St. Louis

Balázs Kicsiny, Killing Time (detail), 2012, mixed media, dimensions variable.

Balázs Kicsiny, Killing Time (detail), 2012, mixed media, dimensions variable.

Balázs Kicsiny

Balázs Kicsiny, Killing Time (detail), 2012, mixed media, dimensions variable.

As a visiting artist at the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University in Saint Louis last spring, Hungarian artist Balázs Kicsiny spent two months collaborating with graduate students in the production of his most recent installation, Killing Time, 2012. The room-size work involves four life-size figures—those of a chef, a waitress, and two diners. With their faces shrouded and their heads capped with military helmets outfitted with video-surveillance cameras, they were carefully positioned in a circuslike arena such that the chef stood poised to throw knives at the waitress, who had been strapped to a spinning disk at the far end of the space. Meanwhile, the seated diners, cutlery in hand, gazed intently at monitors that were embedded, in lieu of place settings, directly into the tabletop. Live-feed video from the chef’s and waitress’s cameras streamed across their screens. Nearby and high above the diners, another disk bearing knives roughly arranged as a clockface was mounted to the wall; from behind black curtains on either end of the tableau, six additional figures (only their shoes and black-gloved hands visible) held video scorecards, each emblazoned with a large red x.

Born in Salgótarján, Hungary, in 1958, Kicsiny has a particular investment in the history of the former Eastern Bloc—repressive dictatorships, revolutions, and regime changes, and the painfully drawn-out process of national redefinition after 1989. Yet explicit reference to these concerns is never made in this installation, which well avoids the ironic Ostalgie that so often inflects the content of other Eastern European artists of his generation. Rather, Kicsiny draws on a poetic visual lexicon of his own devising to explore themes of chronology, power, servitude, and alienation. In Killing Time, history is enacted metaphorically, as its anonymous agents (all-seeing and recording, yet with their own faces hidden from view) engage in activities that are by turns banal, burlesque, and sadistic, if not all three at once.

There is a striking tension between motion and stillness apparent in Killing Time, and this quality is a mainstay in Kicsiny’s practice. Movement in this piece is not forward but elliptical and often static: The waitress spins in a perpetual circle; the chef is frozen preparing to throw his knife; the diners are served stories that never unfold. Hamstrung characters often appear in Kacsiny’s work, as they do in Winterreise, 2005 (a work he made for the Hungarian pavilion at the Fifty-First Venice Biennale)—two masked figures clamped into shared skis attempt in vain to push off in opposite directions. For Kicsiny, time advances as it does on a clockface, around and around, rather than progressing linearly into some future unknown. And while lived time (perhaps the time the viewer might spend with this work?) offers no antidote to the way in which history—with all its glory and horror—recurs, it does reveal the various conceptual currents that make Kicsiny’s installations such compelling meditations. Here we were shown interlocking spheres of production and consumption—entertainment, security, and hospitality. But who was serving whom? Who was an entertainer and by what means? What was being consumed? How, exactly, were these figures and the viewers killing time? In a lecture at the opening of this exhibition, Kicsiny discussed the prominence of reburial practices in Hungary, citing, in particular, the very public 1989 reburial of the anti-Soviet leader Imre Nagy, who had been executed on Khrushchev’s orders after the failed Hungarian Revolution of 1956. The analogy was clear: In Kicsiny’s work, too, meaning and history are subject to the eternal return.

Ivy Cooper