Peter KappaThe Pulse of Slovakia

By John Hood

If Slovakia’s renowned for anything, it’s for the number of consecutive centuries its lands have been occupied by outside forces. Thracians, Celts, Romans, Huns and Avars are among the occupiers that pre-date the Slavs; Hungarian, Ottoman and Russian are among those that held sway since. Whatever the tribe, whichever the empire, however distant the reign, a land can’t stand such continuous tramplings without picking up a thing or three from the tramplers. And present day Slovakia is an amalgam of what is perhaps the most robust variety of outside influences the world has ever seen.

It is that variety of influences, and the monuments and memories left in their wake, which drives Peter Kappa to create, and which informs every single one of his creations. Born in Bratislava and based in Miami, Kappa is himself an amalgam of monumental memories, and his work makes monuments of what is both most and least remembered, in both the Old World and the New. That the components of his creations consists primarily of the kind of age-old products that can be purchased at any Home Depot only makes it all more so.

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Kappa’s Home Depot of choice happens to be in Little Havana, a mere 10 minutes from his workspace in Wynwood, and whatever wood, marble or concrete he can’t get at the big box store can be found among the smattering of Mom & Pop shops scattered along the route between the two. The memories are being made as he goes, from a combination of what is remembered, what should be remembered, and what will be remembered, with what he’s been told to remember all along.

Back in Bratislava, however, those pesky outside influences continue to hold significant sway over both monuments and memories, and even 23 years after gaining independence the world still seems largely unaware there even is such a thing as Slovakia. By the time Kappa is finished taking apart the monuments and making new memories (or is it vice versa?) the world will not only learn that Slovakia’s now a country in its own right, but that its people are more than the sum of others’ parts.

This weekend, at Pulse New York, under the auspices of Prague’s PAC Gallery, Peter Kappa will show just why he was nominated for this year’s Pulse Prize, and how he represents the Pulse of Slovakia.

If Slovakia was a myth, what might it be?

The Ingenious Gentleman Don Quixote of La Mancha.

If its history was written as a fable, how would it read?

Exactly like Cervantes wrote Quixote.

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How would you describe the country’s cultural identity?

I’ll stay with the allusion and compare Slovakia’s situation to Don Quixote’s fight against windmills; we’re battling giants that can never be beaten.We’ve been dominated by giants of one form or another throughout our entire history. The last of these was the Communists, who were supposed to step down when Slovakia gained independence back in ‘93. Yet the country is still largely in the hands of the generation that came of age under its influence.

Of course, the older generation fears that change, of any kind, would lead to their losing power. And anytime anyone attempts to bring something modern and fresh to the community, the proposal is routinely shot down. The ex-Communists are even against efforts to save, strengthen and promote our cultural heritage, which dates back over 22,000 years. Consequently, this beautiful, historic country in the heart of Central Europe remains in many ways unknown to the rest of the world.

How much of that identity is a result of the many different peoples that have occupied its lands over the centuries?

The most of it it will take a few generation to change that.

Do you see evidence of that influence in the country’s public monuments?

You can see direct evidence in all these old castles or buildings, ruined or saved. The capital, Bratislava, was a huge and significant business crossroad, even in the distant past. It was also a coronal city, and the coronation period lasted almost 300 years. During this period, the Crown received 18 kings and queens in Bratislava. Among the most important was monarch Maria Theresa, who was crowned on June 25, 1741.

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How important are public monuments to you and your investigations into Slovakian memory?

On one side, you can see the old Communism regime monuments that bring you back 20 years, but on the other side we have very significant ones which played a big part in European history. A lot of those monuments have been destroyed by urbanization, we’ll never know if somebody ever found many of them. That’s what I’m trying to reflect with my work.

How do you interpret this cultural memory?

Crucial for understanding cultural memory as a phenomenon is the distinction between memory and history. It is because of a sometimes too contracted conception of memory as just a temporal phenomenon, that the concept of cultural memory has often been exposed to misunderstanding.

I believe that either in visualized or abstracted form, one of the largest complications of memorializing our past is the inevitable fact that it is absent. Every memory we try to reproduce becomes – what Richard Terdiman calls – a ‘present past’. It is this impractical desire for recalling what is gone forever that brings to surface a feeling of nostalgia, noticeable in many aspects of daily life but most specifically in cultural products.