Focus: Public Art in Hungary (Edited an compiled by Hedvig Turai): Interviews by Erzsébet Tatai

Art historian Erzsébet Tatai questioned three Hungarian artists who are strongly involved in public art. Róza El-Hassan conceived the public art event, Moszkva tér or Gravitation. Although Tibor Várnagy and Miklós Erhardt did not take part in the events of Gravitation, they have been actively involved in public art projects since the 1990s. All three started their careers at different times and with different backgrounds; however, their activities kept converging in the past few years.

TIBOR VÁRNAGY (1957) artist, curator, art critic

Since the 1980s, Tibor Várnagy has been an important representative of alternative art in Hungary. His activity is mostly experimental; he has been more and more engaged with social issues since the ’90s. Not only does he take up topics that are issue based (Poor is not illegal), but he also crosses the borders of society/life and art.

One of his works (2000) involved direct support for the homeless. This work was part of a group exhibition (Mimi doesn’t forget, Trafó House of Contemporary art, 2000). Instead of creating a normal work of art for the exhibition, he published an invitation card for the exhibition as a paid advertisement in the local paper for the homeless. He then mailed the paper to the art world as an invitation card.

When he had his one man show (Lajos utca Gallery, Budapest, 2000), instead of publishing a catalogue he founded (and is still editing) a quasi periodical Manapság or Manamana (a play on the Hungarian word for “nowadays”, “these days”) which to date has five issues.

He was also one of the founders of the art group Substitute Thirsters (1984-92), which opposed institutions and authority through spontaneous activities. Their actions, which they claim were designed to “banish boredom” during the era of socialism, were radical and critical.

Since its founding in 1983, Várnagy has run Liget Gallery (a small non-profit exhibition space in Budapest supported by the local government) where he manages a politically and socially progressive exhibition program, focusing on the catastrophe in Tsernobil, the war in Yugoslavia, and issues such as poverty.

Besides Hungary, he has exhibited in New York (1984, 1994), Houston (1989), Berlin (1989), Hamburg (1997), Lódz (1989), Wroclaw (1991), Warsaw (1998), Vienna (1988, 1991) and Zürich (1997).

Erzsébet Tatai: How did you get involved with issue-based art?

Tibor Várnagy: I am an employee in Liget Gallery, and since this is a non-profit institution that is quite small and marginal, my hands have never really been tied. In the ’80s there were few places like this, and I had the opportunity to exhibit issues that were not favoured by the actual cultural politics of the time.

I myself have also learned a lot from the actions that took place in my “underground” space. And there was our group the Substitute Thirsters as well. In the Manifesto we stated “there is no essential difference between a member and a non-member, the divergence is declared and steady …”

When you didn’t want to take part in one or another event (as I in painting-actions for example) you didn’t have to-and nobody was reproached for it. We wanted to make everything – actions, newspapers, exhibitions – only for ourselves. This didn’t change even when we got more significant invitations to big shows.

By the end of the previous political regime the group became so famous (exhibited in Berlin, Lódz, Hannover) and was invited to so many exhibitions, that we got tired of all the obligations-and of each other as well.

At that time I was mainly interested in photographic experiments; I was involved in activities that needed more contemplation. Although I also made a few artists’ books and put together a “samizdat-exhibition” in New York.

Meanwhile more and more galleries opened here, and Liget Gallery became just one of them. Luckily it is still marginal enough to afford any kind of experimentation and off-beat behavior. Our only capital is in friendships and connections, and these are very important even when (under a market economy) such things are devalued.

Since the ’90’s, I have been more and more engaged with the social context of our work. It is the social conditions that considerably changed. It is getting clearer that we are not going in the direction that we had hoped in 1989-that is to solve the economic and ecological problems of East/West and South/North, and to start to build a peaceful, friendly world in which everyone could live.

