A short introduction into curatorial beginnings of Gregor Podnar in the Škuc Gallery, a Slovenian NGO, in the 1990s.
Gallery Gregor Podnar is a contemporary art gallery established in 2003 in a small Slovenian town Kranj. After that, it moved to the city center of Ljubljana in 2005 and in 2007 to Berlin, Germany where it was based until the end of February 2022 and it’s currently finding new spaces in Vienna, Austria. The gallery represents internationally renowned artists, predominantly from Eastern Europe, such as Irwin, Yuri Leiderman, Goran Trbuljak, Dan Perjovschi, and Attila Csörgő as well as addresses a wider context with conceptual artists like Alexander Gutke, Tobias Putrih, Ariel Schlesinger and B. Wurtz. Its success story can be traced to the prosperous attending of international art fairs, namely Art Basel, Art Basel Miami Beach, Frieze Art Fair London, Fiac Paris, etc. The gallery’s founder and gallerist, Gregor Podnar, began his curatorial career in 1995 as an artistic director of Škuc Gallery, one of the most important non-governmental cultural centers in Slovenia. In this article I will explore his roots in the Slovenian art landscape, starting with a quick overview of the 1990s: the Slovenian art system, (its) internationalization, the Škuc Gallery, and the way it operates. In the second chapter, I will explore Podnar’s history as a curator, artistic director, and gallerist. I was also interested in the particulars of his curatorship, and will therefore discuss the artistic practices (five exhibitions) to which he paid particular attention in that period, and how they differ from those of today poetics that are relevant to him.
The 1990s and Škuc Gallery
The Slovenian art system in the 1990s was strong. It consisted of a broad network of national and regional museums and galleries. The period was marked by a rapid growth of non-governmental organizations, such as Gallery Kapelica (Ljubljana, 1995), Gallery Alkatraz (Ljubljana, 1996–7), KID Kibla (Maribor, 1997), Gallery P74 (Ljubljana, 1997), with the Center for Contemporary Arts (SCCA, 1993) being one of the most important because of the financial support to the NGO art sector. The Academy of Fine Arts and Design (ALUO) in Ljubljana, established in 1945, played a vital role in educating artists. The Slovenian art scene of the 1990s was well covered in the media, with numerous magazines and newspapers dedicated to the arts; to name but a few: M’ARS, Likovne besede, Razgledi, Sinteza, M’zin and Maska.
Due to a growing interest and a general popularization of fine art, we can trace an everlasting growth of symbolic as well as market value of the art produced. One of the reasons for that were international art fairs and biennales. In the Slovenian art field, we can track the embracing of internationalization which started with Yugoslavia entering the Venice Biennial in the 1950s. The establishment of the Ljubljana Biennial of Graphic Art (1955, Ljubljana) can also be seen as a wish to set the city of Ljubljana (and the former country) on the international map of graphic endeavor. In the 1990s, efforts to increase international involvement intensified again with the Triennial of Contemporary (Slovene) Art (1993, Modern gallery) and big projects like Urbanaria (1994–1997, SCCA-Ljubljana). One of the indicators that Ljubljana was actually one of the European art centers of the last decade of the 20th century was the decision to have the Slovenian capital host Manifesta 3 (2000, Cankarjev dom).
Škuc Gallery was established in 1978 as part of the Student Cultural-Art Centre (ŠKUC) located in Ljubljana. From its early days, the gallery functioned not only as an exhibition space but hosted cultural events, concerts, public seminars, press conferences, and dealt with publishing. The development of Škuc Gallery resonated and was established as a response to the mass student protests at the end of the 1970s in Yugoslavia. The gallery’s activity served as a counterpoint to the predominant exhibition politics of national institutions. In the 1980s, Škuc came to life as a space of the alternative scene, where multimedia projects and conceptual art incorporating movement were exhibited and seen. At the turn of the 1990s, a process of professionalization started with new management techniques like implementing exhibition cycles of the annual programme and finally, in 2001, with the introduction of marketing activities by Gregor Podnar.
