Kicsiny Balazs is one the most prominent Hungarian artists today. He is mainly renowned for his Venice Biennale pavilion from 2005, when he was chosen to representHungary, a pavilion that was truly on of the best of that edition. But his career and oeuvre are far too complex to be reduced to this single, albeit quite spectacular endeavour, spanning more that twenty – five years of significant presence both on the Hungarian and on the international art scene.

At a first glance, the best term to describe Kicsiny’s artistic production might appear to be “installation art”. But, with him, just as an anthropomorphic shape is never simply a sculpture, in the classical meaning of the word (namely, a three – dimensional art object that is to be admired), an installation is never simply an ensemble of shapes that come together to produce meaning. Thus, his installations address the viewer in a very engaging manner, sometimes looking like frozen performances, other times like uncanny props from a theatre show of a director passionate about surrealism. In a way, most of his major works, from Winterreise to Migrating Interpretation, from Permanent Landing to Exact Time, relate to the notion of performative utterance, in the very direct meaning of the concept. Thus, they are present and they act by their presence itself, they do something in the world, rather then saying something about it to the viewer. In other words, they tend to generate experience, rather than meaning.

For his first solo show in Romania, Kicsiny Balazs proposes, at Bazis gallery from the Paintbrushes Factory in Cluj, a project that reveals precisely the above mentioned characteristics of his art. Titled The Art of Self – justification, the show at Bazis touches on topics such as the relationship between signs and interdictions, the conventional character of communication and the oppressive nature of power, manifested in standardization. An immersive installation, Kicsiny’s project represents, at the same time, an open invitation to reflection on such issues and a challenge addressed to the spectator to go beyond visual pleasure or fascination, in order to take a glimpse at the menaces it alludes to.

The installation comprises five anthropomorphic figures rather dimly lit by a light bulb placed just above the centre of the quite regular composition of the work. Four human silhouettes, wearing fluorescent vests and strange, bucket – like or hive – like helmets over their heads, each perform somewhat mysterious, yet eerily banal gestures using the two small flags with black and white squares they hold in their hands. The four surround a downed character, faceless and entirely covered in black and white squares, as two buckets presumably recently emptied of paint are lying on the floor, just next to this strange body. One is white and has the word fekete (Hungarian for black) written on it in black letters, the other one is, yes, black and has the word feher (Hungarian for white) written on it in white letters. The dim light engulfs the whole scene and provides the ensemble with an eerie quality, making it appear somewhat ritualistic and at the same time intriguingly menacing.

The most characteristic features of Kicsiny’s art are displayed by the immersive installation at Bazis. Among them, it is truly striking the carefully planned, one rightfully suspects, semantic ambiguity they rely upon. In this respect, the conscious choice of visual elements that embed a particularly broad symbolic content, which makes the artwork susceptible to various hermeneutic approaches, can be probably considered to be one of the most prominent strength of the Hungarian’s art. Take into consideration the black and the white, for example. In a certain context, in a certain socio – political environment, the viewer might be immediately tempted to read their use as a reference to racial issues. Change the context and allusions to colliding social ideologies or historical theories might appear to be the main signified in the mind of many (it suffices to think about “white Hungarians” and “black Hungarians” and to the potential for generating controversy such notions possess). But, equally justifiable, in almost any context, more or less corny, more or less existentialist reflections on the fundamental duality of human nature and of the complementary condition of opposites can be encouraged by the same visual items, as there is a perpetually ambiguous interplay between the realm of the political and that of the metaphysical that occurs in Kicsiny’s works.

The same goes for the use of the other elements composing the installation at Bazis, like, for example, the strangely hooded human figures. Are they to be viewed as metaphorical figures signifying communicational conventions that, on one hand, make civilization possible and on the other hand narrow the possibility of unconventional, emotionally charged communication? Or are they rather epitomizing the oppressive character of conventions, stemming from the very abstractness and arbitrariness of power, in a Foucauldian perspective? Are their flags, with their uncanny stillness, semantically alluding to interdictions, to guidance or the somewhat morbid meaninglessness of parades? All these interpretations are equally at hand for the spectator, but it is precisely their equal degree of availability that kind of makes the hermeneutical choice either impossible or futile. The semantic richness, as well as the semantic fuzziness, is emphasized by the discrete lighting of the frozen scene. There is no melancholia caused by the shabby light, but rather we are confronted with an almost irritating, unreservedly staged atmosphere of film noire.

