Context & Identity in Contemporary Hungarian Art

Reimagining the near past and constructing local identities. A Fulbright project by Linnea West (2012-13)

About

About the project

The works, meetings, and discussions featured on this website suggest that artists in Hungary today are creating a body of work that enlarges a discussion of national identity beyond the traditional conception of the nation-state. In work that focuses on historical consciousness as a phenomena–its manipulations and inconsistencies and moments of cultural resonance–artist re-imagine a past that is already given as a fiction, with an awareness that their authorship implicates them as well. In work that focuses on particular cultural aspects or sub-segments of society rather than the broad sweep of history, artists make visible elements of society that are taken for granted or pushed to the margins, as well as question the reuse of historical elements in the tide of rising nationalism.

National identity has not been widely discussed as part of the contemporary arts in Hungary, yet it has played a significant role in culture and social life, as one might expect given Hungary’s history. First part of the Austro-Hungarian empire and then under Soviet-dominated Communism, national identity in Hungary has always been a mythologized identity, re-conceived as often as its borders have been redrawn. Its nature has been colonized and then re-colonized by a changing political system. As Hungary struggles with globalization, economic woes, and rising nationalism, what it means to be Hungarian is a topic with many interpretations. Despite or because of rising nationalism and a complicated history, contemporary artists do not often conceive of their work in “national” terms. However, there are contemporary artists who are nonetheless socially engaged, some in overtly political ways and others in less direct but equally relevant ways, effectively creating a more nuanced discussion of what it means to be Hungarian.

And they do so from a position that has been theoretically in the margins of art historical discourse. Perhaps in an increasingly globalized world and art market, the art of the former Eastern Bloc is no longer an exotic “Other” but just one of many pluralities. Ultimately the role these artists play, as artist dealing with local topics in work that operates defacto in an international framework, navigates a tension between Hungary and the outside world, historically the West.

This website intends to present my research, first with a blog chronicling my progress and giving me a place to share the “raw data” that has informed my conclusions. An analytic essay on context and identity in contemporary Hungarian art presents the results of my research as a traditional academic essay. It links to individual artist’s pages, where I will highlight artists who I refer to in my paper with a more extensive collection of images and information. These artist pages present unmediated information from which you can form your own opinions. So that this website can be a starting point for similar research, I include a detailed bibliography and additional resources page.

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About me

The New York Times published an article by Ginanne Brownell called “The Hungarian Contemporary Art Puzzle” on July 9, 2011, as I was preparing the application for this project. The puzzle mentioned in the article’s title is why “contemporary art in Hungary does not have as strong an international reputation as neighbors like Poland, Romania, Serbia and Slovenia.” The presence of the article itself suggests that this changing. But it also speaks to one of the motivations I had: the relative vacuum of information about contemporary Hungarian art that was in English and online.  I felt that there was room for an accessible English language source of information about contemporary Hungarian art.

This has been an interest of mine since I first came across of the work of Hungarian artist Tamás Szentjoby while doing research for my contemporary art blog in New York City.  Through Tamás Szentjoby’s contributions to Fluxus, I became interested Hungary’s hisstory of neo-avant-garde and Conceptual art. What was the legacy of Szentjoby’s critical, socially engaged work? How did contemporary artists relate to their historical and art historical past? I framed my research around national identity:  topical in any country, but certainly in a former Eastern Bloc country where its active construction has been felt and whose current generation can take a distanced and critical viewpoint to this seismic shift in society. You can view my initial grant proposal here. My research led me to hone my focus to the more nuanced themes of the near past and local identity, considering how context and  identity function in investigations of historical consciousness. I explain about the evolution of my research topic here.

My intent with this website is to present detailed, thoughtful research about contemporary Hungarian art in a manner that is accessible to the non-specialist, English speaker. My background in blogging about New York City’s contemporary art and culture for the past five years obviously informed my decision to present the results of this research online. It is not such an overstatement to say that if information doesn’t exist on the internet, it doesn’t exist in the global consciousness. However, finding in-depth information online about current emerging artists in Hungary can be difficult. And unfortunately, information in Hungarian is useful to a limited number of people. In addition, writing about art too often is directed toward an insular professional audience.

I welcome any comments or questions–please feel free to contact me directly at linneaw at gmail dot com.

More about me on my personal website: www.linneawest.com.

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Thanks

Through the wonderful opportunity offered through the U.S. Department of State and the fantastic Hungarian Fulbright Commission, I produced this research on a Fulbright grant in 2012-13, and received continuous guidance from the Hungarian Fulbright Commission, especially Annamária Sas, in matters of settling in and living.

I would like to thank the people who supported and facilitated my research, especially Tijana Stepanović, then Head of the Agency for Contemporary Art Exchange (ACAX) at the Ludwig Museum – Museum of Contemporary Art, Budapest, and Barnabás Bencsik, then Director of the Ludwig Museum, for supporting my initial application. During my time here, all the library and curatorial staff of the museum have been so helpful. Especial thanks to Petra Csizek, program supervisor at ACAX, for all of her advice, feedback, and assistance in arranging meetings throughout the process.