Western Civilisation is strongly influenced by the discourse of science. At the beginning of the 21st century one is hardly capable of conceiving the world as an untouched natural unity, as people of previous historical times could. Instead of universes, Western man beholds microcosms, broken pieces of a disintegrated whole. These new worlds are usually not even visible to the naked human eye: they can be perceived only through technological instruments that aid the eye, through the various mediums of biological image-making (like the microscope, radiology, or medical photography used to document different diseases).
Project Genesis allows one to enter the world of a microorganism that has always been an integral part of organic human existence, but has always been disregarded and disavowed. The central figure of the artistic world of Berszán is not the human being, but the highly symbolic figure of the maggot. The human microcosm is exchanged for the non-anthropomorphic, faceless world of the maggot, for a universe that is alien to us, a universe that causes anxiety with its darkness and unfamiliarity. Thus, what one witnesses here is not so much a human being that has fallen to pieces, to organs, cells, and atoms, but rather the micro-world of alien organisms that live invisibly in the dark recesses of the human body. These are worlds that make the non-human qualities of existence visible. The human being gets displaced, outside the humanist world view that defined him as the crown of creation, as the being superior to all others, on top of the ladder of existence. Within this contemporary artistic project the maggot is not simply a symbol, but an immediate presence, whose offensiveness and nastiness is represented in a most physical and graphic way. It is defined as the opposite of what is human. Often even imagining the maggot leads to anxiety and horror, since it fundamentally undermines one’s belief in life: it eats away what is organic, what is alive. What’s more, this invincible “enemy” lives within ourselves: it feasts on the source of life in the invisible darkness on the body. The image of the maggot fundamentally undermines the old view according to which an “eternal” spiritual principle may safeguard us against our bodily defencelessness.
Berszán’s works reveal the aspect of the maggot. It is not simply an aspect of existence that lacks human beings, but an inhuman, godless one. As one passes through the narrowing corridor and enters the well-segmented space of the exhibition, one faces a black aluminium board hanging in front of us. From the board a maggot is looking back at us. But one does not turn back: we are made curious and become more and more fascinated by this world that seems so horrifying at first sight, by its strange laws and unfamiliar order: one is gradually engulfed by the darkness. It is as if this darkness opened a secret entrance, the gateway to the experience of horror, a gateway to the unthinkable.
The process through which humanity has re-shaped the world and made it anthropomorphic took thousands of years. The intimate connection between the macrocosm, that is, the universe, and the microcosm of humans has probably already existed in ancient civilizations as well; it was certainly important for the Greeks. The Bible also knows about the analogy between the macrocosm and the microcosm, but in Christianity man is not the source of the macrocosm, but its “product” and “goal.” God has created man in his own image, and the world for his “use.” The analogy between the Creator and the Created becomes especially significant in the Christian concept of the Church, since the Church is seen as the body of Christ through which God has become man; and the head of the Church is Jesus Christ himself. Within Western (antique Greek, Roman and Christian) civilization the analogy between the macro- and microcosms has inevitably led to the anthropomorphic view that still heavily influences our thinking. The 16th century polymath, Paracelsus believed that humanity cannot be understood independently, in itself, but only in its organic unity with nature. His new medical methods aimed at creating harmony between the traditional theological view and natural science. He claimed that health and illness are both the manifestations of the harmony (or disharmony) between man (the microcosm) and nature (the macrocosm). His “philosophy” was strongly influenced by the Greek humanist view that puts the human being in the centre and believes that one can only understand the phenomena of the world (the macrocosm) through the understanding of man (the microcosm), and vice versa. Accordingly, he explored the human body as a microcosm that represents the phenomena and working of the macrocosm. He turned towards the chemistry of the body: he saw illnesses not as the signs of the impurity of the soul, but as results of the temporary loss of balance of minerals within the body. His basic standpoint was that everything that one eats contains poisons that may become potentially dangerous. It is the job of an “inner alchemist” to care about the secretion, discharge or transformation of these materials. This “inner alchemist” is the human body itself, the intestines, the various organs and bodily fluids: the inner micro-world that mirrors the straightening and discharging mechanisms of the big whole of the macrocosm.
Today it is common knowledge that this “inner alchemist” may have deadly enemies, ones that it has to coexist with: the body is a host of not only repulsive maggots and parasites that feed on it (and sometimes overcome it), but also a host of other micro-organisms like bacteria and viruses. Therefore, it may very well happen that this “inner alchemist” cannot create its own microcosm, and its attempt to create an inner harmony fails. At the time of Paracelsus, during the renaissance of antique ideas, when the humanist world view with its analogies between the macro- and microcosm flourished, one could not face the inner organisms that shape the inner life of human beings. Man seemed to be invincible.
Can one face this inner world today? Is it possible to come face to face? Not only with other species or another micro-organism, but with a different possibility of life, with another quality, with another possible order of the universe, with another Genesis? Is it possible to face the possibility of an existence that is not based on the idea of a meaningful, spiritual universe, but on the impermanence of everything material, on the continuous recycling of life from the decomposed? Can one face the horror of “maggot-existence” that starts a new genesis, one in which there is nothing human, or at least man is no longer a repository of being? The “maggot-universe” is not simply the opposite of the human micro-world, it is something much more terrifying. The “maggot-universe” contests the view of the universe as a harmonious, spiritual place: it is the opposite of the world of God. This is the universe that Berszán’s project of contemporary art invites the visitor to.
The development of natural sciences and their minute investigations allow one to see deeper and deeper into the world of various micro-organisms, but the discourse of science impedes one to conceive the world as an organic whole. It is also most unusual for us not to look at the world as a human universe, but as a universe of other life forms, as the space of a radical otherness.
The only aspect the discourse of science is able to offer is the human one. The gaze of the scientist is still necessarily a human one that can only perceive a human world. When one gets closer and closer to other life forms, to these more and more detailed, and more and more precisely reconstructed microscopic worlds, one can still only see the reflections of the human mind. The image of the world that one sees in the mirror of science is still an anthropomorphic one, and not only because the human being stands at its focus: apparently it is a basic interest of the human being to perceive oneself on top of the hierarchy of beings and to keep the world discovered by science a homely and knowable one. The idea of knowledge, its acquisition and its rationality seem like means of “conquering” the world: ways of making it measurable and describable, and therefore easy to possess and rule over. But this is not really looking at something face to face: that is not wished for at all. It is not the kind of “long, open facing” that one can read about in the poem of Pilinszky János in this catalogue. In Berszán’s works standing face to face with something other, something different does not involve the submission of the other to human scientific rationality: it is a completely different approach.
From the human to the maggot
Berszán’s artistic journey leads from the representation of human disintegration, from becoming a set of organs, to the creation of the “maggot-universe.” In his Autopsy-series (2005) one may already recognize materials that become dominant in his more recent work, like polyurethane foam or silicon, and the use of metallised black paint also appears. These works put the decomposing human body in their centre: one of these, for example, represent a human body spread out, with limbs that are almost throbbing with life. One can almost feel the blood pumping through the veins that spread through the flesh. Nevertheless, this body is already covered by darkness. The black stains painted on the body seem like holes, empty spaces, where life is missing: decay is written on this hardly discernable figure as pieces of emptiness in its materiality, as marks of nothing. Another picture takes one more step and shows a body with its skeleton fallen apart: one can only recognize the separate bones lying around and the various organs, which – quite grotesquely – appear like beads of a pearl necklace that has fallen to pieces. These human remains do not talk about life any more. They have already been washed into the ground that preserves organic materials until the rulers of this underworld existence, the maggots eat it away.
