This article was published in the framework of the project The Most Beautiful Catastrophe and was supported by IVF.
Since the Anthropocene epoch has officially been announced, it would be hard to deny that the negative effect of human intervention in the World reached a very high level.
George Monbiot’s opinion piece, published in The Guardian – The Earth is in a death spiral. It will take radical action to save us – describes the present situation insightfully when summarizing: “Climate breakdown could be rapid and unpredictable. We can no longer tinker around the edges and hope minor changes will avert collapse.”[i] Monbiot draws attention to the theory of social historian Kevin McKay, who believes that global catastrophes are facilitated by the short term interests of the power elite which are radically different from the long-term interests of the society, so they cannot even be convinced with rational reasons. Monbiot concludes his piece with stating that the fight for democracy and justice is the same as the fight against environmental breakdown. Until we do not change the elite, no large-scale changes might start.[ii]
It is worth going back a few years to find the answer to the question about the extent and the kinds of strategies artists use in Hungarian contemporary art to deal with ecological problems, and with the – recently very fashionable – notion of the Anthropocene. Even though the different non-anthropocentric philosophies, like speculative realism or object-oriented ontology, have not been introduced to the Hungarian contemporary art scene as strongly as elsewhere, it is still obvious that in the past few years numerous contemporary artists have been dealing consciously and consistently with the relationship of art and ecology.
Places for (un)learning
Two important critical venues and series of events have contributed to this process recently. One of them can be connected to art historians Maja and Reuben Fowkes; their activities cannot be missed in this field. They held exhibitions, talks, workshops, conferences in their institution, Translocal Institute. Also started to organize, mostly for university students, a reading circle and university course between 2014 and 2016 which was dealing with the changed world we live in, and with the position of art in the Anthropocene epoch through different subtopics and emphasized groups of problems.[iii] These events have contributed to the mentioned theories reaching a younger audience in the country; moreover, scientific work of the Translocal Institute is unique in the academic life.
Another important ambition came from the group of young artists and curators coming from FKSE [SYYA – Studio of Young Artists’ Association] in 2017. Their work began as an exhibition preceded by reading circles then followed by excursions, field trips and further reading circles. The concept of Gideon R. Horváth, Anna Zilahi, Miklós Zsámboki, and Rita Süveges who joined the group later, was the bases of the xtro realm series which intends to deal with philosophical schools like speculative realism and materialism, object-oriented ontology, or non-anthropocenism and their effect on art, and to introduce them to the public.[iv] The group exhibition by Hungarian artists in fall of 2017 displayed mainly recently created artistic reflexions to the problems proposed by these ideas.[v]
The above-mentioned critical workshops and communities deepened the sensitivity towards the subject that – as I indicated before – already concerned numerous artists. Creating categories and defining types is always a subjective process, and it will become clear in this case as well that these categories could be established so that later on they could overlap and the different attitudes could be connected, mixed with each other. However, if we try to group the different artistic strategies, a tendency can be recognized that puts plants, animals, other living creatures or even inanimate objects and their perspective in the focus as a counter-point of the world ruled by man (as a criticism of the human-centred world), or discusses again such dividing notions as the endangered living creatures or the invasive species. Many times flora or certain forced out groups of nature are the ones that get in the spotlight, and it provides a great opportunity to talk about broader social problems through this micro perspective – for example that of the invasive species.
The perspective of plants
The project of Kitti Gosztola and Bence György Pálinkás (Emigrant Melodies, 2016; Global Villager Instruments, 2017; Wild Garden Utopia, 2018) went through numerous transformations during the different exhibitions in recent years. The main theme however always remains the same. Their work dealing with the so-called non-native invasive species is one of the most exciting endeavours in the subject of art and ecology in Hungarian contemporary art, which examines questions like the dichotomy of useful and harmful in the wildlife or the phenomenon of the so-called eco-xenophobia through introducing such “fugitive” plants as the ailanthus or the acacia. The invasive species that got to new places through human intervention and have bred rapidly are one of the most serious problems of ecology. As Gosztola and Pálinkás highlight it, today we are at the point when the EU has issued an order based on economic calculations about the eradication of certain species, although according to many, eradication of a species is not an economical but an ethical question. In their long-term project, the artists explore and rethink the history and utilization of these plants, so that they can talk about social problems like migration or xenophobia through the combination of reality and fiction and with the help of different community projects.
