Exhibition on the Hungarian Avant-Garde. A project by Marco Bene
ANNYIT ÉR, MINT HALOTTNAK A CSÓK | WORTH AS MUCH AS A KISS TO A DEAD MAN September 21, 2022
With artworks by Gábor Bódy & Marcel Odenbach; Miklós Erdély, Tibor Hajas, Endre Tót, Dóra Maurer; Imre Póth, Katalin Ladik & Attila Csernik. | Musique concrète by László Végh. | Non-art artworks by the non-art artists Tamás St Jauby, Tamás Szentjóby and other Tamás’s. | All in conversation with Alan Martín Segal
A research project curated by Marco Bene
It is imperative, at the outset, to clarify what the title of this project stands for. The figurative meaning of the Hungarian idiom —annyit ér, mint halottnak a csók— conveys that something is not worth a whoop, not worth the effort, worthless, and so on. In 1968, a secret state informant (codename: Mészáros) wrote, after witnessing the first happening in Hungary,1 that these events are “pastimes for killing boredom [...] turning away from active-constructive activity, and, thus, facilitating the politics of subversive decentralisation.” Most certainly, if this exhibition would have been staged back then, his words about it would not be significantly altered, and like he did back then, he would probably recommend to the Ministry of Interior that the organizers be separated from their group of collaborators and, ultimately, institutionalized in a psychiatric facility. Seen in that light, the exhibition is worth nothing (or would have been worth nothing), since the pieces —around 20 works of art and non-art, films transferred to video, videos, objects, action-objects, actions, photographs, texts, books and ephemera, conceived by artists and non-art artists during the long sixties and beyond in Hungary—, many of which censored at the time, deviate from the official aesthetic function par excellence in the “happiest barracks” of the Eastern Bloc: propaganda, art by and for the people, an “active-constructive activity.” All pieces were made in the aftermath of the failed 1956 Hungarian uprising, “crushed” as Jasmina Tumbas’ states, by “Soviet tanks;’’ after János Kádár’s “administration transformed socialist institutions associated with the arts [through] the state’s monopoly in purchases of artworks, control of exhibition venues, and artists’ access to studio spaces and stipends.” Yet, from the 1960s onwards certain restrictions began to ease, which, as Tumbas’ mentions, was the result of “an act of guilty conscience,’’ that tried to compensate “for the brutal executions during [the] 1956” revolution. Experimentation beyond Socialist Realism, was thus possible, but only under the rubrics of what was sometimes called the “holy trinity of cultural policy,” or “the three Ts:” “(Tiltas, Tűres, Támogatas / Prohibited, Tolerated, Supported).” Many of the practices that will hereafter be considered purposefully tested the limits of what could be tolerated, and might be defined, as Klara Kemp-Welch does, helped by the words of Václav Havel: as antipolitical in nature, because they “[offer] nothing and [promise] nothing.” “‘[P]olitical’ because they do not ‘play politics.’” Although I partially agree, for me antipolitical art would be that which is reactionary, destitutive, or a form of political denouncement. It exemplifies what I like to call, borrowing from theology, a cataphatic engagement. Whereas the figures exhibited here play another game altogether. They do respond only through a via negativa, demonstrating rather than an antipolitical nature, what I call an apophatic7 engagement. Kemp-Welch formulates this beautifully (even though describing such an approach as antipolitical) by quoting “the poet Ivan Jirous,” who “described this alternative attitude as a ‘parallel polis,’”8 What she is really underlining, what the exhibition is really hinting at, is the importance of the most brilliant gesture and its potentiality, an approach conspicuous by its absence: refusal. “[T]he goal of our underground is to create a second culture, a culture completely independent from all official communication media and the conventional hierarchy of value judgements put out by the establishment. It is to be a culture that does not have as its goal the destruction of the establishment, because by attempting this, it would —in effect— mean that we would fall into the trap of playing their game.”