Podnar as curator
Gregor Podnar was born in Kranj, Slovenia, in 1970. Shortly after, his family moved to Germany where his father, a doctor, was offered a job. Podnar completed his undergraduate studies in art history, cultural anthropology, and Eastern European history at the University of Cologne. In 1993, he started working at the Škuc Gallery. Two years later he took over as the artistic director of the gallery. Along with introducing the representation of (Slovenian) artists at international art fairs, Podnar as artistic director strived to strengthen the foundations of the Slovenian art system and endeavored to effect its internationalization.
Podnar’s curatorial path could be divided into three periods: beginnings (1996–97), mature period (1998–99) and from 1999 onward. His curatorial beginnings could be summarized as still somewhat safe or linked either to (internationally) established artists (Res Ingold, Kapriola, 13.9–11.10.1996) or to artists within the “boundaries of a particular medium” (Boštjan Novak, Sculptures and Drawings, 5–31.3.1996). The three exhibitions in 1998, which will be discussed in the following chapter, show that Podnar’s curatorial skills have developed significantly. In this “mature” curatorial period, he is actively engaged in the international environment of artists and art currents. He brings to Ljubljana internationally acclaimed artists such as Raimond Chaves, Olaf Nicolai, Goran Petercol, Res Ingold, Mika Watanabe. By exhibiting Maja Licul, Janja Žvegelj, Apolonija Šušteršič, Nika Špan, Marjetica Potrč, Rene Rusjan and other locally active artists, Podnar developed into a producer, co-creator, and supporter of new tendencies in Slovenian art. The term most often used for them was “art in the social space.” Today, these academic and theory-driven artistic practices in the Slovenian art scene are most often referred to as relational or participatory. Examples of these are discussed in the section Exhibition Reviews. As a versatile active protagonist, Podnar was also involved in the national sphere in editing, pedagogy, and public (media) discourse.
In 2000 and 2001, Škuc Gallery under Podnar’s leadership exhibited international artists Olafur Eliasson, Attila Csörgő, Nebojsa Šerić – Šoba etc. Podnar’s ambitions to integrate into the wider European context began to develop more markedly in the late 1990s and the early years of the new millennium. He curated the Triennial of Contemporary (Slovenian) Art U3 Vulgata (Modern gallery, 2000), co-curated the Information / Misinformation project (24th International Graphic Biennial, 2001) and co-curated the September Horse exhibition (Künstlerhaus Bethanien, Berlin, 2002). He ambitiously devised Middle South East Projects (MSE, 2000–2001) as a reaction, counterpoint, and critical response to the contemporary “nomadic” biennial, Manifesta 3 (2000, Cankarjev dom). MSE was created as an inter-gallery collaboration between Škuc and partners from Budapest, Graz, Sarajevo, Zagreb, and Bologna. In addition to about 20 exhibitions of foreign and local artists, MSE included lectures and workshops.
The Gregor Podnar Gallery officially opened on March 6, 2004, with a retrospective exhibition of most of the fair-gallery program Venture – Tvegani poskus. Taking part were Attila Csörgő (1965), Vadim Fiškin, Alexander Gutke (1971), IRWIN, Magnus Larsson (1972), Yurij Leiderman (1963), Kazimir Malevich (1879–1935), Goran Petercol (1949), Marjetica Potrč (1953), Tadej Pogačar (1960) and Tobias Putrih (1972). Podnar still sells works by Csörgő, Petercol, IRWIN, Putrih and Fiškin, as well as Dan Perjovisch, who also exhibited for the first time in 2004. Podnar has been presenting work of a different poetic sense in his gallery than he did in Škuc, although he began collaborating with many of the artists he still represents and exhibits today during his time doing artistic management at Škuc.
Let me spend just a little time analyzing five of Podnar’s exhibitions from the Škuc Gallery. I’ve divided them into two groups: the first being solo exhibitions and the second one group ones. For the solo exhibitions in question, an active interaction with the environment and visitors is essential –artworks and practices either extend into the space (Res Ingold, Kapriola) or transcend it into a situation or a relationship (Janja Žvegelj, Squash; Maja Licul, Posel zbližuje). Both female artists marked the 1990s in Slovenia with their practice. All three exhibitions share a performative character and a playful attitude towards art, but such a discursively oriented and formally well-executed artistic practice did not receive enough (critical) attention in Slovenia due to a general non-recognition of the artistry. The reception and complexity of the entanglement between art and life is further complicated by the reflection on the everyday, which artists tended to do in this period. The practices of the 1990s question the very boundaries between these two entities and, at the beginning of the new millennium, ask the fundamental question: what is art?
