London - Interviews

Hungarian Exhibition in London during Frieze Week: a Conversation with Andras Szanto

10 months ago

A selection of rarely-seen works by artists of the Hungarian neo-avant-garde will open in London at The Vinyl Factory, Soho during Frieze Week, 4–14 October 2018. “Bookmarks – Revisiting Hungarian art of the 1960s and 1970s”, curated by Hungarian-born, New York-based András Szántó, will include a representative sampling of approximately 70 emblematic works by 35 artists of the late 1960s and 1970s. An accompanying publication will feature interviews by Hans Ulrich Obrist with key figures of the generation, along with essays by Szántó and the London-based art historians Maja and Reuben Fowkes.

Practical info
Exhibition dates: 4–14 October 2018
Private View & Performance: 4 October, 6-9pm

The Vinyl Factory, Soho

16-18 Marshall Street, W1F 7BE London

Opening times
5-7 October 10am – 6pm
8-13 October Noon – 6pm
14 October Noon – 5pm

Mara Sartore: Last year you curated “With the Eyes of Others: Hungarian Artists of the Sixties and Seventies” at Elizabeth Dee in NYC and this upcoming fall you’re proposing the exhibition in London. What is changing in the exhibition format? Will there be different artists involved?

András Szántó: The overall focus is the same: Hungarian artists of the sixties and seventies. There is a strong overlap in the artists in the two exhibitions, although there are some featured in the London show who did not appear in New York, and vice versa. And the group of Budapest galleries collaborating for the project is also the same: acb, Vintage, and Kisterem. This is not a selling exhibition and the role of the galleries needs to be contextualized. These galleries have been the drivers of research and documentation as well as market advocacy for this generation of artists, who are, for the most part, woefully under-represented in the so-called West. Dóra Maurer is perhaps an exception, but even that name is not too familiar in international circles.

The exhibition’s title, “Bookmarks”, signals that it is part of a long-term collaborative project originating in Budapest, involving not only galleries but also curators and collectors who have been working in tandem to increase the visibility of these artists. Their efforts have resulted in group exhibitions showcasing the period during the Off Biennale in Budapest and at Art Cologne. “With the Eyes of Others”, a large exhibition proposed by Elizabeth Dee and organized in her Harlem gallery last year, with a herculean effort, can be seen as part of the same collaborative process. Introducing these artists into the international art conversation is a slow and arduous task. However, it is also immensely satisfying. It has generated a new level of recognition for artists who have been waiting for decades for this moment to arrive.

The organizing format is the major difference between the New York and London exhibitions. At Elizabeth Dee’s gallery, we had the privilege of installing into a museum-size space, which the show could occupy for several months. In London, we have a temporary space, and a much smaller one. Whereas the larger exhibition in New York could be organized into broad thematic clusters, each one occupying a distinct area, here we are creating a more intermixed selection where artists and works of varied orientations are more directly speaking to one another. And of course, any space changes meanings and associations just by virtue of the layout and tonality of the architecture.

Both exhibitions have been accompanied by books. The one in New York provided more historical background to an audience that really needed such context. For London, we have been able to include, in addition to two essays, a series of recently-completed interviews that Hans Ulrich Obrist conducted earlier this year in Budapest. Adding these interviews has significantly extended the reach of the exhibition. The artists’ own words add a powerful layer of interpretation.

M.S.: Could you briefly introduce the work of the artists involved? Which are the artworks we will see in the show?

A.S.: Rather than go through the pieces one by one – after all, there are some 35 artists in the exhibition, some with multiple works – I would focus on their range and diversity as a group. What visitors to the New York show were most impressed by, in addition to how closely these artists were interacting with western movements, was the range of media and formats present in the “neo-avant-garde” scene in Budapest. After all, this was taking place behind the Iron Curtain, at a physical remove from major western arts capitals, in a period that we don’t exactly equate with artistic freedom and experimentation.
And yet it’s all there: from hard-edge abstraction to experimental video to conceptual sculpture and photography to visual poetry to clever fluxus games and really tough performance. It is like a parallel universe in which all the then-current Western movements and methods were present—often in the practice of the same artist; after all, no market forces would force any of these artists into doing just one kind of thing. The point is that, here as elsewhere, it is more interesting to focus on the whole, on the complexity of the entire ecology, than on individual works. Having said that, there are stunning works in this show, and your readers will have to come and see them.

M.S.: What does it mean to you to present such artists in London? Is there any connection to political issues as Brexit?

A.S.: There is no doubt in my mind that the work of these artists is resonating more powerfully than ever because of the times we are living in. We are experiencing a period of reckoning: the collapse of the post-cold-war order; the whole post-truth conundrum, and especially, the recrudescence of tin-pot tyrants and a new vogue for authoritarianism that I simply couldn’t have imagined sprouting up in my lifetime, after the breakthrough year of 1989. We are all seeking to formulate a new posture, a new relationship to a world that has suddenly turned darker.
And here come a group of artists who were able to formulate a response to difficult political times. They weren’t necessarily heroes. But they showed us how to navigate under difficult conditions and maintain dignity and backbone and a spirit of independence when that stance carried genuine risks. I suspect that viewers in London, informed by the local situation, including Brexit, will find their own meanings reflected in these works. Of course, there can be no direct relationship to Brexit, an event that followed the completion of these works by more than four decades. But in such politically-charged times, all politically-charged work resonates powerfully, and these are no exception.

