Contemporary art causes controversy in Slovakia


If you go for a stroll along the bank of the Danube in Bratislava, a billboard depicting a map of Hungary will almost certainly catch your eye. The map is colourful and the writing is entirely in Hungarian. It attracts attention because it is surrounded by other billboards advertising political parties ahead of Slovakia's June elections. Could it be part of the pre-election campaign of the ethnic Hungarian SMK party? Martina Grenova has been investigating. She found out that the map, which has been causing quite some controversy in Slovakia, has nothing to do with election fever.

Several days after the billboard appeared on the Danube riverbank, the national cultural organization issued an official request to have the Hungarian billboard taken away from the streets of Bratislava. According to Matica Slovenska spokesman Stanislav Bajanik, these billboards represent a hidden advertisement for the 1938-1945 fascist era of Hungarian chauvinism:

"This billboard is contrary to the law on advertising that prohibits hidden advertisements. The arguments by the artist as well as the curators are provocations to stir up Hungarian nationalist feelings."

The project has nothing in common with elections. It is a project run by Billboart Gallery Europe, a non-governmental organization promoting the latest Slovak contemporary art. Mira Keratova is one of the curators of the "Donaumonarchie" project:

"The mission of the project is to present contemporary art in public space. This project is focusing on the medium of a billboard. It is somehow bringing the contemporary art out of galleries and museums into the context of real life. This particular exhibition is called the Donaumonarchie. Its ambition is a critical reflection of the area of central Europe."

The billboard depicting a map of fascist Hungary was done following the design of a real car sticker bought in Budapest not long ago. The billboards on the streets of Bratislava do not promote any political viewpoint but intend to initiate discussion on controversial topics. The billboard, entitled "Readymade," was made by a transfer from one country to another, Keratova says:

"The author is Michal Moravcik. The billboard is showing an original souvenir, a sticker of the Great Hungary from about a hundred years ago. It depicts the political map of the country. The billboard reflects still-surviving post-Trianon tension in the area of the states which were parts of the historical Hungary. It refers to the revisionist efforts of the nationalist movements in today's Hungary. It's supposed to address Hungarian nationalism, as well as the tension which still exists between Hungary and Slovakia."

The Slovak cultural institution Matica Slovenska has challenged Billboart Gallery Europe by filing a complaint against an unknown offender. The Matica Slovenska says the billboard is a hidden advertisement offending Slovak national feelings. Stanislav Bajanik:

"For Europe, the science, politics and international law of the idea of The Greater Hungary is a closed chapter. It is said that neither the artist nor curators know anything about chauvinist trends in Hungary and southern Slovakia."

Mira Keratova: "The platform of this exhibition is the geographical and historical context of the countries of the former Habsburg monarchy as well as of the former socialist East bloc and today's new Europe. The idea is that all these countries have been for centuries an object, not a subject, of their own destiny."

It is not up to the police or judges to decide on its removal from the riverbank. A final decision on this controversy will be made by the Advertising Standards Council. Until that decision the "Readymade" will stay a part of the Donaumonarchie project, which features 12 billboards that challenge the idea of Central Europe. Until May 31st it will be possible to see these different works of art around Bratislava that touch upon not only the topics of greater Hungary but also the Austro-Hungarian monarchy and the socialist republic.