Summing up, one could say they Kicsiny Balasz’s work incites the viewer to a tantalizing search for meaning and for metaphor, while at the same time engulfing him or her in the ambiguous atmosphere of the installation itself, one that rather provokes a feeling of unease than gets one’s mind to reflect upon conceptual issues. Thus, for this and all the above reasons, his art displays perversity as its core feature. It is not a malevolent type of perversity and certainly not a sensorially based or related one. Rather, we are faced with a sort of almost purely intellectual perversity, as his works manipulate the viewer without even possessing a specific target of the manipulation they operate. What his installations, The Art of Self – Justification included, perform is a highly paradoxical open ended manipulation, in the case of which one is eerily left to “freely” opt for the particular direction towards which he or she prefers to be manipulated. In a way, all the leads provided by the artwork are equally rewarding paths and dead ends. Nevertheless, this is probably the kind of perversity embedded, more or less obviously, in any artistic endeavour that is truly problematic, without screaming its problematic status out loud. And I suspect that the playful, intellectually sparkling and calmly confident Kicsiny I’ve met in Cluj is quite pleased with this outcome.

 

For video of the installation, go to http://www.bazis.ro/GALLERY%20BAZIS/Kicsiny%20Balazs%202011/KicsinyBalazs2011.html

I teach in an art university. I therefore have frequent conversations with art students about art, contemporary art practices, art in Romania, the possible future of art and artists and so on. I need, as probably does any teacher in the field of art and / or humanities, examples of role models which to present to my students. I use the example of such personalities to motivate them, to provide them insights into the profession, to make them realize that outstanding achievements, of one sort or another, are within grasp, even if or when circumstances might appear adverse. I definitely have reasons to thank Berszan Zsolt for offering me a compelling model to refer to.
He graduated art school and returned to his home town of Miercurea Ciuc only to find himself trapped into the somewhat typical small town’s cultural ataraxia and lack of appeal and understanding for contemporary forms of visual art (maybe even for art in general). Quite soon he understood that he had to fight really hard in order to avoid the perspective of becoming just another talented and vivid young artist turned into a dull and self-sufficient, locally acknowledged producer of kitsch or of tamed, dusty and irrelevant art. Berszan’s response to that perspective was to get associated with other artists in order to form a group which got both culturally and socially involved in the life of the community and visible outside it.

Thus, he started editing (in collaboration with a very few colleagues) an art magazine. It all began with four sheets of black and white printed paper, yet managed to become, in several years, a real effective means of recording contemporary art events in Romania. The magazine’s progress was made possible by the generous, yet far from effortlessly gained support of private businesses in the region. He got involved into the project of building up an exhibition space for contemporary art in the centre of town, a space which hosted, during its unfortunately short existence, the works of some of the most remarkable (young) Romanian artists at the time. He travelled around the country to distribute the free magazine at various art institutions: soon enough, everybody knew Zsolt; everyone became aware of the existence of “the boy(s) from Miercurea Ciuc”.

