related exhibition:
30. November 2011. - 31. December

Emese Kürti :

More Naked



"On the other hand, the Eastern European opposition had to learn - often first-hand - that not only do these rights [social equality and justice], or the lack of their efficient institutionality, leave the individual completely unprotected against the autocratic rule of the state, but they also make the public’s supervision of the state impossible. Under such circumstances, any expression of dissent or any manifestation of spontaneous public activities can be nipped in the bud."

The book Diktatúra a szükségletek felett [Dictatorship beyond necessity], co-authored by Ferenc Fehér - Ágnes Heller - György Márkus, from where the above quote was taken, was written before the development of the Polish Solidarity movement, and it describes the nature of the repressive regimes of the time through a parallel analysis of the Western and Eastern left wing. A seminal work of the Hungarian critical left, it primarily endeavours to define bureaucratic Stalinism by comparing the Soviet Union with the Eastern European models, for which, especially in the second chapter written by Ágnes Heller (A politikai elnyomás és következményei - Political Oppression and its Consequences), it employs the key notion of legitimation and the phrase legitimacy crisis. The legitimation efforts of the ruling power were not merely directed at itself as an entity of the present, but it wanted to achieve "that the exorbitant legitimation be transformed into tradition-based legitimation."

After the change of regime, tradition as a legitimate cultural reference became a key notion of the conservative Fidesz-government’s cultural policy, and they used it for realising the transition from the "national way of Socialism" to "civic values". In this rhetoric, tradition does not stand for the critical re-creation of culture; instead, it is the sole objective, along with cultural products that can correspond to the ideologically rather than aesthetically delineated category of "national" character.

So, in this respect, the first Fidesz government represented a quite strongly articulated standpoint, while the second, the present Fidesz government considers culture a component of the totalistic ideological state apparatus, which loses character not so much on account of tradition as due to general dictatorial directives of the state. Similarly to any other financially vulnerable sphere, the field of art cannot exempt itself from the ever so totalistic control; however, through aesthetic preferences, it reflects the segmented condition of society better than anything.

Even the notion of "cultural grandness", which was an earlier requirement in the name of tradition, is undermined by cultural political erosion justified by economic constraints, and there is nothing to oppose it, only imaginary sand castles behind the catafalque of Kunsthalle. Their realisation is no more realistic than the appearance of ministerial fly carriages on Andrássy Boulevard. What is more important now, however, the notion employed by Heller’s team: the issue of legitimation with respect to state-governed cultural institutions, among circumstances that refer back to the problems expounded by the above quote, the ever so extreme conditions of state autocracy and the individual, or the civil society and the sphere of art within.

The process of appointing Gábor Gulyás as the director of Kunsthalle was a perfect example of the situation when autocratic power conducts its business with complete negligence of the opinion of professional organisations, and professional opposition raises its voice in acts of protest that go no further than private conversation due to lack of experience, practice and solidarity; in other words, the two parties acted in two completely different spheres. Gábor Gulyás received the legitimation of only the ruling power, and not the profession, which is the only means of vengeance for the profession not being able to stand up for their own interests and for having to accept the decision taken without their consent. Gulyás attempted to resolve the legitimacy crisis with a conference, but he failed to reckon with the fact that small steps can also have enormous footprints: the layoff of curators, his not quite elegant behaviour with his predecessor and the censored professional talks [1] only make the situation worse. Of course, in Hungary this does not entail organised protests, he can count on that, only a toxic atmosphere that kills the autonomy of artistic functioning.

It was not long before it struck: upon the artist’s proposal, Zsolt Petrányi, former director of Kunsthalle, started planning a travelling exhibition for Ilona Németh, which would have spanned several European countries and its most convenient Budapest venue would have been Ernst Museum. According to the artist’s intention, the video piece would have been based on the story of Ágnes Heller’s grandmother, the first female student at the University of Vienna, who was back then separated by screens from the male students. The synopsis can be classified among Németh’s feminist pieces, such as the video 8 Men based on female narration, exhibited in 2B Gallery just a year ago.

