Analogies between the Activities of the MAMŰ Association and Group Yatoo in the ‘80s

Istvan Eross

Publikáció: 2013. January 22. Tuesday

Artist István Erőss works at Eszterházy College, Eger, as professoer and head of the Visual Arts Institute.

 He graduated from the Hungarian University of Fine Arts in 1995 as a printmaker, but he also attended other institutions, such as the Academy of Fine Arts Vienna, the Royal Academy of Art (The Hague) and the College of Fine Arts in Marseille. He defended his DLA thesis in 2009. He has taken numerous professional trips to remote countries: he has been to Africa four times and to Asia twenty-one times as a guest artist, exhibitor, lecturer or curator of different artists’ camps and symposia. He is exhibitor and organiser of the series of international exchange exhibitions entitled SZEGMENS (SEGMENT), consisting of twice six events held in Hungary and several Asian countries up to now. In the last ten years he has mainly focused on creating nature art works.

 As a preliminary, let me start with some personal information about myself. I am a Hungarian artist, but I was not born in Hungary. I grew up in Transylvania, Romania, belonging to an ethnic minority of almost two million people. In the middle of the ‘80s I attended the secondary school of art in Marosvásárhely, the second largest town of Transylvania, comparable in size to Gongju. In 1989 I resettled in Hungary. In other words, for me the ‘80s, the hardest years of Ceausescu’s dictatorship, were a personal experience, just like for other artists starting their career at that time.

In the ‘70s an important, typically Eastern European element was added to the store of expressive devices available for site-specific outdoor art in Romania. At that time in Eastern Europe there was no working gallery system, no art trade, no chance for introduction into western art life, no opportunity for entering the world-wide flow of art. Only artists favoured by the official policy of culture – artists embracing and hailing the state ideology – were given a chance. In Romania, due to the slowness of urbanisation, the relative industrial backwardness and the seclusion of the country, and the restrictions imposed on travelling, most people were surrounded by the context of living folklore. Moreover, official politics also embraced folk art in its fear of modern values. In spite of all this, with a paradoxical turn that shows the nonsense logic of dictatorship in its “clarity,” the same political leadership strove to eliminate rural lifestyles, the hotbed of folk art, with its decision to destroy villages and concentrate the population in towns. Beyond doubt, the intention to make controlling people easier lay in the background of these plans.

Artists survived those hard times of dictatorship by following the most different strategies. The desire to escape from the suffocating political atmosphere almost predestined those attracted to nature to voluntary exile from towns. Having graduated from different art centres and universities, several artists fled back to their birth-place, in some cases to tiny villages. There many of them almost spontaneously conceived the idea of the need for a “pure source” – translated into a visual language. (The idea of drawing “only from a pure source” is the coda of Cantata Profana by Béla Bartók, the most outstanding Hungarian twentieth-century composer. He meant by a pure source ancient, unspoiled folk music, which he valued beyond everything.) In many cases these artists went – quite consistently – to such lengths in their exile that even artistic creation itself remained an intimate act without any documentation.

 There were several methods to carry out this difficult creative practice in Romania. Some made use of the contextual possibilities given by rural space (Ana Lupas, Humid Installation, 1970); others searched for the mythical-religious elements and the agricultural tools of folklore, interpreted them as ready-mades, and declared them artworks (e.g. a haystack frame, a harvest wreath, a brake-harrow, etc.). Alternatively, others interpreted the still existing rituals of folk customs as happenings.

 These artists found a contact with nature through peasant culture. They regarded its main character, the farmer, as an artist of nature, since he knows all its vibrations, lives in a symbiosis with nature and does not intend either to exploit or to overpower it.

 „Once I scratched a fissure-net into fresh sludge; after drying, the fissures crisscrossed my putatively real drawing, and I discovered that at some places the lines of the drawing and the fissures overlapped each other. And then I came to feel what I had not been able to decipher with either brush, or burin, or photograph: I was working together with an energy whose laws I discovered by pure chance, and it accepted me. Since then I have watched the changes of nature with different eyes. I know that the parallel ditches that cut the meadow in half have been shaped by the traces of two covered wagons; that the freshly cleared part of the forest might as well be solemn: the shining age-rings appear like so many obelisk pedestals, the trunks like the tumbled-down columns of a great building.

