By Wendy Rosler
While the government of Hungary may have taken some justified flak for closing its borders to refugees, when it comes to art, the country maintains an open door policy. As a prominent gateway for international musicians and a regular destination for film productions, Budapest is a hub for both incoming and outgoing talent. It is the contemporary Central European version of Ernest Hemingway’s 1920’s Paris. Arriving just in time for the city’s Night of Museums on June the 26th, I took my cue from the iconic statues in Hero’s Square and, like them, looked past the Hall of Arts and the Museum of Fine Arts and focused my gaze towards the city in search of contemporary art. As fate would have it, one of the Resident’s very own had just been to Budapest for a gallery opening – one in which his own work was being shown in the company of up-and-coming artists. Entitled One Phase, More Components, the exhibition was as good a reflection as any on the many disciplines and genres that exist in contemporary Hungarian art today.
Reflecting a darkly cartoonish sensibility, Adrienn Erdei’s Faces is an impressionistic ‘medical chart’ on how that which keeps us safe from harm erodes our very essence. Made up of illustrated figures wearing crash helmets, Erdei’s painting depicts a society of quarantined people where no one communicates and all live within their isolated shell. Some are stronger, some weaker, some self-assured, others lost, but none are capable of developing beyond their protective environment. From an orifice to a brain to a predator with nothing but teeth, each figure has become synonymous with his/her function. Like the frightened child whose crash helmet has become a prison, we have lost the essence of life in their attempt to ensure a ‘risk-free’ existence.
UK resident, Babara Allatyani’s Up Series, is part of a work in progress whose focus is perception – both that of the artist and that of the viewer. As the 3 titles suggest, each of the pieces relies on its given venue – one which endows the work with a certain meaning while, simultaneously, curtailing the viewer from giving in to first impressions. Utilizing different techniques and devices (from oil on canvas to egg-tempera to transparent paper) Allatyani forces her audience to read the triptych from ‘bottom-to-top’ – each part being defined by its place in this hierarchy. Paradoxically, this counter-intuitive process forces the viewer to stop, think and take notice of things otherwise passed over. Catching the ‘inherent beauty of something’ is not a given. It is something we must be reeducated to do – something worth the struggle. In a world suffering from information overload, Allatyani seems to say, it is a conscious ‘uphill’ effort to move beyond being inundated by data to making sense of it.
When it comes to cherishing textures and forms, Boglarka Balassa’s Dissolving into myself addresses the inherent beauty in natural materials. The work portrays the longstanding complex relationship that mankind has formed with them. While light substances take on the appearance of immovable objects, otherwise heavy structures are made to look momentarily weightless. Filtering material world through a subjective lens, Balassa turns the rock-like substances we regularly see around us into precious human artefacts –ones that have shared our history and bear the markings of our own development. These materials were there when our eyes first saw light, when our hands first made fire, when some inner drive taught us how to use them. Delighting in their shape and worshipping them as nearly supernatural gifts, we are reminded of who we are and the organic world from which we evolved. There is a musicality to the objects, a harmony born of seemingly dissonant parts. Balassa’s world is an endless forest of fractal forms, ethereal movements and dissipating tones. To lose oneself in nature is, as Balassa justifiably articulates, like dissolving into oneself.
Viola Khoór’s Airplane Before Liftoff is the chalk-like blueprints not of a plane but rather of the empty human vessels that have boarded her. We are all, in a sense, passengers of a missing flight – a flight of ghosts who have come before us and those who will follow. Ours is timeless travel where nostalgia coexists with anticipation. Using a vocabulary that recalls Titus Kaophar as much as it does the abstract realm of Cy Thombly, Khoor punctuates her work with a sense of raw urgency, her brand of minimalism retaining an oddly phantasmagoric edge. In Hanger and Lift as in many of Khoor’s works we sense the fragility of our world. It is a world where people disappear while their objects grapple to hold on just a bit longer.