Eventually, however, the piece was not made on account of the cultural political circumstances. The two-channel video installation displayed instead with a demonstrative purpose in the foyer of Ernst Museum was a summary of a complex series of events from the abatement of the original intention through the moral and psychological reasons for the process leading to this gesture. Its title was Dilemma. According to its original purpose, and eventually determined by the political environment, the project goes beyond the dimensions of Hungarian cultural life, and develops into a kind of Eastern European symptomatic protest-artwork, which is more reminiscent of an organism besieged by various diseases than a "traditional" work of art.

Arising from her double citizenship, Ilona Németh’s double social consciousness is strongly political; the critical experience of history and contemporary present entails such reflected attitude in her case, which constructs existential responsibility not as a banality, but as moral obligation. To her, taking part in the functioning of society is not an abstraction but a concrete duty, which, in the times around the change of regime, entailed active political work, while as a result of actual action, her art seemingly turned autonomous. The greater level of freedom resulting from the double perspective entails a parallel experience of the (practical) institutional system of art. She has had comparative experiences of the reactions of the profession in critical situations: Slovakian and Hungarian galleries and museums, the power structures operating them and the civil society that functions as control.

For instance, immediately before Ilona Németh’s exhibition would have opened in Slovakia, the director of the Ján Koniarek Galley of Trnava, also the curator of her exhibition, was dismissed. According to the artist, the dismissal triggered an enormous wave of protests among art historians, artists, curators, and even the public and the journalists covering the process. The event evolved into an organised civil protest, in the course of which, in solidarity with the curator, the artist decided not to organise her exhibition. Thus, the events in Budapest where somewhat predestined by the calling off of the Slovakian exhibition, which was a moral gesture expressed in a much less ambiguous situation than the one with Kunsthalle, which culminated in a dilemma, where the series of gradual and parallel events resulted in a rather confusing and generally demoralising atmosphere.

"This piece cannot have positive reception from either side" - said the artist in a radio interview [2]. Her utterance justified not only the perfectness of the metaphor (dilemma), but also the conscious gauging of the ethical and aesthetic profundity of the complex situation, the contents related to institutional critique, her political stance, the personal tone. She could not make the right decision. Ilona Németh had to choose between creating the originally intended autonomous work of art (I am using the notion of autonomy as a definitional description of excluding current political and not the broader social political content, as the artist’s original intention for the piece had been built on a subjective example from the history of women’s emancipatory endeavours) and realising a confrontational event of institutional critique based on dialectic interpretation. Eventually, she opted for the latter.

The "event" status bears factors of uncertainty even for the artist: as it was displayed within the boundaries of a museum space still (in this aspect it is indifferent that it was the foyer), the production could rightly claim the status and quality of "exhibition". If, however, we presume it to be an "exhibition", which is the institutional form of art and art products, then we can have expectations in the light of which we may even regret, or - more strongly - disapprove of, the fact that the planned artwork has not been finished.

It is important to point out that the exhibition was never banned by definition, and although Ilona Németh proposed to the leadership that she would withdraw from organising it, they declined her offer. Gábor Gulyás even insisted to make the opening speech himself. The circumstances of appointing the new director, the story of the originally commissioned, then dismissed curator, Lívia Páldi (who, as one of the next documenta’s curatorial agents, would have been worthwhile to keep at the institution if for no other reason then the prestige it would have meant for Kunsthalle), the generally cumbersome preparation of the exhibition, but most importantly, the scandal of Ágnes Heller and the MTA Institute of Philosophy (which was not the first, as we know - let us remember the philosopher trial of 1973 and the series of events that led to the execution of critical Marxism in Hungary, the impact of which is still tangible), when Gulyás, then director of MODEM Debrecen, was the only one on the conservative side to defend the liberal thinkers charged with corruption - all in all, these events together contributed to the development of the difficult situation around making a decision.

