The concept/conceptual paradigm
“All is water” (Thales)
According to Charles Harrison, curators and art critics resort to the umbrella term “conceptualism” when they have run out of ideas for defining a given phenomenon of art, and use it to describe “anything that looks like avant-garde practice.” (1) The terminological superficiality of journalistic practice condemned by Harrison is related to the general confusion surrounding the phenomena of conceptual art and the different narratives of different schools and theoreticians, among which Art & Language’s practice of language philosophy is only one of many interpretations of Western conceptual art. Within the discourses developing in parallel with art practices from the late sixties, the narrative represented by Benjamin Buchloh and the circle around the journal October, did not correspond, for instance, with the artistic endeavours of institutional critique and the related line-up of artists. Introduced by Lucy Lippard, the term focusing on the “dematerialization” of art has, (2) although intended to serve simplification, become yet another cornerstone of the debates on definition conducted in dominant discourses, not to mention the fact that it neglects the phenomena termed proto-conceptual by certain authors. (3)
From this perspective, it is therefore understandable that in the ever so “horizontal parallelism” (4) of the extraordinarily heterogeneous Western theory and art practice, Eastern theory faces difficulties formulating its standpoint regarding its analogous art products from behind the former Iron Curtain. Sometimes it even refrains from the endeavour. Having devoted himself to researching and collecting resources on Hungarian conceptual phenomena since the early eighties, curator and art historian Miklós Peternák has practically been following László Beke’s model of “identification” (5) when pointing out in his study of fundamental significance that “it is impossible to write about conceptual art, as its premise is that it considers the role of critic or interpreter unnecessary.” (6) According to him, this attitude gives rise to the impossibility of conceiving definitions and completing a comprehensive historical research; to the perception of the job of author/curator as restricted to the presentation of works; to the “analysis of influences”; and to the basic motif of his method: approaching writing and exhibition as conceptual works of art. This “excessive” identification might be one of the reasons for the inadequate reception (7) which I am not addressing in the present essay. Instead, I am making an attempt to rise above it, and taking the exhibition curated by Miklós Peternák at the Paks Gallery (8) as my point of departure, to outline a kind of narrative for the further interpretation of conceptual phenomena.
Borrowing the title of Gyula Konkoly’s 1969 action (Five Identical Persons Apply Here), the exhibition presented works of art classified under the term conceptual art from the nearly two decades between 1965 and 1983. Counterbalancing the dominance of photography with films and installations, the show featured originals, copies or reproductions of a number of canonical pieces from the Hungarian avant-garde. Thematic solo projects (9) alternated with more emphasized groups of artworks by some artists. The conceptual series of Dóra Maurer – who also participated as consultant – and Imre Bak had a prioritized status at the exhibition, partly owing to the interviews made with them, along with the “par excellence” conceptual artist Gyula Pauer, the 2009 reconstruction of whose Protest-Sign Forest was installed in the central space. A separate screening room on the upper floor showed a selection of experimental films by Balázs Béla Studio (partly in collaboration with members of the New Music Studio), which referred to a significant aspect of the period, interdisciplinary thought. The same floor featured a photo series of Design for supporting the objects on the ceiling (1971) by György Jovánovics (with action photos) by Jovánovics, Miklós Erdély, László Lakner, Tamás Szentjóby), as well as Szentjóby’s emblematic object, Cooling Water and documents of the first exhibition of visual poetry in Balatonboglár (curated by Dóra Maurer and Gábor Tóth, 1973). The same section housed the curator’s collection of video documentation as well as the video recordings of the 1997 symposium on conceptual art. (10)
Having been organized with a forty year delay, the exhibition was originally planned for 1983-84, when it fell through. This is the reason why part of the show comprises reconstructions, as it revives a past curatorial concept, while taking into account the various events and research results in which Miklós Peternák had a fundamental role, and which have been realized since the 1997 update of the manuscript accompanying the exhibition. (11) This hybrid exhibition concept thus simultaneously reflects a state and orientation projected back to the mid-eighties, and elements of the projective and permissive approach of the period of post- or neo-conceptual art. The prevalence of the latter is already manifested in “conceptualism” in the exhibition’s subtitle, a term which – as Terry Smith points out – conceptual artists refused to embrace during the sixties-eighties, and which would only come into art world existence with the exhibition Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin, 1950s-1980s in New York in 1999, essentially in order to satisfy the contemporary art world’s claim for paradigms. (12) Miklós Peternák took into account the tendencies of contemporary art when curating the exhibition (the reverse precedent of which had been Erzsébet Tatai’s exhibition of neo-conceptual art, (13) which rejected art-historical orthodoxies that approached the products of art with a definitive intention, and considered “periods” closed from an interpretative aspect.) (14)
From this approach ensues that, although the author is aware of the historical ontology of such terms as concept art, conceptual art, conceptualism and the latter’s variants, he uses them as freely and synonymously as his references, the majority of the works presented at the exhibition do. The extended notion of conceptualism implies the methodological simplification that every “concept based” work of art and equivalent document, design, draft, photographic idea can be classified as such. Perceiving the exhibition as an “open work” allows greater subjectivity in selection, (15) makes it possible to avoid comparative-linear modes of presentation, ensures the ontological “liberation” of works connected to specific artists, and instead of their agglomerated systematization, it can reflect the Kosuthian paradigm’s (16) principles regarding the theory of identification. (17)
Miklós Peternák’s exhibition modelled self-reflexivity, the fundamental feature of conceptualism, as well as the non-hierarchical reciprocity of art and theory, and as such – already owing to its scale and resource value –, it offered a greater than ever opportunity for becoming acquainted with the Kosuthian thought and the related object manifestations. However, the exhibition also featured works of art that belonged in the paradigm of concept art, which is, to say the least, in controversial relation with the Kosuthian paradigm both historically and philosophically, even if the other, dominant discourse overshadows these Fluxus-related phenomena.
Precisely for this reason, in my opinion it is indubitable that neither the underlying typology of objects, (18) which is in many cases based on László Beke’s previous analytical writings, nor the subversive-genealogical model provided for contemporaneous socially critical/activist art are enough today to understand the history of the Hungarian phenomena of conceptual art. Making up for the lack of adequate reception cannot be deferred any longer: if not in the eighties, but in 2014, statements, even definitions, and most importantly, accurate terminology (19) are necessary in order for the local, micro-historically founded, context-based narrative of the history of avant-garde art to be written. The task is exceptionally complex, but perhaps every experiment and additional information can contribute somewhat to making the picture clearer. (20) In order to accomplish this, I am resorting to results of some of the Central and Eastern European region’s researches that are at a more advanced stage, as well as to the discourses relevant with respect to Hungarian art, which have generated locally specific denotations in order to define a terminological framework for the art created in this scene.
When Boris Groys introduced the term Romantic Conceptualism (21) in 1979 to describe the phenomena of unofficial Soviet art and distinguish them from Anglo-American conceptual art (a term that he himself would criticise a few years later), he was confronted with a problem that one could also apply to the Eastern Bloc, namely the dichotomy of the authentic and the derivative. The principal question is, therefore, whether we consider the products of scenes far away from Western art as authentic phenomena of art, or merely derivatives of Western phenomena. Groys primarily emphasizes similarities between the conceptual art of Moscow and the West, without which the phenomena of Moscow could be reduced to mere exotic commodities. (22) Of course, the proposition was not new, for it had been present throughout the entire history of twentieth century modernism and avant-garde art, and is closely connected to the questions of self-identity and synchronicity. In the Hungarian context, analogy may be drawn with the sphere of problems described by Katalin Timár along the notions of post-colonial theories, historically close to conceptual art, arising in connection with the evaluation of works that can be related to pop art. According to Timár, the dilemma faced by the art history of Hungary or any other peripheral country is twofold: “how to apply terms that are coined locally in an international context without remaining unequivocally provincial, and how to embrace an internationally valid terminology in a local context without risking overlooking local specificities and thus colonizing our own culture, art, and thinking.” (23)
Returning to the theoretical construct of Romantic Conceptualism, the term was conceived within a comparative analysis of the Western and Eastern scenes, throughout which the author took into account the contextual specificities of unofficial Soviet art: operation without a market; the organization of micro-communities of friends, partly on account of censorship; and imagination in the utopian space of universal art history. Groys concludes that “Moscow conceptualism was indeed a kind of conceptual art, but much more than that it was a kind of discursive pop art.” The historical background for bringing pop art and conceptual art onto a common notional platform is provided by the quasi simultaneity that can be observed in the Hungarian context (as well as other countries of the region), namely the temporal parallelism of pop art, Fluxus, actionism, concept art, conceptual art, body art, land art, etc. At the same time, in my opinion, the basis for the accurate use of terminology lies precisely in taking historicity into account, namely the – in terms of historical perspective – seemingly insignificant temporal differences (one or two years) between the appearance of different tendencies, as in the relation of Fluxus, concept art and conceptual art. Partly owing to the orientation of my interest as a researcher, my essay focuses on this area, the frontier between Fluxus and conceptual art.