Berszán started producing these black pieces in 2007. From this time on he seems to be committed to black as one of the dominant colours of the representation of the world. Most of the pieces made in 2007 and 2008 still show human body parts that represent impermanence and decay in one way or another: these are the Black Body series, the Black Fluid Transfusion, and the Black Head. Black Fluid Transfusion displays a crouching human form in a black space incised by bars. He is connected to a dark hollow, from which a long tube leads into his intestines, as if he were receiving blood transfusion, or some other source of life impossible to receive in any other way. The dark hollow opens up in another space of coarser surfaces that seem to stand for other qualities of existence: it may serve as a gateway to another world. This hollow can also be interpreted as a wound, though some of its qualities already hint at the form of the maggot. This work already indicates that human beings receive their life-force from a “dark force,” from a parasite responsible for decomposition and decay. The board Black Head somewhat alters this above mentioned space sliced up by bars, imprisoning the human being. Here it becomes zigzag, yet, at the same time appearing continuous and homogenous: empty and dead. This space is dominated by a skull, the visual symbol of human rationality. There are two wires attached to the skull, leading horizontally in both directions, creating the feeling of control over this black space. But the two outer ends of this wire are fixed, which detail makes its meaning more ambiguous, suggesting that the human mind that may seem to rule over the world and create a knowable universe for itself is nevertheless a prisoner of its own vision.
In the Black Relief series the maggot itself enters, as a strange, provocative being that “laughs man in the face.” This piece, which dates back to 2007, represents the maggot in a way that still maintains anthropomorphic characteristic traits. This is why one may consider it a merely provocative design. Here the maggot has a human skull, it is not an independent organism, it is halfway between human existence and maggot existence. Man is provoked by the thought of the maggot, but as long as this being is represented as an in-between, as a transition that is still marked by humanist ideas, one may be able to keep an ironic distance from this creature symbolising decay. But when the homely feeling of human existence is gone, when the ideas supporting self-respect and dignity disappear, when the only thing one faces is the faceless inhuman silence of decay, this world that seemed so stable suddenly vanishes. At the place where it used to exist one can only see a hollow, an abyss, a chasm yawning with the horrifying otherness of another existence, with the force of an unknown life form that feeds on the energy of decomposition. The Black Relief series do not lead one this far: the “yawning maggot” does not want to eat up and destroy us: rather, it is only looking at us grinning peacefully.
But what kind of relationship is there between the human being and the parasite feeding on him? Well, according to the explicit references of the works, the crouching human figure is just having a bowel movement. The faeces coming out between the open legs, which, as we know, is an excellent nourishment for parasites, cuts the human figure into two. The simplified black form appearing right at the vertical axis of this figure is soon becoming the most privileged symbol in Berszán’s art. In this visual narrative, the form of the maggot that appears in the splitting human being becomes the analogue of Paracelus’s “inner alchemist,” the one responsible for the processes of nutrition and digestion, reception and casting out.
There is another piece of the Black Relief series that is exhibited together with the pieces of Project Genesis as a preliminary. In this “relief” made of foam and black silicon one may perceive another crouching human figure in the act of disburdening himself of the inevitable results of chemical secretion. There is a halo over his head – an ironic sign in this context, without doubt. For Berszán the human being is far from a being of divine origin surrounded by the aura of spirituality: he is much more characterised by his finitude and his vulnerability to the material world. It is not the light of the spirit that surrounds him: he is covered all over by his own excrement. The thick bands of solidified polyurethane foam that were squeezed out of the flacon with violence and real, physical force draw a human form of twisting fibres, flesh, sinews and bowels, while the thinner brands of silicon run through them like networks of blood-vessels. Within the skull that seem to open up before our eyes to satisfy our curiosity one may also perceive layers of silicon brands that evoke the image of twisting worms, maggots, and larvae. The whole body is painted black, as if it were covered by excrement. If one steps a little closer, one may realise that the halo over the figure’s head is a colourless rubber tube with black water “gurgling” inside. This rubber tube halo, which symbolises the connection with the beyond, continues within the body, following the line of the spine, and guides the spectator’s eye downwards, towards the ground. In Berszán’s world the human being in no longer a mixture of the sacred and the profane: he is irremediably connected to dust, decay and the remains. He is a being of the margins, chained to the earth.
“black to the bone, to the marrow”
Berszán’s works are painted almost completely black. Concrete, foam, silicon: they are all black. When entering the world of Project Genesis one may feel like arriving to the Black country of the Hungarian poet, Babits Mihály, where “everything is black, but not only outside / black to the bone, to the marrow.” But the “black country” of Project Genesis does not only point at the blackness of the heart of the Earth: the artistic gesture of painting the whole world black also poses the question of the meaning of blackness.
In Berszán’s work the reduction of colour to black is foremost a question of painting, even though his art does not involve painting in the traditional sense. Several pieces of the project are hanging on walls as if they were paintings, but they also resemble reliefs. Seven of the pieces serve as “standing panel-paintings” standing on the floor. Though these trough-like objects are filled with water, even the surface of the water appears glistening black because of the layer of pitch underneath. Some of the installations are hanging in the air, on metallic wires or invisible nylon fishing lines. These pieces of art are all either made of black silicon, or painted black. Only the metallic colour of aluminium remains a counterpoint sometimes, emphasising its materiality. It is not only the fact that Berszán also used to work as a painter that legitimises a pictorial approach to his use of black, but, more importantly, the “picturesque” quality that is so characteristic of the surface of these pieces. The works of art within Project Genesis reflect on one of the most exciting problems of modern art. They do it through the practice of painting over, but also through the use of black silicon, the brands of which strongly resemble bands of black distemper squeezed out of the tube, thus creating an analogy between the two materials. The blackness on the surface of these works can only be properly understood within the context of twentieth century painting: as it is well-known, the beginning of the last century witnessed the return to black as part of a wish to return to one of the most fundamental colours of our world. Berszán follows the tradition of “black painting” established by malevicsian reduction.
In case of the first black painting of Malevics (Black square on white, 1913) the abstract nature of objectlessness coincided with the reduction of colour. The basis of this was supported by the theory of economism, according to which there are three stages in the hierarchy of colours: black, coloured (that is, red), and white. Black stands for that point of origin through which the finitude and extremity of the world are expressed. Red is the colour of intellectual revolution in the general sense, while white, the colour in which all colours are dissolved, symbolise infinity and the lightness of the immaterial world. In Black Square the black square is painted on a white background. Nevertheless, one does not really perceive this background or base, one usually identifies the thin white edge only as a kind of frame that is lost in the spectacle, which effect makes the whole canvas seem totally black.
The theory of the economy of colour was rethought by several influential artists in the 2th century. Usually they reinterpreted it and used it with altered symbolic significance. Robert Rauschenberg painted his black, white, and red canvases in 1951 and 1952; all three are of the same size, the colours were put on the canvas together with objects found in the street and painted elements. He called this pictorial style based on collage-technique “combined” painting. The pieces of his black series are integral parts of a wider artistic endeavour. At the beginning of the 1950s in North America, amongst the painters of the abstract expressionist school and the New York school it was almost obligatory to paint black paintings. Since black could represent both mystery and transcendence, it was considered to be something like a “sacred colour,” or the “philosopher’s stone.” There were artists who did not consider the artistic understanding of blackness simply as an experiment, but have devoted whole series to the project. Apart from Robert Rauschenberg, it is also worth mentioning Ad Reinhardt, Mark Rothko and Frank Stella. The Haus der Kunst of Munich organised an exhibition in 2006 that collected the most significant pieces of this trend. This exhibition that showed the black series of the fifties together revealed clearly that this kind of reduction to one of the most “absurd” colours does not close or limit art, but opens up new opportunities: it leads to numerous meanings of blackness, and creates various new possibilities of understanding the world through this colour.
