Installations by Péter Forgács
László F. Földényi
Yes, and then again, no.
Can life be chopped up into pieces?
No. But then again, what makes it whole is the fact that it is made up of “pieces”; parts that can never be fitted together seamlessly. Life is full of cuts, even though we devote a large part of our energies to making the cuts unnoticeable. We would like to believe that our life was coherent, seamless, with the stitching not showing and everything appearing to be smoothed out and logically constructed. Stitches, however, are even more conspicuous than cuts. Worse, they keep on coming apart, again and again. These are what are called the heavy moments in life; these are the times when one catches a glimpse of the very divergent structure of life behind the stitches and cuts, when instead of what we are used to, we see something that is unprocessable, on which nothing lasting can be built.
In Péter Forgács’s installations it is this underlying structure of life that is evident. He shows the politics that cast their shadow over everything in the strata of private life, whereas in politics he directs attention to the existential horizons, points out the process of socialisation that is at hand everywhere in the world of instincts, while he digs down through culture to the lowest substrata of instincts. As he approaches those deepest layers, though, he always comes across a question that lies at the centre of many installations: what is personality? What are the criteria of identity, and where does one draw the boundaries? Yet the drawing of boundaries is something that takes one closer to the big riddle, which is that the personality is rooted in something that has little in common with the person, the individual. In Forgács’s installations something unfolds that is indescribable in principle. What can be glimpsed is something that we usually consider to be invisible. The unorganizable (chaos) shows through the organized (cosmos), but not so as to disrupt the order. Péter Forgács’s installations are very organized indeed. But the cut is not just an indispensable technique in his work, it is the very element of existence, giving an inkling of the precariousness, the chaos concealed in all order. He does not set chaos free into order (Forgács is a highly disciplined artist in that respect), but he makes one aware of it. He offers liberation in place of suppression. As a rule this is no easy task. Péter Forgács’s installations are disturbing; some are upsetting. They present just as great a challenge emotionally as intellectually. One senses something unsettling even when one comes across traces of irony or humour, but most unsettling of all is the sharp gaze which is fixed on us, the viewers, as long as we stay in his spaces and spend time in his installations, but which is never actually caught staring at us: someone is watching us, but no-one can tell who, or from where.
The look invokes, even challenges us. Forgács expects his viewers to co-operate actively by being arranged in space; his installations call for detailed, all-round attention. Their space, like a spiritual space, has to be entered step by step. They are meticulously set out; the objects create not just an emotional but also a logical network. Viewers have to grasp a system, reconstruct the will that brings the space into being. They must reconstruct the group of objects; then they will fix them with the same look that he previously fixed on them. They keep track of the path of Forgács’s cuts all the way, and meanwhile they relate the curious ebb and flow of order and chaos to themselves.
Péter Forgács’s installations are emotionally analytical. They take life apart in order to reassemble it into a new, “underlying” life. In Hungarian Video Art of Cooking (1992), for example, in the process of cutting there arises a space that in its roundabout route through unnaturalness becomes natural. This roundabout path is reminiscent of an endless spiral. The floor is covered with natural grass, though it is anything but natural when it is within an installation set up in a museum. It will, however, look natural on the screen of the television monitor that stands in the corner, on which it does not strike one as an element in an installation, but as “grass”. The picture on the monitor, however, loses its naturalness precisely because of being transmitted, like anything that appears on a television screen. Equally, the television monitor, being an everyday consumer item, is a natural part of the everyday environment. The installation, though, as a slice of life places that naturalness in a new set of quotation marks. And so on ad infinitum—an infinity which also makes an appearance in the never-ending alternation of the yoga exercises that continually interrupt the transmission of “transmitted” grass.
