Ilona Németh: What Exactly Is Talent?

(Born in 1963 in Dunajská Streda, Slovakia)

An artist born in the Hungarian community in Slovakia, Németh often picks the subjects of minorities, immigration and other social problems in her work. She uses methods and data from sociology, history or political science. She leads the IN Studio at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Bratislava.

Q: You studied book illustration. How did you get from illustration to sculpture and fine art?
A: I wanted to apply to a university abroad. Back then, about in the 1980s, the only available countries were socialist – Poland, Hungary or the Soviet Union. I decided to apply to Poland for poster design, because at the time Polish poster design was quite good and interesting. But then it was banned because of the Solidarity movement and we could no longer go to Poland. Then the second option was either the Soviet Union or Hungary. So I chose Hungary, also because I was from the Hungarian minority. I went to Budapest, but the Academy of Applied Arts at the time looked really different from the one you have in Prague, because there were no fine art studios there. These were literally applied arts fields. I succeeded in entry exams for textile – because it was specified that only textile may be studied in Budapest – and that is something completely different that I never looked into. They accepted me and in the beginning I applied for transfer to graphics, book illustration and typography. That was closer to fine arts. So I studied graphics for five years and then I went back to what I wanted to do originally.
For those five years, I completely stopped doing fine art. Then I started to paint, but in such way that I paid no attention to what will come out of it. I was dealing with more-or-less sexual themes and nothing else. That was what interested me most at the time. Because of these paintings, I started to exhibit here and there and then I had my first solo exhibition with the help of Ada Krnáčová, who founded the Soros Center in Bratislava.
I was preparing a series of yellow paintings, where I painted bails of straw. And with it I did a performance that was recorded on the video. Then, when I started to put together the exhibition, there were 70 paintings. When the paintings were in the space, plus the video, I had a feeling that it’s simply not working, that something is missing. I called one curator from Budapest, Katarina Timar, who was in a more opened environment than we in Slovakia. I asked her what she thought, whether I can exhibit bails of straw in space? And she said “why not?” For me, that was a rather important sentence, because if she didn’t say that, I probably wouldn’t have done it. From then on, I stopped painting entirely, I haven’t painted a single painting since and it wasn’t a choice, it’s just how it ended up. Afterwards I did only installations. And these days I do more projects in other media. I’d like to paint as well, I’d like to do huge installations, but I simply have other ideas, because I think differently.
With painting I had the feeling that it’s a projection of something. I realize that those who paint think about it differently, but I had this feeling that why would I project something into 2D when it can be in space, I can walk through it or touch it, it can have sound and all kinds of other things.
Q: I’d like to go back to the period before the school. You said you first wanted to study fine art. How did that happen?
A: I drew since childhood. It was something so natural, that I don’t remember I’d be doing something else.
Q: Are there any artistic genes in your family?
A: No. Actually... my grandmother used to sew. I don’t know whether that’s an artistic gene or not, but other than that, nothing. Businessmen and such. And I have no genes for business.
Q: Yet at the same time, you work with your family and your roots. Perhaps it would be interesting if you could describe your family and family background a bit.
A: That is interesting, because I was not focused on my family before. I once made a series when I finished the academy. I focused more on the family two years ago, when I came to New York on a Fulbright scholarship to study public art. I spent five months in Brooklyn and began to think about it. I received an offer to make an exhibition. And I had this need to define who I am, that didn’t cross my mind before. I hope that I will somehow finish it soon, because it won’t easily let me go. I have
to continually focus on it.
For me, the interesting thing about the family is living in a place where all kinds of things change, where there were different countries, sometimes Czechoslovakia, sometimes Hungary, sometimes the Slovak fascist state, sometimes the Hapsburg Monarchy, the European Union and I don’t know what else. But the people stay. We’re continually confronted through the minority status with who we are and why are we there, which is a completely irrelevant question, because we were always there.
