Backlighting – An interview with Lajos Csontó
20 • 11 • 06Katalin Kopin
Ten years ago a video interview was made with you, for the m.ikOn series. Did you watch it?
I didn’t have the courage. I skimmed through the first three or four minutes, but then I stopped. But I did have interesting, positive feedback. To be honest, I don’t really remember what I was talking about at the time.
I think it was a very exciting conversation. Rather than discussing specific works, you talked about what lies behind life as an artist.
Yes, I remember talking about psychoanalysis and autogenic training. That was a great experience for me.
Did that end in your life?
That’s right, I started it, in Visegrád, because of a family crisis and a health issue. But it ended up being such an intense experience and we went so deep that it meant a lot for me, as well as for the psychologist, Éva Szikriszt, who appreciated being able to work with someone for whom visuality is so essential. It lasted for about one and a half years, and it fulfilled its mission. I have remained very enthusiastic about the whole thing, and recommend it highly to anyone inclined to self-therapy and introspection.
There is a strong visual and verbal component in this therapy, just as in most of your works. In that interview you gave ten years ago, you point out again and again that you don’t like repeating yourself, are wary of routine things. That said, texts are a permanent element in your works. Do they provide a handle?
András Bán is currently writing a monograph on my works, and we went through my things. I myself would say I am conceptually oriented. András, on his part, noted, as he looked at my old photos, that they were so poetic, and I almost sit on them with this conceptual attitude. That made me think because there might be something to it. The images I pair with the texts are not illustrations; I would call them emotional images, and that works both ways, because the associations of words also generate a kind of poetic image in the viewer. In that sense, the enigmatic, sensation-related quality is a permanent element. Where I would like to avoid routine is in the appearance, or method, of the works.
Texts seem crucial to your works. What are the literary works that have impressed you most? What do you read? How important is contemporary literature for you?
I attended the Franciscan Grammar School in Szentendre, and spent those four years reading, and not so much studying. I read literature, above all, especially poetry. Regrettably, I haven’t been able to keep a track on contemporary literature in recent years, though I do read all kinds of stuff, of course, if not as voraciously as when I was a student. I have certain points of reference, like Pilinszky and Attila József.
Have you written anything of literary value, something you have kept in the drawer?
Of course, I have lots of poems and texts laid away, but I have learnt that it is also a profession, which has its own rules. It was important for me to see how László Nagy and Béla Kondor did literature and art simultaneously. Kondor’s poems are far inferior to his art, and the same is true of László Nagy’s drawings, which are far less powerful than his poems. They mirrored each other, in a sense. It also made me understand there is no point in doing it against all odds. It’s of course a source of pleasure, but I only do it for myself.
You mentioned Pilinszky as an important author. Did the title of your last exhibition refer to him?
That’s right, the title of Non-kernel Sentence, my exhibition at Epreskert, refers, among other things, to Pilinszky’s thought, which Attila Horányi caught on in his opening speech.
As for this exhibition, I have a feeling that rather then wanting to tell something to the recipient, you invite her to take part in a game, by proposing a set of open, unanswered questions.
There were two walls at the exhibition, opposite each other, and I posted small paper rectangles on them, with gaps between them, so that visitors could add things they thought were important. This way, everyone could increase the number of the sentences. Again, that’s a therapeutic gesture to some extent. I held a management position at the Eger Visual Art Institute for almost four years, during which time I got pretty much mired in the administrative and managerial tasks, everything that was not art or teaching. And that was the end of the story, the great successes aside, I became completely fed up. I grew tired of it, so worn out I could not go on. Hence the duality of the texts at the exhibition; they were originally fashioned to form pairs of opposites. All along, I had the process of decision-making in mind, the possibility or impossibility of a decision, the truth of a positive or negative decision. I always find it difficult to make up my mind, pro or con. Somehow you seek the truth of this all, and this exhibition is in a way a self-therapeutic monument to this. The periodic table it is reminiscent of—that’s just a form. A concept is insufficient in itself, I think; even the strongest concept can benefit from a sensual, visual, aesthetic aspect. Gábor Andrási called this sensual conceptualism, and identified it in artists who started to work in the 1990s: their art is conceptual without giving up on tactile or visual pleasures. It follows that when I look for a form for an exhibition that rests on conceptual foundations, I still try to be aesthetic, or try to affect the senses as well.