The “natural” is placed in quotation marks through being transmitted, but a similar fate awaits the state of being transmitted: it too gets placed in quotation marks and becomes natural by contradicting itself. In Péter Forgács’s installations a singular symbiosis of so-called “reality” and “simulacrum” comes into being, and he sacrifices neither in favour of the other. He does not insist on maintaining an illusion of so-called “reality”—a reality which, as has become a commonplace since the early days of psychoanalysis or Wittgenstein, is never neutral but is freighted with mediations from the outset; indeed, it becomes natural through its mediation. Equally, the installations also do not bear out the more recent idea, of which Baudrillard is one of the most prominent representatives, asserting that reality has long been a sheer illusion, and that the process of mapping is, as a matter of course, more real than what is mapped. In Péter Forgács’s installations “reality” and “simulacrum” come across at the same time, simultaneously; neither tries (with the help of irony) to pull the ground out from beneath the other, but the two together form a unit that in principle is unimaginable. He raises “reality” and “simulacrum” to a higher power and brings into being a “third” that is virtually impossible to categorize. That is what makes Forgács’s work art. In art anything goes. Or to be more precise: anything that helps to stimulate an experience that strips the world of its naturalness in such a way as to flash before the receiver a previously unsuspected horizon of his or her own existence.
The approach to these conjectural horizons is a subject of several of the installations. The work entitled Inventory of Dreams (1995) calls on psychoanalysis for assistance. While the armchair, couch, carpets and cushions evoke the mood of the Bergstrasse in Vienna in the early twentieth century, the video technology that is used, including the monitor, puts that mood in quotation marks, though without extinguishing or nullifying it. In this instance the quotation marks do not throw suspicion on what is quoted, but through distancing they help to approach it. This analytical procedure gives the receiver a hint of the method of psychoanalysis itself. As is generally the case in art, the manner of the portrayed and the portrait creates a tension under whose influence viewers can easily start to become tense themselves. This in turn enables them to experience the stratification of their own being. The more comprehensive exhibition under the title Inventory, of which Inventory of Dreams was just a part, took the mind literally to bits, it opened the drawers, and helped visitors achieve a descent of sorts. The darkness of the exhibition space, as it were, threw a light on the mind’s inner darkness. The visible became invisible, and what had been invisible unexpectedly moved into the spotlight. Out of the opposing motions came enlightenment—as did the pig belonging to the exhibition, which watched on a monitor a clip of itself run backwards in time and thus participated in life as a corpse, and participated in death as a living creature.
Analysis originally denoted a separation, a cutting to pieces. Péter Forgács’s installations are analytical in the literal sense of the word. The medium he uses is in itself helpful as on looking at the installations something can always be discovered in the assembly of the various objects, a fortuitousness, which is all the more conspicuous as the overall effect of a work is more uniform. Forgács has a predilection for creating installations which force the receiver to make moves in contradictory directions. The installation entitled The Case of My Room (1992) separates a single area into two rooms, which might be likened to the two hemispheres of the brain. By using video technology to prevent rapid, even instant identification (direct—emotional—empathy), the receiver is forced to take a “mental detour”, the purpose of which, in this case, is a differentiated knowledge of the self. In the installation entitled The H Anger (1997) the one is split into three: those who belong together (the family) find themselves as far apart from each other as possible. The unitary work nevertheless reinforces the sense of belonging together, which in this case does not mean the kinship of family bonds, of common interests (or precisely the opposite), but a sort of existential dependency on one another that adumbrates—as a powerless force—the boring and, by and by, tragic nature of life itself. The performers in other installations are also split into several parts: in the case of Magyar Totem (1993) the viewer is a pig that stares entranced at the “program” of a pig being slaughtered—a self-portrait, in other words. The main “protagonist” of The Visit (2000) is a horse that has been cut in two and has television screens inserted into mouth and anus. The former displays texts by Kierkegaard, while the latter plays an endlessly monotonous loop of snapshots of consumer culture. The two are radically severed yet at the same time, like aliment and excrement, they presuppose each other.
