With Machiavelli, politics became the art of possibilities. Even today, art itself is put in the category of the experience of alternative, impossible sensations. Thus art today represents the practice of impossibility.2 Writing about art is therefore a betrayal. Whatever the words are, they only represent references to the possible sensations that can be represented within the confines of language.3 Only when paradoxes (the nonlinearity of language) are included can language become poetry. Speaking about visual arts is more complex – let alone speaking about music, because in both cases, the very existence and meaning of the artwork are the artwork itself.
Hajnal Németh’s installation CRASH – Passive Interview was exhibited for the first time in 2010 at the Kiscelli Museum in Budapest. In the center is a crashed BMW4 surrounded by six loudspeakers singing a fictive ‘contemporary opera.’ Three music stands are aligned as spectators, each holding the ‘libretto’ of the opera. The exhibition space is a large old church and the scenery is bathed in red. In an adjacent space, two minuscule replicas of the wrecked car are illuminated in green. The acoustics of the large exhibition space provides a fitting context for its clean operatic lyricism.
Music is an ephemeral art form. It exists through active participation in the listening process. The extent of the performance becomes reduced to a moment of no duration when we recall it. In our memory music only exists reduced to such a point.5 Far too often music is treated as if it had no existence outside time.6 Music then tends to take on the role of confirmative practice. But by returning to the point of the perceived music in our memory, we can expand our experience with all possible challenges for our cognition. We can unfold the anatomy of that point.
When I was a teenager I studied the organ in the centre of Copenhagen. Going back from a lesson I was riding my bicycle through the winter-dark and rain-wet streets of the city center. Looking through my wet glasses the world deformed into a symphony of colors and reflections. A special silent music arose when a dozen cars were stopped in front of a traffic light and their right-turn flashes formed a complex polyrhythm consisting of different tempos, unrelated but all close to a fictive common tempo.
The works of Hajnal Németh display a preoccupation with transcending the borders between visual arts and music, as is evident with a number of other artists of her generation. Traditionally music is considered music for the ears and not the eyes. With visuals and poly-mediality, both music and visual media often retain their own paradigms: music for ballet accompanies the dance, music created and listened to in accordance with ‘musical’ paradigms, and dance being performed and viewed within its own paradigms. Video artworks often have a soundtrack. While they may challenge visual paradigms, the ‘music’ is more or less ‘laid on’ as a cognitive facilitator.7 In the works of Németh we experience music transcending its own role as music and becoming visualized as an integrated part of the expression. Music becomes a referent to a particular field of experience.8 In the works of Hajnal Németh the music is not always silent,9 but on the other hand we are not meant to listen to it as music. It becomes a signifier of something beyond the category.
Visual arts freeze the ‘impossible’ moment. The unfolding of the point branches into a multitude of areas and interpretations. The process is infinite as the point contains the multitude of all existences.
Crash is the manifestation of a frozen moment when the car was deformed into a wreck. The past: an everyday means of transportation, to or from work, to or from a holiday, to a wedding or moving away after a divorce. The present: when we approach the object, trying to make sense of its displacement relating to a new ‘reality’ we are trying to construct the meaning of.
In an elaboration of René Thom’s catastrophe theory applied to the field of art, Danish semiotician Peer K. Bundgård discusses the stability of the artwork in relation to its existence as a cognitive object. With Thom he concludes that it is not possible to trace a specific work of art back to a fixed set of notions or a stable and general structure. The artwork is – in itself – an elaboration of its own essential notions.10 We can also agree with Jacques Rancière that art is no longer governed by its subject (as opposed, for example, to the realm of politics11). Art defines itself by its very identity with non-art12 as he puts it.
The practice of some contemporary visual artists adds a further dimension: that of art as a process. When regarded over time there is a process adding new appearances, each unique. What then is the artwork? Isn’t it then a plurality of works? What are the essential notions? The crash might take on new existences and evoke new interpretations.
