“It is like writing a long, though loose-structured, essay that has multiple threads” – An interview with Ákos Czigány
20 • 06 • 05Edit Barta
In 2016 you had several exhibitions that featured new works, presented in very different manners, at Várfok Gallery, the Museum of Photography, the House of Arts. 2016 was all about your new work. What’s happened to you since then, are you working on some new material?
First I took a rest after the stream of exhibitions in 2016. They exhausted me. The logistic, physical and quality challenges of producing the photographs were pretty stressful, and these are chronic problems in Hungary. It was also a look back, because the Hungarian Museum of Photography in Kecskemét presented earlier photos of mine. That was actually opened by you. I had to take a break, but the answer is, yes, I am making new works. Meanwhile, as a new and interesting thing, last year I was on the thesis examination committees of MOME and Kaposvár University, and I was also a member of the jury at the National Conference of Art Student Societies.
How were your 2016 exhibitions received? For example, the Skies series, for which you are best known internationally, was provided with a completely new context by your new works, Earths and Homes. How were they received?
I met a lot of open-minded and perceptive visitors, for which I can only be grateful. I may have been able to draw the wider context to which Skies belongs. The exhibition at Várfok may be called a success for the gallery as well. At our joint exhibition in Veszprém, Júlia Néma’s porcelain reliefs and sculptures created a new context for the Homes series with the dimensions of being in space and the degrees of abstraction—our duet found a really “cosy” home there. And then came my book, Bet, which had the same concerns. Some good texts came out, and harsh criticism as well. In a sense, the latter are more interesting than the praises, they push and shape you more.
What was the thrust of the “harsh” criticism? Do you think they were justified, and could you make use of these opinions in your new work?
The concerns raised, among others, by György Cséka, are justified in the case of every work or oeuvre that is developed in a similar manner, precedents included. If you are collecting large quantities of variations on a single shape, or small number of shapes, you’d better make a habit of considering whether you have yielded to some automatism, some external guiding principle, whether you’re not doing something you would consider aestheticizing in anybody else’s case. You may also want to set limits on quantity. These are ongoing issues, even if I set the limits elsewhere. The same way, it is open to question how a “strong concept” can inform a set of works—or contemporary art, for that matter. The same goes to the balance between inward- and outward-oriented development. Whether or how these matters become part of my work is unclear to me, I’m not that transparent for myself, but they are certainly present, move around and move me around. I benefit from it, I think.
Would you say, for instance, that you’ll be more critical when selecting works the next time? Speaking of which: as an artist, how critical are you of yourself?
I keep mulling over the point of what I’m doing, whether I say stuff that’s important enough—and I question self-criticism. Because there may be an autonomous temporal dimension to creation, when things like self-criticism and limits are out of the question. You may call it flow, it was called rapture a long time ago—pick whichever takes your fancy. I simply try to scan the inner logic of my ideas, give it room to grow, which allows the proportions to emerge spontaneously. In the end, time is the best selector. I work slowly for practical reasons, the first ideas lie around for a long time, or move only a little, and in the process, things that may have seemed a good idea originally can drop off. They die off of their own accord. I tend to apply a certain steady critical stance to the formal idiom, but even that may change over time. And another note on selection: that’s a slippery slope... and excuse the comparison, but take Haydn, for instance, who wrote 104 symphonies. If you listen to them all, will you say they all sound the same and follow the same model?
What’s the broader context for the Skies series?
Skies is one of three cycles, the other two being Earths and Homes, and they look at three aspects of a phenomenon—buildings, or construction in a broader sense—, the lower, central and upper realms of a vertical axis in space. Historically, this trinity, both its division and the number of parts, had the value of a symbol for the world view, and that is now only a phantom in my pictures, appearing ironically, decrepitly. Development and decline chase each other in the whole thing, they belong together as in the Western tradition of creation.
The trilogy did not grow out of a plan, incidentally: the three cycles were growing separately, years apart, until I realized they were related, and I acknowledged them as such. Which is a matter of a mode of creation, or interest, if you like.
