Much has been written in recent years about the state of Hungarian contemporary art. As I started once again to read all the dreadful accounts about the structural censorship of progressive streams of culture, the centralisation of art institutions and their infiltration by the (state-approved) Hungarian Academy of Arts (MMA), the internal or external exile of Hungarian artists and cultural figures, and the increasingly precarious financial position faced by much of non-official culture, something struck me. Almost all these accounts were reporting on the Budapest situation and its art scene. But what can be learned about Hungarian culture if we look beyond its metropole?
The Blue Danube Waltz
On the banks of the river Danube, only an hour and a half by train from Budapest, sits the impressive city of Dunaújváros. Sztálinváros – as it was originally called – was built from scratch in the 1950s to host a major steelworks. More or less voluntarily, citizens from all parts of the country resettled here to work, exchanging their mostly rural existences for apartments in newly built housing projects. The city was a socialist urban and architectural dream. The new man, connected to other people by working hard for common society rather than by owning property and land, now had almost unheard-of access to culture, in the form of theatre, cinema and cultural community centres, all of which were designed to be integral parts of the city from its very beginning. Furthermore, the city’s outstanding architecture was complemented by the International Steel Sculptor Workshop and Symposium, organised in collaboration with the local steelworks. The workshops were first held in the 1970s, and after a long break, they were re-established in 2017 by ICA Dunaújváros (see below) and a group of locally connected artists and art historians. Over time, the workshops created a space for international exchange as well as an extraordinary steel sculpture park stretching along the riverbank, with works spanning 30 years of sculptural expression.
Dunaújváros is special for more than its sculptural and architectural heritage. Many artists, musicians and other cultural producers grew up here, and though few still live locally, many still regard the city as a crucial influence on their lives and work. ICA Dunaújváros, mentioned above, is a local art space with a great collection and a dedicated (and, as usual, undersized) staff, which produces publications and organises a vivid and respected programme of exhibitions, living a precarious life on the edge of what is possible.
I have lunch with Gabriella and Nóra, two energetic women behind the ICA programme. Politics is on the table, for in local elections, held just a few days before my arrival in Hungary, many cities – including Dunaújváros – ousted mayors from the ruling Fidesz party and replaced them with opposition candidates. Nóra has long been the director of ICA and has lived through many political changes and cultural shifts, while Gabriella worked at the Műcsarnok (Kunsthalle – or Hall of Art) in Budapest during its recent upheaval, and is thus no stranger to challenging working conditions; both remain cautious, without raising their hopes too high, but nevertheless, they really long for change. In recent years, they have had to fight for survival, constantly receiving less and less support for their publications, programmes and acquisitions. Their artwork collection provides a substantial overview of Hungarian art from the 1990s and 2000s, and their ambition is to improve their website, update their catalogue, and offer it to curators for active recontextualisation. As I walk through the space, Gabriella tells me they would love to renovate, but sadly they have lacked the funds to do so in recent years. In spite of that, I am intrigued by the space and the light coming in through the windowpanes, noticing several postmodern elements, maybe the heritage of a 1990s makeover.
The current exhibition during my visit is entitled Otthon Jó (It’s Good to Be Home), a sentimental show for all three exhibited artists – Tamás Kaszás, Zsolt Keserue Zsolt and Gyula Várnai – as Dunaújváros was or still is their home. The exhibition is filled with critiques of the city and of nationality, mixed with nostalgia and a particular kind of melancholy that becomes more concrete as I stroll around the city with Annamária, an art historian and a native of Dunaújváros. Annamária was one of the people who passionately revived the steel sculptor workshop and restored the sculptures that already exist. She likes to give tours of the city and talk about its history, art and architecture. She tells me that a lot of people have recently moved back, because thanks to the city’s well thought-out urban planning, the quality of public infrastructure is still outstanding. Personally, however, she is planning to relocate abroad. A graduate of the recently expelled Central European University (CEU), she has lived in Budapest for several years now, but the overall situation seems to be deteriorating, and conditions for cultural producers are growing ever more precarious. She and her husband will therefore try to make it work somewhere else, at least for a while. In the shadow of the “It’s Good to Be Home” exhibition, their story is almost ironic. Annamária’s heart seems to be in Dunaújváros, but soon her life might not even be in Hungary anymore.
