ALEX FISHER ERIK SIKORA—A GESTURE I WILL NEVER SURPASS
Slovak interdisciplinary artist Erik Sikora is the recipient of the 2019 Oskár Čepan Award—the most prominent annual award given to a Slovak artist under the age of forty. Art historian and writer Alex Fisher visited the Čepan prize exhibition, digging deeper into the artist’s practice, which is melding and morphing notions of grounding, abundance, and accessibility on teared levels of local, regional, national, and continental. In Sikora’s work, the particular and the ubiquitous are constantly nipping at each other’s heels.
I never wanted a trampoline growing up, despite their vaunted status in suburbs up and down the United States’ Eastern Seaboard. I got my fix at my friend Jack’s house. He had one with an attached basketball hoop in his backyard. We would spend hours on it, even using it as a study spot for our middle school exams—not particularly consequential tests, but significant seeming nonetheless. I can still picture the pollen which would coat the trampoline each spring. In retrospect, I am amazed I aced the questions about the Capture of Fort Ticonderoga without succumbing to a sneezing fit. Today, my seasonal allergies are horrendous. I go outside from early March through late April and my head is full of everything except thoughts. Back then I didn’t have such allergies. The pollen hasn’t changed. I have.
Today, my degrees just returned from the framers, I’ve entered the ‘professional development’ phase. I haven’t jumped on a trampoline in years.
The Slovak interdisciplinary artist Erik Sikora still jumps on trampolines. In fact, Sikora’s professional development has been positively boosted by his jumping. Sikora, whose primary mediums are video and pseudo-readymade sculpture, is the recipient of the 2019 Oskár Čepan Award—Slovakia’s foremost prize for artists under the age of forty. In his winning work, Mimomešťan (trans. Extraterrestrial, but in terms of Out-of-City rather than Out-of-Earth), Sikora bounces, bumps, and kneels on a trampoline for almost twenty minutes while relating a roaming rural story.
In the forty-ninth second of Mimomešťan, Sikora, kitted out in an orange sweater and sea-foam green pants “on a foggy autumn day,” sets the record straight about what viewers are enrolling in, exclaiming “we are going to look at unsexy topics.” He does so while gesturing towards an image of him and his son shoveling gravel into a wheelbarrow. To go down the rabbit hole with Sikora is to roll up your sleeves and get a few grass stains.
Sikora immediately delves into a discussion of the merits of owning a trampoline—“it is an object thanks to which you will forget that you live opposite the cemetery.” He concludes that the power of the trampoline is vested in its capacity to “humanise” even the most morose or mechanised setting. If only it were that simple. Or maybe it is? Perhaps the idiom ‘he’s got his head in the clouds’ should be seen in a more positive light.
Less than a minute from making his statement of intent to immerse his audience in unsexy topics, Sikora articulates his sense of self-worth—“my enhancements are not only about naming a phenomenon, but also about fine-tuning it.” He does so with a glint in his eye while leaning towards the steady camera. In the insert, Sikora has undone one of the trampoline legs, turning it into a slide. The outcome, the trampoline-slide, “became the best hit of the summer” for his four children. Look, it’s a bird. No, it’s a plane. Or, maybe, it’s both at once. One function is fine; two is divine. What’s yours is mine. Combine, combine!
From there, Sikora’s soliloquy evolves into a reflection on rain barrels—“disgusting” aesthetically, but “cool nowadays” as they hold rainwater and help the planet. “In danger of embarrassing” himself, Sikora’s second enhancement recalls the work he made as a finalist for the 2013 Čepan competition, Floating Stones, in which he doles out feng shui in the form of stacked sculptures of aerated concrete pebbles placed in ponds, lakes, above-ground pools, etc. (These became a big hit with the turtles; Sikora’s happiest audience is not homo sapien.) Sikora pulls the Floating Stones out of Slovak art history into his yard, adding a tower to the rain barrel, making a refuge for bugs and counterbalancing the aesthetic pitfalls of the barrel. In doing so, Sikora reaches the peak of Mitteleuropa eco-kitsch.
