The year 2017 was undoubtedly a year of great art exhibitions. Essential “major shows”, such as the Venice Biennale, Documenta 14 or the Skuptur Projekte in Münster, added some of their splendor and reputation to this denotation. Alongside them and a bit in their shadow, a number of other annual art shows took place across the planet during the year. Let’s recall the events that took place in Yokohama, Gothenburg, Istanbul, Kaunas, Lyon, Kathmandu in Nepal, Lagos in Nigeria, Karachi in Pakistan, Kuala Lumpur, Honolulu and Performa or the Whitney Biennial in New York and the Garage Triennale in Moscow. The symbolic and literal completion of this “biennial year” is the artistic colonization of the last “virgin” continent in the form of the first Antarctic Biennale.
One of the less spectacular and yet not very well-established shows has also taken place in more accessible geographical conditions: we are talking about the OFF-Biennale in Budapest. Its first edition was held in 2015 and, according to the organizers, it was a constituent year not only for the establishment of a new “tradition”, but also in the sense of introducing a certain “ethical code”, by which OFF-Biennale is defined, to a certain extent. At its core is the rejection of state grant support and the decision not to directly co-operate with other artistic institutions that receive state support. The gesture of a protest against the controversial “one-party government” run by Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who has been bending the Hungarian constitution and the definition of democracy for the past two years, gave the first OFF-Biennale a tone and practically even a name. But the Budapest Biennale is not “Off” just because of the voluntary rejection of state aid. The Biennale is decentralized and consists of a wide range of exhibitions and programs spread across the city. Many events do not take place in galleries, partly as a result of refusal to cooperate with state-funded institutions. And so, not only geographic proximity but also the context of political development throughout Central Europe are good reasons to deal seriously with the OFF-Biennale.
After the first year, which was a public declaration of independence on state structures, this year OFF-Biennale faced another challenge: to maintain its local protest ethos and to develop it with a strong, universally understandable theme with the potential to bridge the borders of the nation state. This became the idea of a children’s republic, shortly realized in Hungary after the end of the Second World War under the name Gaudiopolis by Lutheran pastor Gábor Sztehlo. During the war, he was able to save over two thousand people who were threatened with deportation to concentration camps. Between 1945 and 1950, under the leadership of the Good Shepherd Diocese, he led a home for war orphans in Buda, whose administration was adopted in an unprecedented open way, based on democratic principles. The children chose their own representatives to discuss and decide on all the important issues. They made their own laws, which then applied to them as well as their adult supervisors. Gaudiopolis had its system of rewards and punishments, and even its own Gapo currency, the value of which, instead of the inflation of the devalued Pengő currency, was tied to the price of one tram ticket. Equally important was the fact that Gaudiopolis, although the institute itself operated under the auspices of the Protestant Church, was open to all children, regardless of whether their origin was Christian or Jewish.
The central exhibition of the biennale called Somewhere in Europe by curator Katalin Székely is devoted to the myth and fate of Gaudiopolis, a “community of joy.” She exhaustively maps Gaudiopolis’s activities, but also draws on similar projects of “children’s republics” that have taken place in the world either in the past or almost in parallel. The direct inspiration for Gaudiopole was Boys Town, founded by American priest E.J. Flanagan in 1917, or the Soviet republic of Shkid of Viktor Soroka-Rosinski. The juxtaposition of these two examples, by the way, suggests that collectivity and emphasis on social justice were ideas that have been connecting the West and the East at the time, and not dividing them. Even before this, a self-governing orphanage Dom Sierot, led by Janusz Korczak, operated in Warsaw. One part of the exhibition is also devoted to the “second” republic of Shkid, a group of boys who, under the leadership of Valter Eisinger in the Terezín ghetto, secretly published the Vedem magazine, which in this environment meant almost resistance activity.
The installation of the exhibition is treated in a strictly museological and non-artistic way: a number of archive documents, films and a number of panels with accompanying texts are complemented only by a set of artifacts, which are the result of a workshop with children from children’s homes, and Binelde Hyrcan’s video. A film with young African boys who play about “life in emigration” on the beach is a powerful piece, yet it is a theme for another exhibition. The core of the exhibition saturated with information is, without a question, a good and necessary introduction to the OFF-Biennale. It is a kind of a curatorial text materialized in space, through the optics of which all the other program can be viewed.
So how do other exhibitions stand and what is their relationship to the central theme?
