THIS INTERVIEW with Ilona Németh took place at Dunajská Streda on 14 and 28 August 2006 for the first issue of the Czech and Slovak Edition of the magazine Flash Art. Certain comments relating to the current art scene were updated in 2011.
Juraj Čarný: We are in the apartment which became the model for the realisation of an artwork – your participation at the Venice Biennale (2003 along with J. Surůvka). However, at present the apartment looks more like an exhibition which is in the process of being installed or will soon be dismantled than a private residential flat. What was your relation ship to the premises which was elevated to the status of work of art and which you are now moving out of? What is life like in Dunajská Streda, Slovakia, a town with a large Hungarian minority as well as large Vietnamese and Roma communities?
Ilona Németh: I have enjoyed life up till now in Dunajská Streda and Slovakia in general for various reasons. My family lives where, which has always helped me and basically allowed me to work, despite the fact I have children. The town’s location is ideal. We are close to Bratislava, Vienna and Budapest, and yet I can avail myself of all the advantages of a small town. Of course, there are also the disadvantages to living in a small town, for instance having to travel a lot, but at least that keeps you on your toes.
JČ: You studied at the University of Art and Design, Budapest, and a large section of your international contacts have close links with the Hungarian environment. You are an important Slovak artist, though you occupy a significant place with in the context of Hungarian art too. Which of these two environments has enriched you more?
IN: They can’t be separated from each other and so a comparison is impossible. The fact that I live in more than one culture simultaneously is hugely beneficialforme.The Central European context is the natural environment for me.
JČ: An attentive viewer reading through your biography can’t help but notice that your artistic beginnings are associated with painting. Is painting now a thing of the past for you? Can you imagine returning to painting one day? Who are the painters on the contemporary art scene whose work you admire the most?
IN: I didn’t consciously decide to stop painting. At my first solo exhibition I exhibited painting combined with objects and video. However, I began to feel that I shouldn’t be painting. I always choose my medium according to the needs of a concrete idea or subject. I don’t distinguish art or quality of art on the basis of technique or medium. For instance, recently I have been most influencedbyanexhibition of paintings and videos by Muntean and Rosenblum, and Luc Tuymans has also had a strong influence on me. I rate JamesTurrell very highly as a painter, though of course I could name other artists who concentrate on painting and whom I regard as important contemporary artists.
JČ: Similarly to the way you bade a swift farewell to painting, so primary physicality was lost from your work. However, the presence of the viewer and sexuality continue to play an important role. In a recent speech I gave at a private viewing I called your objects Private Gynaecological Clinic (1997) the most important feminist work of art in Slovakia. As far as I am aware you were not very satisfied witht his interpretation… What is your stance vis-à-vis feminism?
IN: I am not happy with the pigeonholing involved. I have to approach this question from different angles. I don’t like the perception of art being narrowed down to a single perspective and the public being prevented from coming to the work of art with various experiences. Pigeonholing in general I regard as simplification. I am not against a specific work having a feminist interpretation. However, it has other levels which are equally as important. Political feminism is necessary on various levels of society, but it has to be specificto each country.
JČ: I would be hard-pressed to name many artists who are as multimedia as you. In recent projects you have inclined more and more to public art. Do you regard this as a logical route from interactive projects or is it a form of resignation in the face of lack of interest on the part of viewers in art as exhibited in galleries and museums?
IN: Since 2001 I have received invitations to several exhibitions on the theme of art in public places, and this environment has proved a close and enriching one for me. I think a big challenge is to set up a confrontation between the artwork and “normal” viewers, by virtue of the latter inadvertently encountering the former. Tensions can result, but also a dialogue between the two parties. In Slovakia you tend to feel that you are forever meeting the same people in the same galleries (and things are no different in neighbouring countries), and this is not inspiring for artists. And perhaps a livelier art criticism could be a challenge to artists. Public art is an interesting medium for me.
JČ: With the billboard Middle of Europe, which was your contribution to the exhibition of public art entitled Donau monarchie (curated by M. Keratová and L. Tkáčová), you examined the smallness of the Central European environment. Paradoxically, however, the exhibition provoked record media attention in both Hungary and Slovakia, thanks to the billboard by Michal Moravčík entitled Readymade, a souvenir, with its map of Greater Hungary, which you brought from Budapest. The Slovak National Party complained to the advertising standards authority, and the spokesperson of Slovak Matica even took legal proceedings against the organiser of the Billboart Gallery Europe. However, paradoxically the project was condemned by all of the parties “affected”.
IN: I examined the theoretical basis of public art in some detail in my doctoral thesis and so I was very cautious in my response to the invitation to the exhibition. My firstreaction to the article in Új Szó (the only Hungarian daily newspaper in Slovakia) was that Michal Moravčík’s was being too provocative in relation to Hungarians and I wanted to withdraw my work from the show. But the fact is that everyone has the right to their opinion, and I accepted his attitude, even though I still think that it did not assist the entire issue in any way and that the interpretation of the billboard you refer to was too controversial.
