Petra Valentová is a Czech conceptual artist who’s been living in New York for some years. Her biggest project to date features an unusual combination of elements. Having developed an interest in the little-known Sami people from the far north of Europe, Petra – who was single – began looking on the internet for a Sami to date. That said, she didn’t expect to really find one – her search for a Sami was more symbolic than real. She got the guys she went out with to provide her with a recipe, which she later made with her friends, taking photographs of the results. Petra put all of this in a book published last year, called Searching for a Sami/Cookbook.
“It has many layers. I guess it started as the personal frustration of a single girl in New York. It was my take on the life of a single person or a single girl who is trying to deal with…how to find a relationship.
“Another aspect of it was that I had just returned from Finland where I had an exhibition and a residency, and where I had spent a lot of time previously. I have always been fascinated with the Sami community, which is the oldest indigenous community. They are based in parts of Norway, Russia, the Russian [Kola] Peninsula, Finland and Sweden.
“I somehow wanted to work with them. Since they are such a lonely community I felt sympathy for them, or some kind of understanding, because I was very lonely too.
“So on one hand it’s a social project working with a certain indigenous group. And on the other hand, and the most visible part, it’s about working with being single in New York.”
And the form this took is that you put some kind of advertisement on some dating website looking for a Sami man?
“It was a few years long…performance, basically, if you take it like that. I put an ad on Craig’s List looking for a Sami man. And a Sami for me was really a symbol of…because I didn’t really think that people would know who the Sami were, it’s such a small community, 100,000 – 120,000 people in the whole world.
“So for me a Sami was a symbol of somebody only I know, or only I am looking for. It’s better than saying, I’m looking for a six-foot, blue-eyed guy on 0,000 a year, because there would be so many of them. I wanted to be more specific but mysterious at the same time.”
“Of course, I was a nice girl, young, and I got a lot of responses. The first responses I got were really scary and I had to stop the project for a few months, because the first two or three responses were frightening.”
But eventually you started going on dates with these Sami guys?
“Eventually I decided I had to pre-screen who is answering me, and I started going on dates. I didn’t go on dates with Sami because I didn’t find a Sami in this way. I was getting all kinds of responses like, I don’t know who Sami are but I’m a cute guy, blah blah blah.
“So yeah, eventually I pulled myself together and started going on dates with the guys.”
Did you tell these guys they were part of an art project?
“Not really, I think they wouldn’t like that. And I was actually accused at school of using them, but then I think everybody is using everybody else on the dating scene. I don’t see it as a problem, or at least I didn’t see it as a problem.
“I think I was dating one guy and it was getting a little more serious, so I told him and he was very hurt that he was part of an art project. So I tried to avoid that topic.”
Another layer, I suppose, of this project was that you asked these men to give you a recipe.
“Exactly, because I wanted something from them. At the same time I worked at a restaurant, which was very frustrating for me – not only that I am alone but that I’m working in an environment that I don’t want to work in.
“Actually the cookbook form was ideal for this performance, at least that’s what I thought. I thought that through recipes I can get more people’s interest and reach a wider public. I guess that’s something I do in my art, I’m trying to somehow get a reaction from as many people as I can.
“So the recipes for me were somehow…on one hand, it was an exchange of gender roles, I was a girl asking guys what kind of recipes they would give me. There was something sexual or cannibalistic in it. I wanted to own something from them.
“In the end I took the recipes and I invited my single girl friends for dinner, and we cooked and had wine and we talked about why some guy would give me this or that recipe.”
How did this project come to an end?
“When I was working on it I didn’t know what the end would be. Honestly, I just continued. And then somehow I met a Sami – actually my friend gave me the contact information, so I found a Sami, through a Norwegian church.
“It was very interesting because basically I was sitting in front of him and the project was over…but he wasn’t my type, so what will I do now? He gave me a recipe for a dessert, which was a perfect ending for the book. A Sami dessert – fantastic.
“But then, what’s next? We started talking and he told me about a Sami community in Alaska, which was fantastic. He started telling me about their history and how complicated it is – I had no idea.
“So I did some research and I contacted them, I contacted a Sami magazine in Anchorage, Alaska. And suddenly from a personal, selfish project it really turned into something deeper and more social.
“The second part of the book is actually the history of the Sami community in Alaska, which is very interesting. There’s an explanation of who the Sami are and how to get to them.
“The first part of the book is very personal, very playful, very maybe sexual, I don’t know, cannibalistic – and the second part becomes really serious and somehow I hope suggestive. At the end there are directions how to get to Anchorage to the Sami community. For me it was a sort of symbol of encouragement for everybody to start their own adventure.”
What did you learn about dating and modern romance, so to speak, from the project?
“I learned a lot. I decided to really do something with my situation of being single in New York and I put my thoughts together and my dreams and needs, and I went on a serious dating site called match.com and I was dating until I met my husband.”
Who isn’t from a tiny ethnic group like the Sami but from one of the world’s biggest countries.
“Exactly, yes, he is from India. So although I dream about white, big,
snowy open countryside I’m getting overcrowded, noisy, dusty India.
you can’t always choose what you want!”
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