Nevertheless, his relatively small, brick-like, heavy photo book does in fact crush: our brain, in the least. In the best possible sense.
Puklus’s work is a massive, refreshing and almost singular exception within the Hungarian photography scene in terms of attempting to create, or in fact suspend, a narrative, or more precisely, a meaning, almost entirely by means of photography. The way he creates a series is entirely different from the majority of Hungarian photo projects that almost resemble school assignments. In most of these cases, the artist posteriorlypours an often lengthy, pseudo-theoretical/sociological, and almost always empty, alibi-like and general text before, or rather all over the photographs, meant as a creator’s concept, as a result of which the photographs either become mere illustrations of a dull text, or, and this is more common, they simply detach from it. No connection is formed between image and text.
With its 468 pages, Puklus’s book forms a serious and substantial yet loose and most importantly visual narrative while containing only a single text, an excerpt from a poem, which forms an integral part of the work instead of explicating it, but no explicit authorial intention or reflection by another author.
Another aspect in which this album differs from most available works of the kind is that it is not merely a posteriorly edited version, a sort of documentation of a fabricated photo series with more-or-less loose boundaries and contours, published in an album, but a book-artwork designed specifically by taking into consideration the particularities of the medium of the book, reckoning with its context and bringing it into play in several ways.
The book-like character is already apparent in the dimensions of the work, as it is smaller (15,5×20,5×4,5 cm) than the customary album format: the heavy object we hold in our hands resembles a thick hardcover novel. The design as well as the quality of binding and printing is exemplary, massive, and probably it will last a few hundred years. The title of the book also promises a story, an epic love story at that. The epic proportions are also expressed by the number of photographs. The work consists of an Introduction and four chapters (The beginning of hope, 1918-1939; Unsafe to dance, 1933-1945; Bigger. Faster.Higher, 1944-1989; Life is techno, 1989-2016.), and comprises 331 photographs altogether.
Not counting the images before and after the introduction (15 images), the first chapter contains 36, the second 123, the third 43, and the fourth 114 images. The structure can be considered proportional, as heavier, more voluminous chapters alternate with shorter ones. Chapters are constructed like biographies or biographical novels. Each chapter encompasses a period marked by dates. It is noteworthy that longer periods are not necessarily represented by a larger volume of photos – to the contrary, in fact. The shortest period in the book is the second chapter spanning 12 years, represented by 123 photographs, while the longest period of 45 years in the third chapter has only 43 photographs to show for it. As if the artist attempted to create a balance by aligning with the surging-subsiding and thus far from even pace of history when marking his own focal points – the Second World War, the regime change, and the following years. The long and paralyzing years of socialism are barely scraped by the book. As a minuscule design delicacy, the last photograph of each chapter bleeds to the edge, so when the book is closed, the dark lines in the sea of white edges mark the segmentation of chapters.
The only text in the book is the English translation of the first three and a half chapters of Marina Tsvetaeva’s untitled poem from 1913, beginning as “How many people fell in this abyss…” (original version: „Ужсколькоихупало в этубездну…”). The poem spans across the entire book as a substitute for page numbers, with a single letter at the bottom of each page. Owing to this method, the poem runs out of the book, as it would require twice as many pages to contain the entire poem. This text, however, is not a missing key or crutch offered by the work to ensure its apprehension, but merely an element loosely related to the context, enhancing, colouring, and deepening it while serving as a counterpoint to the book’s irony.
A –for a number of reasons, perplexing – formal feature of the book is that despite all its features imitating a novel as outlined above, it does not begin at the beginning! It begins at the end. In a manner resembling Hebrew (or Arab) script and books, it progresses from right to left, or, from our perspective, from back to front. Of course, this is not incidental and can have several explanations. It may signal a family narrative or a historical one, it may evoke the people who suffered the most in the 20th century – the Jews. Or, as a kind of self-reflection, it may refer to the context-dependent and puzzle-like character of things, that meaning is also determined by where from and how I read it. If I start at the beginning, with hope, then I reach demise or the end, but if in reverse, rewinding history, so to say, then I progress from demise to hope and birth. To illustrate it with a literary example: instead of the chronological progress of events, James Fenimore Cooper wrote his famous Indian novels from the end to the beginning, to the hopeful starting point, and according to some interpretations, he thus placed his stories of demise into an entirely different perspective. Puklus’s book can therefore be read in two directions, from different perspectives and moods.
It is not a clearly decodable and constructed biographical novel but a rather delicate collection of images and their system of correlations, a rhizome. The book does have a direction of progress and the images an order; in other words, the pages do not change places like in a Borgesian book of sand. However, their meaning is not fixed.
Puklus also refrains from creating meaning by linking the images to texts, or more precisely, by subordinating them to the text and defining what means what, nor does he let them float completely freely to mean and suggest whatever they want. The book makes use of the power of the context to create meaning, and most masterfully so. Instead of subordinating the images to the Eastern European saga outlined in the title, it weaves a loose web of them, or rather, it allows the reader to weave such loose web depending on what they think and what they read into the context, to what extent they see and understand the system of references, rhymes and interplay of the photographs. For the 331 images resonate in almost every register, style, genre and colour, accompanying, supporting and counterpointing one another. Evoking the styles of various artists, Puklus alternates between conceptualism, documentarism, voyeurism, constructivism, cubism, expressionism, etc. He even oversteps the boundaries of photographyas a genre, as several images appear to be documentations of sculptures, installations, actions or theatre plays.
