Eastern Sugar, Kunsthalle Bratislava, (Zdroj: photo SME - Jozef Jakubčo)
Artist, professor and guarantor of the discipline of Intermedia at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Bratislava, curator of exhibitions and organiser of art festivals. For more than three decades she has been active on the art scene. She is an internationally accepted and established artist, whose work is featured in histories of contemporary art in two countries, Slovakia and Hungary.
In the early 1980s Ilona Németh (*1963) graduated in the study of art at the University of Applied Arts in Budapest. It was there that she made her first contacts with an artistic life which, in contrast to that of Czechoslovakia, was much freer and more open to the world. On her return from her university studies, she attracted attention as the co-founder of a festival of alternative and experimental art, Studio erté in Nové Zámky. She made an extremely forceful entrance onto the domestic art scene with her first exhibition, entitled Notes from the Labyrinth, in the Cyprian Majerník Gallery in 1990. In collaboration with the curator Katalin Tímár, she realised an exhibition consisting of an installation, video and painting, bringing natural material including a few bales of straw, a video recording of a performance, and works of expressive gestic painting, into the gallery space. With the hindsight of three decades, one may say that this very exhibition, along with other works from the first half of the 1990s, already prefigured her subsequent artistic creation. At the same time, her first solo presentation brought this artist’s period of expressive painting to a conclusion. The Gate (1992), The Gauntlet (1994) and The Column (1995) definitely belong in the series of such works: in the form of installation, object, and object in situthey thematised the vulnerability, sense of menace and powerlessness of the individual, as well as individual and collective memory, etc. Specifically her installation The Gauntlet, first presented in Munich and Budapest, was a work which impressed curators at home and in Hungary, and it was successfully presented in the art scenes of both countries. When this installation was included in Water Ordeal (curator Gábor Andrási), an exhibition cycle of women’s art, this meant that it was also established in current discourse on gender aspects in art, while at the same time presenting unprecedented opportunities for progressing to the international scene.
The first half of the 1990s, and the above-mentioned works by Ilona Németh, were distinguished by the use of natural material. In her case this affinity derives, among other things, from the specialised education acquired at the University of Applied Arts; there were also, however, inspirations in contemporary art, for example that of Mario Merz or the Hungarian artist Géza Sama. We may regard Reed Installation (1996), completely filling the interior of Bartók 32 Gallery in Budapest, as the culmination of these works. Precisely from this position a further important line in I. Németh’s work unfolds, bound up with a synagogue building and the memory of the Holocaust. In the first phase it was a monumental installation with the metaphor of the Labyrinth (1996) in what had been the Trnava synagogue, where sacks full of sand recalled the trenches of World War 1; the object transcription of the artist’s thumbprint to a spatial work also contained a symbolism of fortification, as well as motherhood. From the position of a richly structured narrative I. Németh gradually shifted to the position of scrutinising a precisely defined message with a wider social reach. Already in Wall (1996), made of burnt bricks from the Palmovce Synagogue, she is indicating the priority of communication with a space and with its meaning. An impressive project in this series was Journey (1996) in At Home Gallery in Šamorín, where what came into focus was local history and historical memory or forgetfulness, the extrusion of the sense of responsibility from historical memory. The incursion of railway sleepers into the interior of the local synagogue and their continuation by a Torah indicates the relentless march of history, the cruelty and guilt of the silent majority. The sleepers, period originals from the railway station in nearby Kvetoslavov, became fateful for Jews during World War 2, and in a few years’ time also for Hungarians who were displaced, based on application of the principle of collective guilt. Journeybecame crucial for further work by this artist which laid emphasis on the critical processing of the past.
Representing a second line in I. Németh’s work in the mid-1990s is her interest in gender aspects in art. Her first work of this type was the installationThe Gauntlet, referring to a path-breaking film by Miklós Jancsó, The Hopeless (Szegénylegények), where this form of military punishment is applied to women, with the accent on their helplessness. In that same year she achieved her first land art project, entitled Elementary Object II (1994), indicating an interest in sensuality in a medium different from what she found in painting at the end of the 1980s. However, in the course of the year 1996 she still produced the installations My Dreams (from the Floorcycle) for the Považská Art Gallery directed by Katarína Rusnáková, which gave added strength to her line of work reflecting on gender aspects in art. Among her best-known works are Polyfunctional Woman (1996), which was her first sound installation, and Private Gynaecological Consulting Room (1997), which appropriated and refashioned things used in gynaecology.
