© Copyright Balint Szombathy / Translation © Andrea Szekeres 2000.


by Bálint Szombathy

(The "Recycling Memory" Project by László Kerekes)

Berlin artist László Kerekes launched his artistic program Recycling Memory in 1992. In his project, which encompasses multiple genres, Kerekes names memory as the most important technological principle for the survival of mankind, and projects it as such onto art itself. Kerekes does not aim to interpret or reinterpret the past by way of memory. His work is focused on those connective points of memory that exercise their impact in the present and in the conceived future, i.e., which emphasize the re-utilization of memory without any profane documentary application. Kerekes consciously avoids the trap of confusing memory with the act of remembrance. The layered elements of memory appear as concrete factors of life, devoid of any redundant literary or anecdotal icing, intersecting or penetrating into one another like streams of energy, or occasionally running parallel into the same direction.

At this point I would like to advert briefly to the internal and external motives for the technology of memory, namely to the reason why memory plays such an important role in Kerekes' work. Kerekes, who has been living in Berlin for over ten years now, was born in Vojvodina, Yugoslavia. Vojvodina is one of the most explicitly multi-ethnic regions of Europe, with cultures of different nationalities connecting to or penetrating into one another at various points: cultures that are, in themselves, structured in layers, in the same way as memory. The heap of successive cultures that has been deposited in the den culture of the Avars, the nomadic amalgam people that once had lived in this land, represents a metaphoric value in itself. In the very history of the Avars, Kerekes finds a parallel for the present, as it anticipates a vision of annihilation. The Avars are known as once having an economically independent, self-governing, and open, consequently, progressive civilization, which was ruined by the purposeful vandalism exercised by the region's conquerors, leaving no more than scattered traces of the Avar culture until today.

In the tragic fate of the Avar people, Kerekes has recognized a most genuine parallel for the contemporary tribulations of individual and collective identity witnessed by people living in the region between the two rivers, the Danube and the Tisza. He has produced Avar paintings and elaborated an individual iconography of Avar den painting, the complexity of which brings us face to face with such tragic events of our epoch as the Yugoslav war and the moral depravity this war has entailed. One of these works is the triptych entitled, Buried in the Ground Below the Belt  (1992). Kerekes expanded this work two years later, in spring 1994, into an action entitled, The Sub-terranean Cathedral, in the yard of the Werkschutz Music Theater, Cologne. This was the first time when he evoked in reality the motif of burying in the ground, as six persons were actually buried up to their waists in the ground, which was saturated with pieces of stones and metal, military waste materials. The number of the buried persons, six, stood for the number of ex-Yugoslav republics. The basic setting of the performance resembles very much that method of execution whereby people condemned to death were forced to dig their own graves. A very similar action was made in summer 1994, in a small village in Vojvodina, the artist's broader homeland, in which twelve preserved paper works, belonging to the series, Travelling into Freedom, were buried deep in the ground on the artist's instructions. The works were placed thus under the ground side by side as preserved remnants of a primordial culture, in the territory once populated by the Avars to retransfer its spiritual energy. Freedom for Malevich seemed to be so distant, so unattainable that he departed far from the material world in search of an idea of freedom lost in the infinity of outer space. Kerekes, on the other hand, buries his works deep in the ground, submerging them into the virtual and actual realm of the Avar dens, while he links different levels of memory within the inspiration gained from the spiritual relationship to the ancestors' world. Within a succession of performances centered on the motif of burial, Kerekes realizes his Human-Hendge in the courtyard of the Cardiff Chapter Arts Center, with thirteen people taking part in the performance, four of them buried in the ground. This performance introduces a new element into the realm of thoughts related to the Avars, in that the nine performers, whirling around the axes of their own bodies, evoke the dance of the Muslim whirling dervishes. The constant whirling movement brings the dancers into an ecstatic state of mind, a vehicle in creating spiritual connection to the unearthly realm of the divine. The performance, commenting upon the necessity for the mixture of different cultures, emphasizes the ever-prevalent dualism of spiritual and physical reality.

Kerekes' poetic, taking shape in the common space of different cultures, religions, languages and customs, gains a new dimension in his performance, Baptism in the Danube. The author, in his attempt to disentangle the different threads of his own primordial origin, emphasizes the interconnected system and unity of the parts and the whole within an elaborated simile: in the same way as the rivers in the territory situated between the Northern Sea and the Black Sea are interconnected, the settlements in the region and their inhabitants are in primordial connection with one another. The performance itself is naturally much more than a series of actions based on simple regional or cultural reasoning.

