[previous chapter]

The year of everyone

1971. The ground works for the cemetery hill in Balatonboglár were due to start on 1 March. The indefinite postponement of the work’s commencement became clear when on 7 May János Salamon – the wonderful “council manager” of the chapel exhibitions up to this point – was given a different position.

In some Budapest dailies cultural policy “was taken out onto the streets” and Sándor Altorjai’s exhibition was “positively appraised” in Esti Hírlap’s article titled Uncle Pathetic’s Adventures (March 9, 1971) and in Magyar Nemzet’s article titled Boloney Exhibition in Mednyánszky Hall (March 10,  1971).  Young artists of the avant-garde played a role for the first time in the Műcsarnok in a large-scale exhibition titled New Works of Art. The press provided the answer in the reviews published in the discussion forum of Magyar Nemzet (the communist party’s paper – transl.) under the titles The Fifth “T”, or Tutti-frutti in Műcsarnok, and Protest Instead of Prohibition (March 26, 1971). 

Attila Csáji offered his flat to discuss the summer exhibition program. The invitees were in principle the participants of the “R” Exhibition, but at the exhibition of the No. 1 Group, which opened two days earlier, Attila had told some people about our discussion, of whom György Szemadám, András Orvos, Péter Prutkay, József Vadas and Béla Szeift actually came. Szürenon was represented by Attila Csáji, Sándor Csutoros, László Haris, József V. Molnár and Gyula Pauer. Endre Tót and Tamás Hencze from Iparterv also dropped by briefly.

I made two suggestions on behalf of the chapel project: one of them was that as a further development of the “R” Exhibition, every artist we could think of should exhibit. While those present drew up a list of artists they knew and proposed, I made a note of the exhibition dates according to the calendar weeks. Then the recommended artists were grouped corresponding to exhibitions. On the one hand, according to self-organized and already existing groups, and on the other – by common agreement – we grouped our colleagues who were not present corresponding to the genre, attitudes and trends they represented. Attila Csáji suggested the following working titles: graphic art–small sculpture, motifs, small collective show, Minimal Art, Figurative Surrealism, Pop Art and Conceptual Art. My own individual exhibition, which I shared with Béla Szeift, was also his suggestion. We scheduled 13 exhibitions, but the only exhibitions that were realized were the ones that somebody actually organized. After collecting the material for the first exhibition we split up into groups and the series of events became automatic.

I took on the organization and arrangement of three exhibitions, and, of course, the coordination of the whole summer program was my responsibility. Five of the scheduled exhibitions – three Hungarian group shows, the group exhibition from Újvidék (Novi Sad) and a show by Berdiszak, a Pole, all of which were suggested by Attila Csáji – were not realized because in the meantime Attila was tied down by personal affairs, and travelled abroad while I was not in contact with the people he had proposed. (For example I received a letter from Gyula Máté, who in Sándor Bertalan’s and his own name adamantly complained about their names having been printed without their permission etc.). Instead of the cancelled exhibitions we arranged improvised work-in-progress events from the works that had been left in the chapel from earlier shows.

My other important suggestion was that the program should be printed on an A/5 leaflet on the back of which would be excerpts from articles on earlier avant-garde exhibitions. I believed that by being linked to such antecedents our actions would follow a more self-conscious track and thus make the present we were experiencing at the time part of the story to which we felt we belonged. Attila Csáji took on the task of compiling the page of quotations and I financed the costs in regard to the printing and distribution of 3,000 copies of the leaflet.

The free of charge printing opportunity we enjoyed in the previous year had come to an end so we agreed that every group would issue its promotional material at its own expense.

I still thought that it was important that there should be a joint catalogue covering the whole year. I achieved this by having 2,000 folders – A/3-sized cardboard sheets folded in two – made, and I asked everybody to prepare A/4-size catalogue pages.

The exhibitions that were realized were all resounding successes and I was happy that the attributes of the location were utilized. The sacred feature of the chapel space inspired people. Sándor Csutoros, who had declared his intention to express the fundamental questions of existence, further simplified his sculptural means of expression and arrived at the sphere, which he used as a module to convey his thoughts. His sizeable work, titled String of Balls, was suspended in the chapel, giving the impression of a rosary. The rosary – a paraliturgical tool of worship – can be well equated with Csutoros’s quest for “order and parameters”. The sacred – as a component – in the interpretation of the exhibited works was for the time unavoidable.