What else can you do? You can of course artistically replicate yourself. But if you don’t want to soliloquize, you should learn to pay attention to others. I like to make exhibitions that encourage people to speak to each other about important things. When art is not able to generate ideas and discourses that could go beyond its own limits, people turn away from it.

E. T.: In an interview with Miklós Erhardt and Dominic Hislop, Teresa Alonso has stated that the “..Art and Activism have grown together”. Do you agree with this statement? Where do you think the border lies between art and politics?

T. V.: In the ’90s, at the end of a historical period, history itself has not reached its end. An interesting situation evolved a sort of confusion when politics and culture were searching for their roles-which could be followed by the public much better than at any time before. Even if we could not see clearly enough, the new world was being born in front of our eyes.

Furthermore, Internet culture developed in parallel with it. The so-called “critique of globalization” that emerged about 1999 is really quite new. But on the other hand, it is an organic continuation of what had existed before.

If we consider, it is obvious that the confusion here was greater than in the West, since our system of institutions is – in a lot of respects – still approaching the changes that had already taken place in the West mainly in the 60s.

With Miklós [Erhardt] and some friends, we have been working on Manamana for almost three years, That is a project where – if you like – art and activism overlap. (However, I don’t call myself either an artist or activist – probably because both are discredited and compromised terms.)

The most important result of Manamana was that it was able to break through the walls between contemporary art and the world outside, and that it could arouse the interest of such people who are usually not interested in events taking place in museums or in galleries.

E. T.: It seems as if artists take the liberty of dealing with more and more problems as if they had more and more efficient, “louder” mediums, and as if the ivory-tower was about to be demolished. Is there any question about which we don’t speak enough even today? Or, suppressed as they might be, is it that anything can be an issue of art?

T. V.: Things can be suppressed even if we know about them. In this country during the last decade the fear of divergence from regular and conventional was even greater than it had been before.

One of the reasons for this is that in this period, society was more divided than earlier. The other problem, closely connected with the first, is the unreflected past, the lack of historical and cultural self-knowledge.

But the real problem is not the lack of knowledge but the lack of a critical voice and of analysis together with a kind of amnesia. What seems to be a taboo here is that the communist period was not so “dark” – at least it was not darker than the period before it.

To talk about this would be of course quite unpleasant for both political poles. The left wing would feel uneasy if it turned out that the one-party system based on the soviet-model, the so called “people’s democracy” was neither progressive nor socialist. It would mean that the present left-wing doesn’t have leftist roots, and instead of being a progressive party, it is the company of the former state-party’s reformers.

The fact that Eastern bloc sustained “state-capitalism” would touch the right-wing on a sore spot as well, because they could not make capital from the myth that socialism is responsible for all of our troubles today. They, however, have no traditions that could be followed either.

Our very problem is that all political systems in Hungary were conservative, paternalist or autocratic; all were afraid of any kind of modernization and democratization sometimes even more than in the neighboring countries. Since we were not able to break with these traditions even today, every clever, sober, and intelligent critical voice is necessarily marginal.

E. T.: Miklós Erhardt has said “So far I haven’t noticed much creativity in activism, but frankly speaking I live in a rather bad spot.” After the political changes in Eastern Europe the first bigger artistic project – dealing with political issues – in Budapest (Polyphony) took place in 1993.

This was considered at that time by many artists, art historians and critics to be very similar to the ancient regime’s obligatory actions. This seemed to be why most of the artists seemed to be reluctant to get involved in politics.

This spring marks ten years after the Gallery of Young Artists Studio dedicated its spring series of shows (Gallery by Night) to social topics. Can you notice any shift in the artist’s social role during this 10 years? Among whom? (I mean from the point of view of the artists, the critics, as well as of the public.)

T. V.: The most widely read tabloid in Hungary sells 400,000 copies. The most widely read daily paper 200,000. Cultural or scholarly journals each sell about 1000 to 2,000 copies. Let’s suppose, that each journal bought is read by more people. We then get a number that must contain people who also buy books and go to the theatre, concerts, exhibitions, and the cinema.

