Reimagining the near past and constructing local identities. A Fulbright project by Linnea West (2012-13)
National identity in Hungary has always been a mythologized identity, reconceived as often as its borders have been redrawn. In the past century, one often sees the Hungarian people reacting against their current government, whether with nostalgia for a more glorious past or with ardent hope of future change. The Soviet regime did not allow for the development and expression of a national identity per se. Perhaps previously a class struggle between the nobility and the peasant rooted in the Middle Ages was a common thread running through the history of Hungary. Despite that, the Communist rule in the post war years had little popular support and instead provided a different kind of national identity: opposition to Communist rule became a common point around which people could unite. The absence of Communism left a void. As Hungary struggles with globalization and issues related to the European Union, what it means to be Hungarian is a topic with many interpretations. Contemporary Hungarian voices express myriad desires: nostalgia for Greater Hungary, the necessity of a shared European future, and the establishment of a new, purely Hungarian identity. With a burgeoning arts scene, these voices now have a forum, albeit one little known outside Hungary.
Hungary’s rich cultural legacy has lent an acumen and depth to its contemporary art practice, one whose most recent manifestation suggests a complex response to societal shifts that I hope to research for this project. I plan to create an anthology of this changing visual arts scene at a key time of self-definition. I will research and gather on a Web site the works of Hungarian artists throughout the country that touch on national identity. The featured images—of paintings, conceptual art, installations, videos, photography, and street art—will provide a vital resource on contemporary Hungarian art. The Web site will complement and support a paper on the construction and interpretation of Hungarian identity and be accessible to a wide audience.
Artists have presented a complex and fascinating response to the concept of national identity in their works. National identity in a former Eastern Bloc country is an act of creation fraught with questioning, as Peter Forgacs’s video installation at the 2009 Venice Biennial reflected. Forgacs belongs to an older generation familiar with Hungary before the transition from a communist to capitalist system. Contemporary discourse in the arts often highlights a younger generation, disillusioned with Western, capitalist ideals and yet aware of the limitations of the prior Communist system. Concern over cultivating Hungary’s place in the European and global community is now joined with, sometimes conflictingly, a surging interest in creating a strong national and local identity.
The relatively unknown Hungarian art scene, and works dealing with national identity in particular, has been little discussed in contemporary discourse. Indeed, progressive visual artists (aside from international superstars like Forgacs) are not yet widely known in or outside of Hungary. This can be seen in the recentNew York Times article “The Hungarian Contemporary Art Puzzle” by Ginanne Brownell published July 9, 2011—the puzzle being “why contemporary art in Hungary does not have as strong an international reputation as neighbors like Poland, Romania, Serbia and Slovenia.” However, as the presence of the article itself suggests, that is clearly changing. Along with it, the structure for making and viewing art has undergone a transformation that allows and informs the treatment of national identity in the visual arts. Communism was a great proponent and subsidizer of the arts—at least of the official kind. Anything not officially approved of was “anti-Hungary” by default, such as Tamas St. Auby’s Portable Intelligence Increase Machine, the main historical record of Conceptual Art / Actionism in Hungary in the 1960s documenting artists who created typically ephemeral happenings, and Tibor Hajas’s experiments that drew viewers into the action in a way that questioned their agency. State support is now more limited, but artists are free to make art about whatever they want. Instead of dealing with the legacy of Communism, artists deal increasingly with current issues, often remaining aware of society and activism. An ad hoc arts structure is piecing itself together to present these works. Many nascent art organizations are attempting to run on a solely commercial basis and are facing financial difficulties without state support. Despite this, many new contemporary arts spaces have recently come into existence. The contemporary arts are poised for a period of growth—fueling the urgency behind my project.
The research I will present in my final paper will expand upon the knowledge of this growing area in a step toward creating a more nuanced place for it in contemporary discourse. My project’s focus on the treatment of national identity in contemporary Hungarian art is of a manageable size and will consider this lesser-known field under a culturally pertinent microscope. Given the extended time frame and the relatively fewer spaces dedicated to the contemporary arts, I feel that I can represent most exhibitions in Budapest and still do justice to the vibrant arts scene within the rest of Hungary. Creating, adding content to, and organizing the website can be done at any time, leaving me free to travel as necessary. My affiliation with the Agency for Contemporary Art Exchange (ACAX) of the Ludwig Museum of Contemporary Art in Budapest will initially guide my work in Budapest, where I will visit galleries and exhibitions and collect digital images. Over the course of the first six months, I plan to travel outside Budapest for exhibitions and events. I hope to document local art unrepresented by institutions, such as street art. I will begin creating the website about six months into the process: outlining the structure, cataloguing the images, verifying the artists’ information, etc. In the final two months I will publish the project online, and finally write and include an essay on national identity. The images will provide visual support for my thesis, which I expect will discuss an ambivalence and skepticism toward the interpretation of national identity in the works of emerging artists. This lasting resource will be a user-friendly gallery of images with basic information written in clear language, cross-referenced and searchable not only by artist, date, and place but also by theme and media.
Artists function as a cultural vanguard, both illuminating and affecting how we view ourselves and reality. In this key time of change, Hungary is straddling a line between being a member of a global world and developing a strong, local identity. How Hungary is making this transition can be seen keenly in the arts: the collective voice displayed in the visual arts today offers a zeitgeist perspective representative of the direction the national consciousness is heading. The unique English-language resource I propose would provide a glimpse into this changing reality not only for those on the outside, such as myself, but for the Hungarian public.