Aided, Rejected, Tolerated
in Hungary in the 1970s and 1980s
Lecture held at the "ACTINART – SYMPOSIUM AND WORKSHOP"
in the Slovak National Gallery, Bratislava, 2001
As for Hungarian 'action-related' art forms, events and artists, I will try to present a regular chronological survey which will be intersected here and there with certain thematic considerations. The chronological line will take us from the first happenings of the late 60s, through the increasing number of actions of the early 70s, to the various forms of performances of the 80s. My intersections will touch upon the question 'why action art?', the changing quality of the events partly arising from the multimedial nature of the art form itself, the different categories of performers or performer groups, as well as some features that are characteristic of the country and/or the region.
The Dinner. In memoriam Batu Khan, the very first happening in Hungary was carried out by Tamás Szentjóby and Gábor Altorjay (with the participation of Miklós Jankovics) in 1965. It took place in an (allegedly) tartar-period cellar (hence the second part of the title) and, as Szentjóby later related, the event was largely prompted by the site itself and the objects found there. Although the performers had a script to follow (they knew, for example, that they were going to eat – which then served as a good enough reason to name the event 'The Dinner'), they forgot about it as soon as the happening started; yet, according to Szentjóby, events folded out relatively the same way as they had been predesigned – thanks to the prompting environment and objects. Szentjóby termed the structure of this event as an 'activity montage'. (Some of) the 'activities' that were 'montaged' are as follows: on the path to the cellar, one performer, buried up to the waist, is typing on a sheet of newspaper with a burning baby carriage behind him; inside the cellar, pitch-dark and ear-splitting music for some10 minutes then a bouquet of roses goes up in flames; the performers eat and later womit, now and then pre-set alarm clocks go off; the performers smash the tableware and the furniture; they cover the third participant with all kinds of dirty substances (the audience also gets some of that); maneuvers with a chicken and two mice; assemblage of a sculpture (entitled later by a spectator 'The Scooter that Does Not Roll Anywhere'); two performers are working hard on tying up the smudged third participant with different objects in the cellar and with the members of the audience, when Szentjóby eventually crushes the lightbulb. After some hesitation in the dark, one spectator demolishes the barricade that was built in front of the exit in the meantime, and the audience leaves the cellar and sets to clean their clothes... This 'structure' and the authorial attitude which favours chance elements share an apparent likeness to Fluxus, and characterized most of the happenings that followed this first one.
Some of Szentjóby's other happenings evolved around his quasi-manifesto 'Art is everything which is forbidden. Be forbidden'. The one that addresses this slogan most directly is entitled 'Be forbidden', too. In an exhibition place, on a small piece of paper attached to the wall, these two words could be read; but only if the beholder climbed over the cordon placed in front of the wall – in other to be able to make out the small letters. In fact, (s)he has committed but a minor and inevitable indecency but, by doing so, (s)he got in contact with that which is, by definition, forbidden. The logic of this minimal instructional action also suggests that one's core existence is denied by those who set the rules if willing to perform independent, authentic acts. In another work, Szentjóby had already 'pre-visited' this you-are-guilty-no-matter-what situation. In Autotherapy to Prevent Punishment he installed himself in the humiliating position of being seated for hours with a bucket covering his face and head. He also subjected himself to the questioning of the visitors. (The artist himself had also prepared some rather cunning questions to be used by the visitors.)
Szentjóby carried out these acions at the by now legendary Balatonboglár Chapel Studio. During the summers from 1970 to its forced closing down in 1973, the Balatonboglár Chapel which was rented from the Catholic church and run by Gyorgy Galántai, an artist and occasional performer himself, served as the seasonal venue for all important(-to-be) figures of the Hungarian 'alternative' art scene. There was an unmistakable political tinge in Szentjóby's work and the same is true for the work of several artists who participated at the 'exhibitions' which were not merely housing fine art shows. The artistic trends of the time were certainly on display in as many as 37 exhibitions, but it was the Chapel Studio where a number of artists first turned to 'action' as a form of artistic expression. For the current artistic trends – geometric abstraction, hard edge, minimalism and serial order works – could be decoded as a defence strategy against being interpreted in political terms or having to fulfill ideological requirements. To use Galántai's expression, working in these trends offered, instead of freedom of speech, the freedom of silence. Or, to put it differently, it was someone's private business, without any intention to inform or to communicate. Yet, by attending the Balatonboglár Chapel Studio these artist entered, from their involuntary social isolation, an environment that encouraged expression and communication. In this environment, it became clear that the social surroundings that enforced silence did not erase what had to be said. For the great majority of the non-spatial works presented at the Chapel Studio informed about the conditions which the visual artists kept silent about.