One example: Miklós Erdély’s(Miklós Erdély (1928-1986) the idol of the Hungarian neo avant-garde.) retrospective show in Mucsarnok (Kunsthalle, Budapest) in the mid ’90s was visited by 16,000 people. That was a record turnout. Even at our most charitable, we can suppose at most that every 500th compatriot has considerable information about the fine arts of the past fifty years.

I don’t think, of course, that an artwork or art should affect the masses. On the other hand, it is not attractive either if art life becomes an exclusive club. In our more and more fragmented segmented society the function of art and culture is to find the points where dialogues that can regenerate and revitalize society might arise.

RÓZA EL-HASSAN (1966)

After studying Painting and at the Department of Intermedia of the Academy of Fine Arts (Budapest) she quickly became successful. She madeobjects and site-specific installations full of poetic and conceptual character. El-Hassan had one person shows in Budapest, Graz, Vienna, Wels (1994, 1995), Ljubljana (1998), and took part in several international exhibitions and projects Stockholm (1990, 1999) Brema (1991), Frankfurt (1993), Münich (1994), Berlin (1995), La Biennale di Venezia (993, 1997), Chicago (1995) Manifesta I. (Rotterdam, 1995), and Middelburg (1997).

El-Hassan has initiated several projects dealing with topical issues (overpopulation, blood-giving), and is a member of the group “Two Artists Two Curators” (abbreviated KMKK in Hungarian). She also initiated the public-art exhibition Moszkva tér (Moscow square, 2003).

Erzsébet Tatai: When did you leave behind the exhibition space for the sake of public space? What was this first project? What was your aim with it?

Róza El-Hassan: The Museums’ space, the street, printed matter, or the web are for my works fluctuating spaces, so it is not that easy to say. Not that I leave the museum and enter the street, since the walls have become permeable. Each time I have to find the right space, place and material for my work.

E. T.: Why do you think overpopulation is/was such an important issue to deal with?

R. E.: R. [Róza] thinking/ dreaming about overpopulation was the title of a series of works I realized during the last year. On the one hand it is a sculptural metaphor for me when I superimpose a very small, subjective element like myself onto a question with the dimensions of overpopulation.

On the other hand it is also shifting subjectivity and poetry into something which is usually described by terms and methods of economy and politics. The third aspect, which came into being when we did the overpopulation T-shirts with Milica Tomic, is that we are seeking to grasp the hidden mechanism of racism and approaching this nightmare shadow in a humorous way.

Since this shadow is very scary, it is easier to make fun of it when you’re not alone. Therefore we made a series of cooperative projects.

E. T.: You are taking part in the Moszkva tér project. What is your proposal? What’s it all about?

R. E.: One of the most important things is the background of this project. During the last two years some very important artistic activities took place in Budapest, bringing (after times of fragmentation and isolation) a new awareness for our art, for our local situation and politics.

All of these efforts were based on self-financed independent activities by artists and art-critics like KMKK (Attention Recycling), Kisvarsó (Little Warsaw), Manamana, Liget Gallery, and positions like Tamás St. Auby’s actions and statements, Beata Veszely’s work or the Java artist group and many others.

All this rich art-scene built up a lively structure functioning in parallel to the official art-museums, with which we were dissatisfied. But this parallel structure had basically no access at all to a broader public in Hungary. Projects like Budapest Box or Moszkva tér try to mediate these local values to a broader public.

It is certainly a brave effort by the curator Dóra Hegyi to try to break this wall of silence between public and local values, and to bring art-actions from the blind spots of public attention to the overpopulated public square of Moszkva tér. At the same time, it is very problematic to institutionalize all these free and independent artist initiatives and to ask an institutional-state’s jury to select and judge initiatives and art-projects from a living art-scene.

The paradoxical situation is that the committee is not The Other or a faceless power; it’s us. Some members of the committee were more or less randomly selected out of all those who built up this art-scene during the past few years.

