Contemporary Photography from Hungary 7.


Faur Zsófi Gallery
Budapest, 2010
104 pages, 76 color images
Text: Gábor Pfisztner

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Gábor Pfisztner
The Empty Time (Émile Michel Cioran)
The word “idleness” in Hungarian does not imply all the meanings of the English or German word describing this “condition”. The German “Langeweile” or “lange Weile” as well as the English “idle” includes “lingering”, and it alludes to the fact that we are spending time – that is, according to Cioran, empty – with different compensatory activities. For Cioran boredom means acknowledging the existence of “nothing”, so that one has to face a basic problem of existence. Gergely Szatmári has been dealing with these issues for a long time. At the beginning of his career he might had pointed to it less radically, he had approached it by presenting its opposite, but later on he has exposed our age’s basic experience gradually overrunning this post-modern and post-industrial society, and this experience seems to press us to face something that we want to flee from. The feeling of safety, being part of a community, having a certain role, our tasks and responsibilities give the feeling of being important for others – its lack leads to emptiness, needlessness. Studies about children prove that meaningless tasks or the lack of tasks result in senseless aggressiveness, destruction, devastation, torturing of others. The keen observer sees our age’s United States of America very differently than what the filmmakers’ fictive worlds show. There is a clear analogy with the tendencies of the last two decades of the 19th century, the turning from reality, the strengthening of Symbolism, the torturing desire for dream-worlds. Although the causes were different, the urge was arisen from a frustration: the desire for liberty, fraternity, equality has not been fulfilled, and the class in power did not intend to fulfill it. Today’s USA has started to wake up from the dream that was dreamed by everybody, except a few beat-poets and some of their contemporaries suffering from insomnia, who needed remedies for the subconscious to be able to artificially fall asleep. It was the ecstasy of velocity, drugs, alcohol and sexuality. One of Joseph Heller’s characters repelled from the quick passing of time, so he did things he hated to slow down its speed. Today we make efforts to spend our time extremely quickly, by all possible means, we deal with things that have only one sense: they distract attention from the emptiness of the remaining time, so that we don’t have to watch when it comes to an end. Gergely Szatmári’s two series, Essays in Idleness, The American Idler and the Essays in Idleness, The Meadowlands were created in a world where the feeling of superfluity and the menacing emptiness of the remaining time can be observed on surrounding persons and surrounding things, among which their time flows by in a compulsory way. The title “Meadowlands” stands for a region and an institution – a sports and amusement park in New Jersey, northwest from New York, near the river Hackensack – a name originating from the region, an institution that was created for a senseless spending of time. In the works composed here, Szatmári consciously or unconsciously evokes the imagery of some of his forerunners, Joel Meyerowitz, Steven Shore or William Egglestone – important artists of the 60’s and 70’s. Szatmári discovered that these USA photographers had come to the same conclusion decades before him. The difference is that their starting point was the phenomenon they presented, while Szatmári is dealing with the issues of superfluity, inertia and its results: frustration, depression, resignation, renouncement and total passivity. Meyerovitz and his companions had accepted that the outsider-role, the exit from society that the Bruce Davidson-gang could stick to is not working anymore. As early as the sixties Hannah Arendt drew attention to the fact that in the modern world’s process of socialization the possibility of exiting, escaping has been lost, and society is ruling and controlling the individual. Szatmári’s characters seem to accept this situation, while it is exactly idleness that makes it obvious that they enter a kind of inner emigration when having no possibility to leave or to protest. In the meantime this necessarily comes hand in hand with what almost all immigrants have to face: inertia, boredom, inactivity – mainly if they lack the power to face the real situation. Eggleston, Shore and Meyerovitz had fled to the decorative, ornamental, but empty beauty of forms abstracted from the surrounding world, but they had not hidden its leanness – this can be interpreted as a hint to, or even a metaphor of the forming of the real American environment. Szatmári merely “illustrates” his thesis with unused factories, railroads, empty streets, gappy rows of houses, deserted administrative centers, rotten vending machines in disused rooms, devoid canteens, bare cinemas. People appearing on his pictures are also in a state of slow decay. They are placed in these empty rooms, once probably full of people, and thus it becomes obvious: they are the “rest”, the ones who could not or did not want to leave, facing the consequences, or simply accepting the situation. They might be the ones who came to a point where they must look facts in the face, and assume that from now on they must co-exist with the sense of a certain “nothing”. Is this a European’s vision of the United States of America? A long time ago millions of Europeans hit the road having a positive preconception, trying to fulfill their