M.S.: What do you think about the current political conditions in Europe? I’m thinking about the recent position undertaken by the European Parliament against Hungary and Viktor Orbán. Do the exhibition and the artists respond to this kind of issues somehow?

A.S.: This is a historical show. Even though many of the artists are still active, the most recent work in the exhibition is from around 1980. I will say that the works demonstrate and independence of mind and spirit that is inspirational today. They are also a cause for optimism.
The sphere of political freedom and openness in Hungary has fluctuated over the years. This generation was active in a period of comparative easing that followed a phase of severely harsh repression. The worst years were 1948-53, when Hungary descended into a full-blown Stalinist dictatorship; some of the artists in the show would remember this phase from their early youth, their family histories would have been touched by it. After Stalin’s death, in 1953, a softening began, but the 1956 revolution led again to a clampdown. By the early sixties, the authorities felt secure enough to allow some reforms to start, particularly after 1968. In the early seventies, Hungarians got an early taste of a consumerist society where some freedoms were allowed—a small house by the lake, a license to drive a cab or operate a food stall, an occasional travel permit to go west. The artistic practice of the generation in this exhibition has to be located in this evolving context.
Today, the pendulum is swinging back, after a period when the institutions and norms of a liberal democracy were taking root and Hungary was integrating into western alliances, to one where the state is becoming more muscular and intruding more actively into the sphere of civil society. It’s anyone’s guess where things will go from here. But although the situation is different today than in the late sixties and early seventies – there is simply no comparison to what life was like in 1970 and today – artists once again must consider the boundaries of what is politically acceptable, and learn to navigate consciously around them.

M.S.: What about the female presence in this exhibition? Among the exhibited artists, who is the female key figure of the Sixties and Seventies from your point of view?

A.S.: By last count, we have 8 female artists in the exhibition, and they each have made extraordinary contributions. Those with the most exposure to date are the ones who spent time in the West. Dóra Maurer has been mentioned; she was fortunate enough to have access to Vienna through much of her career. A fascinating figure is Vera Molnar, a member of the Hungarian artist diaspora, who emigrated to Paris and became a pioneer of computer-based art. For those who visited the last documenta, the work of Katalin Ladik will be familiar. She is an artist of exceptional range and daring, with roots in avantgarde music, poetry, and radical performance. In fact, she will be doing a performance in London. And I have to mention Ilona Keserü, now 84 years old, whose monumental textile work was recently acquired by the Met and will go on view there soon. It is gratifying that so many women have turned out to be the standout voices in this generation of Hungarian artists.

M.S.: What’s next? Which are the projects you’re working on and the collaborations you’re partnering with?

A.S.: I am not by primary calling a curator, although these adventures have been invigorating— storytelling by other means. Whenever I can, I try to write, but nowhere nearly as much as I would like these days. In the coming months I will be focusing hard on some wonderfully challenging strategic planning initiatives, including an art-and-cultural plan for a major American university and a strategic plan for a singularly unconventional organization in Brooklyn, Pioneer Works, which ranges freely between art, science, technology and all forms of contemporary creativity. I am also excited about the publication in December of a book I edited with Max Hooper Schneider, titled Planetary Vitrine, from Hatje Cantz, which originated from his BMW Art Journey last year to multiple endangered coral reef ecologies around the world—working with Max was a blast. For me, all these forms of engagement are part of the same thing: one continuing conversation about where we’re coming from, where we’re going, and who we are.

Mara Sartore

  • András Szántó © Mariana Gatto András Szántó © Mariana Gatto
  • István Nádler, István Nádler, "Composition, 1969", © Miklós Sulyok, Courtesy: the artist and Kisterem Gallery
  • Katalin Ladik, Katalin Ladik, "Cover of the vinyl record Phonopoetica" ('Phonopoetica - Phonopoetic Interpretation of Visual Poetry'), 1976, Courtesy: the artist and acb Gallery
  • Péter Türk, Jacob’s Ladder, Courtesy of the estate of the artist and Vintage Galéria © József Rosta Péter Türk, Jacob’s Ladder, Courtesy of the estate of the artist and Vintage Galéria © József Rosta
  • György Galántai, Homage to Vera Mukhina, performance with the participation of Julia Klaniczay and Guglielmo Achille Cavellini, Heroes’ Square II, Budapest, May 1980.  photo: György Hegedűs silver print; 30 x 40 cm Courtesy of the artist and Vintage Galéria © András Bozsó György Galántai, Homage to Vera Mukhina, performance with the participation of Julia Klaniczay and Guglielmo Achille Cavellini, Heroes’ Square II, Budapest, May 1980.  photo: György Hegedűs silver print; 30 x 40 cm Courtesy of the artist and Vintage Galéria © András Bozsó
  • Imre Bak
, Untitled (Orange-Blue), 1969 © Tibor Varga-Somogyi, 
Courtesy of the artist and acb Gallery Imre Bak
, Untitled (Orange-Blue), 1969 © Tibor Varga-Somogyi, 
Courtesy of the artist and acb Gallery

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András Szántó © Mariana Gatto

András Szántó

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