The Art of the Quick and Sharp Gesture – Viktor Frešo

Viktor Frešo is a Slovak artist and photographer who knows how to hide a frank smile, if not outright mockery, in his works, and thereby make the viewer start and think. He is surprisingly prolific – every year he has from 15 to 20 exhibitions. The current one is now taking place in the Prague Gallery of Modern Art DOX, where Frešo is again communicating with visitors virtually and raising a number of important issues in a satiric form.

Viktor himself believes that only his installations and sculptures can be considered works of high art; he refers to the mainstream category as graphics and drawing, although it is the latter that give him the most recognizable and scandalous character. 

About Frešo, they say that he is like a virus: he doesn’t have his own “body”, but he successfully uses various strategies to form his own brand, and everything he touches can turn into an art object, into making a declaration.

Declaration and a bright challenge – the basic manner in which he works, and with the same ease juggles the themes of politics, religion, beauty, love, and God, causing mixed feelings in the viewer. I want to shake my head and say: “I do not even know what to say … He is strange, and rude, but this is very cool!” 

Frešo plays the role of an egocentric, self-confident, daring, intolerant,and arrogant man, but in reality he is a very educated and thoughtful person who, before creating something — that is, making aseemingly simple gesture–will take time to work through a lot of questions in his head, believes DOX employee Jan Mahonin:“I would say that he is very talented, and he very effectively questions what we in the Czech Republic call infantile conceptualism – when masters simply play at art and cannot take a serious look at it. But in art everything is really serious, it’s only from the outside that it seems so.

Naked in front of the viewer

Thanks to his height — a little over two meters — it would have been difficult for Viktor to get lost in the crowd and become inconspicuous. Therefore, he does not seek to do it – he even, to the contrary, emphasizes his presence, ironically not less than others, plays with his ego, forcing others to guess: is he really the narcissist that he seems to be, or is this just another artistic talent? 

Frešo plays a lot and often with his ego. He likes to stand out from the crowd provocatively, gladly creates series of self-portraits. This can be regarded as self-adoration and self-centeredness, but in reality there is always some irony behind it. He manipulates his figure, knowing that people see it and can say:God, this is so disgusting, why does he push himself like that and crawl everywhere?” asks Mahonin.

However, it is not only an external shell, but also an inner self that Frešo reveals. There are several works on the second floor of the exhibition where he literally pours out his soul to visitors and tells how he has managed to overcome depression and dependence (which one he doesn’t specify), and how he has experienced parting with a woman, and what helps him in conflict situations, and how he copes with doubts about the importance of his work and fears about the lack of money. 

These are lists of the points that a person should address in a given life situation. Much of this relates more to the field of medicine than to the field of art, but this is precisely the idea of ​​the artist, as Frešo tells us: look for me as these inner experiences are inextricably linked with what I do, so I will leave them here, and you can think about them as you want, I don’t care. Such a slap in the face, – laughs Mahonin. – With this installation, he also wants to draw our attention to the fact that today’s art does not know how to be intimate, because what is written here is very personal stuff. Today, there is a huge gap between the viewer and the author, something like a fool and a genius who is trying to explain something to him. So, I offer you something completely different, Frešo tells us. Let’s close the distance between us, experience the same feelings that I feel – so my impressions will be our common experience.

In order to shorten the distance between him and his viewers to a minimum, he presents at the exhibition a video-cutting (old footage from his student years, everyday shots that any of us could have taken), and then makes the viewer recall his own school years.  On a large white panel is written the phrase: “I Won’t Be the Best and Most Famous Slovak Artist!” Again irony – in a sense he already is famous, thinks the viewer. But words are not as important as actions.

What do you understand in art …

Art education at the universities in Prague and Bratislava and the ability to perceive reality keenly allow Frešo to challenge not only his viewers, but also art critics. 

Right at the entrance to the exhibition,on the wall to the right, hangs something resembling a kitchen tablecloth with flowers on which you can read “You Know Twat About Politics” written in black paint. 

