Miklós Peternák

1. Interface

The world appears on something. You could call it the “screen of consciousness” (the soul). I call it the “TV set.”

Otto Rössler1


The Hungarian Pavilion at the 54th Venice International Art Exhibition presents Hajnal Németh’s installation, CRASH – Passive Interview, which comprises several, tightly interlinked elements. Its complementary units are combined into a whole, and operate according to a carefully planned and executed structural randomness. So just what are these elements?

Music, text, sound, image, object, and story. An experimental opera, passive interviews used as song lyrics, eight-channel sound, a noise environment and singing, a totalled BMW, music stands, photographs, projected images, and various descriptions.

Light: red, blue, grey, green – natural light filtered through colored sheets of film, as well as artificial lights, spotlights, strip lights, lamps, and the light of projectors.

Spaces: entering the atrium of the pavilion, one is met by series of objects on the opposite wall which resemble registration plates. They form a running text, albeit a curiously chopped-up one. Standing before the plates and looking right, you see photos of people on the wall behind the glass door. The subjects, viewed from the shoulders up, have their backs turned to the camera, which thus faces in the same direction they do, towards whatever is beyond the wall. What is there beyond the wall is a room where a film is being screened. A video in which singers perform, with cars and auto-related scenes in the mix.

The room to the left of the atrium is occupied by the wrecked car, with crimson lighting and music influencing the space of perception. In the narrow room in the back, which connects the room of the car wreck to that of the video, music stands cast shadows in a blue light, bearing records (libretti) that serve as the lyrics to the songs that are playing.

Everything seems obvious, yet all is uncertain. Everything is a quote, and yet not entirely so. Everything is familiar, yet somehow alien. There is no single, preferred view, no designated route or didactic instruction. What does this work present to us as viewers? Are we investigators, who must listen to reports well after the accident, make photos, take measurements for a future reconstruction, then have the wreck removed, the scene cleared? The accident is more of a pretext here, while the wreck is like a symbol in the classic sense, a symbolon, which is missing (and never had) “the other half.” That is what needs to be created, that is what is at stake in this operation.

An exercise for an interface: find a device or a solution to face invisible faces.


2. Beauty

…Denn das Schöne ist nichts
als des Schrecklichen Anfang, den wir noch grade ertragen,
und wir bewundern es so, weil es gelassen verschmäht,
uns zu zerstören. Ein jeder Engel ist schrecklich.

Rainer Maria Rilke, Duineser Elegien2


The stem of Rilke’s “schrecklich” (terrifying) is “Schreck”, or, fright: the way to terror leads through fright. Arousing sympathy and fear is known to lead to a dramatic effect without fail, and the car and records on view are tragic elements of this kind, taken from “real life.” We are familiar with the sensation of passing the evidence of a road accident. But a startled compassion is not the goal of this exhibit; as we stand here, it is the objectivity of the observer and the boundlessness of the imagination that clash, or strain against one another, making the visible merely the limit of the imaginable. In the crashed car, this post-ready-made sculpture, cutting-edge design meets modelling that is transient and unforeseeable. This is reality-sculpture, in which advanced planning is combined with primitive shaping. The long-gone sound of the resulting formation, the crash of speeds, can be summarized in a single concentrate of sound.

The Latin absurdus means, among other things, “out of tune” or “discordant.” The wreck in the exhibition space represents the unpleasant sound that is not present. We can hear something else, and we may think that the single sound, the crash of speed, has been slowed down so its components are now distinguishable – slowed down ten thousand times it takes on its own rhythm. There is no image without sound; vision is always accompanied by sounds. In Hungarian, one synonym of “absurd” is képtelen, literally “image-less” (i.e., impossible to picture). It seems impossible, or absurd, to hear the music of the spheres in that long-gone crash.

Perhaps these divergent vectors – sounds, colors, improvisation and determinate form, object and shadow – refer to a method of uniting opposites: what Nicolaus Cusanus called coincidentia oppositorum is here and now a new, dramatic attempt at uniting and opposing art and reality. Every singing of the interviews on the footbridge across the motorway or in the assembly hall is a sketch for, and a variation on, a miniature life analysis. They ask whether there is a way out, what the aura of escape could possibly be like, whether it can be heard or seen, or perhaps felt.

It is a look back at an unintentional solution to an impossible exercise.


3. Voices! Voices! – COMING! COMING!

There is no such thing as silence. Something is always happening that makes a sound.

John Cage3


The silence of music. It integrates the span of time into a composition, expanding it with unusually long pauses – as long as it takes for music to give way to a silence where the ear becomes aware of the presence of noises and sounds, and of the continuity of this presence (4’33’’). No other musician has had such a profound influence on contemporary art as John Cage.

“Stimmen, stimmen,” writes Rilke later in the same elegy, and the translators choose to render it as “Voices, voices” – necessarily relinquishing the word’s other implications of consonance and correct tuning. Translation is a delicate affair, whether between languages or from printed to audible music. Improvisations and quotes clash in the soundspace; as we listen to the dialogue, we try to imagine the overtones of a crash, the resonances of memory, the essential, condensed, dramatized transcription of the narrated moment in time.

An accident itself is a quick improvisation (unless we are thinking of Cronenberg’s film), because an unexpected chance event, by nature, tries to toss off routine while leaving little time for conscious action. The event itself is time squeezed between its antecedents and consequences; this makes it news. Ever since the first train wreck, accidents have always been news.


