Reimagining the near past and constructing local identities. A Fulbright project by Linnea West (2012-13)
Last Friday morning April 5, I headed over Csaba Nemes’s Budapest studio after meeting the artist the week before at a lecture at the Ludwig Museum. However, even before then, his face was familiar. Nemes is active in the Free Artist (Szabad Művészek) group and his face was caught in one of the most iconic photos of the ejection of the protesters from an open meeting in December. His artwork—especially his films—often deals with social themes such as the Roma in Hungarian society, current politics, and recent history. As a painter, themes like these form a more subtle background to a personal exploration of Nemes’s family past and immediate present.
Perhaps Nemes’s most ambitious and direct film was Remake, a 2007 animated film that used or imitated common mass media elements such as TV news broadcasts and music videos. In 10 chapters, each with distinctly different aesthetics, Nemes retold or reinterpreted Hungary’s 2006 protests against the Socialist government of that time, the first sustained protests in Hungary since 1989. Nemes, along with many in the country, was shocked as peaceful demonstrations turned into riots. His critical examination in this series of short animated videos tells a quasi-documentary story of events, at times with a distinctly Hungarian twist (the Túró Rudi song, for example). While the Túró Rudi music is fanciful, the video of an old Soviet tank coming to life and charging through a crowd directly relates to actual events and media footage, so there is a mix of real and unreal in the work. Nemes sought to confront the audience with difficult questions.
One interesting facet of the 2006 protests, in addition to the violence of the protests, in a sense they were the first time a new voice—that of the far right wing—made itself heard in mainstream discourse. There is a connection between far right political support and nationalism. So, Nemes thought this video in particular would be of interest for my research on national identity. The painting below, captured in studio, displays how Hungarian pride is often combined with national, historical, and religious elements. On one hand, a summer gathering of camping families that celebrates Hungary seems ideal, but this nationalism often includes strains of racial hatred, religious intolerance, and militancy.
Other videos in Nemes’s oeuvre pose social issues as artistic narratives, but with quite a clear point, underlying individual social dynamics behind these larger movements. Stand Here and George’s Settlement are films dealing with Roma in Hungary and how they relate to society. Stand Here (2010) is a puppet animation of an encounter between a woodsman and a gypsy. The woodsman accuses the gypsy puppet of stealing firewood repeatedly, and the film ends on a rather somber coda when the gypsy puppet sings to the forest; George’s Settlement (2011) is an animated “interview” of an old coal miner speaking about the effects of the changes to the coal mines in Pecs within the community, which affected relations with the local Roma population. Softies (2009) is a film that opens with actors interviewing a boy in a realistic fashion, so that the viewer at first might think it is a documentary. As the film continues, we switch into a depiction of the story of the interviewee, who it turns out is one of two young men dressing up in betyár (a traditional Hungarian highwaymen figure) costumes and terrorizing a more liberal fellow student. The kernel of truth comes from an internet video that surfaced a few years ago, showing a young man being forced to record a similar oath. Again there is a tension between fact and fiction, both in how the work is presented to the viewer and in the content.
Just as the artist separates his work as an activist from that as an artist, Nemes tends to think of his video works as separate from his paintings. Certainly his paintings fill the more traditional “fine art” mold and display an enjoyment of the paint in itself, but they also tend to be more personal. The series he is working on currently is inspired by photographs that his father, an amateur photographer, took in the 1960s and 70s. (Read an interview about Apja neve/Father’s Name series here.) These photographs show both the village of which he was mayor and family life. These are often lyrical, impressionistic views that take either the black-and-white of the photographs or use colors from Nemes’s imagination. The compositions are sometimes simply that of a photograph Nemes found interesting, but often they are montages in which he quote liberally from his source material without an effort at synthesis. While clearly this is very related to personal memories, either his own or his fathers, they are not intended as narratives as much as they are evocative of a place, time, or person. Finding ways to retell history on his own terms might deal with aspects of village life in Hungary in the 1960s, but also with his father and how he feels about his father’s role as a Mayor under Communism. In addition to using his father’s collection of photographs, Nemes now sometimes takes his own and incorporates them into this series.
Both in terms of mimicking documentary or TV media in his films and in working from found photographs, Nemes manipulates the evidence and presentation of real life to suit his own purposes. Especially with Remake, one can also wonder if it asks a larger question about the role of media in the 2006 protests. Nemes sees a clear divide between art and activism, but his more recent foray into video came from a desire to respond more directly to current events. Asked whether he thought the recent political and cultural changes would inspire his work, perhaps as the 2006 riots did, he only said that it was possible. After now commonplace remarks on how anything was possible and the interesting times these were to live in, we said our goodbyes.