Péter Forgács cuts, takes to pieces, analyses, and in doing so he also puts something together. What is (the visible) he takes apart in order to make the force field of things visible—something that is otherwise invisible. In the same way, the true strength of the films that make up Private Hungary does not come simply from the footage as originally recorded, but from the unseen scratches that Forgács makes on every single frame of film. Due to those scratches (“damage”, “manipulation”), something rather like what Freud called the “optical unconscious” (“das optische Unbewusste”) appears on the frames. It is invisible, but all the same very perceptible. Instead of remaining mere documents, the films begin to live. I, as a viewer, do not just observe a vanished world as I watch his films; I also penetrate layers of myself that I thought had vanished, conduct a dialogue with myself. What is long gone (history) suddenly becomes present and personal, just as the spaces of the installations are alive and personal—among other things, through the fact that the monitors are often set into operation by a visitor’s presence and movements, as a result of which the whole installation is transformed into a stage, so that the reception of a work also signifies the elaboration of a performance.
The aim of analysis, in Freud’s view, was take to dreams to pieces and break them down to their elements. The world’s unity, he wrote, stands to reason and therefore there is no point in laying any special emphasis on it. “What interests me is pulling apart and taking to pieces what would otherwise be fused in a primal mash (Urbrei).” Freud brought out into the sunlight what would otherwise have been locked in; or to put it another way, he brings the mystery (that which is locked up) out into the profane (visibility).
It is at this point that the analytical technique of Péter Forgács’s installations deviates from the psychoanalytical. The indisputable field that surrounds the installations allows one to conclude that they have their own aura. It is important to stress this, because it is precisely due to the spread of media and technological “reproducibility” that Walter Benjamin’s idea that the aura of a work of art would shrivel in the age of technological “reproducibility” has become a platitude. There is a fundamental difference, however, between a reproduced work and the technology of reproduction. Benjamin was right to say that by being reproduced a work loses its aura, the “authenticity” that is guaranteed by the here-and-now, but he says nothing about the technology which enables the reproduction being itself able to create a new, previously unsuspected aura. The here-and-now of Péter Forgács’s installations are able to create that sort of aura. The oil prints placed on the wall of the installation Hungarian Video Art of Cooking (1992), or the items of furniture that have been lifted out of their original surroundings, standing on the main floor, obviously do not, in and of themselves, have any aura. But objects that have been stripped of their aura lend themselves to merging together to become the elements of an aura that no longer unfolds from the objects themselves but from the way in which they are arranged. Mediation at the level of reproducibility is likewise able to create its own here-and-now. The application of both video and computer technology in the installation entitled Pre-Pro-Seca-Tura (1996) gives rise to an overall effect which would not be out of place in a Baroque Passion, with viewers at one and the same time taking part in suffering, punishment (diabolical flagellation) and experiences of mortality and immortality. In this installation, entry (a tunnel, a cave) is able to arouse the experience of transition (a bridge) and arrival (sunset, seashore).
To all appearances, the individual elements of this Baroque Passion withstand every aura. Nonetheless, as they come into action and interact they construct a mysterious closed field of force. A viewer stepping into this installation, while controlling the processes with his own body, not only receives but is initiated. And in the meantime there comes into being something that could be called mystery, which is a precondition for any aura. And this is when the “analysis” must also be placed in quotation marks. Because although in his installations Péter Forgács applies the technique of Freudian analysis, or in other words, he takes things to pieces, breaks them down to their elements, the mystery still does not bring one into the profane. Quite the reverse: it takes the profane into the mystery.