Post-rain barrel, Sikora steps into “the world of studded membrane,” a plastic shell designed to rebuff stormwater seeking to seep into one’s basement. Such a material is “the most powerful magic” protecting the houses in Sikora’s village, Vyšný Klátov, and villages across Slovakia and beyond, including the khatas in Babyn, a loose settlement in Ukraine’s mountainous Kosiv region I am holed up in for the time being. Yet the studded membrane’s magic is black magic; it only comes in the colour black. Not one to accept such one-dimensionality, Sikora tricks out his studded membrane in the traditional Čičmany ‘x’ pattern and then with a series of question marks and exclamation points. Sikora is not pleased with his efforts, admitting that “decoration is not my know-how. My know-how is to let it [the studded membrane] closer to my body.” He proceeds to cut the material into strips, turning it into a bracelet. He orients the studs inward for a loose fit, exalting the ensuing flow of “esoteric energy” that “works even better than a red thread against a hex.” With a scissor and so few words, Sikora morphs a nondescript functional thing into a normcore talisman. Shopping at Home Depot is “how doers get more done.” JULA, Hornbach, OBI, and all the other big box home improvement stores market themselves the same. Sikora does more than follow the instruction manual.
Even if you do what you are supposed to do, the result may not be enough. The 19th century home my parents moved to in suburban Philadelphia a few years ago has miserable drainage. Every time the skies open, the basement is vulnerable. They have torn up the yard twice to shift its slope in hopes of creating a better buffer. Both attempts failed. My golf paraphernalia, my mom’s old horse riding equipment, and stacks on stacks of extra rugs and stair runners have been placed in containers or wrapped in plastic sheets. I’m just now realising that these objects we have banished below ground are suffocating in those boxes and sheets. There is no esoteric energy transfer. That which is in the boxes breathes stale air and those in the sheets are suffocating. Not so long ago, I waited hours to get Phil Mickelson to sign my Masters flag, queuing patiently at the edge of Augusta National’s short game area. The moment he did was a moment of great victory. Now, that flag is slowly dying. I don’t feel that guilty—my priorities have changed, and my loyalty to these objects has waned. But there is still an attachment, and I should move some of them upstairs where it is safer. If I can afford to make space in my closet for the extra copies of the zine about tattoo culture amongst Ivy Leaguers I helped make last year, I can definitely find a spot for a flag ordained with the signature of the best left-hander of all time, who has triumphed forty-four times on the professional golf circuit.
I digress, but this is bound to happen when writing about an artist whose work is accessible via a web stream. In outlining this essay, I rewatched Mimomešťan, pausing to screenshot timestamps of parts to return to. Each time my Macbook’s mock shutter snapped, a decision, memory, or moment zoomed into view—light bulbs flashing in a cabinet of mirrors.
Press play, and Sikora is talking about gravel. There are two types of gravel under consideration—macadam and river. The first, according to Sikora, looks like macadamia nuts (I don’t see it), and is named for the Scottish engineer who harnessed its potential. The second, soft-edged pebbles washed in the water for thousands of years, is mined in the mighty Danube—“an ancient and important river to Slovakia” which forms a natural national border blocking out “everything bad,” namely, Hungary. Unsurprisingly, Sikora chose the river gravel—three tonnes of it. He then digs a moat around his home and fills it with the gravel to create his own “eternal,” “calm,” and “secure” Danube. And “don’t worry,” he says, “the nationalistic issues are negated because Danube gravel is mined in Hungary.” The grass may be greener here, but the fertiliser is from over there.
Eternal, calm, and secure, we are eleven minutes and twenty-one seconds into Mimomešťan. Sikora locks eyes with us and says that we have reached the “most significant chapter.” He continues, “everything mentioned earlier is related to any village, but this is related to my village. Because a meteorite fell and landed in our village.”
Boom, bang, change the tempo.
The meteorite landed in the fields of Vyšný Klátov on the 28th of February anno 2010. Ten years onward, all the meteorite’s pieces are presumed found. As Sikora taps on his studded membrane bracelet, Vyšný Klátov’s meteor keepsakes flash by—an A-frame calendar, a postcard, a magnet upon which a chunk of magnet eclipses the scale of the village crest, and a plastic bag. Ever one to indulge in meta gestures, Sikora photographs each of these keepsakes against a backdrop of river gravel. Pinned beneath one too many rocks, I can’t help thinking that the chunk of meteor looks like the macadam gravel. The distance between store-bought and interstellar is peskily slim.
Vyšný Klátov received its meteor as a sign from heaven, building a monastery in its honour and organising an exquisitely symbolic public celebration. The meteor could have hit a deer, so the townsmen made deer goulash in honour of the possible killing. Folk dancers take the stage, “rotating on their axis as if the meteorite was falling.” After dusk, flame-twirlers take their place to mimic the experience of the meteor “when it was set on fire in the atmosphere.” The mayor performs the final tribute of honour, bloodying himself after falling and banging his elbow at the dance party, undergoing “the fate of the meteorite with his own body.”
