Art in Action

And then, just when you're most annoyed at someone, they come up with something that makes you stare at them open-mouthed with admiration. Through a barely-marked door in the Slovak National Gallery (they've got the Durer rhino and not much else of note), we cross into a four-floor annex given over to an exhibition on Slovak Action Art.

Denied permission to exhibit and shadowed at every turn by the secret police, a generation of Czech and Slovak artists adapted their art to the conditions of their existence, and the results -- Fluxus' dark Iron Curtain cousins -- are frequently breathtaking.

Jana Zelibska's "Betrothal of Spring," symbolically marrying its participants to the season of rebirth, sounds innocent enough. Until, that is, you compare it with Petr Stembera's attempt to graft a living twig to his arm: despite his exacting attempts to follow proper arboricultural procedures, the twig died. Beneath the expressionless veneer of these happenings lay a despairing scream.

One artist stuffed a copy of Pravda into his mouth, then went to his friends' doors and stood there, unable to talk or even to close his mouth -- after all, it was filled with "truth". Another led discussions in a white shirt bearing a slowly spreading red stain. And another meticulously documented his role-playing "performance" in a national parade, taking himself seriously until he reached the point at which no one could.

That's the joke, of course. This was a country whose leaders have took seriously every grandiose claim made on Art's behalf, to the point of calling out the secret police to make sure it never carried through on those claims. It fell to the artists themselves to frustrate easy meanings; cynical absurdity became a weapon of the powerless.