The Hungarian Pavilion at Venice Biennale 2017 will be represented by the acclaimed Gyula Varnai, whose art was associated and came to prominence along with a group of Hungarian Neo-Conceptual artists in the 1990s. Exploring the relationship between the past and future, between the failed historical attempts of creating a perfect society and the present global political situation, he tries to provide an insight into the meaning and significance of utopias. Gyula Varnai often uses every day and found materials to create his installations, but also explores historical materials belonging to previous political systems that strongly shaped his life in Hungary.
Providing a unique angle into this year’s topic of the Biennale, VIVA ARTE VIVA, he gives his own reflection on the statement of the curator Christine Macel. This edition of the Art Biennale is designed by artists and for artists whose aim is to explore the forms and questions of their own concern about both the nature of art itself and its relationship with the contemporary society. Two transnational pavilions this year are specially curated to provide additional insights into the failed social and ecological utopias of the 1960s and 1970s, The Pavilion of the Common and The Pavilion of the Earth. Gyula Varnai finds his own and unique path of exploration in which he tries to move above the everyday conflicts but rather provide us with a global message which can create a thoughtful direction for the future.
Between the Past and Future
Widewalls: What is your personal relationship to the city that you live in and how does it affect the creation of your works?
Gyula Varnai: Dunaújváros is a small industrial town along the Danube. It was founded six years before my birth, in the era of socialist industrialization. Its builders came from all over Hungary, among them enthusiastic scientists and young people with sincere faith, along with adventurers, swashbucklers, and fortune-hunters. That’s why the locals use the “little America” metaphor for the city. Maybe this is an overstatement, but the rootlessness and lack of traditions created a multicultural society you cannot find elsewhere. I still feel the freshness and openness in the atmosphere of the city today, and this I believe is ideal and inspirational for a contemporary artist.
Widewalls: How does your background in mathematics and physics influence your current artistic practice?
GV: I grew up in a period when scientists and cosmonauts were considered to be the pioneers of space and mind. For me, it was an extraordinary experience. Of course, I imagined my future as a physicist researching the space and the matter. I read and studied physics and astronomy passionately, built telescopes, but later I became more interested in creation. I still have an intensive relationship with natural sciences which I often use as a source of inspiration. I regularly use references of physics and astronomy in my works and I also kept the pragmatic approach which serves as a filter to all of my creations.
Widewalls: How do the slogans and symbols of socialism shape your current artistic project?
GV: I am not an artist who wishes to romanticize the past. I just want to use the visuals of my environment and what is given in the city that I come from. We learn from the past and from our parents’ generation when we refer to their symbols. However, we must face and speak to the next generation, to lead them to a direction we all can be proud of.
Widewalls: How can we deal with the ‘failed’ utopias from the past and why do we need new ones today?
GV: I believe that we shouldn’t forget that in their own historical moments all utopias seemed feasible and we can only regard them more realistically from a proper distance. This maybe helps us to judge current utopias more accurately.
Widewalls: Do you think that a common vision of a utopia really exists in contemporary society and is it necessary in order to survive the current social, economic and natural crisis?
GV: I think a common vision exists. Today, there is a global agreement and belief, that the development of technologies, online services, automation, Artificial Intelligence, Big Data and Virtual Reality boosts the economy and solves questions of unemployment, or leads humanity towards collective welfare. As a utopia, this seems to cover local economic problems, power games, corruption and general disinterest in politics. The former Utopias were related to philosophies and overall world-views. Today, we do not make such big proclamations, but I believe in a utopia that art – maybe not in the way we used to think of it – can make a positive effect on current social conditions.
Widewalls: Taking in mind the rapid changes happening in all fields of our existence in the 21st century, even the faith in future becomes relative and insecure. Is the vision of our new utopia then also shaped fluidly, and does it have a space to move and become different?
GV: As I quote Stanislav Lem in my project, to give a 100 % accurate forecast is impossible, that is the problem of futurology itself. Today, we experience that our presence is more and more defined by such projections. The faith in future is absolutely relative, and that is why I suggest that through art we should be more conscious of the every day, and on a stable value system we can make small steps to fulfill a more democratic future of humanity.
Moving Above Everyday Conflicts
Widewalls: Where do you personally find faith in this “Peace on Earth!” vision and how did you manage to keep it so strong that continues to inspire others?
GV: The Peace on Earth! vision is a metaphor which crystallized and took its current shape through centuries. Conflict is a given element of human nature which we haven’t learned to handle well throughout thousands of years, albeit this could mobilize incredible energy in many societies. I consider, that in an ideal future we should rather write ‘Conflicts on Earth!’ on our flags.
Widewalls: Why do you use everyday, ordinary and found materials in your creations? How do you choose the right ones to work with?
GV: I like simplicity and usefulness which I can find both in nature and in the most ordinary objects. The shape of a plastic bottle, the physical qualities of the water or the move of the hour hand can inspire me to give form to an idea which I might have had dormant in my mind for a long time.
Widewalls: Can you tell us about the relationship between the general theme of the Biennale this year and your project?
GV: I find the approach of the Biennial this year quite challenging, with its focus on the art itself and the artist as an actor. It is early yet to see what will be presented in the other pavilions, but I think that in general, this Biennial will be really exciting. My expectation is that there will be many artists who will react directly to contemporary problems in the world. I conceived of my mission as to create a general, global message that is “above” the everyday conflicts and can create a thoughtful direction. I think that with this approach, I can underline the responsibility and the role of the artist in today’s society.