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Reality and dreams

1966. I remember this year very well because it was when I experienced my first “live” art event: the Studio ’66 exhibition at the Ernst Museum. (In the wake of a heated debate the representatives of the new art trends were given a separate hall). I knew about the debate from my college classmate, László Méhes, who was a regular visitor to László Lakner’s studio. A lot of people came to the Lakner studio and some of them organized things there. Aurél Bernáth, who was the master for all of them, was well able to protect his students, thus they enjoyed a little bit more freedom.
Another college mate of mine, Katalin Sóvágó, who was Gábor Altorjay’s girlfriend, told me about the first happening in Hungary. I participated in the coordination work involving the participants of the Art Academy’s summer artists’ colony in Tokaj, which is why Kati Sóvári was also there, and Gábor Altorjay came to visit her for a few days and held a slide show presentation one evening. Tamás Szentjóby accompanied him, and just sat on a chair in a shady corner of the garden all day, with an expressionless face. I well remember – as if it was happening now – how I waited for something to happen, but nothing did, apart from his just sitting on the chair. I tried to understand what it was all about, and I even asked Kati Sóvári, whose only answer was a charming but empty smile, while Laci Méhes just shrugged his shoulders. (In 1965, Ben Vautier sat on the stage for four hours in his action titled Public.)

After Tokaj, I travelled to Balatonlelle in the company of some young architects for a week of sailing, but it rained throughout almost the whole week. As we were stuck in the resort building, we spent a lot of our time talking. When we had run out of topics, somebody suggested that everybody tell the others what their dream in life was. My dream was an artists’ colony, which I imagined would be set in an abandoned industrial building (e.g. a watermill). On hearing this, one of the girls shouted out that there was a building on a hill in Balatonboglár, which, although not a watermill but rather a chapel, was nevertheless abandoned. The next day the rain stopped, we rented some bikes, and went over to Boglár.

Breaking through the bushes after reaching the hill, I spotted the building with its entrance facing opposite Lake Balaton and I immediately recognized the setting for my “dream”. Set above the sea of water – in the middle of the village yet out of the way – the weather-beaten, ancient building with white walls, a tower and a cross, wrapped in silence and serenity represented honor – or at least something honorable to me. I thought it was a magical place, a wonder in itself, a site where presumably miracles could take place. A “superfluous place”: a place for culture and art, for ways of behaving and communication, for competence and freedom.

Only the frame of the chapel door was left and the windows had been bricked up to a height of three-quarters. The plaster around the walls inside had been gradually peeling off because of rainwater and was inscribed with the names of people who had been here. The brick floor at one place had been opened up towards the crypt. A circular hole, which had been broken into the crypt’s door opening that looked onto the hillside and which had been bricked up several times in the past, now served as an entrance. The opened up tin and wooden coffins were piled up in a heap and the skeletal remains that had been interned here were scattered about.

I sought out the owner, a parish priest by the name of Jenő Czövek, and made an appearance – as a person unknown to him with no letter of recommendation – in order to present to him my improvised ideas on how the chapel could be put to artistic use. I somehow made the case that as far as the Church was concerned, the chapel had been execrated but that the original intended purpose for the building and the site had been spiritual and that it was sacred in regard to its architectural content; in other words, a suitable place for meditation, which is a unique advantage when it comes to artistic use. It was surprising that the parish priest did not ask whether I was Catholic, religious or even if I believed in God at all. At the end of our conversation he assured me that he would do everything he could to help me succeed in my plan and then he asked me to write down my ideas so that he could consider how practical they were. He said that if my idea didn’t “come into conflict with any principles”, I should draw up a lease contract.

1967. Some events that I knew about: at the age of ninety – four months before his death – Lajos Kassák, the holder of the Kossuth Prize for writers, was only allowed to organize an exhibition at the Fényes Adolf Gallery in Budapest “at his own expense”. The jury had rejected Sándor Altorjai’s monumental painting titled Let Me Sink Up from the Studio ’67 exhibition at the Ernst Museum, but because of its size the work had not been removed and could therefore still be seen behind a fire-screen. Gábor Altorjay immigrated to West Germany. What I could not have known at the time, but which later became important: Artforum (New York) published Sol LeWitt’s writings titled Paragraphs of Conceptual Art, and Andries van Dam (USA) developed the Hypertext Editing System. Also published in Hungarian was Hans Selye’s From dream to discovery: On being a scientist.  which provided a lot of good advice on how to conduct basic research for future scientists. What was interesting about the book for me was that in my opinion most of the advice he gave to basic research scientists was also valid for art. Although I still didn’t have a clue how Mr. Selye’s advice could be valid for art in practice I nevertheless started to think of art as a possible area for basic research.

At that time I completed my studies at the Hungarian Art Academy, and with my (painter/teacher) diploma I automatically became a member of the Art Foundation of the People’s Republic of Hungary. “Art Foundation membership” was stamped in my I.D., as my place of work signified the status of a freelance artist enjoying artistic freedom. This status ensured the most important factor for the implementation of the chapel project: “superfluous time”.

The parish priest had already given the go-ahead for the chapel verbally so in my young mind I thought that in the following summer – by the time our contract would be ready – the first exhibition could be opened. Making the building usable didn’t present any technical problems, since according to my secondary school graduation certificate I was an architectural technician. If no other opportunity came up, I intended to cover the costs of renovation with the money I had received from my parents for the construction of my studio in Budapest.

