Soros Center for Contemporary Art

The cast of villains in “Polyphonia: Social Commentary in Contemporary Hungarian Art” warrants some serious soul searching here in the land of the freed. You have the Museum Director who refused to mount the show because of the potentially politically incriminating ideas that might arise. You have the organizers, who, though they pushed the venue onto the streets (and into various other public places), insisted on inviting artists to submit proposals for works of a sociopolitical nature with the condition that they not consider “daily politics, concrete persons, institutions, interest groups, ideological trends and interests of the state” to be subjects within the “competence of art.” And finally you have some normally on-the-ball artists who capitulated to these milk-toast terms. That said, it wasn’t such a total bomb of a show, if the aspirations of individual artists count for anything in such a scene.

Laszló L. Révész banked on what he termed “spiritual capital” from the West by borrowing a Jan Dibbets video of a fireplace fire from the Stedelijk Museum and projecting it on a big slab of bacon (the basic sustenance for Hungarian workers) in the midst of a typically Hungarian construction-inprogress building of an art high school. The result was a whimsical, bloodless appropriation, alluding to a romantic back-to-basics desire to rebuild from virtual scratch. Miklós Pinke most successfully squeezed himself out of a charmed art circle, partly by doing what artists are supposed to do—he had an exhibition. The artist “simply”asked for orange crates from his friendly neighborhood green grocer, made paintings on them, had an opening on the side of the store/shack, and distributed the works gratis to the crowd.

Not all the selected proposals could be realized owing to bureaucratic quagmires. Of these the most promising was István Szil’s “A Few New Telephone Booths,” in which the user’s voice of these indicted telephones would be amplified so that passersby would also hear, forcing the unsuspecting to think about where and how their private and public concerns intersect, as well as inverting the role of the tapped telephone. The only artist to really suggest that there was anything to complain about was Tamás St. Auby, whose unrealized plan was to turn down all the public lighting in Budapest for a matter of minutes and split the money saved between the association for the blind and the artists in the show. His final work took the form of a complaint concerning the lack of funds for the artists’ honorariums.

Political or “issue based” work as it is understood in the West hardly exists in Hungary and hasn’t for years, except in the form of works from the ’60s and ’70s that use innuendo, metaphor, and irony to criticize what everyone knew was a corrupt social order. The most frequent explanation for this is that Social Realism was official policy, and work dealing with concrete issues was understandably viewed suspiciously by serious artists. This legacy is in many ways still operative. Given this history and the recent rage of issue-based work in the West, the organizers (the Soros Center for Contemporary Art, the largest privately funded cultural foundation in Hungary) found it timely to prod Hungarian artists to rethink their relationship to politics (the show included 29 projects all together). What they didn’t consider is the degree to which this legacy lingers in their own activity—whether it is sheer distaste or fear is hard to tell—and that giving artists a task accompanied by a list of unacceptable topics is a sure way to mount a “political” show that, Yes, will be safely contained, but equally short of transformative.

Diana Kingsley