by Zsolt Petrányi
Little Warsaw will present a single statue in the Hungarian Pavilion at the 50th Venice Biennale, The Body of Nefertiti. It is a contemporary complement to the famous female portrait in Berlin’s Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung. We might examine how this work relates to the artists’ earlier work, and recount the process of its realization.
The output of Little Warsaw in the past seven years includes, in addition to their artistic organizing activity, remarkable works of sculpture - even though the two founding members are trained as painters. Their ’career creep’ was intentional, since this form of expression was even recently not much valued by young artists in Hungary. It has been unpopular, a thing of the past, a craft whose success at exhibitions was much less certain than that of, say, installation, photography or computer prints. In contrast, Gálik and Havas turned to sculpture because they understood it to be the branch of art best able to represent the popular conception of an artwork, an image of palpability, approachability in physical and intellectual terms, and unequivocalness of expression.
For the same reasons, public sculpture is especially important for them as something that in its message and appearance seeks to be ’communal’, the vehicle of ideas and aesthetic values whose tradition greatly relies on the notion of consensus, agreement on aesthetics and content.
They also became interested in popular and historic symbols, the chance to revitalize them, and put them in contemporary contexts. With such gestures Little Warsaw tries to establish a connection between the present and the temporality of art, as well as its potential for mediation, to get forms that ensure the references of the work are comprehensible to more than a select minority.
Little Warsaw simultaneously produces works of art and the peculiar systems of reference that stand behind them. What sets them apart is the diversity of references to cultural and art history.
The choice of subject
The choice of subject goes back to lucky coincidences. This statue is one of the important sources of European cultural history and sculpture, even though it was created outside the continent. Its outsider position adds further meanings to the project of completing: this 3000-year old model of beauty has been contributing, ever since it was found and put on public display, to the European ideal of beauty, even though it is both culturally and historically non-European. A theoretical consequence of this is that by complementing Nefertiti, the artists who seek connections between the past and the present at the dawn of a new millennium take up a new position, a lookout point in an open, non-Eurocentric system. But the question of course still remains: why choose Nefertiti, rather than another Egyptian statue, as the vehicle of this content?
The other reason for choosing the Nefertiti bust is that it is well known. It is the most frequently cited of the portraits from that period and culture; in an artistic context the name (of the model) will refer without fail to the given representation, rather than the historic personage. And the statue represents the woman and her complex beauty; these are exactly those characteristics that for Little Warsaw constitute the foundation of the work’s content. The comment the two artists make on the typical woman of the new millennium, by creating a contemporary body, can be valid only if the type or character of this body is easily recognizable and requires no further explanation. The body that can be seen at the Venice Biennale, with or without the head, assumes a knowledge of this in order for its content and meaning to work. Because what this figure conveys is not the ideal of beauty suggested by the ’beautiful woman’ of the media; it founds beauty on far more realistic grounds. The marks time leaves on the woman’s body, her age and lifestyle, and the traces of her pregnancies mean more for Little Warsaw than any further analysis of beauty. The happy coincidence with the choice of the Nefertiti bust in this case is that known facts of her life support these assumed characteristics, making them even more pertinent.
It seems pertinent to introduce the idea of a cultural public treasure: a work of art that is better known, more often reproduced and of greater influence than most popular artworks, and has become, in other words, part of our visual culture in a broader sense, in a way that is independent of formal learning. For the East European citizen, however, these works appear in the mind differently than for those people whose countries’ museums actually hold these artworks.
The difference is obvious: while the owner never considers adding to it, the original of the often never-seen work becomes, willy-nilly, an object of desire for the outsider, something to be known, or as with Little Warsaw, something to be complemented physically.
