Focus: Public Art in Hungary (Edited and compiled by Hedvig Turai: From Great Utopia to Real Utopias

< rotor >, “real*utopia”, Graz (May 24 through October 26, 2003) 

This summer the most significant contemporary art events in Europe could be characterized with such notions as the “Balkans” (In search of Balkania, Balkan Consulat, Graz; Blut und Honey, Vienna), “war” (Kunst und Krieg, Graz; Attack, Vienna), and “utopia”.

Utopia, in turn, is connected to the idea of public art. Almost the whole continent has been touched by this notion’s ripples. Presently at the Venice Biennial, it is represented by an independent section in the Arsenal.

The Valencia Biennial (curated by Loránd Hegyi) is also organized around this idea, and smaller tremors could be felt even at the “peripheries” of the European Union (the Moscow Square project in Budapest). But the epicenter of the wave was< rotor > a small alternative gallery in Graz, the 2003 European Capital, and its curators, Anton Lederer and Margarethe Makovec.

While large institutions generally domesticate their themes, cutting off any wild offshoots and making them fit for a proper society, < rotor > is known for its uncompromising radicalism. The series of exhibitions on view this year is entitled Balkan Consulate, and under its auspices, following Belgrade, Saint Petersburg, and Istanbul, Budapest will be presented in mid-summer.

< rotor > actively dwells on the metaphoric sense of the “Balkans” and its possible derogatory and discriminatory uses, for everywhere in this region the “Balkans” and “balkanism” always start somewhere else.

From Graz, the Balkan begins in Slovenia, from Slovania in Croatia, from Croatia in Serbia, from Serbia in Kosovo and so on. This axis can also be set up from North to South at will.

From certain perspectives even Hungary – once the “bastion” of civilization, as with some euphemism our national historiography designates the period of the Turkish invasion – can be classified as Balkan (viewed from Austria Balkan begins in Hungary, from Hungary it begins in Romania), despite the aspiration of many Hungarians to define themselves, possibly retroactively as well, as Central Europeans (the subtitle of the quarterly art paper of Praesens, or Central European Institution, Budapest).

Judit Angel, the Hungarian curator of the Budapest show in < rotor >, is sensitive to this collective exposed nerve and, more generally, to the focal idea of exhibition series. Thus, besides Hungarian artists or artist groups attuned to social issues (András Fogarasi, radiomana/ManaMana, Miklós Erhardt, Dominic Hislop, Tibbi Várnagy, KMKK, Róza El Hassán, Dóra Hegyi, János Sugár, Emese Süvecz; Attila Menesi and Christop Rauch), she invited an artist couple from Bucharest, the Perjovskis, to participate.

The machinery of the real*utopia project was set in motion in 1999 with research into the history of one of Graz’s districts, Gries. The project was carried out four years later. Gries does not in the least share the atmosphere of most Austrian small towns.

During the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, since it lay at the crossroadsof important routes, military barracks were erected here, which in turn attracted red light houses. Today it is one of the most diverse and ethnically mixed districts of the tidy town. Or to put it in less politically correct terms, it is the ghetto for foreigners and people of color.

The two curators first invited almost thirty artists from all over Europe and Austria. The artists began to immerse themselves in the life of the district, searching for problems and venues to reflect upon with their works. They also sought places where public works could be erected. From the projects that were submitted, fifteen artists were selected to realize their ideas.

It seems the Great Utopia did not cease to exist, but rather returned – so the engaged adherents of modernisms might say. Yet the utopias of the 21st century are conceived on a totally different basis than the visions of the 1920s or the 1960’s and ’70s and their resonances.

Their point of departure and social attitude is different, and the role of the artist in them is different as well. Even if, in some cases, the realized work might carry references to a great predecessor or to iconic works of the past.

Eriks Bozis from Riga made a huge phallic monument from the elements of a giant computer’s plastic keyboard. His work, in the middle of a square surrounded by new industrial institutions and corporate buildings, makes ironic the complacency of memorials and the vain belief in eternity. It also refers to the fallen tower of Babel, since despite high technology and global computer languages, we are unable to communicate with one another.

Mihael Milunovic from Belgrade put up a makeshift construction, evoking both El Lissitsky and the electric billboards of Times Square. This work shows exclusively good news selected from the actual daily news, invented reports, or good news converted out of bad news.He thus reveals the totalitarian potentials inherent in optimistic utopias.

Local artist Constantin Luser peels away transcendence from Tatlin’s vision of illuminated news projected onto the sky (in his Monument of the III. International). With Luser’s work, anybody can make private messages public with the help of the low-tech analogue light-bulbs activated by a keyboard in front of the building and can “write” onto the façade of the building of Telecom Austria.

While the great predecessors projected their wishes and dreams into the distant future, shaking off gravitation and earthbound reality, their present associates wade knee-deep in contemporary reality. Their utopias are neither lofty phantasms nor flights to illusionary islands, to castles in the air; they are wounds made visible and attempts to heal these wounds.

Correlatively, the role of the artist has changed as well. Gone is the banner bearer, the elite-visionary artist who speaks for the mute, featureless, inarticulate masses. In his place is the cogitating, mediating, catalyzing artist-type. At least this is true in the Graz exhibitions, since the narcissistic attitude of the romantic artist standing apart from society and his incapacity to relinquish an exceptional position still haunt the Moszkva tér show (Moscow square, Budapest, see article).

Esra Ersen from Turkey gave voice to the isolated, invisible inhabitants of the prison at the outskirts of Gries when she wrote their messages to the world onto the walls of the prison. She is not speaking for them, but instead serves as mediator; she is not using them to secure her own eternity, but rather offers them her own visibility and opportunity to be heard.

The works in Graz also reveal the paradoxical nature of utopias. They reveal the absurdity that while utopias firmly believe that they talk about and to the future (or that the artist, unappreciated by the unfair present, can successfully preserve his “I” for the future), they actually talk about the present and its deep layers, its blind spots, its suppressed desires and fears.

The title of the project of , “real*utopia”, itself refers to the possibility that the presented utopias could even already be reality or could be realized in the near future (like the inhuman, privatized prisons in the installation of Martin Krenn and Oliver Ressler, producing the maximum possible profit by eliminating unnecessary human needs).

Or these works may reveal unnamed, yet real motivations, ambitions (Antal Lakner made a complete design for the next main “venture” of Graz, the Olympic Games in 2012), fears (the Bedouin astronaut of the AES group, placed in front of a hotel, is carrying the features of Osama Bin Laden) and functions (at the moment it is completely unconceivable that Arabs could participate in space research) of the present.

Jun Yang projects his utopia of the present into the past when he sets up the gate of a never existing Chinatown at a busy junction. He is evoking the once great empire, but the retroactive archeological “evidence” also sheds light on the arbitrary nature of the interpretation of the past, that the writing of history is also motivated by desires and projections.

Each and every one of the selected artists consciously deals with the twofold nature of utopias. Utopias help to formulate their sharp critical views on society and make us realize the anomalies of the present.

Probably it is this theoretical clarity that was missing from the Moscow Square (Budapest) project. Different as well were the wishes and aims of the artists who wanted to break away from his/her isolated situation. In Graz, artists were really thinking in terms of public art, of art for the public and including the public.

In Budapest, with a few exceptions, elite art patronized “simple” people in order to enlarge its audience and visibility in the struggle for media and public attention, since, after the political transition, art and culture, previously privileged under socialism, was suddenly pushed into the background.

The difference between the two attitudes seems small. It separates different ways of thinking, however, and this difference is precisely as big as the territory between the Great Utopia and real utopias.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *