Little Warsaw: Instauratio


That Might Be What is Missing from this Work
An interview with Katalin Keserü [1]


I have here the official statement of the Hungarian Academy of Arts, to which your name is also attached. I would ask you, as one of the signers of this petition, what you see as the problematic nature of the Little Warsaw work?

I see the basic problem in the Little Warsaw project as this: they are meddling with another work of art. Since the reflective current has come to the fore in contemporary art, this current now dominates. On the other hand, as I read these stories, the question comes to mind how reflection – and the work reflected – can end up causing such misunderstanding (which in this case is truly international and wide-ranging, as we read in the exhibition’s introductory literature). In this case, it is primarily the situation itself that causes this misunderstanding. [2]

By “situation,” do you mean Little Warsaw’s work itself, or the exhibition environment in which it appears?

Both. Let’s examine more thoroughly what is going on. What is this “situation?”

The original conception of this exhibition is to present reflections dealing with time. This is an extremely important topic these days, since we have just gone through (and are still in) decades where time has practically disappeared from people’s consciousness.[3] Even the curators of contemporary art would assume the past was unknown to us. So what is happening now is an interesting development, the topic of the exhibit being that each work reflect on some significant event in a way that the event is placed in a larger context. With the Somogyi sculpture, two different periods come into contact: one is the end of the 19th century, with its peasant movements, The Tempest Corner, and the struggle to survive; the other is the Socialist era, when monuments were erected to certain people who played a major role in those peasant movements. János Szántó Kovács, for example, was remembered with a statue. So Little Warsaw is reflecting on two different periods simultaneously…

Your view that time has lost its role in common contemporary thought – how can you explain this in light of what we discussed earlier, that contemporary art (if not exclusively), through its made-visible relationship to other works, is very much a reflection on time, or on the conception of art expressed through them?

An older piece becomes the focus of works that reflect on art itself – let’s call them essentialist – not through its temporality, but as objects that are outside of time. Thinking by artists embraces the idea that the artist does not insist on associating any work with a particular period. Though this runs contrary to the thinking of art historians I accept the idea nonetheless. In earlier periods, time had a kind of continuity to it – obvious in the changes that came with succession of styles, at least this is the presupposition of art-historical writing. But stylistic history came to an end in the twentieth century, something obviously due in part to different conceptions of time within the works themselves, like timelessness or present-ness. The title of the Amsterdam show is Time and Again, a precise name for what it deals with: what an artist’s conception of time is, and what his contemporaries’ relationship to history.

The Little Warsaw work - an important contemporary work in my view - is a logical choice for an exhibition with this theme, since it presents dislocation and recontextualization as methods.

These are the methods available to art for trying to recover historical time, and for creating a relationship with it. The result might be that there never was a unified time for the creation of this sculpture and its thematic – or, using these very same methods, we might come up with the very opposite, reinterpreting time. I would be overjoyed to see a neutral outcome, as this would make Hungarian history a happier story. But I would be unable to accept it. [4]

But its subject is not restricted to these historical periods specifically. What it really does is to unravel the fabric of the statue’s temporal and spatial contexts.

Do you say this because the statue is being exhibited separately from the pedestal that makes it visually, and de facto a monument? Yes, this is a gesture that offers the possibility of re-contextualization.

You could also call it a protest, with the railroad ties and lighting emphasizing the injustice of the setting. You could say it has no wish to blend into the museum setting, to adapt to that context.

Yes you could; that is a matter of interpretation. But no interpretation is up to the task of handling why a statue that was not created to be movable, or set on railroad ties, would be displayed in such a way. [5] This is the injustice mentioned in the text – one that can be particularly felt by a sculptor who knows that a work is not in its real form when it sits on railroad ties. As for taking things apart, I think the fundamental question is what we do to another person’s work – or to the person himself. A sculpture is a living being as well – it has an existence – as is any such work of art. This is a body we are talking about. Perhaps today’s art and criticism do not acknowledge this relationship between artist and work, but it still exists for all that. For this reason, and also because the artist’s copyright was not taken into consideration, what has happened in Amsterdam is awful. So-called “contemporary art” is objective, thoughtful, and rich in conception. Given this, you cannot create a piece – even one based on another work – without knowing everything about that other work.

I would like to return to the issue of a work’s existence in time, and to the point that, in my view, the Little Warsaw piece is trying to raise problematic issues about the status of a public sculpture. Such a piece is “public” not merely because it stands in a public space, but because it carries out some sort of dialogue with the public who use that space.

So the question is whether it can be set in some wider context. [6]

Like a museum, for example. I don’t think the piece’s sculptural values have been called into question here. What has become problematical is not this specific work, but the whole situation that it represents. Like what we take from a public sculpture when we place it in another setting, and what new meanings it takes on as a result.