That’s not a question you can ask easily, because naturally, people live there. And when you are confronted with it, that’s when you start thinking about it. I spent my childhood in Dunajská Streda and I still live there today. There are 90 percent Hungarians and 10 percent Slovaks there, who usually speak Hungarian. And there is no conflict. You start feeling it more when you leave the city. That’s why I began to focus on it and perhaps also because after 1989, we though there weren’t going to be either nationalism or the nationality issue, that we’d be solving other problems. And that completely came back and turned around and increased. That’s when I was confronted by these problems. So that’s how I got to my family. My family is also interesting for its political pluralism. My father was an agricultural engineer and my mom was a teacher. They were born in 1931 and 1935 and they were totally engaged in socialism and the Party. In 1969, my father achieved a higher rank and yet on my mother’s side of family, they were expelled from the Party in 1968. One side lost absolutely everything after 1968 and, on the other hand, my father gained from it. That plurality stayed there and they all communicated. These days it’s less likely. If people don’t agree
on their political views, then they fight also within the family.
Q: How did your family view the fact you wanted to do art? Did they treat it as your decision or did they interfere?
A: They absolutely tried to interfere, but that was only supposed to discourage me. My father began visiting various artists with me and wanted to know, in a totally exact way – does she have talent or doesn’t she? And some said yes, some said no. All the while I kept doing exactly the same thing I did before.
Q: How old were you?
A: I think from about sixteen on. And now, when some parents call me to ask whether I could look at what their kid does, I just tell them that if the kid wants to do something, let them do it. What exactly is talent? How can you define it or where is the border, that here he or she still has talent or not. I think that talent is exactly about the decision to do something. I also decided in this direction with the certainty that I will do this and I didn’t care a bit who told me what, but those were unpleasant meetings. My parents only accepted one thing, when I began to teach at the art academy in Bratislava and when I became a professor, then I had something.
Q: Can I ask about the community of artists that was around you during school years or afterwards?
A: In Budapest, the Academy of Applied Arts was entirely separate from fine arts. I have no idea how it was possible that, for example, I never went to the Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest when I studied there. I kept going to exhibitions and what I saw in Budapest influenced me considerably. In the 1980s, Budapest was something completely different from Czechoslovakia. There were some great exhibitions taking place there, for example in Kunsthalle Műcsarnok. But I never went to the academic ground. Then, when I went back to Slovakia, I came to know the literary group Iródia, which was founded and organized by young writers and poets and through them we founded the visual arts section. Through Iródia I came to know, for example, performer Jozef R. Juhász. With him and others we then founded the Stúdio rt, an art group for organizing performance and experimental festivals. We started off by inviting Slovaks and Czechs, but our contacts with Czechs were completely different than now. The contact was absolutely natural.
We knew Czech art just as well as ours. The cultural relationships were intense. Because of this, we began to deal with Czechoslovak performance festivals. These were also opportunities for artists to meet. First Czechs and Slovaks, then Hungarians and in the end we were dealing with 45 countries. Through performance we accessed completely different information. It was this circle: Václav Stratil and Milan Kozelka, who were not known at all back then, or, from Slovakia, Juraj Koller, Rudolf Sikora, Matej Kren, different generations.
Then, when I returned to Budapest, I collaborated with Karol Pichler. He really helped me by introducing me to a whole group of artists that began to be active in the 1990s. These were artists connected to the Soros Center that had a considerable influence on artists. It organized an annual exhibition where one could apply. There were even some finances and the organizational part was ensured. Anyone from any city could sign up and they got into the group and that’s how new artists got into the scene.
Then there was another community of artists in Bratislava – Laco Teren, Jozef Šramka, Ivan Csudai, Daniel Brunovský and others, some of whom then entirely disappeared from the scene. Or later, Anton Čierny, Pavlína Čierna, Boris Ondreička, who now runs Tranzit in Slovakia. Denisa Lehotská, Roman Ondák also started at that time.
Q: And, by the way, did you have any female role models?
