I have always been intrigued by situations when life and art embrace. Perhaps my attraction to non-imitative procedures was arisen by Fluxus, or it is possible that I was moved by the expansive neo-avantgarde belief in the alterability of life. In any case, I perceive these as moments of existential testimony of the artist. Cases when the ethical and the aesthetical overlap.
This concurrence, the exposure of the artist, has its consequences. It generates a transparency along with the legal procedures that might ensue. The position of the speaker (one of the current cornerstones of critical art practice) is clearly outlined, forming an aura of credibility around the work even if one were to debate the content or orientation of the artist’s stance.
In the following I would like to draw these outlines through briefly introducing some works that have rooted in the Budapest scene. I shall do this from my perspective, from the point of view of a middle-class, middle-aged, Central European white male artist (I might as well bring up some of my works, since similar questions are on my mind with regard to them, but the position of the speaker may be more clear-cut if I reflect on the works of others this time).
Miklós Erhardt’s video Havanna can be considered a work diary, based on an astoundingly sincere confession on the tension he, as an outsider, an artist just passing through, has undergone during his current enterprise, an artistic intervention at a housing project that has turned into a slum. He has undertaken, therefore goes through with the project, while being tormented by doubt.
So in the soundtrack he takes into account the questions that arise in the process; the hardships, dangers, fiascos, obstacles he faces in the course of the work. The subdued images (in which he carefully tries to avoid objectifying his subjects the dwellers) almost seem to serve as a pretext for the confession to be formulated. The admission divulged in a tone resounding from deep inside becomes the central element of the work. Its pleasantness and disarming force springs from the intimacy and liberation generated by telling the truth. So does the adequately subtle commentary turn into the critical catechism of site-specific art.
Footnote to Bare Life – Twenty Six Cardboard Boxes That Contain (Arguably) All My Stuff To Date became the complementary piece of the above work. It was on view last summer in a display window in the subway at Secession, Vienna (while the video was exhibited inside). Observing the artwork the fundamental question is whether we believe the artist or not: did he really pack up, transport abroad, and place – and so for the exhibition’s four months go without – all his stuff? After watching this video, I believe him.
János Sugár stencilled the text Wash your dirty money with my art in front of two rich private art institutions in Budapest. Initially he had presented the stencil at a state-owned exhibition hall, but he felt the urge to also test the power of these words on the street, in ‘real life’, leaving the ‘protected’ environment. One of the private institutions silently removed the stain, but the other one filed a lawsuit for criminal damage, and assessed the damage at a disproportionately high value (1).
The police began investigation against an unidentified offender, and surprisingly soon they reached the state-owned exhibition hall and then the ‘author’. He then still had the option of denial; he could have said that he had seen the text in question on the street and, fancying it, included it as a quote in his work at Budapest Kunsthalle – the authors of graffitis, stencils and stickers being identifiable only for the initiate, and even then mostly by their ‘alias’, precisely in order to avoid such cases of being held responsible.
He, on the contrary, confessed, admitting everything, and only debating the value of the damage. He even published his confession as a serigraphy. In this text he repositions the sprayed stencil, calling it public art instead of street art. This is, then, the reason for giving his name and taking responsibility for it. It is worthwhile to note here that according to the definition of the German Supreme Court, art is what someone takes responsibility for. In this sense, from a legal aspect, Sugár’s operation can be considered an act of art.
As of this writing, the outcome of the procedure is unknown. In the meantime, however, copies of the stencil were purchased by the Ludwig Museum – Museum of Contemporary Art Budapest and a prominent private collection. The art scene seemingly shows solidarity with the author, treating the text as an artwork. Moreover, the purchases have yielded almost enough money to pay the fine based on a realistic damage assessment, although I would like it better if the artist himself removed (retouched) the 40x60cm text from the wall in the scope of community work. Then all would be left is to invalidate the legal consequences of the criminal record (2).
Miklós Mécs and nine others have recently been awarded a private prize, the Junior Prima. The prize of 7000 Euros – awarded to artists under 30 – is the ‘little sibling’ of the Prima Primissima prize (3) of debated professional legitimacy (4) but exceptionally high financial benefit. A representative brochure has also been published, containing a portrait and a motto from each winner (5).
Mécs submitted one of his earlier works for the portrait, in which the word Beuys is drawn under his nose (moustache in Hungarian is ‘bajusz’, pronounced very similarly to the name of the German artist. In addition, the ‘trim’ of the text looks hitleresque). As his motto, he submitted a found sentence: “I have never lied” (Viktor Orbán, Jörg Haider, Miklós Mécs), referring to the two politicians from whom he had previously heard the phrase.
In the brochure, however, the word Beuys was digitally removed from the portrait, and the place of the motto left empty. When it was published, they claimed that they had received the material too late, when the publication was already being printed. Whatever the case, he was the only Junior Prima from the ten who had no motto in the booklet.
In spite of this, Mécs accepted the prize. However, on the evening of the award ceremony, he distributed half of the sum among the visitors in another exhibition, in the scope of a peculiar procedure: he cut the 50 Euro banknotes in two pieces (making sure that the bigger part can be exchanged for a new one at the bank), and on each of the bigger ones he drew a phase of the sprint race of Achilles and the Tortoise. Each visitor received a phase (or 50 Euros, depends on how we view it), and the artist photographed each proprietor holding onto their banknotes. He then compiled an animation from the photos on which the phases of the race form a moving image.
On the prize itself, a glass horse (6), he wrote the excluded motto, and put it up for auction on Vatera (7). Then I had the feeling that he should have deserved to receive nine hundred thousand HUF for it, but he only got thirty thousand. Financially the balance is just beyond break-even point, but I think the moral profit will make recompense. Who would be able to give up this kind of money so easily?
Mécs’s portrait and motto might be called provocative. The extent of his provocation is, however, in line with the ambiguous recognition of the prize as well as the gallantry with which he waived half of the sum. Actually, he did not waive – he used it for the material costs of his new work. There are such costly productions. And with the same move he engaged all those who brought the phases of the race home (I have stowed mine, although I know of people who have exchanged it).
In fact, perhaps he engaged not only them, but also some of those who have heard this story. At least my impression about the works that have been engendered in the mentioned cases (video, installation, stencil, animation, prepared object) is that they are inseparable from the acts that have created them (confession, undertaking of responsibility, admission, renouncement, engagement). And this is what makes it democratic: the object is always owned by someone, but the act is everyone’s.
Translated with Daniel Sipos
(1) “I have a feeling they don’t like art. They need it or consider it important for some reason, but they don’t like it, they don’t use it properly. Big patrons or collectors form a close, or, if you like, friendly relation to culture. This is their real profit. In my view, VAM Design is not what it alleges to be. They practically debunked themselves by simply not recognising a gesture of contemporary art. Instead, they turned to legal means. I never tried to hide that I did it, and it was clear that it might have legal consequences. But the way they asserted themselves, the sum of the claim they made, it appeared as if this gesture had triggered an unrealistic rage on their part.” János Sugár in: Gergely Nagy: Mosd a pénzed a muvészetemmel!, hvg.hu, 2008. 11. 28.
(2) Sugár was taken into criminal record in the beginning of the procedure.
(4) József Mélyi: Lebutított emlékezet. Mozgó Világ, 2008. January
(5) http://www.primaprimissima.hu/f/pp_junior_kepzo.pdf (2010. 01. 17.)
(6) The sculpture is a rendering of Kincsem, the famous race mare, by Imre Schrammel, Kossuth Prize winning ceramic artist.
(7) the Hungarian little brother of ebay