In Skies, you photographed the sky from the courtyards of apartment buildings in Budapest, in Earths, the exits of underground car parks, and in Homes, the firewalls of what are mostly residential buildings. In these series the buildings convey meanings. Why choose these particular pieces of architecture, why make your pictures speak through them?
The objects themselves are not the result of targeted sampling. I keep my eyes open, walk and travel about, sometimes systematically, but there are no titanic plans and prospects. The attempt is to generalize, which is why I do not provide location details, and appearances notwithstanding, I am less interested in typology than the classics, the Bechers. At the same time, it’s natural that sometimes a period or style can be identified, a location guessed. It is important that the raw material consists of objects in space and time. They are anonymous characters. Every picture is organized from within, from its inner structure, with the location and the period no longer important.
Is this what makes it possible to keep the series open, and to keep adding pictures? Most artists work with projects in mind, whereas you have themes you keep returning to.
What you said is more or less the case, but like I said, this involves no planning, the whole thing is spontaneous. It must all go back to my temperament. The collection-like image sets, like the trilogy we talked about, or The Light of Art, are supposed to be open, and that’s how I treat them, adding stuff all the time. One of my ancestors was a collector, and it may be a hereditary thing. But there are cases when the material is restricted, defines its own limits. Even so, the conceptual threads, the main directions of interest, usually tie together sets of works with very different formats. It is like writing a long, though loose-structured, essay that has multiple threads, with exploration, repetition and retelling being of greater importance than the compulsion to say something new.
It is like writing a long, though loose-structured, essay that has multiple threads, with exploration, repetition and retelling being of greater importance than the compulsion to say something new.
Two elements are conspicuously missing from the trilogy’s relationship between earth and sky: the horizon, and nature, the countryside. The serie 'Economy' is an answer to that hiatus.
How is architecture connected to your art, and how did it enter your life?
Ever since I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by the kind of typical urban block of flats we moved into when I was a small child, from the basement through the courtyard to the firewall we could see. Since this was a time when my brother was studying at the University of Technology – he’s Ybl and Prima Prize winning architect Tamás Czigány –, architecture has long been a part of our daily lives. Additionally, Tamás was also a serious photographer, and still is, and as a child, I often watched him develop prints in the bathroom-cum-darkroom. And when I picked up a camera decades later, I had already been influenced by constructivist art, thanks to my wife, Júlia Néma, who had attended János Fajó’s free school, and had worked in that spirit since her young days (also making photograms). Also, architectural ceramics form a main field in her work as a designer. So it’s quite an integral part...
You studied at the faculty of humanities, read Latin, aesthetics and Hungarian. To what extent did your studies become responsible for how you look upon the world? Did you have mentors, or did your brother perhaps set you off on photography? How did you end up as a photographer?
Tamás did set me off, because he gave me the first really usable camera, with a several-page manual in his own hand. It saw me through secondary school, I documented everything with it, until it was stolen the autumn after the school leaving exam. (Another parallelism: my brother bought one for himself too, and it also went kaput: it melted!) A ten-year gap followed, so I arrived at photography with a detour. I laid my hand on the first digital camera around 2000, when Tamás lent me one. In the years that followed we often went out together to take photos, each occasion becoming longer, and we worked with concentration, in silence, free from expectations. That’s always how you should create. In 2007 we made a joint exhibition, which was a big step for both of us, and also a very personal thing. And that remained essentially the case until my debut in around 2009–2010. So I simply may have appeared to come to the scene “fully fledged” because I had lived half a life, with over ten years of (self-)training, practically within the family, including Júlia and my sister, Enikő, with whom I swapped ideas all the time, and with whom I had small joint exhibitions outside the professional scene. So there was time for things to meld and ferment.