…and the other side of the coin is what the public is thereby deprived of. That space, after all, is now empty. So the relocation affects the public itself, as well as the space. This happens every time a statue is removed for political reasons. When done for artistic reasons, this is just as true. I really do not see the concept that Little Warsaw is pursuing here. What do you think that is?

It might be to relativize the system of relationships inherent in a statue, or confront it with another system.

But if it wants to examine the relationships inherent in a public sculpture, and tries to throw light on this by removing it without dealing directly with those relationships but setting it among other, new ones – this is not enough. They cut the threads of the context and leave the work to its own devices.

How is removing a public statue different from removing any museum piece?

Most works of art in museums were not originally created for the museum environment, but have already been removed from their original contexts. Museums tend to forget this. I am not talking about contemporary art, of course, which generally has been created with museums in mind, at least since the nineteenth century. But museums forget that theirs is an artificial environment. Hódmezővásárhely provides the original context: the statue was erected where the historic agrarian movements took place. Taking the statue from there to a museum is not exactly faithful to its time. [7] If we remove it from its proper place, then we must examine all the ramifications of this.

True enough, Little Warsaw didn’t do any explaining. But this is because it approaches the project in a creative capacity.

But the context must be made visible within the project. This has to be done either by Little Warsaw or the people they collaborate with. If the project is left with no one in charge, then its meaning cannot emerge. By going to a museum, it has left a societal context for a purely artistic one. Today, a large segment of contemporary art deals with a range of social themes based on solidarity; works are based on attentiveness and sensitivity. In the present case, this has been stood on its head.

I must emphasize that what has most outraged the community of sculptors, myself included, is the absolute neglect of the artist’s proper rights, the responsibility of his successors. So the Somogy statue is presented like some kind of Socialist-Realist representation of a worker. We have not entirely defined Socialist Realism yet – which is a serious shortfall – but on top of that, a gesture like this can evince a range of reactions.

Little Warsaw cannot be held responsible for that.

No, not responsible. But part of the problem is that they are taking up material that is ambiguous to begin with.

It can prove fruitful to work with ambiguous, blurred subjects.

Well yes, but contemporary works have a range of meanings, just like those of earlier periods. The more reflective contemporary artists can be seen as ironical, for example, but also as the opposite of that. Some works are more than merely ambiguous: they cross into an area beyond the realm of interpretation – the work is greater than its meaning. That is what is missing in this work perhaps, although the reticence of the work, to which you just referred (and which is heart-rending for me), would seem to attest the opposite.

Let me say once more that what has happened here is simply not permissible in the eyes of a sculptor who lives in his work. Not permissible, because it cuts right to the bone. This is more than a question of rights; it is a question of one’s very living.

With more reflective works, you can say the same thing about creativity.

Creativity and artistic freedom are beyond all this. They exist outside these categories.

Budapest, January 7, 2005
Interviewed by Nikolett Erőss
Translation by: Jim Tucker



1 Katalin Keserü is an art historian, director of the Ernst Museum, Budapest

2 A later clarification: I use the word “misunderstanding” deliberately, as I wish to allow for the possibility that either Little Warsaw or the signers (including myself) have misunderstood the “situation.” (K.K.)

3 Starting in the 1960’s, even hitherto historically-oriented approaches to art history developed ahistorical methods. (K.K.)

4 Another point: the detachment of the earlier cult from the work itself (in this case, the removal of a public statue to a museum setting) is a method of cultural criticism. Its goal is to allow us to speak clearly about the work itself. But there is a real question whether this is possible when the consciousness of the cultic function is inherent in the work’s genesis. But putting this sculpture into a new context, in one of the most important museums for general art history, presents us with a new task: to examine the cult. Sociological research, in other words. (K.K.)

5 In literature, “quotes” and “borrowings,” and the like, pose a much simpler problem, since texts can be relocated without causing problems. But those visual arts that involve objects have a physical form and place. Naturally the issue of portability would never have posed a problem with a Fluxus piece. But the Somogyi sculpture is not one, but instead is tied to a particular place (like any subsequent place-specific work), its removal is, in art- historical terms, a high-handed act, and museologically speaking incorrect. Anyone who does not think in such terms, simply looking at the piece in its new context, might see the thoroughly ad hoc display of a traditional sculpture as an ironic gesture. (K.K.)

6 By this I mean from Hódmezővásárhely to western Europe. This question was not subsequently pursued. (K.K.)

7 In such a case it seems that aesthetic values have been considered exclusively. (K.K.)

24. January 2005.