Máté Labus’s video art represents a world in flux. Here, streams tell the sky how to fall, gravity pulls things up, and elements regularly shift from particle to wave. Entitled Two, Labus returns to the haunting question of subjectivity vs. universality. Are these forces in nature merely components of a single unfathomable entity or does their essence reside in how we see them. Labus’s dynamics relies on an ability to create tension between music and visuals, between a fragmented view and a holistic one, and between process and isolated occurrences. Two is the point at which our perception of unity and our fears of randomness meet.
Though young artists are often reluctant to let aesthetics enter the haloed sanctuary of ‘true art,’ it’s refreshing when a newcomer pulls off eye-pleasing and brain-teasing all in one go. In fact, Veronika Szendro has the courage to do ‘pretty’ in an area that many curators already have misgivings about, namely, digital art.
The reason for this apprehension…? Simple: the art market is aware that few investors are willing to shell out big bucks for something they misconstrue as intangible (in the sense there’s no ‘object’ of art but rather a series of fleeting images). In addition, despite the relatively low sale’s value of screen-related works, the costs of making good digital pieces can be astronomically high. But since when did sale’s potential determine what is or isn’t genuine art? Artists are expected to employ any given medium and endow it with creative content. It would be a terrible blow if the key component of our daily lives (i.e. phones, screens, internet) were suddenly off-limits to artists. The idea that only a fixed product that can’t be reproduced should be considered valuable is an absurd notion. Reasoning like this would eventually turn all of the art market into no more than a jewelry store – a venue where rare and precious objects are gathered rather than a place where the ultimate expressions of human creativity are found.
To explain Szendro’s place in the context of her genre, it’s first necessary to mention what the few international digital art superstars are up to today. Addie Wagenknecht is a gifted digital artist who had the foresight to join forces with Stefan Hechenberger to found NORTD Labs – an international research and development collaborative that has successfully fused open-sourced art, software design and even systems design into a state-of-the-art creative machine. In a field that relies heavily on technology, this is a wise move since teaming up with those who can deliver the next generation of equipment also facilitates virtually endless creative opportunities. Despite being in such an inspiring environment, and despite the accolades Wagenknecht has received from the art community, she has yet to sell a digital work for anything near the price of her painter or sculpting counterparts.
Besides Wagenknecht, there are those like Amsterdam’s highly conceptual Jonas Lund and the very design-oriented Evan Roth, each of whom also rely on sales from more conservative media. Likewise, UK artist Hanna Perry goes beyond new wave mavericks like Dara Birnbaum, utilizing everything from documentary footage to elaborate sound systems to architectural mazes made of screens – all of which coalesce in the creation of a parallel universe from which to observe our own. Still, if there is one digital artist Szendro could justifiably be compared to, it would have to be Sarah Lundy whose Wallpapers, Cloud Reliefs and ZZZZZZ series sport a similar sensibility albeit it without a figurative element. Although Szendro’s finances inhibit her from executing works on such a scale, she does make maximal use of all that which is at her disposal. Allowing each component to live its own life while also leaving space for a dialogue to develop between them, Szendro’s works possesses an organic unity based on interdependence and harmony.
In her modest but wholly realized piece, Personal Prayer, Szendro draws on four video screens to deliver a single vision with an inspiring message. The video loops each have their own personality, like odd members in a quorum. Communicating with one another, they enact a ritual of repetition punctuated by diverging motifs. Their simultaneous delivery feels like the visual equivalent of a litany where one member of the choir stops before responding to the invocation of another member, all while the music as a whole continues to flow unimpeded. Inspired by the self-contained world of Haikus, Szendro creates an ongoing prayer for our 21st Century. Following the lines: When the wind blows I’m gentle. When the rain falls I cry. When the storm comes I tremble. When the sun sets I die,” Szendro first splits her images into four different screens and then allows them to meet on a wall where they get to share ‘quality time’ together. The overall effect on the viewer is not one of watching a show with four screens but a feeling of eavesdropping on a conversation between sentient beings who express themselves in images rather than words.