Between 2002 and 2006 Forgács assembled three installations in which the viewer proceeds along cuts into a virtual space where this mystery comes into being. One of these is the work entitled Danubian Exodus (2002), which used the film of the same title as its starting point. That sixty-minute film, which was first shown in 1998, interwove the accounts of three stories: how in 1939 a group of Jews boarded the steam ship SS Queen Elizabeth that took them from Bratislava and Budapest down the Danube to the Black Sea so that they might continue their escape to Palestine on a second boat; how one year later the same ship transported back to the German Reich a group of Germans who had been expelled from their homes in Bessarabia; and finally how the ship’s captain, Nándor Andrásovits, recorded on film not only those two journeys in opposite directions but also other notable events in Hungary’s history. The 2002 installation divided what was originally a film sequence shown on a single screen into five sequences shown on five monitors in such a way that the viewer decides, by means of a control desk, in what order they will appear. Thus stories which are already interlaced become even more closely interwoven, as a result of which the fates of the Jews and the Bessarabian Germans, although quite distinct, all the same eerily begin to resemble one another. The captain recorded only ordinary private occurrences on the ship’s deck, plucking his passengers out of history by an act that rolled away “over their heads.” Forgács has, as it were, “continued to roll” the captain’s shots by using cutting to restore to history the people who had broken away from it. Yet he has not done so on the basis of the conventional cause-and-effect principle, or in other words by transforming people whom history deprived of all they possessed into elements in a big historical “narrative”. He did not give up on the historical lesson that has been done to death about the innocent little man and dark historical forces; unlike the majority of films (and books) about the Second World War, he has not restored the people who were recorded by the captain to the arena of a gnostic duel between “Good” and “Evil”. If he had done that, even with the best of intentions, he would have dispossessed all over again those who were already dispossessed once. In his installation Forgács did not seek a place for the victims in the hierarchy of big connections, but on the contrary: out of the private fates of the victims he established a connection that, as far as possible, allows one to experience history. The sadness of the Yiddish songs fits weirdly in with that of the German folk songs, just as the melancholy tone of an Orthodox Jewish wedding conducted on board the ship haunts the puzzled looks of the expelled German children. Many consider that this drawing of parallels between the Calvaries of the Germans and the Jews breaches a taboo, but this raking up of the taboo subject of “the suffering of the Germans” curiously puts “the suffering of the Jews” into a new light. In Forgács’s installation the (German and Jewish) suffering does not make an appearance as a “metaphysical” event that is “beyond history”, but as an organic development of twentieth-century history. He gives history a “human face” by giving viewers the chance themselves to be the film editor shaping the stories, and as film editor relating the events from ever-newer angles.
A visitor standing at the control desk of Danubian Exodus is at once spectator and film editor of the spectacle, but that is only possible if he or she steps entirely into the space through whose assistance the spectacle comes to life. The installation Instruction Film (2004), made two years later, expects a different sort of bodily presence from the viewer. Seats manufactured with a distorted perspective and unsuitable for human use are lined up in front of a screen on which can be seen a film of how the Nazis humiliated two (non-Jewish) youngsters. The seats in front of the screen are empty, as is the space in which they are standing, and it is possible to inspect the space through peepholes. Therefore the viewer does not simply watch a film but, first and foremost, sees an empty room in which a film is running that no-one in the room is watching. The instruction is going on in such a way that no-one is instructed.
The film that can be seen on the screen is a film of cuts. The public humiliation of the two youngsters that took place sometime around 1942-43 in the Polish village of S´cinawa Nyska (Steindorf to the Germans) is part of a much longer film. The whole film has the title Meanwhile Somewhere (1994), and in it Forgács shows pictures of life in continental Europe between 1941 and 1943: countries, living spaces, events. Belgium and the Netherlands, Hungary and the Ukraine, Poland and Greece, Czechoslovakia and Paris. Private homes and public places, bedrooms and concentration camps, streets and gardens, Parisian night clubs and bathrooms. Tranquil weekdays and labour service, golf matches and call-up for troop transports to the Don Bend, watering the garden and a German’s view of Paris. They succeed one another, run into one another, wedge themselves into one another, twine around one another. The film gives the impression of a huge homewoven fabric. That was Europe between 1941 and 1943. A homespun of which no individual sees more than a tiny piece. Anyone who, like Péter Forgács, seeks to show in one sweep what Europe was like can only do it through cuts and montage: the cutting together of segments that are hard to reconcile gives rise to something that may be called a Whole. And against the horizon of that Whole the segments become even sharper and more incisive than by themselves. Yet the public humiliation of those two youngsters is the sharpest and most painful thing of all. A young Polish woman of 17, Maria, and young German man of 18, Georg Gerhard, were condemned to have their hair shaved off in public for the crime of racial disgrace (Rassenschande), or “miscegenation”. Two young people in a square, surrounded by youngsters in short trousers, and hanging round their necks signs that read, respectively, “I am a traitor to the German people” and “I am a Polish sow”. We see them being brought out of a house, then conducted into a square where their hair is snipped off with scissors—all except for a lock over the forehead, which is braided into a pigtail. Finally, they are led off along village streets while boys blare out a march on bugles.
