Contemporary Photography from Hungary 5.


Edit Molnár / Conversation with Hajnal Németh

Edit Molnár: Your early photos and photo series are all easily identifiable as they bear very unique artistic features, including theatrical position, strict composition, tense and recurring design elements and motifs.
Your works blend elements of high and popular cultures, and indulge in the reinterpretation of visual references that often lead us into the world of TV, film, video clips and fashion. In case of Eight to Eight (1999), Homemade Trance (1999) or LifeStyle-less I-II (1998) the photos possess a strong narrative feature and suggest certain snapshot-like characteristics, yet they most probably had been well-prepared and composed before taking. At the same time, one has the odd feeling that they were taken from a video work.
Photography is only one of the media that you use. What kind of relationship do you see between your photos and video works?

Hajnal Németh: I have turned my attention to the world of videos from the direction of photographs. I think that they complement each other, and that is how I use them. When considering a new theme I almost always approach it through various angles – photos, videos, installations or voice installations.
I have a really strong photographer mentality right from the beginning, which is detectable in my video works, too. Around the year 2000, I considered my video works as never-ending, narrated motion pictures, or extended photographs. The audience could join the screening of the videos any time, as they were functioning just as photos from a perception point of view.
If I want to exaggerate and disregard the allusions movements and scenes project, fragments of these video works are virtually equivalent of the entire work. In most cases one can grab the gist of the work by picking one sequence or one frame of the video. This was such an inspiration for me that later I used these video stills as still pictures printed on paper, where I took out two or four frames from my ‘stories’.
I use alternating various media works in reverse mode as well. What I mean is that my earlier photos taken in the period 1997-2002 are pre-composed true stories with randomly picked stills.
The above discussed principles are not really valid regarding my later works, as I use different methods in most cases.

E.M.: With regard to your early pieces, your artistic strategy is defined by a positive atmosphere into which the artist lures the audience in.

H.N.: Yes, this is true. If we consider my earlier photos, this strong atmosphere is present through the tension between the personal, intimate surroundings (bathroom, toilette) and mythological elements. These are pre-arranged objects that bear great importance as they have more impersonal, timeless qualities.
For instance, in Eight to Eight a figure in pyjamas is depicted in a bed, but the absurd animal mask on his head broadens the implication. This is the reason why I have doubled and twisted the recording.
In the photo series Homemade Trance, the title itself expresses the coexistence of personal and impersonal elements. This piece examines the possibility of a home made trance or rather a miracle. The audience is confronted with a bathroom-scene, where the bathtub is surrounded by pre-arranged objects, yet the images evoke the Biblical story of walking on water. Homemade Trance 2 operates with a similar narrative: the miraculous scene of water springing from the rock was photographed in uniquely profane conditions.
In this photo series, I was basically interested in the ironical pictorial rendering of the individual’s liberation. I wanted to elaborate on the need of an independent, free mentality that is not influenced by the mass media through the ‘quest for an abstract personal truth’. This message is present in one of my latter works, where I contrast the ‘individual revolution’ with political revolution. (Crystal Clear Propaganda – Transparent Method, 2009, installation)

E.M.: In some of your photo series, a strong but at the same time restrained female sensuality plays a dominant role. Your photos radiate eroticism through embarrassingly close body-images, and textures. Was it a conscious decision to deploy the theme of female sexuality?

H.N.: This is mainly valid for the LifeStyle-less series. (The title is based on a pun, as the literal translation would mean ‘without lifestyle’, yet ‘LifeStyles’ is a condom brand at the same time.)
Although the images were taken outdoors, the area was transformed according to the needs of the photographing. By making nature more artificial through the repainting of the grass, rocks and details of the skin, a more isolated atmosphere has been created instead of a highly intimate sequence of scenes. Although sensuality and intimacy are present in the work, yet they are not the work’s main theme but only the means. The viewer is confronted with a mélange of arms and legs in interaction, glittering in blue, gold and skin-like gold colours. Looking beyond the banal, yet voluptuous and erotic everyday activities such as shaving, putting on a plaster, or dripping honey, one can discover a whole range of metaphysical allusions – strengthened by the ‘iconic’ blue-gold colour.