Every one of your works reflects on your inner state at the time. How relevant do you find your works in retrospect?
They’re essentially relevant in a given situation, but often a work starts to be interesting when I am long past it. That’s obviously in the nature of things, nor can I later say very deep things about a work because that’s no longer my concern. When the work is being made, the genuine answer comes self-evidently, whereas later I can do little more than repeat the acquired forms. As you grow older and leave a lot of things behind, you have to develop a relationship to them. For the sake of the volume that is being written, I need to revisit old works, and establish my connection to them, whether I question them now, or want to add something. That also gave rise to the Overwriting series, which I presented at B32 Gallery last year.
What happens in technical terms, how do you work with these old photos?
Let meg go further back. I think I started to take photos during the first year of secondary school. I have always been very interested in photography, more than in any other form of visual expression. When I applied to college, I thought I wanted to be a photographer, but the College of Applied Arts didn’t have a photography programme at the time, so I applied to another one, which I haven’t regretted, incidentally. I took a very large number of photos from early on, which included both good and bad ones, but I built a collection over the years that needed some use. But then, when you revisit a picture 15, 20 or 30 years later, you’ll like it for a reason that is different than the original one. I often thought I had a lot of good pictures I should make use of, one way or another, but posting them the way they are would kill my reputation. That would invalidate all I have attained. By last year, I had found the solution, by questioning, overwriting, transforming the original meaning by means of a gesture. As a title, Overwriting doesn’t do full justice to the matter, because placing one picture on top of another does not overwrite one of the meanings, but reinforces it instead, generates a new one. I made A4-sized prints from the original negatives, placed one photo on top of another on a large light table, and then made a photo of them. So this is not a digital transformation, but a manual process; not a Photoshop effect, but the reciprocal influence of the two prints, where the structure of the paper and the colour of the light that passes through them both have functions.
What were you interested in when you originally took the photos? What did you photograph?
What everyone photographs today with their phone: life. I was one of those who always had a camera around their neck. With an attitude that was very much like what Instagram provides today, I created a stream of images, from which the odd interesting picture stands out. And though I studied graphic art, almost all of my works are photo-based. I loved Caravaggio, I’m convinced he was the first photographer. Even the thought of those of my works whose technique is not photographic is informed by the photographic approach, whether in a gesture, or the use of material or subject.
So a photograph can be the basis of an installation? What’s the story behind your installation at Park Gallery?
Absolutely! In 2014 I had two exhibitions in parallel, one at Inda Gallery (Come with Me), the other at MOM Park, which was commissioned by Ani Molnár. The two were to resemble each other, but the one at MOM Park became more powerful, especially in the light of what followed, because it was banned and dismounted. Works that questioned that commercial environment had already been installed there, such as those of Gyula Várnai and Ottó Vincze.
What did you antagonize them with? Why did the installation need to be removed?
Over a 6x6 metre landing, I hung a frame, on which I placed agricultural film. It was like a construction site, a railed-off space. And in that flashy environment, in the vicinity of Rózsadomb, it seemed like a black, ugly, confusing nonsense. The beauty of it was that if you stepped inside the enclosed, dark space, and looked up, you could see a starry sky, like a photograph, with the inscription, The Last Chance. There’s also a story to go with that which I really like. I later learned that a former student of mine, who worked at MOM, saw the installation, realized what it was all about, immediately quit, and went into a completely different line of work.
How do you prepare for a major exhibition, how much time do you need? How did Funny Story at Modem come about?
The deadline is your best muse. There were exhibitions I prepared in three days, and there were others I spent more time on. As it happened, I always needed to work fast, which I don’t think is great. For the Debrecen exhibition, however, I could move to the city for three weeks, and arrange everything there. It was a mini retrospective, with many of the exhibits ready; what had to be done there was to create an environment for the works, and install them. The drawings on the wall, however, were made on location.
