related exhibition:
Reading in Absence
16. September 2005. - 9. October

Tijana Stepanovic:

Mind the Gap!
Reading in Absence


"Mind the gap," passengers of the London Underground are instructed every day. People are warned to pay attention to absence over and over by a voice, which comes from above, from an unknown source.

The sentence in the given context, of course carries a more ordinary meaning. What is it that passengers are advised to do? They are cautioned to mind the opening that results from the inexact fitting of the underground train and the platform. They should step over the absence. If they don’t, the consequences can be severe. So, in our own best interest, we do this day after day: we automatically step over the gap – the absence – searching for steady ground under our feet.

Nevertheless, maybe there are some of us whose minds occasionally venture outside the given interpretive framework to hear the metaphoric meaning – and significance – of the warning: that we should pay attention to the absence (those absences) that result from the inexact fitting of the mosaic pieces of our lives and selves. We should pay attention to them. In other words, we should not ignore them. We are to seek them. After all, we can only become “without absence,” or whole, through recognising the various absences in ourselves.

It is a search for absence that thirteen artists have been invited to undertake by Eszter Lázár, curator of Trafó Gallery’s exhibition entitled Reading in Absence. Searching shows up in every art piece as an explicit creative method, ensuring a sense of coherence to the exhibition. In other words, the visitor encounters artworks that thematise searching itself, mostly through the creative processes. This, in most cases, means the metaphorisation of the search for self-identity. What is identity, what is the self? This is one of the most absurd questions, and still we continue to ask it. What are the possible aspects of the various parts of the self, what components do they have and what is their relationship to each other? Finding answers to these latter questions seems like a more productive work hypothesis. It was these matters that the majority of the artists attempted to look into.

A number of the exhibiting artists – Zsófia Váradi, Ádám Lendvai and Pál Szacsva y – endeavoured to capture a collective aspect of identity and addressed the questions of social identity. The recognition and familiarisation of the importance of social identity are especially important in individualistic societies, where we often seem to forget that the various groups we intentionally or unintentionally belong to comprise just as important a part of our selves as our individual characteristics or goals.

In one of her earlier works, Zsófia Váradi collected and cut out details of photos of family members who resembled her, and from these she assembled her own portrait, without using a single shot of herself. She has long been engaged with the topic of inner and outer identity and (family) ties, and it is this thematic that she elaborates on in her Virtual Family (Talált Család) on exhibit at the Trafó. The family tree consists of photos of acquaintances and strangers that the artist has chosen as members of her fictive family because of their physical resemblances to her. External features, however, quickly turn into internal ties and in this way, people who were earlier unknown to each other can make up a real community. While this community was created by possible and accidental categories (founded on physical characteristics), such as thick eyebrows, thin lips, dark hair, its existence nevertheless makes an indelible mark in its members’ (current) identity.

Pál Szacsva y approaches from another direction, but he, also, is looking for a social facet of identity. His Artiste trouvé project, which is also advertised by stickers in public spaces, was inspired specifically by the theme of the exhibition. He is looking for (occasional) artists who create collective pieces in a framework of collaborative thinking. Szacsva y’s project points out that an obstinate adherence to one’s own intellectual property – a misunderstood form of individualism – often gets in the way of artists, scientists and researchers stepping outside their own thinking. This step of distancing can enable artists to create artwork that is actually valuable, instead of mere embellishments to their professional CV. The gaping emptiness of the blog connected to the project( indicates that the idea has only been met with disinterest, or at least, Szacsva y would not make the best PR specialist. Not a single response arrived to the call for cooperation. Or, the artist did not have time to post them while the exhibition was on view. It would, of course, be possible to ponder the relationship of theory and practice here; whether the idea itself should be regarded as a work of art or, in view of a more material artistic approach, if the artist should be held accountable for the effective use of the chosen form – the blog – in the context of the exhibition.

Ádám Lendvai is also busy at work in creating a new community. Like Zsófia Váradi, he is also proceeding along the lines of resemblances. This time, however, the focus is not on external characteristics, rather it is on the similarities between attitudes towards various topics that generates a community. The on-line project uses the internet as a medium. While the work brings into play the gestures of anonymously searching for, observing and spying on others, it is not actually about these things. After registration, visitors must answer a number of questions. The system will display for all participants the names of those ten visitors whose answers most resemble their own. What is the point to this (aside from the fact, of course, that everyone loves answering questions like ‘what would you do if you won the lottery’)?

The concept of identity also presumes a strange, paradoxical situation: we would like to be like others (as it is this that creates the experience of belonging to a community), but also be distinguishable from everyone else. We would like to feel unique and irreplaceable. The project demonstrates, and satisfies, this dual need in us. Although, if now asked, I could not say the number of combinations for all possible answers, I assume that no two visitors would select exactly the same replies. The degree of likeness can, however, be considerably large… From a statistical standpoint, of course, the work is objectionable, as, in addition to the number of identical answers, it would also be important to know which questions are more relevant for the individual. In other words, weighting would have been useful. For example, I don’t feel that the person who goes to the cinema more than once a week is very different from me, but someone who would prefer to have the full series of “Barátok közt” (Hungarian soap opera series: “Among Friends’) to “Friends,” well…

