The Visual Chill of the Cold War Is More Relevant Than Ever
BUDAPEST — Since opening in 1896, the Kunsthalle (Műcsarnok) of Budapest has been the most prestigious and largest exhibition venue in the country. It has played a pivotal role in Hungarian cultural politics and decides which artists assume center stage. As such, it comes as no surprise that the institution has once more become a symbolic battlefield — this time between the country’s current administration and the opposition. The controversy relates to placing the Kunsthalle under the control of the Hungarian Academy of Arts, an institution with strong political links to the current government. Surrounded by fierce debate, institutional critique, projects, and boycott, the Kunsthalle has become one of the most divisive cultural venues of Hungary in this decade.
András Böröcz is conscious of the issues regarding individual and collective memory: his art is rich in historical references. Making Böröcz’s retrospective exhibition, a reflection on the ambiguity of today’s Hungarian cultural-political reality.
Böröcz is part of the generation that paved the way for postmodernism in Eastern Europe — drawing not only avantgarde art, that he places between quotation marks, but also strict conceptualism, on which his approach developed. As an emerging artist he belonged to the circle of Miklós Erdély, the most prominent member of the Hungarian neo-avantgarde. Böröcz was a member of INDIGO, a postconceptualist group led by Erdély. The motifs of his early works include markers that point to performances (often staged at international venues, like Documenta in 1987) created with László Révész from 1979-89. The issues raised by their collage-like narratives (often labeled in Hungarian as painters’ theatre) were conceptual, addressing questions about the essence and research of art, while they were defined by postmodernism’s new romanticism, pastiche, and the high/low practice of the era.
Böröcz left Hungary in 1985 and has been living in New York for over 30 years. The present exhibition, along with its catalogue, offers an overview of his artwork made in the US, including performance videos. Most of the work shown has previously been on display in both countries (recently at Pavel Zoubok Gallery in New York in 2016), and much of it is now in public and private collections. But it is bringing the work together, under one roof, that allows viewers a better understanding of Böröcz’s world, more through the coherence of this exhibition than by examining the pieces individually.
The show is in itself a work of art. The overall setting, created by Böröcz and curator Márta Kovalovszky, a long-time advocate of Hungarian progressive art, might be best described as a Wunderkammer. This cabinet of curiosities gives the impression of a collection of natural and artificial objects, or items of re-contextualised objet trouvé. Like the original curiosity cabinets, the exhibition appears to be a comprehensive collection of the known world with a special interest in the bizarre. There are impossible bottles with miniature scenes carved from mahogany, unique wooden books, pseudo-trophies, bread and matzo sculptures, as well as kinetic creations.
The collection includes sculptures (so-called Hybrids) assembled from branches found in New York City parks or the artist’s own garden, often paired with various discarded objects. Sometimes the original form of the items is preserved, other times they become completely figurative. The pencil as a sculptural material appears in several forms: strange creatures carved from black (graphite) or colored pencils with different inscriptions, on pedestals or placed in genre scenes to reflect the human world. At the same time, Böröcz uses thousands of laminated pencils that are carved into trompe l’oeil plastic creations. Despite the humble materials of Böröcz’s works, they lack the rawness of bricolage. His pseudo-collection evokes the craftsman figure, which is uncommon in contemporary discourse, with his virtuoso professional knowledge, but also his humility and serenity.
At the same time, the show suggests the artist as alchemist working in his laboratory, since Böröcz is striving for the most thorough examination of the objects and motifs that make up his universe. The title of the exhibition, Non-objective Objects, suggests the same. He systematically examines all aspects of his materials, the possibilities of use and performativity of the egg, the bread and matzo, the pencil, the shoe or the toilet plunger, thus turning their denotations upside down to reveal the absurdity of everyday life with compassion and melancholy. This is also confirmed by the anthropomorphism of his objects and performance tools.