Those are works which established I. Németh on the Central European visual art scene. She received invitations to important evaluative collective exhibitions of the region and Europe at the turn of the millennium, including Aspekten/Positionen (1999: Vienna; 2000: Budapest), After the Wall (1999: Stockholm; 2000: Budapest, Berlin), cross female(2000: Berlin), Sous les ponts, le long de la riviere (2001: Luxemburg), Another World (2002: Lucerne) and Gender Check (2009: Vienna; 2010: Warsaw).
Parallel with gender engagement, two highly significant aspects appeared in Ilona Németh’s work, which would become dominant elements in later years. The first of these is the thematisation of intimacy and privacy, and the second is a shift from site-specific installations to installations consciously communicating with the architecture of the exhibition space. The artist collaborates intensively with the architect Marián Ravasz. One of the first results of this cooperation was The Column (1995) in the Slovak National Gallery’s Berlinka: it was no longer the kind of natural material used in previous installations that she availed of here, but the hair of family members, and in such a way as to create an architectural pillar, to install a missing supportive architectural element in the interior of the Slovak National Gallery in Bratislava. The logic of this work was subsequently followed in objects of smaller dimensions, the family Reliquaries I-III (2000), which in form and the material they were made from recalled Catholic reliquaries of the saints – in a desacralised form, however, inasmuch as they contained organic material derived from members of the artist’s family. This concept was brought to its finished form in the object Family Reliquary (2010), containing objects from deceased members of Ilona Németh’s family in caskets laid on a chessboard ground-plan. The context of architecture appeared in a striking form in the Floor cycle, composed in the time-span 1996 – 2001. Installations in this series, such as My Dreams (1996), Let Us Sweep Under the Carpets (1997) and Breathing Floor (1998) were created for the architecture of specific exhibition spaces, and directly or indirectly they thematised family questions. As a summing-up of this cycle we may regard the artist’s first interactive and multimedia installation Exhibition Room (1998), where she created a catwalk of fashion parades with all of the attributes, i. e. lights, music by M. Bianco, a mirror, and applause, which functioned only on condition of viewers’ participation. The viewer, who activated sensors by making entry onstage, became part of a world of famous and admired celebrities. This work dates the beginning of those outputs of hers, fashioned with extremely precise craft work, which have the character of an object of furniture. However, the fashion parade catwalk also became a criticism of the world of showbusiness. The culmination of the Floor concept was the large multimedia exhibition Invitation to Visit at the Venice Biennale in 2001. However, preceding her participation in the most prestigious review of visual art in Giardino there was the essentially significant sound installation Part (2000), which was a section of the artist’s real apartment, transferred to the public gallery space. Fragmentariness was emphasised also by non-complete objects. Precisely this partial uncovering of her domestic privacy became the subject of the Venice project, where by taking into account the structural dispositions of the Czechoslovk pavilion she achieved a reduced maquette of her furnished apartment in Dunajská Streda.
Ilona Németh’s work subsequent to the Venice Biennale ties in with the preceding themes and strategies. Appropriating the form and shape of an existing object, as in the case of Reliquaries,became a strategy in other “furniture installations” which changed the functionality of existing commercial products sold by IKEA, as in the case of Pax Nexus Salvus (2005), MALM-in (2008), METOD (2015), the climax of a series of works devoted to consumerism and religion. On the formal side, here we can also mention the sound installation Code (2002), which reflected on current social activities in Slovakia, at a time when once again it was a problem for the citizen to win justice at the courts. Two non-connecting rooms at the gallery were filled with a huge conference table, with the judicial power on one side, the citizen seeking justice on the other. For the sound part of the installation the artist appropriated the audio part of a dramatic situation in the film A Few Good Men (1992), with Jack Nicholson
The artist’s critical thinking led her to fundamental social and communal themes. Capsule I-II (2003), with its minimal spaces,became an expression of affinity with homeless people, involvement with the immediate problems of the given locality. The placing of capsules – suitable for relaxation, overnight stay, etc. – in public space in Valencia in Spain and at Moskva Square in Budapest had their specific, locally social connotations. This work in particular became a further marker in her development: hitherto what the artist had mainly been exploring was the public revelation of private life, and now she moved on to projects in public space.
