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Budapest’s independent art biennial returns for its second edition

Marvin Gaye CHETWYND:23 November/Jesus and Barabbas, Performance view
Nothing Twice exhibition at Cricoteka, Krakow 12 September-23 November, 2014.
© Marvin Gaye Chetwynd, courtesy Sadie Coles HQ, London. Photography: Jan Smaga

Budapest’s OFF-Biennale is the largest independent arts initiative in Hungary. Launched in 2014 to help re-establish the foundations of an art scene outside official state institutions, the first Biennale hosted a solid programme featuring more than 350 artists from 22 countries in over 100 venues.

OFF-Biennale was the outcome of a struggle for a sustainable and critical-minded approach to art in a social environment that was witnessing increasing anti-democratic, segregationist and xenophobic tendencies. It continues to strive towards taking an active role in social discourse on public issues and to enhance a culture of democracy through art. Moving away from unchanging – seemingly set-in-stone – routines, unchallengeable protocols and the general mainstream, OFF continues its efforts to find its own path.

Establishing its own way of operating, the biennale is based on self-organisation and a voluntary collaboration of artists, curators, gallery owners, and collectors. OFF supports the work of Hungarian artists and brings the international art scene closer to the Hungarian public. It commissions new artwork, exhibitions, publications, events and education programmes hosted in private apartments, vacant shop premises, industrial buildings, alternative theatres and public places.

Slavs and Tatars: Figa, 2016. 
Courtesy Tanya Bonakda

On 29 September, the OFF-Biennale returned for its second edition. Although this year’s biennial revolves around the theme of Gaudiopolis/The City of Joy, its ‘outsider’ ethos remains the same, as does its distancing itself from Hungarian public funds and art institutions run by the state.

Over the course of five weeks, this year more than 50 events are being held in venues in Budapest and other Hungarian cities such as Pécs and Eger. Highlights from this year’s edition include Society of Rascals (Towarzystwo Szubrawców) – Slavs and Tartars, Viltin Gallery, Budapest.

True to its body of work demonstrating social processes, historical links and often employing absurdity and humour, the Polish-Iranian/American artist collective Slavs and Tatars presented an installation in the form of a pickle-juice bar. The title, Society of Rascals (Towarzystwo Szubrawców) was drawn from the name of a now-forgotten literary society of 19th-century Vilnius. The society was famous for its heavily ironic satire that stood counter to the Romantics and their exalted engagement in nationalist discourse.

Slavs and Tatars references the group’s ‘pavement prose’, or low-brow language, coupled with a cosmopolitan approach towards national identity. It brings in the centuries-old kitchen tradition of pickling – referred to as a cornerstone of national identity and pride in Eastern European countries – to turn sour the romantic conception of fatherland and power. This ‘pickle politics’, introduces paternalistic, nationalist visions from these countries with a sour, austere sense of humour.

Pickle juice, a well-known folk remedy, is advertised by Slavs and Tartars as the sour, sobering cure for the delirium of power. Such pickled juices, touted as an antidote for the pathos of Eastern European patriotism, were served on the day of the exhibition opening.

Somewhere in Europe there is an Animal Audience! – Marvin Gaye Chetwynd:

Headquarters of the Union of Steel and Metalworkers of Hungary

Marvin Gaye Chetwynd’s Somewhere in Europe there is an Animal Audience! was produced specifically for OFF-Biennale and was realised with the participation of children and young adults from Budapest who took the roles of both actors and interlocutors with whom the audience could actively engage. The collaborative performance project, which includes mime, colourful animal costumes and projections, reworked Géza Radványi’s 1948 film Somewhere in Europe. Based in the aftermath of World War II, the film’s plot follows the life of a gang of orphaned children who emerge from a brutal situation to find a sense of freedom, empowerment and belonging. The film itself is based on the true and exceptional story of Gaudiopolis, an orphanage that existed in Budapest between 1945 and 1950. The narrative of Chetwynd’s performance was formed through the participating children’s own interpretation of the film. The animal costumes used were hand-made by Chetwynd, with some of them being produced by workshops with youngsters from a foster home in Budapest.

Roza El-Hassan, Breeze, 2015_Beehive Earth Dome from Northern Syria, Natural Air-condition. Photo by Christine Clinckxs.

Breeze – Róza El-Hassan

Műegyetem Rakpart , Budapest 

Róza El-Hassan’s project emerged from sketches she drew from memories of her Syrian grandmother’s old domed house constructed from adobe, a clay-like material. She recalls how she discovered the same structure to be central to the research of a Californian architect who presented it as a case-study in natural air-conditioning, owing to its round shape and moderate fluctuation of temperature and moisture inside.

Conscious of the practical applications of the adobe dome structure, El-Hassan began to spread her drawings among architects and international relief organisations. She hoped they would build economical shelters for refugees from local materials rather than house them in tents and metal containers. However, the response she received was negligible. El-Hassan remains hopeful that one day the harrowing images of displacement will be replaced by simple forms and materials in the same way that the breeze brings physical and spiritual relief in the desert.

For Me, Trianon – Anca Benera and Arnold Estefan, Anetta Mona Chişa and Lucia Tkáčová, Dávid Demeter, Nikita Kadan, Csilla Nagy, Olja Triaška Stefanović and Lana Stojićević

Chimera-Project Gallery, Budapest

The curatorial collective Teleport Gallery chose to investigate the impact of the Treaty of Trianon from the perspective of young and middle-aged artists in the region. The project questions the relevance of the disappearance and reappearance of borders, the questions of emigration and immigration and dual citizenship within the confines of contemporary art practices.

Participating artists were asked for personal artefacts or images embodying the idea and importance of Trianon in their everyday lives and artistic attitudes. Presenting a personal and highly incidental collection in the format of an exhibition, the display aims to draw a mental map, influenced by the perspective of artists belonging to either a minority or majority group.

Although the Trianon today has been mostly regarded as a fetish by conservative and radical right-wing groups, the project provides an opportunity to explore new perspectives on the topic in the wider context of contemporary art.

OFF Biennale Budapest runs until 5 November

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