At any rate, Sikora senses a responsibility to be more than a Vyšný Klátov spokesperson—he “has papers for creating art.” He is taxed at a different rate than the mayor, the historian, the postmaster, and the pub owner. He needs to earn his stripes. Knowing that a serious meteor would make a huge crater, Sikora excavates a massive crater—physically deepening the meaning of his village’s rather petite meteor. Into the crater he throws a Košice city bike, a dig at Slovakia’s second largest city, which Sikorka says stole the name of Vyšný Klátov’s meteor because a single fragment fell in the outer limits of its municipal territory.
Wait, it’s a hoax—the documentary images of the crater with the cruiser bike in its bottom are staged. Sikora apologizes, admitting he’s a “sensitive soul” who doesn’t dare do “such huge sculptural works.” Instead, he takes the conceptual route.
As with most towns in the broad post-Socialist space, Vyšný Klátov has an ethnography museum filled with folk objects. A puppet grandma and grandpa sit at a table in the vernacular home’s main room. He has his arm propped up and she is making butter while reading a prayer book. On the table is a cake on a platter in a glass shell. The meteorite is the cake. That is, a plastic copy of the meteorite is the cake—the real chunk is in the Mayor’s office.
What “more beautiful way to accept the meteorite” than to put it on your dining table and toast to it? The meteorite is the sweet at the end of the savory. What doesn’t kill you makes sweeter, and oh how sweet it is to be loved by you. Sikora surmises this is “a gesture I will never surpass,” and then he clambers off the trampoline after a final insert of him and his baby daughter jumping with the meteorite, letting it experience that “good ol’ weightlessness, which it had been experiencing up there for millions of years.”
The camera cuts and the video ends. Where was the link to buy the commemorative calendar? The postcard? The magnet? Most importantly, the plastic bag? Everyone and their mother has a tote bag from their local kunsthall, konsthall, kunsthalle, or kunsthal—they are hip, but a dime a dozen. The Vyšný Klátov plastic bag is so ordinary it’s endangered—the ultimate insiders-only status symbol. I want one so bad. It would take pride of place slung off my shoulder at openings in rotation with my mesh bag from the Town of Come By Chance.
Mimomešťan premiered in an immersive installation in ‘Ecology of Desire’, the 2019 Čepan finalist exhibition at Východoslovenská galéria (East Slovak Gallery) in Košice. While the plastic bag, the magnet, the postcard, and the calendar were not on sale in the gallery gift shop, a layer of river gravel reclined in the courtyard and many of the film’s accoutrements filled Sikora’s second-floor exhibition hall—the trampoline, the rain barrel with the floating rocks, the studded membrane, some pallets, and more. The timing was right; ‘Ecology of Desire’ ran from November through early March, when most of these items would have had to come indoors anyways. Sikora gives his garage a break and lets his lawn furniture bask in the limelight. That said, the limelight is not sunlight—it’s an LED. The museum is temperature controlled and secured, but sterile. If you jumped on the trampoline-cum-slide, you’d hit your head on the roof and wouldn’t have the soft earth to cushion your fall.
The Východoslovenská installation shows Mimomešťan in storage in the off-season. On the internet, there is neither a roof nor an off-season. This is where Sikora roosts.
Online, Sikora goes by the nom de guerre Džumelec—a mashup of the preposition ‘dž’, a colloquial sound figuring prominently in the East Slovak dialect, and ‘umelec,’ Slovak for artist. Sikora the Džumelec has been active since 2007, with YouTube as his primary platform. He has been viral from the outset, with one of his first videos racking up over ninety-one thousand views. To date, he has published one hundred and fifty-two videos addressing all manner of subjects. The bounds between videos are porous at best, and that is to our benefit. Autoplay feeds you the next film and then the next and the next—cumulative, viral visions of two-by-four drones and paper rabbits rambling through the Carpathian foothills.
Already in 2014, the Slovak art historian and curator Mira Keratová described Sikora’s “tool of research” to be “creativity as a spontaneous situational activity that frees imagination of its inveterate habits and rules, allows an authentic being, and, potentially, can fire off the famous social bomb.” This notion of liberating imagination from routine is especially intriguing in the framework of a national competition.