Most examples for the attempts to clarify the notions of conceptual art in the discourse of the CEE region are to be found in the Yugoslav and ex-Yugoslav scene. Following the first comprehensive volume published in 1978, (24) publications on the subject appeared one after another. In the volume of studies co-edited by Miško Šuvakovic, (25) besides the more canonical aspects of conceptual art (tautological, self-reflexive, linguistic, etc.), he highlights its metaphysical character, evoking the terms “mystical conceptualism” by Renato Barilli and “transcendental conceptualism” by Tomas Brejc. In Hungarian terms, based on the esoteric philosophy of Béla Hamvas and keeping his extended pool of inspiration in mind, this approach might be termed “esoteric avant-garde”. (26)
Sticking with the ex-Yugoslav context, Tihomir Milovac subordinates every kind of artistic and non-artistic conceptual phenomenon including linguistic phenomena, actions and strategies to change everyday life, under a term borrowed from social psychology: “misfits”. (27) One of the distinct characteristics of the Yugoslav scene in the sixties-seventies was collaboration and collective operation, from the Gorgona group through Red Peristyle to the Bosch+Bosch group, of which Bálint Szombathy and Katalin Ladik were members. Similarly to Tony Godfrey’s chronology, Milovac defines the temporality of conceptual phenomena as such: proto-conceptual (fifties-sixties, coinciding with Fluxus), conceptual (1960-70), post- and neo-conceptual art (1980s and 1990s).
Regarding the Polish scene, Lukasz Ronduda also writes about great diversity in the art of the seventies, but contrary to the previous examples, he approaches the period from the aspect of the relation to reality. He uses the terms “post-essentialism” and “pragmatism” to describe the characteristic of the seventies that he summarizes as openness to reality, and within this framework, defines conceptualism as the most typical “post-essentialist movement”. (28)
These selective examples well illustrate the methodological heterogeneity arising largely from the complexity of the problem. Moderna Galerija of Ljubljana – one of the first in Europe to start collecting avant-garde art since the early 1990s – organized a conference on Eastern European conceptual art in 2007 upon the initiative of Zdenka Badovinac, where the participants (Zdenka Badovinac, Eda Čufer, Cristina Freie, Boris Groys, Charles Harrison, Vít Havranek, Piotr Piotrowski, Branka Stipančić) endeavoured to establish consensual notions and develop the methodological basis for the regional interpretation of conceptual art. The talks, published in two parts, (29) show that within the sociocultural diversities formed behind the Iron Curtain, specific pivots can be identified, but the consensual minimum regarding the relation of the region’s (as well as unofficial Soviet and Latin-American) art and Western art can be summed up in a few points.
In the following, taking into account these discursive consensuses (deconstruction of modernism, synchronicity, ideological criticism, etc.) I will attempt to delineate a narrative of Hungarian proto-conceptual thought emerging in the sixties, with a focus, as opposed to art historical traditionalism (which principally interprets avant-garde art from the perspective of panel painting) (30) on the phenomena of immaterial quality of art and anti-art gestures.
Happening and language – the emergence of concept art
Miklós Erdély observed that the practice of conceptual art in Hungary had much preceded theory: “First of all, here, in Hungary, concept, the activity called concept started pervading everyone’s activity without them even noticing it. For long they had not even been aware of the existence of concept art, but they had all made such works.” (31) According to the periodization in Miklós Peternák’s study, this early “concept” period (1966-68) was followed by expansion (1970-71), and after its pinnacle (1972-73), some artists chose their individual paths and some turned away, until 1976, from when the development of a consensus can be observed, which involved the circle around Rózsa Presszó. (32) The phenomenon of protochronism that is outlined in artist interviews and texts, namely the stressing of how they were the ones who introduced certain tendencies and ways of thinking (even preceding the “West”) into local discourses, already directs attention to the early period of 1966-68.
It is almost moving how in a 1983 interview Miklós Erdély emphasizes his own primacy in the Hungarian introduction of conceptual art, anecdotally describing the resistance, or at least ignorance surrounding his activity. To illustrate the phase shift between him and the Iparterv Group, (33) he cites his 1968 happening, which was met by incomprehension on the part of the underground art scene, moreover, his six-piece textual photographic work was left out of the catalogue of the 2nd Iparterv exhibition (1969), entitled Document. According to Erdély, the reception of his early conceptual works was hindered by the fact that at the time of Iparterv, in 1968-69, no one had understood the theory of conceptual art, up until further information seeping in from the West gave foundation to the phenomenon he had already represented. (34) This was all very similar, he says, to the way happening emerged. At the same time, as opposed to the Szentjóby-type “surrealist happening”, he “sided with” conceptual actions. (35)
Erdély’s – sometimes parodic – self-mythicization has embedded itself into art history writing’s claim to conceive of the new avant-garde of the sixties and seventies as a movement on the model of the historical avant-garde, and to construct a “father figure” for it. (36) He “succeeded” to such extent that it even influenced international literature: Piotr Piotrowski forthright ascribes such fundamental “milestones” of the sixties to him, as the happenings The Lunch (1966), and Golden Sunday (1966). (37) This distorted genealogy needs to be corrected because happening was in fact a paradigm-shifting event in the visual culture of the sixties, and as such, it expressed the turn that comprised a break with traditional media and panel painting, yielding the emergence of an anti-art attitude. Happening marks the moment of a radical new avant-garde replacing modernism and the appearance of concept art in the Hungarian art scene, but it was not Erdély, deeply embedded in modernism, (38) who had undertaken this endeavour, but two representatives of the new generation, Gábor Altorjay and Tamás Szentjóby.
Tamás Szentjóby has given accounts on several occasions of the break with the tradition of modernist poetry represented by Sándor Weöres and János Pilinszky, and the individual and collective improvisational experiments. (39) These linguistic-semantic experiments reflect a characteristic feature of Hungarian actionism, namely that happening – as opposed to its origins in action painting overseas – was not rooted in the mediatization of painting as a happening, but in the actionist reinterpretation of the relationship between text and reality. Reducing the elitism of art to a performative series of events manifested in primitive corporeal rites (eating, vomiting), happening as anti-art rejected both the linguistic conventions and the politics of social reality. On the other hand, by reinterpreting the function of art and the new language, which was incompatible with traditional concepts, happening brought about the emergence of conceptuality: “The first happening was based on language, and ridiculed the relation between the sign and its meaning (the series of operations traditionally associated with it). However, this subversion of language is not equivalent, in fact, it is contrary to the continuous deterioration of language on a social scale, because happening gave rise to proposals for language reform. It is only natural that this can only take place through action (happening) if we accept the operationalist postulate: the identical nature of concepts and associated operations. In this spirit, language reform is impossible to carry out in a sterile ‘professional’ environment and devices, just as art was not conceived in its autonomous, classic form. Therefore, the conceptual experiment of language reform is at once a ritual. Similarly to primitive rites, it connects with elementary forces, but at the same time with the mechanisms of civilization as well. (…) The rite that made it possible to eliminate the compulsion of the language game to denominate everything new, structure, style, in other words, everything that forms the ‘language’ of different arts, was the direct opposite of conceptuality.” (40)
Happening rearranged the former definitions of art, which had hitherto been based on a relation of passive presentation, and shifted emphasis from spectatorship to participation, from spectacle to interactivity. Its appearance rendered such notions and principles uninterpretable as the material quality of the artwork, marketability (critical references even in terms of conceptual art), or monomedia. These were replaced by the notion of the found space for reception, constructed of ephemeral objects – the environment, (41) and the notion of intermedia. “Happening integrates the endeavours of poetry, music, painting, sculpture, theatre and film” – summarized Gábor Altorjay in a contemporaneous writing. (42)
Simultaneously with the practice of happening, also defined as the total extension of poetry, Tamás Szentjóby was creating visual poems that had a somewhat conceptual character in the sense that they realized the non-hierarchical unity of image and text. In Boris Groys’ definition, “Conceptual art can be characterized briefly as the result of putting image and text on the same level. The image is replaced by a written commentary, by a description of a certain art project, by a critical statement. This use of language can be seen as a dematerialization and hence decommercialization of art.” (43) Groys’ observation can be considered partially valid for such visual poems of Szentjóby as GLOBART (1966-67), a project for designing new space-time relations as part of the Parallel Course Study Track program, or Moving House Plan I. (1967), which realizes change in the form of forced transmigration. Such works introduced a new quality into the art of the sixties (so that by the early seventies, their significance would be recognized by others), but these only coincide with the Kosuthian paradigm in certain aspects, given that they essentially accommodate the possibility of action directed at change, in other words, actionism.