Maybe expectations about such a project are set too high. Instead of just one, there should be a series of such exhibitions. As for my part, of course I can contribute an object or a performance. But it is at least as important to keep this platform open and try to balance the dangerous tool of such a functional committee judging and selecting works from the Budapest art scene.

The art scene in Budapest during the last two years was based on dialogue and strong engagement for a free communication, and not just on the production of artworks. As for me, this remains an open question.

MIKLÓS ERHARDT (1966)

Miklós Erhardt studied completed his studies as a teacher, painter, and linguist in 1998 at the Department of Intermedia of the Academy of Fine Arts (Budapest). Beside Hungary he has participated in shows in Romania (Bucharest, 1994), Sweden (Stockholm 1999), Croatia (Zagreb, Zadar, 2002), France (Paris, 2002), and Germany (Ulm, 2000, Berlin, 1999, 2003).

He contributes to films and has curatorial as well as editorial activities. Together with Dominic Hislop, he carries out his most important projects under the name Big Hope (www.bighope.hu).

Their first project, Inside Out – Photographs of Budapest’s Homeless, was made in 1997-98. They gave approximately 40 homeless people simple disposable cameras and invited them to take photographs of whatever they felt to be important or interesting in their everyday experience, in the knowledge that their pictures would later be viewed publicly.

Each participant was modestly rewarded for her/his work. At the first presentation of the project (in Budapest) around 100 color photos were exhibited along with their corresponding comments ( www.c3.hu/collection/homeless).

In their next project they brought together tourists and local people when they juxtaposed the interpretations of local residents with photos made by tourists of certain sites/buildings in the city (Random Histories, 2002, Zadar, Croatia).

For the Torino Biennial in 2002 they presented their Re: Route-project. As Between December 2001 and April 2002 he met and worked with around 30 immigrants who had arrived in Turin, Italy, in the last few years. Each participant was asked to sketch a ‘mental map’, illustrating how they perceive and experience the city, then given a camera to document locations that had become significant for them. The mental maps, photographs and comments by the participants were presented as installations, and are available on a website at http://reroute.c3.hu.

In 2002 at Liget Gallery (Budapest), they presented the Big Hope – Disobbedienti. They reconstructed a functional working and meeting place run by an Italian activist group in Torino, in the form of wall paintings and a video documentary of one of their meetings.

In connection with the exhibition, two video interviews were made, one with the Disobbedienti group in Torino, another with leading figures of the Hungarian alternative globalization movement. They posed the same questions about their motivation, goals and strategies. In the course of their Talking About Economy-project (2003) they questioned economic players from Dunaújváros (Hungary) and workers in the same jobs in Berlin.

Erzsébet Tatai: Miklós, what made you come up – almost at the beginning of your artistic career – with projects like Inside Out? When you are invited to participate in a group show, instead of making art-objects you go into political issues such as poverty, globalization, and the economy. Why?

Miklós Erhardt: Inside Out got its start from Dominic Hislop’s proposal. This proposal was a revelation for me, so I joined. That is how we got to work together for eight months.

This work showed me a way out of the philosophical and artistic vacuum of the ’90s that I experienced during my studies, and forced me toabandon the practice of painting. Inside Out is a double-faced project. To consider it as an “art activity” was not a question for us, since we referred first of all to our artistic identity – or in a wider sense to the art-scene.

On the other hand, at the level of practical decisions, right from the beginnings we aimed at a more open publicity, and we tried to avoid treating people participating in the project or connected social issues as “raw material for our art”. Actually the real challenge was to maintain the two different aspects of our work consequently.

The option for artists to confront their public with concepts, processes and other phenomena, to carry out interdisciplinary experiments, rather than making objects has been there for a long time. So it is not a problem for me.

However, I don’t have any problem with the relevant artworks, and I don’t preclude the making of such objects. I myself would like to make art objects (as I did before), which are at the same time a reaction to the fetishism of the oeuvre as well as of the work of art-which recently has become overwhelming in Hungary.