Another group of exhibitors address the search for self-identity specifically. Nevertheless, they are able to ask and state things, which are generally valid. Such is, among others, András Ravasz’ four-piece photo series entitled Transfer. Similarly to his earlier works, Ravasz once again becomes an appropriator, as he makes his own and puts on display photos that were taken in Mali by Gábor Láng, a Hungarian geologist who was searching for water (!) Africa. The central motif of the photos is searching: on every picture a few people are standing around something,(or Something), but what this is exactly, we don’t find out in any of these cases. It can be sensed, however, that things, which bear significant importance to the participants, are undergoing metamorphosis: everyone is in a state of tense observation. In one of the photos, something comes to light from the darkness of a cave. In another one, it is carried through a pipe into a container. In the third one, something is unwrapped, but we only see the process itself, and not the result. In the fourth picture, two people – one of whose roles the artist has “slipped into” by inserting his own photo in place of the original face – are cooking, which could be regarded as a form of transformation as well. What is this forever changing, transforming, metamorphosing, secret thing, which we all ceaselessly search without knowing exactly what it actually is? Transfer is an especially poetic manifestation of the search for identity, the process of seeking.

Andreas Fogarasi, who has long been interested in the concept of branding – the way names become brand names – starts out from a search for his own identity as well. This time, he has collected the misspellings of his own name in postal addresses and typed them on an A/4 sheet of paper. To what extent is a name part of our identity? When someone asks who we are, isn’t it our names we give first by way of defining ourselves? But what happens when the letters of our names get mixed up and switched? Does the brand name still refer to the same person, or does the relationship of the indicator and the indicated dissolve? How flexible is our identity? The expressly minimalist format of the typed A4 sheet is the most adequate manifestation of Fogarasi’s enquiry defined with unrelenting precision.

The malleability of identity is also thematised in the video work of Slovenian artist, Miha Knific. The main character opens a photo on his friend’s computer, which becomes more and more familiar to him. She doesn’t know who could have sent it. Perhaps he, himself? The familiarity of never before seen photographs and the mystery of the sender’s identity evoke the collective unconscious, the deepest layers of shared human knowledge, while new, potential aspects of the search for identity flash before us.

Gergely László and Péter Rákosi are tracking Mr X. Mr X is familiar to us all, as he turns up at nearly every opening. But few may know who he actually is. The artists have been taking photos of Mr X for quite some time and have also discovered shots of him in a number of archives. While a strange series does materialise about Mr X’s culture-tours, these are mosaic pieces that never quite come together to form a whole picture; the artwork – the search for identity – remains an equation with a single unknown quantity.

Estonian artist, Marko Mäetamm’s “never ending” tale, a story, which perpetually folds back on itself, engages a similar theme. This “text-film” entitled Dream is one of the artist’s role-plays in which the narrator-main character arrives at a crossroads where neither way can hold a positive decision. Whichever solution he chooses, the result will be the same choking feeling. The Dream is a story embedded in an extraordinarily brutal psycho-dramatic framework, where identity is but a labyrinth with no exit, and the freedom of choice is an illusion, which collapses like a house of cards.

In Ádám Kokesch's video the search is similarly futile, as its military-clad paintball players can find neither each other, nor their target. It is as if they were haphazardly firing away while becoming both the pursuers (searchers) and the pursued.

The narrators of Ricarda Denzer’s video (Reading in Absence - Tür 14), the most beautifully photographed and sensitive work on display, also set off in the tracks of absence when, from the traces left behind in a virtually empty flat, they try and piece together the lives of its previous inhabitants. The narrators fill in the gaps based on their own identities, thinking and stories, thereby creating completely different life stories, which tell more about them than about the unknown tenants. Reality and identity are not objective entities, they are always and everywhere a result of subjective decisions about what we perceive and what we interpret as real.

I presume it is this that Ferenc Gróf’s Colonial (Koloniál) refers to as well, except (to put it kindly) in a more enigmatic fashion. Gróf, (partly) in the format as a pseudo-documentary, explores the “successful” colonisation of the Austro-Hungarian Monarchy, which turns out to have been completely senseless; the acquired Franz Josef Land proved unusable for its owners. The “documents” compiled by Gróf are impossible to assimilate even by virtue of their abundance, except maybe for visitors with extensive experience in in-depth archive research. Although there is probably serious work and research behind this piece, it somehow gets stuck on the ‘how interesting, let’s move on’ level. According to the optimistic scenario, the viewer experiences the transformations, untraceable bifurcations and relativity of (re)searching.

Reality is a function of the subjective organising principles of the individual in the works of both Denzer and Ferenc Gróf. This is seemingly the topic of reflection for Zsolt Keserue also, who has edited and cut details from 24-hours’ worth of airtime material transmitted by two television channels with markedly different programming concepts. From one of the channels, he has collected only questions, from the other, the parts without dialogue in soap operas. The video footage thus passed through this subjective filter evokes feelings of ambivalence in viewers: they feel a simultaneous disturbance from the torrent of questions and absence from the lack of dialogue. While it appears that it is precisely the absence that is so prominent, this recognition accompanied by physiological responses (such as the beating of the heart) is the most productive feeling that visitors can walk out with from the exhibition.

He who seeks shall find, they say, but the question is – find what? It is not likely that it will be exactly what he was looking for, or at least not in the present context. The act of searching, however, is more important than its result. One could say, it is searching, itself, that the viewer can find at this exhibition.

Translated by: Zsófia Rudnay
19. October 2005.