As observed by László Beke, when Szentjóby switched to visual poetry, he essentially became independent of the Hungarian tradition, (44) and had at best the scarce heritage of Dadaist poetry (such as Károly Tamkó Sirató) to rely on. As opposed to their innovative typographical solutions, surprising arrangements of words in a plane, Szentjóby implemented a dimensional change inasmuch as he considered the poem an object. “Szentjóby applies the principle of substitution: his starting point is that anything can replace the text, so far as it is considered poetic material; the poem is the image, the poem is the material, the poem is the object, the poem is the action – in perspective, anything can become poetry!” (45) This is how a mesh of marks created on a waiter’s white smock pocket by constantly removing and replacing his pen becomes poetry (action poetry), to bring up a later example from 1973, which, after the visual poetry exhibition in Balatonboglár, was now selected into the Paks show. In his also exhibited visual poem, Stocks (1967), the crumpled, illegible text appears in its new dimension as object, to illustrate that in terms of concept art, the actual material of the object is not the paper, but the modified language. But as word fragments referring to current politics make it obvious, instead of treating language organized from a network of concepts as a closed aesthetic system, Szentjóby considered it a communication tool that was ever so closely related to reality.
But who is Henry Flynt?
Szentjóby uses the notion of concept art connected with happening in the sense as it was introduced in 1961 by composer, mathematician and philosopher Henry Flynt, who was loosely connected to the Fluxus network (46): “there is an absolute correlation between concept art and happening. (…) When one does something consciously, one enters the world of concepts, and in the world of concepts, one then receives a calling to exit and transform one’s experience into action. Concept art and happening represent the unity (and hope) of word and image.” (47) In Flynt’s interdisciplinary thought the background of concept art was comprised by mathematical systems, while its actual goal was to apply change to traditional art, which he termed “structure art”, and which would eventually yield something new: concept artworks. (48) Concept art therefore has an essentially critical approach to the traditional, hierarchical and market-oriented aesthetic system of elite art, similarly to the way situationism and Fluxus defined themselves in opposition to elite art from the late fifties.
As Gyula Konkoly has summed up, two tendencies of different directions developed by the second half of the sixties in Hungarian art: the first was connected to pop-art (László Lakner, Gyula Konkoly), and the other to Fluxus, with Erdély’s “discoveries”, Gábor Altorjay and Tamás Szentjóby. (49) The first encounter of the two tendencies in a common exhibition happened in 1969, at the second Iparterv exhibition, where he and Szentjóby both exhibited works that could be associated with the ideas of Harald Szeemann. In Konkoly’s self-interpretation, the problem of synchronicity was connected to the most important point of reference of Hungarian conceptual art, Harald Szeemann’s exhibition When Attitudes Become Form (1969) in Bern, in which the isolated young generation recognized its compatibility with Western tendencies. As Imre Bak phrased in relation to the new art, which fascinated with its lack of devices: “we should have come up with this”. (50)
The discourses related to Iparterv emphasize the continuity of progressive Hungarian art on the one hand, and the claim for reintegration into international progress on the other, which was also a basis for rejecting accusations of mimicking with regard to conceptual art. The basis for the consensus on synchronicity was, on the one hand, the intuitive mode of operation resulting from the lack of information, and cultural determination on the other (“belonging” to the “West”, and the forced isolation of Hungarian culture from Western civilization). According to Tamás Szentjóby, conceptual art could have no “influence”, because synchronicity was global: it emerged with slight differences in time, but essentially simultaneously all over the world. (51) Gyula Konkoly perceives the historical role of Iparterv in reintegration, while also genealogically connecting the emergence of conceptual art to it: “In early 1969 I made a gigantic paintbrush, and a small one, and a gigantic telephone, and that summer, fumbling around at the second Armory Show (the 1969 Iparterv Show), I invented Art conceptuel. And St.Auby also invented it. We were part of the world’s flux of time, and similar causes simultaneously led to similar conclusions.” (52)
Konkoly’s use of terminology is analogous with the way Miklós Erdély interpreted the new art phenomena, which were spreading gradually following the gradual liberalization of the repressive society: “art increased its level of freedom in these years… So, a series of exhibitions should be directed in a manner so that it shows how there was only so much in the sixties, but already this much in the seventies…” (53) In other words, in the sixties, happening and the Fluxus thought (concept art) brought about conceptualism in Hungarian art, which was justified by the emergence of the Western paradigm, and hence more conscious “authorial” practices started to develop, which had abandoned the reproduction of known motifs and were built on an original program, like Szentjóby’s happenings of ideological criticism after 1967. By 1969, the practice of happening had prepared the conditions in the underground scene for the reception of the conceptual art paradigm and thus the Szeemann-effect, which turned the majority of those still “siding with” panel painting towards the Kosuthian philosophy, for a while at least. This, however did not mean the integration of concept art into conceptual art, much rather the simultaneity of the two. This simultaneity, however, was somewhat obscured by the dominance of the international discourses on the conceptual paradigm (“Who is Henry Flynt?” – asked back Joseph Kosuth in an interview), which, in Hungary, had the consequence of concept being assimilated into the mainstream in art historical discourses. (54)
The Paks Gallery’s exhibition follows this system of relations when disregarding the need for context of works related to Fluxus thought, and integrating Gábor Altorjay’s 1967 action series (15 actions for Marta Minujín) and Tamás Szentjóby’s Cooling Water, visual poetry and actions into the dominant discourse. (55) But how can the philosophical-aesthetic difference between concept art and conceptual art be summarized? In her volume Fluxus experience, Hannah Higgins devotes a separate chapter to understanding the system of relations between the two paradigms, to conclude that the substantial distinction is to be found in the relation of Fluxus to reality: “Fluxus work, in the end, is a concept art, but not a conceptual art in the commercial sense, since it rejects the minimalist form and linguistic scientism outlined by Sieglaub, Lippard, or Kosuth. Following this distinction, Fluxus becomes concept in a broader, more physically inclusive sense – one could even say a physically charged intellectual sense.” (56) This could be translated into the Hungarian context insomuch that the sensual intellectualism of Szentjóby’s poetic realism was fundamentally incompatible with Miklós Erdély’s scientific, linguistic rationalism, despite their close cooperation. (57)
On the occasion of the “study exhibition” he curated in 2001, (58) György Galántai outright posed the question – in analogy with the pop-dilemma – whether “Hungarian concept art and Fluxus” had even existed at all, another instance of using the term concept art as the synonym of conceptual art. It pertains to the history of the exhibition and its reception that Galántai has formulated his answers upon the curatorial initiative of the Fluxus East (2008-) series of exhibitions, which posteriorly integrate Eastern European Fluxus phenomena. His most interesting experiment has been the transformation of Marcel Duchamp’s Trap into a textual work with the method of Joseph Kosuth, resulting in a fictional work. Galántai’s conclusion is not far from Hannah Higgins’ observation: “To me, one of the interesting conclusions of this exhibition was that I started to see the difference between Fluxus and concept as similar to the difference between the two hemispheres of the brain. Realizing identification with life, Fluxus is irrational, emotional, surreal. In contrast, concept is rational, constructivist and minimalist. Nevertheless, both approaches are realist, each represent an area of realism in the terrain of impossible realism, perhaps on its two poles.” (59)
Although Galántai extends certain creative specificities of Fluxus (such as playfulness or humour) to the whole of the network, (60) and his text fails to discuss the Hungarian emergence of Fluxus from a historical perspective, the notions offered by him can be well applied in describing the problem. The key notion is by all means reality, or the relation to reality, which Fluxus uses to replace the conceptualist self-reflection of art, in order for the questions it poses to transcend the autotelic nature of a self-contained philosophical system. Tamás Szentjóby is canonized as a “Fluxus artist” (which I would like to strictly refrain from using as a category) not by way of canonizing exhibitions or the genealogical primacy of introducing the “fluxidea”, (61) but by being connected to the circle of artists of similar mentality by the basic idea of “expression in terms of concrete reality”. The objects, visual poems, happenings and actions conceived in Hungary in the period between 1965 and 1975 are centred not on the tautological question of “what is art?”, but instead on the research dealing with how the societal, political, social, existential and artistic reality of the status quo could be changed. In other words: while conceptual art was posing questions aimed at defining or extending the notion of art, without ever doubting its raison d’étre, Szentjóby – as an avant-garde artist prioritizing reality – reached the negation of art.
