Bartók 32 Galéria

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Kada - Elek Is
March 21. - April 13. 1997.

One peculiarity of Bartók 32 Gallery is that while it is located on the ground-floor, it still takes a while for the visitor to reach the exhibition space from the street — through the gate, the courtyard, verandah, then through the door and a smaller corridor. Therefore, the exhibitor’s barring the entrance of the exhibition space and making the visitors view the show from the doorstep wouldn’t have been so surprising anywhere else. Of course, there is more to it than that. The visitor was directed onto a wooden platform (built on the doorstep); however, even by stepping over the fence of this lookout-tower commodity it was impossible to comfortably access the exhibition space save with the anxiety which overcomes one when intruding somewhere unauthorised. No sign prohibited entering the space, it wasn’t forbidden — only made difficult. In other words, the obstacle only restricted viewing the exhibition for those who did not want to or could not climb over the fence. They were compensated by a pair of binoculars hanging from the fence. 

Those who looked around with the binoculars had the added excitement of voyeurism, and were really surprised to see that on a picture on the wall opposite somebody was also gazing through the first floor window of an old building: the current Mayor of Budapest. Thus, if not earlier, by discovering the peering fellow, one did not fail to realize that the consecutive pictures placed at the bottom of the walls were cityscapes, and so the entire exhibition was constructing a model of a city-of-a-sort, and this city-of-a-sort was Budapest. 

This panorama of the city, however, presented the most undistinctive view of Budapest, primarily comprising housing estates built in the 70s. Looking at these concrete blocks it is hardly obvious whether it is really Budapest the pictures portray — due to the fact that the same housing estates can be found in Hungary’s large provincial towns, as well as in the suburbs of any neighbouring, ex-communist country — let alone the difficulty of deciding which district of Budapest a given picture was from? From Kőbánya? Újpest? Or Józsefváros, or is it Csepel?  Only the pictures of three or four familiar neighbourhoods, or rather the Mayor, conjured up in the afore mentioned situation, hinted that it might nevertheless be Budapest.

Choosing these cityscapes clearly implies that the majority of the capital’s population does not come from Budapest, but rather, from these housing estates; and that they only come to Budapest to shop and/or to work, consequently they are visiting guests in those districts which constitute the Budapest of our memories, known from postcards or from TV. But what does Budapest offer its residents? And what is it that it doesn’t offer in the same way to the residents of the housing estates? It is apparent that housing estates standardise the public places in our immediate environment, and the more comfortable an housing estate is —the school, the kindergarten, the playground, the surgery, the restaurant, the café, the supermarket, the cultural centre, etc. — the more it captivates its residents, for it is more likely that the inhabitants become imprisoned by their own comfort and daily fatigue. What gets lost? The involvement in those public places of Budapest, which still enable this city to identify with itself and its own past. Also, the kind of activity with which the city’s continuity is containable and shapable. 

If the housing estates surrounding the city are ghettos in that sense, then the historical Budapest itself is the opposite, and the exhibition turns this situation inside out by presenting this housing-estate landscape from the lookout built on the doorstep. 

Since the turn of the century Budapest has grown to become the largest city besides Moscow, Berlin and Rome. It is larger than Vienna or Zurich. This phenomenon has been rendered paradoxical by the fact that the growth of the Hungarian capital has been in inverse proportion to the reduction of the country’s area. Due to the decrease of the country’s territory to its third, as a result of the peace treaty following the First World War, Budapest — which had been smaller than Vienna at the turn of the century - has become the largest city in the area. After the war immigration begun not only from the annexed territories but also from the countryside, as a consequence of economic hardships and impoverishment following the war. As the agglomeration of towns was further increased, following the Second World War, by nationalisation and by the industrial and agricultural structural changes, the resulting situation is that every fifth Hungarian resides in Budapest. However, thus inflated, the metropolis has not been able to integrate as real citizens the people settling for various reasons, and it seems that neither is the new republic managing to remedy these economic, social and political problems better than its predecessors. Meanwhile, the internal or hidden unemployment, which emerged during the previous political era, has become apparent; due to further structural changes the country’s economic productivity has fallen back compared to former conditions — and so the impoverishment of the habitants has risen enormously. In spite of the deepening social problems, social expenditures have been reduced both in relative and absolute terms, and as a consequence, crime has skyrocketed and currently is almost three times higher than it had been immediately preceding the political changes. Considering that this process is correlative, moreover self-generating, it is impossible to change it from one moment to the other: as we have got into it — however horrible it is — we must live with it as long as we are unable to change it. And of course, even if we really would like to change it, it would be easier to find the solution for making it bearable, at least, in the meantime. 