If I stick to the second question asked in the previous sentence, I might begin the listing where the analogies are most apparent. The Pedagogical Partisan Action(s) and the Somewhere in Europe exhibitions share both the theme of pedagogy focused first and foremost on the needs of the child, as well as the museum design, though this time in a slightly more relaxed way, corresponding perhaps to the time shift that divides the events presented at the first and second exhibitions. Pedagogical Partisan Action(s) is dedicated to two Hungarian experiments in the field of school children’s education in the 1970s. These later initiatives, however, lack a certain urgency and excitement for creating of their predecessors, but they share the presence of a central leader figure. On the contrary, there is a slightly stronger impression of the concealed conspiracy of children and adults, who stand somewhat outside the structure of the system and the scope of its control mechanisms. In the first case, Péter Forgács was free to develop innovative methods of artistic and aesthetic education at elementary school, thanks to the mandate of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences, but paradoxically also because he was prevented from continuing his studies at the Academy of Fine Arts in 1971 and was not allowed to act as an artist. In the latter case, István Rév and István Sinkó realized their vision of the school community as applied lessons on ethics and philosophy, purely on their own initiative and “from the bottom”, which in practice symbolically illustrated the transfer of their pedagogical work from the basement of the school onto its attic. They also occasionally invited guests from the ranks of democratic dissent. When the school attempted to return the class back to the cellar after a time, the pupils’ confidence was so great that under the influence of their teachers they barricaded themselves in the attic, printed leaflets, and launched a strike. Several other teachers joined it spontaneously. Fascinating in both cases is the fact that at the moment when unusual activities were tolerated or directly supported by the school itself, the regime did not interfere and was not even considerably interested in them.
Other exhibitions relate to the Gaudiopolis theme loosely, and rather develop some of its sub-themes, such as issues of civil society, engagement, grassroot initiatives, and alternative education. It is remarkable, although it can only be a natural reflection of the organizers’ preferences that most other exhibitions tend to be more didactic and more comprehensible. A large number of participating authors then either directly uses documentary forms or refers to their methods.
For example the Taking Time exhibition, through three video essays, documents the form and impact of partially implemented utopian concepts. Two of them deal with local community experiments (the “holistic” education project at Schulfarm Insel Scharfenberg in the film by Zsolt Vasarhelyi and Kati Simon, or a recapitulation of the history and ideological development of the Copenhagen hippie district of Christiania by Nicoline van Harskamp). On the contrary, Giulie Bruno recalls the memory of a utopia, where the unfulfilled ideal was global unity, made possible by the adoption of the artificially created universal language of Esperanto.
Similarly, Borbála Soós’ Forecasting a Broken Past group show looks at the (unfulfilled) utopias of yesterday, which she examines with the prism of the language. The significance and emotional value of key ideological terms are generally not fixed; on the contrary, they are undergoing constant revision and creeping change. Even the expressions indicating basic and universally shared values, such as truth, love or peace, change their meaning (if they are politicized) depending on the context. Nicoline van Harskamp presents an interesting work at the exhibition. From the publicly available correspondence of the Dutch anarchist Karl Max Kreuger, which he conducted in 1988-1999 with sympathizers from around the world, she chose and exhibited the most interesting excerpts. Using an online program to analyze the writer’s handwriting, she has put together their psychological profile. On the basis of this, the actors set up a fictitious group meeting of the anarchists “after years”. Andy Holden also reinserts history, this time his own. In the Maximum Irony! Maximum Sincerity, 1999-2003: Towards a Unified Theory of MI!MS project he publishes his juvenile artistic manifest from the time before his study at art schools. Holden continues to deepen and develop this honest artistic coming out of adolescent graphomania and ambition in the spirit of the manifesto. Combining maximum irony with the utmost sincerity, Holden intended to formulate the manifesto as a declaration of a future artistic program. At the same time, however, he defined a schizophrenic position, in which contemporary art is often found anyway – even without a manifestation.
I have already pointed out that a number of the above-mentioned works of art use or comment on documentary practices in the context of contemporary art. Sári Ember, for example, operates in a documentary fashion, with the theme of immigration in the Taste of Distance video installation. The film, without any significant authorial manipulation, looks at a patriotic group of the second generation of Hungarian immigrants in Brazil. The view of the suntanned and smiling pensioners who do not associate much more with their parents’ homeland than the shared experiences of folk song singing interferes with the familiar ways of perceiving national identity.
The For me, Trianon group exhibition has the same goal but this time, in connection with the changing understanding of what “Hungary” means in terms of the historical shift of its borders. The idea of a certain intellectual rehabilitation of the concept of Austria-Hungary as a multicultural transnational space is certainly attractive. Especially for non-Hungarian authors from the former Trianon area, the challenge could be to confront the perception of this period as a kind of monarchist occupation of their countries. Unfortunately, the exhibition is completely dropped on the production side and makes an impression of a postcard show, to which the authors has sent their contributions as an assignment and without the right to a fee, which is reflected in the size of the works and negatively in the overall frustrated impression of a somewhat forced project.