Now, Fluxus and Concept Art cannot be safely brought together under the umbrella term of 'action art', but due to their transgression both of conventional art forms and the directives of the infamous 'socialist realism' they deserve to be mentioned here. The conceptual or Body Art actions and Fluxevents of (visual) artists Gábor Attalai, Dóra Maurer, Endre Tót or Gyula Pauer, most often executed in the absence of an audience, carried on the practice of action-based artistic activity initiated in Balatonboglar. Endre Tót in his 'Joys' series (1971-78) responded to the isolation and supression detectable on all levels of life with the absurd euphoria of his 'I am glad if...' sentences. "I am glad if I can walk up and down" – but this performed in a closed up area. Attalai once, when given the award 'For the Socialist Culture', felt the need to discover what kind of a connection he really had to this detested 'socialist culture'. Alluding to the armband as the usual spot for wearing power symbols and employing the negative as a way of expression, he wore the badge, for a day, pressed onto the skin of his upper arm, tightly tied over with a bandage. After one day the award was brought to a negative life on his skin (Culture Alive, 1972).
Although it may jumble up my nice chronological outline, I must reveal that the very first 'action' preceded the very first happening. However, it was only subsequently declared to be an art action by Miklós Erdély, one of the originators of the event, and entitled Unwatched Money out on the Street. During the days of the anti-communist revolution in October 1956, open trunks were placed – and left unattended – on the street at six different spots of Budapest with a sign that read 'The justness of our revolution allows to raise money for our martyrs' families in such a way'. Money was quickly piling up in the trunks and not a single bill was taken out of them. The suitcases were collected a few hours later and the money was duly distributed among those in need. It was the exceptional moment of utmost honesty that made Erdély, who never limited art to aesthetic categories, to declare this 'fund-raising' to be art. Instead of aesthetics, he applied 'new' as the main category to identify good art in the sense that, for him, the agenda of artistic activity was not to inform about what had already been established, but to evoke new ideas. A good artwork, he claimed, has a certain quality that confounds or deconstructs our pre-existent notions. His own art showed a scientific-philosophic-metaphysical-lyrical character which was often reflected in his actions and happenings (Three Quarks for King Marke, 1968; Anaxagoras: The Snow is Black, 1971). He happily abandoned working on his own whenever the production of the 'new' was better achieved through a collective endeavour. From 1975 on, he worked with three different workshops, Exercises in Creativity, Fafej, and InDiGo. Fafej was rather a verbal, 'meditative' environment for collective reflection; Exercises in Creativity and InDiGo were more action-, production and art-oriented. But in their case, even the 'production' meant the execution of tasks that rendered traditional art practices unapplicable and, at the same time, challenged customary patterns of thought, perception and creation. When drawing a model, they exchanged their works in every ten minutes with somebody else to continue; or, at another time, they practiced 'chain-drawing' which meant leading the right-side neighbour's hand to draw and letting the left-side neighbour lead one's own hand to draw. One of their collective work, a painting, was realized in the way that they divided the canvas among themselves by a whistle competition: each member was given a section in proportion to how long (s)he could whistle. Many of the new generation artists who attended these workshops did turn to performance after the workshops had been dissolved and they went on with their individual carreer (János Szirtes, László Révész, András Böröcz, János Sugár). Another trysting place for 'alternative' artists was the Studio Vajda Lajos (VLS) in Szentendre, a picturesque small town in close proximity to the Hungarian capital, famous for its active artist community. Many of the members of VLS were self-educated artists who had never been rooted in the conventional representational concept of art. Their either completely spontaneous or roughly pre-designed actions and happenings had a strong dada or surrealist character and, consequently, were full of absurd humour.