Ilona Németh made her interview with Ágnes Heller on 3 January 2011, a week before the scandal, which could be termed as provocation, broke out. She considers Heller an icon of contemporary culture, whose Hungarian status does not concord with her international recognition, and whom she did not want to involve personally or as a person constructing an artwork into an exhibition procedure she deemed uncontrollable.

The more personal one of the videos exhibited in Ernst Museum had been made by Endre Koronczi as a by-product of the interview made for the m.ikOn series, and it only became clear in the preparatory phase of the exhibition-event that it could be useful in the circumstances that had evolved. So, this recording features the skeleton of the imaginary work, at the stage when its completion still seemed realistic. According to this, the piece would have been made up of several videos and a larger installation. In lack of these, the exhibition spaces of Ernst Museum remained empty, and the artist closed the space off at the stairway. The cordon and the unused space with blackened floor had some kind of dramatic effect even if the artist had no intention of directing attention at the perception of the historical space of Ernst Museum and the rejection of the museum’s functions, although she was fully aware of the significance of the location.

Ultimately, in the section outside the canonical space, the matter of the dilemma (to exhibit or not, and if yes, what) can be reconstructed with the help of two videos of altogether 38 minutes, with the contribution of Koronczi in both cases. "The background has come into the foreground", he says. The first footage evokes the laid-back, spontaneous atmosphere of amateur, documentary home videos, in the relaxed, natural narrative style of "times before the dilemma". The second, longer footage is an artificial construct, recorded in the space of Ernst Museum, furnished with rows of brown chairs, practically constructing the installation of the planned exhibition, which was disassembled after recording the interview, indicating that the temporariness was the result of conscious authorial decision and not, for instance, financial difficulties.

The intervention also involves the artist’s external features inasmuch as she wears her over-emphasised make-up as a mask. The mask-effect is in confrontational relation with the deviceless, primary narrative, Németh’s self-exploratory analysis and ethical struggle, which runs the risk of being interpreted by the viewer as excessive moralising. The two videos complement yet push each other apart; they converge and distance, like plates belonging to different layers of reality, which have no intention of making some kind of whole - all they do is offer the dialectic of their mutual relation.

The present condition of cultural life in Hungary reflects how the public’s supervision of the state is becoming impossible, which is all the graver because in lack of collective solidarity, it leaves the consideration of resistance to the moral competencies of the individual. Ilona Németh took her doubts, and not her art, to the public, "more naked than if I had strolled along the boulevard," because the community itself could not discuss a problem of the community at the ethical level that would have made it avoidable to speak about it at the cost of making the individual vulnerable. This dilemma is not the dilemma of Ilona Németh, but of the Hungarian, and even Central and Eastern European art scene. However, apparently there is no coherent collective force that could protect her from it.


Translated by Daniel Sipos

[1] The Way of Creation,

[2] From: Ilona Németh

The discussion announced for 7 December at Ernst Museum within the framework of my exhibition Dilemma is presently at a stage where Kunsthalle doesn’t consider it its official event, nor does it pose obstacles to holding it as a private event. This is the information I informally received at 7:35 on 5 December, over the phone from my curator.

During the preparation of the exhibition, and then since 29 November, I’ve been asking Kunsthalle to invite the participants for a discussion. I invited Zsóka Tatai to moderate, and she accepted, but I had to decline today, as Kunsthalle hasn’t yet started to organise the event. None of the people I recommended for the discussion met the undefined requirements of Kunsthalle. I accepted the three people proposed by Gábor Gulyás for the discussion, but I wanted to add some of my own candidates. Unfortunately, we could not come to an agreement.

There is a location with a date neither prohibited nor permitted, for a "private event". I can have it at 7:35 PM on Monday, if I want to. After several months of conciliation, the ball landed on my side. The discussion was [...] by Kunsthalle.


27. January 2012.