Remembrance and cognition
14 • 09 • 19Kata Balázs
Last autumn the Hungarian National Gallery held its first contemporary pop-up exhibition, linked to the temporary exhibitions. This summer saw the opening of the third part of the thematic series, the pop-up exhibition Camera Lucida, accompanying the Fortepan photography exhibition Every Past is My Past.
The concept of the curator of the series, Lili Horváth, has institutional-critical undertones in the sense that it presents the younger and middle generations of artists in independently curated exhibitions that go beyond the descriptive exhibitions that are linked with the competitions organised or hosted by the traditional art institutions. Once again, Horváth has selected works by artists known in the international art scene (Sári Ember, Marcell Esterházy, Péter Puklus, Judit Flóra Schuller and Kata Tranker) and in whose works a major role is played by the "abstracted" personal tone and the processing of memories and remembrance – generally by way of an examination of family histories. It is a courageous step to hold – in the shadow of the Fortepan exhibition – a contemporary art exhibition with a theoretical proposition in the field of phenomenology and hermeneutics, as emphasised by the texts accompanying the exhibition. I intentionally use the word ‘courageous’, as the opportunity presented by Fortepan to connect in a personal way with history and to have emotions voiced in such a manner – going as far as the joy of the voyeur – represents a major challenge from the perspective of the contemporary artistic material focusing on introspection and interpretive memory.
The title of the exhibition, by citing a drawing aid with a centuries-old history, brings to the fore the connections between photography and representation as well as the possibilities of photography as a way of making pictures: in the case of several exhibited pieces, a prominent role is given to drawing – in the course of the processing of photographs or in dialogue with them. At the same time, the chosen title is a reference to a major work on photographic theory, namely Camera Lucida by Roland Barthes. It was Barthes who formulated in the most emblematic fashion the connections between photography and death, and the exhibition undoubtedly reflects on this. Overall, the exhibition tends, however, to contradict or counterbalance the ideas formulated by Barthes in the sense that the central question is the role of the photograph in the development – reconstruction – of memory rather than as a means for a (momentary) snapshot. This Ricœurian approach raises the stakes, and it switches the real focus from what was undoubtedly a relevant factor when the selection of works was being made, namely an examination of the medial peculiarities and the theoretical and practical “private matters” of photography, and from the seemingly logical and simple question concerning the extent to which the material seen here can be regarded as photography. Because here photography, irrespective of the premises of the exhibitors or the starting point of the exhibition, clearly becomes a tool for visual art.
The exhibition redirects our attention towards identity, a past constructed through the telling of stories, and the problem of personal identity. Most of the works were made during the last two years and have been shown in other domestic and international exhibition contexts. They reflect upon, or direct attention towards the mutually presupposing nature of collective and individual memory, memory and social communication. The motif of construction also plays a role in the visual realisation: a recurring element in the exhibited works is construction, the gesture of building, the creation of “constructions”, as is shown by the installation-like paper-based photographic works, found objects, and pseudo-constructivist sculptures, as well as by the apparently mysterious ensemble of ceramic masks that dissolve the question of individuality into abstraction.
Behind all this, the problem of “art as research” that has been articulated during the past two decades and which has subverted the modernist systems of science policy is discernible in the methods used by the exhibitors. Taking modernist design as her starting point, Sári Ember, in her works made during the last three years, goes as far as offering a critique of the modernist conception of the human sciences, in the course of which emphasis is given to the complex relationship between the material environment and memory. At the same time, the starting point for her masks, which are made from noble and durable materials and abstract face, character and identity to their extreme while they touch upon the problems of gender studies and post-colonialism, is photography, as the masks are rooted in one of its most basic genres, portraiture.
Marcell Esterházy and Péter Puklus attempt a rationalisation of personal experiences, by evoking constructivist design and abstract sculpture. Esterházy’s exhibited works are tied to spatial memory. His work Permanent Dwellings II, familiar to those of us who attended his 2017 solo exhibition at the acb Gallery, is an attempt at visualising data, whereby the artist organises the floorplans of his present and former dwellings into a spatial cognitive map. In the lyrical video piece Layers, shown for the first time at last year’s Month of Photography, the flat appears as an archive, while the photograph is thematised as a means of evocation: the artist links the digitally manipulated layers arising from the specificity of the medium and the layers of memory by processing the photos and negatives left behind by the previous inhabitant of the “home” (i.e. found photos), while also outlining the floor plan of the dwelling.
Extending the boundaries of sculpture and photography in a mutual direction is a basic element in the works made by Péter Puklus. Bridging the gaps between the applied and autonomous genres as well as thematising modernism are not alien to them either (e.g. Extended Cubism, 2015). The exhibition includes a sculpture belonging to the series entitled An Epic Love Story of a Warrior as well as three pieces from the series titled Hero Mum – How to Build a House, which two years ago won the Grand Prix at Images Vevey. Behind the (self) ironic titles, we can find works that lie in the field of photography but operating in various genres. A fictive narrative constructed from various family stories illuminates the components of Central European identity and the latter’s relationship with heroism in An Epic Love Story of a Warrior, 2011-2016, while in Hero Mum – How to Build a House, 2016-2018, the focus is on certain gender stereotypes surrounding the founding of a family and on a critical examination of expectations, with special regard being given to the paternal or male “qualities” of building a house and wonderment at the relationship arising between the generations.
In the works of Judit Flóra Schuller, the family as a repository for memory is a basic experience. As in the case of Sári Ember and Marcell Esterházy, the artist has been processing the legacy of her own family for years. Her new series, the Archive Boxes (Void), objectifies the research and handling of the archive, an activity that is considered rational, by photographing the “compositions” consisting of the containers and boxes containing the documents and photos. She draws an outline of the heaps and defines the imprint built from the lack of memory, and, as a metaphor of active remembrance and preservation, she records the forms made in this way, together with the performative gesture of the process of drawing in a photograph.
Lack, or absence, also plays a definitive role in the lyrical exhibited works by Kata Tranker, which were made between 2017 and 2019 and have been transformed into an installation. She seeks a systemisation of social and individual relationships, while the materials she used illustrate the fragility and vulnerability of such relationships. Experimenting with both spatiality and miscellaneous technical solutions, the works have been made using found pictures of unknown people. Ostensibly, a link might be drawn with Fortepan’s concept. Yet Tranker’s aim is not to discover objective narratives or the “truth” lying behind the pictures ─ also placing in quotation marks the exactness of the positivist, descriptive and illustrative natural scientific methods. Instead, she is concerned with the forgetting [of the past], “memory in ruins”, and the inaccessibility and remoulding of the past preserved in pictures.
As one walks through the exhibit on the ground floor of the Hungarian National Gallery, it soon becomes clear that the exhibited works do not merely expound the epistemological aspects of memory. Besides all their medial ideas and their thoughts on memory research, they also thematise the models of cognition, from positivism to an encounter with the various aspects of the modernist heritage and the “grand narrative”.
Hungarian National Gallery
22 June – 29 September 2019