Catechism (film preview):

– Did you know that the first Hungarian artist to own a car was Gyula Benczúr? And did you know that Tibor Hajas, a Hungarian artist, died in an auto accident? (Footnote: Albert Camus’s car accident, 4 January 1960, the Facel Vega FV3B sports cars, the small b/w photo found on the Internet of a car – this very one? – smashed against a tree trunk.)

– Have you read Hungarian poet Sándor Petőfi as he connects the ideas of homeland and progress with speed, inspired by the experience of his first train trip? “…[One] travels at astonishing speed on that train. I wish I could have the whole country sit on it; a few years would be enough to make up for the centuries of lag in progress. It is a pity that the railway system is still so short in our country. You have hardly gotten on when it is time to get off in Vác.”4

– Did you know that Hungary started manufacturing buses with the brand name Ikarus in 1949, and the company experienced difficulties in the transitional period?

– Have you heard about Paul Virilio’s proposal? He says that “the twentieth century can already be regarded as a museum of accidents. Take the history of film, of television, of video (including video games), and the biggest spectacle is the accident. (...) That is why I once proposed to set up a museum of accidents: a museum that would bring the accident to us instead of bringing us to the accident.”5

– Do you remember what Wolfgang Schivelbusch wrote in The Railway Journey6 about man’s sensations and concepts of space, time and speed, and how these notions have transformed? The railway, he claims, is the archetype of modern travel, in which man and machine become one, and the accident becomes an inescapable element of the system.

– ‘Winged wheel.’ What does that mean?
Answer: for an explanation of the image, consult the Book of Ezekiel.7


4. Ikarus

S még mi egyre röpülünk,
Egy sziporkát sem fáradva;
Ez a gép tán egyenest a
Másvilágba megy velünk!

(And still we fly, / Indefatigable; / And this machine may well / Transport us to the other world.)

Sándor Petőfi, Vasúton (By rail)
Pest, December, 1847.


It is little wonder that there is a limited chance of one suffering a car accident in Venice, just as the representation of the automobile is practically nonexistent in art before the end of the 19th century. Some things cannot happen just anywhere or anytime.

It is almost as if a TV channel were broadcasting news items we have never actually seen, but somehow seem to remember. Archaeologists have discovered pagan graves in which the rider was buried with his horse. In A piacere, a film by Hungarian director Zoltán Huszárik, the deceased’s car, a Trabant, is lowered into the grave. All a mix of fact and fiction, reality and fantasy.

The myth of Icarus fuses the notions of freedom, liberation, and fall; it is only the last of these that tends to be remembered. Without a myth, there is nowhere to fly in the material sense; the only question is whether the last accident, the unplanned side effect of innovation, will be global or universal. There being no more rational compulsion to flee, where are we to find free time or space in the present that allows us to think through what things mean? In other words, is art still possible? Can it still create the space of freedom?

“…if you have a historical political consciousness, freedom is impossible. Now, if you are outside this idea, if you now think in formal analytical terms, the problem is no longer cause and effect, but accident and necessity. You are in a context where accident becomes necessary statistically, so to speak. That if you throw a die long enough, you will be sure that every sixth throw will be a one. And this is a certitude born out of accident. Now here, freedom becomes a meaningful term, because freedom is then to turn accident around and make something improbable necessary.“8

Unfolding a moment: the time of the work (instruction for the performer: a piacere).

How can the Crash, the collapse, be a moment of freedom? It is not in time, because it cannot be experienced, nor is it outside time, because there is no time on the dividing line between life and death. The moment of freedom is the transition when life can either be reclaimed or is fulfilled.
Coda, in lieu of temptation:

Oh lassan szállj és hosszan énekelj,
Haldokló hattyúm, szép emlékezet!9


Translated by Árpád Mihály


1. Otto E. Rössler, The World as an Accident, in The Art of the Accident, V2, Rotterdam, 1998. http://www.v2.nl/archive/articles/the-world-as-an-accident

2. “For beauty is nothing
but the beginning of terror, which we are still just able to endure,
and we are so awed because it serenely disdains to annihilate us.
Every angel is terrifying.“
(Translated by Stephen Mitchell)

3. John Cage, “45’ for a Speaker” (1954), in Silence: lectures and writings, Middletown, Wesleyan University Press, 1961. The quoted passage is at 43’20”.

4. Sándor Petőfi, Úti levelek IX, Beje, 6 July 1847.

5. Surfing the Accident. Interview with Paul Virilio by Andreas Ruby, in The Art of the Accident, V2, Rotterdam, 1998. http://www.v2.nl/archive/articles/surfing-the-accident

6. Wolfgang Schivelbusch, Geschichte der Eisenbahnreise. Zur Industrialisierung von Raum und Zeit im 19. Jahrhundert, Hanser, München, 1977. In English: The Railway Journey, University of California Press, 1986.

7. “When those went, these went; and when those stood, these stood; and when those were lifted up from the earth, the wheels were lifted up over against them: for the spirit of the living creature was in the wheels.“ Ezekiel, 1.21. King James Version.

8. Vilém Flusser. Interview in Munich, 17 October 1991, in “We shall survive in the memory of others“ – Vilém Flusser, DVD, Verlag der Buchhandlung Walther König, Köln, 2010.

9. “Oh, rise slow, and sing long, My dying swan, beautiful memory!“ Sándor Petőfi, Tündérálom, Szalkszentmárton, 20 February 1846.

Icarus and Transitus
The moment of freedom