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Roman Ondak, The Source of Art is in the Life of a People

Solo exhibition
29 SEPT 2016 - 6 JAN 2017

For his first solo show in London for more than a decade, internationally acclaimed artist Roman Ondak presents an exhibition lasting one hundred days that brings together a new body of work exploring ideas around the passage of time and the intertwining of present and past. Symbolising a period of one hundred years, on each day of the show a pre-sawn disk is separated from the trunk of an oak tree to reveal the delineation in ink of one of its age-defining rings and a key historical event which occurred in that year which has been stamped onto the wood in ink. The artist’s inevitably subjective selection of events to highlight exposes the impossibility of an objective, unbiased history, as well as the impact of the teaching on our understanding and interpretation of the past.

Gradually evolving over the course of the show as the oak tree is incrementally transferred from floor to wall, this central sculpture creates a notional calendar, setting the tone for other works in which the historic collides with the contemporary. High up on the gallery walls, illustrations from pages of Teaching the Language, a 1960s children’s text book issuing instructions on social codes of behaviour which Ondak found in a second-hand bookshop, are reproduced on a huge scale. They create a backdrop for scores of 12-18 year old adolescents living locally to the South London Gallery to daub them with comments and drawings, given free reign to express whatever they choose to in the public arena of the gallery space. Another work is comprised of four salvaged blackboards from Ondak’s native Slovakia, injecting a hint of autobiographical content into the show, but primarily embodying the passing down of knowledge from one generation to the next. Inserted into each of the boards is the bowl of a ladle, positioned in sequence to symbolise four phases of the moon in a further reference to the passage of time.

The exhibition title, The Source of Art is in the Life of a People, is taken from the inscription on the South London Gallery’s original nineteenth century marquetry floor designed by Walter Crane. Usually hidden from public view, Ondak has uncovered the floor to reveal it to the public for the first time in many years, harnessing the coincidence of past and present which characterises all the works within it.

Roman Ondak lives and works in Bratislava and is a leading conceptual artist whose work explores patterns of behaviour and alternative social and political possibilities, often born of observations of post-communist society in his native Slovakia.


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