The authors of ‘Central and Eastern European Art Since 1950’ highlight the important work of Oto Hudec, a Slovakian multi-media artist who explores climate migration and the frightening effects of globalization on the environment.
By Maja and Reuben Fowkes
A pair of giant turtles carrying clay models of houses on their backs were suspended in the gallery space for Slovak artist Oto Hudec’s Archipelago exhibition at the Bratislava House of Arts in 2017. They formed the striking centrepiece of a show that brought together two years of artistic engagement with the inhabitants of a village in the Cabo Verde islands and migrants from the former Portuguese colony living in the Cova da Moura neighbourhood of Lisbon. Working with these geographically remote but culturally connected communities through ceramic workshops, photography and documentary film, the artist uncovered the entanglements of home and migration, legacies of colonial exploitation and Anthropocene tales of drought, failed harvests and rising ecological anxiety. The hanging sculptures recall the non-Western and indigenous mytheme of the World Turtle that supports the living world and the oceanic migrations undertaken by an allegedly sedentary species.
The impact of climate change on local communities and the ecosystems on which they depend is a recurrent motif in the work of this Central European artist with a planetary perspective on ecological and social justice issues. Considering the connection between desertification and the exodus of climate refugees, his installation Long, Long Road made visible the pressure points between areas of relative prosperity in the West and migratory flows from the global South at strategic border crossings. Fragile figures made from cotton and wood are filmed crossing deserts, seas and the physical obstacles of anti-migrant defences in their flight from war and global warming. His model of a desert checkpoint is reminiscent of anti-migrant barriers between Mexico and the United States, but also the razor-wire fences that guard European borders against the unauthorised movement of people.
Hudec approached issues of migration and climate change from another direction in Nor Tortoise Shell nor Blades of Grass (2014), a meditative work that grew out of a five-month residency in Seoul, South Korea. Wishing to experience and connect with a distant Eastern culture and yet conscious of the limits to familiarity gained from a temporary stay, the artist took long strolls and bicycle rides to find subjects for plein air paintings. Rather than buildings or people, he chose to represent the particularities of place by depicting individual trees he encountered in the city, recording stories and observations on the reverse of the canvas. In his exhibition the paintings were installed like books in a library for perusal and learning, alongside a video documenting cross-cultural encounters with curious onlookers. The enigmatic title refers to an ancient Taoist story in which a prophet, on being asked for guidance on the right way of living, answers that there are some questions that neither ‘tortoise shell nor blade of grass can answer.’ Hudec’s work demonstrates just such an attentive approach, sharing with many other environmentally attuned artists an awareness of the need to consider the impact of individual and collective actions on the natural environment and vulnerable communities during unpredictable ecological times.