Interview with Munkácsy Prize-winning artist Csaba Nagy about his Public Art Creations titled Organic Point and Time Planes
by Anna Nagy
As evidenced by the prizes you have been awarded, you are mostly known and renowned by the members of the profession as a graphic artist, and we primarily encounter woodcuts of a philosophical/meditative nature at your exhibitions. However, in the past two years you came up with two public artworks, and although it is not unusual of you to experiment with different genres, these two works (‘Organic Point’ and ‘Time Planes’) seem to have garnered more attention than the earlier ones. How were these works born? What sort of issues and problems were on your mind when creating them?
Csaba Nagy: I’ve always been attracted to space, the landscape, a game with the natural and artificial environment, a kind of “garden building”, and I keep getting entangled in spatial problems in my graphic works as well. Through the visible and perceptible qualities of space, and through their boundaries, something invisible linked to the notion of timelessness is always present. Hence, a time dimension tied to space also appears in my works. At the same time, one thing that has always interested me – albeit in a less abstract way – is how to create livable public spaces, with experts deciding what they should include.
What could be the reason why in Hungary it is almost impossible to get out of the genre attitude that has dominated public space sculpture, whether we talk about a memorial or a work of art installed in some public place of a city? Why do clients (mayors, local elected members, etc.) stick to suiting a presumed public taste even if their personal preferences or choices would be completely different?
Cs. N.: Because Hungarian society is divided and so are the stakeholders of the arts sector. The existence of the Hungarian Academy of Arts is no coincidence. It’s like in Germany in the 1930’s and 40’s, when many people assisted a certain way of thinking. Maybe you only serve the “higher power” very subtly, in relation to some of its tiny elements, and it is not even noticed. You identify with the ideology only to a small extent, but later on it becomes irreversible. This is the worst thing about it really, that we are afraid to disclose our way of thinking to others. That said, artists in Hungary are not more talented or less talented than artists elsewhere in the world are, only the dimensions are different. In England, for example, everything is on a larger scale. Someone like Anthony Gormley, for instance, can be a star sculpture because he has an economic background, a cultural medium behind him which welcomes up-to-date and acceptable things appearing in public spaces. There is a receptive middle class medium which wishes to enhance its quality of life by being open to good art. In Hungary, it’s all very complex. For one thing, our society is divided in all respects. At the same time we are witnessing as people are going down in the world more and more, and we are running out of a middle class.
You were lucky with these two works of yours…
Cs. N.: What I was lucky with was that the local authorities could be persuaded. Both works were commissioned by the City of Bük, and they did not want to stick to “tried and tested” schemes and were not afraid of innovation and a bolder form language. I think it can serve as an absolutely positive example. Already in the case of my object titled Organic Point, I had a couple points of view in mind which shaped my thinking. Nevertheless, this also means that you assume a kind of responsibility for how you convert the available space, with “the work of art” within it. The choice of material is an example. Corten steel, which is nowadays a widely used material in public spaces, is an alloy of metals which forms a thin protective oxide layer on its surface and attains a noble verdigris over time. So it has a kind of archaic character which still gives the object a modern appearance, yet it also makes it seem as if it has grown straight out of nature.
I guess the title refers to this too. You not only summon nature but simultaneously shape the artificial environment into nature. You perform a kind of reorganization, which is evidenced by the fact that visitors take great delight in taking possession of your work. It is a work of art that is also an object for everyday use. At the same time, even the very gesture of giving it a title indicates that the “artistic nature” of these works is also important to you.
Cs. N.: Yes, this duality is indeed present, because this particular work is installed in a Kneipp park which serves people’s recuperation, and part of it is a “treadway” one has to go through barefoot. Into this setting I wanted to place an object (I had an everyday object on my mind) which can function as a community space that provides an opportunity for conversation. The half-spheres are purposefully suspended in a way to allow us to turn towards each other. The stainless steel half-spheres hang on the body like “resting capsules”. This is not such a great novelty, but I did have to invent it design-wise. And the function determined the shape. The body holding the capsule is self-supporting and consists of several quadrant-shaped pillars starting out from the same radius point but slided in space, connected by a metal mesh. The mesh is a reference to the tradition of basket weaving. On the one hand, it serves stability, and on the other hand, it provides the creepers planted at the feet of the pillars something to cling onto. The body can be regarded as a wooden pergola too. My goal with the creepers was to have them slowly and gradually take over the surface and take possession of the whole structure over time, creating an organic unity with the environment, with the original construction appearing here and there only.
