In one form or another, the stereotype of the “squatting Slav” has likely made its way to your social media feed over the past few years. Wearing an Adidas tracksuit, smoking cigarettes, and swilling cheap vodka or cheap beer, the loitering Slav meme is—as most memes are—perhaps best left unexplained.
But Piotr Sikora, the Polish-born curator of the exhibition “Slav Squatting and Its Discontents,” says there’s something truthful to the stereotype and something within it that Slavic people can reclaim with pride. Running at Prague’s MeetFactory until November 4, the exhibition plays with the imagery associated with Slavic life, seen through the lens of artists from the Czech Republic, Poland, Russia, and Ukraine. Sikora says that the “squatting Slav” is a meeting of Buddhist meditation and what he calls “Gopnik roughness.”
When we spoke outside of MeetFactory, just before the exhibition’s opening, he told me what that means, exactly, and how he defines the stereotype through the lens of his own experience as a kid growing up in 90s Poland.
“Squatting is very much used as a common posture in Asia, in the Far East. Wherever you go—in Thailand, in Vietnam, in Indonesia—you can see people squatting. The whole life is closer to the ground. They do not use chairs that often. They just squat. And there is something very zen about it, very meditative about it. So it's something that was brought to the Slavs, and the Slavs fetishize it and use it, appropriate it, from the east, from the Far East, from Asia, and then they turn it into something that is associated with Gopniks, with this lost generation, or lost class of people, who believed in the promises given by the communists during the social era, and then they were lost completely in the beginning of capitalism, when they could not catch up with reality. They were unable, really, to participate in the new dream, from zero to hero, make your first million. And they could not really come along with this concept.
“So from my childhood from the 90s, I remember a lot of guys, just squatting around the buildings, doing nothing, looking to kick up some fuss, and not being productive, not being part of the system. Back then it was just something that I was afraid of, some guys sitting there and not having an idea what their life should be all about. And I was really surprised to discover that after almost two decades, this Slav squatting, this posture, this term came back as a meme, as a very prominent motif in Internet culture. We took something from our pasts, from the 90s, from our culture, that was always marginal, that was always kind of not appreciated, not interesting, not sexy. Something that was more associated with street culture, with guys wearing Adidas sporting clothes, because that was the most fetishized object back then, this Adidas brand, et cetera et cetera. And wasting their life of course, drinking, not managing this party lifestyle well.
“And now it's coming back, and it's this kind of mechanism that you can see in many different subcultures. That we are taking something that we were afraid of, something that we could not appreciate, something that was associated with the lowest part of society, and we use it as our value. We turn it into our value. So now, look: We are the Gopniks here. We are the bad guys from the East coming to take your money, the walls in our houses are covered with carpets, we smoke cheap cigarettes and drink cheap vodka. This is who we are. And I felt like, wow, on one side it's kind of weird that people are getting so excited about Slav squatting; on the other side, when you look at the origins of every subculture, you can see that they were using the names they were called. From the top of my head, there was this alliance between the LGBT protesters and workers protesting in the UK in the 1970s, 1980s, and they were using words, they were saying something like, 'Workers plus fags.' They were using the word 'fag,' which is not the nicest way to call a homosexual, and using it in their favor. So, you know, appropriating names that people are calling you in order to say, 'Yeah. This is who I am, and this is my original perspective on life, the way I perceive my culture, my background,' et cetera et cetera. So that was important for me, too—[Slavs seen] through this motive, through this metaphor of Slav squatting.”
Do the artists in the show identify with the images that they're playing with and the tropes that they're playing with? Or are they making fun of them? Or is it somewhere in between?
