Issue 1/2020 - Artscribe

Sept. 27, 2019 to Nov. 3, 2019
Trafó Gallery / Budapest

Text: Miklós Erhardt

Budapest. Miklós Mécs started his career, while still an art student, as the greatest promise of his generation. With his explosive talent, prolific output, and subversive yet sociable character he made a name for himself in the Hungarian art scene and beyond. His work was shown in several international exhibitions, including the survey Where Do We Go from Here? at the Vienna Secession in 2010, and he was awarded the most lucrative Hungarian art prize, Junior Prima Primissima, in 2008.
Mécs spent every cent of his prize money that same year on an ambitious post-conceptual project called Zenon Paradox. Ever since then, the conflict between his ideals and the role expected of him has become increasingly apparent. Instead of walking the road to institutional and financial success, he has preferred working collaboratively in various constellations, for example in an art collective he founded with artist Judit Fischer named AMBPA – Association of Mouth and Brain Painting Artists. Mécs has carried out unadvertised street actions and interventions with his groups, and he once staged a provocation, putting all his clothes in a used clothing container and walking away naked down the street. He obsessively collects ideas for art and life in succinct sentences jotted down in countless notebooks, distributes his works in blogs and on public video channels, and cooks as an art form. Mécs has meanwhile withdrawn from the art scene, refusing to sell his art. He earns a minimum wage either by leading art therapy courses for difficult teenagers or as an exhibition guard at the Trafó Gallery of all places. All this boils down to an inherently critical spiritual and moral attitude, an ascetic pursuit of sustainability and transparence in which art and life become virtually indistinguishable. Although he deliberately operates in the shadow of high art, his work has been followed by many, making him a key figure in the subconscious of the Hungarian art scene.
Then, as the story goes, curator Borbála Szalai invited him to do a solo show at the Trafó Gallery, which since the late nineties has functioned as a springboard for established mid-generation artists shooting for the top league. The challenge for Mécs seemed clear: how to do a solo exhibition by not doing one? Let’s see how it worked out.
Our path to the basement space of the Trafó Cultural Center takes us over a bathroom scale that possibly measures whether we are “found wanting” (Daniel 5:26–28). Upon entering, we stumble over a loose carpet made of thousands of cobblestones that covers half the floor. The stones are not fixed in place but are ready to “use,” which in this case means trying to find not the beach underneath but the hidden sentences written on the sides of some of them. At the far end of the carpet similar sentences conveying ironic, absurd, or arcane ideas, calls, suggestions, and warnings run across a red LED display and, as an act of planned redundancy, are also scratched in aluminum foil on a large-scale video projection that occupies the back wall.
Contrasting with the rather alienating aesthetics of this area, the other half of the space entering our field of vision recalls a hospital ward. There are four parallel beds separated by nightstands and rugs, along with scattered cushions and chairs, a sizeable table full of books, survival food, vitamins, coffee and tea boxes, as well as a plethora of strange paraphernalia everywhere, which, on closer inspection, turns out to be art objects from past projects by AMBPA and others. In a central position, facing the beds, a large monitor shows a selection of videos again featuring Mécs’s and others’ short ideas and concepts, in a variety of renditions. And, in front of the monitor, occupying the second bed, is Miklós Mécs the artist himself in pajamas, healing from the pneumonia he contracted in the weeks leading up to the opening and actively engaging with visitors.
Beyond the intriguing aesthetic duality of the exhibition split up into an orderly “hard edge” and a confused “soft” part (the “home” and the “street”), it is the temporal and social factors that make the experience radically different from the impression made by the overwhelmingly slick recent art production. The venue is open 24 hours a day and visitors are invited to spend a night in one of the hospital beds as a way to break with all contemplative routines, and many of them accept it. The space is permanently activated, confused, and reorganized by interactions and material exchanges by visitors who spend extensive periods of time in it, talking with Mécs and his colleagues, eating, drinking, reading, sleeping, becoming part of the flow.
”It’s not me being sick; only protecting myself” reads the subtle insult on the green face mask Mécs wears most of the time. Indeed, a fertile confusion of roles and positions is in operation here. The exhibition generously offers a host of possible readings, from the alleged healing power of the latest genre of public art à la Suzanne Lacy to relationality as social mortar, from the hospital ward as a heterotopia in itself, within the heterotopia of the gallery, providing the necessary isolation for the “dangerous” praxis of radical art, to some carrot-dangling for post-conceptual intellectualism, all the way to reflections on apocalyptic scenarios and neo-liberal capitalist relations. Simultaneously, however, it also undermines all of that via the shared reality effect that is produced.
Of the many possibilities, I’d prefer to read the playful title Postapocapitalist in the context of the exhibition’s creative economy. As Mécs had been fighting with, then refuted the idea of a solo exhibition (see the provocative credit line of the show) and was then hospitalized, he delegated much of the work to his collaborators; the cobblestone installation was proposed and produced by the curator, the videos made and the objects brought in by colleagues, friends, and family. Mécs provided the raw material in the form of his countless idea collections, but besides that the impression was that his proper artistic work was limited to “making” himself gravely ill and then letting the exhibition take shape and evolve around his own (and/or his visitors’) suffering and healing body and soul. What makes this radically different from well-known examples of self-inflicted punishments and mutilations in modern art is its quasi-natural occurrence: life fusing with art at the cost of the artist’s homeostasis.