An Inquiry About Fine Arts Events and Artists in Hungary 2015
As in previous years, we again asked our colleagues – art historians/theorists, curators, artists and writers – what they thought about the events of the past year:
Which 2015 exhibition/festival/event/initiative did you find to be most the prominent and outstanding, and why?
Which 2015 exhibition/festival/event/initiative did you find to be most problematic and lowest in quality, and why?
János Áfra (writer, poet, critic)
I like it when an exhibition manages to jolt me out of my preconceptions. The comprehensiveness, mindful installation and didactic thoughtfulness of the El Kazovsky exhibition at the Hungarian National Gallery, titled The Survivor’s Shadow, drew my attention to interesting parts of an oeuvre to which I have not attributed any particular significance so far.
Even though the exhibition at the Centre for Modern and Contemporary Arts (MODEM) titled Replanning, which is a selection from the Antal-Lusztig Collection, has been a bit too extensive to cover (which could also be due to the situation of the institution that is reflected in the title of the exhibition), its professional ambitiousness can hardly be questioned; of particularly great impact on me was the material on the third floor focusing on minimalist and gesture-painting works arranged according to characteristics of color and surface.
The exhibition that I found to be most elemental in force was Tesla by Japanese painter Yusuke Fukui, who has lived in Hungary since the early 90’s. They could not have found a more ideal environment for this special and mesmerizing material than the Templespace of the Kiscelli Museum in Budapest. The aesthetics of technological mechanisms and the dangers of being subordinated to the technique were both very palpable for the spectator. The pictures born in the wake of the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster often involved systems of lines drawn with both hands using parallel, reverse movements, and the partly symmetrical surfaces summoned force fields that were reminiscent of the lightnings generated by Tesla coils. The smaller pieces in this powerful group of images were built on strong contrasts, with white chalk lines appearing on black sheets of paper. The monumental paintings towering over visitors had exciting structures of patches and cross-hatchings of a non-figurative effect using blue and gray hues. I have never else seen such a beautiful synthesis of the ideas originating from Western conceptualism and the line-oriented form language inherited from the Japanese tradition of calligraphy.
The Ákos Vörösváry and Lajos Csertő exhibitions situated next door to the Schöffer exhibition in the Hall of Arts (Műcsarnok) forced me into an embarrassing situation as a recipient. As much as I tried to detach what I saw from the artistic approach preferred by the Hungarian Academy of Arts and then try to evaluate it thereof, it turned out to be an impossible task. I tried to interpret the material as a parody, but there was no trace of self-reflection. The installation was just too confused and unfocused for that, clearly lacking in a well thought-out concept. It is one thing if an exhibition lacks in inventiveness (that said, some of the objects were rather interesting, only they were caught up in a vast and trackless forest of kitsch), but here a much more serious problem was also obvious: namely the stakelessness that expropriates ethnographical, national and Christian symbols and is wrapped in megalomania. If Ákos Vörösváry, who thinks in terms of recontextualizing lost and found objects, arranges two dozen icons depicting the Virgin Mary or Jesus in a cross shape – and in a prominent location too, the apse of the Hall of Arts – that, to me, is more disappointing than thought-provoking – he just could not have expressed himself in a more spoonfeeding way. Or could he? Some winter salami wrapping with a cockade on it? Two dozen hope chests – that would each individually represent ethnographic value – piled up? Hundreds of jars and wine jugs on shelves? Such inane, eclectic and negligently arranged installations just should not be given room in exhibition halls of such a caliber. Because once that happens, it only confirms the fears of the representatives of the field, namely that quality really does not matter anymore. An installation that is subordinated to ideology is capable of destroying even the most beautiful things, eventually turning an exhibition into its own parody.
György Cséka (art theorist, critic)
For me, the two most outstanding events of 2015 are not really comparable as they were very different in nature. This means that I have two candidates for best event: one of them is OFF Biennale Budapest, which is a kind of milestone regarding the market of Hungarian artistic events: this was the first time that an independent, fresh, current and rich Biennale involving national and international participants was realized from non-public funds. The event was also important because it tried to articulate an artistic approach that, instead of floating in a timeless aesthetic sphere, is tied to current political positions in a thousand ways.
My second candidate is the exhibition titled The Survivor’s Shadow – El Kazovsky’s life/work, which not only stands out from the annual domestic lineup, but is commensurate with any exhibition on the international level as well. The rereading, installation and presentation of an oeuvre that is unparalleled in significance and weight was absolutely exemplary, well thought-out and profound, but still audience-friendly.