The word 'performance' was first consciously applied to Tibor Hajas' work 'Dark Flash' presented at the "I am" Festival in Warsaw, in 1978. Hajas is generally considered to be the most important figure of Hungarian performance art. His performances incorporated the risk elements and the heroic or self-destructive features inherent in Body Art which reflect the second meaning of the word 'performance'. He envolved himself in extreme situations; in Dark Flash he was hanging from the ceiling blindfolded, with his wrists tied together. He was trying to use the flash of the camera in his hands simultaneously with another camera with a self-timer placed in the room on a tripod. It reflected his resolution and his lack of experience that he did not reckon with the consequences: in a couple of minutes, he became unconscious, he had no pulse, and people untied him with great difficulty. The practice of performance was for him the appropriate form to express the helplessness of the individual, and it was also a way of meditation laden with continual self-reproach. Half naked and blindfolded again, wired down to a chair, he was attempting to answer the questions asked by the audience while having an ultraviolet quartz lamp placed 20 centimeters away form his face. After almost an hour, some members of the audience realized that his skin started to peel off, and finally released him (Questioning, 1980). Béla Kelényi, Csilla Kelecsényi, István Kovács and the early appearances of the Inconnu Group represented the same, often ritual-like, performance that leaves the audience with a blood stirring experience. Similarly to the international trend of the late 70s, these grave and often provoking performances were replaced, from the 80s on, by less harsh and more entertaining revue-like ones. Some of this new variety dismissed the excessive political contents or physical exposedness and shifted the ritual towards introducing self-mythologies. These performances, or sometimes series of performances typically consisted of a set of recurring motifs, and no longer insisted on single presentation once crucial for happening. The duo of András Böröcz and László Révész represented this 'buffo' or Dada kind of performance that always had a melancholic, but never tragic ending. In the course of their shows they employed a large number of visual elements (slides, films or videos, pre-made paintings, sculptures or other weird objects). The plot of the events was carefully designed and allowed for little improvization. The thematic links within the narrative were based on association which, after all, resulted in a relatively coherent staged collage. And they did pile up everything that could be associated in any: mythological, literary, anecdotal, musical, painterly, historical, scientific, etc. way with their chosen subject announced in the title of the show (The Horse; Sphere; 1980, Matches, 1982). But due to the frequently contradictory quality of these associative links, the resulting collage did not, after all, generate any (new) sense. Repeatedly extinguishing the meanings one might have managed to find, this narrative, in fact, generated 'the' nothing – which is not the same as having talked about nothing at all... (one can justly notice a slight oriental touch here).
Several female artists entered performance art on the side of private mythologies where they attempted to create a 'second world' with different rules. El Kazovszkij built up her Dzsan Waxwork Galleries of painted cardboard animals (her art's ubiquitous motif standing for the artist's spirit), live models wrapped in queer materials, and other creatures personifying the artists' experiences. The visitors were participants inasmuch as they became, for the time of their visit, part of the 'waxwork gallery'. Erzsébet Lantos, originally from Northern Hungary, realized her Aphasia Theatre in Subotica, Yugoslavia. In their performances they combined the magical-ritual elements with the above-mentioned blood stirring atmosphere. Orsolya Drozdik was the first to consciously address the issue of being a woman (artist) in her Individual mythology series (1978) with the inclusion of her own body and with a conceptual investigation into her own relation to the models of feminity.
János Szirtes first appeared in 'grave' performances often exposing himself to hazardous situations, while confronting the audience with upsetting scenes. In his 1983 Plant he was buried in a barrel. While another participant read out a text and two German shepherds guarded the scene, Szirtes' amplified breathing from underneath the soil sounded through loudspeakers. The ever intensifying, shriek-like noise mixed with the dogs' howling. Before he eventually arose from the barrel with numb limbs and a freaky expression on his face, one girl from the audience could not take the tension anymore and ran to the barrel to free him. When he was finally out, he trodded the soil for some ten minutes, then cleaned himself and embraced a girl who came onstage from among the audience (this time, planned). Darkness fell on the kissing couple and the dogs howled. Later he made revue-like performances incorporating elements of his own and his partner, László fe Lugossy's private mythologies which were performed by their performance group New Modern Acrobatics.