I have called black one of the most absurd colours. One can say that because black, together with white, cannot even be called a proper colour, at least not in the optical sense. Black is an exceptional case in the theory of colour too: it does not strictly speaking belong to the set of “normal” colours, and both its physical and psychological perceptions differ from that of ordinary colours. As it is well known, all the various shades that one perceives go back to three basic colours. The human eye is physiologically programmed to receive the three basic colours, that is, rays of light of three different wavelengths reflected back by colourful objects, so all the shades that one sees are results of simultaneous perceptions of these three colours mixed. This physical and physiological background of visual perception was discovered by Herman von Helmholz, 19th century optician and physiologist. From this point of view, black, just like white, cannot be considered to be colours, since they do not have their proper wavelengths, and also there is no proper receptor in the human eye for their recognition: their perception is a result of the adding up, subtraction, or lack of the three types of rays with their appropriate wavelengths that constitute the three colours. One sees black when the three wavelengths are reflected back in the same degree, and their sum does not exceed ten percent. This quantity is so low that one has to regard the perception of black as a kind of lack: the lack of light and stimuli. Interestingly, painting, the art form that relies so fundamentally on colours, may represent this state of lack as infinite richness.
Rauschberg’s paintings of concentrated blackness are shocking. The panels that are smeared with black mass appear like reliefs, yet they also retain the marks of the brush, the dynamics of painting on their surface in an expressive way. This impression of a relief-like surface is created on the one hand by the mass made of asphalt and gravel, and on the other hand by the pieces of wrinkled and torn waste-paper fastened to the canvas. Rauschenberg thought that “a painting is more real if it is made of the pieces of the real world.” In a way, this artistic endeavour continues in peculiar ways in Berszán’s use of industrial materials, though he does not use these so much as a sculptor, but rather as means of creating a specific universe of objects and images. When he uses his materials otherwise than their intended purpose and context, and places them in a world of painting and sculpture (combined painting), literally building his worlds from these displaced materials, this is certainly the manifestation of Rauschenberg’s artistic ideas. The American artist proves to be an influential forerunner in many ways: this is discernible in the direct references to the objects of everyday life, in the use of black, the relief-like surfaces, and the use of materials like concrete, another solidified mass.
From the artists exhibited in Munich Ad Reinhardt can be called the par excellence black painter. Putting the colour black on the pedestal is much more than a short digression for him: it is an artistic program. From the 1950s on Reinhardt only makes black paintings, and he also writes theoretical treatises on black. In these writings he consistently rejects all the basic formal and thematic characteristic traits of traditional painting. He demands painting to refuse to employ straight lines, composition, form, brush mark, texture; there should be no more colours, not even white, no more perspective, foreground and background, movement or time; no more theme, symbol, no emotions represented, and the picture should be neither accidental, nor planned. The only thing that may remain is a plain surface and black. Luckily, black has many shades, and Reinhardt wanted to try all of them, so he placed various colours in transparent layers on the canvas so that it would show how changing the shades of colours may result in a multiplicity of shades, how different blacks influence each other, and how even the smallest change in shade can result in the change of the proportions of the motifs. Reinhardt arrived at the idea of black painting in an intellectual way, pursuing the idea of terminating painting. Nevertheless, paradoxically, this resulted in art forms that were infinitely picturesque.
Berszán’s works also display a great richness of shades, but in a completely different way than in Reinhardt. In his art the differences of shade signify border lines, divisions of forms and motifs. But figurative quality of these works is not achieved through the differences of colour, or through drawing lines. It is born through using different materials of different qualities, and through placing the various materials on each other. In his work the network of lines created by the bands of foam and silicon exceed the two dimensions of painting; it emerges from the surface, creating a three-dimensional image. The way he plays with the effects of shadows cast by these three-dimensional “paintings” is also significant: the composition consciously involves these black shadows of emerging pieces on the flat surfaces. This appearance of shadows on black surfaces further strengthens the anxiety caused by the motifs of maggots and worms.
The contemplation of Mark Rhotko’s black paintings also evokes this feeling of fear and anxiety, though his works achieve this effect through different means. Rothko’s paintings reveal the transcendental qualities encoded in blackness. His monochrome works look like objects calling for meditation, manifestations of a spiritual universe. He also uses many shades of black, but there is no transition between these, the figures flow into each other. His works show black squares and rectangles with tattered edges over black background, and the transition between the forms seems uncertain, stretched out, hardly discernable. Black constitutes an almost continuous surface. As opposed to the intellectual Reinhardt, Rothko was not led to this use of black by theoretical considerations, but rather by an internal artistic necessity. It appears that it was the picturesque nature of colours that led him intuitively to this end point. (Note that before his black phase he painted bright colour-fields of yellow, blue, and green.)
The striped, almost decorative paintings of the forth artist exhibited in Munich, Frank Stella, show less common characteristics with Berszán’s work than the previous ones, though the significance of black lines scratched into the aluminium surfaces of Project Genesis definitely connects the two of them. Stella drew lots of parallel white lines on the black background (by hand, without a ruler), and the rhythm of these lines creates the feeling of inward or outward “movement.” Berszán scratches lines into iron boards, which make them a silvery shine, yet the effect reminds one of Stella.
Arnulf Rainer, who painted almost monochrome black pictures in the 1950s and 1960s, did not belong to the above mentioned American group of artists, so his works were not exhibited in Munich. These works were only almost monochrome, because Rainer did not paint the whole canvas black, but left one corner empty. This was supposed to communicate that these were not intended to be black paintings, he only painted over something else, something already painted, übermalt – as he called it. What exactly was painted over can never be seen, the little detail left out is only enough to raise curiosity. Reiner also wrote comments to his works, which explained that his painting-over, Übermalung (which has become his artistic trademark since then) resulted from his high aesthetic standards: this was a way of concealing the weak spots of his works. During the painting process, he claims, he noticed new and new weaknesses and faults, which had to be painted over again, but there were faults in the new layer as well, which had to be painted over yet again, so he could hardly stop the process before the whole painting would disappear.
Of course there is no such thing as painting over mistakes in Berszán, though he also makes things disappear: first of all the raw, light colour of polyurethane foam. Nevertheless, sometimes he keeps the original colour of materials, mostly the silver of aluminium, in order to explore the differences between black and various material qualities. Black and silver create a metallic, hard quality together, especially since the black surfaces and the bands of silicon are also shiny. Together these create the impression of an unshakable, artistically elaborated world. Silver is the colour of metal: this metallic glittering stands for a unique quality in Berszán. It appears as if the specific quality that one associates with silver while looking at it did not exist independently (as a colour), but were trapped within the precious metal that carries it. The special visual effect of silver comes from a certain effect of light; and it is also worth mentioning that silver can only reflect light from a plastic surface, and even that only if there is appropriate light. Without light silver becomes grey and loses its preciousness. But what is the colour grey like?
In the “visual grammar” of painting grey stands for the most neutral colour, which, nevertheless, is connected to the two extremes, black and white. It can also be seen as one shade of black, or to be more precise, an infinite variety of its shades. It was Gerhard Richter who revealed “the true face” of grey, the artist who is also referred to as the painter who continued the tradition of black painting. In the oeuvre of the German artist grey is the basic colour. From the late sixties he painted several grey series (Grey Layers series, series of sea and clouds), in which he was mostly interested in the technique of the layering of colours, the elaboration of colour, and the thickness of the layers of paint. Later, in his series of paintings about realist photographs, grey started functioning as a “non-colour”, as a means of manifesting the impossibility of differentiation. As he put it: grey is the visual expression of indifference, the negation of expression, and the lack of opinion. In his 2002 series exhibited at the Guggenheim Museum in Berlin he made an interesting experiment with grey. He placed three enormous boards next to each other on the wall. There were windows made of glass (and fixed by metallic frames) on the grey boards. The shiny surfaces of the windows reflected the light and everything near. Because of the shiny surface, grey (though it was a flat grey paint) gained depth and seemed darker than it was, almost black. Richter had been interested in the problems of reflection and the play of shadow and light previously as well, he created a glass-series in 1967 and another in 1977. These were also painted grey, and were kept together by a metallic frame, but these were three-dimensional, so one could also walk around them. These three glass-series put strong emphasis on reflection and mirroring through a complex exploring of the meaning of grey. Berszán’s works are intimately connected to this intellectual milieu of Richter’s glass pieces.