The project was first displayed in Ludwig Museum, Budapest on the exhibition about the relationship of Béla Bartók and contemporary art. The idea was born here to make various instruments (flute, pipe) of Japanese knotweed, ailanthus or acacia, drawing the attention to the easiest way plants around us can be turned into instruments, musical tools. In the exhibition The Flying Kayak of the 2017 OFF-Biennále Budapest, the collaboration-based work process, the workshop-like nature became emphasized and the artists worked together with woodworker Fanni Hegedűs. Together with the participants they created instruments that were then placed in the library room of the Konkoly Observatory of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences. Most recently the project has been displayed again in a new version in Kisterem Gallery’s group exhibition Travelling with a Blind Map, this time entitled as Wild Garden Utopia. In the focus of this exhibition (and of the workshops held together with it) remained only one plant, the Japanese knotweed, the harmful effect of which paradoxically is that it damages the concrete foundations of houses, upsetting the stability we identify with home. First, on the opening we could only see a sheaf resembling a tent in the space, made of freshly gathered Japanese knotweed, then, during the time of the show the exhibiting space became filled continuously with objects created during weekend workshops – instruments, small huts, shelters have been created and displayed that ironically broke the calmness of the white cube. Finally, a video was projected about the process. This also evoked a dystopian world, which the artists will continue in 2019 during a residency program on Jersey Island. The way the artists summarized the project makes it clear that they took the problem seriously but in the same time played upon this utopian plan with ironic gestures: “Wild Garden Utopia takes place in a world reviving from the ashes of a vanished ecosystem that is dominated by the Japanese knotweed as a pioneer species. This plant means the resources for humans for survival, so they try to utilize it as widely as possible. Although the plant damaging infrastructure is harmful from an anthropocentric point, but according to the new thermodynamic approach of ecological systems, every ecosystem thrives for entropy and reaches a stabile state in the long-run. No species can resist this necessity. In our utopia, instead of eco-xenophobic demonization and eradication, we handle it as free energy and basic material in order for redefining ourselves as parts of the ecosystem for rethinking our notions of nature.”[vi] [vii]
Kitti Gosztola deals with the relationship of man and nature, human abuse, and exploitation of nature in her individual works for a long time. Her series Right Tree – Right Place (2013-14) systematizes through sensitive drawings the way tree crowns near electric cables get removed, and how this action leads to the slow death of the tree. We see fragile “portraits” of trees in Gosztola’s series; however both the frame and the piece itself undergo drastic change: each misses a piece.[viii] This intervention fragmenting the image rhymes with the mutilation of the trees because the same piece is missing from the “tree” as the one cut because of the effective placement of the cable. Numerous pieces of Kitti Gosztola could be emphasized, among others her latest 2018 exhibition in Szent István Király Múzeum, Székesfehérvár, which deals with much too current questions, and where “the monument of the world’s production of fossil energy” and “Hell’s cartography” (which shows surprising similarities with mine pits) are present at the same time.[ix]
Dominika Trapp focuses on the question of endangered species and their extinction in a piece created during an Italian residency program, and a plant becomes the main character of her work, as well. In the La caduta di poseidone project (2017) the artist follows the story of the marine eelgrass, many specimen of which – or rather its dead foliage – she discovered during her seaside walks. This is one of the most ancient living organism on Earth which started to become extinct because the steady warming of the sea. In her works Trapp – similarly to the early works of Gosztola – chooses a traditional medium: she created large and detailed drawings of the plant to emphasize its endangered status, its struggle with climate change and to give it some kind of respect. [x]
The most beautiful catastrophe
Dominika Trapp also examined from a broader point of view the problem of climate change – and with this we arrive to the second bigger category in grouping the works, where artists analyse “big notions” like the mentioned climate change, the natural disasters, etc. The focus of her 2016 exhibition in Trapéz Gallery was the coming ecological collapse and its causes. In the artistic concept among others she quotes Jodi Dean; probably the most important point of the American political philosopher’s essay is that she defines three roles in today’s global situation: that of the victim, the observer and the survivor.[xi] She categorizes the artists who critically reflect on the subject matter but also use it for their artistic concepts to the observers. Trapp’s exhibition is not only important because she connected climate change to a specific environment which she created within the exhibition space and to art historical references, but also because she critically questioned her own position. What is the artist’s role, task in this situation? What can the artist reach with an exhibition about the topic of climate change?