The sight of hazy, gleaming plastic bags fastened onto the sprouts of young pine plantations reminds me of huge glass chandeliers. The fields made sculpturesque by ploughing or the fan-like drawings of the wielded scythe offer just as fascinating sights. The terraced hillside paths, trodden out by cattle, constitute ziggurats; and the looming beam arches of hayward’s houses and deer-feeders, which have lost their ceiling, look like the remains of paleontological animals. I have noticed that a cow tied to a pole walks in circles and treads out a spiral-shaped path, since the coiling rope draws it nearer and nearer to the pole. This reminds me of Smithson’s Spiral Jetty or the stairway of the Tower of Babel.”

 This quote is from a 1983 text by Károly Elekes. He was one of the leading characters of the MAMŰ Association, which was unquestionably the most prominent representative of the artistic attitude described above from the beginning of the ‘80s in Romania. As a secondary-school student, I myself was also associated with MAMŰ and they might have unwittingly influenced the starting of my professional career.

 The members of MAMŰ, as it clearly transpires from the quote above, approached “Westkunst”, that is, western art, with a personal attitude permeated by folk culture. They positioned themselves and their group’s activity at the cross-section of folk culture and neo-avant-garde creative attitudes. The height of their artistic ambition was not invention, not making up but rather finding and wondering at things.

 The core members of the group were freshly graduated young artists returning to Marosvásárhely after their studies, who were surrounded by musicians, literary scholars, actors, and even a large number of “enthusiastic amateurs”. Outcast from exhibition premises, they wandered around fields outside “classical genres” with a limitless desire for freedom and experimentation, and snapped their fingers at the current cultural policy. After the initial performances and happenings at house parties, they soon found their own sacred “playground” in a natural environment, at the so-called Watery Hills, which are regular “earthen stacks” that used to serve as burying-places.

The members of the group – Károly Elekes, Aladár Garda, Árpád Nagy, György Csaba Borgó and others – approached the curves, secrets and mysteries of the Watery Hills with an almost religious attitude. That is where they carried out their community forming “landscape actions,” where their “nature installations,” which were initially rather based on private mythologies, were made. Later, the elements of then living folk culture, the experiences of rural life and the paraphernalia of folklore also appeared in the works of these artists, who came from villages almost without an exception.

 The members of MAMŰ deemed the setting for their art and the interaction with peasants, these artists of nature, equally important during their projects carried out in villages. As one of the participants has put it, “There was a unique (and, I am afraid, unrepeatable) moment: the first meeting of village people with fine arts as an experience. A real one, since they perceived the works simultaneously with the artists themselves, in their own personal fallibility. Artists taken in large doses, shock-like and irresistible.”

 By 1985 most members of MAMŰ had moved to Hungary, where the association was re-formed in 1991 and has been functioning ever since. Currently, it involves 130 members. In Hungary, however, they cannot gain inspiration from either the “sacred environment” of Watery Hills or the folklore-based everyday rituals of Transylvanian villages. The members of the association have made works “close to nature” and they participated, featuring as Group Pantenon, in the 1994 exhibition Naturally, which summed up similar aspirations in the region. Nevertheless, their works at the beginning of the ‘80s, when the group was originally founded, testify to a much more innovative and intimate “alliance with nature”. For me it seems unquestionable today that the Marosvásárhely period between 1981 and 1985 was the “golden age” of MAMŰ.

 In the middle of the ‘90s a collection of articles entitled Art in Nature and edited by Vittorio Fagone was published, which attempted to give a summary view of the manifestations of art related to nature all over Europe. László Beke, writer of the East European section in the volume, considered the works made by MAMŰ at Watery Hills at the beginning of the ‘80s worthy of introduction from the region. At long last, the volume provided a context for these works, which, even in that élite western company, did justice to the representation of artistic activities in Eastern Europe.

