived. Perhaps it is more important to discover ideas and theories that have been lost? This is how I treat my projects, which speak about covering-up, constructing and end. They constitute a library which has never come to exist, but there is a knowledge in it which we should possess.
What about knowledge which is elitist, inaccessible to the majority, for it is transmitted in an abstruse, often incomprehensible language? Do you also pay attention to that in your works?
I think that my projects concern the mechanism of constructing and representing the knowledge rather than knowledge as such. Esoteric knowledge has always existed, for example only a few monks had access to the monastic library, as Umberto Eco excellently described. The rest could only imagine the library, instead of experiencing it, touching the books, browsing them. This esoterism exists also today, for example in texts comprehensible only to a narrow group of people. But there are also popularisers, who make the content easier to understand. But of course the process of translation involves changes, simplifying the content, making it more attractive. In the Endism project you also point at an interesting relationship, between the title of a book and its content. The title functions as a promise, an announcement of what is yet to happen. And also as a representation. I separate the title from the content of a book. The title becomes for me a sovereign whole, it works like a poem, haiku, it becomes a content of its own.
You also study the issue of which books entered the mainstream and are regarded as important. In an exhibition held in the Contemporary Museum in Bratislava you created a library which the recipients are supposed to fill. The visitors write specific titles on the white spines of the books – do you check what they propose?
In this case I also created a certain modus operandi. It was a site-specific work, created for one of the oldest public libraries in Slovakia. Once the books were transferred to a new building, the rotunda was closed and remained empty for more than a hundred years. We reopened it, reconstructed it on a temporarily basis. The titles appearing on the spines of books are written down on wallpaper. The whole project reflects the contemporary awareness of people. I may observe books which turn up and also wonder about those which are missing. People also think about non-existent publications. When I was working on the project in Bratislava, a book describing love affairs in the world of politics was suggested. Such a book was published next year, so it came to be in my library before it appeared on the publishing market. People are very spontaneous in proposing titles, but there is a certain logic behind their spontaneity, an awareness which is difficult to capture. I have always been fascinated in how one person or society is able to build libraries containing one thousand books. I thought myself to be incapable of that, but one gesture was enough to make it possible and produced such a monumental effect.
You are interested in private libraries. What do you look for in them: a reflection of private interests of the owners or rather information about the epoch in which the creators of the collection lived?
Private libraries existed before public ones, in fact they formed their foundation. For example, when we talk about libraries destroyed during the war, we are thinking mostly about large collections of books. And what about small libraries, even containing an insignificant number of publications? They were located at the margins of knowledge and instantly disappeared from our awareness. After 1945 one of the Warsaw newspapers published articles about lost libraries. I will quote one story here. Miss Halina Latwis from Warsaw owned the book collection of Witold Hulewicz, poet, critic, translator of such writers as Rilke or Thomas Mann, an extraordinary figure unknown to a wider audience. Latwis tried to save this collection, she brought the books to a bookstore and asked that the collection be kept in one place. But during the war the library was dispersed. When I was in Warsaw, I tried to find fragments of the collection. In the National Library I came across one book, with a dedication for Latwis. I expected that the National Library would be the right place, because after the war private books were gifted to it, as people wanted to help in reconstructing the national collection. These are small stories, but sometimes more important than the large narratives which we know.
Do you have your private library? How do you select books for it?
In one of his short stories Alberto Manguel describes an encounter with Jorge Luis Borges and his surprise at the discovery that they had similar libraries, although they bought books spontaneously, at a whim. I also buy books without premeditation. I don’t treat my library as a concept or project.
For several years you have been investigating the life of the cities and creating your private City Diary. In Berlin I saw the documentation of an exhibition presenting fragments of this project. I have an impression that you are covering up the details showing which places you have been to and which you describe. Why?