Csaba János Tompa’s By the Borders and Between the Spheres of Heaven and Earth constitute a series called Lost in Darkness. If anyone has any doubts about just how powerful a single large black plastic garbage bag on a wall can be, I suggest they check it out. Mercilessly cut, torn and ‘crucified,’ Tompa’s black bag is menacing. It overwhelms the gallery environment like a spreading plague. Just as the shock of seeing this juggernaut is about to pass, the viewer realizes that the seemingly random monstrosity has a very precise shape – that of Europe. This is a Europe without an identity, a Europe rising from the muck, a Europe that has lost its function and can no longer hold onto the very garbage it had been so good at concealing. As for the perfect dark rectangle fragments on the wall next to it, they appear like a well-groomed procession of washed out icons that have become nearly unidentifiable over time. Perhaps, this is what has become of our now barely recognizable ideals. Perhaps they are the illegible remains of our moral codes. They certainly look like they must have been significant at one time or another… if only we could remember what they meant.
As a published poet of Hungarian descent, Rory Winston often works with visual artists throughout Europe, devoting several months every year to such collaborations. When asked to exhibit his work within the context of this exhibition, Winston decided to turn four individual poems into installations – the one caveat being that the visual dimension would not be there to illustrate what already exists in text form, rather the additional layers of art would bring added tension. At times the visuals would undermine the words, at other times they would simply alter their meaning. Juxtaposing the imagery in poetry with diametrically different visual imagery creates a third level of images – those constructed by the viewers own imagination when uniting the two diverging visions.
In Re-visions II, Winston’s poem deals with the depersonalization imposed on dying and how vacuous words like ‘dignity’ are used to sanitize emotions, sterilize loss and transform loving family members into pragmatic instruments whose purpose becomes to gauge the expedience of ‘departure.’ In an installation where emotions are x-rayed, love is scanned, memories are transformed into the fragmented lines on an EKG graph, and questions relating to existence become no more than digitized pieces of confetti fluttering from a white ventilator, we soon get a sense that life itself is no more than a confusing phase our planet is going through, a sudden fit of well-being in what is otherwise the void of deep space. Adjectives begin to represent words to which they are un accustomed:
All the rest are terminal illusions – symptoms of an illness death will, no doubt, cure. Designed in collaboration with Zsigmond Lucza and with photo-art by Claudia Kovács, Rory Winston’s Re-Visions draws a parallel between the development of an articulate technology capable of announcing all the subtleties of our physiology and the regression of our being into a purely functionalist form that makes no demands on us emotionally or spiritually and, in the end, leaves us mute when faced with questions about life’s meaning.
The poem Quality plays off the word in order to deal with how there is neither “equality in quality” nor even an objective playing field. Instead there exist solely ‘qualified’ experts – whose own ‘qualifications’ have been approved of by a large enough ‘quantity’ of people. It is they who are in the position to determine the ‘quality’ of a given object by redefining what ‘quality’ (a very subjective notion) means and allocating the continually evolving semi-precious word to whomever and whatever they have deemed befitting
In this way, the act of appraisal soon becomes more valuable than that which is being appraised. The ‘art review’ becomes more sought-after than the ‘work of art,’ the stock more valuable than the company, the stamps ‘certified,’ ‘authorized,’ ‘genuine,’ ‘approved,’ more stable a commodity than that which is being approved. The end of Winston’s poem describes the process of a child’s fingers trying to grasp the leftovers of a celebration that has not yet taken place. He is trying to eat a cake that has yet to be baked. The child is, of course, the artist attempting to create value in something that only others will determine does or does not have value. Rendered in collaboration with the multi-award-winning Hungarian artist, Zsigmond Lucza, a member of the acclaimed Zawar Collective, the poem appears in stamped form – becoming its own seal of approval. Paradoxically, it is only once the many stamps of approval entirely cover the original print – thereby rendering it entirely illegible – that the poem is authorized priceless. As several mock-up adverts alongside the work attest, once a work of art is buried under years of positive reviews it becomes simultaneously priceless and invisible. Like the Mona Lisa, priceless works lose their ability to genuinely affect people. No longer seeing them for what they are, we can only marvel at their status.