This sharp utterance is addressed to two curators who invited Viktor to participate in the Slovak exhibition on the subject of politics in art, – says Jan Mahonin. – Viktor visited the gallery, got himself acquainted with the situation, understood that the topic is, of course, very fashionable, but the inviting party does not understand anything about the topic. Therefore, he responded as follows: he sent back an ordinary tablecloth with an inscription and his signature as an exhibit. The exhibition organizers found themselves in a very delicate situation: since they had proposed freedom of artistic expression, then they must be obliged to show it. If they are frightened and do not show the work, then what kind of politics can be spoken aboutin art? It was a classic example of the trap that Frešo loves so much to set up.” 

Frešo expresses a similar measure of contempt for the commercialization of contemporary art. According to Mahonin, despite his active participation in exhibitions, the artist does not perceive them as a means of making money, he is pleased with the process of communicating with people, sharing experiences and attitudes. And money and fame are simply nice side effects.

Therefore, it is not surprising that the proposal to create “something that can be sold” at a good price caused him to react in his usual style. “He took the table of the director of that gallery, moved it to the exhibition space and added a carpet to the installation, which, thanks to its even color and regular form, is anartistic gesture. Enough that it was just seen. And, of course, he spiced all this up with a traditionally provocative statement.”

Just an ordinary chair – albeit with lion legs, in the Empire style – can turn into an art object, according to the artist. Despite the fact that he is defying traditional aesthetics with all his work, this does not mean that he does not understand the meaning of what he is doing – on the contrary, this is just another game with the audience. “That’s What I Call a Sculpture” – says Frešo and attaches a four-meter wooden beam to the wall of the exhibition hall, and in another corner he sets a folding ladder that cannot be used for its intended purpose, since its steps are tightly wrapped with adhesive tape.

Someone will say: “What ugliness!”, and someone, on the contrary, will find in this a hidden meaning. Beauty, says Frešo, is a subjective concept.

In the case of this stepladder, immobilized, unable to perform its functions, the question of aesthetics also arises. If you ask Frešo whether he recognizes beauty as such, he will not refute it. After all, that wooden beam, and this ladder – each of these objects is beautiful in its own way, each has its own charm”. 

The monotony of nostalgia 

The exhibition ends with a message that Viktor Frešo addressed to the conceptual artists of Eastern Europe: there are several elevator cabins on wheels in the spacious hall. They are almost motionless, life gives them only a weak illumination.

In general, artistic objects can always be interpreted in different ways, but in this case, Frešo has one main message, – says Mahonin. – Today everyone is accustomed to the fact that the art of Eastern Europe, that is, Russia and the countries of the former Soviet bloc, where the conceptual sphere was actively developed in the 1960s – this art has some formal characteristics: nostalgia, isolation, neglect, backwardness. And gallery owners from Western countries began to demand from Eastern European artists just that. Say, hello, come to us to the exhibition and bring something typically Eastern European. Let it be something like a telephone booth, standing alone in the middle of an ugly paved square. Frešo began to feel irritated by this approach, and he again decided to give a slap in the face to all conceptualists who obey such demands. The irony is that the elevators, which must move up and down, stand on the surface and can barely move, andonly left and right. So are the poor artists: they build their careers on the fact that they are from Eastern Europe, and as a result, they can only move in their own plane and are not able to get off the ground. ” 

Frešo is generally against any rigid framework and the immobilization of the creative person. In conceptualism, he is close, according to the curator of the exhibition, rather, the authors of the first wave of this trend, those who were not afraid to present a urinal tothe public and call it an art object; the modern vision is in many placestoo simplified, not requiring the work of the viewer’s brain, but in many places, on the contrary, too tricky, too complicated, it only causes irony. 

And it is good – in this way, we can be sure that the material for new exhibitions of Frešo will not run out of material anytime soon. 

Photos: Archive of the author

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