The most important piece of the show is a site-specific installation: the soil covering the gallery’s inner space which is supposed to remind us to the dry up, desertification caused by global warming. The installation expanded onto the walls of the room: different graphs, rates or other figures resembling to survey data were painted on them in red, which even without direct information reminded to the increasing, growing of something, suggesting that a certain kind of problem is arising.[xii] At the same time, the almost abstract motives evoke wild gesture painting, as well, referring to the negligence and rejection that many approach climate change with – even if factual information is available and we experience it in our everyday lives, they remain abstract, unexplained notions for many. The paraphrase of three 1930 paintings of Hungarian painter István Farkas is placed here, which according to the artist compares the different “disastrous period” of that time with the present. The apocalyptic visions of Farkas, the landscapes turned to yellow, the flooded areas become even more surreal through Trapp’s interpretations. We see lands ruled by nature and the already strange, discouraging figure of The Fool of Syracuse in a composition similar to Munch’s The Scream seems to make us even more aware that there is nothing to do, the natural disasters are inevitable. In Trapp’s paintings we can see an end-of-the-world scene, where nature is already revolting against man.
Here it is worth to refer back to Kitti Gosztola, whose 2015 Environmental Destruction Camouflage piece shows the effect of wars on nature. The acrylic series was created in the spirit of “militarist abstraction”[xiii]: we see the “landscapes” of such phenomena abstracted into camouflage like the oil fires of Kuwait, the desertified areas or the thinned forests caused by the American chemical weapons employed during the Vietnam War. The covering function of camouflage might remind the viewer that natural disasters caused by military interventions are mostly unknown for the ordinary people.
The research of Rita Süveges focuses on the Anthropocene landscapes around us: the real geographical phenomena in Hungary that if we saw them only in photograph we would think that they were digital manipulations referring to the end of the world, apocalyptic places. Important element of the excursions and field trips organized by the artist is the communality. According to Süveges, she is interested in “the communal ways of sharing knowledge” where “individual experience and the practice of participation are both present.”[xiv] Süveges organized excursions connected to the xtro realm project and she chose for the three events places that are not among the primary touristic destinations, and where the ambivalent effects of human intervention become clear. Probably the “most spectacular” tour was the region of the bauxite mine of Gánt resembling to a Martian landscape. As it is clear from the artist’s description, the spoil tip of the bauxite mine is a landscape injury, i.e. an area that marks the drastic nature of human intervention in the given natural environment. The participants of the trip walked on this strange land, talked about what they had seen and analyzed the former mine’s effects visible even today. Süveges suggests the introduction of the term “toxic sublime” in relation to what was seen and the frequent representation of all this. It marks how the different artworks show the environmental problems in an aestheticized way.[xv] Perhaps Süveges chooses the excursion as a form so that she does not fall into the trap of the “toxic sublime”: the apocalyptic lands lead into reality and bring environmental problems closer to the participants.[xvi]
The limitations of our knowledge
It is worth to mention the work of Gideon R. Horváth, which takes the motives of post-human landscapes further. The piece belongs to a third category, in which the emphasis moves from global processes to smaller scale natural phenomena, and that presents the criticism of anthropocene not through human intervention but rather through our own limits. The No Man’s Land (2017-18) series examines infrared light, which cannot be perceived or seen for the human eye but is always present around us and is essential for the biosphere – many insects and birds sense it. The artist makes the infrared “effect” using a special filter and long-exposure, and by this he creates unheimlich photographs that have a strange atmosphere. Gideon R. Horváth’s lightboxes present the world in a way we humans can never see it. Thanks to the special technique, the captured infrared light generates futuristic landscapes; however, because of the dominance of the reddish pink shades, romantic landscapes unfold in front of our eyes, as well. As the artist puts it, this is the way that makes it clear that these “distant lands and imaginary spaces have always been here next to us”[xvii] – but since we have limitations, they can only be seen with the help of technology.
The works of Anna Zilahi represent another interesting tendency. She creates primarily sound art pieces that introduce a new approach in present discourse. Many pieces could be mentioned here, the most recent for example is concerned with the phenomenon of clouds, but the Objectolindalë displayed on the xtro realm exhibition is exciting especially because of the way it uses sound. The cacophonous, multi-channel sound installation –which is an “assamblage” composed of the sounds of objects, machines and animals, recorded during different field trips – is relevant because instead of the above mentioned apocalyptic visions it reflects to a positive process, namely the sound based creation story of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion. Zilahi was moved by the story because “here the emphasis is on the creating power of the sound instead of the anthropomorphic creator that usually appears in creation stories.”[xviii] The artist is interested in object-oriented ontology and she is questioning human-centeredness, and for this reason it is important to give sound the central role in such a radical gesture as the creation of the world. The artwork was installed at the entrance of Studio Gallery and was operated by a motion sensor: characteristic sounds and noises of Budapest could be heard which resulted in the atmosphere of a city after all.