The case of the Cooling Water
All of these considerations could be applied to reposition Tamás Szentjóby’s works that have been canonized by art history without regard to their context, as conceptual objects, and that were presented as such at the exhibition in Paks. Without intending to polarize the concept-conceptual relation, I shall attempt to deconstruct the conceptual status of one of his earliest emblematic objects, Cooling Water (1965) and reinterpret it as action object related to Fluxus in accordance with the narrative outlined above. My choice is justified by a number of reasons: Cooling Water was featured at the second Iparterv exhibition in 1969 as one of the earliest Hungarian examples of object art (together with the New Unit of Measure and the Portable Trench for Three), in other words, its genealogical temporality renders it ideal for the representation of the emergence of new paradigms, and as such, the relevant conclusions can be extended to other action objects. Moreover, the tableau of images compiled by Miklós Peternák and presented at the exhibition as a “legendry” of Cooling Water highlights not only the emblematic functions of the work in the history of the genre and within Szentjóby’s activity, but also the neuralgic points resulting from its interpretations. The text brings up relevant questions regarding dating (that is, determining the date of the appearance of object art in Hungary), the notion of multiple, the problems of original and fake, interpretation and self-interpretation. However, the legendry tableau of Cooling Water provides no answers; it merely confronts different sources in the form of a montage, evoking suspicion in the artist that there is “something fishy” about the Cooling Water.
The confusion sensed by the curator – the dysfunction of context regarding Cooling Water – is further complicated by a peculiar methodology, inasmuch as Miklós Peternák founds the entire presentation on a formalist approach that is incompatible even with the notions of conceptual art. He attempts to describe the history of the object via a comparative approach to the medium, namely an apothecary’s flask. In other words, presuming the existence of an “original”, he presents the later versions in relation to it, in the same manner as with a classic artwork, like a painting. He presents examples from the 1975 exhibition at FMK, a copy in the collection of the Modern Hungarian Gallery of Pécs, which is “the object most similar” to the version presented at the exhibition in Paks, as well as the piece produced by Plágium 2000, about which he states that “formally it differs in several aspects from the earlier version that can be identified on the same page via the linked image.” Backed by references to texts by various authors, this methodology is a cul-de-sac even if we disregard the shortcomings of the Hungarian reception of Fluxus. At the same time, it serves well to illustrate the circumstance wherein the reinterpretation of the reinterpretation of the Duchampian tradition poses problems even to an art historian/curator so familiar with the conceptual paradigm.
The difficulties related to the interpretation of Cooling Water are, at the same time, multi-layered, and fail to make the curator’s situation easier: for want of critical evaluation, he can only rely on the self-interpretation of authorial texts, the first of which is László Beke’s interview with Szentjóby from 1971, around the time of the first presentation of the piece. (62) Following this, the points of reference are primarily Beke’s writings: the retrospective exhibition at the Young Artists’ Club (FMK) in 1975, the year of the artist’s emigration, presented Cooling Water in the context of other action objects and action relics, which provided an opportunity for Beke to write the invariably most significant summarizing study in the history of Szentjóby’s reception. (63) Therein, he resorted to the system of genres and notions in analysing the objects based on the intermedial functioning of disparate qualities, in the context of Hamvas and Beuys, but his question regarding Cooling Water (“How can we classify Cooling Water , ordinary hot water in a closed white medicine bottle?”) remains a mere unanswered rhetorical question. Although in 1989 Beke took a much more distinct stand, when naming the notional framework of the object, he considered Cooling Water, along with the New Unit of Measure and Portable Trench for Three “brilliant examples of the Fluxus thought,” (64) while in his study, Miklós Peternák mentioned the conceptual levels of the practice related to the Fluxus movement in connection with Szentjóby’s study track, until in the single comprehensive publication amongst all Hungarian literature on conceptual art (65) it was eventually canonized as a conceptual artwork. In the subchapter “Sources of Hungarian neo-conceptual art” Tatai states that “the art of Tamás Szentjóby, Gábor Tóth and Endre Tót realized the ‘personal intertexture’ of Fluxus and conceptual art”, and locates New Unit of Measure, 70g Ground Lens and Cooling Water in the context of canonized conceptual works of art. (66) She maintained this narrative based on contemporaneity in the exhibition she curated in 2013, (67) where she also presented Cooling Water. There is another tendency, which classifies the piece along with New Unit of Measure as minimal art, interpreted as a branch of conceptual art: in her influential study, Éva Körner referred to these as minimal art objects. (68)
Practically, therefore, there is no consensus among Hungarian art historians regarding the status of Cooling Water (just as its dating also varies between publications); it is located somewhere on the frontier between Fluxus and conceptual art. Additionally, it has to be taken into consideration that the majority of these texts were written around or much after the 1989 change of regime. The first (published) text that is closest in time to the creation of the first objects is the aforementioned interview from 1971, in which Tamás Szentjóby sums up the conception of Cooling Water. According to this narrative, in 1965 Szentjóby and Gábor Altorjai were planning an exhibition in Pál Petrigalla’s apartment gallery, where they wanted to present a series of Dadaist objects that would have represented an attitude that was meant as a parody of their perception of art at that time (which comprised a mindset that refrained from questioning the status of elite art). Cooing Water (together with New Unit of Measure) was to be displayed at this intentionally provocative exhibition. (69) Szentjóby remains consistent in terms of this genealogy, (70) and – with a slightly conceptualist attitude – dates the piece at the birth of the idea and the genre, and not the object’s actual creation (1969). (71) In the text, he consistently speaks about “pop objects” and regarding the poems, about “instructions for actions”, also bringing up the notion of readymade, but his terminology at this time does not yet include the terms intermedia, Fluxus, or multiple. As Miklós Peternák points out, Cooling Water would not become a Fluxus object, more precisely, the explicit product of Fluxus thought until the creation of the multiple dated 2008, by way of the Plágium 2000 (71) project’s research and Szentjóby’s own reinterpretation. (72)
However, the doubts around the dating of Cooling Water and along with it, the first Hungarian objects, are dispersed by none other than Szentjóby’s terminology: the notional identification of the work is related to the theoretical problems regarding 1965 (the subversive consequences of pop art) and not the period after 1966 June, when they learned about the international movement of actionism after they had realized the happening. (73) Until the first happening, the intuitive or uninformed quality of their activites as outlined by Miklós Erdély was indeed in effect. Later, however, they had the opportunity to get acquainted theoretically with contemporary actionism: they acquired Wolf Vostell and Jürgen Becker’s collection of sources from 1965, (74) which contained current authorial texts, interviews, scores and chronologies of pop art, Nouveau Réalisme, happening and Fluxus. The period between 1966 and 1971 saw not only the beginning of intense theoretical orientation and conscious integration, (75) but also the planning of the first flux concerts. After Altorjay planned a happening-action concert in 1967, which fell through, (76) Szentjóby organized an event at the Pesterzsébet Culture House that was banned halfway through, (77) followed by one with László Beke in 1973, which could not even start for similar reasons, and so they had to wait until 1993 to perform the selection of classic scores. (78)
Every theoretical apparatus was therefore available in 1971 in order for Szentjóby to define Cooling Water as a work related to Fluxus, but instead, he followed the interpretative method that ensured from the logic of his inner “development”: the stressing of its poetic origin. Cooling Water is an object that transforms the inevitable change (as he puts it, “intimate tragedy”) of physical and emotional reality (79) into poetry, limiting the materialism of the object to a minimal level in favour of the transparency of thought. The neutrality and sterility of the medium is the result of deliberate decision, (80) and as such, it might as well be substitutable with any readymade vessel, since nothing more is “expected” from it than to be an undisturbed medium for the abstraction of a physical process. This is why there is no significance in what variants of different formal characteristics were made during the Duchampian reuse of the object to accommodate the conceptuality of Cooling Water, and so the formalist approach exercised towards it is also unsustainable.