E.M.: The series entitled Paracomfort (1999) seems to stand out both from an aesthetic quality and conceptual point of view regarding your early works. It can be interpreted as a documentation of a performance without audience. You made yourself hang from the ceiling of a cabin-like, narrow bedroom in a professional mountaineer outfit. One could have the impression that through the self-portraits you evoked the self-torturing, existentialist performance tradition of the 1970s.

H.N.: Even though the photos’ atmosphere might evoke the performances of the 1970s, it was not done on purpose. In most of my works I do not like to define the exact implications of my photos, thus I do not use such obvious historical references.
I would not consider Paracomfort as a self-portrait either, as none of my photos can be considered as such. In these works I only regard myself as a substitute model. Since 2006 I am no longer the model of my photos in which I explore the relationship of space and human body.
Thus, Paracomfort is not talking about my own suspension, but the suspension of the notion of comfort itself. This is rather gymnastics or ballet but not self-torment. It represents the complex and forced relationship of human body and space where one adjusts, twists and turns his or her body according to geometrical forms. I would like to emphasize that the titles are really important in case of my works: they give direction and reference right away.
Through the exploration of the notion of ‘comfort’ I wanted to dive deep in the phenomenon of comfortable multifunctional city spaces and objects, buildings, roads, transportation, and complete infrastructure. Even though they relieve our physical burdens, they make our lives more simple and easier, nevertheless, they erect a well-planned matrix of prison where people have to lead a truly limited life-style. This means not only the binding of the body, but also the strangling of soul and spirit. And what is more, we have not even mentioned the efficacy of absolute economic and communication control. ‘A prison of comfort’, one could say.
From this point of view, most of my photos have some interpretable, symbolical elements. So referring back to your statement in your first question, these images are rather ‘concentrates’ of many-layered narratives than patches of reality.

E.M.: Your recent photos become more and more minimalist.
One of your critics summarized your video works and photos as “humane and mechanical at the same time, seeking a perfect visual form.” (József Mélyi) Your photo series entitled Acoustic Ballet (2006) and Recording Room (2006) were taken in interiors that have a special visual space that can trick the human eye. Acoustic Ballet was taken in the recording room of the former German Democratic Republic’s radio station. The viewer has the peculiar feeling that this work is a love memo dedicated to a unique space, which has wonderful wainscot surfaces, elegant ledges, and meticulous details. Yet, it also occurs whether they were made to please, or to enhance the acoustics of the space. All the abstract and repetitive shapes play an important role in the sound’s direction, perfection and amplification. Thus, it is only by chance that they are so pleasant to the eye.
It is in this painstakingly engineered space where an athletic male figure appears, who seems to test the limits of his body and performance there. What was your inspiration in this work? What came first, your attraction to this space, or the idea to correlate architectural elements with the human body?

H.N.: It dates back to around 2004, when I was highly interested in music industry, and especially recording works. This is where my interest in specific acoustic spaces comes form, and this is realized in the photo series you have just mentioned.
If we really come to think about it, it seems quite scary that so many elements are needed for the recording of a five-minute song, including complex technology, highly qualified professionals, and precise workflow. This is a perfect example for me to show the absurd contrast on which this ‘factory of illusion’ is built on. True reality is overridden by the recording of reality. There is no real connection between the hard work done in sound studios and the music or composition itself. Yet, if we look around with the eye of the ‘innocent’, we could take the noise of studio-work as music, and could interpret the acoustic spaces as sculptural elements.
The mechanism of functional space and the ‘factory of illusion’ figure in many of my works, including the video-trilogy entitled Recording Room (2006), or the photo series bearing the same title, Sammy listen Sammy Back (2005) and the video Guitarsolo.
Nevertheless, the Acoustic Ballet photo series is a different story. In the representative studio spaces of the former German Democratic Republic’s radio station I focus on a forlorn figure who wanders without any purpose. It is not only the figure’s movements that lack functionality as he tries to adapt himself to his surrounding, but the studio itself is an out-of-order entity that exists in a formal reality.
One should know about the studio that, as it was a highly-esteemed, role-model government institution in the former East Germany, a great amount of money was invested in it. Nowadays, it deals with the recording of rock and roll bands, but it is not highly occupied. Even so, the radio station’s interiors have caught my eyes immediately – grandiose interiors, elegant wainscoting, precise planning, great decoration that highly resemble old theatres and movies.
But let us return to the Acoustic Ballet series. This is a study in which I explored how a human body can be artificially placed in a given space, where the figure is not using this space according to its functionality. This idea reoccurs in my later, music-based video works. In those pieces music is not something created by musical instruments, but the supplementary mechanical noise emitted by the instruments. (Recording Room, Air Out)