Allow me, before delving into personal narratives, to clarify what the title of this exhibition/screening stands for. The literal translation of the Hungarian idiom —annyit ér, mint halottnak a csók— is worth as much as a kiss to a dead man, and that’s all we need to know for now. I must have been about six years old when my father started telling me these little stories: tales starring his friends from Budapest during his late teens. He told me one of those friends used to enter trains and look at the ceiling until the other passengers, moved by curiosity, gazed up in unison. Another friend sat in front of the only international hotel of the capital and waited, sitting, until the police came to arrest him on grounds I did not understand at the time. I always thought those stories were orchestrated little jokes from when he lived there, just before he defected, back when the iron curtain was relatively healthy. Yet years later —when I was twenty-four and after studying Art History at Goldsmiths— I discovered, while working in Vienna at an art fair, a small booth and tribute to the Hungarian neo-avant-garde of the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s. To my surprise, inside the stand, I stumbled upon works by Tamás Szentjóby, my brother’s godfather, whom I knew only by name. I approached a person to ask about Szentjóby’s work. The person told me that Szentjóby was one of the instigators of conceptual art in Hungary. We approached a black and white photograph of him sitting on a chair, outside, with his back to a building. “This work is called Sit Out - Be Forbidden! and it’s from 1972,” she said, and went on to explain that Szentjóby sat in front of Budapest’s International Hotel, with a leather belt covering his mouth, re-enacting the “binding and gagging” of the co-founder of the Black Panthers, Bobby Seale, at the famous 1968 Chicago trial. Shortly after Szentjóby finished his action the police arrived on the scene. It was strange to put a face to an action that throughout my childhood was a bizarre joke. The person at the booth looked at me and said: “You are the spitting image of Szentjóby when he was young.” I let it slide. She repeated it. I said “well, that’s strange.” She gave me her card. I later found out that she was Emese Kürti,a scholar and researcher of Szentjóby and the Hungarian artists of the period. My father, who had passed away when I was thirteen, never told me his friends were artist, so only at the age of twenty-four did I realize that those stories of childhood that haunted me, and certainly shaped my sense of humour and aesthetic judgement, were, in fact, happenings, poetical gestures, actionism and works of passive resistance. An overpowering urge to find out more about these figures consumed me in the years that followed, and while I searched and searched, trying to find my father or his stories in photographs, videos and texts; the myths of youth and the myths that make up history were being intertwined, creating moires. The spirit of a bygone time and space entangled with oral accounts: my father’s recollections from youth. This summer, while I was conducting research in Budapest for a few months, staying at what was my grandfather’s apartment, I called my uncle —my father’s brother— and questioned him about the Hungarian scene of the ‘70s. I told him about Vienna, and asked him if he could tell me more about those times. He started speaking about an action Szentjóby carried out. Taking place next to my grandfather’s apartment. He told me Szentjóby was tied to a chair from the apartment outside the building, and that at one point the police arrived to arrest him. The knots were so strong and complex, he said, that the police had no choice but to lift it up with him on top, carrying Tamás like a king on his throne, to a police wagon so small that the chair and sitter could not be fitted. “I have read very different reports,” I said. To which he replied that, of course, in a state where you had to go through censors to print, the common thing was to spread news, deeds and so on, by word of mouth —rumorology he called it— and that it was quite possible that memory had played a trick on him. In short, this is how this ongoing project began, with a trick on memory and the question: how much is a kiss to a dead man worth?
ALAN MARTÍN SEGAL, NO ANTERIORITY, 2022 2K Single channel video, colour, stereo sound, 7’48’’
In conversation with the more than 20 works on view, a never-before-shown single-channel video by Argentinean artist Alan Martín Segal, titled No Anteriority, 2022, highlights both the contrasts and similarities between geographically and temporally distant practices. The sensuality of the animations, superimposed with dreamlike images of fabrics, skins and spaces devoid of figures, are underscored by texts that push us to think that what No Anteriority, is about is the nature of mnemonic operations, the collection of both iconography and exposed matter, as well as the construction of semiotic relationships between parallel terms.
Alan Martín Segal (1985 Buenos, Argentina; lives and works between Buenos Aires and New York) received his MFA from the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts at Bard College. Segal received grants from the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture (USA), Di Tella Program for Artists (Argentina) and Fondazione Antonio Ratti (Italy). His work has been shown in international institutions, galleries and biennials like Hesell Museum of Art, New York; Buenos Aires Museum of Modern Art, Buenos Aires; BIENALSUR, the South America Contemporary Art Biennial; The Kitchen, New York; Wroclaw Art Center, Wroclaw among others. Segal’s films were screened at the New York Film Festival, Viennale, Rencontres Internationales and Louvre Museum.
1. Gábor Bódy and Marcel Odenbach, Conversation Between East and West, 1979 Analog video, U-Matic, b/w, mono, 3’17’’. Ludwig Museum – Museum of Contemporary Art, Budapest © [according to the copyright owner].