A: I didn’t have specific role models, nor female role models, but what influenced me perhaps most was Magdalena Abakanowicz. But not because she’d be a female role model, but more because she had a solo exhibition in Kunsthalle in Budapest and the exhibition was absolutely fantastic. It was the first time in my life when I saw large installations. Huge, really huge. A ten-meter object, because there is that big a space in there. She did wonderful things. I was influenced by the power of these things. I can’t tell to what degree it was female art or not. It was simply good art, that just rolled you over. And what’s sad is that she still does the same things I’ve seen her do in the 1980s. We will now be exhibiting together in Budapest, which is very interesting for me that we will be in one exhibition.
Q: You collaborate with your sister, who is a sociologist. On which basis did the projects occur? Did they come more from you or from her?
A: For one thing, I’m interested in sociology and naturally we also collaborate with other professions, also with historians or a political scientist and a sociologist. The project came up when I was teaching in the Academy of Fine Arts and Design in Bratislava. For one semester, I wanted to focus with the students on public art, both theory and the practical part. I invited them to Dunajská Streda, so that they could do some work in this city. And then I had this idea that we would put up labels in three languages – Hungarian, Slovak, and Roma. These are such parallel structures and they don’t communicate together. Two years later I realized what it means to live in an environment, which is eventually multicultural, but on the other hand the multiculturalism doesn’t work at all. I wrote down questions for myself and focused more on the individual parts of the city, such as the Vietnamese quarter. I thought that I would write out someplace in some other part of the city whether they visited the Vietnamese quarter yet and vice versa. I set up such provocative questions and showed it to my sister, who is a sociologist. She recommended the Bogadus scale for measuring tolerance and that’s when our collaboration began. She measured the entry point tolerance between the individual groups before and after the exhibition. The boards were out for about four months and nothing happened with them. Everyone thought our project was official, because people think that when something like this shows up on the street, it’s not an art project.
On the boards, I asked whether you would accept a Slovak, a Hungarian a Vietnamese or a Roma for a neighbor, or into the city as a tourist. And the question for each nationality was asked in each language. And when someone suddenly sees three boards, they have to ask themselves where the border is. Not as a neighbor, into the city maybe, into the country as a tourist, but not as a co-citizen.
Q: In Budapest, the boards had to be removed.
A: Yes, I did a variation about the Jewish quarter in Budapest. These days, there are more or less sex shops, Chinese shops and the Roma. We used Hebrew, Chinese, Hungarian, and Roma there. When we posted the boards, people began communicating immediately. The exhibition took place on the border of two districts in Budapest and the mayors agreed that it had to be removed for it would be a provocation. Actually, we had to remove the boards before the opening, because they banned the exhibition immediately. The boards were then placed in a gallery, with the rest of the exhibition, but that was complete nonsense. But it had a considerable response from the media. It was discussed, but on the other hand it was sort of passive. The questions were topical, because since then, the situation has gradually worsened. Now there is even an ultra-right party in the parliament. We had every right to ask these questions. The politicians maintained that there was nothing to talk about, so why provoke people, when there are no problems with cohabitation in Hungary.
Q: You also focus on public art theoretically. In your view, is there such a thing as a specific approach to public space in Slovakia?
A: I don’t think so. In 2001, I was invited to Luxemburg, where I worked on one project in public space and that’s when I came to understand it. I did such a romantic thing, large balls that I exhibited on one hill. I tried to understand the place. And that’s when it changed inside of me, that when you enter a space, it is necessary to understand in which way. And that’s why I began to focus on public art and, on the other hand, also because the Slovak scene, as well as the Czechoslovak and Czechoslovak-Hungarian scene is so small that I had the feeling that the same people go to the same exhibitions, that we simply do the things for each other. Public space is interesting because it’s where you confront your ideas with people who randomly pass-by. I don’t think there is anything special about it in Slovakia.
Q: Recently there were several scandals in Slovakia regarding monuments and public sculpture.
A: Yes, these activities regarding the Public Pedestal, done by Tomáš Džadoň, Martin Piaček, Michal Moravčík and Dalibor Bača, are, in my view, very important. Over the last ten years, many uninteresting and bad sculptures were made in Bratislava. Michal Moravčík began to solve it by inviting the public into a discussion and he made these viewings of such sculptures in the city with a commentary. They focus on this strategically, which is quite important. The debate still goes on whether these are sculptures or some decorations. It’s necessary to talk about what we can say is art and what we can maintain isn’t. It’s necessary to define it.