Relentlessly, Berszan also travelled abroad, to Hungary, to Vienna, to Venice, in an effort to keep in touch with what’s going on in international art, to establish professional contacts with significant institutions who were dealing with contemporary art, to document important events and to show that documentation to anyone back at home which might have been interested. As far as his art was concerned, it got compelling enough to persuade one of Romania’s top curators, Liviana Dan, to work with him for a solo show in Sibiu in 2008, at the Gallery for contemporary art of the Brukenthal National Museum. Now, he exhibits his strange and elegant sculptures and installations at MODEM Debrecen, clearly one of the most prestigious and coherent institutions focused on modern and contemporary art that exist in Hungary today.
“Genesis project” is the largest and most ambitious solo show that Berszan Zsolt realized so far. The generous space at MODEM certainly helped him in this endeavour, being fully adequate to host rather large scale works such as the artist’s recent sculptures and installations. The works boldly tackle ambitious topics such as the origin of life, the cycle of life bursting and decay, the elemental structure of the living. His art displayed in the Debrecen show artistically dissects that structure, trying to metaphorically reveal the basic components, the primary drives and mechanisms of life. It also aims at circumscribing, in a visually powerful manner, a certain western philosophical and scientific vision of it, namely the modern, analytical, microscopic and process – based understanding of the realm of the living.
The central motif of “Genesis project” is the worm, the maggot. In various forms, more or less explicit visual metamorphoses of the worm stand as metaphors of the cycle of life. The worm is, for Berszan, its basic agent: the maggot’s action marks the end of a life form, the termination of a complex, evolved organism. But, at the same time, the devouring action of the worm is what plants the seeds of the rejuvenation of life. The worm sends life back to its basis, forces it to literally start again. In this light, it becomes obvious that a dialectic view pervades the exhibition at MODEM. As its curator, Gerda Széplaky, puts it, “Genesis project” is first and foremost about „the way death leads to new life. In the micro-world of maggots (that one can visit thanks to art, leaving our human macrocosm behind) one may wonder at the powers of genesis residing within demise, at the breathtaking circle of the reproduction of life.”
The stuff Berszan uses to build up his works is mainly base industrial materials. As he’s been doing for a few years now, he creatively deploys concrete, aluminium, but mostly polyurethane foam and silicone in order to shape a quite personal array of sculptural volumes. They are painted black and the resulting monochrome look –altered only by the silvery aluminium elements that form the compositional structure of some of the works in “Genesis project”– is quite mesmerising. There are, in a very appealing manner, both minimalist and visually rich, they possess a strong tactile dimension as well as an elegantly unctuous appearance. The difficulties thus amount for Berszan’s art: the use of black monochrome language has a rather long and certainly revered history in modernist and contemporary art. Take this into account, and then remember the sheer seriousness of the topics dominating the show: you’ll get a pretty good image of the breadth and the honesty of his artistic ambition, which I believe is one of Berszan Zsolt’s most valuable assets. One of the things “Genesis project” shows is that, fortunately, his recent sculptures, installations and environments have the potential to live up to this ambition.
The display of the exhibition involves three separate, yet communicating spaces. By far the most spectacular is the small room at the end of the exhibition’s itinerary, which was entirely transformed into an environment: an overall, shining black structure of polyurethane foam and silicone is enveloping the viewer entering it. It offers the opportunity of a symbolic, yet acutely tactile journey into the warm, fragile “worm’s belly”, it provides the chance of a delightfully immersive experience for the exploring viewer. Yet, it is still the central and most generous room that hosts some of Berszan’s most compelling works he ever produced, the silicone worm alluding shapes horizontally displayed in rectangular, low profile aluminium frames and covered by a thin layer of water. When the display was being realized, the chemical components present in the water from the city of Debrecen unexpectedly interacted with the pigments the artist had used, changing the chromatic appearance of the sculptural shapes. Berszan has redone all the affected works, except for one, which was left as a reminder of this fortuitous semantic enrichment of the sculptures.
Perhaps the liveliest impression left by the art he produced during the last several years, impression which is strongly reinforced by the solo show at MODEM Debrecen, is that of growth, of development. It is truly remarkable how he was able to conceptually refine his artistic production, how his use of materials became increasingly meaningful and more visually poignant, how his understanding of the means and the context of contemporary art has become more and more mature. Berszan Zsolt has evolved in a very steady, personally adequate rhythm, from producing an art that was strong and charming, yet probably excessively subordinated to a neo – expressionistic paradigm, to proposing a more personal, more appealing and considerably more challenging artistic production. He convincingly evolved from being an artist in a group and a cultural promoter to being first and foremost an artist to be reckoned with on his own.