The solo exhibition of the Swiss artist Res Ingold (1954) features the work Ingold Airlines. As the name suggests, Ingold Airlines is a fictitious airline through which the artist deals with the question of the simulacrum, a virtual reality that, despite its fictitiousness, has a life of its own. In order to make the virtual as real as possible, Ingold has even produced products and services that every “real” airline has. An important part of the exhibition was the ceremonial arrival of the CEO of Ingold Airlines at the airport, where the opening speech was given by the Commercial Director of Aerodrom Ljubljana, and the press conference, which received considerable media coverage. Ingold is indeed not the first person in Slovenia to deal with the simulacrum of the institution. In response to the institutionalization of the state of the Republic of Slovenia, the nation and art, Tadej Pogačar founded the P.A.R.A.S.I.T.E. Museum of Contemporary Art (1990), which has no space of its own but parasitically inhabits gallery and museum spaces where it exhibits. Alenka Pirman was also interested in the contradictory links between art and institution: she founded the SK8 Museum (1991–93), dedicated to a specific community, the Research Institute for Geo-Art Statistics of the Republic of Slovenia (1997) with Vuk Ćosić and Irena Wölle, and the Institute for Domestic Research (1994–98). The most internationally acclaimed project was created by the Slovenian collective Neue Slowenische Kunst (NSK) in 1992: the NSK State, a fictitious state that operates on a global level and, like Ingold Airlines, produces products such as passports to lend a sense of legitimacy to its existence.
Janja Žvegelj (1967), a graduate sculptor from the Academy of Fine Arts of the University of Ljubljana, exhibited her work Atelje at the Kapelica Gallery and Turist at the Tolmin Library before her solo exhibition Squash at the Škuc Gallery. At Škuc, the central space was occupied by a squash court and stands for spectators. The tournament, actually a game between the artist Janja Žvegelj and the curator Gregor Podnar, started on the opening evening with a speech by the curator and theoretician Igor Zabel. For the five days the exhibition was open, Žvegelj and Podnar played games of squash live in front of the gallery visitors. Zabel’s opening speech (in addition to the catalogue, the accompanying text, leaflet, etc.) contributed significantly to strengthening the institutional framework that was necessary for Squash. The squash court created a replica (mimesis) of a real court, while at the same time drew attention to the roles of the protagonists in professional life; the artist, the gallery curator, and the critic-interpreter. Janja Žvegelj thus played with the relationships between artist-curator, artist-institution, visitor-exhibition through a sporting contest. By giving herself and the curator an “equal” role or position, she reflected on the meaning of a profession that was only just coming to be established in Slovenia at that time. In my conversation with Janja Žvegelj, the artist emphasizes that Squash developed intuitively and spontaneously, in constant dialogue with Podnar, who supported her ideas, built on them, skillfully applied the theoretical knowledge in practice (the formative text) and helped her to formally clarify the artwork. Podnar’s decision to give visitors the same amount of space with the grandstand as the playground used by the artist can be read as a clear understanding of the importance of the relation between the public and the artist.
Maja Licul (1970) completed her studies in painting at the Academy of Fine Arts in Ljubljana. In her artistic practice she has been concerned with her own identity (who I am and what I do as an artist), her artistic mission (why I do what I do) and the medium within which she works. For her solo exhibition at Škuc Gallery, the artist started from the observation that Škuc is extremely well situated within Ljubljana, and therefore suitable for marketing. She used the newspaper as a means of communication with the corporate world, publishing an advertisement. She invited 12 Slovenian companies to participate, which presented their activities for the 5 days the exhibition was open. In my conversation with Licul, she identifies Podnar as the one who made such artistic practices possible and gave them a production platform and contextual basis, as he understood exactly where artists were drawing from and what they were addressing. The use of alternative spaces as exhibition spaces for complete, independent works of art is a practice that was re-established and highly popularized in Ljubljana in the early 1990s. Licul reversed it by bringing non-artistic activity into the gallery space. Such and similar exhibitions (e.g. Squash) were not often well received by the general (Slovenian) public; few understood and supported participatory art. While we did see some changes in the field of art and the art system in the 1990s, the protagonists of the previous decades (artists, theoreticians, critics, etc.) were still active and their attitude towards the new art movements, especially relational and participatory art practices, was quite critical. I mention this thesis because Squash and Posel zbližuje are examples of relational aesthetics and participatory practice, respectively, which are also retrograded by national art history and theory.