E.M.: The Recording Room photo series also deals with the transmission and recording of sound while being an accurately designed documentation of space. Yet, in this case the recording room stands for manifold, low-technology found at home. In order to make perfect recordings, the head of the Berlin sound recording studio is investigating the relationship of space and sound fanatically.
What has caught your attention in this given space?

H.N.: Recording Room’s sole subject is the Tube Station recording studio in Berlin. This relatively small, one-room studio, with its charming forms and light features, has inspired me to document the work-space in detail. Copperplates, metallic foils, tiered sound diverters, bell jar, glass bricks, ceramic and fibreglass compositions all appear in a narrowly focused image, while a strong yellowish light radiates the room with light.
As you have mentioned, the sound engineer, who had built the studio, was pursuing the secrets of perfect sound recording, termination of reverberation and perfect conditions for appropriate vibration; and according to him strong yellowish light was an ideal catalyst that could help.
Beside fascinating ‘architectural’ elements and compositions, quotation-like technical elements and sound recording devices make an appearance, including a bundle of cables, a headset, and the microphone that reoccurs in my other works, too.
In case of Recording Room I do not show a complete environment. I rather depict close-up details, compositions of forms, lights and shades that lead in the direction of abstraction.

E.M.: Irrelevant of the genre, portrait itself plays a central role in your artistic oeuvre. In your earlier works, you acted as your own model, but as you have said before, you do not consider them as self-portraits. Still, in your later works, you dedicate your installation entitled MC Monument to the great figures of the world of music. This piece was exhibited in the Budapest Ludwig Museum in 2003.
In your photo series entitled Casting, you depict especially black musicians in a marketing-style manner. While in MC Monument you wanted to take a snapshot of real-life musicians, in Casting this was distorted in a way as the audience becomes ‘victim’ of distortion, so this work can be taken for a visual manifestation of a cultural stereotype.

H.N.: It is true that human figures do appear in my works, but in most cases their portrait-status is questionable as I do not want to portray either persons, or individuals. With regard to the sculpture-installation MC-Monument and the photo series Casting the viewer is confronted basically with stereotypes. In MC-Monument heroes - at the same time victims - of the microphone cult are shown while grasping at the fetish of attention and amplification, in other words the microphone itself; whereas in Casting the viewer can see gesticulating figures with headsets, who are staring into the camera.
In case of Casting it is important to emphasize that all the figures who pose for the camera in stereotypical compositions are black people. Contrary to the underlying implication of the composition and the headsets, none of them is a DJ, a musician or a performer in real life. The only common factor in their lives is that they all live in Berlin and are of African origin. The catalogue-like portrayal of these poses highlight an interesting phenomenon: in Western countries immigrants are often confronted with the expectation that they should either be musicians, DJs, singers or someone with connection to the world of music.
The figures’ position together with the accurately lit and set environment creates two versions within the series itself, and an arrow reoccurs as an obvious representative archetype. The kitsch-like background, which is by the way a snapshot of a bar in Senegal, is supposed to serve this purpose.
To summarize the above, I could say that with the Casting photo series I wanted to make the portrait of a portrait. In other photos faces that are related to microphones and headsets are replaceable elements subjected to their attributes. These impersonal representations rather talk about the highlighted objects than being portraits of real individuals.

E.M.: Your nude male portraits Comfort (2005) and Golden Record (2oo4) focus on narcissistic men who submerge in their own beauty. It seems that they do not notice the presence of the camera, which really creates the feeling of forlornness and isolation.
Nevertheless, if we approach these works from a gender point of view, they could be interpreted as the twisting of the power game so well-represented by the erotic representational elements in traditional art. In these works tension is created by the gaze of females in power and the ‘vulnerable’ naked male bodies.
Could these photos be taken as ironic criticism on the critical discourse related to the traditional relationship between the artist and their model?