What interests Berszán in black is most of all its relation to light: the role played by light, reflection and shadow. The visual perception of black is connected to the lack of light, and the colour’s psychological impact is probably related to this physiological phenomenon: that we experience it as a dark force causing fear and anxiety. But Berszán places shiny layers on his painted surfaces, or creates such unpainted surfaces that support the reflection of light, and through this he manages to include the appearance of light in compositions that investigate seeing the lack of light. At places where he does not use glistening silicon because he needs the smoothness of the surface, he applies oil paint and then places a layer of lacquer on top of it. There are other surfaces that do not simply reflect light, but work almost like mirrors, reflecting back light and the surroundings. Nevertheless, they never become true mirrors: the world one may see on their surfaces is blurred, its proportions are distorted. To some extent even the surface of the glistering aluminium board can reflect light, just like the colourless shiny surface of unpainted plexiglass. But the water in the trough works may create an almost perfect mirror. Under the surface of the water there lays an even layer of pitch that creates a background dark enough for the transparent shiny surface of water to create an image, a mirrored representation of our world. When one looks into these pieces using water, one may perceive two different worlds. One of these is black: an uneven form made of silicon sticks out from the bright, even surface, a piece of the maggot-world. The other world is also black: this includes the spectator and everything that surrounds one at the exhibition, the lamps, the walls, the other works of art. These two worlds make up that art(ificial) world which is made possible by the work of art, but can only be born in the spectator’s mind through the act of looking. In this art world everything is rootless: what we see is a transparent surface that starts rippling as soon as our foot accidentally touches the edge of the trough. On the surface of the water everything is simulacrum, nothing is real, except for the body of the silicon maggot and its rags that we experience as three-dimensional reality.
As one may see, in Berszán’s basic artistic endeavour black is much more than a strictly pictorial question. Nevertheless, his works cannot be fully understood without the above mentioned artistic pursuits. The exhibition entitled Back to Black (Bonn, 2008) gave an excellent overview of the way the reduction to black lives on in contemporary painting. But Berszán is not a painter. Though the reduction of colours to black is foremost a pictorial problem for him, it is not only that. It comes with a radical change in the materials used. The blackness of the world of Project Genesis cannot be understood without comprehending the significance of these materials, without the robust quality of the installations and physical objects that create the feeling of strength and weight.
The power of creation
Berszán’s works of art are spatial objects, but not sculptures. They never stop referring back to the two-dimensional plane of images that they have broken out of, the plane that they actually problemize. A rectangular board hanging on a wall evokes the concept of a painting even if it has a three-dimensional surface, if it steps out into space, if it is relief-like. It does that even if the board is lying on the floor, if it has two sides, or if it is hanging from the ceiling. These works resemble the plane panel of a painting, so it may be better to call them images that have turned into objects, object-images, than sculptures. But what we have here is not installation art either. Though Berszán often installs objects in space, these works do not attempt to step out of the “ideal world of art” into the surrounding “real,” social space. On the contrary: one can feel the aura of aestheticism around these works, it can be felt in the strength of the masterpieces, and there is apparently a strong belief in the authenticity of art. Berszán does not exceed traditional artistic forms as a result of questioning art, but because of the aim to broaden art’s limits and to find new ways for it. But besides the quality of the aesthetic, which is an adjective usually used in the context of classical works of art, there is another quality present here, that of energy. The artist is not afraid to put heavy weight on his works: they are robust, dark and dramatic. Actually, it is precisely this strength that he is looking for.
The principle of composition is clearly discernible in these works: they are well-composed and carefully shaped. Berszán uses industrial materials just like classic minimal art sculptors (Sol leWitt, Donald Judd, Anthony Caro), only he does not apply them in their raw form, without any intervention; he shapes, forms, paints and works the surfaces. When he cuts a split in the iron plate, he also makes the line three-dimensional. When he lets the form made of layers of silicon break out of the surface of the work he makes the motif three-dimensional. And there is another factor that one needs to consider, and that is the real, physical energy involved in the body working the surface of the material, or the impact of the industrial equipment – concrete mixer, flex, welder, etc. – adder to the human force. Berszán works on the surfaces and thinks like a painter, but also steps out of the virtual reality of painting. He does this in order to create an effect of some sort of energy in the project, some kind of a surplus that carries and endures weight. So as to achieve this, he has to – so to say – throw the brush and the canvas on the rubbish heap. He must work with metal, concrete, pitch, and other industrial materials. Polyurethane foam is usually used as a material for insulation of buildings, it is easy to use and solidifies quickly. On the surface of the work it has a completely different function: it has an interesting texture, it is light, but at the same time hard, and it creates particular, inimitable forms on the surface. The foam coming from the flacon makes it possible to create thick, strong, yet roundish, “three-dimensional lines,” the kind that would hardly be attainable through any other material. In addition to the foam, Berszán finds another basic material of industry, black silicon that has become the “trademark” of the works of art of Project Genesis.
Plastic was already discovered by modern art, but, as far as I know, there is only one single young Russian artist, Dimitry Kawarga, who uses silicon apart from Berszán. Kawarga employs silicon as a light material of excellent qualities that is easy to form in special ways, and makes the creation of some really peculiar statues possible. What is more, because of its lightness, silicon enables the installations to hang in the air with almost invisible wires and strings. Kawarga’s floating three-dimensional shapes that are made of layers of silicon bands appear as if the masses of paint pushed out of the tube a moment ago had stopped and solidified in the middle of the air, defying gravity. These objects resemble various things, like human organs, or constructs that combine organic and mechanic forms. Kawarga uses light colour silicon that gives a totally different effect than the black one. It does not reflect light, and it seems a much more raw material, less like a substance carrying fundamentally different qualities.
Looking at black silicon, one is easily reminded of coal, which is black and shiny, but on the other hand, one cannot forget the fact that scientists consider silicon as an alternative material to carbon-based life. Thus, the gesture of including silicon already hints at the possibility of an “alternative creation.” By associating blackness with silicon, Berszán does not simply start applying a new material of remarkable artistic qualities, but also lays the foundation-stone of another genesis, of the rewritings of the origin of creation. Because of the existing associative link in one’s mind, black silicon involves this surplus potential of meaning even if we know very little of the biochemical background details of the theory of silicon-based life. To this kind of meaningful use of silicon, Berszán also adds, apart from black, the mythology of the maggot, the idea of the essential role of this organism in the cycles of life, which forms the main narrative of Project Genesis.
Maggots and worms evoke horror in man, who knows that these disgusting parasites will eventually destroy him one day: they do not only sponge on living beings, but they also eat away the organic materials of the dead body, leaving nothing of the human body to be remembered. The human being, made of earth in the mythic origins, now returns to earth and disappears there: his materiality and physically graspable existence is turned to nothing at all. This is why the maggot is the object of horror for us: we are appalled at its sight. But if one turns this picture around, and starts inspecting the situation from the point of view of the maggot, we have to realise that the human being is nothing for the maggot, he is just a transition, a momentary form of material, an illusion. As Edgar Allan Poe has put it in The Conqueror Worm, “... the play is the tragedy, ‘Man’ / And its hero is the Conqueror Worm.” Yes, the worm is victorious because, in a way, it stands beyond the material. It accepts and therefore conquers materiality. Human beings never stop fighting against their physicality and corporeality, ever trying to flee from the thought of impermanence, believing in an afterlife. But all this is in vain. Man’s hope for a life after this one remains unfounded, he simply has no other certainty in front of his eyes than the horror of mortality. The blackness of the earth in which thousands of worms and maggots are feasting will sooner or later engulf him. There is no escape. As opposed to humans, the maggot plays an active part in the infinite cycles of life: it is able to turn lifeless material into new material. It knows something that we don’t: it can dive deep into the depths of the material world, into the dark, and it is able to exist in the pitch-black world of impermanence.
