Originally published by Frieze on March 5th 2013.
Straddling the River Danube as it passes through northern Hungary are the formerly separate cities of Buda and Pest, whose unification in 1873 heralded a golden age for the region. On the west bank, the imposing Buda Castle dominates the skyline, overlooking the river from its seat atop Castle Hill. On the opposite bank sits the Neo-Gothic leviathan that is the Hungarian Parliament Building.
The cafe and bar scene is positively thriving, bristling with creative energy. Chief amongst these bustling venues are so-called ‘ruin’ bars like Szimpla Kert, housed in previously derelict buildings. Szimpla Kert is an absolutely breath-taking sight: every inch of its walls are covered in graffiti, layered up over the decades of disuse. There’s a drinks cabinet made out of a baby grand piano, seats made of battered cars sliced in half and old televisions transformed into a lit-up mobile installation; this is a palace of upcycling and a living, breathing artwork in its own right. This buzzing backdrop of cafes and bars provides a fecund ground for artists.
Szimpla Kert, Budapest, 2014. Photograph: Daniel Edwins
The city’s architecture is a mesmeric patchwork of Baroque, Neo-Renaissance and Art Nouveau facades, with a grandiose, historic building seemingly on every corner. Some are lovingly restored and adoringly lit up at night, flagrantly flaunting their looks; others are visibly decaying, literally crumbling; but very few are empty. It is quite possibly the most spectacularly beautiful city I have ever visited. But the beauty doesn’t hide Budapest’s scars, which are gaping reminders of WWII, Nazi and Soviet occupation. The ‘House of Terror’ museum stands as a living monument to the city’s past troubles. But it’s not just Budapest’s past that is tumultuous; its present, both culturally and politically, is troubled, and as a result its future remains uncertain.
Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s right-wing government has been staunchly criticised by arts organisations for its iron-fisted approach to culture, having replaced a number of high profile cultural personnel with figures from within the party. For instance, Laszlo Simon, a government MP, became head of the National Cultural Fund of Hungary, an institution that was previously independent of the government. Orbán has publicly stated his desire to establish a “a new modern, right-wing culture,” and in 2012 commissioned an exhibition celebrating 1000 years of Hungarian history focusing on Christianity and statehood, which included a huge image of himself. The exhibition was hosted at the National Gallery, whose then director, Ferenc Csak resigned in protest, saying “The government shouldn’t have the power to order exhibitions with such a high political agenda”.
Orbán’s government have been further accused of a lack of transparency over major cultural policy decisions and of concentrating decision-making powers in the hands of a small, formerly private group of conservative artists, the Hungarian Art Academy (MMA). Unite for Contemporary Art, a group of artists and cultural representatives wrote an open letter last year attacking the government’s culture policy: “It is practically written into the new Hungarian Constitution that works reflecting a Christian-nationalist ideology will be given priority when state subsidies are disbursed”.
Previously, Budapest had an independent network of public galleries dedicated to contemporary art, but in recent years this has been dwindling. Although the New Budapest Gallery is seconded to the Budapest History Museum, it is seeking to plug that gap and reinvigorate the city’s contemporary art scene. Fittingly housed in the shiny new Bálna building, a short distance down the Danube’s east bank from Parliament, the New Budapest Gallery opened its doors last October. The Bálna stands out amongst Budapest’s historic architecture, with a steel and glass “whale” flanked by two restored warehouses. It’s eerily quiet inside, sparsely populated by a strange mix of shops, cafes and unfilled retail units. Clearly this new centre is still finding its feet: it feels a bit sanitised and soulless, like a failing shopping centre. It’s strange place to find a contemporary art gallery with a decidedly critical outlook.
The New Budapest Gallery takes up a good chunk of the first floor, occupying a massive space. Budapest Immersion, the gallery’s inaugural show, is fittingly monumental in scale and scope, exhibiting more than 60 of Budapest’s leading contemporary artists. The exhibition is a collaborative effort between three curators Gábor Andrási, Péter Fitz and Tamás Török, aiming to present a representative “cross section” of Budapest’s art scene. As such there is no common thematic or aesthetic thread weaving what is a rich tapestry of work together. The danger of this approach is that the exhibition might come across as a stilted attempt to shoehorn as many artists as possible into a single show, but by compartmentalising the vast space and intelligently grouping works into smaller clusters, the curators have ensured that the show remains coherent whilst also showcasing the breadth of talent currently working in the city.