Art has lost its leading position in visual innovation, in the domain of quality and even of subversion; it has become weak and omnivorous. In this respect, of course, even important issues might also appear in it.

The issues we deal with in our projects are not really political problems; they are only political as much as any problem has political aspects. The course of our work could be described as apolitical: Since all of our projects seek to find local aspects, they lack precisely the abstraction that is the very characteristic of politics.

In fact our works challenge exactly that. As regards translations, writings, editing, they are “comfort-works”. I do these to assist in the development of discourses which I enjoy myself, and which raise issues about which I would like to speak. Usually they are issues not usually discussed.

E. T.: How would you assess the project of Inside Out?

M. E.: The artists don’t appear as individual creators in this public art project-and this attitude has no tradition in Hungary. Its appreciation too was ambiguous. Considering the public, the success was total: According to the number of visitors and their reactions as well as the media-interest.

At the same time, artists and critics were not touched. There were no reviews in art journals, and many of the curators did not know anything about it at all. Thanks to its website, the project was invited to several places abroad, so it returned to the Hungarian art community with delay.

This was partly due to the elitism of the Hungarian art scene, and perhaps, because they received it as a complete project. All the so-called curatorial work, I mean organizing, finding sponsors, press-relations etc. we did ourselves. There were no institutions behind us that could automatically legitimate this work.

E. T.: How was Manamana established?

M. E.: It was Tibor Várnagy who initiated Manamana, and I took part in it from the very beginnings. The collaboration and mutual confidence with Tibor goes back to the time, when he was the first to support the Inside Out project – and at the time this meant a great deal.

Manamana, actually, was born from the idea of the exhibition Services (Mucsarnok/ Kunsthalle, Budapest, curated by Judit Angel). It can considered a visual-art activity as much as it is a radically non artistic activity-and as much as it reflects the hermeticism of the Hungarian art scene.

On the other hand, Manamana appeared at the lowest point of Hungarian journalism, when there was practically no dissident press. Apart from some internal affairs, nothing had played a part either in journalism or in public thinking when demonstrations attracted 30-40 people.

I suppose things have improved today-especially since joining the EU requires some apparent alternatives (the existence of a stronger Green-movement, etc.). Some organizations have appeared in Hungary, but at the time Manamana was first published there were only foreign examples for us (Attac, Indymedia, Greenpeace). The real proceeds of this project were that it brought a lot of interest and a large number of people closer to the art scene.

E. T.: Teresa Alonso has stated (in an Interview with you and Dominic Hislop) that “..Art and Activism have grown together”. Do you think this is correct? Where do you think the border lies between art and politics?

M. E.: It is strange that an artwork can be considered political if it formulates a criticism of structure. The concept of actively collaborating with art is absolutely absent in our discourse.

If this category were used in a comprehensively unbiased way, we would find that an abundant domain would open for study. The fusion of art and activism mentioned by Alonso is just one of the consequences of global emancipation movements.

It is impossible to ignore the shifts in the perception of the relation of politics, economy and society. Mainly due to those movements, questions and attitudes which had been previously treated as closely-guarded secrets became public, and political power feels uneasy in this situation. It starts to act by focusing on more and more nonsense and perpetrating malicious acts.

The latest war [Iraq] provoked enormous social activity and the crisis in the democratic world became clear. In this situation it is hard not to take a position in the domain defined by the centralizing, fascistic trends and by the practice of autonomy and local/global solidarity.

Considering all of these for me, the following criteria seems to be suitable to test the works of art – including ours as well – that have close connections with the territory of social reality: Current, temporal (not object-centered), modest (prudent), relevant, concrete (not abstract), local (everyday), free from pathos, de-professionalized, collaborative, poetic.

This list makes clear the differences between art and activism, despite all of my respect for the latter.

