Contemporary reflections on museum sculptures

- 16 November 2017 - 10 December 2017


By placing these two sculptures next to each other, József Gaál deliberately provokes an absurd discourse. The work he has selected is a sculpture by Attila Nemes, in which Lenin’s portrait emerges out of the natural form of the stone. Depicting the prophet of the Russian Revolution in such a manner not only topples him as a hero and reveals him as a mortal man, but also distorts him into a grotesque figure. The biomorphic Lenin becomes de-heroized, although the self-taught sculptor’s intent was quite the opposite. The soldier, constrained by his gas mask, is József Gaál’s memento to World War I. The gas mask, far from protecting the person wearing it, has itself been destroyed, and only its frame remains. Through mutual appropriation, both sculptures take on new meaning. Lenin now acts as a kind of anti-hero, a foil to the bust of the unknown soldier in the burnt-away gas mask, who symbolises destruction and who has died a hero, though surely he never wished to become one. This juxtaposition in itself arouses disconcerting and ambivalent feelings; in the context of the permanent exhibition where these two works are intruding, it generates a wealth of potential new connections and associations.

The project ties in with ongoing research into the classical influences that are found in contemporary art (sculpture), especially the Hungarian sculptural traditions that survive in present-day works. Museology and archiving have become central issues in international contemporary art in recent years.The idea for this exhibition project was prompted by the fact that barely a hundred of the works in the Hungarian National Gallery’s rich collection of nineteenth- and twentieth-century sculpture (out of a total of almost 5,000 items) are regularly on public display. Our aim is to breathe new life into some of these museum sculptures, and to make them more visible with the help of some contemporary sculptors and other artists who work in three dimensions.

The artists invited to participate were chosen in order to reflect, in terms of generations, techniques, materials and approaches, as wide a spectrum as possible of contemporary Hungarian sculpture (to the extent permitted by the frames and scope of the project), with particular attention devoted to highlighting female sculptors, who play such a significant role in the Hungarian art scene.

Each of the guest artists was asked to select one work, or ensemble of works, from the collection of the Department of Sculpture, mainly from those that are generally kept in storage. The work had to be in a suitable condition for putting on display, of course, and served as the inspiration for a new, contemporary work, created by the artist for this project.

The artists were given a completely free hand to produce their own works however they wished, with no restrictions imposed on technique or genre (anything and everything was welcomed, from conventional statues to installations, objects, or works of digital, conceptual or any other plastic art) – the only stipulation was for the new work in each exhibit to be a reflection of some kind on the original work from the gallery’s collection, as an extension of its formal, sculptural or thematic aspects.

The works will be presented as a series of “guerrilla exhibitions”, each lasting a month, in which one or other of the gallery’s spaces will be partly occupied by a contemporary creation and its “source” from the museum collection. Every month, a new pair of sculptures will be unveiled, always in a different part of the gallery.

These brief appearances are also intended to liven up the everyday goings-on inside the Hungarian National Gallery, deliberately disrupting the daily rhythm and marking a break from the usual museum routine. Our project promises to be an exciting experiment, where the thrill is provided by the “sudden” reappearance in the exhibition space of sculptures from the warehouse – these exhibitions demonstrate that in most cases, an artwork in storage is simply going through a temporary phase, and its status can change at any time. At the same time, the contemporary works engage these sculptures from the past in a new kind of conversation, enriching them with new dimensions. This discourse takes place within the walls of the permanent collection, where the works already present can join in with their own contributions. As a result of this dialogue, visitors to the gallery can take part in a novel, interactive artistic event.

Judit Szeifert

art historian, curator

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