The weakest exhibition of the year was the event titled Photographed by Zsigmond Vilmos at the Ludwig Museum. I am aware of the significance of the artist in the history of cinema, but his qualities as a photographer are even lower than average. The exhibition presented, in stunning sizes and in a luxury edition, a photographic “oeuvre” that is either totally epigonic (juvenile works) or completely insignificant, and is at times annoyingly amateurish and dilettantish.
Dávid Fehér (art historian)
I have little doubt that the most important Hungarian art event of 2015 was OFF Biennale Budapest, and if I had to name the single best event of the year, then it would be the one. Although a number of issues and dilemmas can be raised in relation with OFF (which I, similarly to others, have touched upon in a previous all-round inquiry), the organizers still managed to create a medium (with memorable exhibitions and foreign participants and guests) which was capable of making the audience forget, for a moment, the adversities of the Budapest atmosphere that is becoming increasingly provincial.
This time, I would not highlight any exhibitions as negative examples but would point to the overall negative trend that, in Hungary, fewer and fewer exhibitions are organized that are also relevant in the international context and could thus be highlighted as positive examples. This fact says a lot about the general state of an ever more resigned and acquiescent medium and a deteriorating system of art institutions.
Emőke Gréczi (Editor in Chief, MúzeumCafé)
Although including the Capa Center’s exhibition titled Meaning and the El Kazovsky exhibition (that just falls into the time frame) among the best events in 2015 is almost self-evident, I would nevertheless (or, perhaps, therefore) name the exhibition Private Nationalism as No. 1, for it was so cleverly done and so elegant, stylish, informative, open and European that many other festivals and fairs in Budapest should – or would like to – follow its example. The linking of the two locations (the Municipal Gallery and the Budapest Gallery in Lajos Street) was exemplary, as was the creative marketing of an event which can only count on a certain layer of society and the way attention was drawn and maintained – something that is highly essential today if you really want to impress your audience. The currency of the issue raised, the preciseness of curatorial work, and the linking of the locally known works to the ones never before seen in Hungary offered an experience that could be enjoyed and interpreted more than once.
Although I would by no means call it bad, I certainly find the period around the end of April to be problematic. It was a time when OFF Biennale and the exhibition at the Hall of Arts titled National Salon opened almost simultaneously, and it had been known for weeks that participating in/staying away from the latter could bring artists into dire straits as they were regarded to be stating their political stance, regardless whether they were really willing to do so. This was underscored by the intense disputes of artists on social networking sites which often involved resorting to offensive personal remarks. Hence, critical reflection on the two events was performed accordingly, hardly free of the political burdens on these programs. Over-politicization and the fact that certain artists were not ‘in their right place’ resulted in a rather difficult situation for those who were supposed to evaluate the programs from an artistic and aesthetic point of view. As put forward by its founder, Hajnalka Somogyi, ‘the first OFF thrived of the story of its creation’ and the same is true of the Salon, which did not even formally follow the order of salon exhibitions (as the material had been selected by a single curator). As far as I am concerned, next time the two events will not coincide, which means that it might be possible to deal with their meaning and essence at last.
László Győrffy (artist)
In the rather reliable range of programs at the Polish Institute’s Platán Gallery I would highlight the exhibition by Aleksandra Urban and Pista Horror titled Crowd Pleasers, which the domestic arts press failed to reflect on altogether, unfortunately. Horror’s well-known pseudo-infantile boards and dioramas created in the spirit of the “Polish-Hungarian disease” (Z. Márió Nemes) were a good fit with Urban’s tales that turn rather creepy at certain points. In view of the international careers some artists in their thirties (e.g. Jakub Julian Ziolkowski) have made, the fresh and crispy gothic pop universe of the young Wroclaw painter would have certainly deserved more attention.
To me, a networking approach that uses regional cooperation frameworks (including the Visegrad structure) appears to be a viable strategy for bringing Hungarian artists into the international circulation. However, the general lack of professional attention towards domestic events by less-known foreign artists is really striking, and these missing reflections are exactly what I would pinpoint as a major drawback not only in 2015, but in general.
Brigitta Muladi (art historian)
In my opinion, the event titled The Survivor’s Shadow – El Kazovsky’s life/work was the best exhibition not only of the past year, but of the past decade as well. Extending into 2016, this exhibition would have washed everything else off the field had not the Year of Light come to my mind when thinking of an answer to this question. So I would mention three exhibitions. Regarding the exhibition of El Kazovsky’s life-work, I have to say (difficult as it is to do that in a professional medium like this one) that the halls were filled with real emotions besides the professional knowledge and intellectual energies present. All of the three curators, András Rényi, Krisztina Jerger and László Százados were in an almost amicable relationship with the artist while he was still alive. I listened several times as the guests of guided tours, lectures and book launches – Róbert Alföldi, Károly Horváth and Ákos Szilágyi, for example – recalled their personal experiences with the artist as a kind of mystery play, deeply touched by El Kazovsky’s personality and giving the audience of these evenings an unforgettable time. The key to success, of course, lies in the artist’s oeuvre, but the bold colors and the lively, brave and dynamic direction added a lot to the overall experience.