This minimalism of the object alone would not contradict the criteria of conceptual art, but the work is connected to reality not only by the concrete ordinariness of the apothecary’s flask, but also by the process taking place within. “Practically it was an action enclosed in a bottle”, as Szentjóby put it. It is the action taking place in the bottle unperceivable to the eye, called event in Fluxus terminology, which goes beyond the (mono)mediality of conceptual art, and leads to the intermediality of the action-object. (81) As noted by Kristine Stiles, action-objects mark deep dimensional connections (commissure) between the object and the action it comes out of. (82) In Tamás Szentjóby’s summary, “The actionist object is intermedial, as neither is the object itself a medium in the artistic sense, it is just what it is, nor is the action it carries out, just as the looking eye is not the sight itself. Nevertheless, it is an interesting question whether the conceptual object is intermedial or not, because it is questionable, on the one hand, to what extent the ‘concept’ as such is a medium (according to Flynt, it is, inasmuch as the material of music is the sound), and on the other hand, to what extent the object that ‘carries’, ‘triggers’ or ‘generates’ the concept (which the spectator, in turn, interprets in the Duchampian manner), is a medium. I am inclined not to regard conceptual objects, and conceptual artworks in general, as intermedial.” (83)
With respect to the relation of action objects and conceptual objects, there are cases when both qualities are mixed in an artwork, and when as compared to the original idea, the realized work is dominated by action. Among Szentjóby’s sketches from 1965, which are contemporaneous with Cooling Water, we can find “recipes” for several conceptual objects, such as Post Hummus (Earth), a variant of which was exhibited at the Young Artists’ Club under the title Model Moon Study Track, as an action object in this state (as a scale model). His collection of slingshots entitled Object Idiom was featured at the same show (in Szentjóby’s description, it comprised “various slingshot designs of different ‘cultural spheres’, ‘Dialects’”), (84) which had definite conceptual foundations, but its quality as action was equally evident.
Although Szentjóby’s above interpretation and use of terminology is quite recent, the notion of intermedia connects Cooling Water (and along with it, the objects New Unit of Measure, Scented Magnet or Iambic Tetrameter) to the works of such international Fluxus artists as George Brecht, featured in the IPUT program. It was the Cage-disciple Brecht who introduced the genre of short event scores of very simple content, consisting of only a few words, but featuring some kind of call for action or process or flowchart. (85) Such is, for instance, Three Aqueous Events (1961), which models a natural law just like Cooling Water, but not with the devices of poetry, just by pure observation and description:
Three Aqueous Events
ice water steam
Mieko Shiomi’s multiple Water music (1964) is even closer to Cooling Water. It comprises a small flask of water with a label that caption reads: “1. give the water still form. 2. let the water loose it’s still form.” (86) Cooling Water (although for want of a market it was presented as a single piece at the Iparterv exhibition and other shows before the change of regime) is now considered a multiple of infinite copies in museum collections in accordance with Szentjóby’s decision. As illustrated by the example of Paks, this status calls for interpretation, as Hungarian sources discussing the phenomenon are scarce, and contemporary museological practice has just begun facing the problems of canonization related to the phenomenon of multiples, with the collection policy of recent times. In the seventies, László Beke said that “the multiple is a unique hybrid, which resembles traditional graphic art inasmuch as it has limited copies, often signed, it is expensive, but it is a three-dimensional object. It has no original, but it has a prototype.” (87)
This definition is inaccurate inasmuch as presently the dominant aspect of multiples is their cheapness, ensuing from the intention of the democratic distribution of art products, and the number of copies is not necessarily limited, as it may well be infinite. Nevertheless, multiples indeed have no original, only a prototype of which anyone can create an equivalent replica, similarly to the way event scores can be performed by anyone (and may serve as samples for writing new scores). Fluxkits, the historical multiples of the sixties related to George Maciunas are boxes generally containing ordinary objects and cheap, reproduced cards, aimed at the liberation of authoriality (“everyone is an artist, anything can be art”) besides conscious market/commercial considerations. The ideas of Maciunas about the mass-production of the products of nonprofessional artists were directed at the elimination of elitism in art, emphasizing notions of simplicity, insignificance, entertainment and boundlessness. (88)
Even though Fluxus itself was declared history relatively soon, in 1969, Cooling Water represented the emergence of the new art paradigm (concept) in Hungary. The subtitle of Gábor Altorjay’s Happening/Action concert was In memoriam Fluxus as early as 1967. Still, the propagation and promotion of the consequences of Fluxus and the role of attitude and network took the shape of a kind of curatorial program (together with the novelty of this role) in Szentjóby’s enterprise, who was active in Budapest until 1975. At the Telex-talks held on the occasion of the 1973 flux concert, he said: “I consider it very important to emphasize when presenting these works that these significations were formulated 10-12 years ago, and thus they can only be conveyed now as documents, traces of the past.” (89) Connection to the international Fluxus mentality, however, did not mean uncritical identification: according to Szentjóby, the reason Fluxus could be considered a historical phenomenon in the early seventies was that it had failed to make good on its promises related to the deconstruction of elite art. (90) The presentation of Subsistence Level Standard Project 1984 W (LSP1984W) in 1975 at the Young Artists’ Club was not simply a closure to Szentjóby’s Hungarian period, but it also announced the program of superseding the Duchamp-Brecht (Dada-Fluxus) tradition.
As a summary, it can be established that the synonymous terminology used in Hungarian discourses, which equates concept art with conceptual art, obscures the historical fact that concept art engendered a paradigm shift by introducing an immaterial, text-based and actionist approach to art in the mid-sixties. Conceiving of language as the authentic material of art, this paradigm is not identical to the scientific and linguistic practice that was propagated in the underground circles of Budapest through semiotics, especially as a result of János Zsilka’s university seminars. (91) Analogous to Fluxus, concept art endeavours not only to liberate the way people think about the notion of art by simplifying the use of media (like the Kosuthian model), but it also prioritises taking social reality into consideration. Owing to its ideological criticism, it can be considered a successor of classical avant-garde, but with a critical reaction to this programmatic heritage. Hungarian concept art was borne out of extra-institutional existence, it is anti-institutional and anti-professional, taking the side of the unskilled and the untalented, and therefore representing the opposition of elite art.
The two paradigms are connected by the context that was defined by Miklós Peternák, on the basis of Éva Körner, as the heritage of Béla Hamvas, and which I referred to with the term “esoteric avant-garde”, while conceding that this term is inaccurate. (92) Still, I think that the diversity of the turn of the sixties-seventies can best be described by this, or a similar methodological umbrella term of contextual origin. All the more so because the available terminology of Hungarian discourses, Körner’s theory of the “absurd as concept”, defined by the element of the political, is in need of revision. The question is to what extent canonized works, which in fact strengthen a different paradigm – such as Szentjóby’s action Be Forbidden! Punishment-preventive Autotherapy, also referenced in Paks –, underpin ideas about the socially critical dimension of conceptual art.