In Nature, the notion of ‘nature representing a pure idea’ is challenged by our very own ‘human nature.’ In our most natural state, Winston seems to say, we are a relatively artificial artificial construct – one that collides violently with our place in the ecosystem. Creating a naïve poster reminiscent of Green Peace adverts, these dramatically different forms of nature are brought into sharp contrast.
Finally, for the installation entitled You Left, Rory Winston teams up with acclaimed cinematographer Claudia Kovács (renowned for her work in Son of Saul and Hellboy) to create a powerful piece about the ‘absence of loss’ – the final form of abandonment that we suffer. As a filmmaker and cinematographer, Kovacs often researches for upcoming films by taking stills of different kinds of people and moods. She does so in an effort to find a unique POV that then guides her overall approach to the story. While trying to hone in on a precise ‘feel’ for a given film, Kovacs spent weeks taking photos of different alienated people in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. Her journey led her from lost youths to widowers to people who had turned into little more than their job description.
No longer being able to summon forth a feeling of regret or loss, many of these people, reflects Winston, are trapped in a world that had once belonged to someone other than themselves. Now they continued day in and day out to live in a place that was not of their own making, a place of no particular significance to them, but a place they had at one time in their lives discovered with someone whom they had been capable of loving. In the end, the photos themselves inspire their own movie – a different film than the ones they were conceived for. The about those who sleepwalk through our world looking for traffic signs in the hopes that some outside force will arrive to guide their way. It is a world where the memory of abandonment has outlived the memory of the person responsible for abandoning them. All they are able to recall now is that at one time, the feeling of loss had hurt terribly – it was at a wonderful time; after all, it was a time when they still felt alive enough to be hurt. But that time has long since passed and all that remains now is a sense of nostalgia for what had once been sorrow.
Claudia Kovac’s powerful photos and Rory Winston’s a deconstructed traffic sign with a poem inscribed on it manages to hone in on FINAL stage of alienation. It is not the alienation of individuals from society, but the alienation of individuals from their own former selves. People continue, the work states, to inhabit their own ‘remains.’ It is a self that no longer dreams, no longer hopes for anything. Ultimate alienation not only means losing the ability to mourn but losing the ability to even recognize that which has been lost.
Evident in the title of this show is the idea that each phase in our lives is made up of many parts and those parts are often pieces of another entity or, at least, ingredients in earlier or later phases of our existence. One Phase, More Components is an exhibition that explains what contemporary Hungarian art is all about. It is about a single phase in a nation’s long history – a history that itself includes many different traditions that can be told in many different ways. The open door policy Hungary has towards art today is no different than it has always been. Whether it was the artists between the two world wars who were busy visiting Paris, the earlier artists who were – by default – influenced by Ottoman tradition, the prewar artists who celebrated an Austro-Hungarian empire aesthetics, or the many centuries worth of artists born into different ethnic minorities within Hungary’s borders, local culture has always benefitted greatly from its diverse components. Hungarian art today, like Hungarian art in the past, is thriving precisely because of its multi-cultural legacy.
Adapting, altering, reshaping, fusing and making it their own, Hungary, thankfully, continues to retain an open door policy towards art. And whether or not its present day politicians close their borders, it is this mix of cultures that is responsible for Hungary’s present day successes in everything from film to music to fine art. Yes, Hungary may be going through a given phase alright, but as the bustling cosmopolitan capital Budapest attests, it is, luckily still made up of many diverse components.
Wendy Rosler is currently based in Paris where she’s completing her PHD in Art History. She holds an MA in Critical & Curatorial Studies with a minor in philosophy.