Both of the two runner-ups were exhibitions organized in the framework of the Year of Light: the first one, More Light! was realized in the New Budapest Gallery based on a concept by curator Lehel Endre Paksi. With its elemental energy, the event almost created a new category of exhibitions, and I have the feeling that several of the great exhibitions that followed during the year were actually created in its wake. This, of course, might be just an illusion, but it’s certainly a fact that the International Year of Light has placed several Hungarian artists in a broader contextual spectrum and has drawn attention to them, while it elevated others, like Tamás Szvet, from the crowd through the exhibition at Mélycsarnok (the Vault of Arts, part of the Hall of Arts) titled Light Seance.
The Year of Light also gave us the opportunity to get acquainted with art historian Márton Orosz‘s extensive research into light art. Orosz installed his exhibition titled LanguAGES of LIGHT at the Kepes Institute in Eger, using international light art material as a basis.
Unfortunately, the disappointment of the year was also linked to this great exhibition, which revealed how much the drawbacks of the present system of financing the cultural sphere have had their toll on individual and institutional productions. The tight budget of the Kepes Institute did not allow for proper advertising, which meant that this high standard installation was dismantled without having attracted any significant attention or feedback. The lack of an exhibition catalog was already quite painful, but then neither the website had any adequate information, nor I found any appropriate documentation on the spot.
György Gábor Nagy (artist)
I would like to point to an artist colony that is rather little known even though it has been operating on the Croatian Island of Krapanj for a long time. I hope someone is going to write about the works made there in more detail, but at this point I would only highlight one work that was made there: I first saw the prototype of Endre Koronczi’s raft made of striped plastic bags in a video shared by the artist on Facebook, with the main character being a plastic bag that has broken adrift and is spinning inside a “mini tornado”. Then in January 2015 Kolronczi exhibited the upcoming work of the Ploubuter Park series in the Inda Gallery. What we saw there was already more than just a large-scale installation, with reincarnations of the original idea developed further as action photos placed in lighted boxes. The climax, however, was certainly the “Raft of Krapanj”, in which at least three of the four elements meet. Watching as the setting sun lights through the plastic bag raft balancing on the water and being blown by the wind felt as if the striped sailed galleys that once ploughed the waters of the Adriatic had returned, resurrected by the fifth element, almighty love… Cool stuff!
The statue of genre painter Ignác Roskovics, which was given to the Municipality of Budapest by the Town of Ungvár and was erected on the Danube-side Promenade in Budapest, continues to be beyond comprehension for me. The ‘old chap’ never painted there, but that is not what really matters anyway… I have given it a lot of thought already: how could one ‘save’ the situation without removing it altogether with a light move? Perhaps you could paint it Van Gogh’s colors or put bronze tourists taking photos around it. I hope this note will stir everyone’s imagination, because what’s there at the moment is just not right.
Ernő P. Szabó (art historian)
One of the most eagerly awaited events of 2015 on the exhibition circuit has to be the pop art exhibition at the Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art titled Ludwig Goes Pop, which was previously staged in such prestigious institutions as the Ludwig Museums in Vienna and Cologne. As evidenced by the Vienna exhibition, the Aachen collector Peter Ludwig and his wife Irene built up one of the most important collections in the world on the subject – it would have been an exciting venture to make the Budapest audience aware of this. That it did not happen was basically due to fact that the exhibition focused not on the values of pop art that are already inherent in the collection, but instead it supplemented what is on offer with a so-called East Side Story, that is, East European works that had nothing to do with the collection. However, sometimes less is more: it would have been better to stay with the original story, namely the Ludwigs’ relation to pop art. But once it had to be that way, presenting the works in an audience-friendly way would have done no harm either. ‘Thanks’ to the fact that their captions were placed far away from the works on exhibit, even their identification may have proved to be an impossible task for visitors.