Slavs and Tatars, on the other hand, declare at the Society of Rascals exhibition the intention to join not only the former Austria and Hungary, but the entire “pan-Slavic” space from Central Europe to Western Asia. The reconciliation tool is to be a sour pickled cucumber, a cultural achievement shared across this otherwise disparate geographical and cultural space. The sovereign manifestation of a specific visual identity (gourmet tasting expands the possibilities of perception of otherwise predominantly “retinal” exhibitions) makes the Society of Rascals possibly the most aesthetically attractive exhibition of the entire OFF-Biennale. The freely spaced books that can be browsed and are likely meant to form a library of conceded inspirational sources of the exhibition, however, make the exhibition more complicated, and do not help to understand it better. During the time spent in the gallery, a common visitor does not read more than the title or annotation on the cover. The claim that there is a real connection between the objects and the contents of the books, we can either accept or reject, but there is no chance to verify it directly in the exhibition. The author’s decision to leave the visual components and contents of the exhibition to a large extent divided fundamentally determines and questions the relationship that can be created.
And the list of exhibitions and notable works of art could go on – in this sense Budapest has been remarkable for the time of the biennale and provided something to write about. But what is the level of quality and what is the benefit of the OFF-Biennale when we evaluate it altogether? The evaluation can be viewed from different perspectives: we can judge the overall concept, the show’s exhibition policy, or we can ask how the individual outputs are successful. These three points of view, however, are very closely interrelated.
Choosing the story of Gaudiopolis as a central theme seems to be a good decision. It combines solidarity, civic engagement, democratic debate, or alternative education with a strong national myth. At a time when the idea of the nation is once again burdened by the association with conservative values and xenophobia, it is probably important to remind such myths. Most of the projects that can be met in the biennale are somehow working on the above-mentioned thematic scale. At the same time, however, it seems as the choice of organizers to look at the past in the search for an all-embracing topic was decisive for the majority of exhibitions. And this also applies to projects that are related to Gaudiopolis only freely. The revision of history is simply a subliminal leitmotiv of the OFF-Biennale – specific historical events, artistic concepts, folk customs, the whole (former) state structures and the utopias of the 20th century are exposed to the hindsight. In no case can we say that these topics lack a relationship to the present. On the contrary, the intention to “pro-link” the former and the present, and even to draw lessons from it, is obvious. On the other hand, it is surprising that there is almost no direct reflection of the present, not to mention the future. References to the past always have a dose of didactic self-denial of learning from one’s own mistakes and the restoration of forgotten truths. If we were more likely to meet the current issues in Budapest more often than not, the OFF-Biennale would probably be more sarcastic and its tone a little more depressing than when our history as an intermediary is whispering that “it has been here once before”, or “we can build on this again”.
Then there is still a question of the state grants independence policy. This act largely shapes the identity of the biennale, and as a gesture of disagreement with the current circumstances there is no reason to question it. However, one can not forget that for a number of exhibitions the lack of finances was somewhat negative. Not only in the case of the aforementioned For Me, Trianon, but this handicap is too obvious also in some others (you will not see the artists or curators trying to take advantage of “the virtue of necessity” style). Technical and production backgrounds are lacking a bit, and some of the works suffer from it. It is still to be mentioned that part of the program was directly prepared by the curatorial team of the biennale, while some exhibitions and events were selected on the basis of an open call. It is therefore possible to speculate whether the professional shortcomings of some of the exhibitions are not a consequence of pre-selection on the basis of projects and portfolios, where the commission was a little bit “off”. The relevance of some exhibitions to the theme of Gaudiopolis is then problematic and the analogies that connect them to it are farfetched. But such is the danger of any decentralized show where a large number of personalities and approaches meet with each other, and it should be noted that this problem concerns only a negligible fraction of exhibitions.
In this review, often used adjectives were “didactic,” “documentary,” or “museological.” Although I have sometimes used them critically, the conclusion is that the strongest moments are when the OFF-Biennale is “didactic”, “documentary” or ” museological.” In some cases, like the opening show Somewhere in Europe, the exhibition is nothing but this, although the viewing experience does not suffer from it. Despite this, there are many strong works of art on the OFF-Biennale, but sometimes it seems that when the art blends with this “didacticity,” something starts to drag and unintentional contradictions appear on the surface.
If the first OFF-Biennale was a protesting and constitutive one, and the second was an attempt to define its own role in society, the third edition will necessarily reflect the need for a more precise articulation of its role. This year’s edition suggests that the organizers face the decision whether to focus more on live art in the future or on a “documentary turn”. The biennale may remain straddled as well, if it manages to eliminate the partial discrepancies. However, the choice that the primary focus is on the political possibilities of art is without a doubt the right one. When organizers are able to further expand their awareness of near-country events, the OFF-Biennale may become a moderator of a political and cultural debate with an impact on the entire Central European region.
Translation by Marta Martinová
Cover photo: The Curfew, street play. Photo: Zsolt Balázs, OFF-Biennale Budapest Archive