ARTS & GEOGRAPHY - Opening Address
The History of a Split between Islands and Dams, Circles and Lines
I would just like to share a couple of thoughts with you concerning this exhibition, not as an aesthetician nor an art historian but rather as a researcher of a field situated around the borderline between the disciplines of geography and ethnography . As far as I can see, András Blazsek’s installation, as well as the exploratory work preceding it, would be the result of efforts made in the most sensitive area intermediate between geography and other bodies of learning. Consequently, it seems that it simultaneously aims to stretch the academic boundaries of interpretation as a product, although it was not necessarily created by its author with this specific goal in mind in the first place. What I mean by this is related to the shift in attitude that has become more and more acceptable by now, to the extent that it is already part of the curriculum at some universities today, as canonical knowledge passed on to the younger generations.
It is, in fact, a several-decade-long transformation that the theoretical system of the discipline of geography has been subject to and as a result of which geography itself could radically reconsider the one-and-a-half-century-old basic tenet of “geography, as a strict and exact science” to take a Copernican Turn and give it up finally. The thing is that, by the second half of the 19th century, geography could find its proper niche among sciences on the one hand, and managed to clarify its own definite subject matter on the other hand. The central query for it became the detailed analysis of the (external) environment that surrounds us, human beings, which we have actively formed and shaped, together with its inherent spatial relationships. That is to say, contemporary geography found the proper framework for its subject of research comprising three “T”-s which are Tér [Space], Táj [Land(scape)], and Térkép [Map].
As regards tér [space]: it used to be construed as an almost palpable, but at least easily describable and measurable box, in which events take place. This thesis, however, got to be more and more differentiated during the course of the second half of the twentieth century, with new theories and concepts of space appearing in scholarly-scientific thinking that regarded space rather as a projection of social processes on the one hand and the personal mental projection of individuals on the other hand. Parallel with the concept of “space as a container” and partly replacing it, there appeared a relative and subject-centered concept which interprets space both as a permanently changing mental experience and as a relationship between objects. That is to say, the activity of spatial recording of social processes gradually disappears today from the agenda of geography, and the latter tends to explore spatiality rather as a symbolic entity created by social and cultural processes, which manifest themselves in the representational forms of localities. As the exhibition also demonstrates: there are only patterns of speech remaining, which can be regarded as parallel coexisting social notions.
This installation by András Blazsek presents an environment that does not exists in reality but survives in the memorial fabric of social imagination from where it can be recalled despite the fact that it is otherwise sentenced to oblivion. It can be recalled in a way that geography is unable to; so that its model of reduced scale could provide answers to how past and present, including the transformed natural environment, can be perceived simultaneously. Thus, with the help of experiencing the differences resulting from the passing time and the model of space transcribed by the power station, together with a map located in the space of the installation drawn by Lajos Tuba, it is the exhibition attendees themselves that can add their own locations related to memories that are connected to the old riverbed, comprising former recollections of space associated with the long-gone landscape.
Concerning táj [Land(scape)]: Basically, the exhibition functions as a reference to the mental contents of the concept, the symbolic saturation, and the recallability of land(scape). In fact, the installation highlights and defines the finality of the transformation of the land(scape) as an emblematic point of departure. It seems simply impossible for us not to conduct an interpretation of the social and cultural impacts of the combination of the riverbed, the new colossus, and the new ecological conditions. We simply cannot pretend to overlook the former layers of meaning inherent in this land(scape), as it is also testified by the excellent exhibition brochure. Yet, at the same time, it is also true that it seems unavoidable to acknowledge that the land(scape), which has been transformed through the construction of channels and other objects made of concrete, is indeed an emblematic point for self-identification for the local residents. For this reason, even a new way of verbal expression seems to be necessary to be introduced. Today, it is generally accepted that the interrelationship between the physical environment, which is the land(scape), and recollections is essential, because of their close connection. The old land(scape), replaced by the new land(scape), together with its layers that could organize lifestyle and create culture, can be recalled as if they were a palimpsest of inserted stories and, in fact, they should be recalled so. For the local residents, this environment is not a legal, political, and environmental-protection-oriented manner of verbal expression and problem. It is much more a complex and complicated fabric of land(scape), burdened with cultural scars, historical wounds, traumas, and traces of memory, which has to be lived with during the course of everyday existence, either trying to reject it or accept it still with reluctance.
