Art Papers  

more from the
November/December 2016 issue:

Meaning Attribution:
The Inflation of Personal Life
Interview With
Péter Forgács

– Sonja Simonyi
and Niels Van Tomme

Looking for Black Art
in Baltimore
Conversations With
Joyce J. Scott &
Theresa Chromati

– Abdu Mongo Ali

Geopolitics on the Edge
– Stephanie Bailey

November/December 2016
+ buy issue
+ subscribe

Meaning Attribution:
The Inflation of Personal Life

Interview with Péter Forgács

Text: Sonja Simonyi and Niels Van Tomme

Hungarian artist Péter Forgács is widely known for his film and multimedia works, which often repurpose archival footage such as home movies and newsreels. In these narratives, the major historical incidents of the 20th century generate dramatic turns of events, yet remain markedly offscreen, as complex family sagas and personal histories are foregrounded instead. His Attribution of Meaning, a two-part exhibition that was shown at the Capa Center in Budapest earlier this year, consisted of a single video installation piece, as well as a dizzying salon-style display of hundreds of stills, personal photographs, found images visually reworked by the artist, archival documents—including secret police reports—and diary excerpts. Delving into the artist's own past, his development as an artist and filmmaker, and his family history, the exhibition was built around recent revelations that Forgács' mother, unbeknownst to her children, worked for Hungary's infamous socialist state secret service as an intelligence agent between 1975 and 1985.

Péter Forgács, Mrs. P and Her Sons, 2015, installation view of Meaning of Attribution,
Capa Center, Budapest [courtesy of the artist]

Sonja Simonyi & Niels Van Tomme: For years you've been working on issues of memory, on constructing an alternative historical narrative of the 20th century. Why did you decide to address the recent revelations of your mother's past involvement with the Hungarian secret service through an exhibition and large-scale installation? Why was this format the best way to address this challenging topic?

Péter Forgács: First of all, as a Hungarian citizen I am aware that the Hungarian secret police papers have not been published, and that the main political parties profited from not publishing the lists of agents. This is a crime. It didn't happen like it did in East Germany, Poland, and the Czech Republic, because Hungarian politicians mutually agreed to keep things under a cover so they could blackmail each other. So as a citizen I was fighting for absolute openness about this. And then, out of the blue in early 2014, an archivist friend of mine contacted my brother András and me and shared with us these newly found dossiers [on] my mother. This was a big surprise. I had scant information that my father was working as a foreign agent in Britain because other former agents told me [long] after my parents' death. So this was a terrible surprise and a shocking surprise. But I knew that maximum openness would be the only adequate attitude toward addressing this.

SS & NVT: So what was your mother's motivation? And what was more generally your familial context during this time?

PF: My mother's motivation was very complex. It was not only that she was an ardent anti-Zionist. In the political way she was a Soviet-type anti-Zionist. [That she was] born in Jerusalem made it even more interesting that she, in her grownup life, had chosen the Stalinist agenda. But this coincided with a strong motivation to save my younger sister, who was a short-tempered avant-garde theatermaker. [My mother's] "manipulation" aimed to keep [my sister] a legal Hungarian citizen, studying in the US. To complicate things, I had a very conflicted relationship with my mother. At some point I broke off my relationship with her because she was too offensive, and too intrusive in our private lives. She was a dominant, yet very interesting, very colorful and very loving person. So the revelations were shocking even to my close friends!

Additionally, what was very painful, and is not mentioned in the exhibition, is that my father had a mental illness. From 1973 to his death in 1986 he was a complete paranoid schizophrenic, [yet] my mother kept him inside the family regardless. There is a psychotic line in the background of this story, where the psychosis is driving the family structure mad. I argued with my mother about this: please, place him in a psychiatric institution, visit him every day, but don't keep him in the center of the family, because you're organizing the whole family life around this crazy complication, which is poisonous! In psychiatry there is a model of the alcoholic family, in which the mother supplies drinks to the alcoholic, abusive father, so that he'd calm down. The alcoholic family's model is very similar to the psychotic family model. This is not really exposed in this exhibition, because [doing so] would have de-focused its clear orientation. And it wouldn't explain too much, because it's my mother's statue that I am building. So it was an intentional decision.

