Josef Dabernig, PLURAL: Joint Observation
Curator: Daniel Grúň
Opening: 22. October 2020, 1 p.m. – 8 p.m.
Duration: 22. 10. 2020 – 15. 1. 2021
The Július Koller Society, Bratislava
Derelict benches, dismantled playgrounds, defunct diners, sad parking lots, deserted terraces, filthy snow, and water stains on the tower blocks – the grim beauty of socialist reality now long gone, the stereotypical look of the former Eastern Bloc faded away like a mirage. Observation of the urban landscape can easily turn into projection of imagined scenery, and the Petržalka housing estate is transformed into a stage for a phantom play – phantoms of the East and the West, of the past and the future, dancing side by side. Did the (never realized) structure of common public space disappear along with the suppressed socialist dream? What kind of mark did the urban utopia of Petržalka leave on the society and how much of it remains today?
The exhibition focuses on the architecture and urbanism of Petržalka, one of Central Europe’s largest housing estates, and the changes it went through over the course of time. The exhibition presents the architecture as an object to be observed by means of documentation media – film and photography. The result of such observation is not a record of a certain status but rather a configuration of the playing field, an initiation of possible choreographies and mental operations. The exhibition project is realized in cooperation with visual artist and filmmaker Josef Dabernig and architectural design studio PLURAL. Josef Dabernig presents his photographs taken shortly after the fall of the iron curtain, as the border with the neighboring Austria opened. PLURAL analyze the pedestrian zone of Petržalka’s terraces and deal with the process of their continuity and function as a site-specific form of public space.
The point of departure for Dabernig’s interest in the prefabricated housing estate of Petržalka with its systematic modular layout is the modernist grid. In the 1990s, the artist produced sculptures made from prefabricated aluminum structures which he juxtaposed with the neutral space of galleries. He placed them within the spaces and on the walls of galleries to demonstrate an emptiness precisely organized, wherein each movement takes place in adherence to pre–defined structures. Skate Place Panorama (1999) introduces the exhibition and establishes the situation of a game, the leitmotiv of the exhibition. The work is related to a cycle of panoramic views of sports grounds and stadiums from around the world, wherein the author captures the apparent stillness and monotonousness of the repeated spatial design. Observation transplanted into a ritual of sequential recording of a place allows the “different” to stand out from the “same” – the unique character of a site with its deviations and nuances, within the scope pre-defined by the architecture intended for a certain type of collective behavior and culture of sport.
Josef Daberning further presents three photographic series created during several visits to the city. Luna Park (1990) is a series of four framed large format photographs; it involves snapshots from a family outing. Luna Park resembles a sequence of stills from a movie. The rapid movement of a roller coaster ride is a stage for action the course of which is pre-determined by the rotating mechanism. The ecstatic moment with the joy of foreign visitors matches the site’s choreography well, blends in perfectly. The frame in this case functions not only as the frame of the photographs, leaned carelessly against the wall, as if waiting to be hung. It is also an object placed in dialog with the exhibition space. The regular order of the dispositif of the aluminum frames used refers to the prefabricated system of windows in the panel tower blocks and is at the same time reminiscent of the modular structures of Dabernig’s sculptures.
The first four shots of the sixteen–photograph series Petržalka (1991) introduce the scene of the housing estate’s terraces. These form the point of contact with the second part of the exhibition, realized by the PLURAL studio. The monotonous and banal persistence of these spaces is underscored by their desolate emptiness, the only counterpoint to which is represented by the amorphous mass of snow, trodden by thousands of feet and frozen on concrete surfaces, pavements, playgrounds, lawns, and parking lots. The snow, somewhat akin to uncultivated chaos, free of any form, discipline, sense of order or purpose, is an important actor in Dabernig’s oeuvre, as pointed out by Ekaterina Degot. The remnants of snow lying on the ground are in striking contrast to the regular grid found all around. Apart from the nostalgic and currently – due to global warming – somewhat exclusive connotation of frozen snow on the roads, it can be read as a hidden sign of a Post–Soviet type of environment. The snow is also the sole witness bearing marks of human presence, the absence of which is intensely palpable in Josef’s urban images.
