Reimagining the near past and constructing local identities. A Fulbright project by Linnea West (2012-13)
The exhibition The Other Half of the Sky at the Ludwig Museum features selections from the museum’s collection as well as the loan of Ghost Keeping by Istvan Csákány. Ghost Keeping was Csákány’s monumental installation for this summer’s dOCUMENTA in Kassel. I had the chance to meet the artist at the opening after he had had spent the past week or so reassembling the piece in the gallery of the museum.
The work is composed of groups of figures, empty suits, actively gesturing to an empty replica of a sewing workshop, made on a slightly larger-than-life scale and composed entirely of cheap, unfinished plywood. Every part of the beautifully draped cords of lighting, the intricate models of sewing machines, and the work benches and other machines of the workshop had to be reassembled piece by piece on the slightly raised platform, also of wood, and the dummys had to be dressed. So, rather than it being a surprise that it took him a week to install the piece, it is more of a surprise that he only needed that amount of time.
Later, we—along with the director of ACAX (Agency for Contemporary Art Exchange) Tijana Steponavic—sat down over a coffee in the museum café to discuss more about Ghost Keeping, the idea behind it, and the artist’s other work as well. He explained how the original idea he wanted to explore, before he was invited to participate in dOCUMENTA even, was that of the uniform. Fashioned in black material over white shirts, the garb looks almost as much like a traditional men’s suit as the worker’s uniform that it is modeled after. But on closer inspection one sees the overalls and utilitarian pockets even while noticing the contrasting fine material with which it is made. Within the contrast one can see the ideal worker of socialism, who still looks just like everybody else, an equal, but yet who had his clothes tailored out of rich materials. The disjunct between the reality of everyday workers of Socialism and this kind of material wealth is obvious, and perhaps explains in part the absence of people filling these suits in Ghost Keeping.
Despite a painstaking attitude toward accurate representation, obviously the wooden models are not functional. It is not a specific sewing room, although it was researched to be as accurate as possible, but rather represents an industrial past and former mode of working. The artist intended it not as a criticism of vanishing industry in the region, but as symbolic of a system that has ceased to function in society, unless it is taken out, preserved, and remembered–in this case through artwork. Tackling the idea of social memory, the project overall approaches how these memories, or ghosts, are kept. The fact that the sculpture requires upkeep—due to the material—suggests the active task of preservation of memories. Rather than being stable entities, they are subject to change. Like the memory of the past, they are preserved as we preserve them, with our thoughts, conceptions, and art installations.
A more recent sculptural project of the artist uses a similar motif. The worker-artist, now present and represented in a life-size sculpture, wears the uniform of Ghost Keeping and fully lives the active postures of the previous figures. Playing with instability on many levels, you can see the figure half-fallen, half-risen—thus suspended with a broken, cheap chair under him. To Csákány, this represents the instability of the region, with quick historical turns and downturns, and of moments in between highs and lows—a theme that came home to the artist most recently after dOCUMENTA. He has completed the big Ghost Keeping commission, a pinnacle, but rather than being a step in a simple linear progression forward, it was a high point after which the artist too feels suspended.
Unfortunately, we were running out of time and so, after a brief explanation of a sculpture of an absent loom that was shown at Frieze London, and a comment about the painterliness of the artist’s work (which hearkens back, if you go in for it, to his original art school training as a painter), the artist had to run.
However, first we went by the artist’s installation so he could check the figures. The ghosts were still present. However, the artist was unsatisfied with one of the figure’s positions, which leaned slightly. He remarked as we walked out that the keeping of the ghosts would have to begin.