This is the second of three installments in the series “Texts by Conceptual Artists from Eastern Europe,” organized by Sven Spieker for post. This series presents newly translated texts from the 1970s by Conceptual artists from Poland, Hungary, and Slovakia. The focus of this installment is Hungary.
Miklós Erdély (1928–1986), who was active in a broad variety of media and roles, was the most influential yet also the most enigmatic figure among the members of the Hungarian neo-avant-garde. Trained (and practicing) as an architect, he understood his far-flung activities as a way of putting to the test, in a continuous process, all available definitions of art. After the Hungarian Revolution of 1956, contemporary art could no longer fully ground itself in either the heroic belief in progress displayed by members of the Hungarian avant-garde—whom Erdély admired—or the transcendent and universalist categories of its conservative detractors. [On the attitude of Erdély and his circle to the Hungarian avantgarde of the 1920s and 30s, and the transformation of that attitude in the wake of the repression of the Hungarian uprising in 1956, see Lóránd Hegyi, “The Total Art Work Between Dadaistic Legacy and History”, in: Gedächtnisräume. Hommage für Miklós Erdély. Filme. Installationen. Performances. Vorträge (Berlin: Künstlerhaus Bethanien, 1993), p. 19.] For him, the only sustainable way of grounding art and justifying the artist’s existence is through the persistent questioning of its most basic premises, irrespective of canon and dogma—and from many different points of view (including scientific, para-scientific, aesthetic, philosophical, and literary). As he wrote in his famous article “Art an Empty Sign”: “If the artist is engaged in a variety of genres and styles, he may well provoke the description of inprincipled [sic!] time-server whereas in actual fact he is questioning the very core of art. [. . .] Regardless of moral pressure [. . .] we must formulate for ourselves what we think of art, based on our experience and available information.” [Miklós Erdély, “Art as Empty Sign,” in Gedächtnisräume. Hommage für Miklós Erdély. Filme. Installationen. Performances. Vorträge (Berlin: Künstlerhaus Bethanien, 1992), 39–40.]
The texts by Erdély published here for the first time in English translation are committed to precisely such an effort to give account of what the artist “thinks of art.” In the first, “What is Avantgardism? Can we consider it an avantgarde act that Miklós Erdély, György Jovánovics and János Major exhibited a coat?”—referring to a simple coat that Erdély, Jovánovics, and Major exhibited in 1973—the artist discusses modernism’s problematic attachment to permanent formal innovation and the restrictions this places on those who follow the avant-garde’s original practitioners: condemned to repeating their moves, the former find themselves (as Peter Bürger would also find) in a position of inescapable inauthenticity and unoriginality. The only way out of this impasse, according to Erdély, is through either the readymade (Marcel Duchamp, Claes Oldenburg) or art as idea (Joseph Kosuth), and yet it is clear that the innovative potentials of these procedures reached dead ends long ago. All there is left to do, then, is to declare that not only is nothing in the exhibition of their coat new, but also that not even the fact that there is nothing new is not new. Such conceptual “deadening” of the readymade describes the dilemma in which Erdély found himself—between modernism, on the one hand, and neo-avant-gardism, on the other—a dilemma that he has addressed in his work many times over.
If “What is Avantgardism?” functions as an auto-critique of the (neo-)avant-garde, the contradiction between repetition (copy) and identity was always at the core of Erdély’s concerns (note the Theses on the Theory of Repetition from 1972–73, for example). In his famous indigo drawings, produced with the help of rolled-up carbon paper (“indigo” in Hungarian), Erdély, in 1978, found an almost alchemistic solution to the problem by combining an original drawing and its copy on the same sheet of paper. Meanwhile, the installation In Memory of the Council of Chalcedon (1980) at Bercsényi College (Budapest), to which the second text (“Lecture on the Exhibition”) relates, extended this experiment in a direction that opens the readymade to the investigation of the problem of identity. For the major theme of In Memory of the Council of Chalcedon is the relationship between matter and meaning, between materialism and deism (the Council of Chalcedon affirmed Christ’s double nature). In “Lecture on the Exhibition,” which the artist read from within the installation, Erdély gives a vivid account of the way in which an installation like his may (in a manner reminiscent of Joseph Beuys and far exceeding the neutrality and expressive evisceration of the Duchampian readymade) symbolically connect an artist’s biography to a broad range of seemingly random materials or objects. And while this “symbolic” approach permits the synthetic expression of experience across these materials or objects, their expressiveness is narrowly circumscribed. For as the artist writes at the end of “Lecture on the Exhibition,” creation more often than not is the result of chance, and hence the opposite of intentional, “intelligent” design.
The problem of repetition and identity found another outlet in Erdély’s interest in the phenomenon of the Möbius strip, a one-sided surface formed by holding one end of a rectangle fixed, twisting the opposite end through 180 degrees, and then connecting it to the first end. By 1972 Erdély had already produced his Möbius Projection at Balatonboglár Chapel, showing heads of state shaking hands and, in an endless procession, changing places. The text “Time Möbius,” on the other hand, can be read as a commentary on Erdély’s work Journey in Time (1976), a photo series consisting of montaged images that show the artist in the same diegetic space as certain characters from his past, including himself as a child. Like a Möbius strip, Journey in Time collapses the chronological properties we associate with linear time. In the numbered theses that make up “Time-Möbius”—whose theme (the care of Self) and form are reminiscent of East Asian poetry—Erdély uses such “warping” of time to elaborate once more on the problem of identity and its formation, arguing that in order to become ourselves, instead of “progressing” through time, we must “turn back” and act as a cause upon ourselves in the same way in which the artist “visits” his forebears in Journey in Time. In this way, Erdély returns to his ardent critique of the (Western) belief in linear progress and in pedagogy rooted in that belief, arguing instead that true freedom consists in the kind of “twofold determination in time” familiar to everyone through dreams.
In 1975–76 Erdély designed a series of “creative exercises” that, in 1978, led to the formation of the group known as Indigo (Interdiszciplináris Gondolkodás, Hungarian for “Interdisciplinary Thought”). An experimental teaching studio, Indigo was inspired by Eastern philosophical traditions and many other pedagogical and artistic sources. As the 1982 interview with Zoltán Sebök published below shows, the ideas behind Indigo also owe something to the Möbius strip: Erdély’s ambition to find a creative function or impulse that lies beyond “normal” creativity (“Thus, we wanted to do something that humans had been incapable of before”) clearly lies beyond the pale of traditional pedagogy with its emphasis on the transfer of knowledge from teacher to student, and its belief in a child’s progressive formation over time. Questioning these values—values that underpin the history of Western art as much as its philosophy—was one of Miklós Erdély’s most persistent concerns.
I would like to extend my warmest thanks to Annamária Szöke, Budapest, for her invaluable assistance in the selection and translation of the texts published here for the first time in English. – Sven Spieker
With special thanks to the Miklós Erdély Foundation who graciously conceded the rights for the first English language publication of the four texts here by Miklós Erdély, Annamária Szőke for her curatorial assistance in putting this source content together, members of the Erdély family, György, Daniel, András and Simon Erdély, translators John Batki and Adele Eisenstein, as well as Katalin Orbán, Ksenia Nouril, and Meghan Forbes. Produced by Ksenia Nouril, former C-MAP Fellow for Central and Eastern European Art, The Museum of Modern Art, New York. – post editorial team