Dara Birnbaum was little more than a name for me until very recently. I knew she was kind of a typical American feminist artist, that she started her career during the seventies and that she uses mass media type imagery in order to critically assess the mechanisms of mass communication and the structures of various “modern mythologies” which pervade our contemporary era. That was pretty much all the knowledge I had about the artist until viewing “The Dark Matter of Media Light”, a Birnbaum retrospective show at Fundação Serralves, the main space for contemporary visual art in the city of Porto. Therefore, at least for me, the first and foremost merit of the exhibition displayed by the Portuguese venue is that it truly offers a compelling and coherent image of the oeuvre produced by a savvy, genuinely challenging and acutely intelligent artist.
“The Dark Matter of Media Light” implied a remarkable curatorial and logistic effort, being the result of the collaboration between the Fundação Serralves and the reputed Stedelijk Museum voor Actuele Kunst in Gent, as well as of the joint professional endeavour of the curators Philippe Van Cauteren and João Fernandes. What resulted was a survey of fairly three decades of artistic production, not very ingeniously, but coherently enough displayed. All retrospective – type exhibitions do present the risk of looking a bit didactic and the show at Fundação Serralves is not avoiding entirely that risk; however, the main goal of the show, that of meaningfully presenting a quite impressive artist, is fully attained.
Undoubtedly, television is one of the main media of communication which shaped the realm of the imaginary during the last several decades. Probably that is an essential motivation for Dara Birnbaum to approach television as one of the main sources, in both conceptual and visual terms, of her artistic production. Her best known work in this respect is undoubtedly the video piece titled Technology / Transformation: Wonder Woman. The work uses some (key) images from the once famous TV series about a feminine character who has supernatural powers, while still having a very normal, commonplace professional life. The resemblance to wider acknowledged character of Superman is quite obvious, and one achieved goal of the montage Dara Birnbaum has build up is underlining precisely the inadequacy of Wonder Woman in terms of specific female identity, showing a male mental frame being imposed on a supposedly neat female role model. On another level, the work poignantly reveals the profoundly artificial character of all media images, television being a flagrant case.
The same artistic intentions lay at the base of another spectacular work in the show, namely Tapestry for Donna: elegy. A whole room is taken over by Birnbaum’s installation, composed, first of all, of video images of a Belgian radio star projected both on a wall and on a horizontally placed screen. In the last case, the video sequence, formed by images of typical gestures of the personage, are superimposed on a shimmering grid -like image that closely resembles a weaving machine. A soundtrack collaged out of fragments of radio jingles and musical hits fills the room, while on two opposite walls three large sixteenth century tapestries are accompanying the video piece. A whole array of visual and conceptual items alluding to feminism and media criticism are easily identified: the traditionally gender charged profession of weavers, the challenges women working in the field of media have to face, both in terms of gender clichés and of consumerist clichés and so on. Still, what can be considered to be a main flaw in Dara Birnbaum’s artistic endeavours can also be identified here: an excess of rhetoric, a tendency of offering more hints than necessary in order to lead us to the meaning, to the rather simple metaphors she often uses. Thus, the old tapestries on the walls are totally unnecessary props, rather spectacular than meaningful, bringing a useless plus of visual information without really contributing to the conceptual poignancy that is supposed to be the artist’s main focus in such works.
Related to the former affirmations, one can also add, on the other hand, simplicity and directness are not necessarily signs of meaningfulness and some of the works in the show at Fundação Serralves are also proving this, their value thus being downplayed. A significant example in this respect is the installation Flags: Occupied Territories. Hanging from the ceiling of a rather long hallway in the museum there are sixteen two-sided flags: the United States’ stars and stripes are on the one side of each of them, while the reverse is different for each one, namely displaying the national emblems of every country in the world where U. S. troops were stationed at the beginning of the 21st century. Now, I’m definitely not a fan of American foreign policies of the last decade and of the hegemonic attitude of the U.S., as so many people in the art world aren’t, too; yet, I can hardly believe that any such naïve, pointlessly funny and facile displays of critical stance could ever be politically effective or artistically poignant.