Miklós Erdély’s text is titled Neume, the last line of which (With sand the Holy Infant) is illustrated with an object. A punctuation mark in parenthesis is placed before every line of the poetry-like text like a score or a notation, making the work appear as a liturgical text written for singing in the chapel. (Neuma is a Greek word meaning “admonition”). Every line of the text is an “admonition”, a “warning” – i.e. a neuma – or, when sung loudly, a “holy psalm”, while the last line “also creates sadness appropriate to God” characteristic of psalms.”[1]

Tibor Csiky’s chromium-plated cone, corresponding in its proportions to the cross-section of the chapel, virtually consumed the chapel’s space like a convex mirror only to create another – a new – miraculous space. With this form, which can be seen as phallic and assumed a sacred quality only in this context, Csiky, an artist with a leaning to the natural sciences, crossed over into the realm of architecture – here, in the chapel. We were privy to an honorable moment because it turned out from Csiky’s subsequent work that this composition was a turning point in his oeuvre.

The first “site-specific installation”, as they are called these days, was made by Gyula Gulyás. He was just getting ready to travel to Western Europe with two of his new polished up bronze minimal sculptures, which he exhibited in the chapel exhibition during his stay in Balatonboglár for a few days. On one of these days he came up with the idea of painting his sculpture’s motif – a semi-circular geometrical shape – on the entrance as a direction sign. We had white paint and a brush, so it was painted, it dried and then Gulyás came up with another idea: he asked me to photograph him as he interpreted the semi-circular geometrical shape with his body. This Direction Sign action was the first of its kind in Balatonboglár. After this, Gyula Pauer felt enthused to perform an action and he used the pseudo leaflets made for the exhibition catalogue to do this. I only think all of this is worth mentioning because in these works art appeared as life. These artists communicated something with ephemeral, impermanent tools – the same something they had done before with lasting materials. What happened? The Hungarian paradigm shift (also) started in the chapel in Balatonboglár.

The ideas to have guided tours and to keep in contact with visitors were proposed and developed to perfection by Gyula Pauer. The catalogue portfolio – also my idea – worked well, because a lot of people brought or sent reproduced sheets, and Pauer sold huge numbers of these as an end to his lectures. The day’s takings were used to pay for the “working dinners”, and even the largest amounts, the highest being 800 forints, was used up every day. (A year before we had renovated the chapel with 500 forints worth of materials.) This event, which among ourselves we named minimal art exhibition, was made significant because this was when the process that determined our approach in the following years began. The most important factors were attitude, intellectual disposition and behavior, which characterize our community and hold us together – stressed Gyula Pauer in his talks during the guide tours.

I should note here that at this time Robert Filliou, a Frenchman, began his project titled la République géniale (the Republic of Genius) with performances that washed away the boundaries between the arts and the sciences, addressed the issues of the private and public domains applying a theoretical approach, and aimed at enhancing human creativity. He grouped his works around three concepts – permanent creation (Création permanente), The Eternal Network and permanent celebration (Fête permanente). (This approach later significantly influenced the development of the Artpool project, which was created as a continuation of the Chapel project.)

1971. The relaxed atmosphere of the previous few days was still in evidence on July 8, with some artists waiting for the next exhibition staged by the members of the No. 1 Group (Iván Cerovszki, András Orvos, Péter Prutkay, György Szemadám). There were a great many of them and at dawn, the whole hill was covered by “various characters” in sleeping bags, wrapped in blankets or just sleeping in their clothes. This is the way that cloudless summer days began when the authorities “unburied the hatchet” with an article titled “Some Avant-garde Artists Treading on Illegal Paths”, published in Somogyi Néplap, the local paper.[2] From the onset of this “declaration of war” the village air around me – that up to now had been friendly – froze. The villagers were so taken in by what was written in the newspaper’s assertions that our neighbors, who had thus far been helpful, not only stopped saying hello but even avoided me so that they wouldn’t be seen with me. When I went to explain the situation to one of the neighbors, he just kept on repeating that “I would never have believed this about you – you seemed like such a decent person”. The only one who didn’t change was the parish priest.

Rejecting any theoretical debate, the article “demanded infringement proceedings”, which we all knew was a slow bureaucratic procedure… The journalist wrote about a “group”, named me as the “main organizer”, and furthermore wrote that “the supervisory body was frustrated”. Reading the article I thought that before the anticipated declaration of war, the supervisory body would be able to do something about its frustration. I thought it might be worth looking for the “supervisor” as a “delegation” on behalf of the “group” so that we could meet personally.