H.N.: Two photos have been taken in this topic: in the first one, a male figure appears with a camera in his hand, while lying back on a bed naked; in the second one yet another male figure is shown on a bed again, this time surrounded by records.
These two nude photos could be taken as the true portrait of the male figures since the objects present on the photos are important and characteristic accessories of their everyday life. The ascetic figure lying on his back and depicted from a Christ-like perspective has a video camera with him – he is an artist; the other athletic man lying on the bed is surrounded by scattered records – he is a DJ.
What they have in common is strong narcissism; and from this point of view the two photos could be considered as a parody of narcissism.
Of course, the nature of taking photographs implies a certain superior position during the work process, but I do not feel that this is different from other photographing situations when you ask somebody to make a pose in front of your camera either with or without clothes. Of course, the reverse situation is more frequent when there is a naked woman being photographed, but if we widen the notion of ‘work’ in case of nude photography, and reduce it to a simple choice, then I think this kind of situation can be absolutely natural. Therefore, the end result of this process will go beyond the problem of gender.
These images talk virtually about narcissistic men who submerge in their objects and themselves. When I asked the models to do this job, I had already felt the possibility of creating something ironic, and the models themselves had an affinity to that.

E.M.: These portraits make me remember your other photo entitled Guitarsolo (2006). It can be mentioned together with these ones, as you have once said that you did not want to depict the figure of the guitar player, but the portrait of the electronic guitar instrument itself.

H.N.: H.N.: Really, Guitarsolo is a kind of portrait. As in some of my other works the microphone or the flood lamp is in the focus, supplemented by some figures, and in case of Guitarsolo the four photos are just variations of a white electronic guitar-portrait. To support this purpose, there are four subordinated figures behind the guitar, their impersonal image is emphasized by their stereotypical poses and their covered faces. Having a better look, we can see that the poses they are depicted make it impossible to play the guitar, at least in the traditional way. This ‘no-music’ position figures in the two photos of Not Me, where in the first photo the instrument is silent under the musician leaning against it, while in the second one there is no instrument under the fingers ready to play.
Owing to John Cage, I have been interested in the widened notion of music and silence for a long time, and this has become the theme of my works in recent years, basically video works like Air Out or Desney & Destiny.

All my works dealing with music, music industry or recording aim at finding the abstract in the real world, so they are not about music itself but its language as information, they do not touch on music industry and recording, but on relationship between reality and illusion.
“This is the time and this is the record of the time” – as once Laurie Anderson have said.

E.M.: Your two latest photo series seem to show a new direction in your artistic credo. Freedom or What is composed of a twelve-frame story that records a scene depicting a single movement. Is this black-and-white, film-like photo series going to be the new path you are going to follow in the future?

H.N.: In this narrative, linear photo series a man and a woman can be seen in succession from each other’s point of view. The story’s real focus point is nevertheless the photo flood lamp standing on a tripod, which can be seen in itself on the first and last photo of the series. This lamp is blinding the woman bound to her chair, as the story unfolds from snapshot to snapshot. More precisely, as one can perceive it on the last photo, the lamps is blinding us, leaving a shadowy white patch behind.

The other work entitled Unrecorded handles variation on fictitious record covers. In the scenes we can see performing individuals losing their personality, while they are being subdued by objects and accessories. The microphone, flood lamp and other means of accentuation and amplification are back again, overacting as protagonists of a ‘well-composed’ reality.

Lyrics or excerpts rather, have always played an important role both in my photos and installations. In my opinion, most of the significant thoughts and ideas have already been expressed in poems and lyrics. One only has to recall them.
Just as R.E.M. says in one of their songs:
“That’s me in the corner, that’s me in the spot light, losing my religion.”

Zoltán Kékesi
Atmosphere and Breath / Hajnal Németh’s videoworks

At first glance the viewer can see a recording studio. A musician enters the studio on the right-hand side door and gently starts to play a guitar solo (Guitarsolo, 2007). The studio is filmed through the window of the sound engineer’s room. In the backgroung, one can hear the wayward talking of two sound engineers. Hence, the viewer can follow the recording from the sound engineers’ point of view, while the musician plays solitarily without any purpose. From this perspective, the viewer can scrupulously observe the minute details of the shabby recording studio, including its wood-panelling, the odd shapes of the wall surrounding the window, a framed image of a pop icon, and two devotional pictures on the left hand side and below. How could they get there?