Börocz plays with these objects and their multiple references: The tongue depressors, consistent with the oft-seen medical curiosity of the Wunderkammer, appear as a medical aid, but also as a means of symbolic interpretation of language. The meaning of the pencil for Böröcz, extends from Max Ernst’s frottages to the basic tool for writing (therefore the basis of civilization), but it also is a reflection of nature’s transformation of wood into carbon. The egg evokes cosmological ideas related to it, but the combined use of chicken, duck, goose, and ostrich eggs, the latter being a common exotic element of historical Wunderkammers, also refers to issues of scale. In this pseudo-curiosity cabinet, Böröcz recalls the Hungarian craft tradition of egg shoeing, which demands ingenious levels of technical knowledge and high precision when decorating eggs using combinations of eggs and horseshoes, miniature drawn scenes, or putting magnets into eggs in the performance, “Telehor” (2103) dedicated to László Moholy-Nagy.
The toilet plunger also undergoes a number of changes in his hands. It becomes a crown, or, by adding a belt and pencils, a tower, “Babel”(2015). His ironically thin “Atlas” sculptures (carved of mahogany or pencil) lift eggs symbolizing the globe, sometimes placed into inverted toilet plungers, reminiscent of the torch of the Statue of Liberty. Likewise, his graphic work, which refers to Far Eastern scroll paintings, also appears to be rolls of toilet paper when looking at “Budi Scroll” (2009).
Shoes become symbols of cultural-historical references of both personal as well as collective memory in the works of Böröcz,. The noisemaker pieces refer to a Purim tradition of making a loud sound at the mention of the villain Haman, an ancient Persian historical figure who has become a symbol of tyrants that threaten the Jewish people. Shoes in “Wagon” ( 2004) represent the people carried in cattle cars during the Holocaust (also shown in this exhibition in various drawings). We recall Gyula Pauer’s cast bronze shoes left on the riverbank, a Holocaust memorial in Budapest, which commemorates victims shot at the shore of the Danube. At the same time, works such as “Van Gogh’s Boots” reference art history and theory — hinting at Heidegger’s text about Van Gogh’s shoes.
Böröcz’s sculptural installation, “Yad 1–13” (2010), is his interpretation of Torah pointers and activates the rest of the exhibition in the Kunsthalle. These kinetic creations are reminiscent of folding rulers with attached hands that remind the viewer of New York City signal lights, or a cartoon figure’s gloves. The villain Haman appears again. His execution (by hanging) shows up in miniature sculptures enclosed in impossible bottles, “Haman & his Ten Sons” (2001) that serve a double purpose, to also be used as noisemaker instruments. This iconography appears in Böröcz’s collection as part of his exploration of a gallows. Gallow-shaped pages appear in “Lipton, The Gallows Book” (1992), linking Sir Lipton and Stalin; they are burnt into recycled wood slats in “Gallows Drawings 1 – 21” (1994) or in “The Hanged” (1989), a 17-figure sculpture installation to commemorate the executed victims of the 1956 Revolution.
Böröcz’s Wunderkammer-cum-exhibition relays a semiotic, conceptual approach in his seemingly traditional, object-oriented activity. Rooted in Dadaist and Surrealist approaches, Böröcz’s works disassociate the subject from their original function, as Meret Oppenheim’s or Man Ray’s works did. Böröcz’s mechanical structures evoke the ironic anti-machine cult of Picabia and Duchamp (although they work perfectly well), and his shadow boxes recall Duchamp’s miniatures or Fluxus cases. We can associate these objects with children’s toys, pseudo-doll houses, or the miniatures found in Meketre’s tomb designed to preserve the memory of worldly life in ancient Egypt. But, in fact, Böröcz’s sensual conceptualism dealing with everyday absurdities derive most directly from his respect for art and manual labor. As Ágnes Berecz wrote regarding one of his performances: “Böröcz’s works represent both the consciousness of homo faber and the ease of homo ludens.”