Tactics of survival
Ádám Albert examines actively the limits of human cognition, the relationship of man and science. In many of his projects he referred to different scientific experiments, phenomena or used scientific metaphors. In the centre of Albert’s works is the question of the cognizability of the world and the construction of knowledge, and his most recent solo exhibition in 2018 in Berlin at the Collegium Hungaricum (The gardener’s truth) examines similar questions, this time starting out from a medical historical point. The focus of the exhibition is the scientific finding of Ignác Semmelweis about the prevention of childbed fever. Semmelweis recognized that mother’s death immediately after giving birth is the result of lack of sterilizing and inadequate hygienic circumstances. Albert’s installation is a black room in which artificial lights, pink, plant growing LED lamps light the plants placed on different metal structures or on the ground. These plants are totally diverse and the ways they have to be taken care of is entirely different as well: there are carnivorous plants among them, requiring special attention and cultivated plants that can be “neglected”. Gergely Nagy’s article proves that the wave-length of the lights of the lamps is the same as that of the sun.[xix] The exhibition transforms into a kind of laboratory, everything can be closely analyzed through a magnifying glass and slowly it becomes clear that through keeping the different plants alive the question of defencelessness and the possibilities of survival are becoming important.
Here we can refer back once again to Semmelweis and his discovery: because he found the reasons of childbed fever, the mortality rate improved, even if only a little, but it put a stop to population decline; however, the providing capacity of Earth did not grow. The cultivated plants of the exhibition refer to this paradox situation, namely: when will we exhaust what the Earth offers? Thus this piece is connected to the works interpreting global problems, like population increase and decrease.
It is not surprising that Kata Tranker already exhibited together[xx] with Ádám Albert, since lately she also examines the relationship of knowledge and power through questions of museum representation and archives. Her works are characterized by reflecting often to the relationship of man and nature, the dispossession of nature frequently for political reasons, not only through the used materials but also thematically. Her 2015 installation entitled Tree planting, which was displayed in Studio Gallery, was built of a wood structure which served as a kind of folding screen with collages on it discussing and presenting the tree planting gestures of politicians on representative occasions. In the ironic piece, today’s highly politicized nature and the monopolizing intention of the authority can be felt, that is usually covered by a nicely sounding commonplace through which tree becomes the means of political intention, depriving it from its own agency. Plant holders are placed on the structure made by the artist, in which she planted bean sprouts; they had to be watered during the exhibition – luckily they survived. The small-scale but symbolic gesture of plant sprouting, reminding us of elementary school tasks, emphasized the process of daily nursing and it radically opposed the politicians’ tree plantings intended to be a grand gesture. On the exhibitions of Ádám Albert and Kata Tranker, plants became the protagonists, they have entered the exhibiting space where their survival becomes the task of the visitors and the guards.
The problem of the use of plastic[xxi] comes to the front in the case of Kata Tranker that is yet again the problem of global pollution. The focus of her solo exhibition in Paksi Képtár was the criticism of museum representation and the notion of nostalgia – our nostalgic attraction towards the beauties of antiquity – and the Greek vase, the shape of the amphora almost became the center figure. Beside the many interesting works, one of the most dominant pieces of the exhibition was an installation of several levels built of PET bottles and OSB panels. The plastic bottles on the top level imitated Greek vases, from which paper plants similar to weeping willow were wiggling. By the ironic material use the amphora lost their dignity, they became frail and they showed a different fragility than their predecessors – the Greek beauty ideal was questioned again. The work that maintained itself with the adequate amount of water, created with reused bottles discussed the problem of pollution as well. Pollution of seas – the association might come because of Greece and the Mediterranean Sea – the question of water supply, the lack of drinking water, the desertification, the seriousness of plastic use and recycling (e.g. plastic free movement) became the focus in a sensitive and ironic way in Tranker’s installation. How far did we get during the last thousand years, what did we do with nature, which even in ancient Greece was so close to people that they honoured the sea or the wind as gods?
In connection with recycling, sustainable development, and returning to nature it is important to mention as a closure one very important figure of Hungarian contemporary art, Tamás Kaszás. In the works of Kaszás, who left the city and works in the countryside, life and art are combined, as he follows similar strategies in both cases. Through the gesture of leaving he is looking for different alternative solutions for survival, he discusses the question of self-sustaining (cultivation, animal husbandry, building his own house), reviving different traditional work processes, and the questions of housing in his installations, objects, films. Kaszás is conscious in this as well: form and content are connected in his works when he uses cheap, recycled materials available for everyone. There is no room to introduce Kaszás’s complex oeuvre within the scope of this essay, but leaving (exodus) and living together with nature as a strategy might show an important way out from today’s critical situation. The questions are: what is the solution, can further alternatives be found? Kaszás tries to answer not only with his artistic practice but also with his way of living, and his philosophy.