(1) Zdenka Badovinac, Eda Čufer, Cristina Freire, Boris Groys, Charles Harrison, Vít Havranek, Piotr Piotrowski, and Branka Stipančić: Conceptual Art and Eastern Europe. Part. I., e-flux journal no. 40, December 2012. http://worker01.e-flux.com/pdf/article_8961350.pdf. The second part of the talks: Zdenka Badovinac (et al.): Conceptual Art and Eastern Europe. Part. II. e-flux journal no. 41, January 2013. http://worker01.e-flux.com/pdf/article_8962432.pdf
(2) Lucy Lippard: Six Years. The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1973.
(3) Tony Godfrey: Conceptual Art, London, Phaidon, 1998.
(4) On the “horizontal” perspective replacing the “vertical” perspective, and the relevant concepts of traditional art history, see Piotr Piotrowski: Toward a Horizontal History of the European Avant-Garde, in: Bru, Sascha (et al.): Europa! Europa? The Avant-Garde, Modernism and the Fate of a Continent, Vol. 1., De Gruyter, Berlin, 2009, p. 49-58.
(5) “At that time, to me as a young art historian and critic, Kosuth’s deduction proved revelational above all, namely that conceptual art makes the mediation of the ‘critic’ unnecessary, as it realizes this function itself. From this, I drew the consequence that insofar as the critic is rendered unnecessary, all there is left for him is to become an artist.” László Beke: Kosuth in Hungary, in: Joseph Kosuth: Texts on Art, trans. Bánki Dezső et al., Knoll Galerie, Wien & Budapest, 1992, p. 105.
(6) Miklós Peternák: The impact of conceptual art in Hungary. The extension of the notion and function of art, 1983-85. The manuscript, taken up for publication in 1988 and amended several times later on, has never actually made it into print. Available in Hungarian online: http://www.c3.hu/collection/koncept/index0.html
(7) The most recent comprehensive paper on the lack of reception is by Katalin Székely. We also owe the summary of literature on Hungarian and regional conceptual art to her: Katalin Székely: Because everybody is just sitting and standing. Footnotes to a book never written, exindex, 11 November 2013. http://exindex.hu/index.php?l=hu&page=3&id=909
(8) 1, 2, !? “Five Identical Persons Apply Here”. Concept Palimpsest, or Hungarian Conceptual Art, Paks Gallery, 28 March – 9 June 2014.
(9) The emergence of conceptual art in Hungary also brought along the role of the curator, principally through László Beke’s thematic projects.
(10) Conceptual art in Hungary. Lectures in C3 Center for Culture and Communication, 1997. http://catalog.c3.hu/index.php?page=work&id=822&lang=EN (last access: 14 November, 2014)
(11) In connection with the exhibition, Miklós Peternák published a list of literature and events related to conceptual art on the website of C3 (concept.c3.hu). Additionally, he made two valuable referential interviews in 2014 with Dóra Maurer and Imre Bak, which were on display at the exhibition in Paks along with recordings of earlier lectures and interviews. To some extent, these video recordings substitute for the lack of socio-cultural and social-political context for the works.
(13) Conceptualism Today. Conceptual art in Hungary since the early nineties, Paks Gallery, 15 March – 2 June 2013.
(14) This approach is well reflected by the notion of intermedia represented by Miklós Peternák as head of the Intermedia Institute at the Hungarian University of Fine Arts, which has distanced considerably from Dick Higgins’s “proto-definition” from 1966, and follows the changes in meaning that have ensued since, which by today principally tend to stand for the scientific quality of art. Cf.: Miklós Peternák: What is Intermedia? Balkon, 2000/7, no. 8. I discuss the paradigmatic modes of interpretation related to the notion of intermedia as well as Tamás St.Turba’s twenty years of pedagogical activity at the Intermedia Department of the Hungarian University of Fine Arts in my soon to be published study entitled “’Ask IPUT!’ The Theory and Practice of the Parallel Course Study Track”.
(15) Although a more emphasized presence of some authors, like László Lakner or the members of the Pécs Workshop would have been altogether justified.
(16) This semiotically based thinking is reflected in such details of the exhibition’s curation as the presentation of Miklós Erdély’s conceptual object Vase with Flowers (1970) in different material realities: in front of the “original” work’s planar reproduction on the wall stands a pedestal with the three-dimensional reconstruction of the “original”.
(17) As if the curator followed Miklós Erdély’s idea about the “ideal” exhibition of conceptual art to be realized sometime. According to Erdély, “…this exhibition would be good, if this classification were to be intermixed and the works exhibited as heterogeneously as possible, in any way but grouped. Because what is interesting is how a painting is changed by a conceptual approach, or how artistic-visual sensibility modifies someone’s concept.” Interview with Miklós Erdély, spring 1983, Árgus, 1991, vol. II. no. 5., September-October, p. 75.
(18) Another reason the typological approach to conceptual art is not purposeful is that – as pointed out by Miklós Peternák – after some time, Hungarian art starts repeating the visual mannerisms of conceptual art, which is to be considered formalism, regardless of the medium.
(19) Perhaps it may seem as art-historical orthodoxy, I use the phrases “concept art” and “conceptual art” – just as well as avant-garde – as historical terms, to describe two different paradigms of art, which are opposed, but both have an aptitude for “conceptuality”. This terminological “pragmatism” serves the better understanding of the nature of the two paradigms.
(20) This is the point where I express my gratitude for József Mélyi’s remarks, which have helped tremendously in perfecting the final version of the text.
(21) „Namely, the term ’Romantic Conceptualism’ seemed to me a suitable name for a combination of dispassionate cultural analysis with a Romantic dream of the true culture that was characteristic for the artists whom I was interested with” Boris Groys: History becomes Form, Moscow Conceptualism, The MIT Press Cambridge, Massachusetts London, 2010, p. 7.
(22) „In my text ’Moscow Romantic conceptualism I tried to create a kind of tension. It is people say Russian communism wasn’t a true communism, But it was communism, nonetheless – if it wasn’t, nobody would be interested in arguing wether it was true communism or not.” Groys, in Zdenka Badovinac (et al), 2012.
(23) Katalin Timár: Is your Pop our Pop? The History of Art as a Self-Colonizing Tool, Artmargins, 2002, http://www.artmargins.com/index.php/archive/323-is-your-pop-our-pop-the-history-of-art-as-a-self-colonizing-tool
(24) Marijan Susovski (ed.): The New Art Practice in Jugoslavia: 1966-1978, Zagreb, Gallery of Contemporary Art, 1978.
(25) Miško Šuvakovic: Conceptual Art, in: Dubravka Djuric, Miško Šuvakovic (eds.): Impossible Histories: Historic Avant-Gardes, Neo-Avant-Gardes, and Post-Avant-Gardes in Yugoslavia, 1918-1991, Cambridge Mass., The MIT Press, 2003, pp. 210-245. p. 212.
(26) In the second half of the sixties, the model of esoteric philosophy provided essential inspiration for both the paradigm of panel painting (represented in this respect at the exhibition by Imre Bak) and of actionism, even if each came to different conclusions. In the social-intellectual reality of the Kádár-era, the modern thoughts of Hamvas about the invalidity of traditional, imitative art and his conception of art as activity provided a clear-cut theoretical background for Szentjóby’s critical program Parallel Course Study Track launched in 1968, which was centred on the notion of change and the criterion of illegal operation, the moral imperative of “be forbidden!”. In terms of material, the objects he made in the second half of the sixties contained sulphur, salt, blue vitriol and other alchemical substances, which relate them to Hamvas’ ideas on high culture, the Kabbalah and alchemy, and represented the introduction of new materials into the creation of art objects.
(27) Tihomir Milovac: The Misfits, in: u.ő.: Conceptualist Strategies in Croatian Contemporary Art, Zagreb, 2002, pp. 7-17.
(28) Lukasz Ronduda: Between Postessentialism and Pragmatism, in Lukasz Ronduda (ed.): Polish art of the 1970s, Warsawa, 2009, pp. 8-15. p. 8.
(29) Zdenka Badovinac (et al.) op. cit. 2012.
(30) This traditionalism is by all means the reason for the fact that Tamás Szentjóby and the notion of happening, written down by art history as “radical” with a slightly pejorative overtone, has often been left out of, or only marginally present in history writing. A typical example of this art historical attitude is the exhibition and catalogue The Sixties at the Hungarian National Gallery, which unequivocally attempts to interpret the period from the perspective of panel painting.