As of April 15th, Mimomešťan, which won Sikora the Oskár Čepan Award, has eight hundred and forty-six views on Džumelec. Cipana Čepana, Sikora’s meta-commentary on the Oskár Čepan candidates and competition has eight thousand five hundred and five.
Cipana Čepana (approx. trans. OMG Čepan) is a backstage ballad buoyed by airBaltic. With a rainbow at his back, Sikora jives in a hi-vis orange jacket on the Estonian coast, hyping the Čepan show in Slovak. The chorus “Come with us to the unknown” is bookended by exaltations of camaraderie and notes of encouragement. Throwing his hands in the air, Sikora sings:
“Hooray, I am a nominee.
As one out of five,
and all five of us became friends.
And when you choose me,
it is worth it
’cause I found something in myself from each of those five.”
He goes on to address each nominee by name. Bread figures prominently in Dávid Koronczi’s entry; Sikora once made impressions of a roll of sourdough. Like Jan Durina, Sikora embroiders, knocking down “stereotypes by boyish sewing.” Gabriela Zigova is interested in the subway; the drainage moat Sikora filled with gravel from the Danube is the rain’s metro. Milan Mazúr does site-specific video essays; Sikora and Vyšný Klátov are steeped in each other’s mythology.
Though stopping shy of identifying with their intent, Sikora acknowledges that he sees himself in his peers. In the closing verse, he admits each of them has a leg-up on him:
“And if I don’t win, so I don’t win
I’m not snooty, I admit it
’cause each of them has a tattoo somewhere
And I don’t have it anywhere.”
(Note: Cipana Čepana’s verses rhyme in the original Slovak; translation does not do Sikora’s hypnotic lyricism justice.)
As we now know, Sikora’s lack of tattoo did not disqualify him from the top prize. Hooray that stick-and-pokes did not rule the day. I kid, but he kids too. Cipana Čepana is seriously not serious. Then somewhere around the thousand subscriber mark ‘not serious’ becomes serious, becomes beguiling, becomes that thing you send to your friend and say “you’ve got to watch this.” Sikora thus redistributes the substance of the Oskár Čepan Award. Significance streams into comment sections and laptop screens.
As the Džumelec, Sikora morphs between taker and teacher, person and persona. In essence, he becomes a pacifist e-populist—empowered to articulate village identity, regional identity, and national identity.
He addresses the latter in the August 2018 film Trojkopčekové srdce Európy (trans. Three-peaked heart of Europe).
Trojkopčekové srdce Európy represents an attempt to change “the image of Slovakia” through a reinterpretation of the symbols which define it, namely the country’s coat of arms—a white double cress poised atop the tallest of three peaks piercing a red sky.
Sikora addresses the tricolor coat of arms from the front of a mustard yellow classroom. The camera is situated close to the ground, beneath the seated sightline. Framed by the backs of desks, Sikora appears at the whiteboard akin to how James Bond appears at the end of a scope in the opening credits of each Bond film. We see Sikora through tunnel vision. He’s fixed. When he starts speaking, we become transfixed.
Sikora starts his lesson with the double cross. A single cross is “an ordinary instrument of torture” for “an ordinary saviour.” (Sikora is no master draftsman… his saviour is a stick figure.) Slovakia’s double cross is an “instrument of torture plus”—the supersized version of the single cross. “Torture plus” implies “saviour plus.” The implication: what Slovakia lacks in size, it makes up in sacrifice.
Alas, the details of the sacral connotations are illusive and contentious. Sikora does not linger on them, prioritising the soil and stone instead. Namely, he focuses on the three hillocks, making a deft comparison with Milton Glaser’s iconic “I love NY” logo. Sikora adds a third ridge to the heart and swaps the abbreviation for New York City with the two-letter abbreviation for Slovakia—SK. “The heart of Slovak is large,” he says. Somewhere in the distance the printers whirr to life, filling the souvenir shelves with three-hillock “I love SK” shirts. And somewhere in Switzerland the VETEMENTS team is taking those souvenir shirts, stretching them to XXXL, strutting them down the runway, and selling them for three hundred and fifty euros.
I haven’t seen romance convalesce with nationhood in a long time. For me, nationhood has been tied to a superiority complex, an ‘insecure alpha’ complex, or a Neo-imperial complex. I’m thinking about my old neighbour who used to strut around shirtless holding the Gadsden flag in one hand and a shotgun in the other. (This guy once left a note in our mailbox threatening action if our dog kept barking early in the morning. We did not have a dog.)