Péter Forgács, still from I Can Laugh Too, 2015 [courtesy of the artist]

SS & NVT: Your exhibition addresses this complex topic through a dual installation. The first part concerns a video that you started making in the early 1980s, and which shows your mother reciting a letter by Kafka, alongside other family members and acquaintances.

PF: ... The whole idea of the original work is that I show my son Bálint, who was just born, my friends, my family members, my brother's girlfriend at that time, et cetera. So everyone who is included was also part of my life, and my mother's part in the film is also very important because she is reading this letter excerpt. At the time we were on good terms again after five years of silentium, so she participated. The Kafka text she reads is something like: "Needless to say, I did not achieve complete absolution, nor shall I ever achieve it. But this matters little; I may have behaved in this fashion at the time simply in order to prove to you later that I am capable of laughter." So mother reciting Kafka's sin of inappropriate laughter became like a confession. The text became a metaphor. So I was lucky that I found the footage, that I could digitize it, and that she was saying these sentences.

SS & NVT: The installation part has a meticulous structure, consisting of hundreds of documents, photographs, and other visual material. How did you come to it?

PF: The preparation was a very long process, during which I decided what language I could use. The only concept I could come up with involved the dates of my mother's activities and her death, when her agent job ended, a 10-year period from 1975 to 1985. And these 10 years became a kind of metric. So the only thing I could show in contrast to my mother's dossier [was] the parallel I had in my own life during this time: every important thing that I had in that 10-year period during which she was working—the secrets, and also the things that were known. In the installation, there is a horizontal axis of several parts, [including] my own diaries from this period, family photographs, and experimental and reworked photographs, which are more about the body, the flesh, the secrecy of the intimate, hidden lives of people. [Above] that were excerpts from my diaries from each year, and under [it] were the reports: the reports of my mother, [those] of the genius filmmaker Gábor Bódy—who, as it turned out after his death, was also an agent—as well as those of another friend of mine.

I had everything with me in the studio, and I started moving things around, like on an editing table. The whole exhibition process took approximately the same time as making a film. In the research period, what was the heaviest for me was reading my diaries, facing the young person that I had left behind. It's me, but it's not me. And it's deeply me .... It's like going into an archive and reading handwritten manuscripts—if you want to know more about Thomas Mann, read his handwritten diaries.

I kept written diaries since I was in my early twenties and wrote almost daily, about everything that was important to me ... art, dreams, letters, life .... So I had some proof of a kind of life that [was] not the same as my mother's—[proof of] my opposition to the system, [of] that culture, [of] that whole era of being in the political and artistic underground. I kept them in boxes, and every year I thought, "I should destroy them." Instead I had to open them so that I could find something. I was looking for many things: things I did, what happened on that day when [my mother] reported—because I understood that it would only work by opening up completely .... So then I couldn't stop. The objects and the written parts started to write themselves. I only had to find the structure, and this was a process with which my brother András helped a lot. I tried different variations on how to install these hundreds of pictures and documents, and how to weave together this big tapestry, this monumental canvas, this collage of facts and news of the family. And of course it touches on my own private life. So how far could I go? How much should I confess? I wanted to prove even to myself—and it sounds extremely naïve and vulnerable—that I was on the other side, that my thoughts were the complete opposite [of my mother's] not just in the political sense, but as a life. As a life in a Proustian collage.

Péter Forgács, still from I Can Laugh Too, 2015 [courtesy of the artist]

SS & NVT: It is very interesting that you approach the material through a doubling of identity. Within the installation, you appropriate the name that your mother used during her secret activities (Pápainé/Mrs. Pápai), and in a way you show how these activities radiated out to her sons. Were you thinking about the effect that this duplicity of identity would have on the viewer as well, so that they in a way would be complicit in the story?

