To give an insight into the Hungarian art scene I think it’s good to introduce you to the artist who is going to represent the country at one of the most significant events in the art world, at the Venice Biennale. I met with Zsolt Asztalos in a book shop’s cafe close to Budapest’s recently renamed, former Moszkva Square in Buda – that is the hilly side of Hungary’s capital… We spoke about the metaphoric power of unexploded bombs, the search for the human trait, and the importance of going abroad…
Do you regard your participation in the Venice Biennale 2013 as a peak of your career?
Asztalos: I take it as an honor, but I do not want to rest on one’s laurels. I regard it primarily as a challenge and an opportunity. I hope that my work Fired but Unexploded performs well there, and that this opportunity leads to more potentials and visibility on an international level.
How did the audience react to your winning project?
Asztalos: Surprisingly enough, no matter what political side they represent, many people were positive and congratulated me on it.
How did you come to the idea of installing bombs that were fired but not exploded?
Asztalos: It crossed my mind in 2010 when I was listening to the radio and a bomb that had been fired during World War I but did not explode was reported to be found at the foot of one of the Danube bridges. You often hear about bombs of this kind in the news, but only now did I realize the power in them and their symbolism of conflict. In everyday life there are situations that are on the edge of explosion but as they don’t explode we stay alive. These unexploded bombs created the possibility for many people to be born by their predecessors because they were not killed. On the other hand, you can see it negatively as they had kept us frightened for decades with their possible explosion. The exhibition leaves the interpretation completely open and might induce a chain of thoughts in the heads of the audience. Then I thought about adding voices to the bombs; hence you no longer look at them as weapons of destruction but rather as metaphors, as the voices attached to each bomb give the contextual and interpretational structure. What we hear gives a hint to the type of tension contextualized. Hearing voices from a protest and seeing a bomb calls to mind the tension here that has not exploded. Or if one of the partners in a relationship is doing the dishes in silence it relates to the tension in their relationship. It presents how this frustrated tension interweaves our society and our everyday lives, this is what it is meant to express. The bombs were filmed in front of a white background to make them the most artwork-like as possible and abstracted from our everyday reality, and in this way they have become even more metaphoric.
Why didn’t you paint or photograph them instead of recording them to video?
Asztalos: Initially I was thinking of a photo series with a deliberately blank background. Later, in order to emphasize time, I changed my concept and decided to show them on videos played on old-fashioned TV sets. Even if nothing happens on the video we can feel how time passes, thus you can continuously feel the possibility of a sudden explosion. Every single moment of the video dramatizes the flow of time and parallel every single minute means the escape as well. At the very beginning I wanted to exhibit the bodies of the bombs in real, but I was not given the necessary permission as the rules are quite strict. Finally I was given the permissions from the Unexploded Bomb Disposal Department to record them on a video.
How will the bombs be installed in Venice?
Asztalos: On 16 old-fashioned TV sets, loosely arranged in the pavilion, and there will also be an additional video about places in Hungary where unexploded bombs from World War I and mostly World War II were found and how people used to live together with them. This work goes beyond the borders of our country and has also a global interpretation. We are going to create a webpage with an interactive surface on which the audience can write stories or news about unexploded tensions all over the world. So we – together with my curator Gabriella Uhl – would like to expand the whole phenomenon globally along with its interpretations.
This year there were a record number of proposals for the Hungarian Pavilion of the Venice Biennale. What is your opinion about the other candidates?
Asztalos: There were candidates of high caliber; it is very complicated to fulfill all the criteria of the Biennale as it is not enough to have a good concept or artwork – it has to be tailored to the Biennale. You have to take into consideration the high number of visitors and the abundance of works. The visitor has to get an idea of the artwork within five minutes, which is the average timeframe, but it should also work for an hour if someone becomes more interested in it. A striking message should be conveyed to the audience relatively quickly. I really liked the proposals of Endre Koronczi, Ádám Kokesch, and the very intriguing topic of Gyula Várnai about new cosmologies, which I am also interested in.
How is Eastern European art represented internationally?
Asztalos: To achieve an international career one has to move and live abroad for a longer time. I personally have been advised to move to London or New York City. Of course, there are well-represented artists from Eastern Europe in New York, for example, but they could only integrate into the international art world because they left their country of origin and were abroad for a long time. Being presented abroad in solo or group exhibitions is not enough to get into the international art circuit.
What kind of artistic practices intrigue you the most nowadays?
Asztalos: If I have to highlight someone in the contemporary Hungarian scene, then it is the Vienna-based Hungarian artist Andreas Fogarasi who represented Hungary in 2007 in Venice with empty cultural houses. I am really interested in his works because it is challenging for me to understand his ways of expression. I know or assume what he means to say but he is so laconic in an exciting way. What I prefer and what I’m usually touched by are works that only have a minimal artistic feature, where the artist goes almost unnoticed and remains short-spoken. Disappearing in the work as an artist and at the same time bringing up a subject that makes spectators think over a certain topic, letting the work be born in their heads, are practices that I am interested in and inspired by.
In your previous artworks there is almost always a scientific element…
Asztalos: Yes, there is a scientific facet in my works. We just talked about it with the curator as she is now writing the catalog for Venice. Indeed, I am obsessed with science but in the first place I am interested in and I am looking for the ordinary people in it. We live in computers, our feelings are transferred via emails or in texts or multimedia messages. Human beings and feelings and relations are somehow locked inside these rigid objects. One of my recent works Printed Circuits also reflect upon this phenomenon. They illustrate the human element between the lines of the parts of a computer as they draw out a figure or hint toward sacred symbols. I also have series dealing with physics and chemistry. In the behavior of atoms and in the laws of physics similar processes can be perceived to human behavioral patterns or to the psychology of the human soul. I also used the artificial languages that were born at the dawn of the technocrat world. Situations or relations with identity problems were demonstrated in my video work titled Esperanto language lesson. So basically I am looking for the human trait in everything and if I find it in science it is just a coincidence.
How do you get informed about trends and currents in the art world?
Asztalos: I often visit biennials such as the Berlin or Venice Biennale; I frequent major and minor exhibitions. But now in the era of the Internet of the past almost two decades, it has become extremely easy to keep myself up-to-date from my office chair. I continuously follow the work of numerous international artists and projects. I have already attended VIENNAFAIR several times, as it is in easy reach, but otherwise I rarely make it to art fairs.
Zsolt ASZTALOS (1974) studied at the Hungarian University of Fine Arts. His works cover almost all modes of contemporary art, but regardless the medium the goal is always to create an integrated picture along the lines of his specific intellectual and spiritual sensitivity. In his works he often cooperates with engineers, thus creating tentative answers, using the means of our age, to permanent philosophical questions.