Reimagining the near past and constructing local identities. A Fulbright project by Linnea West (2012-13)
The What is Hungarian? exhibition at the Kunsthalle (Mucsarnok) brings together over 50 Hungarian artists in a large exhibition that covers a diverse group of perspectives on a rather contentious topic. As it happens, this is the only recent exhibition to deal with national identity in Hungarian contemporary art and it opened just before my arrival here to work on a project related to the same topic. Coincidence, or timeliness?
In the history of the past 100 years, discussions of nationalism and identity have tended to define “magyar” in exclusive terms which contributed to marginalizing groups such as Roma, German-speakers, and Jewish Hungarians. The exhibition’s focus on presenting a variety of viewpoints, rather than trying to draw conclusions from the works, may result from a sensitivity to this controversial topic–any conclusions, presented to groups holding diametrically opposed viewpoints, would be provocative. Perhaps it is telling that this is the first exhibition of its kind despite the end of Soviet influence in 1989, over 20 years ago.
The exhibition is thematically organized into the categories of Legends, Heritages, Prejudices, Roles, Conflicts, Identities, and Opinions. Heritages presented historical texts dealing with the formation and analysis of national identity, and Opinions consisted of video interviews with intellectuals and cultural leaders. In terms of art, work was grouped as Legends, Prejudices, Roles, Conflicts, and Identities, presenting artwork in a wide variety of styles from artists of different generations. Legends dealt with long-held beliefs, such as descent from the Huns and the turul (a mythical bird). Roles deals with individuals, while Identities dealt rather with groups.
Legends, Roles, and Identities are somewhat unavoidable in discussing such a societal question as national identity; however, Prejudices and Conflicts are themes that need not have been chosen. I can easily see how this negative focus is necessary from a historical point of view, but it is also symptomatic of traditional articulations of nationalism, echoing the wall text in the Heritages room. Interestingly, while the thematic conceptions set up national identity in problematic terms, I felt the exhibition text was neutral to the point of bland. This aspect was not elucidated by the situational relationships between works in a room; it was also sometimes unclear why a particular work was in one room rather than another, although arguably the majority could easily fit into more than one of these broad categories. Beyond that, many of the works were of questionable relation to the theme, even as broadly as it was conceived here.
As I quickly learned, the reception to this show was mixed, with some criticism for:
My research shares the concerns and issues raised here. Considered through the lens of this exhibition, the complexity of a project on national identity in contemporary Hungarian art is apparent. Yet it is not a carefully edited presentation of works; rather it is an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach, and as such it is rather less helpful than I might have expected.
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