(31) Miklós Peternák: Interview with Miklós Erdély, spring 1983, Árgus, 1991/5.
(32) The „Rózsa Circle” was formed in the Café Rózsa opposite to the Academy of Fine Arts, where the students-participants (among others Ákos Birkás, András Halász, Zsigmond Károlyi, András Koncz et al.) organised their art actions around 1976.
(33) András Ecsedi-Derdák (ed.): Groupe Iparterv - Le Progres de L'illusion : La troisieme génération de l'avant-garde hongroise : The third generation of the Hungarian avant-garde, exh. cat., Institut hongrois de Paris, 2010.
(34) “…this is how concept seeped in. So it was cut off by the resistance of the Iparterv group, but no one had yet heard of concept art then. Kosuth’s work reproduced in the catalogue When Attitude Becomes Form was a chair with a bunch of newspapers. No one got it. No one got what he wanted with this table with some newspapers laid out on it, and a chair next to it. Obviously, Kosuth had already conceived of concept by then.” Ibid. p. 78.
(35) Ibid. He describes the difference in their approach in terms of their relation to science.
(36) Éva Forgács describes Miklós Erdély as a “versatile tutoring master” and compares him to Kassák in Éva Forgács: The Avant-garde in Hungarian Culture., in: The Second Public. Hungarian Art in the 20th Century, compiled by Hans Knoll, Enciklopédia Kiadó, Budapest, 2002, p. 63.
(37) Although Erdély produced a very diverse body of works, the artist’s greatest contribution to the history of Hungarian neo-avant-garde was made in the 1970s. Erdély began his career in the 1950s, producing Art informel-inspired drawings. During the 1960s he turned to happening, creating such milestone works as Lunch – in Memoriam Batu Khan and Golden Sunday, both from 1966. Piotr Piotrowski: In the Shadow of Yalta, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 2009, p. 281.
(38) “All in all, it is very interesting that Miklós Erdély is considered a true “avant-garde”, and it gradually turns out that his well-read, educated intelligence and circle of friends are all held together by an approach that may be called modernistic, but is ultimately traditional. The new only gradually grow out of it …” Annamária Szőke, in: Interview with László Beke, 21 February 1989., Ildikó Nagy (ed.): The Sixties. New Tendencies in Hungarian Art (cat.), Képzőművészeti Kiadó – Magyar Nemzeti Galéria – Ludwig Múzeum, Budapest, 1991, p. 196.
(39) In most detail in his lecture at C3 on 5 October 1997: http://catalog.c3.hu/index.php?page=work&id=826&lang=HU
(40) Katalin Keserü: Language Flirting with Art in Hungary, Holmi, vol. II. no. 9., September 1990., pp. 1021-1022.
(41) In Allan Kaprow’s summary, “[f]undamentally, Environments and Happenings are similar. They are the passive and active sides of a single coin, whose principle is extension. Thus an Environment is not less than a Happening.” Allan Kaprow: Assemblages, Environments and & Happenings, in: Charles Harrison and Paul Wood (eds.): Art in Theory 1900-1990, Blackwell, Oxford-Cambridge, 1992. p. 705. This is why it is necessary to emphasize the difference in meaning between the terms installation, preferred by conceptual art, and environment. (online: http://emc.elte.hu/seregit/Art%20in%20Theory.pdf)
(42) Gábor Altorjay: Life, Material, Happening (1966), Magyar Műhely, 128-129. sz., 2004, pp. 15-16.
(43) Boris Groys: History becomes Form, Moscow Conceptualism, The MIT Press Cambridge, Massachusetts London, 2010, p. 82.
(44) László Beke: Centaur. Tamás Szentjóby’s “Study Tracks”, Magyar Műhely, vol. 16. no. 51-55. 30 June 1978., p. 67
(46) “’Concept art’ is first of all an art of which the material is ‘concepts,’ as the material of for ex. music is sound. Since ‘concepts’ are closely bound up with language, concept art is a kind of art of which the material is language.” Henry Flynt: Concept art..., 1961, in: La Monte Young, Georges Maciunas, Jackson MacLow (eds.): An Anthology. Ed. by, New York, c. 1962, reprint: 1963. (online: http://www.henryflynt.org/aesthetics/conart.html)
(47) Tamás St.Auby, 1997 http://catalog.c3.hu/index.php?page=work&id=826&lang=HU
(48) Henry Flynt, op. cit., 1961.
(49) “Tamás visualized the Fluxus-behaviour” Gyula Konkoly, http://catalog.c3.hu/index.php?page=work&id=823&lang=HU
(50) Video interview of Miklós Peternák with Imre Bak, Budapest, 2014.
(52) István Hajdu: Emanation and Charm. The effect of 1968 on Contemporary Hungarian Art, Balkon, 2008/9, pp. 14-29, p. 16.
(53) Peternák, op. cit., 1983, p. 75.
(54) As Erzsébet Tatai observes, in Hungary the Kosuth-type art, which used the epithet “conceptual”, was considered authoritative, while authors who were competent in the subject (László Beke, István Hajdu, Miklós Peternák, and later Éva Körner and Edit András) were more inclined to use the term “concept art” by Henry Flynt. He himself uses the phrase “conceptual art” for linguistic (and not historical) reasons. Tatai: Neo-conceptual Art in Hungary in the Nineties, Praesens, Budapest, 2005 p. 14.
(55) Szentjóby works represented at the exhibition: Cooling Water (1965); visual poems: Stocks (1967), Coca-Cola with Vodka (1973), Ballpoint pen marks in a headwaiter's white smock pocket (1973); action: Expulsion-Exercise. Punishment-preventive Autotherapy (1972); and documents of the reconstruction initiated by Little Varsaw (2005), the invitation to the Fluxconcert planned for 12 May 1973, but banned, and eventually held on 12 May 1993 at the Russian Cultural Centre of Budapest.
(56) Hannah Higgins: Fluxus Experience, University of California Press, 2002, p. 121.
(57) On Miklós Erdély’s notion of “natural scientific concept”, see Sándor Hornyik: Avant-garde Science? The reception of the modern natural scientific world view in the oeuvres of Tihamér Gyarmathy, Tibor Csiky and Miklós Erdély, Akadémiai Kiadó, Budapest, 2008.
(58) The IMPOSSIBLE REALISM in an International Context - the territory of flux, concept and conceptual art, 19 October – 9 November 2001. http://www.artpool.hu/lehetetlen/real-kiall/bevezeto.html
(60) Authors of academic literature on Fluxus practically agree in one thing: that Fluxus is not unified.
(61) George Maciunas autocratically defined who could be considered a Fluxus artist and who could not, so on several occasions he excluded artists from the network, only to rehabilitate them later on. At the same time, in 1966, Maciunas appointed a number of co-directors, and this is how Milán Knizák became the leader of Eastern, and Ken Friedman of Western Fluxus. But as emphasized by the latter, “[it] is unrealistic and historically inaccurate to imagine a Fluxus controlled by one man. Fluxus was co-created by many people and it has undergone a continuous process of co-creation and renewal for four decades”. Ken Friedman: Fluxus and Company, in Ken Friedman (ed.): The Fluxus Reader, Academy Editions, Wiley & Sons, 1998. pp. 237-253., p. 252. (online: https://www.academia.edu/250737/Friedman._1998._Fluxus_and_Company)
(62) Interview with Tamás Szentjóby. Tape recording by László Beke, on 11 March 1971. Jelenlét – Szógettó, ELTE BTK journal of literature and art, Budapest, 1989/ 1-2.
(63) László Beke: Centaur. Tamás Szentjóby’s “Study Tracks”, Magyar Műhely, vol. 16. no. 51-55. 30 June 1978.
(64) László Beke: Differences, in: Hommage á Iparterv 1968/69 III. cat, Fészek Galéria, 14 February – 3 March 1989., curated by Éva Molnár, n.p. It is slightly confusing that in his later “subjective” interpretation (László Beke: A Subjective History of Conceptual Art, in: Pál Deréky– András Müllner (eds.): Mu/te? Studies in Hungarian Neo-Avant-Garde, Ráció Kiadó, 2004, pp. 227-239,: 233.) he highlights Cooling Water as an early conceptual object.