Some details are noticeable, you can find references to Berlin, Seoul, New York and Warsaw. City Diary contains a huge number of drawings, texts, poems. At some point I started to intertwine them and I broke the linear nature of the diary. So it could be called an anti-diary. I noticed that I can use the collected material to create a kind of cognitive maps, to work like Aby Warburg on Mnemosyne. And indeed, if you do that, the specific character of the place is blurred, it does not matter in what city I am. What I do is reflect on the universality of the city and my subjective geography in it. Initially City Diary was an ordinary notebook, but now I would like to develop this theme continuously. So that time and space are blurred, leaving room for an individual topography of the city. Currently I focus on introspection, while my earlier projects were based on studying places according to an pre-conceived methodology. To gain access to certain situations, you need a specific sensitivity, it is a quite romantic concept, but then I was not yet aware of this complication. Now I focus on a subjective identification of the space around me. I started to travel a lot and perhaps this led me to create a kind of island for myself. Like the eponymous hero of the film Citizen Kane by Orson Welles, who travelled around the world, but always stayed in a similar room. I think that through City Diary I try to return to “myself”, for it is the only safe ground in such diverse environments. In exploring the city through psychogeography I see certain references to the Situationist Movement. In the beginning I acted very spontaneously, now I see the relationships.
From what perspective do you look at the city – are you critical or friendly?
I am probably critical. I think a lot about how the city will change in the future, provided that it still exists at all, and about what will emerge in its place.
We are talking in Kraków, you are here as a resident under the project Place Called Space. Is Kraków and its environs also going to be described in your City Diary?
City Diary is composed of subjective analyses of ephemeral moments, invisible images and spontaneous situations generated by the urban reality and relations. Although every page refers to specific locations and points in time, in fact it invokes any place and any time. As a result one city may be present in any other city. I continue my work on City Diary during my presence in Kraków and Tarnów. My residence will have its summing up in Tarnów, in September. Now both cities belong to my subjective topography and hence also to my diary. City Diary will shortly be published as an artbook, courtesy of the Imago Mundi Foundation. Thanks to that I’ll be able to understand and summarise my studies of the city so far.
And how do you think, what will replace cities in the future?
I don’t know.
Several basic motifs appear and are developed in the work of Jaro Varga. His main theme is the city and its transformation, deformation and elements of disappearance. He works with history but always connects, confronts and reflects upon it in light of the present, which he places within a broader historical framework. He investigates contemporary awareness of the city and the life being led in it and creates urban maps of disappearing, existing and newly created sites.
One aspect of modern settlements is the deformation of the local historical context and our insensitivity to their legacy. Varga’s work Three Routes (2007) following the intersecting paths of the history of Hungary, Germany and Slovakia culminated in the project FU JA RA (2011). The figure of Jánošík was depicted and interpreted many times over in Slovak culture. In his video Varga focuses on an interview with an actor who, disguised in the centre of Bratislava, “introduces” the famous warrior to groups of tourists while playing the shepherd’s pipe. For the guide it is tempting when dealing with crowds of tourists to use comparisons like Robin Hood or the didgeridoo, which, however, are ridiculous within the local context. The figure of Jánošík in its way lives its own life within a twisted, anecdotal narrative.
The intervention in public space made in Komárno (2010) is a reflection on the multi-ethnic coexistence on the border of Slovak and Hungary. The artist placed an inscription on the facade of a historical building that never in fact existed in this spot that read “Cultural heritage is not the same as national identity” in Slovak and Hungarian. The traces of the physical letter ask a question of the function of the depicting and the depicted and the material and ephemeral remains of history.
The artist researches a similar fictional lost inheritance in I Found it Somewhere, but I Cannot Find It (Martin, 2013), in which he questioned the local populations regarding the location of an allegedly lost memorial plaque to victims of the holocaust and then created clues to these plaques in the places named. In doing so he created a kind of non-existent memorial that is lost in history even in its fictive form.
Other projects by Varga focusing on linking the past and the present are centred on the Petržalka housing estate in Bratislava. This is the largest such estate in Central Europe, built during the era of “normalisation”, and is an independent urban phenomenon. The plans for its construction were conceived of very ambitiously by the then communist authorities. In the project Re: the Petržalka Apartment (2010) Varga put together a set of requirements for an apartment in this locality using the original conditions of the architectural tender and sent them to estate agents. The project output included not only documentation of the properties offered the artist, but also a range of reactions on the part of individual agents to the somewhat unusual criteria Varga had stipulated.
