Újlak Group

Tüzolto Utca 72

When relating the story of the Újlak Group, one is tempted to resort to a narrative of the “artists’ group” as creative laboratory, a narrative that is in large part responsible for their appeal in this Eastern European climate of uncertain relationships. The group itself, however, rejects any well-greased organizing principle, functioning more as a nonlinear commentary on communication. Their refusal to define themselves and their relationship to each other, and their infinitely renewable impulse toward definition is their raison d’être. As one of the artists put it, “We ape the experience of understanding the other, which of course is an impossible act.”

However impossible, the shows, whether the artists exhibit individual works (often unidentified) or work together on a performance’or installation, always seem to reflect a consensus that is poetic, contemplative, and shifting. Their most recent show, as usual running for only three consecutive evenings, was in an abandoned pasta factory, which the group took over legally and have worked out of since 1991. Here the collection of seven installations (by group members Zoltán Adám, Kálmán Adám, Gábor Farkas, Tamás Komoróczky, András Ravasz, Péter Szarka, and István Szili) managed to conflate hominess, alienation, and insidious violence into an atmosphere at once ironic and transcendent.

From Péter Szarka’s vaguely cultic, otherworldly Africa ’69 or ’96, 1992 (Africa is still a Faraway “other” to Hungarians), in which a steam-puffing black pedestal was placed over an image of an African rug projected onto the floor, to Gábor Farkas’ down-home but spooky niche constructed from a backpack, table, fishing line, and colored chalk scribbles on the wall and floor (at once innocent art-classroom disorder and scene of violent crime), all the works here spoke to our collective fears and desires. Perhaps the strongest piece in the show was what they referred to simply as “the warming room,” a small room in the back of the space created by the group while the members sat there planning the show. In the room was a space heater, a map of Mesopotamia, a few chairs, a table covered with bread crumbs, the odd beer bottle and a long tape loop, continually running, playing barely discernable “noises” composed by Kálmán Adám. It had the atmosphere of the abandoned hiding place of some enthusiastic guerrilla group determined to right wrong, strategizing, cooperating in what was easy to imagine as a losing battle.

By emphasizing the performative (short-lived) nature of their shows, by inverting and scattering metaphors, by refusing any totalizing vision, and by retaining the privilege to question their own legitimacy as a group dialogue, the Újlak Group becomes in itself a metaphor for the communicative act. As a social and cultural “organization” it is particularly interesting at this time, in this area, raising as it does issues of self-definition, consensus, and dissolution.

Diana Kingsley