Gyula Pauer and Gyula Gulyás joined me in the delegation. We found the supervisor, comrade József Gulyás, in Fonyód in a restaurant as he was having lunch. We asked somebody to tell him that we were waiting at the entrance to see him about the chapel affair. When the supervisor – who was our age and although “frustrated” nevertheless self-confident – appeared at the door, he was still rummaging the remains of his lunch around in his mouth with his tongue; and constantly picked at his teeth with a toothpick as we took turns to talk to him. Humming with a sense of responsibility and swaying left and right, as if he was expecting somebody, he suddenly stopped using the toothpick and said: ”we are going to close down the chapel.” He then disappeared around the corner while we, “avant-gardes”, just stood there in bewilderment.

The infringement proceedings commenced two days later: the county ordered the council to execute the measures; two additional days later, the council – referring to the law cited in the newspaper – informed me that it would enact the closure of the chapel exhibition (doc. 17). However, the law was not applicable to a “studio exhibition” organized on private property. The only thing I was forced to do – and did – was to take down and collect the advertising material that had been put up in public areas.

This was when I started to think about private property and the legislative gap, in modern day parlance referred to as the “intermedia” opportunity. (Intermedia is “not governed by regulations; every work of art determines its own genre and forms according to necessity” – Dick Higgins, 1966.) Regarding contents, I dealt with what they were able to take away: the advertisements. I noticed that a sign for tourists showed routes that passed by the chapel across the hill. At the same time, the chapel’s tower was visible far in the distance to people bathing in Lake Balaton and it did not in the least occur to them that they were looking at a “legally private property”. These two facts gave me the idea that a tourist sign painted in large letters on the tower and visible from a distance would serve as our new advertisement. The other possibility that occurred to me was: clothes. There are laws regulating people’s behavior in public areas, but the way they dress is not regulated. I therefore made a paper stencil that read “CHAPEL EXHIBITION – BALATONBOGLÁR – PAINTING SHOW”, which visitors would be able to use for their own T-shirts or shirts. This idea was very successful for various reasons: the idea of advertising T-shirts was not widespread in Hungary at the time, so it was regarded as something special; people were happy to take home souvenirs from Lake Balaton; and making the stenciled texts didn’t cost anything. These items of clothing functioned as an advertising medium and reached far and wide; thanks to them new friendships were formed. On one occasion, two young men turned up in a car with a Swedish license plate and stenciled the text on the two side windows of their car. A few days later somebody brought news from Kaposvár: because the county supervisory body had already banned the local program, they were under the impression that I was advertising the chapel abroad.

It was a complete coincidence that when the group exhibition which I had organized was on, two observers were sent by the Communist Party headquarters to establish the extent to which the “self-juried” works had deviated from the limits they had set. It wasn’t possible to find out exactly what their instructions were, but they became somewhat troubled when they saw drawings by Árpád Szabados and his protégée, Ferenc Banga, opposite the door. They acted as if they had been sent to the wrong place and even asked if there was an exhibition in another chapel other than this one. I told them that there wasn’t; put at ease by this, though somewhat perplexed, they left. As far as I could tell, the choice of participants at the exhibition was determined by the existence of a kind of “parallel Szürenon group” which was politically acceptable. I would have loved to run a “Szüreron – Parallel Szürenon” exhibition, but this was unthinkable because Attila Csáji already took offense to the exhibition. He said nothing to me but I heard his opinion many times from other people from Szürenon, according to which I had diluted the avant-garde because I had drawn in artists from the Studio of Young Artists.

This was the first – very awkward Boglár event with two situations of conflict to be handled simultaneously. The internal conflict was far more difficult because it was emotionally trying, while the external conflict only required brainwork. The state party made sure to turn artists against each other for the most varied of reasons in order to nip in the bud every self-organizing cultural formation. I believe that the most worthy aspect of my work in Balatonboglár was that I brought about solidarity and an experience of belonging together – albeit for a little while.

The news of the ban spread rapidly and unfortunately even Radio Free Europe contributed towards this. Not obeying the will of the supervisory body, my “advertising action”, and my talking back to the authorities, led to the “chapel” becoming a political affair, although I had done nothing that violated the law. (It was a simple Fluxus situation: if life is in art, then art is in life.) The top cultural political authorities of Budapest were there in the background, but the name of the person who always had the last word, György Aczél, had not been mentioned yet. I was invited to see Aczél by Károly Kazimir, when he visited the chapel. He asked me to describe the problem in a letter and said he would pass it on to Aczél personally. He did this and Aczél even replied: “out of competence” he passed the matter on to the ministry, where in fact I was only sent around in one circle. However, the wording of the ministry’s invitation letter to a personal briefing was interesting and it spoke for itself: “Comrade György Aczél requested our assistance in regard to the closing of the chapel exhibitions” (docs. 26-28).