I’m also thinking about the situation in Ukraine, where I have been living for the last year. The Ukrainian coat of arms, the Tryzub (Trident), was recently included in the official British Extremism Guide, albeit accidentally. The Tryzub was made out to be a medieval devotional to the Holy Trinity. Today, its manifestations are morally befuddling, especially its use in the logo of the Svoboda party, which emerged out of the Social-National Party, whose logo was the Wolfsangel.
And I’m thinking about the mug I drank Turkish coffee out of on a studio visit in Moscow last fall. The mug was covered with the crests of Russia’s oblasts. Three of the crests did not fit on the outside, so they appeared in the mugs interior, initially obfuscated by the coffee. As I drank, they announced themselves. Omsk! Irkutsk! Magadan! Bizarre design decision aside, the mug appeared a startling metaphor for the Russian Federation’s expansionist ambitions. The surface appears full. Then you realise that there is a whole other surface primed to be filled. This second surface, just caffeinated, is white hot and animated. The Russian Federation is no sleeping bear.
Bucolic love triumphs in Sikora’s Slovakia. He frames the three hillocks, and draws a radiant sunset falling between the second and third. Following the preschool art class playbook, silhouetted ‘m’ birds start filling the sky overhead. What type of bird are they? Eagles, of course—a “classical symbol […] that everybody has.” Slovakia’s eagle is no ordinary eagle; “if an eagle develops in this beautiful three-hillock country, then logically he will mature [at] the stage of a three-hillock eagle.” The Slovak eagle is “eagle plus.”
Is this enough to persuade you of Slovakia’s charm? No? Well, there’s more. “The most of more is infinity.” The “reclining eight” is Sikora’s next thesis point—
“Every child knows that one reclining eight is good
But two reclining eights are more,
A thousand reclining eights is more again,
And the most most most is
A reclining eight of reclining eights.”
The “reclining eight of reclining eights” is “an infinity of infinities.” An infinity of infinities is a three-hillock infinity. A three-hillock infinity is “infinity plus.”
“Saviour plus.” “Heart plus.” “Eagle plus.” “Infinity plus.” Stir all the ingredients together—“Slovakia plus.”
‘Plus’ is the source of Slovakia’s strength, yet Sikora recognises that, on the level of chemistry, the link between ‘plus’ and the three hillocks could actually be a cause for concern.
As outlined in the Slovak chemical dictionary, heart, or srdce, combined with the suffix for three, -itý, becomes srditý. Srditý is associated with adjectives like “tetchy” and “irate”—not exactly aspirational character traits. Indeed, the dictionary, an authority in and of itself, suggests that two is better than three; heart combined with the suffix for two, -natý, becomes srdnatý. Srdnatý is defined as “bold and courageous.” And there is no question that a courageous nation is more enviable than an irritable one.
How to turn the “sour-hearted” srditý nation into the “stout-hearted” srdnatý nation? In other words, how do Slovaks shed the burden of the third hillock? The answer—it already happened. Each hillock represents a different mountain range—the Tatra, Fatra, and Matra. The Tatra and Fatra ranges are within Slovakia’s present-day borders. Matra is now in Hungarian territory. Sikora asserts the potency of this “noble gesture,” saying that, in so doing, Slovakia has “managed to develop a character which is not sour-hearted, but rather stout-hearted.” The best present is a gift, or whatever sappy saying is on the Hallmark Channel nowadays.
Moral of the story—‘Slovakia plus’ is the “three-pointed heart of Europe” because it doesn’t hoard the view from the mountaintop.
Sikora stamps our passport and guides us to the summit. We snap some pictures, enjoy a picnic, and come to the realization that we don’t know where the trail goes from here.
Are we descending? Or is there still a higher ground?
To find out, we let the next video play.
Erik Sikora is currently included in the group show Machciník, Sikora, Sirka / Doktori at Východoslovenská galéria’s Alžbetina 22 location, which runs through August 30th. He will be the subject of an institutional solo exhibition in Bratislava towards the end of 2020 or beginning of 2021. He posts regularly on his YouTube.
Alex Fisher is an art historian, writer, and curator from Buffalo, New York based in Kyiv, Ukraine, where he is researching developments in the country’s contemporary art community as a Fulbright Scholar affiliated with IZOLYATSIA and Mystetskyi Arsenal.
Special thanks to Nikolas Bernáth for research assistance.
Film stills: Courtesy Erik Sikora
Installation images: Courtesy Erik Sikora and Oskár Čepan Award