Berszán’s Project Genesis also shows the other side of this transforming activity of the maggot: not only death (from the perspective of man), but also the way death gives way to life. With the help of these works of art, one leaves the macrocosm of humans and enters the microcosm of the maggot where one may witness the creative forces of decay, and stare at the amazing circularity of transformation and regeneration in wonderment. But it is not only the thought and motif of the maggot that gives Project Genesis its force. This force is also present in all the little details of the exhibited pieces: in the weight and pressure of the concrete works on the walls, in the tightness of the wires attached to the beams of the ceiling and to the walls, in the monumental size of the maggot-installation built for the exhibition, or in the powerful way the black hollow is pulling the spectator inwards. The dark world of the other genesis weighs on us, it simultaneously makes us uncertain, unstable and keeps drawing us in. When one steps into this world in which the repository of being is the maggot, one does not merely enters a micro-world of another organism, but enters another universe. It is another creation, another order, another life – a world that does not belong to us, humans.
On the other side of the material
Project Genesis involves about thirty pieces, arranged in three spaces that represent three different qualities. One goes through a narrowing corridor that leads to the hall that contains “trough-pieces” that use water and are laid on the floor, panel paintings hanging on the walls, and monumental pieces of art hanging in the air. In the “crypt-room” next to the entrance one may see three open aluminium boxes that resemble coffins. Within these coffins that are hanging in the air one may witness the different states of the transformation of the human body after death. From the other end of the hall (dominated by the atmosphere of the sacred) one may enter another installation that looks like the inverse of the other exhibited pieces: a piece of art inside out. This reversed work still depicts the maggot, like the other pieces, but here the maggot is no longer only a motif, a form or a symbol, but a much heavier presence, a virtual reality that surrounds and weighs on us: this is the organic, physical body of a creature from a perspective that we never see it from – from the inside. There is an unknown world waiting for us in this hollow. When one walks through the halls of Project Genesis, one has to walk the way that leads from the corpse of a dead man to the radically alien universe of the maggot.
But what happens between the two end-points?
When one enters the hall, one immediately comes face to face with “the” maggot. What creates this easy to recognise figure is the groove between the two pieces of a double iron plate work that is hanging in the air. There is another maggot-body in the groove, made of foam and black silicon. The space between the maggot-body and its groove is filled with transparent silicon, but there is a web of thin black lines running over this transparent surface: it appears as if the body of this wrinkled and pitted being had broken out of itself, growing all sorts of feelers or little worms, small larvae in all directions, thus trying to expand its universe. Therefore, when we enter the hall we do not see only one maggot, but many, growing wild and multiplying in front of our eyes. The waving lines of silicon have transformed into maggots even before they were organised into the composition. These lines would transform into worms and maggots in front of our eyes even if they were not meant to evoke these beings: they have become little shaggy, twisting organic beings that connect, meet and create layers and knots. They are the maggot-knots of the universe. We may see another maggot on the other side of this metallic plate, but the shape is different – it must be a mutant. This large, heavy, two-sided work is hanging on wires in front of us, covering the view of the rest of the hall. When we are approaching through the narrowing corridor, it may seem as if we were coming towards a huge mirror. But what we see in the mirror is not ourselves, but the disgusting body of “the Conquering Worm,” from which smaller larvae are coming out. There is no other choice: the maggot is looking at us from a black frame, and we have to look back at it.
As opposed to this, in the smaller hall we find airy objects hanging from the ceiling, this whole space is characterised by the illusion of lightness, by the feeling of being beyond the physical. There are open coffins hanging in the air on transparent fishing-line, with horizontally stretched out bodies in them. It seems as if there were a human being floating in the first one – thin, stretched out, made of black silicon bands. A man who is almost without a body: it is gone, it has disappeared, there is hardly any more flesh on the bones stretched out in emptiness. In the next coffin the body – stretched beyond the physical – suddenly opens up, as if it were expanded in space and at the place of the human figure we find the visual sign of the DNA, the double spiral. Apparently, this is the only thing that was left from the human being, having been eaten by maggots in the underworld. The only thing left at the place of his disappearance is this sign, which nevertheless still carries the most important information, the genetic code responsible for transmitting biological information from one generation to the other. In the third coffin we can witness the first representative of the other world of unknown materials: a “capsule.” The “capsule” is a symmetrical aluminium cylinder, which, because of its symmetrical shape, seems like an object carrying artificial life. The dead body in the first coffin is made of silicon, the aluminium parts of the one in the second one are still covered by the black material with its tattered edges, but in the third coffin the only thing that we find is a silver-coloured metallic object with shiny, polished surfaces. It is only when we go nearer that we realise that the metallic material is open, split into two, and black (silicon) larvae are creeping out from the wound. Life that ends with the dead body continues on the other side of the material, beyond darkness and emptiness.
In the middle axis of this hall surrounded by the atmosphere of the sacred one can see another series telling the story of the other genesis. These are the six “trough-works.” These also lead us from the various organic forms of the maggot to artificial ones, at least to closed forms that are alien to the life that we know. The capsule-body cracks here as well, and the life previously enclosed in the depth of the material is coming out with feelers moving around, representing the energy set free by decay. Nevertheless, the water present in these works may change their interpretation. Water becomes a raw material of rich connotations and possibilities, not only because of its associative connections with organic life, but also because of the effects of reflection and mirroring that its surface is capable of. The black surface of water reflects light, which comes back from its surface as if it were coming straight from blackness itself – from the other side of the material; from the other side, where the limited nature of the material world is not defined as the opposite of a spiritual one. Here this limitedness is not degrading, darkness here does not represent the way material collapses into itself: it stands for the transcendental possibilities inherent in black.
The trough-works are surrounded by pictures hanging on the walls: works on boards of different materials, which represent different qualities. Plexiglass gives the impression of lightness and being relaxed, aluminium boards have the feeling of coldness and beauty, while concrete has the aura of a robust, coarse and powerful material. On the two boards made of concrete one can see human figures, not bodies of maggots or worms. But these human bodies resemble pupas or larvae: they represent a transition between the two worlds. The material surfaces look much less worked out, much rawer near the axis of these figures, creating a stronger spatial expressiveness. In this middle part Berszán has replaced foam with concrete, the unrefined shaping of which imitates the twisting and meandering of the bowels. This raw surface, and generally speaking the crude representation of the human form express the connection with materiality even stronger. Thus, Berszán does not exclude the idea of the human being from the world of Project Genesis. This faceless universe of the maggot is not without humans – it is just inhuman. Because it is not meant for the human being. This universe is kept together by a different telos: it is not structured by the self-determined life of the spirit, but by the transformation of material, which follows its own rules, and has its own order and organic structure.
