Insectopia and other resistant bodies
a conversation between Robert Gabris, guest artist at Villa Romana in September and October 2020, and Angelika Stepken
Robert, looking at your portfolio, it is obvious that (almost) all your works are marked by a great tension between tenderness and resistance. And that is expressed in your motifs (e.g. insects and plants) as well as in your subjects and materials, for example, when you draw using your own blood.
I see myself above all as a drawer. I first worked performatively here in Florence. There came a point where I decided to draw on paper and to see that as my starting medium, my language. My conflict is that these works always appear very beautiful, so I sort of flirt with that beauty. The idea, the subject, the story acts as the antithesis to this – it often has a very brutal and uncomfortable effect on the viewer. I have been using the two months here in the Villa Romana to ask: How can I go further, become even more precise?
What do you mean by that?
More precise in rendering what I am thinking, so that it isn’t simply rendered and transmitted as beautiful.
There are early works by you in which the language, such as in the engraving, was much more expressive …
I try to find a specific tool for each thought. I am getting there, but I still have a lot that I want to try out. If you are concerned with exhibitions in this business – as all artists are, really – then you can be tempted to keep your hands on the steering wheel at all times. You try to work efficiently, so you can be secure in the notion that everything for the exhibition will then actually work. You rarely experiment. Residencies like this are great, because then you can try out something completely different – even if it fails in the end. I think my work here was so successful because I was not ever in the position of having to plan along the lines of this piece must now be exhibited five times.
You did not plan your work here, but you did arrive with small format prints of a body on paper. Then everything happened very quickly: The body prints were enlarged to life size and transferred onto lengths of white silk, the stage of working your body sculpturally, and then performatively setting it in motion ...
Yes, I arrived without a plan and just had these eight little sketches, which seemed to me far too beautiful to be able to express my rage and all my other motivations. So, I had to draw these little insects bigger and they had to be ugly. I wanted to generate a feeling of revulsion, something that you would not want to touch. So, I started to print my body on lengths of silk. When the textile prints were completed, they created a stage. That opened up new options for me. What if I were this insect? That is how I feel. Then I tried to paralyse myself. I used ropes for this and knotted myself up to the point where I could not move any more. Only then did I really feel the work and thought, yes, that is what I feel.
Immobilising yourself like a dead insect, is that an expression of resistance against fixed expectations and objectification?
It is about complete attribution and classification, the fact that we are always displayed with a label.
By we, do you mean we Roma or a general queerness? Both experiences – queerness and being Roma – are inscribed deeply in your body and motivate your artistic work.
I am always being categorised, either as queer, because there happens to be an exhibition on the subject, or as Roma, because the Roma Community needs that right now. For my future, I would wish not to be exhibited as a gay man or as Roma, but rather as a good drawer, on whatever subject. Perhaps I do not need any more justification than that?
You resist these categorisations in and through your work?
Yes, I turn down a lot of exhibitions if I think the concept is calculating. I am a bit tired of constantly having to justify my work and why it is important to talk about the problematic issues of the Roma experience.
On the other hand, these issues have only just entered into public discourse, since social exclusion, Black Lives Matter, the racist gaze and so on have begun to be spoken about.
We are the first generation of Roma artists to exhibit and have a loud voice. Our grandparents died in the Holocaust; their children were traumatised. I come from Slovakia, where under Socialism the Roma were prohibited from speaking. Our parents were ashamed and did not teach us our language. They wanted to bring us up as white citizens. We are the first generation to stand up and ask what actually happened in history? I also think that the art market is currently changing and finding this subject very interesting. All kinds of funding opportunities are directed towards postcolonial themes. But the question is what do I want to do with that and who do I want to address with it? In my country, Slovakia, there is enormous racism and it is important to reach people there, in galleries and museums.
So, on the one hand you profit from the current interest of the art world, but you really want to reach other people. In Slovakia, which only has a population of 5 million, up to one million Roma live in utter ghettoes.
I describe myself as an activist. My work does not belong in commercial galleries. That means I look for spaces where my voice will be heard.
You said that here in the pavilion your lengths of silk suddenly created a space, a stage. It reminds me of another work that you are currently exhibiting in the Württembergischer Kunstverein in Stuttgart: the large picture that shows your father's room and is actually also an imagined stage space. There are earlier works in which you transferred your father's tattoos into etchings. And you paired that with a quote from your father, who describes his body as an innermost space – because he had no access to a public space. The body to you is simultaneously subject and medium.
It is a difficult subject. I found myself in complete isolation here in the Glass Pavilion, in a space that belonged to me for this time. I am always looking at the isolation of bodies and their limits and freedoms. My father lived in prison for 20 years and during that time I grew up in a children's home. We both spent time in very isolated, white rooms. White society stuck us in there because it somehow wanted to repair us, because my father was not capable of education and I was not educable. In Slovakia, we Roma are still labelled people who are incapable of adapting. That is what awakened in me a first sense of resistance, which I have been working on ever since as if escaping in a tunnel in art. I am convinced that people who had no family or grew up isolated develop a completely new sense of corporality. That is what I am experimenting with. It is difficult to talk about because it is so intimate and vulnerable.