Within the projections of Kerekes' pit mythology, a decisive momentum is provided by the indestructible bonds of origin and descent, which are actually the pillars of memory. The nomad artist of our day identifies himself with an extinct people, the Avars, since he himself is victim to a defenseless situation, having no homeland, suffering from spiritual isolation, the tribulations of a multi-layered minority situation with which he can never rationally come to terms. He believes that the soul suffering from these traumas may find a sense of protection in the primordial substance of the cultural debris deposited in the upper layers of the Batschka black soil.

Kerekes uses a suitcase, or a travel bag, as an objectified memory motif to bring to mind the characteristic nomadic way of life of the Avars. In his first significant exhibition in Berlin in 1992-93, he made an installation, entitled Euroasyl, which consists of bag-icons resting upon chairs. An important element of the installation is the pair of shoes placed beside each chair. Bags and shoes are the travelling necessities of refugees who are forced to leave their homes due to the political, economic or wartime situation. On the bag-icons, various utensils of human existence are placed like scraps of memory, objects that have attained an intimate aura. Refugee inhabitants of Europe, however, accumulate their memories not only within objects; they also carry with them a flood of emotions and memories, the freshest of which are mourning and tragic. A considerable part of the images set in the bags accentuate the sight of floods of people hurrying across the border. The familiar architectural elements belonging to lowland villages appear as backdrops in the images, houses and graveyard crucifixes, as mementos of the past left behind and abandoned ancestors. On the back of a chair there is a jacket hanging, decorated with badges of honor, and in front of the chair a closed empty jar, a map and the arm of a record player are placed. The pickup-needle is crackling on the rim of a plate in which three fish forms are swimming in bloody liquid. On the plate a spoon and a fork are melting, flowing down from the brim like the clockfaces in Salvador Dali's painting, Persistence of Memory.

A key moment for Kerekes' metaphorical application of objective accessories can be observed in his installation, Sunflowers and the War In this work an industrial plant, which may be considered symbolic in itself and which is able to convey a myriad of poetic content, the characteristic plant of his homeland, the plains, becomes the iconic frame of memory. A living plant is a link, more precisely, a connection in the physical sense as well, between earth and sky, between the material and the ethereal spheres, and in this sense it comprises the direction of the human path of life. A sunflower turns its head, in the same way as the dial of life, i.e., it inclines towards its genetically determined vital element, light. It turns until it reaches a state of vertigo, as the dervishes do within the performance, Human - Hendge, finding in this vertiginous whirling the way towards God.

In addition to works that utilize a more complex symbolism of objects, i.e., works that appear more poetic, Kerekes made another cycle of performances simultaneously, in which he employs concrete instruments, referring to human annihilation, such as a revolver, bones and the brain, which functions as the collector of memory. His 1997 Athens performance, entitled Rent A Dream, presented these requisites. Also in 1997 he made a similar production forOstranenie: the International Electronic Media Forum in Dessau, in which he splashed out the brain his television helmet had contained on the ground right at the audience's feet (Feelds of Power).

What may still lie ahead of somebody whose memory is so heavily burdened by the tragedy of annihilation, suffering and death? Who had no other choice and had a strong reason to leave the land of his ancestors, pondering about how relative the notion of one's native land has become, as it has only left eternal traces in the memory. The only thing that has remained for him to do is to try to eradicate it from the mind. With Kerekes, this momentum ensues in his 1996 performance in Lodz, entitled Beating of the Past.

In his objects, installations and performances alike, Kerekes employs iconic elements that are distant as regards their origin and the time of their creation, by which he produces a simultaneous situation. His artistic ideal is the resting potentiality of the image and he appeals for an active vision. He searches through different layers of time, molding its scraps into a unity of meaning. Thus the most authentic approach to his works is the method of hermeneutics, as was founded in the early eighties within Swiss and German art history by Alpers, Boehm, Belting and Bätschmann. The way Kerekes interprets the technology of memory may be regarded as novel in the sense that it activates the apparatus of a relatively neglected branch of interpretation theory. But it is also new in that Kerekes constructs a simultaneous composition of primordial and contemporary instruments.