Did my years at the faculty of humanities have an effect? There’s no doubt about it, but then it wasn’t stronger factor than any other event in my life. My years at the Pannonhalma grammar school, for instance, preceded them. It was certainly a busy period: I went to university immediately after the political transition, from 1990, when the quality of scholarship in the humanities, which was freed from ideological shackles, rose sharply, while its prestige plummeted. Important intellectuals could be seen looking for their place and role in the chaos. Péter Balassa was certainly a mentor, and along with him, there was the formative atmosphere of the Aesthetics Department in Szerb Street, with names likes Éva Ancsel, Béla Bacsó, Péter György, András Bálint Kovács, György Poszler, György Spiró, Ákos Szilágyi... Hermeneutics, deconstruction, new rhetoric, the nature of reading and interpretation—those were the kind of things we were chewing over with my friends. Later I abandoned this career, but it must inform my art with a reader’s attitude, a drive to interpret, comment. Old friendships from the humanities came to have new significance, with Anna Gács and Marcell Németh, both literary critics, writing texts about my works I could most readily identify with. I took new notice of Balassa’s 1990 lecture, The Literati of the Light’s Responsibility, which addresses the film profession, but is easily relevant for photography, and even contemporary art. It is with such a background that you feel that Heidegger’s observation that science does not think should be extended to contemporary art and discourse about art.
To understand your art, it is important, I think, to know the circle of thought you come from. What is your take on the role of photography in contemporary art? It is one of the most popular media, while also being vulnerable, easy to attack, yet so many choose this idiom of visual communication. What do you think is the secret of the “magic of photography”?
This would be easier to answer if we could treat photography as two things—as a technology and as an artistic medium. But I don’t think that can be done, we have to live with the double reading. In both readings, photography arouses and serves a desire, seems to satisfy, and frustrates, a desire. This desire is for the existence of a certain type of image, and it is there even when we play at being enlightened, and undermine and crush it—because deconstruction is a nice thing but it’s good to have something to deconstruct. Photography still has this erotic ambience, this aura of desire, or we might call it “magic,” like you do. This may be vulgarized in the digital and networked world, but it’s still there.
How is the series, Economy conceptually related to the Trilogy? Is it a follow-up, or does it effect a departure from your earlier series? The latter would be my guess but I’m curious how you see this.
As I’m curious to see how you see this, because I consider it very closely related to the Trilogy. It’s not a trinity that is closed and complete, there are cracks in it, from which new passages open, and one of them is Economy. Two elements are conspicuously missing from the trilogy’s relationship between earth and sky: the horizon, and nature, the countryside. Economy is an answer to that hiatus. As a frame, the landscape is a shift, however—I had been certain I had no interest in such things. The social aspects may also be more prominent here than in other works of mine. However, I employ what may seem a conventional formal idiom in a somewhat exaggerated manner, making it float, hijacking it, detracting from its certainty. This irony, I think, is a link to the trilogy.
I also see the social aspect as something that adds to the meaning. This angle had almost always been absent from your work—if anything, the series got to grips with metaphysical questions, and moved on planes of cultural science. In the case of Economy, on the other hand, I cannot ignore the social references that are indicated by the function of the buildings and that bring into play a host of other planes of interpretation.
Thank you, it’s great to hear such a layer could become visible.
You mentioned you’re working on new things. Can you tell us something about those? Are these additions to the existing sets, or are you perhaps working on a new theme?
Light has played an important role in what has interested me, and it seems logical to move on to what allows us to access it: eyesight. Photography, after all, is part of the history of vision. I’m working on a few selected chapters of that.
I’ve heard several young photographers talk about you as a kind of mentor, with the conceptual quality of your works, the rigour of your constructional principles, and the high quality of the photos’ execution having become important standards for them. Can you picture yourself as a teacher?
I’ve had that question, and the answer was no. I don’t think I have much to teach. What I have to say can still find expression in my photographic works and the essays I write along with them. However, I do get a sense of the effect you’re talking about, and that means something in itself. Of course, you can never tell the future. As things now stand, I can barely imagine working indoors. I’ll see through what I started, or rather, will keep doing it, within limits, but how it will end is pretty uncertain. It’s impossible to tell when the crises caused by the pandemic ends, or with what consequences. Culture famously took a big blow from the 2008 crisis, and for now, this one seems even bigger, although different in nature—it’s impenetrable. So I still don’t think I need to beat a retreat, but need to be ready to take a radical change in direction, if we, say, have completely different problems, as we already do. God only knows what fate awaits the kind of stability that is one of the intrinsic goals of my images.
Translator: Árpád Mihály