Now Showing: Roman Ondak at South London Gallery

For the next few months Camberwell’s South London Gallery will, in many ways, be taken back to its roots. The original gallery floor has been revealed by pulling up the modern boards of the main space to expose the inscription, ‘The Source Of Art Is In The Life Of A People’. It is after this that Roman Ondak’s new exhibition is named, and all of the works featured in the show are conceptually based on it.

With such a title it’s perhaps apt that the centrepiece has nothing to do with the artist and everything to do with local heritage; the floor was installed in the 19th century by Walter Crane and has long since been replaced, with SLG being transformed into a contemporary art space and catching up with the times in 1992. Perhaps this was a timely change, catching the Britart movement of the 1990’s, but Crane’s floor nonetheless provides an appealing stimulus for this exhibition.

Ondak is no stranger to using existing exhibition spaces to his advantage, having subverted all expectations at the Venice Biennale in 2009 by simply letting the gardens of his native Slovakian pavilion flourish through the ground. Although The Source Of Art… doesn’t match these botanical credentials, the use of an old felled Slovakian oak as a central sculpture, Event Horizon, marks a continuation of Ondak’s use of nature in his shows.

Indeed, with the tree cut into 100 segments marking 100 years of human history, the natural corresponds to the anthropological. Each segment has written on it a major ‘defining’ event from the given year, and over 100 days these will be hung on one wall, revealing the artist’s own narrative of time and subsequently exposing “the impossibility of an objective, unbiased history.” The first reads “Russian Revolution”.

I sidle up to ask Roman Ondak whether 2016 will read “Donald Trump”, “Brexit” or something else; maybe “mass migration” I venture. He says I’ll find out in good time – just over three months to be exact. But he points out that alongside the writing is drawn a delineation of one of the oak’s age-defining rings, cleverly signposting the parallel between the elapse of natural and human time.

Among the other works lies Four Moon Phases, comprising four ladle bowls cut into Slovakian school blackboards at various angles. While it is ostensibly no more than a germane and attractively simple interpretation of time passing, somehow with such minimalism Ondak adds an element of mysticism to the room. With this addition comes a new dimension to the oak and its natural/human time parallels, as things which move simply in relation to these cycles.

Ondak’s work envisages the passing of time and its subjectivity when viewed in retrospect, coupled with links between local communities of different times and places. He incorporates nature with varying aspects of humanity, and ties it all together with a piece of local heritage. Ondak’s evident ability to spring complexity from minimalist elements is compelling, and will remain so through its 100 day evolution.

‘The Source of Art is in the Life of People’ is showing at South London Gallery until 6 January 2017. All images: Roman Ondak, The Source of Art is in the Life of a People, installation view at the South London Gallery, 2016. Courtesy the artist, kurimanzutto. Photo Andy Keate.