[i] George Monbiot: The Earth is in a death spiral. It will take radical action to save us, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/nov/14/earth-death-spiral-radical-action-climate-breakdown?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other&fbclid=IwAR1fK6s-kipEPAyfpMz4-U-UCelOk_rpxEFiAR2DO_pTjoFyxRtUTriHd-k (30.11.2018)
[ii] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/nov/14/earth-death-spiral-radical-action-climate-breakdown?CMP=Share_iOSApp_Other&fbclid=IwAR1fK6s-kipEPAyfpMz4-U-UCelOk_rpxEFiAR2DO_pTjoFyxRtUTriHd-k (30.11. 2018.)
[iii] E.g.: Art in the Age of Anthropocene, What’s Left of Nature: Art and Wilderness in the Antropocene
[iv] They claim that these are „buzzwords of new philosophical strands aimed at questioning the dominant anthropocentric locution of Modernism and the Post-Modern, alongside the fact that our main narratives set the world into a vertical hierarchy where humanity stands on top, subjugating flora, fauna, and the world of the objects.” http://studio.c3.hu/esemenyek/xtro-realm-kiallitasmegnyito/ (30.11.2018)
[v] Of course this has not been the first exhibition in Studio Gallery dealing with the questions of art and ecology: in 2014 the exhibition Anthropoflora was organized (later its sequel in 2015), where three artists, Kitti Gosztola, Gábor Klima an Kata Tranker displayed their works, in which the parallels of environment, wildlife, and social phenomena were emphasized.
[vi] quotation from the artists which appeared in the curatorial text for the exhibition
[vii] Bence György Pálinkás participates in numerous other collaborations. It is important to mention his post-dramatic theater performance Hungarian Acacia, created with Kristóf Kelemen, the starting point of which is the native American plant that was naturalized in Hungary only 300 years ago, and the way it became one of the most general tree in Hungary, and later named a hungaricum by the Hungarian government. In the performance, honoring the acacia that had became a national and political symbol, the authors create a fictive movement, trying to further popularize the tree (ironically) with tree plantings and other ceremonies and to further domesticate it in “Hungarian ground” while recalling the history of the plants naturalization and cultivation. How a foreign species became hungaricum – this is the main question the play raises.
[viii] The frames are made of the same tree as the one depicted in the picture.
[ix] source: the artist’s portfolio
[x] quotation from the artist’s portfolio
[xi] http://trappdominika.hu/index.php?/alone/and-indeed-the-tragedy-of-our-age/, quoting:
Jodi Dean: The Anamorphic Politics of Climate Change
[xii] For example it can show how Earth is warming up thanks to global warming. As an article on Index from November summarized it: „IPCC published its report on Monday about the expectable consequences of the 1,5 Celsius degree warming caused by global warming” – https://index.hu/techtud/2018/10/08/varhato_idojaras_12_ev_mulva_pokol_varhato/ (30.11.2018)
[xiii] quotation from András Heszky, in Kitti Gosztola’s portfolio
[xiv] quotation from Rita Süveges’s University of Fine Art’s ÚNKP (New national honorary award for excellent students) scholarship report (as a PhD candidate)
[xv] quotation from Rita Süveges’s ÚNKP report
[xvi] Rita Süveges reflects to this theme even in her painting practice: in her Pet Planets series she paints toy planets bought in webshops in large dimensions, and because of the size change we become uncertain about what we see. The inaccessibility of the universe changes into an ironic gesture through the planet balls, while the work also points out that with the help of certain technologies everything gets closer and closer to us.
[xvii] quotation from Gideon R. Horváth’s portfolio
[xviii] quotation from Anna Zilahi’s portfolio
[xix] Gergely Nagy: Human is a lonely plant, https://artportal.hu/magazin/maganyos-noveny-az-ember/ (30.11.2018)
[xx] They both had solo shows at Paksi Képtár at the same time in 2017.
[xxi] This problem is relevant also in Dominika Trapp’s La caduta di poseidone project.
Translation by Eszter Greskovics
Cover image: Gideon R. Horváth:No Man’s Land. Photo: courtesy of the artist