It is interesting in this context, that in all of the pictures at the exhibition there are inscriptions, which, in most cases, have been installed over the top or in front of the depicted buildings, remaining nevertheless well-distinguished from the incidental original inscriptions photographed in these magnificent landscapes. For example, on one of the depicted building’s concrete wall, closest to us there is a graffiti: the initials of one of the political party in the parliament. Replacing the letter “D” in middle — standing for ‘democratic’ — there is a David-Star. Elek has altered the view by putting a line of capital letters — using rubber stamps sold as children’s toys — over the upper side of the wall, as if it were a layout for a neon sign, reading: Jew-abusers are stupid! Among the landscapes of the housing estates some Stalin-baroque groups of buildings also appear, as well as a footbridge or a MOL petrol station representing the most recent architecture.

On the top of the concrete blocks — on which, up to now, neon-signs were scarce — there are other designs for signs such as: Fried chicken takes the side of the weak! Or: missing fellows! Or: It’s good to see that the world still exist! Or: more fantasy for the politicians! Or: the poor little ones who wear out and resign! Or: The poor are the niggers of Europe! Or: And bicycle stink emanates in from outside. Or: I thought you were sleeping! On top of the above mentioned petrol station the sign says: There is a beautiful apple in my pocket. Elsewhere the sign asks: Emotional colony? Or: With a servile soul? It is possible to find the odd one out among the pictures, such as a hunter rowing in a boat amongst the reeds, shooting away at what is supposedly a wild-goose. There is a sign on the side of his boat: delete what is non-applicable! 

These signs don’t require any specific comment in the given context, especially since they are comments themselves in their own visual context. Yet this time, the story is not given by the sum total of these signs, but — as the utopia of an alternative common thinking — by the everyday reflections of the locals and the passers-by. They are the veritable gems of the kind of reflection that unconsciously speaks in all of us when alone, and as a continuous inner monologue comments and reflects automatically upon the reality in ourselves and around us.  

There is a problem with the socialisation of our municipal public places (I have already written my own reflections about the issue in The neeeeeeeeew public sculpture and the pipe (see Balkon 1996/9.), and Kada explained in his booklet of Small discourse on civilization conceived in ennui, which was published by Óbuda Társaskör Gallery on the occasion of his 1996 exhibition. 

This is not the first time that Elek has chosen Budapest as a subject matter. Let me refer, for example, to the volume of Who is going to write the Kama Sutra of getting fucked over? published and distributed by the author in 1988, or, for example, to such street performances as the begging action with the sign Collecting for a villa on Rózsadomb (1988), or to the series of performances entitled Recapturing Budapest (1993). In 1988 he was beaten up at the Fifth District (namely, Szalai utca) Police Station for his begging action. As a matter of fact, authorities at the time could not distinguish a street action from real begging, and accordingly beggars were beaten up mercilessly — as attested, unfortunately, by Pista Elek’s back. ...which was why poverty didn’t exist at that time, whereas now one’s free to do anything... Hungary is a free country by now, with the same prevailing crisis that had already existed between the wars and after the Second World War, and which all of the domestic political establishments (and there have already been a few during this century!) have so far been unable to tackle. 

These are the main outlines of Elek’s exhibition at the Bartók 32 Gallery, which, at the same time, serve as the interpretation of why or to what extent Budapest has become a recurring subject of these otherwise (and in Elek’s case always) verbally powerful events. 

If we try to place and understand this exhibition within his oeuvre, we can praise him for duly restraining himself. And because he left considerably less to the instruction than to the effort he put into those additional factors such as the dramaturgy of an exhibition, this show was not only captivating and witty, but also his best ever. As well as being a true delicacy among the exhibitions presented elsewhere in recent years. The opening was made memorable by the free McElek sandwiches: one slice of bread in between two slices of freshly fried pork fried in breadcrumbs...

Tibor Várnagy

Translation: Helga László

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