This organic structure that is so unfamiliar to us becomes most horrifying in the installation that Berszán has created for this exhibition. The monumental work, made of wood, wires, polyurethane foam and silicon keeps inviting the hesitant visitor to enter like a huge black cave. The floor is also made of a black shiny black material that gives the impression of being slippery and slimy, so the visitor easily gets a little unsteady and uncertain. We do not know what is waiting for us within the body of the maggot. Once we are inside, suddenly another world opens up before our eyes, one of smaller organisms, other parasites: viruses, bacteria, and larvae hanging on the walls. A frightening world, in spite of the strong light: because it is not dark inside. Yet, it is still frightening because one feels that darkness is only made more visible by the light. It is not locked up in frames that separate it from the homely world of the spectator, but it is all over, dripping and leaking on us from everywhere. We feel that this darkness is swallowing us. The unfamiliarity of this space causes anxiety. Then we notice the little openings on the side of the alien body, the cuts that appear like wounds of the porous maggot skin. Then we know that it is not a cave that we have entered. Because there is light coming through the openings. So there is a world outside as well, even though we do not know what kind exactly. Maybe these are cracks that the small larvae use when they are going out to conquer and eat the whole world. Maybe the whole maggot-body will soon explode, and the darkness will cover everything, paint everything over, so there will be no other world any more. There will be nothing left of my home that I thought was so safe and strong. Here within this frightening space all that I know about the world becomes suddenly illusionary and fictive, something that loses ground when I enter the heart of darkness.
It is here in this installation that Berszán’s view of black becomes complete. The walls of the maggot body are black as the night and beautiful. Its structure of organic patterns resembles an extraordinarily beautiful material ornamented with pearls. Its structure reminds one of the triptych of Damien Hirst entitled Forgive me my sins, my Father! (2006) that represents the problems of sin, forgiveness and faith in three separate pieces. Its bulging, waving surface was made of garbage painted black with oil paint (similarly as Rauschenberg did it in his black series). The poor quality of the materials used and the glittering surface create an ambiguous interpretation of the sacred. It is this very ambiguity that enables transcendence to appear simultaneously as radical difference and as the proximity of the sacred. The works of art of Project Genesis enable one to experience the same depth of the opening up of transcendence. Blackness here also opens up for an infinite profundity. This is neither the spiritual profundity of a human being conceptualised as a metaphysical being, nor the infinite horizon of another world: we are still on this side of our material world. The light that we perceive is coming from the depth of darkness, from the other side of the material where there is organic life, where there are new and new beginnings: the will of life to live.
Black Painting. Haus der Kunst, München, September 15, 2006. – January 14, 2007. Curator: Stephanie Rosenthal. An excellent catalogue was also published with an introductory article of Rosenthal.
Gerhard Richter: Eight Greys. Deutsche Guggenheim, Berlin, 2002–2003.
Back to Black. Bild-Kunst, Bonn, 2008. Curators: Eveline Bernasconi, Caroline Käding, Frank-Thorsten Moll. Wilhelm Sasnal’s work included in this catalogue was also exhibited at the exhibition.
You are a “full-time” artist. I mean you do this for a living.
You’re right: I haven’t done any jobs for a steady income for seven years now. After graduation I became an entrepreneur and launched my own company that had to do with creativity to a certain extent but did not really involve art. Under such circumstances I only had time for creative work during the night. This type of daily routine takes its toll and surely cannot be maintained in the long run. Besides all of that, I also operated some professional associations—another time-consuming task. In those years I did painting and sold my works. I set off on a relatively uncomplicated and prefabricated career, although in a way I was forced to choose this lifestyle; it didn’t really come about as a result of a conscious choice. Looking back I realize that a long period of exploration preceded my decision to deal exclusively in art. I gradually abandoned all activities that took up my time and kept me from doing creative work.
Practically overnight I rethought my attitude to art and started to create works—first as part of an experiment—that were far from “marketable art.” I am not in the position to decide whether my work is convertible to money or any other material value; this is not my goal. My objective is to frame my thoughts as accurately as possible and to re-conceptualize them in the language of art.
Does the spirit of place inspire your art? Does the cultural-historical tradition you are embedded in influence your choice of materials, colors, and patterns?
Naturally, I live and work in a given place, that’s where I breathe, endure the weather, and these all have a more or less substantial impact on my being; I cannot disconnect myself from these factors. But I think they determine my physical reality, as my mind exists in a wholly different place: the locale does not carry any weight in my works; I could continue my projects and develop my current vision in a totally different environment starting tomorrow.
As for your second question, the answer is a definite no.
This comes to me as a surprise. As I see it, the Csík attitude inspires, even if it inspires protest. Some years back, for example, you performed public art action in the town where you live: as part of a performance you and your partners vacuum-cleaned the main street of Csíkszereda (Miercurea Ciuc). Do you really mean to say that place does not influence your thinking and art?
I must say it doesn’t influence my current work. A couple of years ago I broke with whatever I had been doing, including any artistic work connected to the Csík Basin.
Why and how did you come to this decision?
I wish to clarify two points in my relationship to Csík people. First, when I returned to Csíkszereda from Kolozsvár (Cluj), where I attended the University of Art and Design, I started to organize events with such energy, events that I deemed “worthy.” The typical case of the young activist out to do reforms, who, returning to his hometown, is eager to share all that he has brought from that other place. In Kolozsvár I encountered countless new experiences and made a lot of new acquaintances… At home again, however, I came to realize that the old place—which I hadn’t really known before—already had a fixed tradition, a working pattern. This is the second point: this intellectual environment was a given. Moreover, the place is markedly defined by its insulated state and the resistance to change.
What happens in art in such a small town?
To begin with, there are the artists, and they are many. They do what they do. I came home to this milieu as a young artist, although by this time I, too, had become adept at a certain style of painting. I set up an association with some senior artists and tried to initiate collaborative work. But after a time I saw the slightest but unmistakable signs that it was not working. Here they have a routine, a customary world that almost sucks you in. At the same time you feel this is not enough, that something is missing. And I expressed this view, rather freely and honestly, infuriating some people. One time at the local artists’ association I even declared that you cannot make your left hand paint for the market and the right hand do great art. This generated a huge debate and made almost everyone feel awkward. But I still tend to think it is true: the two cannot be mixed up. You may decide to be a skilful landscape painter and make a nice living out of it; I am not against that. But you should not go on saying that you communicate some great vision, for the two do not make any sense together. I made quite a few enemies even though my statements were not targeted, only instinctive.
I tried to shake up, and introduce new concepts to, the town by displaying progressive art and new artists in the gallery run by our association. We invited young artists that touch upon real problems, like Gorzo or the Kolozsvár figurative artists. With time, however, I gradually started to lose the people around me. Artists here avoided confrontation. Confrontation with the realization that “wait—there might be something else out there…” Something perhaps closer to art than what they do and think… I generated antagonism just because I tried to bring new ideas into this community.
The next opinion might seem a bit radical, but still I have to express it… Out of the natives of this region, I see János Kájoni—the scientist-Jesuit monk—as the only person that attempted to domesticate a different, modern spirit. And this was a long time ago. He set up a printing house in the 17th century, well before the establishment of the Kolozsvár Jesuit academy. And today we still find that from time to time we marvel at the greatness of this man: Kájoni created an intellectual workshop, built a printing house at his own will and own expense. He did not patronage—his contemporaries didn’t back the venture—but Kájoni had the power to carry through, and, retrospectively, time has proved him right.
To what extent is your life isolated in Csíkszereda, or, more precisely, in Csíksomlyó (Şumuleu Ciuc)?
Apart from going downtown for the morning coffee and meeting people I like chatting with, I don’t really have a social life. I haven’t partaken in any joint artistic activity for some years now, and my works are not on show at the Csíkszereda exhibitions.
Do you still see the Kolozsvár environs as intellectually livelier?