2 & 3. Endre Tót, TÓTalJOYS, 1975-76 & ZERO DEMO London, 1990 Video, b/w, sound, 16’31’’ + 2’12’’ & Video, colour, sound, 27’41’’. Courtesy of the artist and acb Galéria.
4. Dóra Maurer, Relative Swingings, 1973 Film, B/W, sound, 16 mm transferred to digital video, 10’ Director of Photography: János Gulyás. Executive Producer: István Fogarasi. BBS. Courtesy of the artist, Vintage Galéria and Carl Kostyál.
5. Tibor Hajas, Self-Fashion Show (Öndivatbemutató), 1976 B/w, sound, 35 mm transfer to digiBeta, 14’41’’. Ludwig Museum – Museum of Contemporary Art, Budapest © [according to the copyright owner].
6. Miklós Erdély, Pihenés (Relaxation), 1984 Infermental 3: Personalities. Video, Analog video.U-Matic, b/w, mono, 1’15’’. Courtesy of the Miklós Erdély Foundation and ZKM: Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe.
7. Dóra Maurer, Proportions, 1979 Video document, b/w, 10’. Director of Photography: Theo Droste. Courtesy of the artist, Vintage Galéria and Carl Kostyál.
8. A tribute Janos Major, György Jovánovics and Miklós Erdély’s Janos Major Coat, 1973, 2022. Coat, wooden hanger.
9 & 10. Dóra Maurer, Kalah, 1980 Film, colour, sound, 35 mm transferred to digital video, 10’. Sounds & Music: Zoltán Jeney. Special FX Photographer: András Klausz. Screenplay: Dóra Maurer, Zoltán Jeney. Sound Engineer: András Nyerges. Executive Producer: Gyula Grósz. BBS. Courtesy of the artist, Vintage Galéria and Carl Kostyál. & Katalin Ladik, Poemin, 1980 Video by Bogdanka Poznanović, colour, sound 10’14”. Courtesy of the artist and acb Galéria.
11. Endre Tót, Viszlát New York / Goodbye New York, 1982 Photo. Courtesy of the artist and acb Galéria.
12. Miklós Erdély, Time Travel, I–V, 1975. Photomontage series, number 3. Szent István Király Museum, Székesfehérvár. Photo Szent István Király Museum, Székesfehérvár. Courtesy of the Miklós Erdély Foundation.
13.Tamas St. Auby (Szentjoby), Czechoslovakian Radio 1968, 1969/2022 Red brick, paper and sulphur paint. Red brick, paper and sulphur paint. Courtesy of IPUTNPU-Archives.
14. The Lunch (in memoriam Batu Khan) - The first Hungarian Happening, 25 06 1966. N/8 b&w film transferred camera: László Gyémánt; narrated by Tamás Szentjóby. Organised by Gábor Altorjay and Tamás Szentjóby (codename: Schwitters), with the cooperation of Miklós Jankovics and István Varannai; and the help of Enikő Balla, Miklós Erdély, and Csaba Koncz. Courtesy of IPUTNPU-Archives.
15. Gyula Pauer, Kisplasztikus levél (Sculpture of the Holy Shroud), 1993 Bronze-silver, (postamens:mugranite) 30x20x0,5 cm.
16. Tamás St.Auby, Water Cooling Down, 1965/2022 Vessel, warm water. Courtesy of IPUTNPU-Archives. (Instruction for the public: When the water cools down, replace it with hot water. Flux-version: When the water cools down, move the vessel with the water in it to a place of lower temperature.)
17 & 18. New Year’s party at László Végh apartment, c. 1960s. Film transferred to video, colour, silent, 2’57’’. Courtesy of Emese Kürti. & Imre Póth, Katalin Ladik, Attila Csernik, O-Pus, 1972. Video, colour, sound: Attila Csernik, 8’15’’. Courtesy of the artists and acb Galéria.
19. Endre Tót, I am glad if, 1972-1973. Telecine 16 mm film, b/w, silent. Courtesy of the artist and acb Galéria.
20. László Végh, Idôm (My Time) + Idők (Times), 1961 Mono sound pieces of 2’22’’ and 4’59’’. Courtesy of Emese Kürti.
21. Alan Martín Segal, No Anteriority, 2022 2K Single channel video, colour, stereo sound.
22. Tamás St. Auby, Kentaur (Centaur), 1973–75/2009 16 mm transferred to video, b/w, sound, 40’. Courtesy of IPUTNPU-Archives.
Dedicated to László Bene, Sándor Pinczehelyi, Janos Major, György Jovánovics and Erdély