“I live and work here now, but I plan to move to Budapest in the course of the next year, for family reasons and opportunities”, Dániel tells me after guiding me through the spacious building of the MODEM Modern and Contemporary Arts Centre in Debrecen. Compared with the modest spatial and financial arrangements of ICA, MODEM seems to have it all. With thousands of square metres of professionally installed artworks and exhibition architecture, the range of topics dealt with is equally large. The top floor hosts an exhibition entitled Családi okok miatt (For family reasons), a critical take on the notion of family in contemporary Hungarian society. The monumental second-floor show, Panel, is dedicated to housing estates constructed out of prefabricated panels, by far the most ambitious and successful architectural and urban projects of the last century. Meanwhile, on the ground floor, an overview of works from the 1970s and 1980s by Helmut Newton is being installed for a forthcoming exhibition.
Animation from the installation Mama Rose by Olga Kocsi, For family reasons in MODEM Modern and Contemporary Arts Centre in Debrecen
“We are glad to have MODEM here, as it stimulates art discourse in Debrecen”, says Dani, an art historian I meet for afternoon coffee, who returned to his hometown to work on his dissertation. He too lives mostly in Budapest, and as far as I can tell from our conversations, he has a lot of intellectual contact with France and perhaps with Romania, just across the border. He acknowledges the difficult dynamics that exist between the capital city and the regions, and he blames the fact that Hungary is so Budapest-centric on the post-Trianon geographical situation. We sit in a café/bookshop near the Reformed Great Church, talking about the deep traumas of our geographical space, and when it comes to trauma, the second largest city in Hungary has much to say. For centuries it was an important cultural crossroads, a stronghold of Hungarian Calvinism, and in the country’s most troubled times it even served as its capital, first during the revolutionary years of 1848–1849, and then, almost a century later, during the war in 1944–1945. It is home to one of the oldest universities in Hungary, whose main building is one of the most beautiful I have ever seen.
Yet it seems, somehow, that Debrecen’s art scene is all too well connected to the one in Budapest. I visit Sesztina Gallery, an art space located in one of the city’s narrow back alleys. Although the curatorial program is independent, the gallery has joined forces with MODEM, which is currently backing them financially. I walk there with Tamás – the curator of MODEM – an example of a hyperactive cultural player. He lives in Budapest, works in Debrecen, curates the Derkovits Fellowship for young Hungarian artists, which is based in Pécs, and undertakes many independent projects on the side. We chat about Tamás’s soft spot – emerging Hungarian artists – and about the importance of art schools in a young artist’s career. During the conversation, I wonder to myself whether greater decentralisation of art schools would actually benefit the art scenes beyond the capital. It is only later that I find out – with no great surprise – that the majority of art schools are crammed into Budapest.
Dani was right to say that MODEM stimulates art discourse in the city, but at the same time, MODEM seems to act as a kind of monopoly: it is hard to find contemporary art that is not connected to it in some way. I hope to meet Lilla, who runs the B24 Gallery, but sadly, her email replies that she is out of town installing a show.
Mediterranean Hungarian Bliss
Nothing, it seems, could be more worlds apart from Debrecen than the sunny southern Hungarian city of Pécs, but I find the difference hard to articulate. Is it the Mediterranean vibe nestling in the surrounding hills? Is it the way the golden Indian summer sunlight touches the city’s architecture, which spans the millennia from the Roman Empire to the Bauhaus? Or is it the new hope from the freshly elected opposition city council? For me, the biggest part of my instant love for the city is most definitely the people I meet. Attila, my warm-hearted guide, presents me with a programme that is almost impossible to follow, and yet somehow we manage: exhibitions, institutions, openings, visits.
In 2010, Pécs was chosen as European Capital of Culture and the city was able to invest in the local cultural infrastructure. The beautiful historical Zsolnay ceramics manufactory was reconstructed and transformed into the Zsolnay Cultural Quarter. Among other things, it now hosts a ceramics museum, an exhibition dedicated to the history of the Zsolnay family and their factory, a Kunsthalle-type exhibition space called M21, and a section of the University of Pécs campus. Although the quarter itself is quite intriguing, the programme is somewhat limp and seems to focus more on tourists and conservative audiences than actually serving the Pécs art scene. M21 is hosting an anniversary exhibition of the famous 19th-century Hungarian painter Mihály Munkácsy, and the ceramics museum, it seems, could do more to make the most of their truly wonderful collection. I ask Attila about the quarter, and he frowns with discontent. There is no artistic or curatorial leadership, the dramaturgy is random, and the programme in general is therefore rarely good.