As a genre, photography made a strong presence there.
So much so that almost every one of the exhibits was based on some existing photographic work, because I didn’t stop taking photographs in 1995, but switched instead to a digital camera, and I now have around 100,000 photos.
Why did you apply varnish to the photos?
I was greatly impressed by Indonesia and India, and paintings on glass, which have a cult there. I had long been interested in finding some strange material to come between the image and the surface, because that lends an interesting depth to photographs. The effect of a photograph simply placed behind glass is completely different from the case when it becomes an integral part of the surface. This is where varnish enters the picture; its nostalgic, yellowish, amber-like material fits my nostalgic stuff. I wanted it to help me create an inclusion-like structure, a memory image. For the varnished pictures, I chose faces from old photos, and scanned them; a face in the background of a large image would be clipped. The point is, the focus was now on faces that had originally been secondary characters. The series came to be titled Caché, in reference to Haneke’s film and the gesture of observation.
You have a series, now in the collection of Ferenczy Museum, which is called Identification Experiments. Where did the idea for these role playing portraits come from?
When I was admitted to Vajda Lajos Studio, we had a group exhibition in Iszkaszentgyörgy, and it was for that occasion that I made a series of identification portraits with the new members of the Studio, Tibor Frózsy-Nánássy, Szabolcs Margit, and Ágnes Ungár. For the large exhibition of the Studio, which was at Műcsarnok, I extended the series with emblematic figures like László feLugossy, István ef Zámbó, Péter Bereznai, and Imre Bukta. It was a very simple gesture, which was only meant to express we were now together, were on the same platform.
Was it important for you to become a member of Vajda Lajos Studio?
There’s the polite answer, and there is one less polite. The truth is, I was happy, of course I was happy, but it didn’t give me that much of a boost. But on an intellectual level, it was important for me because I was attached to Szentendre in all possible ways. The invitation may have come a bit too late.
To what extent do you consider the Venice Biennale, Documenta, and other Western European events points of reference?
These are points of reference, and our generation was socialized to accept this. The new ones, they meet contemporary art in far larger quantities, without limitations, even in systematic arrangements, thanks to what has been a democratic internet. On the other hand, a selection like these, which can be hated or worshipped, is in the end a statement, a mental act we relate to, and a specific event like these may serve you more than the constant, unselected, roaring noise.
Your Doubled Portrait series: what prompted you to make it, and how was it made?
In 2014 Gabriella Uhl curated an exhibition, Retracings, which looked at the use of archives in contemporary photography. That was the 100th anniversary of the start of World War One, and I thought I would reflect on that somehow. I began to collect original photographs from that period, and tried to find emblematic figures who defined that era. This was how I chose Sári Fedák, Kálmán Tisza, Rosa Luxemburg, the German chancellor at the time, and an unidentified child from an orphanage in Hungary. I used the sandwich technique again with these photos, which transformed the original icons and their repute. Depending on how the photos were projected onto each other, I could change the value of the portrait: the same figure could become disagreeable, interesting, positive, negative, strange, repulsive, or grotesque. I’d like to continue this.
You have also tried your hand at public art.
That’s right, I did a public art project in Pilisborosjenő, which involved the local community. There used to be a strong Swabian community there, who were forcibly removed in the 1940s. Only a few remained, and the abandoned houses were given to people from around Mezőkövesd, which led to constant, lasting hostility. In the 1990s and 2000s, people started to move in from Budapest, which made the locals join forces and look askance at the fresh settlers. I wanted to create a platform that allowed everyone to talk about current issues, the old and new things that affected the community. I posted a call for volunteers to take part in video interviews and speak their minds. The videos then could be watched on 30 locations in the village, on tablets built into boards, and comments could be posted. People covered the boards with comments, and the dialogue that had never been initiated, or had never been out in the open, now materialized. That, I think, is the very point of things.
Translator: Árpád Mihály