1968. My draft contract was accepted by the Balatonboglár Roman Catholic Church community with some slight modification (doc. 5) and I was granted a 15-year lease on the chapel for “artistic purposes”. After the contract was signed, I sought out the local council to find out how the community could support what was – from my point of view – a useful initiative. The untrusting councilor – with whom I spoke – said: “How do I know you’re not a leader of some group of hooligans just using this to legalize yourself?” (!?) I didn’t really understand this rejection on the part of the council because I was far from being a hooligan.

I had some cathedral glass cut for the chapel windows in Budapest, prepared the wire meshing to protect the windows, and posted the wooden front door to the address of the parish priest, who had been so helpful in every way. Presumably, the helpfulness of the villagers who cleared away the bushes and cut the head-high rank grass was thanks to him too. The site became accessible and the chapel could now be locked. The necessary subcontractors’ work was finished in a short time and the art happening could now commence.

At the end of the summer, I got the opportunity to go on my first two-week trip to the “West” with an archaeological team organized for a dig at Pompeii. The trip to the West was embarrassingly interesting because it was exactly at that time that Soviet troops – with auxiliaries from other countries including Hungary – entered Czechoslovakia to liquidate the experiment of “socialism with a human face”. The Italian radio was just reporting on this aggression when we were shopping at the market. One of the market traders asked all of us where we came from and then started to shout (in Italian): Hungarians, Hungarians, communists, aggressors! etc. His words “ran right down” the stalls and we ran away. After this my friend, whom I had persuaded to come on the trip, decided not to return home. He tried to talk me into staying too but at that time I was drawn to the Boglár chapel and I went home “to Europe”.

My Europe experience in Budapest was the Iparterv Exhibition I., the art festival of the “new Hungarian avant-garde, in December. I had known one of the exhibitors, the painter Gyula Konkoly, from the time when we were at the Art Academy. His exhibited work was an object, titled Art Academy Study. Because of its obvious topicality, this sizeable work – reminiscent of Claes Oldenburg – made the greatest impression on me: a composition consisting of a hand resembling a cow’s udder about to flow out of a pigeon loft type wooden cage – a composition of (hard-soft) forms sewn out of linen, stuffed and playfully painted. A masterful blend of drama and humor, solid work – I was glad I had come home.

1969. The leaders of the Boglár church community had already inquired several times about the chapel affair, but I couldn’t really deal with them. The chapel had been broken into by vandals and they had stolen my tools and equipment I’d left there, the wire mesh I had ready for the chapel windows was bent up and scattered in the bushes and they had broken through the walled-up door to the crypt etc. This made me realize that the “chapel affair” was more than I could handle alone, so I put out some feelers to the Art Foundation and the Studio of Young Artists, but to no avail. Although I could not count on “societal” help, I still didn’t want to give up on my plans of a societal nature; I envisioned the beginning in the form of some type of self-organization. For the time being, kind of toying about with ideas, I imagined an institution that – modeled on the Budapest Cellar Exhibition – I gave the officially sounding name Chapel Exhibition. The name seemed to be good for eliciting official cooperation and even for deceiving the authorities. Some good evidence of this was written by Géza Perneczky: “The Boglár chapel is an interesting episode in the cultural life of Lake Balaton. An abandoned chapel has been converted by the council into a venue for poetry matinees, chamber music, art exhibitions and group performances.”[1]

Although it was not apparent at the time, from the second Iparterv exhibition of 1969 onwards, the people involved in these events played an important role in my Boglár plans. After the disagreeable behavior of the authorities, some of them emigrated and this made me aware of the urgency to get the chapel project started. From the point of view of the Boglár story, there were other events too that were later to become important: the Szürenon [SURENON] exhibition in the Lajos Kassák Cultural Centre and the theatre troupe organized under the name “Kassák House Studio”.

To make ends meet, I occasionally worked for the Hungarian Television as a prop person with the set decorators. Later – after I had rejected the department head’s flattering offer to become his successor – I was only employed as a security guard on the night shift. It was thanks to this strange turn of events that I found the first person who was seriously interested in my Boglár plan. In one of the somewhat Kafkaesque passageways linking the studios and the warehouses – where it was possible to smoke during quiet times – I made the acquaintance of József Magyar, a self-taught graphic artist, who told me that he was homeless. I offered to let him live in the chapel if in the meantime he was willing to work as an exhibition guide, and before this he would have to help in the renovation work. A few days later he called and suggested we meet in a coffee-bar on Fő Street. He arrived with two amateur artists, József V. Molnár, a printer, and László Haris, a photographer. Both of them were honestly enthusiastic about the cause to save the Catholic chapel and offered to help with the manual work. They were also interested in the exhibition because – as they said – there was a group, called Szürenon, of which they too were members. For the time being I didn’t want to get in contact with the “group”, because I had never liked the hierarchical nature of group consciousness. József Magyar – as someone I could definitely rely on – became the mediator.

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[1] Géza Perneczky: Három kiállítás. A boglári kápolnatárlat. [Three Exhibitions. The Boglár Chapel Exhibition]. Élet és Irodalom [Life and Literature]. 19 September 1970. p. 12.

[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]