“I think some of the artists got the irony that you can clearly say is part of the project. But some of them took it quite seriously. For instance, two girls that I have invited for the show, Ivenka Kalicka from Poland and Lenka Balounová from Czech Republic, they are working with very specific iconology. Irenka decided to work with Baba Yaga, the evil-not evil, vicious but good character of a witch who is very common for all Slav legends. She wanted to depict it somehow. She responded to it in a very straightforward, not-ironical way. Lenka was focused on an image that you can often spot on the Internet of a Slavic lady, preferably from Russia, wearing fur and taking photos with a bear. This animalistic beast next to a beautiful woman with red lipstick and full makeup, half naked. Wearing fur, but half naked. And it was kind of a force to drag her into a new discourse that would be kind of released from the conceptual way of thinking. So at the beginning, when we talked about it, she said, 'I don't want to work with the concept, I want to work with images, with the visuality, with the text, but not so much with the context, because context is so macho, conceptual art is so macho.
“So her approach was also quite serious, I would say. It was not so ironical. Because the irony is coming when you're in dealing with certain phenomenon but you're not really associating yourself with it. And of course most of us, we're not feeling linked to Gopniks or guys who would beat you up on the street. But it's not any longer about them. It's about our attitude toward them. I used to be afraid of them, and now I'm kind of like, 'It was cool what they were doing.' Or maybe not it was cool what they were doing but from nowadays perspective, we can repeat the gestures they were making and find it somehow, 'Wow, that's harsh. That's so Eastern. That's so subversive.' It doesn't have to be so ironic.”
Sikora took me into the gallery to see a couple of the pieces before the exhibition opened to the public. One of them is a full-size, lemon-yellow car blasting music into the gallery space.
“This is an art object made by Gregor Rozanski. He's an artist from Poland, and for the last couple of years, he organized these gabber techno parties in Poland, and they became extremely popular. But I think it was also, for him, a big discovery to find out that people are so nostalgic about the techno era, the frivolous kind of techno that is so different from nowadays. Down, more minimal techno music. So he used this Volkswagen Golf that in Poland was a synonym of the lower class, the aspirational lower class. To have your own car and to go every weekend for a party.”
“Slav Squatting” includes photos from “The Mad Dog Performance” by Oleg Kulik, an artist who will give a talk at MeetFactory on October 16. Sikora says that Kulik’s well-known performance also influenced the exhibition.
“You might know him because he did this one performance that became extremely popular. He's, not playing as a dog, or making believe that he's a dog—it's hard to say. He's really taking this dog persona, and he's becoming a dog. Biting people, becoming aggressive. This idea comes from the exhibition he was invited for. It was called Interpol. It took place in Stockholm. The whole concept of the show was 'Let's reunite after 1989, let's have artists from the West and the East exhibiting together. And he decided that he would do a performance where he is this Russian dog; he kind of used certain stereotypes of this barbaric person coming from the East, and he called himself Russian Dog. He was just running around. He bit a curator. And police took him from this exhibition because he bit a curator really badly.”
Polish artist Norbert Delman was working in the gallery on the day of my visit and told me about his piece in the show, a forlorn-looking sculpture of a would-be squatting Slav.
“So basically, I was trying to make the melancholy of the squatter. Because when you think about this from the position of an adult, the position that you were in when you are young a guy who is growing up in a regular Polish hood, this is kind of the sentiment of the statement that you are at that time. And the whole aesthetic of the squatter that you can see, on the wall, and represented in that car, and in every piece, is somehow so strongly in us that we don't represent it more, but we still are somehow connected with this culture. So this piece is a kind of sculpture of a squatter who is kind of in melancholy, in a romantic situation. He thinks about the past. But he is a grown man now. And you can see that he's standing on the roof of a car, which stands on broken glass, which might be considered as a kind of water. This is a kind of post-future view. But the sentiment is connected to our sentiment.”
And what is he holding?
“Well, he's holding a staff. Because in my opinion, he's a wise man now, so he's carrying this staff, and the staff is kind of a symbol of wisdom. I've put lots of attention to eyes. His eyes are made from teddy bear eyes, from second-hand stores. Then I worked on them and tried to keep them sensitive and full of emotions. Which is kind of ironic, when you think about those guys and us at that moment.”