Michal BarOr, Looters, 2018, ink-jet prints, MDF, acrylic, wood, clay jars. From the Biennale Matter of Art, 2022.

Michal BarOr, Looters, 2018, ink-jet prints, MDF, acrylic, wood, clay jars. From the Biennale Matter of Art, 2022.

Biennale Matter of Art

Various Venues

In “Disease as an Aesthetic Project,” Alina Popa’s final essay before her untimely death in 2019, the Romanian artist reflects on her experience of terminal illness. Where many would steel themselves against the pains of sickness, Popa leaned into her vulnerability and the contradictions of her condition. “I despair. I refuse to live in fear. I want the thing to disappear, to stop harassing me. I have no break from it. I have no break from me,” she writes. The second edition of Biennale Matter of Art similarly centered on a desire to nourish vulnerability amid violence. Organized by, a decentralized collective of arts organizations operating across Eastern Europe, the biennial also served as a capsule retrospective of Popa’s oeuvre.

Popa’s video works and documentation of her performances appeared in two of Matter of Art’s three locations. A disused wing of a local hospital housed two performances—The Grounds are Gone and I am Hanging from this Sentence and Point Pet, both 2015—that are, as Popa said, “unperformable” and that examine the means by which systems of language and vision impede spontaneity. Additional works at Prague City Gallery, the biennial’s main site, documented Popa’s best-known performances, including Heal the Line, 2018, in which a mark equal to Popa’s height was drawn on the gallery floor and visitors were invited to heal it with their touch. In the wake of both Popa’s death and several successive global traumas, Heal the Line defended the therapeutic value of human contact.

The exhibition’s emphasis on softness stood in direct opposition to a certain post-Communist image of Eastern Europe as an impenetrable yet fragile shell. Robert Gabris and L’uboš Kotlár’s Vytvaruj Spoj Rozpust Zamichej Odděl Špetku CUKRU Opakuj recept proti rasismu (Mold Mix Melt Stir Break Pinch SUGAR Repeat Recipe Against Racism), 2022, a large installation of hanging fists cast in molten sugar, referenced the Black Panthers’ sign of solidarity as well as the sexual practice of fisting. Under the greenhouse-like glass ceiling of the former studio of Czech sculptor Ladislav Šaloun, the brittle casts stretched and cracked, transforming the clenched hands into drooping disfigured appendages. The duo, former members of a collective of queer Roma artists, are acutely aware of the precarity of their existence—a manifesto scrawled in pencil on the back wall read: SO IS A SAFE SPACE DANGEROUS SPACE WHERE YOU HAVE TO GIVE UP EVERYTHING YOU HAVE?

Many of the works in the biennial took a historiographic approach to the region’s engagement with colonialism and its existence on the periphery of former empires. The APART collective’s docufiction about logging in a Slovakian village, Cambium 1492, 2022, traced the usage of the area’s uniquely hard wood to its colonial origins in the hulls of trade ships embarking for the New World. Vincent Rumahloine’s film and mixed-media installation Don’t Call Me Hero, 2019, was one of many works that engaged the region’s Communist past, as the work performed an archaeological exhumation of the Eastern Bloc’s history. The documentary investigation into the relationship between two peripheries, as seen through the perspective of Indonesian dissident Soegeng Soejono, who settled in Czechoslovakia in 1971 after his home country became a site of mass killings, which included an anti-Communist purge in 1965–66, is a reminder of the often forgotten relationship between Southeast Asia and Eastern Europe.

Other works focused more on storytelling and myth. Bira Šimková’s depressing suburban fairy tale of a single parent (umnelkine) and Sina Seifee’s Relaxing Horror Tales for Children and Adults, both 2022, attended to the process by which folklore feeds into national mythologies. Michal BarOr’s installation Looters, 2018, documented a trove of stolen vases, which the artist had placed on pedestals in front of government photos of looters caught in the act. The bright flash from the camera washes over the dark caves, stunning the plunderers and revealing the vulnerability of their position. The work interrogates the significance of archaeology in Israel’s founding mythos, as well as the state’s authority to police these sites. Mirroring Popa’s ruminations on illness, BarOr and other artists in the biennial steer clear of militancy, choosing to counter hard power and the domineering forces of national narrative with an attention to the soft spots within.