Cuts reinforce cuts: a humiliation that calls to mind the Middle Ages is cut into the twentieth century; a short story is cut into pieces and threaded into a larger piece of homespun fabric. Most painful of all is the way the pair of scissors steadily cuts off the hair of the two youngsters. The scissors are wielded by a German in a civilian suit, Paul Hose by name. A bespectacled man with hair combed to one side; were I so disposed, I might find him sympathetic, because the more I look the more he reminds me of one of the assistants in my favourite bookshop in Berlin. Yes, Paul Hose is an intellectual type with a prepossessing look. The two youngsters, on the other hand: the more their hair is cropped, the more they take on the character of criminals. If someone were to rise again from the thirteenth century, he would certainly consider them to be true criminals, and all his sympathy would lie with the one who was administering the punishment. Here the aesthetic and the ethical, which perhaps were even more intertwined in the Middle Ages, come hopelessly apart. That too is a kind of cutting: life is no longer in harmony at even the most basic levels. The final cut is the way that the viewer is cut off in the museum space from being able to sit down in the enclosed space in order to watch that troubling film. The spying into which he is forced makes him at least as perverted as the scene he is peeking at.
The third work in which the viewer can enter a virtual space along cuts is the creation Mean/Time—Rembrandt Morphs (2006). The film in this case is not split over multiple screens, it is true, nor is the viewer forced to remain physically outside. All the same, the three chairs set up in front of a screen mounted on the wall can be regarded as one of the elements of the work, and from that point of view what I can see on the screen is not only the transformations of Rembrandt but also three imaginary viewers watching the birth of an imaginary, ideal portrait of Rembrandt.
Anyone who starts to watch Mean/Time—Rembrandt Morphs will find it hard, over the next half an hour and more, to take his eyes off—off what exactly? Rembrandt’s self-portrait? Or Péter Forgács’s paraphrase of Rembrandt? The two are, after all, superimposed on one another in such a way that although they are clear distinguishable, it is nevertheless impossible to separate them. What is seen to start with is the well-known self-portrait of the artist as a young man, then gradually, almost unnoticeably, the features sag until they assemble into another, equally well-known, self-portrait, then that too starts to transform so that a third comes into view. And so on. This film, which deals with the modifications in a face, may be looked at in two ways: either how a single face can disintegrate into innumerable different faces, or else how many diverse portraits can assemble into a single face. If the film is seen from the latter point of view, then it is about the search for the ideal portrait of Rembrandt that was never painted—about grasping that unique, ultimate look, which can no more be glimpsed than can Europe as a whole in the film that serves as the basis for Instruction Film. This ultimate portrait ought in principle to show, at one and the same time, all the things that followed each other in time—youth just as much as fullness of years or ageing or even imminent death. In Forgács’s film all are to be seen: one of the work’s “propositions” is to track through all of Rembrandt’s faces. But meanwhile there is much else to be noticed, including properties that are hard to reconcile with each other. The ultimate, ideal look spread out over time is manifested in many ways: Rembrandt is at one time manly in looks, at another time feminine, now elderly, now young, at one time a town dweller in external appearance, at another a rustic, at one time sophisticated, at another naïve, at one time world-weary, at another a pleasure-seeker, now open, now withdrawn, at one time harmonious, at another grotesque, sympathetic at one moment, antipathetic at another, startled one moment, calm and confident the next. Meanwhile the four classic temperaments also show up: what Dürer was still dividing among four apostles, Rembrandt seeks to capture in one and the same face. The same face can be by turns phlegmatic, choleric, melancholy or sanguine. Even as Péter Forgács compacts all of Rembrandt’s self-portraits into a single, living and moving face he has also created innumerable portraits that Rembrandt never painted.