The project as story
The realization of the project can be divided into several phases. The first consisted of the theoretical elaboration of the idea and its introduction to prominent Egyptologists and the director of the Berlin Egyptian Museum; in the second the sculpture was conceived, its model prepared; the third involved organizing related programmes and connecting them to the process of preparing for the Venice Biennale; in the fourth the form of the sculpture was finalized; the fifth is the presentation of the body in Berlin; the sixth is the Venice exhibition itself. They are stories that are both independent and related, whose intertwining threads spin a continuous narrative for the persons involved, revealed at the moment of the ultimate presentation. Rather than giving a detailed account, let me now point out some salient moments in this narrative.
The project started with an idea, a moment when the two artists came up with a plan that seemed strange in the context of the Hungarian art scene, its consequences unforeseeable. The idea relies on the public’s interest in the star icon, the hypothesis that the very popularity of such a work enables it to become a work of contemporary art, through intervention, being completed.
In the second phase, during which the artists and the curator consulted with Egyptologists, background material was collected. An important part of this work was analyzing the attitude of the professionals involved, to see how the ’The Body of Nefertiti’ problem could be turned into a living issue for a research team involved in the processing and analysis of the finds of a non-European, dead culture, and whether it would be intellectually exciting for them to cooperate on a project that enables the ’reinterpretation’ of a well-known Egyptian object through contemporary reflection. Though the intention to recontextualize the beginning of art history was generally supported, there was some scepticism concerning the chosen object. It became evident that Nefertiti had been studied to death by Egyptologists: the only way to revive her seemed to be by replanting her into the context of contemporary art, since in today’s visual culture known icons are not goals but points of departure.
When we first met Professor Dietrich Wildung the director of the Ägyptisches Museum und Papyrussammlung in Berlin, we outlined the project for him as one of a hypothetical option for a work of art. His reaction was surprising because he criticized, contrary to my expectations, not the iconoclastic gesture, but the choice of subject, as one far too obvious.
Parallel with the preparation of the project, Little Warsaw started work on the arrangements that were to ensure that the public, both in Hungary and abroad, become aware of the event of the Venice Biennale, and did so in a way that was in harmony with their earlier practice, their critique of artistic institutions. Two channels were created for this end, one an impressive venue that could function as a communication board, studio and office, the other a series of events that were to publicize the project abroad.
The multifunction venue, which was to receive much publicity, was the Divatcsarnok, the unused, state-owned, historicizing, ’Parisian department store’ in Budapest, whose controversial present aptly made it a temporary cultural institution. The symbolic quality of the two floors used by Little Warsaw is due not only to the large empty spaces but also to its interesting building history, as it contains two parts, one historicizing, the other early modernist, which makes the whole a paraphrase of Little Warsaw’s complementing project. Initially an office and studio, the building soon started functioning as an event venue and gallery.
It was here Little Warsaw presented its Portrait Gallery, a selection of portrait statues the two artists borrowed from the studios of young and middle-aged sculptors. The exhibition complemented the work in progress: the headless body meant a cancellation of impersonation, while the portraits were those of the sculptors’ friends. The exhibition emphasised the aesthetic and substantial qualities of the immediate relationship between the study head used for the sculptural task and the model, within the system of references provided by the Biennale.
Another regular event at the Divatcsarnok was the ’MONITOR’ series, which attempted to introduce the other pavilions and exhibiting artists of the Biennale. These meetings, held on Wednesday and Friday evenings, followed the same routine: guests first listened to a presentation on the given country by the moderator, then followed a live telephone interview with the curator of the given pavilion or the exhibiting artists.
Little Warsaw regarded the process of creating the sculpture’s shape as a continuously changing idea. They worked on several versions that represented different interpretations of the historical person Nefertiti and the contemporizing of the bust. The first actual realization was a small-scale version, which was presented to Professor Wildung on his visit to Budapest in February of 2003. It already represented those principles that came to determine the form of the final version, namely that the form of the sculpture should not avoid formal and substantial conflicts with the female head, but must contradict it. The Nefertiti bust is an outstanding work of Egyptian sculpture, and it would be unfair to expect its modern complement to follow the quality and formal rules of the original’s age: an Orientalizing work cannot be more than a gesture of salute. In contrast, with its model Little Warsaw claimed that the precedents of the contemporary sculpture of the body are to be found in Europe, not Egypt. The body and the head in this sense contradict each other, which, considering the subject of the work, is a fundamental contradiction. The painted plaster is complemented with bronze; a body suggesting nakedness is added to a bust that is dressed. All these contradictions, however, serve the goal of shedding light on connections on the level of content.