dreams and desires. Only a few succeeded, the rest vegetated on the periphery. Today, in a disintegrating society, we project an opposite “image” onto this world, the vision of a decaying empire, well-known from history. On his pictures Szatmári sometimes presents hurrying cars and airplanes. The speed of these vehicles, the quick motion is only a jump: thus we jump out of real time and real space, out of what we would sense as real, if simply walking. By speed it is easier to turn away from the surrounding world and ignore its existence, which we should consider in a poise. His earlier works which present fencers, fencing schools, sometimes a lively moment of the fencing-bout seem to stand in a harsh contrast with his three later series. Here we face a world where the members of the community seem to turn against each other, but as a matter of fact by this noble rivalry they do something for each other, they pay attention to each other’s gestures, movements, mimics, obvious and hidden intentions – the lack of attention would make it impossible to fight hoping for victory. Considering from the point of view of latter works, the pictures presenting fencing as a community event, reunion as a feast get new meaning. From a retrospective view maintaining the traditions, holding together the community is not only a self-standing value, but a counterpoint, emphasizing the threat of the condition presented on the American pictures. In these pictures Szatmári shows the supporting power of tradition through a noble sport. He didn`t present fencing in huge sports-arenas, he did not enter this world through the fight for glory, money and medal, but on the contrary. He wanted to focus on the fact that those living in this world have this as a form of life, and their community is the most important factor for them. Fencing as an activity has the character of celebration, just as Gadamer puts it in the Actuality of Beauty. Celebration is structuring, connecting, and urges the part-takers for a common activity. It is the opposite of the passive and frustrated idleness where time loses its structure and days become a never-ending flood, the menacing swim of which is despairing the ones not ready to rule it. The series Landlord reflects an intermediate condition. This series is a pictorial embodiment of a theoretical research, of the thoughts this research resulted. Its central character can be determined as the individual object of the modern European–American culture. The landlord’s figure is the metaphor of it. His situation allows him to take decisions individually, seemingly of his free will. He can use his time deliberately, he decides about how to use it, how to fill it. However, this character is lonely, he closes himself up in an isolated medium, where nobody else has a place, where nobody can enter – that is what the pictures suggest. He is independent, but lonely, as he relies only onto himself, doesn’t want to relate with others, and somehow he depends of others in a voluntarily way. The atmosphere of the environment obviously reflects his moods, his relationship with the surrounding world. We might raise the question: why doesn’t he occupy himself? Why doesn’t he act, fill his time, instead of letting it flow away, renouncing to take a decision about it? The perfect independence, the perfect liberty of acting and deciding can only result in choosing passivity. All other situations, where also other individuals are needed, lead to the necessity of agreement. The landlord can escape in one way: finding different identities and applying them to himself. Szatmári’s pictures lack this option, this is not a real alternative for him. Undertaking different identities is again a passive accepting and not an original activity, it is a reaction and not an action. But “modern” society emphasises the need of permanent activity and individual decisions, thus the inactivity of the landlord is unacceptable. His idleness is a rebellion, a revolt, a kind of deviancy, idling. Still, in this way he might just oppose apparent activities that are required by society. However, the freedom of idling is only an apparent freedom, as a matter of fact he avoids to take a decision or to take responsibility (and responsibility for others). Here idling is pure passivity that assumes existence only as a reflex, and rejects activity required by society. Szatmári’s series makes it clear that “withdrawing” is a transitional solution, and “rebellion” alone cannot solve the problems of the landlord, it can only draw attention to them. The two series of Idleness, just as the pictures of the above mentioned photographers, are not collections of “caught” moments or situations, but well-thought and built-up series of pictures. The characters, although not preset, are posing according to a chosen role, and they stiffen into total inactivity. Here, as well as on the landscapes, the main urge is to recall the feeling of immobility, the apparent constancy which implies the condition of death. Details of deserted streets, squares, parking places, buffets become impersonal, unbearable, lifeless. This method implies something basically antagonistic. According to William Henry Fox Talbot’s conception, photography as a method essentially wanted (adjusting to the technical circumstances) to preserve the fleeting moment, make the transitory minute permanent, keep it in the present. But Szatmári is not interested in the momentary, he deals with the menacing constancy of the seemingly everlasting moment. Changing can be noticed also here, but only in an interval that restricts the perception of those present: changing cannot be realized...