 Some of you might already have guessed why I am talking about these events of 30 years ago. But before I go on to explain it, let me briefly introduce the origins and characteristic features of the movement in western art which – just like Yatoo – regards nature as the prime site of its creative activity. In my book-length study entitled Nature Art I differentiate – maybe somewhat arbitrarily – three attitudes to nature among western nature artists. I call the first group machos. They are the classic “earth-movers” of land art: Walter de Maria, Heizer, Smithson, etc., who were the first to create artworks in nature in the ‘60s. These artists admittedly did not care for ecology and environmental issues, but rather proclaimed the heroism of human (creative) power, referring first and foremost to themselves. To the charge that land art rapes the earth, Smithson scandalously answered that sex itself is also a series of violence. This macho behaviour softened somewhat by the end of the ‘70s and the beginning of the ’80s due to the emergent critical voices. Thus, the earth-movers’ activities were domesticated into acts of re-cultivation, which time and again reflected on ecological problems. As it has also become clear by now, their passionate exodus from the White Cube was also a temporary pose only, since many of them – presumably for financial reasons – sneaked back into the galleries through the back door. Their attraction to monumentality has remained unchanged, though, which is clearly demonstrated not only by the widely known typical land art works, but also by the pieces they exhibit in galleries, such as the Walter de Maria’s Five Continents Sculpture its with dimensions of 13 x 23.5 meter, weighing 325 tons.

 I have baptized the second group eco-labourers. They are the diametrical opposites of the “earth-movers” as far as their relation to nature is concerned. Creating their works in the spirit of ecology and environmentalism, Alan Sonfist, Denes Agnes and the Harissons, to name only a few, have dedicated themselves to the representation of nature’s ills instead of the poesy of destruction. Based on their activities, progressively agitatorial ecoart emerged in the United States. It is a school that increasingly ignores aesthetic aspects and emphasises the social act instead, thus touching upon, occasionally venturing into the field of other disciplines.

 I have apostrophised the members of the third group, like Richard Long, Hamish Fulton and Hans Haacke, as middle-of-the-roaders. They regard their creative attitude as ritual interaction, in the course of which they hardly interfere with the natural landscape, or rather only enframe it with the lens of their camera. In their case – whether they are consciously integrated or not – the traces of a Buddhist attitude are clearly discernible. One can speak here about a kind of allegiance with nature, which – beyond the application of natural materials – also implies participation in the process of the artists’ handling of natural resources and elements.

 These artists show considerable restraint as far as the size of their works is concerned. Their creations show great discretion in contrasting created geometry with the chaotic compositions of nature. For them intervention cannot be a dominant motif. Therefore, they highlight the human being’s dependence on nature in their works, which all testify to their deepest respect for nature. In the catalogue of the exhibition Ressource Kunst, also presented in Budapest in 1990, Ulrich Bischoff differentiates two kinds of creative methods.

 The first one, which treats raw material as a readily available resource and shifts emphasis from quality to quantity, is called the “big gesture”. The second one, the “small gesture”, is a modest intervention that does not fundamentally change the place. Offering only its interpretation and commentary, it creates an opportunity to view the place with different eyes. It is this creative method suggesting a slightly Buddhist attitude that has also become wide-spread in Europe. Some well-known curators, following their built-in reflex, have tried to cram these works into a system, display them in museum circumstances and according to their logic, then operate their creators as a homogenous network. This project has failed because the laws of art industry do not apply to the case of nature art. Unlike Arte Povera, nature art cannot be domesticated with the methods of gallery industry.

 It has become clear by now that a meeting and mutual awe-struck recognition of sorts took place between the two branches of nature art – the eastern and the western one – owing to the activities of Group Yatoo and with its introduction in Europe. This meeting, in turn, has indirectly led to my first journey to Korea, to my participation in the biennale organised by Yatoo. However, it was only several years later that I got access to the documentation and catalogues of the group’s work in the ‘80s. Then I was struck, as if by lightning, by the recognition of the almost uncanny similarity between works from the early ‘80s made by the MAMŰ I knew so well and Group Yatoo, a phenomenon so remote from a Hungarian perspective.