Shortly after we contacted the Berlin museum, it became obvious that the Nefertiti bust could not be moved from its present location. Little Warsaw’s original intention of presenting the entire configuration in the Hungarian pavilion failed because of cultural-political problems of ownership.
Bálint Havas and András Gálik have created a torso that is unique in an art historical sense, and whose primary appearance is dominated by the lack of identity. This lack is made very conspicuous by the geometric excision at the neck, which represents the lack of personality as the removal of a concrete part.
The model of the body was made from several layers of beeswax, which layers thus became records of the creation history. Though the feel of ’permanence’ made the bronze cast lose this quality, the body remained a shell, with a thin covering. The female body thus became a vessel, which, in spite of the metal, conveys a message of fragility. Bronze in this case has a double meaning: it emphasises the functionality of the statue, which, serving as a plinth, must be of some weight, while it is also a favoured material of public-space sculptures, a concept Little Warsaw wants to associate with the Nefertiti bust. The age and appearance of the plaster-coated, fragile portrait make the work a symbol of female beauty, while the present-tense metal surface made for the event of the Venice Biennale suggests durability. The contradiction of the materials intimates the complexity of the conflicts within the work.
The Body in Berlin
A short but decisive period in the life of the body is its stay in Berlin. This is the phase in which the work is legitimated, the step that distinguishes creation from mere complementation, a symbolic ’performance’ that validates the idea of a statue existing in two parts, in two places, by the act of joining these two parts.
The great variety of views and the multitude of available media (drawing, traditional and digital photography, film) presented challenges when it came to documenting the assemblage. The media even differ in their level of abstraction. Drawing in this case evokes archaeological surveys and the personal tone of early journalistic reportage. Interestingly, the possible relations of drawing in this respect are not different from the potential manipulability of digital photos. By freezing a particular moment, the photo of a freestanding sculpture not only transposes the object into two dimensions, but also dismisses the temporal dimension of viewing the statue while walking around it: there is perhaps no other photographed moment whose transience is more conspicuous. In this sense these photos document the ’performance’ of joining the head and the body together with its disappearance. It is the photograph of the body with the head mounted, standing by the empty showcase – what remains once the ’installation’ is gone – that represents the complexity of the message, all the work that went towards the occurrence of that moment. The short film, with the camera moving around the statue, picking out details, is a less objective work, with a peculiar atmosphere of its own. Its point of view is the director’s, who interprets Little Warsaw’s work, reveals its complexity in its temporality. The film provides an acute sense of the work being a freestanding sculpture, and of its complexity; it reveals more about the position of the assembled work than photos taken from selected angles.
We treated the various media used for documentation as of equal value. Since the point in Gálik and Havas’s work is the fact of the two parts meeting at one point, not their perpetual union, such diversity seemed permissible. Each still and motion picture contributes to the description of the event, representing its very heterogeneity.
'The Body of Nefertiti' in The Hungarian Pavilion of The 50th Venice Biennale
The sculpture is presented as an open project: is contains the erect body and the documentation. As a project, the installation is continuously ’in progress’. The work itself happens to relate closely to the theme of the 50th Biennale: the idea itself is a 'dream', while the realization entails numberless 'conflicts'. The latter include the encounter of museums as institutions specialized in the representation of traditional values and the institutions of contemporary art; the ideal portrait of the woman and a body that fails to conform to these standards; the clash of historical periods and cultures; and the labyrinth of practicalities through which the encounter took place. And there is little else to say about the work and the way it is installed -she stands before you.
and the author