Whatever way I looked at it, the die was beautifully cast in Boglár because anything with which the national top authorities dealt with was a national affair. The issues of the “affair” marked out the path I was forced to take, with my only objective being to win time. Following this situation, some of us got together in Budapest at József Molnár V.’s flat and art historian István Kerékgyártó composed a situation analysis letter “in the name of the Balatonboglár chapel exhibition artists”, which we then sent to every competent body. This resulted in the October 1971 meeting in the party headquarters.

Around this time László Beke announced his private project titled ART = the DOCUMENTATION OF AN IDEA. Thirty-one Hungarian artists submitted material in answer to his call. The most valuable part of the project was Gyula Pauer’s circular letter – a circle in a circle – the ART COLLECTING ACTION, which was a response to Beke’s circular letter, titled Idea, and at the same time its extension. Fourteen people sent back the museum catalogue cards of the pseudo art collection. A major achievement of the project was its contribution to the proliferation of Hungarian Conceptual Art and Correspondence Art. It was in this year in Paris that J. M. Poinsot’s book titled Mail art, communication à distance, concept was published, which first used the expression “mail art” for the correspondence material of Fluxus and Conceptual artists. The only Hungarian work that appeared in the volume was that of Endre Tót.

The small diversion above demonstrates how far the meeting in the party headquarters had taken us from what theoretically interested us. However, in practical terms, this exclusive cultural policy event could have even had cultural historical significance, since it rarely happened in “democratic centralism” that the authorities – apparently for the moment giving up their principle of “divide et impera” – would sit down to negotiate with a “group” of enemies.

The official theme of the meeting was an exchange of ideas between the avant-garde artists and the representatives of cultural policy, as well as a restoration of “peace” “by legal means”. The organizer, András Orvos, had originally proposed five artists to sit on one side of the negotiating table: Imre Bak, Attila Csáji, András Orvos, Gyula Pauer, and György Galántai, but later István Haraszty also joined the group. Opposite sat five apparently friendly people from the top leadership of the official cultural policy.

According to Imre Bak,” there was no way of reaching an agreement. We could not accept the limitations imposed upon us by some kind of unfathomable political or art policy stipulating that we would not be able to pursue an artistic activity, even though this artistic activity was really professional by nature and all we wanted to achieve was for everyone to follow their own professional convictions and do what they wanted, and be able to show what they made. And it is probable that this tolerance which the politicians were representing was in truth only illusory. So in the background they were actually instituting strict administrative measures aimed at undermining the work of these artist groups.”[3]

The final result of the “exchange of ideas” was that the “Lektorátus”[4] was willing to assess by jury the material of the Boglár exhibition for the coming year if requested to do so by the artists. We agreed to this and by doing so found ourselves in the sights of the “cultural police”, “in Aczél’s style”, which I decided to regard as an avant-gardist adventure experimenting with the natural state of power. At the same time, I also considered it to be a tactical step that would ensure another year of operation for the Chapel project.

Apart from the Boglár issue, Attila Csáji believed that “more positive results came out of this agreement, for example that it would now be possible to officially negotiate with the various businesses, i.e. this forum was a kind of letter of recommendation and it worked in several places, for example in the case of the enamel and the iron symposiums.”[5]

Three weeks later (but according to documents in the archives exactly three days before the three-and-a-half hour “lecture” György Aczél held for the people of Somogy County) the friendly episode of willingness to work together fell under the scope of “executive power”.  The president of the Boglár council initiated an “official meeting” with me to discuss the future of the chapel exhibition. At this county level community meeting on  December 21, comrade József Gulyás, the county supervisor I knew well since the beginning of July, put forward the only possible method of their cooperative support. He proposed that if for half of the summer, I exhibited works by Somogy artists, the county supported, they would also support the exhibitions of the “Budapesters” – although of course with the participation of a jury – while as a paid colleague I would be given legal status by the local council. If I could have accepted this tempting offer, I would have recorded it among the “positive results” of the discussions at the party headquarters. An official report or notes of this obvious and astounding devilry were not made, so it only lives on in my memory. If I discount this political episode, I could say that this year really did produce a positive result: my way of looking at art fundamentally changed. Until then, a work of art was important to me in itself – as a piece, a/the masterpiece. But from then on, I saw a work of art not as merely itself but rather a piece that refers to something, i.e. a referred, an informed object. The reference – the information – transformed the object into a cultural entity given an unlikely form. In other words, the referring was the act of “informing”, and the result was an informed object, or a work of art. And the final result was that the work of art has a dual nature: on the one hand, it is itself, and on the other hand, it is not. Of course I could say that this is only a question of approach; although it couldn’t be seen, the world nevertheless changed around me. I began to recognize what was important as important and what was not important as such.

