THE WORLD IS LIKE A MIRROR
—Chapters of the Story of the Conceptual Art – from The Beke Collection—
Angelo de Aquino, Gábor Attalai, András Baranyay, Gustave Cerutti, Dalibor Chatrný, Tibor Gáyor, Tom J. Gramse, Klaus Groh, Jiří H. Kocman, Romuald Kutera, János Major, David Mayor, Dóra Maurer, Anette Messager, Steffen Missmahl, Géza Perneczky, Sándor Pinczehelyi, Martin Schwartz, Jörg Schwarzenberger, Mieko (Chieko) Shiomi, Zdzisław Sosnowski, Petr Štembera, Tamás Szentjóby, Endre Tót, János Tölgyesi, Jiří Valoch, and so on.
Art+Text Budapest is putting up a unique show of the Hungarian conceptual art of the 1970s, a selection from László Beke’s three projects at the time. The exhibits include the works displayed at exhibition entitled TÜKÖR / MIRROR / SPIEGEL / MIROIR at Balatonboglár in 1973, a sample of the Eastern European material Beke selected for the Sydney of Biennale in 1979, and the 1972 slide show entitled Cobblestones, Gravestones never presented in its entirety.
Art historian László Beke’s unique collection of works is a sensitive imprint of the conceptual art turn of tide in the early 1970s. The first large-scale display of conceptual art in Hungary took place on Beke’s 1971 invitation (theme: artwork = documentation of idea). In the spirit of Lawrence Weiner and Klaus Groh, he, the curator, did not deem the physical realization of artworks as a key issue, and the exhibition came to be manifest in a folder entitled Idea full of conceptual works.
The following year, 1972, he composed his slide show entitled Cobblestones, Gravestones, collecting conceptual works on the theme. As he recalled in an interview in 1998: "I announced a major action entitled Cobblestones and Gravestones made timely by demonstrations on March 15, Gyula Gazdag’s film and Paris '68. On this occasion, many people produced cobblestones, including Dezső Korniss, Gyula Gulyás, Miklós Erdély, and so on. Still others made tombstones, and there were those who combined the two. It was the best talk I ever gave. It went on fine for 20 minutes, but then Gyula Pauer accidentally kicked the projector, which got short-circuited, and no one ever got to know what the rest of the show would be about, but I considered it very important." 45 years later, the Cobblestones, Gravestones concept slide show can now be seen at the Art + Text Budapest exhibition.
The next, truly large-scale, project by László Beke, took place at the underground shrine of Hungarian conceptual art, the Balatonboglár chapel in the summer of 1973. For a weekend in August, the cream of the Hungarian conceptual art scene and, thanks to extensive international relations of Beke, many foreign artists from as far as Osaka and Rio de Janeiro gathered there under the four-language title (TÜKÖR / MIRROR / SPIEGEL / MIROIR). As he later recalled: the exhibition is "a symbol of the fact that Hungarian avant-garde artists had incredibly close ties with their foreign counterparts two decades ago. Conceptual art and mail art flourished, today’s stars of the international art scene would not hesitate to send their works to strangers behind the Iron Curtain at the time.”
The chapel at Balatonboglár was a cultic hub of the Hungarian neo-avant-garde art of the early '70s, an underground exhibition space disguised as a summer camp. György Galántai found the Balaton-side venue, which he opened to his friends after protracted preparations in the summer of 1970. Progressive of art projects and exhibitions followed one another at Galántai’s chapel atelier, drawing the entire Hungarian avant-garde art scene and international colleagues and friends. The unofficial art forum of unofficial art soon attracted the attention of the authorities: by 1973, harassment and pestering by police and authorities became regular. As a report to the Ministry of Culture put it: "It is a an organization that completely ignores both statutory provisions and cultural policy objectives." Official art policy consolidation suppressed the underground forum by the following year. In the last legendary year, 1973, the forum hosted its artistic high point, the exhibition TÜKÖR / MIRROR / SPIEGEL / MIROIR curated by László Beke, which was visited by large numbers avant-garde artists – as well as police and informers.
Progressive artistic endeavours hiding in the shadow of the Kádár-era art policy of the dreaded three Ts [c. “tend for”, “tolerate”, “terminate”] were awarded their rightful place in the art canon after the changes in 1990. The Balatonboglár Chapel Exhibitions having been suppressed by the authorities, the neo-avant-garde archives György Galántai had been building for decades, Artpool, became a "registered institution" in 1992, wining the support of Budapest municipality. Then, in 1992, Artpool was opened with a reconstruction of Beke’s legendary TÜKÖR / MIRROR / SPIEGEL / MIROIR show of twenty years earlier. In the short exhibition catalogue, the curator recalled the inception of the original idea: "At the time, the final push for the mirror-work collection was that, as an art historian, I realized: there is no artist who has not been mesmerized by mirrors for at least a moment. Also as a conceptual art enthusiast, I recognized too that this was exactly the artistic movement that assumed the task of self-examination – now, there was no self-examination without a 'mirror'.
The mirror phenomenon touched on the very artery of conceptual thinking and artistic practice: through elusive mirror-images, it hinted at art being dematerialized in the 70s; with its self-examining tendency, it strengthened the analytical and playful character of concept; and, through single-lens reflex cameras, it hooked on to the fashion to use photos. Although the theme alluded to the art policy situation specific to the Eastern Bloc due to the official aesthetic dogma of Marxist reflection theory, exhibiting artists approached the specified theme from more universal directions, in tune with the ironic aphorism Beke formulated in his invitation: "The mirror is the metaphor of art. / The mirror is the biggest artistic common place.”
Perhaps as a closure of the classic conceptual art of the 70s, László Beke was offered an opportunity to present the wide conceptual art network of Central and Eastern Europe in a separate section at the prestigious international Biennale of Sydney. Finally, suspicious authorities did not let Beke go to Australia, but his selection was exhibited. The most exciting works available from that material and their documentation can be seen at the show of the period arranged by Art + Text Budapest.