At the Venice Biennale the elements of the installation CRASH – Passive Interview are basically the same as the ones described above, but the change of space also entails a change of content. The green color and the two replicas are gone. The car and the singing voices are now separated in space from the tacit witnesses, the music stands. New elements have been added: the voices are recorded in environmental settings (not a recording studio) and the recordings are documented on video; there is also a wall of European license plates.13
The car occupies one wing of the exhibition hall. That part still functions as a center towards which we, as spectators, orient ourselves. The singing voices emanate successively from all directions and address selected aspects of the ‘history’ of the accident: how the car was created, and what was the situation of those involved in the crash.
The crash: I guess one or more times during our lifetime we all have experienced that sense of inevitability. On my bike I saw the car approaching and knew that we were going to crash. During these split seconds a whole story unfolded including past, present and future: a chagrin over bringing myself into the situation, considering various measures to be taken to diminish the impact, and wondering how to get out afterwards. Pro & con on all items.
The other wing of the exhibition space is dominated by the video projection. Here the soundtrack relates to the environment in which the footage was recorded. The central perspective around the car is now a frame, a window, allowing us to behold its genesis in the factory. But this part of the exhibition space also invites us to consider a socio-political story. Thus the black BMW now takes on another aspect: it is no longer the vehicle for telling the story of fascination with speed, directionality versus immobility and deformation. Instead we are invited to wonder about the social positions of the persons that travel in prestigious black cars.
Between the car’s genesis and destruction, the exhibition space has us pass through a space where we meet a row of music stands, each holding one of the sung dialogues. For the musician the stand functions to define a ‘private’ space between you, your instrument, and the audience. This is the secure space in which you can concentrate and feel comfortable without being distracted by the audience in the huge black space behind the limelight. The passive interviews give us back our privacy: we look back on the crash from a point in time after it happened; we can address issues that can only be addressed after the crash. It is important for Hajnal Németh that the crash was not fatal. We hear the stories of the victims as they look back on what happened. The light is blue, helping us to keep a distance, but also at the same time recalling the color of the EEC.
As we enter the exhibition area we are met by the text of one of the passive interviews, stamped on European auto registration plates, a foretaste of what follows. Each has only seven characters,14 which fragments the text and takes the number of registration plates to nearly a hundred in total. Some of them ironically ask us: "Is this the moment of unity?"
The installation offers us at least three positions to examine the situation: there is the experiential (phenomenological) space, the socio-political space, and the existential space of Eros.
The experiential space is the one in which my bike ride took place. It is a phenomenological space because this is this space to which we can attach ourselves through our own references. We can try to adhere to the phenomenological epoché15 but we cannot entirely bracket out our own attachment. Reality is there, but we never encounter it as an object. This is the space where the crashed car is situated.
The socio-political space allows us to make our own interpretations: here the interviews, now with car factory workers, are set up against a prestigious object, the black BMW. And it is here that we can interpret the crashed car as a political statement. The car becomes a metaphor for the Enron Corporation, the collapse of which could be considered the equivalent of the fall of the Wall or the infamous event at the World Trade Center. The political statement here is that the incident was not fatal, that we have survived and formed a new life afterwards. Have we done better than before? We look through the window and mirror ourselves.
The space of Eros allows us to approach existential questions. It is here that the notion of ‘singing voices’ becomes important. In her directions for setting up the installation, Hajnal Németh states that the dialogues should be sung as if it were ‘contemporary opera.’ The un-specificity of this instruction is important. Even if there is a relation to the openness of John Cage, we should not confuse the two. Cage wanted to de-subjectivize the music, free it from all influence of subjective feelings.16 I understand the instruction of Németh to be a de-referential issue: that we do not associate to any specific reference of a particular piece of music, but to the notion of singing itself.
When do we ‘sing’? Singing is connected to our body in the deepest possible way. We are our own instruments. There is no separation of the sentiments we are expressing, our functional body, and the sound emanating from it. We sing when our nature gets a free ride. In this interpretation the crash no longer represents the (inevitably) big crash at the end, but becomes a detachable goal for an action. Not a death scene, but el momento de la verdad or even le petit mort, as the confrontation of a manifest black object and the ephemeral red light shrouding the scene evoke a sensitive eroticism.