The series of prints entitled Vertical Labyrinth, 2009, is also based on the Petržalka housing estate and documents the state of the murals located on the side walls of individual blocks. This powerful visual layer offering another view of standardised prefab buildings could serve as a kind of guide to the “labyrinth”, a foothold in space.
Varga also occupies the role of urban explorer in his native Trebišov. These urban surveys are again based on the history of the place and reflect its current state and potential (non)future. Varga paid special attention to the building of the old junior school that he himself attended. The institution was closed down and the dilapidated building was finally demolished and replaced by a supermarket. The artist’s two-year-long research culminated in the cycle Shrinking City Expanding Memory – Urban Exploration I-VI, 2010).
The installation Comenius 1 (2010) recycles the only material the artist found in the old building, namely old training films. He screened these films on the old walls and then shot the projection. The new visual component thus replaced and emptied out the original content of the films, just as the new architecture replaced the old and the ideals of the former ideology became invalid.
Another location that Varga is engaged intensively in is the former military area in Milovice. This space served three armies successively (the Austro-Hungarian, German and Soviet, which only left it in 1989) and is now a deserted, dilapidated location surrounding by the small town. Varga reflects on the present or possible future state of the building while mirroring its history. In the installation Budoucnost historie / The Future of History (2013) he gathered fragments of murals from all three periods of the military history of the area as though conducting an archaeological dig, and then reconstructed them in a gallery. The wall framed a space through which history passed and now designates only emptiness and abandonment.
The artist also worked with the population of Milovice, a town originally built as the example of complete self-sufficiency but now surrounded by ruins. As well as discussions on the history and future of the town, he organised a happening with children frm the local junior school linking up to the event organised by the Slovenian group IRWIN Was ist Kunst? (Návrat do budoucnosti I / Return to the Future I, 2013). In the installation Lost Things (2014) he collected parts with an almost surrealist effect that he collected in the buildings and placed them within a new context in the gallery.
Varga accentuates not only the connection between the local urban space and history but also modern life in all its guises.
In Little Big City (2008) he created a map of new development projects in Bratislava. These projects have English titles and their artificially created titles do not relate to the local, historical or social context in any way. The project included the video documentation of a survey carried out in the streets of Bratislava in which the local population tried to translate these international tittles into Slovenian. The video then reveals the genuine influence of newspeak and the overuse of foreign names and anglicisms in real life.
The project De-architekturalizace I-VI / De-architecturalisation I-VI (2010) documents, analyses and typologises the architecture that is evolving in small towns at the rapid pace of the post-revolutionary economy. These buildings, often foreign, bizarre or even parasitical in appearance, are depicted by Varga in a series of documentaries, drawings and videos.
Another theme Varga has long been involved in is that of the library. The library as symbolic construct, the storage point of knowledge and a directive instrument that can serve ideology. Varga organised several site-specific installations and interventions in public libraries (the National Technical Library in Prague, the National Library in Warsaw, the Library of Slippery Rock University v Pittsburgh, and the Library of the Academy of Fine Arts in Bratislava). In several interventions he worked with the book as with a tabula rasa in which we wrapped all books in the same white paper (Untitled, 2008). In Knihovna / Library (2011–2012) the participative character of the event allowed visitors to give their own titles to empty book spines.
In Untitled III (2009–10) he gathered more than a hundred books in the National Library making some kind of reference to the end and from a photocopy of their spines created a fictional order of books concerned with the ambiguous phenomenon of “endism”.
Varga documented libraries destroyed during the second world war, especially in Poland, in his series Lost Libraries, 2012.
As well as artist Varga is also a curator. Along with Dorota Kenderová he has been curator of the Hit Gallery in Bratislava since 2007. At present he works in the MeetFactory Gallery in Prague.