„I hear she has managed her life somewhat strangely.” (Doctor Dorn about Nina)
„… and when I think of my work, I am no longer afraid of life.” (Nina about herself)
(Chekhov: The Seagull)
Courbet, in the subtitle of The Painter’s Studio, claimed that the painting is the real allegory of seven of his creative years. The audience immediately began guessing who was who on the picture and who played what role during this period of the artist’s life – in other words, they were trying to figure out where the realism was behind the allegory. Some of the theoretical judges – with Courbet’s friend, Champfluery, who was also depicted in the work, among them – however, criticised the painter for failing to recognise reality and allegory as mutually exclusive concepts. The open or hidden involvement of private life in a work of art, and “life as a work of art” (Schelling) were not exactly new ideas during the emergence of realism. The deciphering of biographical aspects had always comprised part of art history research. The question of fusing art and life became a cardinal point in the thinking of artist in the twentieth century. Then, in the last quarter of the century, just when virtually everyone had abandoned the idea of symbiosis, the boundary-shifting concept of “life as art” and the word “lifework,” as applied to artists, made their appearance in artistic literature. This expression does not primarily refer to individual works of art, but to the entire oeuvre even, or a portion of it, as characterised by the aesthetisation and public display of (private) life.
From Andy Warhol, or from live art through Jeff Koons to FLATZ, to the club projects analysing social problems, many artists and movements that brought art closer to life, or vica versa, can be included within the category of life as art. When projecting the concept back in time, in past decades, two significant periods are distinguishable in the history of lifeworks. Subjective experience – accompanied usually by social sensitivity and often by political undertones – emerged in the performance art of the seventies, in which individuals who had fallen out of the system of social relations made public spectacles of themselves. The second period took place in the second half of the nineties, when young artists turned a part, or the whole, of their private lives into an art piece. From photography to performance, from residential district surveys to aiding the handicapped, the sphere, which had formerly been thought of as private, developed into art through numerous manifestations. As of the eighties, all these initiatives were framed by theories originating from the writings of Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze.
In Hungary, the concept has not really gained footing yet; perhaps because here artists are seemingly more protective of the boundaries, which separate private life and art. In Lajos utca, a true life as art project is presented – the product of a collaboration between Endre Koronczi, Tibor Gyenis and curator, András Bán. (Based on what can be seen and read about the project, it is difficult to say what role the curator played in its development, but it is a fact that, if only for the sake of a photo, the two artists sat on his knees. This picture can be viewed on the homepage of the exhibition at (http://www.koronczi.hu/basic/). A small note: Koronczi really could have put some slippers on too.)
While most of Koronczi’s earlier works were centred on the passing of time in search of the thin boundaries separating the human body and its environment, Gyenis arrived at the thought of altering the environment (photos) from the idea of stretching the boundaries of the body (body prostheses). The “Bianco” project of recent years, in which Koronczi offers himself as advertising medium to the public, can be regarded as a life as art program in the truest form. In a broader sense, Tibor Gyenis’ performances are also derived from the aesthetisation of subjective experiences, while still more references to, and motifs of, private life can be discovered in his photographic endeavours. Koronczi and Gyenis have now jointly created their “Basic” project, which is held together by personal life crises that were experienced nearly simultaneously by the two artists. They chose to elaborate the subject of a confessedly difficult, recent period of their lives in the form of an exhibition. They called together the important people – lovers, friends and relatives – from their earlier and present lives, in order to give account, to themselves as well as to the public, of their past years and feelings. This was done in the form presenting individual photographs, which encompass their entire system of relationships, by reading (personal) letters which were written during the project and by showing a video, which documented the photo sessions. In order to overcome the crisis, they underwent artistic psychotherapy.
Experience indicates that artistic therapy can start off in two directions: it can be conflict-avoiding, or it can attempt to forge virtue from chaos. The artists, by summoning together their ex-lovers (friends, etc) chose to do the latter. Classic literature (Montaigne) recommends chaos-making primarily to young people in order to stir up their vitality. While we see less examples for this in real life, it is all the more common in Hollywood films: Hugh Grant and John Cusack have found themselves in this situation on more than one occasion. Chaos, however, is a double-edged sword. Thus, film and life both suggest that women who were once important should be seen together, at the same time, only in a settled-down age. In the German film titled “Paradiso,” the main character gathers the most important women of his life in his house on his sixtieth birthday. In real life, it was Brecht who collected his lovers and loves around him just before his death (a film was made of this as well). Whenever we are to face the past, however, it can be said in summary: this can manifest in the form of a dream, or nightmare.