The second part of the exhibition was produced by the Architecture studio PLURAL (Martin Jančok and Michal Janák). They, much like Josef Dabernig, turn into observers. Their aim is to capture the ambitious urban planning vision present in the fragments of the contemporary urban landscape of the Petržalka housing estate. The work was first presented at the Parallel Petrzalka (Paralelná Petržalka) exhibition in 2018 which, much like the present installation, forms a part of their long–term urban planning initiative, Projekt Bratislava. The authors focus on the organic and unrestrained development at the outer ring of the borough, which can be interpreted as a unified architectonic gesture – a circular city. In a sense, the observation of terraces forms an antithesis to A Parallel Petržalka. It abstracts from the whole of the housing estate those artifacts and situations which come closest to the progressive concepts on which its urbanism was built.
The torso of a pedestrian zone concept located on terraces of the tower slabs has been recently a frequent subject of public discussions, mainly due to their state of acute disrepair and their unclear ownership status. The terraces, elevated above the level of the surrounding terrain and connected to the residential parts and public utilities, were intended to serve as an alternative to traditional streets, complete with services, shops, libraries, clubs, and health care facilities. For various reasons, the original concept of Petržalka was revised and its final form abandoned the idea of a more complex and thorough traffic separation. Much like with Bratislava’s other projects of late modernism, such as the Slovak Radio Building, the terraces represent, in a sense, remnants of a categorically different approach to urban landscape and public space design.
PLURAL produced a performative video for the exhibition, captured on an iPhone attached to a hand–held stabilizer. Observation is therefore at the same time a recording realized while walking, from the point of a pedestrian, based on a pre-planned route. The route follows the pedestrian zone of Petržalka’s terraces and highlights the original concepts of continuity of the pedestrian zone as a public space of the borough. It reveals the fascinating layering of plans that emerges from the overlapping tower blocks and, in its apparent uniformity, displays diversity, individuality, character.
The video does not aim to observe Petržalka as a specific place but rather as a more general urban planning concept. Movement through individual terraces is offered within the continuum of a single film. This method creates, as it were, an impossible experience, depicts the landscape as a unified layer, but without any context – a city within a city.
The projection is accompanied by an architectonic depiction of two terrace spaces within two exhibited artifacts. A floor plan drawn on a wall complements the experience of movement through space. It objectifies it and offers a certain information background – by capturing the spatial relations and ties: those between the public space and its closest surrounding areas, or the way it is connected to the residential parts of the buildings. However, compared to the video it represents a single fragment – the aim here is not to create a catalog of the spaces. The drawing is a project of architecture, but lacking context, the network of relations. Its autonomy amplifies the impact of the video.
The third artifact on display is a book of copies. It includes the information and references gathered by the authors. These are copied on A4 format paper, without editing. Apart from information on the project itself – the UNIVEKS type – other referential projects can be seen, those both realized and those that never got past the design stage. They represent a history of prominent projects which employed not only the ideas of vertical segregation of movements, but rather also other architectonic analogies to the Petržalka project. The book therefore supports the idea of installation as a depiction of a more universal urban planning concept.
It is not by accident that this “surreal” encounter between players–observers, Josef Dabernig and PLURAL, is situated on a table tennis table. The table’s frame is not empty. The socialist urban fetish resonates in the stream of bouncing white balls hitting it from both sides. Petržalka becomes a net dividing the playing field. There are images of the past stuck in it like stills from a frozen movie, but there are also present day images of the unsupervised transformation, echoing with the sounds of steps of pedestrians, children’s laughter, humming of air conditioning units, which we can use to study entrances and exits, platforms and crossings, all the real and imaginary possibilities of communication connections behind which free, unfettered movement can be found.
From public funds supported by Slovak Arts Council.