The emergence of revue-like performances could also be, perhaps, explained with the multimedial nature of the performance as a genre. Its basic visuality springs from its origins in the fine arts. This origin and the strong conceptual stimulus differentiates performance from the avantgarde endeavours of the so-called performing arts, however, they've got many things in common. Some companies – such as Peter Halasz's Studio Kassák Ház (1970-75), László Najmányi's Studio Kovács István (1972-74) and the company Brobo (1971-75) worked on the borderlines of experimental theatre and happening, performance or Body Art. 'Kassák Ház' refers to the leisure centre where the company first played before they were made to withdraw to one of the member's downtown apartment and to introduce the 'genre' of 'room-theatre' there. They made their important appearance at the Balatonboglár Chapel as well with a three-day happening entitled King-Kong, featuring a huge puppet of an ape with Halasz's protruding body for its phallus, a man-turned-into-a-woman trying to seduce the ape, a 'dwarf' fighting with the ape, and the audience as mobile participants of these scenes inside and around the chapel. When they were made to leave the country as well, almost the whole group settled in New York and became famous under the name Squat Theatre.
During the 70s, parallel with the arts, literature also developed distinct conceptual trends such as concrete poetry and acoustic/sound poetry; the latter represented by the actions and performances of Endre Szkárosi, Katalin Ladik, and the members of the Paris-based Hungarian Atelier. One of Szkarosi's ongoing project was to revisit the 'sacred' heritage of old Hungarian literature and, via a creative – not merely interpretative – way of presentation, to bring to new life these well-known titles whose actual contents went completely unnoticed by now. If felt adequate, he re-interpreted and performed the most honoured piece of our 19th century revolution as a punk song. Turning that poem into a punk song does seem to have been adequate all the more so because the officially rejected trends of contemporary pop-music: rock, beat and punk, brought the fresh air of liberty to the stuffy politico-cultural atmosphere of the country, and informed about radically different ways of existence. Groups such as SPIONS (Gergely Molnár with Najmányi from Kovács István Studio), A.E. Bizottság (with András Wahorn, László fe Lugossy, István ef Zámbó from VLS), Konnektor Rt. (with Szkárosi from Brobo), New Modern Acrobatics (with Szirtes from InDiGo and fe Lugossy), etc. were formed with the participations of artists, writers and educated or amateur musicians, and they staged – as Szkárosi, the lead in Konnekor Rt., termed it – 'total concert theatre performances'. It was also him who considered the incorporation of pop-music as a cultural experiment to eliminate the institutionally created and artificially deepened gap between pop culture and the culture of the intellectual Élite. His former group (Fölöspéldány/Surplus Items) of poets and artists gave 'concerted poetry readings' with the then most progressive and most radical punk band, Beatrice. By doing so, they created an access for the intellectual vanguard (which was otherwise relatively successfully controlled by the political power), to the nonconformist punk culture, while providing them with the band's crowd as an audience.
Politics was more openly present in the activity of the Inconnu Group who announced 'social actionism' and 'political art', refusing any kind of division between art and life. Their 'actionism', which at the beginnig resembled a lot the Vienna Group – performances with blood, bandages, naked bodies, and slaughtered animals –, gradually grew into a more socially based activity of running an appartment gallery which was housing lectures and other events as well as publishing a regular newsletter, and finally focusing exclusively on politics. Another group that systematically ignored the traditional division between life and art was the Hejettes Szomlyazók attributing a deliberately anti-intellectual attitude and declaring their most ordinary everyday avtivities to be art (Beach: Heat-Enjoying Action, 1989).
The places and occasions where all these events took place play an important roll in depicting the art scene of the era. Exhibition openings offered excellent opportunities and this was because while what was exhibited had to undergo prior censorship, whatever happened at the vernissage could avoid being censored. Gabor Tóth almost exclusively appeared with his performances at openings, just like the group Xertox preferred to open their self-curated mail art exhibitions with their own 'industrious meditations'. This was a 'group-specific' sort of performance whose name might first astonish as a contradiction, but in fact it copied, in a peculiar way, the workings of mail art itself. The three members wore gowns and cowls with small openings only for the eyes – which uniform both united them as a group working on the same assignment: the realization of the same castless, roughly outlined script; but also separated them as individuals absorbed in their own particular way of realization with no insight into the accomplishment of the others. A concentrated meditative state aspiring to contribute to a rather physical and practical activity of, for example, making a photographic frieze or building a hut inside the gallery.
