An interview with Gábor Kerekes
6th February 2001
What exhibitions have you recently had abroad?
In November 2000 I took part in the Paris photo-fair. It is a four-day event organised every year, and Csaba Mórocz invited me there. About 90 galleries, the most popular galleries of the world, exhibit their works there, and they feel that they have to take part in this event out of prestige, an event which is first of all significant from a business aspect. I also exhibited my works in January and February in San Francisco, in the Robert Koch Gallery, where Tihamér Gyarmathy’s photograms from the 50’s can also be seen at the same time. These may be the two most important exhibitions of recent times, and due to them I have also been invited to significant photo festivals in London, Zaragoza and Huesca.
How did you become a part of the international photo world?
The biggest problem is that in Hungary most of the artists are still waiting for an institute or institutional system to support them, make them famous or provide them with possibilities of being at least judged. Being judged is very important. The majority of Hungarian photographers think that if they win a lot of prizes or become popular at home, then they have achieved a level that is complies with the international intellectual environment and expectations. But the real process of being judged – and I am not saying it because I’m a snob or I adore the west – takes place abroad, where those who deal with it know everything about their profession, where they are familiar with the different techniques and they also know what is worth publishing.
Are you saying that with partisan acts you achieve more than with the support of an institutional system?
Partisan act is not a good expression, it is too extreme. I would rather talk about self-management. Well, the ideal thing would be to have a manager, but photographers are alone when they work, so they are also left alone when they want to become more known, and it is only after this that a gallery can decide to support them.
It would be good, if in the Hungarian institutional system there was a mediating system oriented towards the west.
Just look at the Czechs. What makes them more famous? On the one hand there was a group of art historians dealing with photography there who regarded it as one of their tasks to recommend the photographers they found talented. And they did it extremely creatively, with great devotion, by establishing lots of personal relationships. On the other hand in the seventies the young generation went abroad. Those who are really well known in the Czech Republic today are all former emigrants who have returned to their home country.
There were a few adventurous Hungarians too…
Yes, from those times we could mention the name of György Lőrinczy, who did not have the slightest chance at home. Recently I have been looking at a city album of his which was made before he left Hungary. Well, all the mistakes that can be made in photography can be found in it. It is unworthy of him, probably he would have denied it subsequently. But when he went abroad, he became part of a completely different intellectual environment, where he worked his way up to the front rank of progressive photography.
If we were still in the seventies would you leave the country now?
I had to face this question at the beginning of the eighties, when I went abroad for the first time in my life. I was too old for it then. Well, I might have been too old even at the beginning of the seventies for this. Maybe today I would say that I would give it a try in the Paris of the seventies, because I realise now that things do not work here at all, but everything seems to work there. For example, there is always somebody at the other end of the phone line. If you spin a small wheel there, you get great impetus from it. If the participants of artistic life see possibilities in you, then they push you in front of themselves all the time, and you become more an more valuable.
If you consider the quality of Hungarian photography, do you think that it is competitive?
Because there is no Hungarian photography, and it has never really existed. Those who we boastfully call Hungarian photographers all became great abroad. André Kertész spent very little time in Hungary, Robert Capa and Moholy-Nagy were influenced by a completely different intellectual environment. Well, it is also possible that this place has some special spirit, and you must be born here to be able to become great somewhere else. For example Brassai simply denied being Hungarian. As for the present situation the sad thing is that you cannot mention a really important Hungarian photographer, like, for example, Sudek in the Czech Republic. From the whole of Eastern Europe you cannot mention anyone else but Sudek. There are maybe a few Polish and a few Czech photographers behind him.
So you are saying that from an international aspect the present accomplishments of Hungarian photography are absolutely negligible? The fact that Hungarian photographers are invited to quite a few places, France and Germany, seems to contradict this.
Well, they wanted to invite them around ´89. All the important trustees were lining up here, even Jean-Luc Monterosso from Paris, who has become the top of all things now, and there were people here from the Netherlands, Denmark and the UK, and they did not buy anybody. Or rather nobody knew that it should have been taken damn seriously, there were no set systems: how to number, send and appraise a picture – if there is a fingerprint on it, they will not buy it. So everybody was very curious to come and see us, but they did not find what they were looking for here, so they simply left. And then Hungary became politically forgotten too, and the same think happened to photography. The fact that Hungarians are invited now is mainly due to an interstate agreement in which 2001 was made the year of Hungary in France.
How could this situation be changed?
The culture of photography itself should be created. We need a history of Hungarian photography, prescribed rules, and photography should be taught in primary school. The society should be more open towards visual culture, as the last 150 years were all about this. They still regard press photography the most important here. The artists are uninformed and narrow-minded, and they are not really compelled to be judged at home. We have no well-prepared criticism: there is nobody who would say: you’d better stop doing it, sir!
What is the explanation for your own successes?
It is not my job to explain them. Artists always struggle with doubts. And once you have done something well, your doubts will become even bigger, whether you were really good. The reason for my results achieved abroad is that in ’93 I took part in a photo festival in Arles, where Mapplethorpe also became famous. A collector from Strasbourg bought two of my photographs there, they invited me to hold an exhibition in Belgium, they wrote about me in one of the photographic journals in the Netherlands, so it all started to work like an avalanche. And in the following year the same lady from Strasbourg bought another photograph from me, and through her I was also invited by others, and since then I have taken part in a large number of exhibitions, for example, in Esslingen, Lyon and then in an exhibition called Europa-Europa. Well, you also have to do things deliberately so that they hear about you. They pass you on from hand to hand, provided that you continue to come up to their expectations. This is what I call being judged.
Thank you for the interview.