This harmony coming about through contrasts is also present in the way in which the bending, patinating metal almost turns into wood, or as the steel globes, which also recall the waving of water, evoke the caring and protective nature of the womb. A work of art that invites us for both playing together and meditating alone.
Cs. N.: And besides that it is also a junction, since it was made for the bath, and I wanted it to become a characteristic, recognizable symbol of the place over time.
Another work of yours is also related to Bük, where you live. The city celebrated the 750th anniversary of its foundation in 2015, and the creation and installation of your dimensional sculpture titled ‘Time Plane’ was commissioned for this occasion. As far as I am concerned, the local authorities of the City of Bük had not originally planned for any public artworks to be installed during the “BÜK 750” program series, but you still decided to come up with a concept. Did you finally get a free hand in the design? Or were there expectations formulated on the side of the client?
Cs. N.: Indeed, I came up with a plan – but while hesitating the local council ran out of time, and it was no longer possible to open a restricted tender procedure -, but I still thought that the occasion could justify the installation of a public artwork in one of the city’s public places, since the concept of transforming public spaces is an important strategic issue for the city. The plan was finally adopted. The contract was about the development of a complex space including lighting and cultivating vegetation. What an exciting opportunity! Among many other considerations, I wanted people to take ownership of the space, and use it and move around in it just like at home. I believe we’ve met that goal: according to the nearby surveillance cameras people do not only walk around the place again and again, but happily take selfies in front of the sculpture, which could thus become an emblematic public venue over time.
You can sit on two of the four blocks, while the highest one of them displays text from the settlement’s 750-year-old founding charter. I did not want a classic memorial, in terms of either form or content, and the concept was also justified by the features of the local environment. The seat of the local authorities had just been renovated, and aluminum was a better fit for the space that had been constructed. The impact of new technologies on visual language is inevitable, and you need a certain openness and up-to-date thinking to be able to “create the past” with non-traditional means.
What was the idea?
Cs. N.: Instead of the classic depiction of the human figure, I designed a solution in which the central figure is made up of metal sheets, with the sections symbolizing the 750 years that have passed with a continuous human presence. The material I considered authentic for this purpose was aluminum plate. Its airy and soft appearance is a better fit for a more profound commemoration.
Nevertheless, the figure still suggests permanence. It reminds me to archaic Greek statues, but instead of eternity it rather suggests the bizarre staticity of the monotonous and relentless passing of time. In this way, it functions as a “memorial site” for the future as well, since it confronts the viewer with the unchanging nature that is present in change.
Cs. N.: At the same time layered statues or statues built up of sheet metal or building-blocks are not unprecedented in contemporary sculpture, just think of the works of David Černy or Park Chan. Time is so elusive and transparent, and this particular solution amplifies this sensation, dematerializing space as it were – particularly at night when the figure and the surrounding space are illuminated. And I wanted to visualize human presence in the easiest way possible. The shape of the sculpture occurred to me in a totally natural way, without any conscious reference to, or reflection on, the works I have just mentioned.
Beyond their space organizing function, for what reasons have you chosen blocks that stick out of the ground and have different heights?
Cs. N.: In addition to the work’s natural horizontal expansion, the vertical object elements symbolize Man’s disposition to shape the environment and interact with it. The reticulated forms – as well as the granite tiles which, however, resemble aluminium in their tone – are a reference to the continuous change, evolution and growth generated by Man. And it is just natural that children use it for hopscotch.
Is it this naturalness and directness what makes the figure to appear as if it was standing in grass?
Cs. N.: Yes, I hid the foundation deliberately, as the organic reticulation of blocks reminds us to the fact that our existence in the presence can be regarded as a kind of illusion. Bük is not Rome, it doesn’t have cultural layers. It only has these written records. I also had the anonymous in mind who had their own story too: they were needed, too, for us to be here, just as the ones coming after us need us to be able to do the same.
 Csaba Nagy’s exhibition titled The Metaphysics of Space ran till the end of January this year in the Zero Gallery of the Savaria Campus at the University of West Hungary in Szombathely.