E. T.: It seems as if artists take the liberty of dealing with more and more problems as if they had more and more efficient, “louder” mediums, and as if the ivory-tower was about to be demolished. Is there any question about which we don’t speak enough even today? Or, suppressed as they might be, is it that anything can be an issue of art?

M. E.: This brings to my mind the “competent to all” avant-garde artist as defined by Miklós Erdély. However, it was formulated in a period that was built on the total denial of any kind of competency. It therefore had a liberatory force, that I suppose is misleading today.

On the one hand I don’t think there is any use in this respect to distinguish artists and those who are not artists. On the other hand, if we do, the question becomes what this competency is used for?

The question seems to suggest that artists induce some kind of change by speaking about certain things. Consequently, they speak first of all in order to induce changes. But there are much more proper mediums and devices for that than art.

Art finds things relevant and is curious about them. It can do that, because it is competent, it may even resign from hermetic statements and artistic authority. Recently (contrary to the time of Miklós Erdély) the state of affairs is quite confused, and it is interesting enough to consider it a challenge to look for the future closer to the present.

Suppression is definitely not the competency of artistic production. Artistic reactions must be found related to the blind-spot I mentioned earlier. What gets into the spotlight is the result of (depends on) the very utilitarian cooperation of reality, art and the institutional background. Such is capitalism.

Concerning media, I think it is important that the devices used by artists are getting more and more common and provide a decreasingly privileged position. Enormous sub-cultural production goes on (digital videos and music, internet-based web-activity, creative interventions in public spaces). Its devices and technical qualities don’t differ from the ones of contemporary art’s practice.

E. T.: You have said: “So far I haven’t noticed much creativity in activism, but frankly speaking I live in a rather bad spot.” After the political changes in Eastern Europe, the first larger artistic project – dealing with political issues – in Hungary (Polyphony) took place in 1993. This was considered – at that time – by many artists, art historians, and critics very similar to the ancient regime’s obligatory actions, and that’s why most of the artists seemed to be reluctant to get involved in politics.

This spring, ten years later, the Gallery of Young Artists Studio similarly dedicated its spring series of shows (Gallery by Night) to social topics. Did you notice any shift regarding the artist’s social role during this 10 years? Among whom? (I mean from the point of view of the artists and critics, as well as that of the public.)

M. E.: The art scene in Hungary is presently fighting for its legitimacy – with good reason, for it is highly underestimated. To gain more acceptance, it applies forgivably various means with wavering efficiency. At the same time, this tendency entails some kind of restoration and centralization. The top institutions are getting more powerful. Consequently the situation is worse than ten year ago.

This year’s various public art workshops, exhibition-plans, and presentations are expected to bring in a larger public and make for a stronger presence of the art scene. However, art presented this way doesn’t differ structurally from that art that doesn’t attract people.

Statements are regularly delivered among various circumstances, using social/political patterns and taking advantage of a curatorial /institutional system that tries to be suitable for “changing times”.

The phrase “political art” is absolutely pointless. I would rather have art emancipate itself from all types of politics (not only party politics but cultural politics, social politics etc. as well).

Nicholas Mirzoeff quotes Arjun Appadurai in his book Visual Culture Reader: “The work of the imagination… is neither purely emancipatory nor entirely disciplined but is a space of contestation in which individuals and groups seek to annex the global into the practice of their everyday life.”

Sometimes I feel I am taking part in this. To make things readable and visible, far from artistic statements requires perfectionism and pathos. Doing something free, obsolete, and time-consuming. Giving reality to abstract existence. Being inside but also leaving the artificial Paradise of art. Using normal words. Taking risks.

The “social role of the artist” is an authoritarian formulation. The mode of existence changes and it brings with itself change in the artist’s role in society. Hungary is in fact a very under-inspired location. You must partly get used to it, and partly you should go away as much as possible.

However, the position of such a type of art is problematic even in those countries where it has the greatest traditions (US, Germany, the Scandinavian countries). Institutions probably are not its natural milieu; this type of art is authentic only if it retains its outsider position.

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