JČ: The Czech and Slovak art scene is characterised by many specific features.Whatis your opinion of the domestic art scene?
IN: In my opinion our art scene is commensurate with our geo-political importance within Europe. I would add that I don’t know if my reaction can be objective when evaluating our scene. On the one hand I live and work in this environment, and as well as that I teach at the University of Art and Design, Budapest, and for this reason I am perhaps an optimist because of the energy of the upcoming generation of artists.
I meet active and talented students who are trying to establish the conditions for creative work and presentation. I have in mind newly created galleries in Bratislava, such as Gallery HotDock, Gallery Soda, and Gallery Enter, which these students I mentioned created and run. I should also mention Gallery HIT, which has been on the scene for a longer time and is also managed by Dorota Kenderová and Jaroslav Varga, graduates of the IN Atelier, or the private amt_project gallery, where Petra Feriancová, also a graduate of my atelier, plays a significantrole in compiling the programme.
JČ: How is the Czech/Slovak artist perceived by the world at large? What is your opinion of the local art market? What interest is there in your work on an international level?
IN: The Czech/Slovak artist, if such a beast still exists, is perceived as one of many who are on offer at present on the European-American scene, possibly with a slight handicap, since we do not possess an “exotic” character. I believe that success on the art scene, apart from luck and a measure of talent, is down to personal contacts, the activities of certain special interest groups, and the whims of the art market.
As far as my personal experiences with the market are concerned, state collections and occasionally larger private collections have more interest in my work. For interest, the Ludwig Foundation is a diligent collector of my pieces. Their last purchase was in 2011, of one of my videos. I realised that it was already the fourth work of mine in their collection. As far as interest in my work from abroad is concerned, I can’t complain, although of course I would be very happy if new possibilities for cooperation arose in the future.
JČ: At the Prague Biennale II you exhibited a fictive IKEA productin the form of a confession booth entitled Pax Nexus Salvus. You exhibited this modern religious work in the industrial premises of Karlín Hall and made it available for “use” by the public. What was your intention with this work?
IN: On the one hand I was interested in the form and function of the confessional, as furniture, but also as a transcendental space. In other sense the work is a critique of religion, but not only religion itself, but more the kind of person who thinks that there exists an external means by which to purify themselves. We have to find purity within ourselves. Then there is the aspect of consumer society, how everything can be bought and where items lose their uniqueness and individuality. It is a critique of consumerism and the absurdity of people’s behaviour when shopping.
For me, the most suitable place for confessionals would be IKEA shops. I think they would appeal more to visitors there than they would in galleries.
JČ: In 2006 you launched a very interesting public art project in Dunajská Streda which uses advertising spaces for specific communication with local communities. The exhibition asks the question: Would you have as a neighbour a Hungarian, Roma, Slovak or Vietnamese? Would you have as a partner a Hungarian, Roma, Slovak or Vietnamese? What was the reaction of the general public.
IN: Very varied. To begin with they were quite shocked. When they first saw the project they felt it was being provocative. I am convinced that gradually, as they encountered other billboards, they began to understand what it was about. I collaborated with the sociologist Silvia Németh and we used the Bogardus social distance scale to measure tolerance between individual nationalities. We selected eight questions from the scale and asked them in four languages. They called us to the town council for consultations with representatives of the Roma community. The public art project featuring texts from the Bogardus social distance scale had an interesting fate. Upon being reinstalled in Budapest in 2007 it was banned even before the exhibition was opened, where it was to have been shown within the framework of a group exhibition (Exhibition GPS, organised at the Ernst Museum). In 2010 it was again reinstalled in Nové Zámky as part of the Transart Communication Festival and was prematurely removed upon the instructions of the town council without any reasons being given. I wasn’t even informed.
JČ: Who would you most like to have as a neighbour?
IN: I wouldn’t be able to choose according to race. Though that is more of a joke on your part than a question.
JČ: Do you have a dream or vision as to where you would like to head in the future with your art? You already have the Venice Biennale behind you …
IN: … I have a dream in which I have worked like Louise Bourgeois for 94 years … [Laughs] … so that I continue to take pleasure from art for another 50 years, so that I don’t remain in a blind alley, as I often see in the case of certain colleagues, who lost themselves at a certain moment or remained frozen at the same point. My dream is that I renew myself constantly. Whether this is possible or not remains to be seen …
Ilona Németh (born 1963 in Dunajská Streda) lives and works between Dunajská Streda and Bratislava.
Ilona Németh, Handiwork, 2006, Photo: Marián Ravasz.
Private Gynaecological Surgery, 1997, installation, 112x72x112 cm, gynaecological chairs, rabbit fur, moss, velvet, photo: Martin Marenčin.
ILONA NÉMETH, Capsules II., 2003, object – automat in a public space, 120x320x240 cm, photo: Marián Ravasz;
27 m, 2004, sound installation, sound engineer: Ing. Roman Laščiak, photo: Marián Ravasz.
Juraj Čarný is editor-in-chief Flash Art Czech and Slovak Edition.