Culture, clearly, is happening outside the Zsolnay Cultural Quarter. I talk to members of a small graphic and printing studio during the opening of their new space in one of Pécs’s suburbs. They were kicked out of their previous location on one of the city’s main boulevards. Officially, they were too loud and too misbehaved. Unofficially, the collective think they had to go because they were an inconvenient tenant for such a lucrative spot. I sip a glass of tasty local red wine, look through the small exhibition of prints they have put together for the event, and curiously observe the vintage printing equipment they have in their workshop. Before they moved it all to their new premises, it was stored at their former neighbours, a club, café and cultural centre called the Freeport (Szabad Kikötő). This cosy venue is the heart of independent culture and activism in the city, providing space for clubbing, discussions, concerts, free thought and solidarity. I have a beer with some of the Freeport’s organisers and their acquaintances during a busy weekend evening, trying to absorb as much of the place’s wonderful energy as I can. A techno stage in the basement pulsates with distorted beats, while a Hungarian hip-hop band plays upstairs – the whole place is full of students and young people. The atmosphere is warm and open, but turns melancholic as we speak. Life has not been easy for the Freeport, as they too have experienced the city council’s uncooperativeness and have lost a part of the building they renovated with their own hands. Often, they put their own money into the business because they love it, and from every renovated chair and every flowerpot you can feel their heart is in the place. It is only later that I connect the dots – I find out that the Freeport’s crew also parented a cultural programme at the Zsolnay Quarter before cultural capital year, but somehow they are not the ones now benefitting from it.
It is not only cultural producers who are finding life difficult. Attila takes me to a studio complex behind a beautiful, but crumbling modernist hotel to meet two Pécs-based artists. They tell me about their lives here, the non-existent market, and the precarious conditions they are experiencing. They sigh about Budapest, where, to their mind, too much is concentrated: money, collectors, institutions, power. One of them teaches at the university, but when it comes to her art, she is not counting on Budapest. She relies instead on sales at her gallery in Munich, where she used to live before she came back to Pécs, and on the pieces she produces commercially for a local ceramics shop. The next day, we climb up the hill to visit another artist couple, who work mainly in theatre production. Their intriguing, cutting edge social plays, performed with prison inmates, are inspired by many social theatre movements, yet it took a long time for their programmes to gain the trust of the authorities. As we silently admire the hilltop view, peruse the remains of an old mining watchtower, and try to recognise Croatia on the horizon, I wonder how many shades of precariousness there can be in the cultural life of one city, of one country.
Connecting the dots?
The more I ask about what is happening outside Budapest, the more I find. I keep hearing about the Képtár in Paks, a small city on the Danube known mainly for hosting the only nuclear power plant in Hungary, where the artist Ádám Kokesch has created a puzzling installation out of the gallery’s collection. I visit Szentendre, a tourist magnet just north of Budapest, where a group of underground artists established their alternative exile in the 1970s, and where a lot of museums and galleries still operate today. I meet Dominika Trapp, an artist who, along with Márton Dés, established the so-called “Csakoda” project (the name refers to a one-way train ticket), working with community cultural centres across provincial Hungary.
The approaches obviously vary. Some try to maintain as much autonomy as they can by creating artistic and cultural communities built on the foundations of communality, mutual help and DIY culture, a sort of internal exile, where the burdens of the reality outside are balanced by the solidarity of the reality inside. Others try to secure as much stability as they can for the already vulnerable non-regime institutions, while there is still a good enough constellation of staff, money, policies, and diplomatic relationships with founders and funders, before they can be turned, sometimes willy-nilly, into monopolies of opinion and taste. Some opt for external exile, resettling in Budapest or leaving Hungary altogether, while others return to their hometowns to participate in local culture. Yet others hop from context to context and from city to city, trying to earn a living and hoping to avoid conflict with either side of the divided art world. All of them, though, create knots in the complex thread of the rich cultural landscape, relying on their own tools and methods to deal with the political, personal and economic reality of art in contemporary Hungary. That, however, is often one of the few things they share.
Cover photo: Opening of Helmut Newton’s exhibition In MODEM. Photo by Zsolt Czeglédi
This article was written and published in the frame of East Art Mags programme with the support of the International Visegrad Fund.