 How is it possible that some artists started to create in nature and produce artworks of rather similar intent at the same time, at two such distant places of the world, and completely independently from each other? How could this astonishing resemblance of two so dissimilar and remote cultures emerge, which sometimes seems to border on the mystical? The two groups’ choice of location and the similarity between the forms of the graves on Yeonmi-San Hill and at Watery Hills are cases in point here.

 Since I was intimately acquainted with both groups, I was fairly interested in their reaction. I happened to be the organizer of the nature art exhibition Upon Nature, held in MAMŰ Gallery, Budapest, between 30 March and 27 April 2008. The exhibitors included German artists Anke Mellin and Gerd Logeman and Korean Yatoo. Apropos of the exhibition we organised a lecture on nature art at the Hungarian University of Fine Arts. In its first part Anke Mellin presented the history of land art through works classical by that time, emphasising their expansionist and monumentalist character. Following this, the Korean Jeon Won-gil gave a presentation about the activities of Yatoo. The works shown there – on slides intermingled with plenty of catalogues and contemporary documents – gave the audience an idea about the cross-section of Korean nature art.

 They were evidently embarrassed by the two presentations, but even the speakers themselves might have been surprised at what they had seen and heard. Namely, the conspicuous difference between the Western and the Eastern creative attitude. The first presentation was about the myth of the heroic creator, the praise of the ego, and man’s desire to rule nature. In contrast, the Korean presentation highlighted the respect the eastern artist feels for nature, their co-operation, and the enviable intimacy of their relationship. In the East, the human being defines itself not as the centre of the world but rather as a conscious entity which is able to posit itself into that system.

 It was in the course of this talk that the real significance of the terms “big gesture” and “small gesture” became crystal clear for me. It hammered it home that Yatoo and more generally artists from the Far East have always, from the beginning, had the creative attitude that Europeans discovered only in the ‘90s. But why could the “small gesture” become really definitive in Eastern Europe, why could a creative method based on seclusion and finding safe shelter in nature become general there? What is behind this temporary, but no less uncanny parallelism between MAMŰ and Yatoo? The exile into nature was politically and socially motivated in both cases: it was rooted in ressentiment against the ruling dictatorship, and consequently in the narrowing down of possibilities to exhibit. The similarity between the two groups’ creative attitudes is based on cooperation with nature and its forces.

 In my opinion, this similarity of attitudes originates in the analogy between the cultural background of the Korean group and the life experience of the members of the Marosvásárhely association. It involves religion and the aesthetics of object making informed by Seon Buddhism on the Korean side, and an experience of rurality and closeness to nature in the case of MAMŰ. In my view, the aesthetics of folk material culture is not far from the object-making methods of Seon. Why could being close to nature, an attitude characteristic of eastern people and springing from their religion and culture, acquire a definitive role in the ‘80s in this eastern corner of Europe? Presumably, because due to the lack of industrial development, folk culture still proved to be functioning.

 The close-to-nature peasant culture of the region had preserved ancient natural liturgies originating in the pagan period, and though it often mixed them with Christian rituals, they still guaranteed a sacral relationship to nature, which was based on respect. The tricks of still existent folk handicraft, which had been passed on from generation to generation since time immemorial, were still there for the artists to learn.

 Let me add, as a parenthetical note, that now, in the 21st century we can see how much industrial development, which was idolised in the last century because it seemed to offer an easier option, has alienated us from nature. Having taken a long roundabout way and recognised the consequences of this alienation we have just launched our attempts to recover our original positions.

 Consequently, in the imaginary map of nature art Eastern Europe is in many respects closer to Asia than to its own continent. This has been one of the most surprising discoveries for me and at the same time it might also explain why I am so very much attracted to eastern culture.

 The members of MAMŰ, however, were uprooted from their natural environment precisely because of the above-mentioned political reasons. In Hungary they could not carry on with the same impetus; unfortunately, their activities could not ripen into a coherent artistic program. Conversely, this is the area where Yatoo has achieved outstanding success, for which I personally highly appreciate them. Congratulations!


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