The work grouped off to the left portion of the gallery loosely falls under the category of abstract art which plays on shape and perspective, some of it clearly having a more architectural sensibility. Peter Turk’s painting Brick Picture – “the breadth and length and height and depth …” (Eph. 3.16 to 20) (2011), plays tricks on the eyes and is hypnotically alluring with its insanely brightly coloured ‘bricks’ which criss-cross and undulate. Meanwhile, Faa Balázs’s mathematically preciseLibu (2013) is an expansive maze of white lines covering a large section of the gallery floor, resembling a spider’s web or fly’s wing under a microscope. It evokes a decentralised network, strong in its multiplicity and yet the chalk-like texture it is made of hints at fragility; it would easily crack if pressure were applied. This is perhaps an apt metaphor for the current predicament of the art scene in Budapest.
The central section of the gallery houses a number of installation-based pieces. Peter Tamas Halasz’s Solution (2012) cuts an imposing figure; a chain of used car tyres seemingly strung up between two walls. They’re dirty, soiled and burdensome and give the illusion of being suspended, perhaps suggesting the weight of climate change hanging from our collective neck. With no visible cut marks, it also leaves you scratching your head as to how the tyres have been linked together. This is cause for more proverbial head-scratching: firstly, at the ingenuity associated with the advent of the motor car; secondly, at the stubborn stupidity of our continued use of such a polluting device when greener solutions surely exist.
Balázs Kicsiny’s The State of Play in 2013 (2013) is like the echo of a performance piece, consisting of a felt-lined table resembling a pool table, but without any pockets, its surface scorched haphazardly. On an adjacent tabletop of the same dimensions as the pool table, a looped film showing how the table arrived at its present state is projected down. A faceless performer cues blazing snooker balls into each other, quite literally playing with fire. The fact that there are no pockets to pot the balls into suggests the ‘game’ is either an entirely futile exercise in destruction. The game has produced a piece of art at the end and seems, in that sense, to comment quite playfully on the artistic process, but playing with fire retains the suggestion of something darker.
Luca Gőbölyös’s extraordinary series of photographs entitled ‘Background’ (2013) is arguably the highlight of the exhibition. Gőbölyös’s images are based on a remarkable convention in portrait photography of the Victorian era, when exposure times were long enough to allow mothers to disguise themselves with veils and other clothing in order to blend into the background whilst holding their babies still for the camera. Gőbölyös’s works are a contemporary reimagining of this peculiar phenomenon. Like Linda Fregni Nagler’s series ‘The Hidden Mother’, included in the main exhibition at last year’s Venice Biennale, these works force us to (re)consider the role of mothers and women more generally. In the context of post-communist Hungary, traditional family values have been increasingly reinforced with discourses about the ‘proper’ role of women as mothers propagated by a conservative government and media. Gőbölyös’s work is such a triumph as it embodies the old feminist mantra that the ‘personal is the political’ in a way that is not trite or clichéd, but highly effective and striking. Her photographs serve as a very personal record of her journey through early-motherhood, reminding us that no matter how close the bond between parent and child, they will eventually have to separate. They also remind us that mothers are simply expected to sacrifice everything for their children, and that they are supposed to do so silently. Even today, the majority of domestic labour the world over is carried out by women and it is for the most part unpaid, unrewarded and rarely recognised. Clearly, Gőbölyös felt no need to self-censor her bludgeoning critique of Hungary’s current political context and credit to the gallery displaying something so overt.
Even in the most draconian of political climates, art has a habit of surviving and thriving, providing a medium for dissent and sometimes even galvanising a movement of genuine political resistance. Whilst this observation may provide little consolation for the country’s artists who’ve fallen victim to the government’s stringent funding criteria, the early promise of the New Budapest Gallery surely offers some.