The exhibition at the János Tornyai Museum in Hódmezővásárhely titled Jenő Barcsay, the Artist and the Teacher could have been the surprise exhibition of the year, had not the goings-on of recent years in the town already suggested that we should not expect presentations of paramount importance only from Budapest museums and exhibition halls. The significance of this exhibition does not simply lie in the fact that by presenting over three hundred works the organizers indeed managed to present the various aspects of a six- decade oeuvre, but also in that the curator, Noémi Szabó, was brave enough to emphasize the importance of its less valued periods, presenting several compositions inspired by the countryside surrounding the Szentendre of the ‘30s which had not been on exhibit for decades. She hunted out some lurking works and included them alongside the well-known pages from the Anatomy for the Artist, creating a completeness that had been unprecedented in presenting the artist’s works. All these factors together gave an exciting picture of one of the last grandmasters of 20th century Hungarian art – of the painter and the teacher alike.
István Sinkó (artist, arts writer)
For me, the year of 2015 was about the representation of large cultural institutions, as – mostly towards the end of the year – the Hall of Arts, the Hungarian National Gallery, and the Ludwig Museum all came up with some hot names, representative memorial exhibitions, or summary exhibitions. I had awaited two of them with particular interest due to my personal involvement. I looked up to both of these artists as my friends while they were alive, and I am tied to them through the memories of many a great conversations and joint exhibitions: Géza Samu was one of the determinative figures of my youth, while El Kazovsky was an important colleague of mine since I began my time at the Studio. Hence, it is no wonder that I had great expectations regarding the exhibitions dedicated to their memories. Both of these events were labeled as lifework exhibitions – and despite the fact that finding the works for the Géza Samu one had proved to be a difficult task, the event was likely to be a large-scale recollection of the works of this outstanding figure of Hungarian art. Well, it was not. While wandering about the exhibition (I was all by myself in the halls of Vigadó Gallery) I was thinking about the reasons for this fiasco, given the works were good and they had managed to collect most of the prominent ones. Still, even though I was looking at Géza Samu’s statues – and the reconstructions of two or three of his installations – he himself was not present. The spiritual “I” had vanished. It was made to disappear by the genius loci, the spirit of the place, which shakes off all contemporary exhibitions from itself. The Vigadó Gallery, ‘the anointed temple of Hungarian art’ (quote from Gy. F.) is unsuitable for presenting contemporary Hungarian art. The dreary, barn-like halls on the second floor, the division of the walls, the impossibility of ‘building the space in’, and the sterile eclectic architectural space would similarly kill a Lossonczy or even a Picasso exhibition, let alone that of an organic installation artist who works with material such as earth and plants, like Géza Samu did. Everything was in place (?) for presenting the sculptor, but the medium, the material, ‘the reality of the soil’, which imbues these works with shamanic power, just was not there. Some smaller and bigger sculptures, a few monumental works, titles, and a nice polished catalog, that’s it. If somebody wished to learn about the organic revolution of the 70’s and 80’s and Géza Samu as he grapples with both material and medium, they should look elsewhere. In the landscape, at the artist colony in Velem, in Nagyatád, or in the smoke of the old halls of the Studio in Rottenbiller Street. They are still to be found there.
Then all of a sudden, El Kazovsky moved into the Castle. The success of this exhibition was due neither to the personality of the artist – which is often regarded as extreme – nor the tabloid-like approach based on this extremity. Instead, it is to be traced back to the curatorial and financial self-sacrifice through which a genuine aphotheosis was created based on his personality, and not the works themselves. We witnessed the “glorification” of an artist who was important as a reflective and sentient intellect, exciting as an artist whose creations involve picture, space, stage and installation alike, and who, with his multiple roots and complex personality, is a testimony of our time. Eventually united into a single image or work by El Kazovsky, the exhibition gave a genuine, non-idealized – albeit a bit too elevated – overview of the artistic areas this complicated personality created in. There was no trace of a chronology, and not even the grouping of the pictures was done in a work or topic oriented manner. They simply showed the entire El Kazovsky oeuvre through a lens that was rather special but not alien from the author. I met him, whenever I was there. We had good chats about movies, theater, and about where his spirit was traveling.
Tünde Topor (art historian, Chief Editor of Artmagazin)
Among last year’s events I appreciated the OFF Biennale the most, because it gave an example of how to become independent, while also demonstrating that professional cooperation is indeed feasible and a supportive medium is present.
Nevertheless, what I see as the biggest problem is also linked to OFF: namely, the inability to communicate with the world outside the field. In some situations, when attracting a wider audience is at stake, we could try to think with the heads of others and speak and write in a language that does not deter laymen who would otherwise be interested. Furthermore, the criticism does not only apply to the language used: I believe that the selection process could be more easy-going and open towards works and event plans that follow a different approach.
The article was published in the February-March issue, 2016.
English translation: Tamás Varga