Hungary at the 56th Venice Biennale of Art

Interview with artist Szilárd Cseke and curator Kinga German


Author: Tina Kaplár
Published on: 16.02.2015

Hungary has been exhibiting at the Venice Biennale since its beginning being among the first four nations having its own pavilion in the Giardini. For the 56th International Art Exhibition the chief curator of the Biennale, Okwui Enwezor, with the title All the Worlds’ Future!  invited participating artists to explore the theme of possible world’s futures. Hungary will be represented by the site specific interactive project entitled Sustainable Identities by artist Szilárd Cseke and curator Kinga German that draws attention to the limits, the interdependency and the determined nature of the ego and various directions of thoughts. In our interview we asked artist the artist-curator duo about the exhibition, the preparation process till May and about all the necessary background information.

Kinga German curator and Szilárd Cseke artist, photo: Gyula Czimbal

Tina KaplárThe winning project for the exhibition in the Hungarian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale was revealed at the end of last December: it was by your artist-curator duo! Congratulations! Can this participation be regarded for both of you as a peak of your career?

Szilárd Cseke: Definitely. Participating in an art event of such a tradition and exhibiting in front of a professional audience of such expertise as that of the biennale is a great honour for me.

Kinga German: It certainly is, but from another point of view it can also be regarded as a new task in my life that has to be done well. I have never been career-focused and I believe in teamwork even if I have of course my own concrete visions and ideas and I like to oversee the processes.

Before we start talking about the exhibition, its curatorial concept and its preparations I would like both of you to talk about the so-called milestones in your professional development so far….

SzCs:  The changing focus of the Ani Molnár Gallery meant important inspiration to me. As the gallery was becoming more and more opened towards a wide range of media and the opportunities to exhibit mobile objects in front of international audience were expanding, I was motivated to turn to unusual materials and experiment with new techniques. I would also mention the solo exhibition with my mobile objects in the Museum Kiscell, as I definitely consider it a milestone in my career. Also, the site-specific installation that I designed, as part of the Park Gallery project, for a public space in the MOM Park with the title of ‘The Illusion of Progress’ meant a creative boost as well.

KG: The first milestone for me was when I was appointed to write for the cultural column for a daily newspaper with a circulation of 45 000 and the native German colleagues gave a very positive feedback on my creative use of the German language. Another significant experience was when during my cultural management course at the university I could learn from Kartsen Greve and Werner Heinrichs and I could be part of the empirical research led by professor Hans Joachim Klein among the residents of Karlsruhe about the possible acceptance of housing zkm, Museum für Neue Kunst and HfG in a former arms factory, where forced labourers worked during the Third Reich.

Another major milestone was when I got into the Hungarian higher education system and saw all the discrepancies to which I could actively and progressively react, gently shaping the cultural scene and the reception of the contemporary culture, while I could still remain free in this environment. In 2005 the instruction of contemporary art was on very weak legs, and as I came from the Basel-Strasbourg-Stuttgart-Frankfurt region I had much to speak about. Having witnessed the concert performance of Nam June Paik and the Einstürzende Neubauten in Donaueschingen it was easier to express for my students the significance of video art and its impact. I also worked a lot with my students in the field of art mediation that was back then an abandoned territory for art historians.

And maybe the last one was in the autumn of 2013 when I presented my paper at a large conference of medieval art (Forum Kunst des Mittelaters) and the results of my micro architectural research were published by the significant publishing house Imhof.

Szilard Cseke, Sustainable Identities, detail of the installation model, courtesy: Brigitta Nachtmann

A genuine difference of opinion between the professionals was moulded because unlike in its history this year a commissioner of political importance was appointed with no professional background. Part of the art scene boycotted the application itself. What was the decisive factor under these circumstances for you to hand in the application?

KG: The major reason was the authenticity of the jury, we handed in the project proposal after the members of the jury had been made public. At that point we were hoping for more applicants.The other important convincing factor was the fact that the appointed commissioner could not decide in content-related questions and could not vote when the professional jury made its decision. She has to handle coordinative tasks. The third justification was that the internationally underrepresented Hungarian contemporary art scene can not afford the luxury of missing an international opportunity of exposure. I am pretty sure that it would have had a very negative impact on the contemporary art scene of Hungary when let’s imagine Okwui Enwezor with all the representatives of the global art scene along with the cultural tourists encounter with some “DIY art” in the Hungarian Pavilion.…

SzCs: What truly matters I suppose is the composition of the jury. Therefore, when I could see that the selection of the members included professional experts, I made the decision to go for the opportunity. I really appreciate the work of many members in the jury and believe that their competence equals to that of the previous years.  In addition, the supervision and assistance in the preparation process from the side of the Ludwig Museum – Museum of Contemporary Art, Budapest also guarantees professionalism.

How did the contemporary art scene react to your winning project?

GK: I have received congratulatory emails only and verbal encouragement, evidently not only from Hungary. I really do not have time to spend on dealing with the opinion of the profession in its broader sense expressed at various social media.

SzCs: As always people’s opinions differ and the controversies regarding current political issues provoked mixed feelings in some, still I have mostly received positive reactions and congratulations from my colleagues and acquaintances.