(65) Erzsébet Tatai: Neo-conceptual Art in Hungary in the Nineties, Praesens, Budapest, 2005.
(66) Tatai, op.cit., 2005, p. 63. “Tamás Szentjóby’s work Cooling Water (a glass flask containing water, with a label saying Cooling Water) reminds with absurd humour about relativity, the changing relation between statements and the reality.” p. 66.
(67) Conceptualism Today. Conceptual art in Hungary since the early nineties, Paks Gallery, 15 March – 2 June 2013.
(68) Éva Körner: Absurd as Concept. Scenes from the History of Hungarian Concept Art, in: Katalin Aknai and Sándor Hornyik (eds.): Avant-Garde – With and Without Isms, MTA Művészettörténeti Kutatóintézet, Budapest, 2005, pp. 420-427., p. 424.
(69) ”…the Pop-object exhibition planned for ’65 would have rather been blasphemy, scandal, gag, at least that was how we thought back then.” Interview with Tamás Szentjóby. Tape recording by László Beke, on 11 March 1971. Jelenlét – Szógettó, ELTE BTK journal of literature and art, Budapest, 1989/ 1-2., p. 259.
(70) Throughout the writing of this text I was consulting Tamás St.Turba on the subject of action objects and conceptual works, and he shared with me some scanned notebook pages from 1964 and 1965, which unequivocally corroborate the genealogy of Cooling Water. “I kept using my 1964 calendar for a while in 1965, which was when I named some objects I considered intermedial and conceptual – of course, I didn’t use these terms at that time / I had never heard of the existence of objects denoted as such.” (Tamás St. Turba, personal communication, 17 October 2013.) The pages I was shown contain several work titles that were later realized as action objects, such as Scented Magnet (1965), Two hundred grams of ground lens (final title - 70g Ground Lens, 1965) or New Unit of Measure (today all of these in the collection of Ludwig Museum – Museum of Contemporary Art). Cooling Water is the first on this list. The name of Pál Petrigalla also appears among the titles of works, which proves the idea of the unrealized 1965 exhibition. I would hereby like to express my gratitude to Tamás St.Turba for sharing these sources with me, which confirm the proposition that the appearance of the genre of object art in Hungary should be dated 1965.
(71) The events are hard to reconstruct from such distance in time: Gábor Altorjay does not remember this planned exhibition.
(73) The case somewhat resembles the history of origin of Joseph Kosuth’s early works (Art as Idea as Idea), which are dated 1965 by their author, but were not exhibited before 1967-68. As Ian Burn notes, “’If they were made in 1965 like he claims, they are Pop Art. If they were made in 1967–8, when they were exhibited, then they are among the first conceptual works, strictly speaking.’” Kosuth, in turn, explains this time-shift with being an art student at the time, “who had the ideas but not the resources to realize them; by the time he did have these resources a few years later, everyone (including Burn) was dating their work to the moment of conception.” Terry Smith, op. cit., November 2011. p. 5.
(74) “This was what made us understand that we were not solitary psychopaths, but in fact in the very centre of an enormous intercontinental movement.” Zsuzsa László, Tamás St.Turba (eds.): The Lunch (In memoriam Batu Khan), Budapest, Tranzit Hungary Közhasznú Egyesület, 2011, p. 18.
(75) Jürgen Becker – Wolf Vostell (eds.): Happenings. Fluxus, Pop Art, Nouveau Réalisme. Eine Dokumentation, Rowohlt Verlag, 1965.
(76) After the happening, Altorjay contacted Wolf Vostellal, Dick Higgins, and J. Chalúpeczky via mail, and the documentation of The Lunch was shown to the most important Eastern European happener, Tadeusz Kantor.
(77) Along with Cornelius Cardew’s, Henning Christiansen’s, Ben Vautier’s and Tomas Schmit’s Fluxus scores, Gábor Altorjay, Tamás Szentjóby and Miklós Erdély would have presented their own works.
(79) Cf. Tamás St. Auby: Documents of the Banned Fluxconcert Planned for 12 May 1973. Orpheus, vol. IV., 1993/1. pp. 52–72.
(80) “…when the idea of cooling water came up, I was specifically interested in, and captured by, its tragedy, its intimate tragedy.” Interview with Tamás Szentjóby. Tape recording by László Beke, on 11 March 1971. Jelenlét – Szógettó, Budapest, 1989/ 1-2., p. 260.
(81) “the reason I chose an apothecary’s flask was mainly to make the subject transparent, simple and sterile for both the senses and the thought.” Ibid.
(82) At least two types of action-object can be distinguished, in terms of their connection to an event. The first, such as Cooling Water, or action-relics (e.g. the relics of the happening The Lunch at the exhibition in FMK), presupposes a symmetrical relation between object and action/intervention, as it involves an event that has definitely taken place; the second, such as the action object For Taming the Devil (or other instruction-based works) are asymmetric, as the event itself is fictional, contingent.
(83) Kristine Stiles: Out of Actions: between performance and the object, 1949-1979, Thames and Hudson, 1998, p. 230.
(84)Tamás St. Turba, personal communication, 21 October 2013.
(85) Tamás St. Turba, personal communication, 24 June 2014.
(86) As Julia Robinson noted, the first events originated from the synthesis of Cage’s and Duchamp’s legacy, on a textual and ready-made basis, such as Motor vehicle sundown (event, 1960). Julia Robinson: In the Event of George Brecht, in Alfred M. Fisher (ed.): George Brecht Events. A Heterospective. Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, Köln, p. 54.
(87) „1. give the water still form. 2. let the water loose it’s still form.” The classic Fluxus score was featured in Ken Friedman’s selection (together with Brecht’s), in: Ken Friedman, Owen Smith and Lauren Sawchyn (eds.): The FluxusPerformanceWorkbook, digital supplement to Performance Research Vol. 7. No. 3. ‘On Fluxus’, September 2002, Routledge, London. p. 98. (online: http://www.deluxxe.com/beat/Fluxusworkbook.pdf)
(88) László Beke: Recurrence and Repetition in Art, in László Beke: Art/Theory, Studies 1970-1991, Balassi Kiadó – BAE Tartóshullám – Intermedia, Budapest, 1994, pp. 39-48, p. 42.
(89) Although conceived in different economic and ideological environments, the sulphur-filled wooden box of Szentjóby’s Parallel Course Emblem (1968) or his Moon Landing Object (1969) are the Eastern European counterparts of the multiples of Maciunas, Beuys and Brecht (evoking Duchamp). Gábor Altorjay’s Fluxus objects, however, were conceived in an entirely different context. Following his emigration in 1967, Altorjay joined the German Fluxus circles (in collaboration with Wolf Vostell, Bazon Brock, Joseph Beuys and Jörg Immendorf) and with a characteristically Fluxus method, realized Miklós Erdély’s design of the Newspaper-cake (1967). His multiple, the object Short Circuit Instrument (1968), of which ten versions were planned, but only three completed, was conceived in this Western European market environment and Fluxus spirit strongly influenced by the New Left thought.
(90) Tamás St. Auby: Documents of the Banned Fluxconcert Planned for 12 May 1973. Orpheus, vol. IV., 1993/1. p. 60.
(91) “Something becomes past inasmuch as it no longer represents present interests. The presentation of Fluxus pieces is justified today only by two layers of meaning: the subversion of elite art and keeping alive the possibility of new proportions.” Tamás St. Auby: Documents of the Banned Fluxconcert Planned for 12 May 1973. Orpheus, vol. IV., 1993/1. p. 63.
(92) János Zsilka’s seminar was attended by several members of the underground art scene, Gábor Bódy, Miklós Erdély, György Jovánovics, László Beke among others, but Tamás Szentjóby recalls that Zsilka himself only marginally and occasionally participated in the performances. However, his engagement is hinted at by the action theatre entitled Tether the Cow with a Rope (referring to an example sentence by János Zsilka), University Stage, 1973.
(93) The inaccuracy of the term is related to the avant-garde component, insofar as such artists who represented an even more traditional approach within the traditionalism of image production, like, for instance, the members of the Szürenon group (coined from Surrealism & Nonfigurativity), were also inspired by Hamvas’ philosophy of life.