The three spaces share overlapping areas. Thus the phenomenological notion of ‘color,’ for example, changes meaning for each space. Three colors are important here: black, red and white. In other works of Hajnal Németh we meet another ‘car’ – a white truck facing east.17 Between the two, a dialogue of two complementary objects: the black immobile wreck, and the white, eastward moving truck. A similarly complementary use of colour was employed in the original installation, where small replicas of the wrecked car were exhibited bathed in green light. Németh has downscaled the obvious reference to the Death and Disaster series of Andy Warhol.18 Now the color red of course still references the stop, but we will not forget it is also the colour of blood. Not only the blood of the victims, but also the blood that carries nutriment through our body. Thus survival has become more important than the fatality of the accident. A feeling of transcendent liberation in English film director and screenwriter Sally Potter’s lyrics of the song “Coming” is paraphrased in one of the passive interviews: "Are you coming? Are you free? Coming across the divide to me?" With question marks.
My teenage bicycling was daring: I hung onto the trams until they had a stop. At that moment I jumped my wheels across the rails in order not to be caught by them, and passed it on the inside in the split second between the moment the cars stopped and the moment the passengers started getting off the tram.
Art is positioned between challenge and confirmation.
1. Ivar Frounberg, The Anatomy of a Point, for 16 solo voices and live electronics, Edition-S, Copenhagen, 1995.
2. Alexander Carnera in Le Monde Diplomatique February 2011, Oslo.
3. "…a script is a verbal attack on a visual world" – Dusan Makavejev in Stanley Cavell: On Makavejev’s “Sweet Movie” 2007.
4. The brand is not as important as the notion of an expensive and prestigious car.
5. Per Højholdt, Cézannes metode, Schønberg, Copenhagen, 1967, 10: "folding the poem into a moment is what I call understanding the poem" (translated from Danish by the author).
6. The composer and architect Iannis Xenakis (1922–2002) formulated the dichotomy between in – time and outside – time composing.
7. There are prominent exceptions, where sound and visuals merge symbiotically in works of Jean Tinguely, Bill Viola, and Bruce Naumann.
8. For a discussion about sound art, see Ivar Frounberg, Lydspors anatomi. Lydkunst – musik – lydkunst?, 1998–99 (in Danish) http://dvm.nu/hierarchy/periodical/dmt/1998-1999/01/?show=data/periodical/5/e/0/periodical-dmt1998-1999_1_16.tkl&type=periodical (accessed 21/03/2011)
9. – even silence is called upon in other works of Németh such as Guitarsolo (2007), Not Me (2008) or as the music becomes silenced in Air Out (also 2008).
10. Peer K. Bundgård, Kunst. Semiotiske beskrivelser af æstetisk betydning og oplevelse, P. Haase & søns forlag AS, 2004, 21. (in Danish)
11. – as it was the case before a ’pop’ post-modernism entered politics after September 2001 – cfr. Giorgio Agamben, State of Exception, University of Chicago Press, 2005.
12. Jacques Rancière, Politics and Aesthetics – interview translated by Forbes Morlock, 2002, 205. http://abahlali.org/files/ranciere.hallward2.pdf, (accessed 21/03/2011).
13. – as the plans were, when this text was written!
14. Seven digits is the capacity of our short-term memory.
15. Robert Sokolowsky, Husserlian Meditations, Northwestern University Press, Evanston, USA, 1974, 173 ff - I here reference Husserl as opposed to the hermeneutical phenomenology of Heidegger, which is more relevant for the socio/political space.
16. Magnus Andersson, Elaborating Nothing. John Cage’s Aesthetics of Silence, Norges Musikkhøgskole, NMH-publikasjoner, Oslo, 2009/6.
17. Hajnal Németh: Truck Facing Eastwards, KUNSTrePUBLIK – Skulpturenpark, Berlin 2007.
18. – which includes Green Car Crash and 5 Deaths Twice I (Red Car Crash) both 1963.
Kathrin Becker, The stage of Art, in 2 Songs 1 End, Works of Hajnal Németh 2003–2010, exh.cat. MODEM Debrecen, 2010, 118–121.
József Mélyi, Pop Expanded, in 2 Songs 1 End, Works of Hajnal Németh 2003–2010, exh. cat. MODEM Debrecen, 2010, 115–117