At the start of this interview I mentioned the tenderness of your works. Perhaps that ought better to be described as vulnerability and fragility. That beauty you flirt with, is that a means of comfort, of healing?
I do not like to define it and I do not have to. But in times like those here during the residency, such moments do come out of me. I normally work very strategically and manipulatively, and ensure that I achieve my goal of being a very good artist. Here, I spent two months completely separated from everything, which was a great opportunity to recharge myself, like a bomb. It is true that this Roma-theme is very important. I did not choose it. I was in that space before I decided what identity to choose for myself.
Could you have had the chance to do nothing with it? To say: That is such an horrific story, the way that the Roma have been marginalised, gassed and ghettoised to this day, I will leave it all behind me? Does this freedom of choice exist?
Not for me. But I think many do exactly that and that is wonderful. But I resist this society and its norms so much that I cannot help it. As a child I always asked myself: Why are we in this space, why are we different, why are we hated? Nobody could give me an answer.
You did not grow up in a Roma Community, but in a white children's home. That means that your own community was foreign to you – is it still?
Yes, although my children's home community was a Roma Community – out of the 60 children, 58 were Roma children – it was a highly artificial space. We were not allowed to speak Romani. Nobody taught us Roma history. We only knew that we are hated. The people in the village set their dogs on us. This children's home system completely failed. When they turned 18, the majority of the children returned to communities that they did not know at all. They are traumatised repeatedly until they are adults. We need our whole lives to work through the experiences of that childhood.
These children's homes continue to exist in Slovakia today?
Yes, they are called by a different name now, but otherwise much has remained the same. The 1980s and 1990s in post-socialist Slovakia were extremely tough for the Roma. To this day nobody talks about it. I want people to understand our history, otherwise they will never stop hating us.
You always speak of Slovakia as your country, although you now live in Vienna.
Yes, Vienna is a safe city. There I have peace, an external gaze, I can work through the subject and turn my gaze to the inner workings of Slovakia, and so continue to make an important contribution.
In Slovakia, one tenth of the population is officially Roma, that is not a minority.
That is the crazy thing. We have been living together there for 800 years and nobody knows us. They do not even know what they should call us. I think anybody who grows up in a white family is never taught anything other than hate for Roma. I got to experience that in my middle school, at university in Bratislava and even from professors. They live in a racist system and it is normal for them not to talk with us. I reacted against that, but nobody understood me. I thought I was going mad.
When did you realise you had the opportunity to be an artist, to study art?
I was always drawing when I was a child, I was a very lonely child. Of course, I did not know any artists and did not go to a gallery until I was 15. I always said I would be an artist, but without knowing what that means. When I was 14 and went to high school, I chose to go to an art college. From then on, I was absolutely certain I would be an artist. I had already won a drawing prize when I was 12 and was so proud of that. It got difficult when I was released from the children's home and visited my family for the first time when I was 20 years old.
You could not visit them before or were not allowed to visit them?
I never really felt the need to visit before. My father had written me letters explaining why he could not visit me. At some point I understood that I had to go there.
My family lives in East Slovakia. I drove there and it was traumatising. It took a long time for me to work through everything I saw there.
You mean this ghetto situation?
Yes, it is scarcely imaginable. They live there in absolute poverty, with no opportunity to get out. It took me almost a year before I could even talk about it. I looked for people with whom to talk about it. But it is a huge taboo in Slovakia. There is in fact a university course called Roma Studies, but the reality is never discussed. I did not get any answers to my questions. I decided to talk to my father about it and that is when I did the piece with the tattoos. That was the start, that was the work that raised my profile and was exhibited the most. It was a very direct, descriptive piece of work.
Above all it is your aesthetic that is different there, much darker, more illustrative, more expressive, not yet very conceptualised.
Yes, I got the aesthetic from my father. He drew a lot in his letters to me. I only found the peace to develop my work further when I came to Vienna, in a country which – like Germany – values and supports art.
And what happens when you exhibit your work in Slovakia today? What is the reaction?
Unfortunately, I always have to talk about the Roma a lot, it is just necessary. I give lectures, as it were, because people ask me: Robert, the art is great, but who are the Roma? I just had an exhibition in Kosice, a very important exhibition, and I had to talk there a lot.
Your latest works are more conceptual, more abstract. Looking at the insect drawings or your new work here in Florence, one doesn’t immediately make the connection to the Roma in Slovakia or even make the connection at all.
Yes, and that is a form of resistance as well. I do not want to describe myself as a Roma artist. That is why I try to keep the subject universal by looking at themes of marginalisation and isolation.