For rendering this dream/nightmare quality palpable, Koronczi and Gyenis cleverly chose the gleaming, wax museum-effect evoking genre of hyper-sharp, composed photography, which is, nevertheless, a medium that is not easy to handle in terms content or technique. As, in the genre of composed scenes, we have arrived in the period of “manierism.” When Gregory Crewdson, with the help of his Hollywood crew, takes days to arrange a single shot with famous actors in it, then it becomes impossible, end perhaps, unnecessary, to keep up. On the other hand, the possibilities of form also seem to be running out: it is quite difficult to come up with something new in this genre. In the exhibited “making of” film, perhaps as a realistic homage, Tibor Gyenis presented a photo by Jeff Wall to the participants, according to which the composition was to be arranged. This is how we get back to lifework, as the compositional traditions associated with Jeff Wall’s composed photos are represented in the group images of Manet, Courbet and Velazquez.
The photos, which comprise the core of the exhibition, are two-part didactic images originating from various traditions of composition and employing different formal means. Of the two artists, Gyenis’ photo is more chaotic and yet more powerful. Instead of Velazquez’s “man in the doorway,” his photos have for their central, formal element – the man in the window. The painted sculptures, which appear next to the lively – though rather wax sculpture-like – participants as substitutes for absent invitees, become emphatic actors of the scene and reinforce the type characteristics of the photographed subjects. The lack of vivacious figures and the contrived nature of the set-up are counterbalanced by an allegoric characteristic to the allusory unfolding of the age-differences and poses of the participants, which guides the interpretation. Koronczy’s photo – where the replacement of missing people by white masses is more consistent from the perspective of the project – gives a more coherent impression, and yet is not as interesting. Regardless of the large number of people in the photo, it is obvious that the artist made a portrait of himself, as part of the “Bianco” project. In this way, he, in fact, uses himself in his own life. Aside from the didactic visual motifs, we do not have the slightest inkling about the role of the individuals who are important to him. While, in Gyenis’ case, a system of relations develops, for Koronczi, the image is an action concentrated on a person.
The intention to condense the participants, who are distant from each other both in time and space, into a single moment, unavoidably leads to a forced instant and difficult-to-handle power dynamics. What makes matters worse: it was precisely the key actors who did not agree to participate in the game (of life), and, therefore, are not included in the shot, making necessary their replacement through somewhat archaic means. The pictures, however, reveal the almost reality show-like inequality of power relations and all the hidden compulsions and necessities behind the photograph. I invite you – you come, I film you – you appear, I write you – I read it. This aspect of the images is present in every photo and film shot, but, nevertheless, remains unpondered. The dubbing of the videos taken during the photo shoots are supposed to serve the purpose of filling the absence, but beyond the exposed and positively lovable appearance of the artists in the photos, the reading of letters could not sufficiently satisfy this role. The point of the therapy, however, would exactly be in reflecting on these systems of relations.
In my opinion, Koronczi and Gyenis have been struggling for years with the same problems, which can be narrowed to the concept of a genre crisis. Koronczi’s God installation, which filled half of the exhibition hall in Műcsarnok, could have fit into a cartoon. Gyenis’ performances seem more interested in a documented form, while in his photos, I would be more interested to see how he produced the set-up. This present idea they have elaborated into a project, which breaks the boundaries of genre. A project, however, is an obscure thing; while one attends to loose ends, the point may become lost. Not to even mention that viewers think in terms of projects to a much lesser extent than artist would expect them to. The train of thought formulated by the artists can only be followed as long as image and text, document and fiction are closely linked. Beyond that, anything will seem over-speculated and contrived.
Gyenis and Koronczi’s project, as most lifeworks, is about the search for the distance between subject and an objective existent – today with significantly modified content as compared to the classical meaning. While their experiment is exciting and unsettling, to use a fencing phrase: it cannot find the distance. The end result shows that, although their search can be regarded as an honest and heroic gesture, they cannot, for now, find their place in this unique and chaotic relationship-system of their own creation.
By undertaking the project, the two artists have applied themselves in a double act of rope walking. They have had to create a work that would be refined and naive at the same time, while also being honest and objective to the utmost. The project, which perhaps signifies a turning point in the artists’ lives, has been an attempt at finding the sincerity and originality of our own being – and, even, at gaining power over our fate, enabling us to keep the appropriate distance from the currents of our life. This feat is a lifework-worthy task, rather than a single shot undertaking, and thus, for now, remains doomed to failure.Translated by: Zsófia Rudnay