Q: Which of your works was the first explicitly formulated on the theme of the female body or some gender theme?
A: That was clearly the exhibition in the Art Gallery in Považská Bystrica, called The Paradigm of a Woman. Katarína Rusnáková organized three such exhibitions. She invited four men to the first, called Physical/Mental. Then there was a female exhibition, the Paradigm of a Woman, and the third one was the least successful, Between a Man and a Woman. The text of The Paradigm of a Woman was so enriching and inspiring that I began to focus on this theme some more.
Q: Does it mean the challenge came from Katarína Rusnáková?
A: Yes, she invited four artists; beside me; also Jana Želibská, Denisa Lehocká and Petra Ondreičková, and sent us an inspiring text about the theme.
Q: Wasn’t it your theme that you had already somehow worked out within yourself?
A: I wouldn’t say it this way. In the text, she posed some questions that needed to be answered and perhaps that’s why it influenced me to a large degree.
Q: And how did you approach the fact that there were to be four women exhibiting? Didn’t you have some problem with it?
A: I refused some exhibitions that were explicitly female even before. These were conceived in such way that I didn’t see anything else in there and that’s not good enough for me. But this was a triple exhibition, with a male a female and a joint exhibition and it wasn’t separated, but had some logic to it.
For example, I exhibited at one really bad exhibition in Hungary, in Miskolc. They call it the Institute of Contemporary Art and it’s a pretty good institute. They did an exhibition there of female artists who do video. They sent me a photo of how that exhibition was done and I see that there are these sort of veils and under them cabinets, where they have the videos. And before the TV sets are pink boxes.
And that’s not irony, they mean it seriously. And now what? Am I supposed to go out there and smash the exhibition with a hammer? It’s simply a complete misunderstanding of the whole thing we’re talking about here. What can be more “feminine” than this? Veils and among veils something in a pink cloud. How horrible, completely horrible.
I don’t know whether you went to Gender Check exhibition, in Museumsquartier in Vienna, that was also a rather criticized exhibition, but for me it was an experience, that I could see this much gender art, which is not usual. It was very meaningful to me to see it all in one spot.
Q: In your case, the gender theme appears more in older works from the 1990s. Is it still your topic?
A: I think it is. Just not so that I would be strategically dealing only
with this. For example, right now I’m working on three films. And all these films are connected to gender. I think that the poetic, personal
or family line is returning for me. Always though the experiences I have. For example I live with three men at home, because I have two sons who are adult, plus a husband. Through these relationships I understand how they view women. If I had known this before, I’d deal with men very differently. When it comes to gender and how to bring up men, that’s a big experiment for me. I come from a family where the model was absolutely classical. My father made money and mom was a teacher.
She did everything regarding us and he ensured and secured and whatever else. Then his mother lived with us and also my mother’s mother and us two sisters, plus my mom. And I ended up in a family where I have two sons and my husband comes from a family, where there were four siblings plus a father. Five men and one woman.
What one learns from all this is that to bring up a man who then respects women is art. At times I went over the edge and told them too much about how we’re equal. But at the moment I think I was able to be on guard enough to have my sons understand it correctly. It’s
absolutely essential that what I do in art must mirror “normal” everyday life. If I were dealing with gender issues in art and then was a oppressed housewife, then I don’t think I could even do art. Because that’s all connected.
Q: Would you characterize yourself as a feminist?
A: For me, feminism is something natural. As long as we mean feminism as equality, in the good non-mechanical sense, then yes. Perhaps that depends on the society, what’s understood as feminism. I resisted it. I reacted negatively to the label of feminist or post-feminist art, but now I don’t protest it any more. It’s more a question of the society. When some work is labeled as a feminist work, then the space for the interpretation of the art is narrowed down. We don’t label male things as macho, don’t talk about them as clearly heterosexual or male work. We just say that about women. That’s why it’s so box-like. But I don’t protest it anymore.