Hajnal Németh has been recording videoworks in music studios since 2004. Following Sammy Listens Sammy Back (2004), Recording Room (2006), Guitarsolo (2007) and Desney & Destiny (2007), she presented her fifth work within this series in 2008. Owing to the subject matter, Air Out was filmed in a church, where the performance of an organist was recorded.

What is the subject matter depicted? Although these works are interconnected, it is not that easy to define their message. In the early 2000s, Hajnal Németh became known for works that had crossed the borderline between high and pop culture genres. Do these videos talk about pop culture, its products and styles, including pop music and alternative cultures? For instance, well-known Bob Marley and Queen songs can be heard in Recording Room; nevertheless, in Guitarsolo music itself does not play an important role, since the viewer can only hear improvisations. Do these videos talk about the representatives and creative thinkers of pop culture – hence about pop musicians? Based on the titles Sammy Listens to Sammy Back or Desney & Destiny, one could have this assumption; nonetheless, neither of them can be taken as a portrait. Or do these videos talk about the work process itself, the process that takes place through human interactions, and an interface between musician and the recording studio? In case of Recording Room or Guitarsolo one can easily have the association about the various forms of human interaction, or the lack of them. Or do these works talk about the place of creation? Do they talk about the recording studio, a venue defined by social and aesthetic aspects? In Guitarsolo, the place of creation is not shown as a regulated, tough, market-driven workplace, but as a venue where everyone can take their time, where the notion of time is obsolete, and where one senses hollowness. Or are these videoworks about the medium itself, do we see conceptual works that emphasize the unique features of videoworks (for instance, the distortion of sound plays a relevant role in Recording Room and Desney & Destiny)?

There is always a different focus point in the videoworks discussed, but reconsidering them from the point of view of Air Out an interesting subject matter comes to the viewer’s eyes. I myself have never seen this aspect before, yet it might link some works, especially Guitarsolo and Desney & Destiny. (The latter can even be considered as the complementary pair of Air Out.)
Guitarsolo and Desney & Destiny show the interior of the recording studio with the musician from a fixed point of view in a single shot. While in Guitarsolo the figure is placed in space and the sound is left intackt in order to focus on the documented location, action and human being; in Desney & Destiny Hajnal Németh zooms on the figure, discloses the space of the recording studio and distorts the sound. Instead of a shot that depicts the whole body in Guitarsolo; here the singer is shown from the back in close-up. This videowork is built on the simple manipulation of the sound-track. The director amplified the breathing of the singer, and separated the song and the breathing on two sound-tracks. In her 2007 exhibition at Impex Gallery, Hajnal Németh had the speakers installed so that the audience could hear the breathing from behind, while the song was audible from the direction of the projector. The shots are impersonal, yet the close-ups radiate certain sensuality. The breathing stands for a characteristic bodily presence that divides the space of the installation, and finally splits from the image of the whole body. This videowork is built on the contrasts of image and sound, presence and absence, impersonality and sensuality, intellect and body, projected image and the installation space.

In Air Out, the audience can see the organist from behind, who is sitting in front of the organ playing Bach’s composition entitled Air. In the title of the original piece of music the word ‘song’ is used, nevertheless, it transforms into something new in the video. One is confronted with a dual process: while the close-up continuously expands, air runs short in the organ. As the close-up turns into a long shot, the song turns into a mechanical clacking of the musical instrument. Thus, the video shows the organ player at the two extremes: from intense close-ups and extreme distance shots. In the first few frames, only the mechanical movement of the body (the back) is visible, and later on this changes into a long shot where the human figure turns into a complementary ‘unit’ of the mechanically clacking machine. Air involuntarily turns into a metaphore – the musical instrument runs out of air, just as the human body is left without oxygen, and consequently without consciousness and existence. The balance of body and soul, sound and intellect, organist and musical instrument is transitory. It only exists temporarily between the two extremes.

One has the inexplicable feeling that these works, especially Guitarsolo, Desney & Destiny and Air Out, depict the relationship of the individual and its surrounding, the body and intellect, or even the liaison between artist and medium.