The installation presents the former and the transformed land(scapes) as a relative scene, according to which it is simultaneously a part of experiencing the present as an artificial land(scape) and a coordination of the process of collective recollection. What in fact takes place in the present exhibition venue is a (re)telling of the condensed story of the century-old relationship between the physical space and the community, instead of giving an account of the current political, minority, and environmental canons. This narrative, or fabula, contains a record of the authentic continuity of the land(scape), as in the re-creation of land(scape) familiarity. The space and the course of processing comprises the former actually experienced stories of the community connected to specific physical locations, which might even be under the surface of water today. The installation and the presented documentation clearly indicates that the constructed artificial land(scape) is tantamount to a radical environmental alteration. Memory research claims that such a tragic event has an essential role in portraying the distinctive atmosphere of the location, or “genius loci.” The shock is partly due to the design which, to quote Zsófia Nagy, can be described as “az erőmű építésénél nem a tájról készült egy vele azonos méretű térkép hanem egy mérnöki pontossággal megszerkesztett tér-képet illesztettek a tájba” [when constricting the power station, it was not a life-size map of the land(scape) that was drawn but rather a high-precision space-image was inserted into the land(scape)]. However, in addition to this tension, it was also the extent of the alteration, the size of the wound in the land(scape) or, to use an apt expression introduced by Paul Virilio for the description of concrete bunkers, the speed of its volume that overwrote the quotidian land(scape) experience with a catastrophic force. What is not so often discussed about the analysis of the transformation of the environment in general is the layer of mental history that comes to the fore more and more perceptibly in Hungarian research in the fields of human geography and ethnography. It is the fact that, due to the Hungarian historical social structure (based primarily on a population involved in agricultural activities), culture is fundamentally embedded in the environment/land(scape). That is to say, the most characteristic feature of Hungarian mentality is a constant process of defining one’s relationship to the land or to the productive land(scape), the continuous experience of being bound to the land(scape), and the conscious and unconscious expression of the forms of this connection. Experiencing a wound in the land(scape) that entails suffering caused by the former radical transformation, destruction or alteration of the land(scape) constitutes a permanently present, indelible, and basic trauma in communal imagination, an emotional injury partly to be processed in verbal or written accounts of stories, partly to be handed down to the next generation(s) as a heritage narrative. (The same can be said about the regularization of the river Tisza, which was implemented within the framework of the modernization program launched in the 19th century. The extent of the quantity of tragedies behind the simple turn of phrase “a szabályozás megváltoztatta az életmódot” [regularization changed the lifestyle] is still to be assessed by future research). I would perhaps also wish to allude at this point very carefully to the assumption of the writer and aesthetician Susan Sontag, who contends that an industrial land(scape) (of buildings, power stations, strip or surface mines, or waste stockpiles) always incorporates the effect of a land(scape) of war and destruction as well.
Regarding térkép [map]: The exhibition is also about the forms of rendering space or of the visual representation of space. The reason for this is that, during the course of the past two decades, practitioners of the humanities as well as those of the discipline of geography have both recognized that maps are normally created in a certain medium, i.e., in a social/cultural/historical network. Thus, when reading maps, this complex background is always supposed to be taken into consideration. Consequently, maps reflect our educational background and our images developed in national canons related to “the history of space” while, at the same time, they present unconscious and unofficial knowledge as graphic icons. That is to say, they display the kind of social imagination “behind” common understanding and consent with which the nation contemplates history or, depending on current contemporary national interests, creates as imaginary models in order to explicate historical processes. Because of its universal coding possibilities, a map is obviously a simplification of reality and, as such, only an intellectual model and an abstraction. The nature and extent of simplification are dependent on the function of the maps. It is always the cartographers who decide on what kind of additional data to display on what sort of a basic map.