Yes, much livelier! Kolozsvár has always had such a huge attraction. The Art University, for example, should not be underrated: it attracts a multitude of people, Hungarians and Romanians alike. A lot of graduates stay in the town because they feel the smaller community they could possibly return to would not support their future work. I didn’t stay there, although it wasn’t a conscious decision on my part—it just happened so, as a result of family bonds. However, I made myself at home in Kolozsvár as well: together with my fellow painters we keep up an art studio. Yet, I don’t do artistic work there, for the materials I use are quite costly to move around and handle. But in an intellectual sense the place inspires me, because I have the chance to immerse in a mind-state totally different from the one in Csíksomlyó. And there is the library, too, which again is a truly important place for me.
You also edit the art periodical Bázis. Why do you find this publication so significant?
Through Bázis I am in contact with Romanian artistic centers like Cluj or Bucharest. It is a sort of connection even if the journal is published rather sporadically; it allows me to gain an insight into what is happening in contemporary art. On the one hand, it ties me to artists, critics, gallery owners, and institute managers, that is, people with a similar mentality; on the other, it keeps me updated on what is going on in the field of art countrywide.
Is there an artistic tradition in Transylvania that you deem worthy of following or that at least has some significance for you?
There have been many people in Transylvania that have made their own sacrifice for Transylvanian fine art. Nevertheless, I do not see myself as a follower of any of the typically Transylvanian traditions.
You are a Hungarian living in Transylvania. Does the problematic of national identity appear in your work in any form?
It doesn’t, unless perhaps in connection to the problem of passing away: we can legitimately talk about the death of a nation when the minority fringes of a nation are fading away.
Naturally, I cannot overlook the fact that I am a Hungarian living in Romania. I have a lot of artist friends and acquaintances, both Hungarians and Romanians. There is no ethnic differentiation among artists. We keep track of one another’s work—professional recognition is one aspect of reputation. According to my experience, however, it is rather difficult to make one’s way in Romanian institutions. I have had my share of struggle when it came to fighting for my own opportunities. I am not too aware of the institutional framework of Hungarian fine art; I merely follow art events and read the Hungarian periodicals of the profession. In Hungary I do not feel I am different just because I come from Romania. It does not matter where you come from; what matters is what you can offer—this is how it should be.
Who is the artist whose name you first heard in your life?
Our family has an ongoing tradition of art; several of both my paternal and maternal relatives do painting. But as a child I heard about Joseph Beuys, whose name brings up a family anecdote of interest. My grandfather was an officer in the Hungarian army during WWII. He repeatedly told us that during the war in Italy he had come across a German soldier (officer or private, I cannot recall) called Beuys, who went on to become a famous artist after the war. In the early ’80s my grandfather traveled to Germany where they met. Returning he liked to tell us the story.
After all this time, do you think the conceptual vision represented by Beuys was determinant in your art and your attitude as an artist and thinker? Or did you store away the name as a part of family legendry?
I like Beuys’s art a lot. If there is an exhibit of his in any place I m traveling to, I arrange to see it. I like the fact that he dealt with extremely human problems such as the network of relations among people and society but still maintained a first-hand contact with the materials and objects that defined his life (felt, honey, grease, sledges).
At the start of your career you cultivated a different kind of art: you made “decorative,” more easily accessible paintings. Then all of a sudden you turned away from colors toward the minimalism of black and—parallel to that—abandoned the traditional use of materials. What were the reasons?
As a newcomer I had a lot of influences to choose from, just like any neophyte. This, of course, does not mean you get stuck at that level. I attended the Kolozsvár University as an industrial design major, but even at that time I felt that the profession did not satisfy my vision of creation and art. Thus I buried myself in art albums and texts, which always intrigued me more than my own major. My friends went to the painting school of the same university, and together we rented a studio. I can honestly say that the die was cast at that moment.
As for colors and traditional materials: it happened all so suddenly; I was simply not able to look upon colors any more. It was an inner drive, like a rule of nature, and from that moment on I could not think of anything else but the path that I intuited and that I have tried to follow consciously ever since. This path is the way of black. I also studied the artists that dealt with the color black before me and the reasons for their choice.
The color black brought along those simple but modern materials (building industrial aluminum, silicone, polyurethane foam, tar), by which or by contacting which I can investigate new ways of the color black, utilizing all the experience I gained during my studies. This is a way of art I am at ease with and through which I can adequately express my vision.
What is the “way of black” about? “Retooling” for the color black hints at a world that—even if this should sound as simplistic—is in connection with darkness, the lack of color. Can this overnight change be grasped as the darkening of the world? Or is “another face of the world” revealed in the color black?
The “way of black” for me is by all means connected to cognition, which I see as an amoeba without any tangible shape as it is continuously in motion. The “way of black” is one extension of this ever-changing, shapeless shape. This is where I muscled in, this is what my works are intended to map, conceptualize, investigate, penetrate, rend open, and mold. In other words, to learn, to know—and thus to change.
If we postulate the presence or absence of light as a part of relating to the world, black is connected to darkness. But—since black also appears through light, in light—for me it established wholly different connections. In reality, I am interested in the relationship between blackness and light. I do not believe a kind of darkening is stressed here, but it is a fact that black makes a totally distinct world appear.
It is hard to verbally formulate the internal and external changes that led to this. That’s why I used the term “a rule of nature”: here we have an intuition, a feeling rather than a change traceable in the form of cause and effect.
Colors represent the world, in the same way that lines and shapes do. In the reduction of colors to black, should we see a surrendering of the multicolored state of the world or rather the concentration of colors and a new meaning to this condensation?
I do not think I gave up on the possibility of colors by using black. I use the natural colors of the various materials anyway. Black is practically the “absorption” of light, still we do not sense it as a kind of emptiness but as “something.” By way of different surfaces of black, the many features of which (matt, glossy, textured, reflexive, etc.) I can make use of, I can transfer whichever color of my environment to my works in an intermediated form, mediated by light.
Black absorbs light, but still we experience it is “something”? According to this view—if I understand you correctly—black for you is not the starting point in which the finality of the world and the saturated state of matter are expressed, but the other way around: some germinal light intuited in the color black opens up the material world to boundlessness. In your works we come across different black surfaces including glossy and matt sections as well as a sort of reflexive, specular black created by water spilled on tar—a paradox surely, for black, being by nature absorbent of light, cannot reflect anything. What kind of light can you liberate from black? Or, what kind of light is it that radiates from matter?
This is an excellent point. Light unloosed in the color black opens up this world to another one. In black I sense a kind of “cavernousness” that establishes a tunnel between two different worlds. Although black does not in itself reflect anything, by connecting it with various different materials (such as water) that can act as mediators, I am able to halt the journey of light towards blackness and can take control of it, or even make it reflexive. It is the interposited material that dissolves the apparently irresolvable paradox. But the light born out of contact with the color black, which would undergo an irreversible process on the way towards black, is not the light of the material world any longer but the manifestation, disclosure, unraveling of that other realm to which blackness proves a gateway.
What is this other realm like?
The realm in question is my subjective world. I do not think one can go any further in investigating this problem in words, as the linguistic apparatus would automatically and unnecessarily delimit the subject of the representation. My works, however, provide new opportunities for this realm to show itself in novel ways.
This realm should not be perceived as a world I see or could see in the first place. It is present as an oblique vision which I tune in to from time to time. The tuning in can happen consciously, but it is for the worse if I do not let it flow freely. Once I was asked where these visions came from, to which I replied that it is as if there was a set right behind my field of vision which I can somehow still see and from which a motif or constellation is occasionally realized.
Does this black visionary world have anything to do with the world of matter?
Of course, you cannot escape the material world, for you exist in it. I am not a foreign body, I am connected with the matter that surrounds me and that manifests itself in this world. But matter and thoughts have a different way of coagulation.
This black world has the worm as a protagonist. How did this motif come about?
I started out from the human being and studied the shapes within the human body, with a focus on what material a dead human being is made up of and what different modes of transformation, decomposition, and recycling by other, smaller, creatures—the worm—are involved. At the same time, this motif may be represented in a very simple and yet extremely complex way both in space and in a relief. Fundamentally and in a word, here we are dealing with passing away.