Taking advantage of the occasions offered by exhibition openings also reflected, as most performance artists emphasize when talking about the era, the strong need to get together – and to ameliorate the dullnes of reality. Festivals or events alike throughout the region – in Balatonboglár, Vác and Szentendre in Hungary, in Nove Zamky in Slovakia, near St. Ann's Lake in Romania, etc. – also contributed to the establishing of a 'parallel culture', a kind of publicity different to what was officially propagated. At occasions like these, painters, sculptors, poets who did not normally engage in performance art took the opportunity and came up with non-spatial or non-verbal works.
While in Western Europe and in the USA, the protest against professionalism and market-oriented operations penetrating the arts seem to have generally prevented an artist from simultaneously practising action art and fine art, in East-Central Europe a peaceful coexistence was granted for there was no 'trouble-making' art market at all; and because much the same audience attended the performances and the exhibitions of the 'tolerated' or 'rejected' sort of artists anyway. This situation could perhaps be marked as one single favourable deficiency of the past era – from the actions' point of view at least...
Batu Khan was one of the leaders of the Tartar army that was in continuous battles with Hungary during the XIIIth century.
Beszélgetés Szentjóby Tamással, in: Szógettó
, Jelenlét 1989/1-2.
 The Sunday Before Christmas (Pre-Antimotif Happening)
, 1969, with G. Altorjay, K. Sóvári, M. Erdély;
An Evening of Actions
, 1967, with T. Szentjóby, G. Altorjay, Sándor Altorjai and Miklós Erdély
Guests at Easter
, 1967, with G. Altorjay, M. Erdély and Bill McCagg
– the 1967 plan was realized in 1998(!) by T. Szentjóby
This slogan also refers to the ill-famed guide-line of the 'three T-s' of the official cultural policy of the 70s that divided all sorts of cultural phenomena into 3 possible categories: T
űrt (acceptable/tolerated), T
I am using the word 'alternative' for that which was then also termed as 'avantgarde' or 'underground'. Knowing that these terms did not have the same inherent oppositional meaning outside the Eastern block, I decided to use 'alternative' which, I hope, suggest more strongly this quality of other than what was institutionally supported.
Hock Bea: Balatonboglár – művek és legendák, in: Kritika, 2000/11.
Bacsó Zsuzsa Éva: Erdély Miklós és az InDiGo, in: A modern posztjai. ELTE, 1994.
'FAFEJ' literally means a 'thick-head' and is also the acronym of the workshop's full name: 'Fa
lesztő gyakorlatok' (Exercises in Fantasy Development). The name 'INDIGO' decodes the same way: 'indigó' in itself means 'carbon paper' (one of Erdely's and the group's favourite material to work with), and 'In
ndolkodás' means 'Interdisciplinary Thinking'.
'the action or process of carrying out or accomplishing an action, task, or function' (The New Oxford Dictionary of English. Oxford, 1998)
Beke László: The Hungarian Performance Before and After Tibor Hajas. in: Festival de performance Zona Europa de Est, Timisoara , 1993.
Révész' own expression
description from Annamária Szőke: Szirtes János műsorairól, in: Jóvilág, Bölcsészindex, 1984.
'Kovács István' is probably the most common name for a man to be heard in Hungary.
'A.E. Bizottság' stands for Albert Einstein Committee; Rt. means Ltd.
The name approximately means 'substitute thirsters' – if that means anything at all; and, to top it off, it is spelled in a distorted way even in the original
not metioning now other considerations why they might have given up fine arts
(works by Bea Hock)
Bea Hock: FOOTWARE A VIRTUAL SHOESTORE
THEORIES AND DOCUMENTS OF
CONTEMPORARY ART: A SOURCEBOOK OF ARTISTS´ WRITINGS
THE FLUXUS READER
The Poipoidrom / The parts of the Poipoidrom