The issue of the “art(ificial)” object was important because everybody was looking for the answer to the question of whether something was or was not art. For example, Pauer’s museum catalogue card in Beke’s Idea project avoids the question and tautologically plunges into the middle of the answer. His pseudo-idea is about illusion and doubt, i.e. what we see is either that or not that. Raising this question is of a conceptual nature, its formulation is visual, and the answer lies in the context, i.e. there is no answer. Tamás Hencze put it like this: “art is: what is art”. A museum catalogue card as an “informed object” has some features that weirdly correspond with how – some years before – I had characterized some works in Boglár: the demonstration of an idea, a borderline-document, the unexpressed being expressed, a system composed from modules, the model of cognition. The original “museum catalogue card” documents the original, while the pseudo card is a lie because only the card is real, the content is false, but at the same time what it refers to only exists here; therefore, it is true because the demonstration of the work – the catalogue card – is the work.

In the context of Boglár, the “museum catalogue card” can be interpreted as follows: the “work” is an object informed by the “authorities” (with “official” reference), which the artist dis-informs with interaction. In the middle of the summer, Pauer was present at the launch of the Boglár “infringement proceedings project”, and he was able to see the “conceptual” piece titled “proscriptive decision”, as well as my “interaction” (appeal) too, so this event could have inspired his “museum catalogue card” idea. Whether this was the case or not, in the Boglár context the Idea project was a symbolic Concept Art work, while the Chapel project was a Fluxus work operating in the interactive stream of continual “decision-appeal” (!-?).

I consider this posterior contemplation of Concept Art as important because at this time I was more interested in the antecedents of Concept Art, thus for example in understanding Marcel Duchamp’s 3 Stoppages Étalon (3 Standard Stoppages) and the use of chance as a method. With the emergence of Concept Art, visually thinking artists found themselves in quite a difficult situation. The difficult situation was caused not only by Concept Art but also by a desperate feeling of avant-garde obligation driving artists to always be in on the latest trend in addition to being part of every event. The captain of the Concept group was the young László Beke, with whom – most likely because of my idiosyncratic ideas – I was almost never able to come to an agreement. I suggested that I could see something in common in Concept and Minimal Art, and that perhaps they can be translated into each other, referring to Pauer’s pseudo cube as an example. I sought the solution to the difficult situation created by Concept Art along two paths: during the summer period the Chapel project was a conceptual mode of existence (Fluxus) for me, while from autumn until spring I was occupied by personal issues in the work I did in Budapest. The result of my experience in the summer of that year was the birth of my Life Sign works. The Life Sign experiment was about how the gap between conceptual and visual thinking could be bridged. “The aim: to create a uniform system of visual thinking and construction with which it would be possible to describe every phenomenon and problem – the world” (1971). This overstretched idea – in retrospect – was good, in the sense that possibilities remained open in many directions.

[next chapter]

[1] “Psalms drive away demons, invite the patronage of angels, fortify against the fears of the night, provide rest amidst the pains of daily labour, keep children safe, beautify the young, comfort the elderly, and are the most appropriate ornament for women. Psalms seek out lonely places and purify spaces. They mean the beginning for beginners, growth for those striving forward, they are the voice of the Church; they bring joy on days of celebration and “also create sadness appropriate to God” (Saint Basil the Great, 4th c.).
[2] H. B. [Horányi Barna]: Törvénytelen úton néhány avant-garde. Bérelt kápolnában – Illegális kiállítások, mûsorok [Some Avant-garde Artists on Illegal Paths. Illegal Exhibitions and Programmes in a Hired Chapel]. Somogyi Néplap [Somogy County’s People’s Daily], 8 July 1971. p. 5.
[3] Interview with Attila Csáji. In: Vakáció [Vacation] I–II, 1998.
[4] Fine and Applied Arts Lectorate: Censorship office of the Marxist-Leninist ideology established in the 1950s to control the Hungarian art scene, exhibitions, etc.
[5] Interview with Attila Csáji. In: Vakáció [Vacation] I–II, 1998.

[The chapel project]   [Reality and dreams]   [The trial year]   [The year of everyone]
[The year of the paradigm shift]   [The last kick-off year]   [The Finale]