Q: Does it mean you feel that you are succeeding in breaking the understanding of that scheme or the box?
A: I don’t know whether I’m succeeding, but because I was resisting, it was as if I didn’t accept the characteristics of the work or even of myself. That’s why I decided to no longer protest against it. As long as I’m a feminist, then I’m a feminist. I know some men who are feminists. A protest is counterproductive, because it looks as if I were afraid of it. I’m not afraid of it, I just didn’t want to narrow my space. What I do does have a feminist character. That label can be stuck on everything I do, not just on work that is gender-oriented.
Q: The last question regards your pedagogic experience. Did you feel some handicap or, on the other hand, an advantage that you are a woman, who are in the minority among professors of fine arts?
A: I am a minority in a triple way. I was at the Academy as a woman, a Hungarian and on top of it I deal with intermedia. When I came to the school, the new media faculty wasn’t there at all, and when I took over the studio from Rudolf Sikora, then some students, men, left the studio. One student got up saying that he won’t be learning from a woman. And two men left and also three women. And you can imagine that. I studied applied arts, meaning until when I started teaching at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design, I was never in an studio of fine art. This was the first meeting. But over time, they came back. Of the men, at least one and the girls, when they returned, said that they didn’t know what they were doing and that they were simply afraid I would be too tough. I think they weren’t used to it. There was no woman in the graphic department, none in sculpture and I was in painting. There was Milota Havránková in photography. But now there is one woman again, Klaudia Kosziba. Of course, there are women in the positions of assistants
and various others, but not as heads of studios. There are women in textile, which is understood as a female field and there are women in photography.
Veronika Bromová had mostly women in her studio. I also have a majority of women. I have men too, but the women prefer to sign up with me. And over all, there are mostly women in free arts. And that’s even sadder that after school the women disappear and then
we don’t know where they are.
And when it comes to the intermedia department, we are really a minority faculty and there is a critical opinion of our activity, that we don’t produce anything, that there are the artifacts missing. The whole pedagogical committee comes and starts telling us – this is nothing, also this nothing and this also nothing. And they leave. But they don’t consider at all what we deal with. But we’re used to it. We don’t mind. After school, our graduates are much more visible on the scene than the others. But nobody inquires into that. It’s really true that we lead our students into being artists once they finish. That’s quite important, because they either know how to find their place or they don’t. From this perspective, in my opinion, we are quite successful, not just my studio, but the whole department. We’re more or less dealing with the way students think, to have them consider what they do, how and why they do it.
Q: And yet it’s the Ateliér IN, which means that it’s basically a studio to which you gave your own imprint.
A: Yes, but it’s called IN, among other reasons, because it’s INtermedia. It was convenient that these are my initials. It’s like I sign under the damage that I do. By the way, the name was invented by the art historian Katarína Rusnáková.
Q: It’s interesting to watch how women enter free arts quite often through new media. Traditional media seem to be usually well covered by men.
A: But in painting, it’s also the influence of professor Daniel Fischer, who leads the department of painting at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design, who is very open, he’s a feminist in some sense of that word. He invited me to teach there. And now, when professor Berger left, they opened the recruitment procedure and again, he took Klaudia Kosziba. That’s not an accident. He thinks about why he does it, that he wants to have it balanced.
Q: At the same time, it gives the school an entirely different dimension; it’s not so one-sided.
A: Sure. We have three studios at the intermedia faculty. There’s Anton Čierny. Then we have Anna Daučíková, who is currently teaching at the Academy of Fine Arts in Prague, then there is me... The three of us are
an interesting combination. Sexuality is being discussed quite openly there. I have students who constantly talk about the relationship to religion, of Catholicism and sexuality. And in these discussions it gets opened and when it gets opened, it has to be talked about. I won’t sweep it under the rug. From this perspective our faculty is quite notable. It was also positive about the Academy of Fine Arts and Design that Anna Daučíková was a vice-chancellor for eight years. I think that wouldn’t happen in Budapest or Poland. She was in the front row during marches of homosexuals. That was also a signal for our students as to what the school thinks about this.