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  • Christian Hain

Roman Ondak, Bertille Bak: Two exhibitions at MAMVP Paris

(Paris.) Do you know what a "Flash Mob" is?

The phenomenon has briefly been in fashion in the '00s (gosh, so long ago), in a sense it was a test run for the political use of social media that we have since witnessed in the Arabian spring and elsewhere. A "Flash Mob" meant somebody creates an event to engage voluntary participants in a pointless action. Two hundred people ordering a cheeseburger each in the same fast food restaurant or twenty people staring into the sky (where nothing special is to be seen) are classic examples.

Roman Ondak is a famous artist, who likes to take inspiration from real life. Some time ago the Tate Modern bought his work "Good Feelings in Good Times" for I-don't-know-how-much-but-damn-sure-I'd-love-to-have-it-on-my-savings-account. The work is a performance with actors queuing for nothing. Ondak has created several variations, people may stand outside in the middle of nowhere or inside in front of a wall etc. These performances are said to make a comment on 20th century Eastern European history. As spectators we are supposed to wonder if something is about to happen and what this something might be, maybe even what the world is waiting for in general, as we live in times where the next big thing is already due for a while. The MAMP ("Musee d'Art Moderne de la ville de Paris", never to be confused with the MNAM or the MEP even) chose to dedicate a good part of exhibition space to this work series. Which does not mean they would actually stage one, they present two films and many (many) magazine articles in vitrines. This documentation has been given the title "Before Waiting becomes Part of our Life" and now is an artwork itself.

Splendid idea, if you don't find enough works for a show.

Here it is the first thing visitors will see and it might convince some to turn around and leave straight away. Which would be a pity - there are great works in the exhibition, indeed.

For example the phrase "Deadline postponed until tomorrow" written in tiny letters on a back wall, you have to give some effort and bend over a cordon to decipher it. Nice idea, nothing is definitive. A minimalistic work with lots of hope, humour and inescapability to it; a little triumph over destiny, which will surely take revenge. ("Whew, got away once more, let's have a drink!") It tells not only about the cult of perfection in contemporary professional life but also about the sword of Damocles hanging over each of us (btw, Dostoyevsky philosophised about knowing the exact minute of your death being the most barbaric aspect of death penalties, having once been acquitted at the last moment himself).

Roman Ondak creates beautiful artworks from household objects like sink plugs and dust bags. These installations/assemblies/sculptures/whatsoever are much more fun and thought inducing than the above-mentioned performances. What beauty lies hidden in exhaust hoods!

Furthermore we see an object half sea mine half helmet called "Strayed Sputnik" and a parachute spanned over an invisible framework - still protecting but in another way than its natural function implies. A "folded" door just stands on the floor and another simple yet brilliant work consists of two window handles on the wall, one of them turned by 45 degrees. Open the doors to absurdity (/of perception?), and windows or doors in classical paintings are equally useless.

For those who did not see it in Venice last year, there is "Measuring the Universe" too. Visitors may stand at a wall and the guards mark their height to write name and date of measuring beside. Our understanding of the universe of course is only "true" in human terms and probably the work is meant to show humanity as one, gotten rid of differences in hair and skin colour, in belief and belongings etc. blah blah.

In fact it is quite depressing to realise how mediocre you are, reduced to names and numbers; contemporary humanity, the insect colony. Additionally there is this morbid notion of executions and Hiroshima's shadows on the wall, there certainly is a great deal of dark humour to Roman Ondak's works.

For "Futuropolis" the Slovakian artist asked friends and relatives of his to draw their version of "the city of the future". Unfortunately he seems to have asked exclusively children, as the results look exactly what you would expect in this case. To predict the future is nearly impossible and the results oftenest ridiculous, even when done by educated researchers. When a kindergarten teacher sets the task for her protégées, the outcome is neither surprising nor original or interesting at all (your own brood ever excluded, sure).

For your entry fee you get admission to another show as well: "Circuits" by Bertille Bak, a young (over thirty, but hey, I still tend to feel young myself) French artist. Her works on marginalised exotic groups like gipsies and catholic nuns are fascinating. More than Margaret Mead meets art, you sometimes feel Bak ironizing sociological research. There are these vitrines with the personal belongings of aged nuns, with room plans and indications where each and every object was located in their cell, everything described with the uttermost accuracy - which is completely senseless.

Over the years these nuns move upstairs in their monastery, the fourth floor being reserved for those supposed to meet their boss rather soon.

It is touching to watch these women who obviously have some time for hobbies (knitting!) on film, and you learn for example how telephone books are recycled as kneepads for praying. There is one particularly interesting aspect: the ascent (ascension?) with age creates a sort of a career that usually does not exist in those circumstances. Normally there is no "goal" in a Christian nun's or monk's life beside death, a novice may feel as holy as the abbot, much unlike other religions that positively set the task to try and reach nirvana before dying.

Five panels depict the metro networks of Paris, London, Madrid, Berlin and Rome respectively. Choose two stations in one city and listen to the original recording of the corresponding ride. At least the artist pretends to have recorded all possible routes. Despite her last name sounding very Korean and we all admire the proverbial Asian work discipline, this seems to be a task of years... sometimes you just have to trust an artist.

Anyway, it is great to distinguish the different city sounds, not just rattles, but typical rattles that will take you back to where you have heard them before. Every city has its unmistakable identity formed by public transport. In Paris we are blessed with station announcements only on very few lines but living here you will shortly learn to say "Beware of pickpockets, make sure your bags are properly closed and keep an eye on your belongings" in five languages (in fact, this is all I can say in Spanish).

The work is connected to Bertille Bak's documentation of a gipsy clan's voyage through Europe. They regularly play music for money in Metro trains and the confrontation of different means of travel and of different cultural sounds is her main concern. However, it reminds of discrimination and prejudice as well, in Paris the cited announcement seems to be played automatically upon a gipsy's presence in a station or on a train.

All in all these are two exhibitions to help you pass a rainy afternoon.

Roman Ondak (untitled exhibition) and Bertille Bak: "Circuits",

Musée d'Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris, 28 September - 16 December 2012


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