Can you grasp passing away as a natural process in human life—that is, devoid of emotions, in a purely analytic manner? Or does it involve a sense of loss and anxiety?
For me, passing away is a natural process. Yet, you cannot relate to it in a purely unemotional way, as this mystery does not reveal itself, however hard we should go on thinking about it. It is a natural sentiment that always remains with me, but some people conceive of it as anxiety and some as curiosity. It does not, however, involve a sense of loss. By “passing away” I do not simply mean death. Something can pass away while I live on. Passing away is a problem related to time.
But passing away appears in relation to the worm. And the worm is traditionally connected to mortality, human death.
It is indeed, but the worm is only a symbol of death and as such it is only a symbol for humans. Still, its basic function is to dissolve and transform matter. Transformation and change have an important role in my works anyway.
You said that industrial materials provide a medium to represent your vision that is more “suitable” than traditional base materials and tools of fine art. Does the physical exertion necessarily arising from the use of industrial materials—the fact that you do not process matter only intellectually but in a very materialistic sense as well, by employing serious physical force during the process of creation—have a function in improving the expression of your view of the world? To put it in another way, does the hard physical work that leads to the realization of one of your works facilitate for you the disclosure and interpretation of the world?
It is up to the given person to select the materials to express their vision with and to decide what they like in the selected materials. I have tried out traditional base materials and tools of fine art (canvas, paint, brush), but when I first experimented with polyurethane foam and silicone, I immediately knew I found what I had been looking for. After that I went on to consciously apply these materials, looking for and adding others suitable for a communion with my primary tools. These also came from the building industry.
The exertion of physical force cannot be separated from the use of these materials, a fact I have been aware of from the first moment on. On the one hand, the nature of the work to be done is determined by the materials on account of their molding characteristics. The world I wish to learn and restate through my works requires physical effort. On the other hand, no matter what physical effort the transformation of the material should demand, it always gives me pleasure and is a part of my works.
At the same time these works require precise planning; therefore, I still do drawing and design. I like to compose in drawing, too.
So you literally work your base materials used in “painting,” and these are all commonly used on construction sites. You do not exploit the brush and the canvas but the disk saw and the cement mixer… Can the artist’s attitude necessarily involved in such work be interpreted as a critical position taken in opposition to the classic way of producing art or, more fundamentally, to classic fine art?
I fully accept artists that work within the classic art forms. In my response I can talk about my own view of art without a critical gesture posited in opposition to classic art forms. I decided that I was on better terms with the disk saw and the mixer than with the paintbrush and the canvas. These tools help me convey my vision in a manner I hold to be the most expressive.
The world that you wish to “learn and restate,” as you argue, demands physical effort. Does this mean that you want to fathom another, rawer, physically more active world?
Yes, my works reflect this attitude. You can see for yourself the kind of hard exercise put into the huge installation I am preparing for the exhibition: every inch of my body participates in it and recognizes the work done. The fact that I participate in creation not only intellectually but also physically provides a surplus. This lends the work a kind of physical aura—during producing it I, too, often felt real physical pain in my hands, legs, waist. In relation to this work it is a “must” that anybody who enters should feel that energies other than purely intellectual ones are at work inside. People should feel what it is like to get inside an object. The visitor should experience the weight exerted on the work not only from “the outside,” in a distinct external object. This inverted inside must therefore surround them—chiefly as a form of physicality.
As you have told me, you want to get to know the world and thereby change it. What does “change” mean to you? I am certain that you don’t mean redeeming or bettering the world, but rather the transformation of matter and the creation of new qualities…
That is right. I do not only transform the quality of matter but, by recomposing it in another form, I also change the conditions under which I created it and the vision it conveys.
That is all well and good, but the world somehow represented is already a given. No matter what materials you use for artistic expression—which materials most befit your taste or most favorably communicate your experience—these materials are still “real,” physical ones. How does the material itself transform? And how, if in any way, does the world transform as a result of your representation as opposed to the world experienced as reality?
Transformation can come about in several different senses. It can occur materially or in connections and systems of matter, but it can also take place on an intellectual level. I understand this transformation as the following process: I choose certain materials from a set and connect them to various shapes. I insert them in systems of relation; attach problems that concern me (for instance, passing away, death, or light). Following the composition, however, each component acquires new meaning, a new approach will lend itself to each aspect of the work. In other words, it is not the physical qualities of the given material that are changed (PU foam will still be PU foam, as will silicone be silicone) but meanings. The material changes by a replacement of the context of application.
You appear to be a remarkably conscious and determined person. Yet, from the responses about your life and career it is clear that you are not wary to rely on intuition. Are you an instinctive artist?
Yes, intuition and accident are very important for me, but can only be so if I listen to them, if I recognize the opportunity in chance, then process it through thinking. We can only speak about chance and intuition by postulating continuous work. I think that grappling with a problem for a longer period also means that I watch out for the slightest hints of a solution: solution in this sense can arrive from intuition and chance alike. I am instinctive as long as I keep an eye on my sentiments as well as accidents but act as a thinker when the problem begs elaboration. As for my works, this means that—as I have expressed previously—these works demand serious preparation: they need to be thought over and gradually built up, the many choices need selecting from; creation and realization can only come afterwards, at which stage there is no room left for intuition or chance any longer.
Who are the contemporary artists that you can relate to in an artistic sense, that do something similar to your work?
Those that deal in something similar? I am sure they are out there. I can only speak about those contemporary artists whose work I am keen to view anywhere I go. Anish Kapoor, Bill Viola, Dmitry Kawaraga, Jake and Dinos Chapman—the list is not exclusive.
One Internet page describes you as a painter, another as a sculptor.
I am neither. In the classic sense, a painter only paints on a canvas, in two dimensions, while a sculptor molds tangible matter. There is doubtless a lot of molding going on in my case, but my finishing reflects a painterly attitude. These two are simultaneously present; therefore, I can admit to being neither a painter nor a sculptor. But I am not even both; I cannot pretend I am adept at everything. The Hungarian term “képzőművész”—literally, “creative or generative artist”—yields a better image of what I do. This concept is much more open: it describes an artist that creates something without respect to the method of creation. The use of materials is thus not limited. An artist may realize anything in mind, be it a painting, a video, an object, a sculpture, or all of these combined. I find that when I have to act according to some “inner urge,” the choice of art forms is not available to me. I have no moments of distinctly “painterly” or “sculptorly” vision. Take the period when I only painted: I felt totally limited. I do not mean to say that you cannot express some vision in painting; I do not claim that painting is an incomplete art form. Painting is as adequate a form of expression as any. But not for me! I personally feel incarcerated by art forms.
Were you not satisfied with the two dimensions provided by the canvas?
It wasn’t about that. I had used reliefs before, exploited a kind of paste painting, had shapes protruding from the canvas, grappled with the problem of shadow… That is, I was not ready to exist in a narrow painterly world, so to speak; I did not feel at home in that realm. There came a time when I put the question to myself: Alright, alright, I can paint this and that and produce a certain quality, but what about me? What do I want? What do I expect from art?
When did you arrive at this stage?
Around 2003. That was the time I started to experiment with different materials. The need for a change was conceived when I felt something was missing, something was wrong. Not in the sense that something was wrong with me. I sensed a desire on my part to escape any outside influence or pressure. And then I set out to find the path that would take me “home.” The change happened overnight, but the ripening of this idea was a long process. It primarily took place as a change in perspective: I started to look upon the world with a different eye, certain problems were clarified and resolved… Then the radical change—the change expressed visibly by art; the fact that I can only make use of black, for instance—seemed to occur in the blink of an eye, without a transitory period. This is where I dwell right now.