Overview of the installation in the Hungarian Pavilion, courtesy: Brigitta Nachtmann

Having discussed all the background information, we can now focus on the concept itself. As I read it in the proposal, your curatorial concept was formulated while you were reading the Biennale’s chief curator, Okwui Enwezor’s concept and of course by knowing Szilárd’s oeuvre well. Could you give us some insight?

KG: Sure. Enwezor left the concept very wide open. The  imperative “All the World’s Future!” implied for me a concerned, almost answer triggering attitude. Szilárd’s We are Moving Abroad exhibition came into my mind and those works of his that were entitled Double Identity and Sustainable Development. This was the time when I thought what if despite the seriousness of the imperative we start playing with these fashion words and would ask back in a not matching collocation: how our world or our worlds’ future could be globally sustainable from the perspective analysed by the individual and the communities? Do sustainable identities exist at all? Do identities stand next to each other or do they have common elements?

I am well aware of the fact that since the beginning of the 90s the typical forms of identities have been questioned several times. In the art of the most recent years, and also in the bios of curators, the socialisation in multiple cultures, and the life paths showing individual fate is highlighted more and more often. In contrast to this, when we see asylum seekers arriving at the shore of Italy in cockleboats, or the miserable people climbing wired fences in their last despair the question raises: to what extent is our welfare, identity and culture sustainable however colourful it is? How much do we intend to share with others? Are we able to derive from the miserability of the individual to keep the consumption pattern of the profit oriented world(s) sustainable? I do not know the answer and I do not want to be pathetic but I am sure we are not exploring a closed issue, and what might help is a bit of irony.

Szilárd, you graduated as a painter, how have mobile objects and installations become your major medium?

SzCs: In fact, I have been making mobile objects and installations since the beginning of my career. Although  as I have mentioned I had more opportunities to show them in public after 2000, I exhibited mobile objects as early as in my last year at the university in the mid 90s. Also, my diploma work included objects as well and I received positive feedbacks. The exhibited pieces included the one entitled ‘Double Identity’ which is now a vital element of the Venice Biennale project as well.

Good Shepherd 2013-14 fluorescent tubes, electric fans polystyrene balls, steel, plexi, 110x200x120 cm photo by Szilárd Cseke, courtesy of Ani Molnár Gallery

One of the most successful and widely known contemporary artist from the CEE region, Ciprian Muresan said in a previous interview for ArtGuideEast that:  “The situation is kind of twofold as I am living from my art, but my works are sold outside the country. I am a Romanian artist if you consider where I was born or am based, still economically I cannot declare the same. “ Szilárd, as you have participated at many international art fairs and exhibitions to what extent is this  true for you as an artist from Hungary?

SzCs:  In contrast to Romania here in Hungary the domestic art market developed dynamically after the transition of 1989. In Romania the growth of the significance of the art market was not that intense and this determined the attitude of Romanian artists to turn from the very beginning to the global art market. When they joined the European Union in 2007 opportunities arose and they developed a strong global aim.  It coincided with an overall turn of  attention and increased openness towards the peripheries. It was a lucky constellation for them. Here in Hungary, however, we had existed in a sort of lukewarm situation with a developing art market, and the turn towards international forums became priority when the development was slowed down by the financial crisis in 2008. This was the crucial period for Hungarian contemporary art galleries and as I have mentioned for me as well. But for a gallerist who provides regular international exposure, a Hungarian artist can hardly make a living. I can compare the art market to the zonality of vegetation, if the centre is of densely forested areas, than as we go towards the periphery first come the bushes then the plants become smaller a smaller and we end up in the grassland in which Hungary and all the peripheries further to the east of us exist. So we live in the grassland which is hardly enough to make a living of.

The title of the project is “ Sustainable Identities.” How would you define your own identity and its sustainability?

SzCs: A contemporary artist in the first place, Hungarian as well with the ability to think in global terms and articulate thoughts in an international language. I am sure my Transdanubian backgrounds determined my way of perception and scale of proportion. I remember driving back from Venice from the first field trip and from M7 motorway you have an almost full panorama of Lake Balaton and the Balaton Uplands. The only other region in the world that is so human and lovable with its proportions and its overall scale with gentle hills and no exaggerations is found in Tuscany. We went to Venice to check the feasibility of my ideas mostly that of its scale and I realised that the scale that has always surrounded me in the Carpathian Basin, and more precisely in Transdanubia had determined my works as a visual artist the same way it might that of an architect, I suppose.

KG: My identity is complex and multiple. Even the public and personal part. From these statements you can conclude that it is hardly a sustainable attitude, but let me be mysterious and not totally “normal” in this question. But in the project Sustainable identities my own or Szilárd’s identity is nor really significant. What is more interesting  how these pictures of identity make individuals or communities move when they become able to kill in the name of religious fanaticism or when they become members of movements defending their “own culture.” What is even more important is the sustainability of Europe, or going along Enwezor’s thoughts the whole world, if we keep devastating it as such a successful rate and if we still, in 2015, believe in wars as solution. Szilárd’s abstract space structure in spite of all its abstraction asks the visitor wittily, makes identity tracks move and gives room to contemplate.