Forgács’s work offers several possible interpretations. It is instructive, for instance, how, in a manner that historians of art might well envy, he interprets and places works of art in context. He keenly raises those old questions as to where and when a work of art terminates. Or to what extent does a work of art that is moved remain identical with its old self, or from which point can one regard it as a new work? Forgács’s work helps the viewer to get closer to Rembrandt’s distinctive pictorial world and its interpretation; portraits by Antonello da Messina or Pinturicchio would obviously not have been suitable for such a procedure. In the present context, though, it is more rewarding to pay attention to the stage hide-and-seek of Part and Whole. How, on the one hand, Forgács only ever shows details (the individual faces) which can be infinitely arranged and varied, and yet, on the other hand, throughout he keeps directing attention to the Whole (the Unique), which by its nature can never be glimpsed. Moreover, this does not derive from the sum of the parts: the Whole is not the outcome of a mathematical operation; it is more like a Platonic ideal, which is imperceptible but without which nothing at all could be perceived. This in turn leads us back to a concept that was used earlier: a sense of analysis that is a good deal older than Freud’s and is associated with Aristotle. According to Aristotle, the ultimate goal of analysis is ascension: in his view entities (reality, nature) need to be separated and broken down (analysed) in order to penetrate ever-higher, as in climbing stairs, to the primary causes of entities. It is in that sense that I call Péter Forgács’s installations analytical. He “breaks down” the world in just the same way as Freud does the images of dreams, and he allows words and reason to prevail, but instead of surrendering the images to pure conceptualization, he raises them to a new, higher level. He turns them into art. In his installations understanding is not the ultimate object but an instrument, just as in analysis understanding has to be followed by something else. A drawing closer to the previously mentioned unknown horizons of existence is more important than any understanding. It is the perception of these invisible horizons that is animated by Péter Forgács’s installations.
For me that remote Aristotelian parallel illuminates the essence of Forgács’s singular cutting technique. In the Rembrandt film it is precisely the absence of cutting that is the most conspicuous. The unnoticeable transition between the individual self-portraits draws attention to just how one-off and accidental the faces are that were shown just beforehand and seen for just a few seconds, and just how infinitely far they are from the ideal, ultimate face, although that in itself can only be discovered in these accidental portraits. It is as if every face had been cut out from this ultimate, invisible face in order that precisely this detail should direct attention to that ultimate unity which recognizes no cutting of any kind. The cut slices apart in order that, in the wake of the cut, it should bring a new quality. Every cut produces a previously non-existent split, and through this a previously non-existent (or, to be more precise, previously unsuspected) quality vanishes. In relation to Rembrandt’s face: that ideal, ultimate look of Rembrandt, which never existed yet still gave definite form to his momentary facial features every second of his life, will be very perceptible by the end of the film. What is it that remains integral to a person’s appearance from birth until death? There is no way of telling, only of suspecting. By bringing Rembrandt’s ideal face to life, Forgács immortalized it, as it were: he withdrew it from death by in the meantime laying strong emphasis on the frailty of life.
Miklós Erdélyi, the noted Hungarian avant-garde writer, poet, artist and film director who died in 1986, called cuts the basic human condition , staring from the idea that we are only able to perceive and tolerate life as a set of irreconcilable elements. In Péter Forgács’s works cuts are something more than a simple montage technique. In his case a cut conjures up a huge invisible pair of scissors, the two blades of which are life and death. The scissors of the Fates must have been something like that. Life, at least as seen from a human perspective, is interpolated between birth and death as between the two blades of an open pair of scissors that is ready to cut. In the wake of slitting unfolds transcendence. Not as an otherworldly power or distant authority, but as a this-worldly power that is very much present. Following a cut, the veil that the world of the existing, the “is”, cast over hitherto incomprehensible Being, is torn to shreds. This is when it transpires that a person can thank his existence to something (the somebody or something that holds the scissors) about which no knowledge can be obtained and about which it is impossible even to speak. On hearing the snipping of the scissors it may dimly dawn on a person that the secret mission of life is that through him, as the sole being possessing rationality and insight yet nevertheless subservient to existence, existence itself will come into crisis with itself. Through the rent made by the scissors—to return to Rembrandt—a person discovers his own mirror image, his own ephemeral self. A self-portrait that in those intense moments, again and again, sets about finding the centre of existence, although that centre, like a mirage, is hard to fence in.