The atrium of the Hungarian National Gallery, perched in the Hapsburg palace on the castle citadel in Budapest, was littered with oxidized, unexploded ordnance. Zsolt Asztalos’s Fired but Unexploded re-created his installation for the Hungarian pavilion at the 2013 Venice Biennale. Relocated here on the occasion of the exhibition ‘Turning Points: the Twentieth Century through 1914, 1939, 1989 and 2004’, this potentially incendiary work set the scene for the social conditions in Budapest at the start of 2015.
Bitter memories of Hungary’s communist past and resentment toward the ruling nationalist, anti-gay and anti-Semitic Fidesz party – one that engages in censorship and meddles in the administration of the arts – is manifesting in a vibrant political art movement in the capital. ‘Turning Points’, a group show of 26 Hungarian and international artists at the Hungarian National Gallery, questioned the value of historical anniversaries and their appropriation by all sides of the political arena. Adrián Kupcsik re-created the narrative of the last Soviet cosmonaut, Sergei Krikalev, who was stranded on the MIR space station after the Soviet Union collapsed. First, the artist created cardboard models of the characters – a reference, perhaps, to the Potemkin-village state of the Soviet economy – which he then painted in a cubist style (Maggie the Operator and Sergei the Astronaut, both 2014).
Across the Danube, Knoll Galéria, the Budapest branch of the Vienna-based gallery, presented an exhibition of paintings by Csaba Nemes inspired by Diego Rivera’s mural, Frozen Assets(1931–32). In this work, the staunchly communist artist used New York’s vertical architecture as metaphor for the brutal stratification of contemporary industrialized society, a trope that Nemes reproduced on three canvases. In Frozen Assets – Guggenheim (2014) he references the plight of migrant labourers working on the Abu Dhabi Guggenheim, while the human pyramid of orange- and yellow-clad construction workers and janitors supporting smiling, glad-handing technocrats in Donators on Plotting Board (2015) is a blunt criticsm of Hungarian politics. The paintings are colourful and glib, selling their anger towards the status quo with an easily digestible, perhaps overly pedagogic, imagery. But Nemes’s most striking piece was the drawing Horthy and Joyce (2014). In 1904. Miklós Horthy – Regent of Hungary from 1920–44, who, as leader of the National Army, oversaw the White Terror of 1919–20 and later delivered the nation into the hands of the Nazis at the outbreak of WWII – was tutored in English by James Joyce. Nemes renders the two figures as visually isolated from each other – just as they were ideologically – conveying how hard it is to imagine them in the same room. The work stands as a witty and nihilistic comment on never knowing who your bedfellows may be.
The Parthenon-Frieze Space is a venue for sculptors associated with the Hungarian University of Fine Art and is maintained by the school’s sculpture department. The space, crowned by a replica of the Elgin marbles, serves as a showcase for a regular programme of exhibitions curated by Ádám Szabó featuring contemporary Hungarian sculptors. Ádám Kokesch’s ‘Lark Theory’ (2015) offered a collection of slick, amusingly faux-hi-tech, brightly coloured machines. Among these hybrid gadgets, the most recognizable were the ubiquitous but intriguing abstract objects used to pack fragile technological devices for shipping. Kokesch’s sculptures flicker with LEDs and emanate random musical tracks, from techno to Frank Sinatra – seductively useless objects like the discarded products that were superseded by the cult of smooth functionality exemplified by the iPhone. The generative motor of emerging art in Budapest comes principally from the non-institutional, non-profit sector, comprised mainly of multi-use complexes. One such space, Trafó, a theatre/film/music/arts complex, occupies a former electric transformer station in the Ferencváros district – once working-class and gritty, now rapidly gentrifying. In February, the basement gallery mounted a solo exhibition by Czech artist Josef Bolf, featuring his animation Heavy Planet (2014): a boyhood walk through the faceless and oversized communist-era public housing estates outside Prague. Bolf combines fluid, stop-motion oil painting with animation cels to bind the narrative strains of his bleak trek home.
Moving further out from the National Gallery, a confluence of low budgets and low rents in the city centre has given rise to a group of multi-purpose artist/community organizations. Müszi, in Blaha Luiza square, inhabits the former third-floor electronics section of the Corvin department store, creating a somewhat surreal setting, since the rest of the building still functions as a shop. Bódis Barnabás, visual arts curator-at-large of the Sziget Music Festival and the Magyar Mozgó Képtár (Hungarian Movin’ Gallery) regularly fills the two galleries of Müszi with the work of street artists, outsider artists, expats and the occasional academician. Another communal art space, the Gólya community centre, inhabits a crumbling edifice in Budapest’s 8th district, a section of the city recently cleared of most squatters and Roma, victims of the current government’s attempts to create a ‘pure’ Hungarian state. Seeking to bring together all these ‘underground’ disparate cultural outliers, the first instalment of the OFF Biennale, which runs until 31 May, has created a loose network of non-governmental non-commercial cultural organizations with the goal of raising their visibility and offering a united front of independent individual thinkers: Asztalos’s quiet bombs are perhaps about to explode.