Organising an exhibition in the Hungarian Pavilion is challenging because of its plan. How do you handle this asset?  

SzCs: The Hungarian Pavilion has an odd plan, far from the one of white-cube art galleries. From the very beginning this made us think in site specific installations. I had to carefully select those of my existing works that are adaptable to the space of the pavilion. We  had several plans out of which we drew the one we are going to establish there. This plan takes the settings of the Hungarian Pavilion thoroughly into account and wants to turn its disadvantages into assets. So with minor alterations this pavilion will work and the installation will also benefit from its features.

KG: The way we are planning it has hardly been done before by any of the artists and curators organising exhibitions in the Hungarian Pavilion. The starting point of our common thinking was the actual space. What we were investigating was whether we can –  in this fairly poorly constructed and reconstructed space – enlarge some of Szilárd’s works so that it will make an associative space or space fragment. This is the reason why we took the inner court – omitted beforehand- seriously.  Moreover we count on the expertise of the Ludwig Museum’s construction team, with whom Szilárd discussed all the relevant technical issues of the time consuming preparational work.

Workshop at MOME (Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design Budapest)

An important element of the proposal was its interactive nature and you also intended to involve  Kinga’s students at MOME ( Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design, Budapest).  What is this cooperation is exactly about? 

KG: As I have mentioned in the project proposal the role of my students at MOME would go beyond going to Venice and see the exhibition and give maybe guided tours on spot as part of the professional summer practice. They should be made part of the development of the project itself! Therefore I asked two acknowledged designer colleagues and a former student of mine, who is working now as an art director that together with selected MA students and based on a precise brief we should think together about the elements of the corporate identity and about the possibilities of the inner court made into an interactive space. Evidently we took care that none of these elements should go independent and it should not compete either in its material or form with the space installation itself. Szilárd was part of the process, he honoured the teams with his presence, remarks and guiding reactions. We have even sorted out solutions listed in the project proposal and found better ones togehter. We closed a very intensive week and team works of quality were produced. Further developing certain ideas now we are at the stage of coordinating concrete subtasks. I do think we are on the right track, therefore I am thankful for all the participants.

SzCs:  Interactivity has always been important in my works, for example in the ‘Good Shepherd’ which is a critical model of how social safety net works or in the ‘We are Moving Abroad’ exhibition where the opportunity for visitors to interact was a significant feature. This is what we wanted to continue and also intended to involve MOME undergraduates into the process of preparation. Now we are working together with the students on a larger interactive installation that will be visually separated from the main installation. With raising the issue of identity we did not only want to provoke ideas in the visitors but also wanted them to act. We designated a separate room for interaction in the atrium of the pavilion.

What exactly can we expect in Venice?  Apart from this interactive sapce will there be an online paltform or some other afterlife of the exhibition?

GK: Let it be a surprise! It will of course have an online surface about its afterlife we have to understand that  as it is a site specific installation it can only be exhibited in Venice  as it is only valid in this specific building.

SzCS: Yes, I agree it should remain confidential. We are soon going to upload a video that a MOME student created following my guidelines. The video is closely related to the exhibition both visually and conceptually.

What will be the biggest challenge for you in the upcoming three months? 

GK: Keeping the schedule, and assure that the impetus of the content should not be obstacled in the labyrinth of bureaucracy (by orders, signitures, price offers, payments etc) typical of state institutions. The other important challenge is to keep the MOME students integrated in the preparation process enthusiastic in the subtasks.

SzCS: The biggest challenges will be financing the project and keeping the deadlines. We have been aware of the limited time available to prepare the exhibition since we decided to apply for it, therefore if everything is taken seriously by all the partners involved in the project, we will be able to follow the schedule.


Kinga German is an art historian, who has studied at the universities of Heidelberg and Karlsruhe. In 2011 she received her PhD from the Stuttgart University and completed her studies in cultural management at Fernuniversität Hagen.  Since 2008 she has been working as a lecturer at the Department of Theoretical Studies at Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design (MOME), and as of 2015 as an associate professor.German has founded the only Hungarian “Museum Management” postgraduate course. She constantly organizes exhibitions involving her students in Hungary as well as abroad. She has held lectures in numerous conferences. She has publications in Hungarian, German and English.

Szilárd Cseke (born in 1967, Pápa, Hungary) lives and works in Budapest. Having finished his master studies in painting, Cseke graduated from the University of Pécs in 1995. He started to create mobile objects in the mid 90s. His works demonstrate processes in society and economics with special emphasis on the themes of migration and search for identity. He was awarded among many others the Munkácsy Prize in 2014 and the Derkovits Scholarship in 1997. Cseke has had numerous solo and group exhibitions in the most prestigious Hungarian institutions such as the Kiscell Museum (Municipal Gallery , Budapest), the Kunsthalle and the Ludwig Museum in Budapest. His works have been exhibited in several galleries, museums and international art fairs abroad. His works can be found in acknowledged private and public collections. Szilárd Cseke is represented by Ani Molnár Gallery, Budapest