The best works Dara Birnbaum produces in explicit relation to the political field are using the idea and the practices of documentation. The whole mindset of what a documentary film can be is challenged by her Canon: Taking to the Streets. Part I: Princeton University – Take Back the Night. The documentary is released in 1990 and acknowledges the manifestations that took place in the Princeton campus a few years earlier, when significant groups of students took action via meetings, discussions, rallies etc. against the misogynistic and / or sexist attitudes female students were facing, from social and professional exclusion to sexual harassment. Fragments of conversations, scenes from the night rallies (many of them filmed in dim light), and textual insertions are mixed, the result being a very dynamic piece of video. The message is plain and clear, the visual unfolding produces no moments of boredom and the black and white rendering is authentically conferring the piece both sobriety and elegance. Thus, the work is a truly provocative, cutting edge example of what can be truly coined as artistic documentary.
Documentation of political events is the topic also tackled by Birnbaum’s installation Hostage. Several TV monitors are suspended from the ceiling in a straight, obliquely oriented alignment. A torso shaped, partly transparent shooting target is installed in front of each of the screens, on which images are looping. The images themselves are documenting the way the American mass media reflected the tragic events of the terrorist episode that took place in Germany, in 1977, which resulted among others in the kidnapping and killing of Hans – Martin Schleyer, President of the Confederation of German Employers’ Associations. The images on the screens freeze every time a viewer intersects the laser beam which runs along the installation. As it was the case with Tapestry for Donna: Elegy, there is a feeling of an unnecessary mounting of visual props. Still, the work remains clever and constitutes an appealingly interactive meditation on the structures of media discourse, as well as on cultural differences with regard to the perception of political facts. It is true that, to me at least, Dara Birnbaum’s work is made more interesting and culturally relevant when set in relation with Gerhardt Richter’s well known black and white painting circumscribing the same tragic and turbulent political events (the so called Baader – Meinhoff series).
More than anything, “The Dark Matter of Media Light” is a show that proves that if one wants to know Birnbaum at her best, one has to pay attention to her art works which combine the use of video and / or photographic images with the realm of the performative. Erwartung is directly and truly courageously referring to the opera piece by the same title, composed by the revolutionary musician Arnold Schoenberg to a libretto by Marie Pappenheim. A single protagonist is anxiously looking for her lover in the night, only to find his dead body, to start desperately accusing him of cheating and of lack of emotional commitment and to finally lament her present faith. Birnbaum produces a simple yet refined and seductive installation, projecting slowly changing images of a feminine silhouette and captions extracted from the above mentioned libretto onto a surface with slightly mirroring properties. Some stage design sketches by Schoenberg are printed in large size on the surface and the room is only lighted by the projector’s beam. The artist manages to create a charming, almost hypnotic environment for staging a delightfully lyric meditation on the social and ontological status of the woman.
A somewhat similar approach to feminine identity, feelings and dramas can be identified in the black and white video piece Chair anxiety: slewed. A woman performer, most of the time being filmed only from the waist down, is engaged in a dense and tensed choreographic interaction with a chair. The directness of the video approach combines with the sheer expressivity of the unusual dance performance to produce a convincing, emotionally charged work of art.
Finally, by far the masterpiece in the exhibition is the so called Attack Piece, produced in 1975, which is a work I strongly believe that can be included among the most important art pieces produced in the American seventies. On two opposite walls are projected the images –photographic and video, respectively– resulted of a performative action, which involved the artist and four friends (among them, Dan Graham). The performance consisted in a playful confrontation between Birnbaum who is “defending” a territory by taking photos, 35 mm slides, namely, in front of her friends who advance from various directions towards her and filming the scene with their Super 8 cameras. The realm of the performative, the medium specificity of photography and video, the critical analyses of both via staged confrontational actions are the topics acutely intelligent alluded to in the work, while the visual result is really compelling. More than any other piece in “The Dark Matter of Media Light”, Attack Piece persuades the perceptive viewer that Dara Birnbaum can be a genuinely forceful and intellectually fascinating artist.

Note: for visual information about Dara Birnbaum’s works and the exhibition, go to http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wQQ-ss2rzuU&feature=related, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DJk9MXyCJLQ&feature=related,

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d4Ru6hM2ZbM&feature=related.