A fundamental characteristic of the images and the creator’s attitude is the constructive approach of an engineer, which might be called a sort of multi-instrumentalist DIY, making use of everything from everywhere, not closely related to any branch of art. Puklus works with simple, elementary materials and forms at hand, almost in brutalist manner, constructing assemblages and images out of them. His approach is refreshingly far from the endeavour of cold perfection or the obsessive compulsion of costly high-tech innovation.
As he has expressed in his interviews, his works are considerably influenced by the avant-garde of the early 20th century, by constructivism, Bauhaus and their photographic derivatives. His constructions are, however, ironic and self-reflexive, as although many of his photographs were made in a studio, he indicates this situation most of the time, with various objects not cleared out perfectly, lurking adhesive tapes or not quite concealed backgrounds, or with photographs showing the studio itself jammed with countless objects. Although it is a constructed whole, his book still bears the characteristics of a workshop study, but in the best sense. It is constructed in the spirit of a different, new ideal of the open work. It expresses a kind of permanent dynamism, at no point does it suggest a closed and rigid, dead perfection and inalterability. Puklus continuously jerry-builds and tinkers with his constructions to place his images into new contexts. To refer to his previous work, it seems as though we are holding a continuously, and if you will, interactively changing starmap in our hands.
Fundamentally, the book is a collection of ironic quotations. Never perfectly decodable fragments of the life and fate of him and his family mix with images of, and references to, history and art history. At the same time it is a kind of catalogue of sculptural poses. Male and female models provide a line-up of the almost complete set of poses used in socialist/communist/Nazi sculpture, and consequently those of classical Greek and Roman sculpture as well, since the official art of dictatorships has almost never been original art, but almost always a reminiscence of the classics. Of course, Puklus ironically tinkers with these antetypes and puts them in quotation marks. It is enough to think of the figure with a hard phallus and an arm raised in Nazi salute while wearing a mask and socks, which is one of the most powerful images in the album. And which can, by the way, be associated with certain aspects of the work of Joel-Peter Witkin or even Gábor Gerhes. Puklus’s web of images is a web of associations. What takes place here is the imitation, the reversal of forms, signs, colours, images, poses and styles, in other words, a continuous act of quotation, in which we never know when we will step into a booby trap, when we see Puklus and when a quotation. For, of course, all of it is Puklus. Then again: all of it is quotation. As are we. And of course all stories, all narratives are at once fiction, an arbitrary violation of the now and then connected and disconnected plethora of images, things and facts.
In keeping with its title, the book therefore contains an abundance of heroic poses, figures, guns, sharp objects, phallic things and columns in addition to the almost endless succession of constructivist assemblages, and as a glimmer of amorous narrative, female figures and nudes, from voyeuristic photographs peeping at panties through paraphrases of Nike of Samothrace or the Statue of Liberty.
Or – if my hunch is correct – through 11 pictures we see the face and eye movement of Marina Tsvetaeva in a photo series of a girl frozen into a poetic pose, more precisely, of The Poetess. Countless images evoke misery, torture, death, the inferno of dictatorships and of course their dull weekdays, pettiness, pitifulness and forlornness.
The album plays not only with the diversity of styles, genres, colours and quotations, but it also exploits the possibilities in the number, sequentiality and size of the images. The alternation of solo images is often followed by short or longer series of smaller and larger photographs, which sometimes show a given figure in a kind of animated sequence.
This rhizome of nearly five hundred images is never boring or monotonous for a second, with counterpoints, internal rhymes, associations, allusions or the lack thereof working flawlessly. Similarly to novels, the book is composed from beginning to end, with internal rhymes operating not only through a 10-page scope but also across hundreds of pages. In other words, the entire corpus of images is thoroughly selected and woven together, which is also a heroic, epic endeavour in case of such a large volume.
The Eastern European hero/figure/face that the book intends to delineate is constantly hovering on the border of reality and fiction. Only in the last, or if you please, the first chapter do we catch a glimpse of the face of a male model for the first and only time – the photographer himself. Moreover, we find a painted sculptural figure that we recognise from somewhere else, which we know was made to order by the author on the basis of József Csáky’s lost Portrait of a Man, but with his specific request that his own facial features also be represented in the sculpture. The sculpture serves as a mirror in itself and indicates the historical, fictional, personal and transpersonal nature of Puklus’s work. The same chapter contains the only authentic historical requisite of the book, which is a photograph of an open book with a portrait of Ceausescu. This, of course, is another powerful reference to the fact that the entire volume can be read in an autobiographical context, as Puklus was born in Cluj, Romania, in the Ceausescu era.
Puklus’s history, of course, is an enigmatic work, as it operates with images without even attempting the impossible, which is to assign fixed meaning to them. Then again, this is precisely what endows the book with freshness and diversity, continuously triggering the possibility, or rather the desire to re-read and re-view.
The album is a heavy, complex, and yet poetic and light work, by all means a, but rather the, most significant achievement of contemporary Hungarian photography, and fortunately, judging from its success and reviews, it has already made serious international impact as well, even though the book was only published in the second half of 2016.
Péter Puklus: The Epic Love Story of a Warrior. SPBH Editions, London, England, 2016.