DS Public Art (2006) may be regarded as a radical project in public space; it lived on in several variants, e.g. Bp Public Art (2007), NZ Public Art (2010), etc. Text plaques in public space in Dunajská Streda, Budapest, Nové Zámky, Nitra, etc. , erected in collaboration with the sociologist Szilvia Németh, applied the “Bogradus scale” of measurement of mutual tolerance and intolerance among ethnic groups dwelling together. Plaques located in public space, in the most frequented parts of the cities, provoked indignation from ordinary people and from local mayors of the urban sections. In Budapest the authorities ultimately had them removed,on the grounds that the residents, and also the mayors, of Urban Districts VI and VII regarded as slanderous the examination of a theme which in their world “is not a problem”. What was actually involved in this project? It consisted of innocent questions of the type: Would you accept a Rom, a Jew, a Vietnamese, a Hungarian, etc., as your husband/wife, neighbour, fellow-citizen? Intolerance was discovered among both the majority and minority populations. It was found – e.g. in Dunajská Streda, where the artist herself lives –, that Slovaks, Hungarians, Vietnamese and Roms, despite their shared space, live not together but each in their parallel cultural world.
The public space itself, in the context of dealing with the past, became the theme of I. Németh’s public art realisations. These works are devoted to monument creation, appropriation of national memory, history, or the ideologically coloured struggle for public space, marking out one’s own territory with statues of important historical personalities and events. The project and performance Seeking an Ideal Place for a Sculpture (2010) is a criticism of the practice of the town of Komarno in Slovakia, where in a regional town inhabited mainly by Hungarians there is almost no free space where we might still erect a meaningful sculpture which would not divide but would actually unite the local Hungarian and Slovak population. Two realisations of the Mirror project bring us back again to Hungary, where the problem thematised is not just specifically Hungarian but familiar in postsocialist countries generally: disposal of already existing monuments. Her works criticise the disrespectful and insensitive urbanistic interventions, for example, in the monument to the 1848 revolution in Győr (2009), or to the important Hungarian politician Lajos Kossuth in Pécs (2010). In the same category is the concept of transforming or cleansing Bratislava’s well-known Freedom Square (2011), at one time Clement Gottwald Square. I. Németh tackles the fundamental questions of how to dispose of public space, and what opportunities there are for contemporary art to enter this space and to contend with the still prevailing opinion that works in public view must copy academicism, classicism, i.e. the concept of 19th century art.
A well-known quotation from Martin Niemöller, about the reasons for the success of the Nazis in Germany, was fundamental to a further public art project, seeking to express the artist’s essentially dissenting standpoint on matters which negatively influenced culture and art, as well as public life. At the same time, she aspired to activate people, so that they would not be unaware of and unresponsive to things which were happening in their country. In this spirit she joined, for example, in the protests against the Hungarian Academy of Art and the cultural politics of the government in Budapest (No One Left, 2013). For other cities in the region she prepared a modified text pointing to the historical traumas and failures of the present time: When they murdered Jews, deported Germans, beat up Roms, discriminated against women, attacked homosexuals, rejected renegades, I remained silent. When they came for me, all had been silenced. (When…, 2016: Praha, 2018: Ústí nad Labem). For the Slovak setting a variant was applied: When they murdered Jews, deported Hungarians, beat up Roms, attacked homosexuals, rejected refugees, I remained silent. When they came for me, all had been silenced. (When…, 2016: Bratislava, 2017: Lučenec). A similar concept was applied in Vienna (Als sie…) in 2018.
Project Dilemmarepresents an independent chapter in Ilona Nemeth’s work, where in a complex manner she follows on from the social criticism of her public art works. Her exhibition at the Ernst Museum in 2011 became a protest against the unacceptable attacks by the Hungarian government against social scientists and artists, and a rejection of the placement of politically conforming persons in leadership positions in important exhibiting institutions. The exhibition took the form of a cordoning off of empty exhibiting spaces, while video projections of conversations, and a personal statement by the artist about the current process of the Kulturkampf in Hungary, were transferred to the corridor in the gallery’s entrance section. The project had a different character when continued in Košice and Brno: while in eastern Slovakia the historic space of a one-time stately home, later the headquarters of the Košice Government Programme and today the East Slovakia Gallery, was redefined, in Morava again use was made of the physical qualities of a modernist object, the House of Art. The principal element of the exhibitions became the auditorium (Grandstand 1 and 2), as a place for talking, discussion and contention of arguments. Also included was a video interview with the philosopher Ágnes Heller (entitled Zsófia Meller, 2012) about the emancipation of women in the university through their family history, and also the fate of women from a family which had lost all its male family members (8 Men, 2009-2012). As a continuation of the project in question we may also regardStatement (2015), a further solo exhibition by this artist in Budapest, which continued with interviews and critical personal statements by artists active on the margins of culture and society in Hungary.
