Csepel Island Visit – Budapest

Posted on October 4, 2010

Tracing the Layers of Historical and Traumatic Events
23 – 29 October 2010
Doctoral School, Hungarian Academy of Arts and Csepel Island, Budapest, Hungary

A visit to London by the Hungarian team is being planned for May 2011.

UK participants: Marsha Bradfield, Maria Arango, Ana Laura Lopez de la Torre, Hayley Newman, Professor Stephen Scrivener, Hayley Newman
Hungary participants: Nemere Kerezsi, Kata Soos, Szaboics Suli-Zakar, Laura Somogyi, Professor Balázs Kicsiny.

Left to right: Laura Somogyi, Nemere Kerezsi, Sabolcs Suli-Zakar’s, Kata Soos, Maria Isabel Arango, Hayley Newman, Ana Laura Lopez de la Torre.

A joint team of researchers from CCW Graduate School (Camberwell, Chelsea and Wimbledon Colleges of Art and Design, London) and from the Doctoral School, Academy of Arts in Budapest worked together for a week, investigating issues around community memory, cultural memory and historical trauma, taking as a starting point a visit to an industrial site in Budapest.

The area we visited is an industrial region of Budapest, called Csepel Island. This area played an important role in the history of Budapest and Hungary over the last 100 years as a site where labour, industrial modernisation, revolution, war, and political propaganda have left behind a complex layer of physical traces. Csepel Island is by no means a heritage site (no conservation is taking place, and it is deemed of no importance to either local people or tourists). Its industrial spaces are now being used for a variety of purposes: storage for Chinese imports, studio space for artists, confiscated car depots, bike factories and plastic surgery bureaus.

The researchers assemble at the entrance to the bunker on Csepel Island, an industrial district in Budapest that once employed 20,000 people.

Inside Csepel Island we visited a number of buildings, some abandoned, some re-adapted to new uses:

An authentic bunker, with original interior, objects, maps, action plans, left untouched after political change. This exists as a universe unknown to the public, which was designed to enable it occupants to survive the final war, and to live on self sufficiently.

An old metalwork factory still functioning at hardly no profit, maintained by its owner (a local entrepeneur) as a piece of living history.

A new factory manufacturing electronic car and computer components for the Russian market, using adapted machinery bought from the UK space programme.

The workmen’s canteen, decorated with memorabilia from indigenous cultures from around the world.

The (Communist Party) decorator’s world. A store-place for the totalitarian state’s visual realm. These store rooms are full with the communist regime representational designs: medals, photo albums, statues, awards, gift badges, the remains of the decorations for decorating factories on communist celebration days.

Images of interior of war bunker in Csepel Island

I was rather unimpressed by the visit, the historical traces of World War I and II and of the Cold War as experienced by Western and Eastern Europeans failed to produce much resonance in me, or the other South American in the group, Maria Arango. I spent the whole visit to Csepel Island taking photos, trying to find a point of connection with that story, and became increasingly fascinated by our guide, a former Communist who was evidently still enthused by the mystic of the site and its connections with industrial work. Balázs, acting as translator was not too happy with the man’s interpretation of history, and instead summarised, commented or corrected his statements, to make clear his own distancing from Communist “nostalgia”. I took to our guide. In his naivety and lack of political correctness, he was a living reminder of an era of politics where one could and was expected to take sides and declare open allegiance to ideals, ideology, revolutions, no matter how flawed. I took a series of photos of his hands gesturing, as if the words that were being occluded in the selective translation by our interpreter, could somehow be smuggled to us in a sort of secret coded language.

I found the bunker to be a bit unreal, like a film set. Everything was either numbered or labeled with its name: light switches, plugs, pipes, doors. It felt like a cross between a mad conceptual art work, and a forgetful Macondo, buried underground.

Later on we reflected how much of the emotional resonance places have in us, is determined by our personal and familiar history. All the Europeans had, for example, an ancestor who had fought in the War, and most of them remembered very vividly Cold War indoctrination on both sides of the fence, and the fear of nuclear doom.

After visiting several other spots in Csepel, we had lunch in the workmen’s canteen, oddly decorated with souvenirs from exotic locations around the world. The food in contrast, was strictly Hungarian grub.

Finally, we came to the Communist Party’s decorator rooms, piled with objects and images that were used to embellish the site on festivities and special occasions. Buckets and brushes, medals and rolls of fabric, sculptures of heroic workers and portraits of Communist icons.

Together with our guide, we wondered into a room, opened a cupboard and found a stash of embroidered banners. He was delighted with the find and me too. I asked him to pose for a photo holding some. I loved the Socialista Brigad one. The word Socialista, spelled like in Spanish, reminded me of home, and of banner exchanges. This is a very Uruguayan tradition that still today upholds a whole industry of industrial banner-making.

The rest of the trip was spent in long meetings where we tried with not much success to establish some common ground between the UK and the Hungarian teams. We had very different approaches to art making, to our understanding and practice of art as research, and even different conceptualisations of our own subjectivities in relation to others. In our free time, we searched in vain for a good Hungarian restaurant and enjoyed the fantastic thermal baths of Budapest. We also visited the main contemporary are venues, including a guided tour of the Ludwig Museum by curator Katalin Timár who introduced us with great generosity of her time and knowledge, to the main currents of Hungarian modern and contemporary art. We left Budapest with plans to organise a return visit to London by the Hungarian team for the spring of 2011.

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