PF: Absolutely! Doubling myself was a technique, and it's not new. Like when Søren Kirkegaard writes in Either/Or that he [has found] a manuscript, [when in fact it] is his own text. In literature, Kafka does this as well, when he is talking about K.; Imre Kertész did it, [as did Fernando] Pessoa. I suddenly understood that [there is] a power to being a double person, to having a fake personality—like Lynn Hershman Leeson, the American artist who did this in the 1970s. I understood that handling these vast problems of representation and contextualization helped me to build up this language .... It was much easier to be ruthless with myself, to point out Péter Pápai's weakness—things I normally would not reveal about myself. So this exhibition was a way to pull myself out of the mud on one hand, and on the other to look at things from a distance .... I wouldn't say [this is a kind of] objectivity, because that is a scientific word, but a [way of] distancing myself .... Distancing myself from P. Pápai, I can represent anything. I am there, but I am not there. I am just the artist, sorry! Like Kierkegaard, I just found this manuscript. And the structural elements of the exhibition are the result of looking for this language. Like in my video work, like in my other works, the language is always growing together with the piece.

Péter Forgács, Mrs. P and Her Sons, 2015, installation view of Meaning of Attribution,
Capa Center, Budapest [courtesy of the artist]

SS & NVT: We are also interested in how you approach documents, photographs, and other materials in your film work, and within this installation. In the films you insert your own voice, not as a voiceover necessarily but via intertitles and such, to provide a reading of the material. In the installation, it's more open. You're looking at documents and images, but the viewer has to figure out his or her own position towards the material.

PF: A very good observation. The overwhelming number of the photographs and documents, which was around 640, is a kind of inflation, a tool for the exhibition. You cannot really observe or study or take it all in, and this has metaphoric meaning: you can never understand the other person's life in-depth. There are so many things that you may have to hide, and there are so many things you're not saying. So somehow, [in] handling these documents, I had to go deeper towards the wound. If it's a knife, I have to push it in more. It's painful, but I want you to see the flesh. There were so many fatal wounds, and dead people, and memorials. You are either escaping these or not. Here you have a holistic picture, [but] you can't look at it all. And you are right, it is different than the films, because usually I am not "mean" to my heroes—but I can be mean to myself and to my mother ....

SS & NVT: The installation has an almost pathological character, an obsessive way of coming to terms with these 10 years. At the same time, it points to the notion of responsibility—a very difficult theme to address within an artistic context because it intersects with questions of morality and ethics. It's hard to not become moralizing when dealing with such ideas. But in a way, by keeping it in the hands of the viewer, the work implicitly engages the individual's responsibility towards larger historical processes. Making people figure out their own ways of connecting separate elements means that the viewer is not passively undergoing a predefined narrative, but instead is somebody who actively has to come to terms with these documents as well.

PF: Yes. I also had the feeling that my previous works already show my worldview. Had this been my first work ever, it would've just been a beginner's confession, which is not that interesting .... Having this covered ground behind me, this was not only a striptease, but I knew that I had a solid foundation, that I cannot be crushed under the weight of my parents' assimilation policies, serving the monster, and working against the culture which I am part of. It also showed—and this is the secret part of it—how hard it was for me to come out and be a countercultural, underground person. So this exhibition is more about this kind of attitude. I am not moralizing, I want to give you the facts, but the facts are many. I want to give you some clues ... but the rest is up to you, dear visitor.

Péter Forgács' Attribution of Meaning was part of the three-artist exhibition Meaning with Marcell Esterházy and Gábor Gerhes, curated by Emese Mucsi at the Capa Center in Budapest. Forgács, represented by Ani Molnár Gallery, developed the installation with his brother, András Forgách, who published a novel based upon the same discovery.

Sonja Simonyi is a film scholar working on the film and media cultures of postwar Eastern Europe. She is currently co-editing a volume on experimental filmmaking in the region for Amsterdam University Press.

Niels Van Tomme is the director at de Appel in Amsterdam. Most recently he curated the Bucharest Biennale 7, What are we building down there?, which was displayed exclusively on billboards across the city.

Retrospective | Special Events | Donate | Subscribe
Editorial | Contact | Advertise | About ART PAPERS

© 2016 ART PAPERS, Inc.