Parallel with intensive processing of the past and critical evaluation of current socio-political history, Ilona Németh also took to dealing with the past of her own family and the setting of her life, namely the regional town of Dunajská Streda in the south of Slovakia.
She had already drawn on her family background for her reliquary objects. Now, however, in the context of the history of central Europe she thematised everyday historical experience and individual history. She placed on a billboard a quotation from Gyula Szabó where he drew attention to the absurdity of history, which changes state boundaries over the heads of simple people without their leaving their homes (Donaumonarchie, 2006). Again, she has examined the period of communism from the position of important individuals, in the form of a video interview with the former constitutional lawyer Rudolf Szabó, and ultimately with the use of personal things, e.g. the writing table of her father Jenő Németh, former deputy minister for agriculture in Slovakia. The objects mentioned indicate her artistic development from appropriation of products in IKEA catalogues, through handyman-type, bizarre garages for cars in northern Slovakia (Handiwork, 2006), to personal objects belonging to members of her own and her husband’s families, closely connected with their lifelong activity. The work with appropriated objects, however, remains an unchanged feature: always she manages to transform or complete them, sometimes even to change the original purpose (Negotiating Table, 2014; the exhibition Pack up Everythingin Galéria Knoll in Budapest, 2016).
Dunajská Streda is a regional town on the ‘Žitný ostrov’ enclave between Bratislava and Komárno. Ilona Németh grew up in this nationally mixed environment. This town has also become her permanent home, in the course of an artistic career spanning over 30 years. Her very complicated relationship with her native town was already addressed in her 27 m project (2004-2006). In the subsequent decade she moved on from the private aspect to a study of the theme of sugar manufacture in Dunajská Streda and thereafter also Slovakia . This undertaking, involving an extensive work of documentation, was presented in two exhibition projects (2017: Manufacture of Sugar Loaves, Prague; 2018: Eastern Sugar, Bratislava), emphasising the socio-economic aspects of sugar manufacture in the first two decades of the independent republic, as well as the fate of the unemployed who had formerly worked in this sector. Here she again focused on the processing of the past, in this instance the immediate past of Slovakia. The formats she chose were an archive of the devastated industrial objects, interviews with key experts in this sector, and an appropriation of objects from the former sugar factory. She further extended her broad stock of resources with a participative installation, i.e. manufacture of sugar loaves, whereby she emphasised the aspect of remembrance through the original working activity in this sector. With this step the social aspect became the leading element of the work, e.g. the employment of a person who has lost his work, among other things, on account of socio-economic changes in the region. Eastern Sugar, her exhibition in Kunsthalle Bratislava, was in many respects a summarisation of Ilona Németh’s work thus far. This spectacular exhibition project was based on ambitious and demanding work with the architecture and the interior equipment of the exhibition space; invitations to foreign artists engaging with the problem of the social situation of the unemployed; and guaranteeing conditions for the participation of viewers throughout the entire duration of the exhibition. Ultimately, support was ALSO expressed for the aim of GIVING the theme of sugar manufacturing in Slovakia a place in the structure of memorial institutions. Eastern Sugaris the first project in which the artist took a highly critical stand against the absence of the social dimension in the neoliberal economic transformation of our country after 1989.
Ilona Németh is a university professor in the Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Bratislava, where she leads the IN Studio with a marked international overlap, among other things thanks to the Open Studioeducational programme. In recent years, alongside her activities as teacher and artist, she has also devoted herself to organising artistic life and curatorship of exhibitions. Among the undertakings which carry the stamp of her artistic dramaturgy are the festivals of alternative and experimental art Studio erté in Nové Zámky (1987-2007), the Central European symposium of visual art preMOSTenie (1997), and Public Dialog Komárom – Komárno (2010). Also regarded as internationally relevant are the exhibition projects Private Nationalism(2014-2015: Prague, Košice, Pécs, Bratislava, Budapest) and Universal Hospitality(2016-2017: Vienna, Prague), in which she participated as co-curator.
Gábor Hushegyi, November 2018
photo (portrait): József Rosta