It is in the light of a system of relationships arising from this dual feature involving personality and function that social sciences observe maps, more and more as rhetorical texts. The reason for this, on the one hand, is that maps reflect the viewpoint and value system of their makers while the actual method of operation of a map (un/)intended by their mapmakers also determines the reading of the “text” in it. On the other hand, the visual weighting of maps, including examples of the presentation of the relationship between the center and the peripheries, the color code, the drawing scale, as well as the choice of onomastics and the actual size of the maps is always embedded in historical processes and one’s own culture.
The presentation of space in the installation by András Blazsek explores the cartographical problem that corresponds to this concept in order to figure out how invisible content(s) can be made palpable. Gerald Bast, Rector of the University of Applied Arts in Vienna, elaborates on the contemporary wide open possibilities in cartography as follows: “Épp úgy a kartográfia tárgyát képezi a realizmus egy lehető legsokrétűbb változata, mint az álmok és a fogékonnyá tétel kérdésköre. A történeti irányultságú kutatások egyszerre tudatosítják a kartográfia utópisztikus vonásait és azt, hogy a ki nem mondott tartalmak miképp vannak hatással immár a kezdetektől fogva a térképre. A […] művészi vállalkozások pedig az állandóan felemlegetett, alternatíva nélküli látszatobjektivitásra adott válaszokat, vagyis a rejtett tartalmakat nyilvánvalóvá tevő, kísérleti feltérképezésben rejlő és kiaknázható lehetőségeket példázzák.” [The subject of cartography can be a much more complex variety of realism, the same way as the issue of dreams and making people perceptive. Historical research efforts simultaneously sensitize us about the utopistic features of cartography and show us how unspoken contents have influenced maps from the very beginning. As regards artistic enterprises, they exemplify the responses given to the oft-cited alternative-less quasi-objectivity, i.e., the opportunities latent and accessible in experimental mapping that make hidden contents obvious.]
This turn in thinking has resulted in the worldwide tendency for classic cartography requirements, that is to say, the need for responses to questions “where?” “what size?” “how much?” and “how dense?” to be put on the back burner in major periodicals on geography. There are fewer and fewer maps and there are more and more descriptive analyses of social scientific density around. In other words, the question today is no longer to what extent “cartographic space” corresponds to “reality” or how precisely maps reflect the actual processes of phenomena to be presented but rather what sort of intentional or unintentional social relationships the given visual language/code reveals consciously or unconsciously. In this new approach, cartography shifts the observational viewpoint onto the social impacts of maps, onto the servicing of social demands and expectations, and onto the satisfaction of the latter.
The present installation by András Blazsek not only turns the basic pictorial presentation of a map into a spatial work of art by properly rendering the shifting light conditions but it also provides an artistic response to the most acute problem of cartography by successfully handling the task of temporality in order to present temporal processes in a parallel fashion. The temporal transplantation of lines and points in the image creates a tension in the attendees of the exhibition, posing the query “mennyiben tudjuk, mennyiben vagyunk képesek a történelmi események, jelen esetben a tájtörténet összefogó olvasatára, az időt térképpé lényegítenünk? (Faragó Kornélia)” [to what extent can we, and to what extent are we able to, read and comprehend historical events, in this specific case, the history of a land(scape), in order to transfer time into the essence of a map? (Kornélia Faragó)]
András Blazsek’s installation titled “History of a Split between Islands and Dams, Circles and Lines” offers parallel spaces, parallel and simultaneous land(scapes), and ways for their interpretation. In it, we feel surrounded by the grasping of genius loci through the portrayal of the shifting forms of the transformed land(scape). As the author of the art-geographical volume on the city of Kaliningrad/Königsberg, Péter György, writes: “A kulturális terek nem földrajzi terek többé, a hely szelleme a maga útját járja a szövegek, képek, médiumok között. […] a tér-idő viszonyok átrendeződése, a távolság csökkenése virtualizálódása során a millő jelentése változott. Ma a szimbolikus terek legalább annyira virtuálisak, mint fizikaiak.” [Cultural spaces are no longer geographical spaces, as the genius loci follows its own path among the texts, images, and other media. … during the course of the rearrangement of temporal and spatial relations and the virtual shrinking of distances, the meaning of milieu has changes. Today, symbolic spaces are at least as virtual as the physical ones.]