Next, we look at two group exhibitions: Case Study: Home (1998) and Okus po mestu (1999). Both deal with social, everyday themes, but each in its way – the first with the spatial and social context in which the exhibited works are embedded. It also turns out that it wants to establish relationships with the environment and society in which it is involved (so it is comparable to the practice of Maja Licul and Janja Žvegelj). The second one deals with research and experimental approaches in the city (especially Ljubljana) and the individual’s role in it, as well as the individual’s attitude towards the city.
Apolonija Šušteršič (1965) is an architect by profession. She also completed her doctoral studies in contemporary art in Sweden. Her artistic practice is very much concerned with space, its history, and the social and cultural context in which it is embedded. In Case Study: Home Šušteršič was interested in new forms of living (the cohabitation of fourteen girls), which are no longer suited to the norms of architecture built in different times and for a different type of community (families).And it was this different “normality”, in which she lived for a time, that she wanted to comment on through architecture and the form of the exhibition. The latter was set up as an “apartment” with a kitchen, dining room, living room, bedroom, and office. In the resulting “model of residential culture (or architecture), the artist-curator (Šušteršič) has incorporated objects (artworks) that she has solicited and received from her former roommates”. The works were therefore already conceived before the exhibition itself, and/or executed during her period of cohabitation in Amsterdam. Through the prism of the experience of living together, the exhibition explored the characteristics of everyday life situations, interpersonal relationships, community, and the role of the individual within it. In an effort to actively engage in dialogue with the city of Ljubljana and its inhabitants the exhibition was accompanied by a varied public programme. Although Šušteršič and Podnar curated the exhibition Case Study: Home together, Podnar said in our conversation that it was primarily a project by Šušteršič. The two curators worked in dialogue, Podnar invited her, understood her intentions, and provided financial support.
The research and experimental project Okus po mestu included lectures, a public workshop, and two group exhibitions: one at Škuc Gallery and the other at P74 Gallery. The curators Gregor Podnar, Igor Zabel (Modern Gallery) and Tadej Pogačar (P74 Gallery) gave the 14 selected artists and ethnologists (Vesna Moličnik, Dejan Habicht, Tanja Lažetić, Sašo Vrabič, Tadej Pogačar, Rene Rusjan, Marjetica Potrč, Naško Križnar) the following starting point: “Take Ljubljana or any other suitable city – orient yourself in it – take one aspect or part that seems the most promising to you – explore it – document your research – do something with this documentation – present it.” The creative-research process started in early 1999 with lectures and meetings, in which, in addition to visual artists, researchers from the field of anthropological and sociological sciences took part, as visual anthropology was supposed to have a similarly elusive character as contemporary art. The project was born as a response to the increasingly pronounced tendency of contemporary national art production towards social science and research methods.
As the artistic director of the Škuc Gallery, Gregor Podnar is, on the one hand, a typical example of a curator of the time, and on the other hand, a unique one since his view of local art events is quite different from that of his contemporaries. This difference can be attributed not only to his training, living, and working in an international environment but also to personal qualities such as openness to dialogue, breadth, curiosity, insight, and an understanding of contemporary artistic tendencies. His practice at Škuc Gallery is characterized by an open dialogue with artists, which is confirmed in theory by, among other things, the conversations with (some of) the mentioned artists and Podnar himself, and in practice by well-executed projects. His broad outlook and good theoretical knowledge have not only enabled but also justified many of them in their artistic practice. He not only analyzed the art scene in Slovenia but also generated it through the support, production, and selection of artists. He boldly created artistic trends (not just followed them), stood behind them clearly and firmly, and expressed them publicly verbally and in writing. With such a rich history of curating and working within the various areas of the art field, there is no second guessing the success of the Gallery Gregor Podnar.