|Signs of the City under Erasure||Bálint Szombathy
Catalogue text, September 2012
Just as this work is not about objects, neither at first glance is it about aesthetics. It is safe to say that on the whole aesthetic decision was absent from the human acts that resulted in the creation of the scenes or situations presented in these photographic series. The plumber who left a coil of tubing sticking out of a wall did not arrange the material to create a particular impact, while the decorator who left a patch undone because they ran out of paint or it wasn’t part of the job gave no thought to the Malevich-style square that accidentally came into being as a result. While aesthetics were absent at the beginning of the life of these situations, with the entry of the artist on the scene something has changed; a transformation takes place rooted in the framing of the original act of erasure or carelessness through the eye of the camera.
Balint Szombathy has been described as an ‘artist-nomad whose role is to act in hybrid artistic and cultural registers’ , both because of the itinerant lifestyle he enjoyed for several decades, alternating between Novi Sad in Vojvodina and Budapest but never confined to one reality or another, and for the freedom with which he shifts between modes of artistic expression. In an attempt to place the broad scope of his artistic activities within a theoretical framework he has suggested four headings to categorise his output: committed (political art), conceptual art (idea art), behaviour art and the art of signs (semiological art). Typically he tends not to mix these parallel modes of artistic investigation, inhabiting just one artistic identity at a time, and in this exhibition we’re clearly in the realm of the art of signs.
Connections can also be made between this series of photographs of erased, discarded and rediscovered signs in the city dating back to the early 1970s and the artist’s separate investigation of electro-photography. Created when errors arise in the transmission of photographs using analogue fax machines to produce distorted images, the artist saved hundreds of examples of this accidental phenomenon from the wastepaper basket of a regional newspaper and, in a Duchampian gesture, elevated them to the realm of art. In common with his collection of found electro-photographs, Szombathy’s revelation of a plethora of unnoticed and randomly created signs in the city also speaks volumes about the ‘disintegration and deconstruction of the tangible world and its revelation as a fragmented series of random visual signs.’
When confronted with a photograph of a painted-over poster we might be inclined to fantasise about a revolutionary gesture or expression of political meaning that has been deliberately covered up with a brutal daubing of paint. Perhaps before, a combustible line of 1970s operarist graffiti could be read on the walls of an Italian city, before the authorities ordered it covered up lest the ideological contamination spread? More prosaically, it could have been a boring election poster of a smiling and corrupt politician, removed after the event to comply with local regulations. Exposed to the whole series of white washed public messages, our interest shifts from what might have disappeared to what has been created in the process of its disappearing.
From the formal treatment of these cases of urban over-painting, and despite the temptation to imagine all kinds of possible political subtexts, it is clear that Szombathy is most profoundly concerned here not with specific cases of erasure, but with the general problem of the wiping away of meaning, as manifested in over-painting as a micro-disruption of the visual order of public space. The fast decay of collective and individual memories of socialism and post-socialism has indeed been a recurrent preoccupation of the artist. While he has dealt with these questions using particular cases and through other media, such as performance, the problem of the over-writing of history is tackled in these series at a more refined and abstract level.
In many cases the over-painting he observes did not take place only once, since there are layer upon layer of paint of different colours and even blank sheets glued over posters that were stuck on previous blank sheets erasing even older posters, so that the dumb walls remain silent about a micro-history that has been subject to overlapping impulses to produce and extinguish meaning. This could even be taken as a loose metaphor for the onion skins of history of Eastern Europe, in which each new victor has expertly rewritten collective remembrance by reordering its visual representation in public space.
With the framing of the scene by the camera, what we have is no longer just an over-painted flyer on a forgotten urban surface; rescued from neglect by the eye of the camera, new forms, possibilities and questions gradually appear. While the latent connections to the abstract painting of the classical avant-garde come straight to mind as the viewer moves from image to image absorbing the repetition of monochrome four-sided figures, in the uneven surfaces, occasions of coincidental pastiche and greying pastels there are also intimations of messier post-war fashions for art brut and neo-expressionism. To discover and frame modernist painterly gestures created by chance in the urban environment could even belong to a super extended understanding of contemporary painting.
Another facet of these painted erasures is their relationship to the architecture that they intrude upon. These coloured or colourless surfaces are uncared for, as are many of the buildings that provide their accidental backdrop, with crumbling concrete, mortarless brickwork and unidentifiable features contributing to the sense of urban decay. It would not be hard to detect in the dejected architecture echoes of the artist’s strong views about the spiritual torture of provincial life in communist Eastern Europe, as expressed in his Carbonising series of charcoal drawings from 1969 about suicidal urges in Subotica. The decay of the buildings, washed out wrinkliness of the posters, and encroaching weed life visible at the edge of the frame are also expressive of the process of entropy, which through Robert Smithson found its way into the consciousness of the conceptual art of the era.
Although the walls, street signs, graffiti and other incidentals that constitute the semantic surplus that appear on the margins of photographs whose ostensible focus is a rectangle of colour could in theory be anywhere and anytime, they speak to us from a specific era, which is as lost as the signs that have been so casually painted over. Many of the over-painted signs of the city collected by the artist have indeed been maturing in his conceptual cellar for three decades, loosening the tie of the image to the concrete reality the photographs nominally depict. It would be impossible to return to these sites and reconstruct the scene, both because the processes of entropy have by now passed the point of no return, rendering the marginalia captured by the artist doubly obscure, and because the history of the places in the pictures has been covered over with so many new layers that these photographs of useless things could potentially become the subjects of a future archaeology.
The artist here draws our attention to another neglected and largely unnoticed urban phenomenon, the visual effect created when house painters try out different colours on the walls of a house, in the process of arriving at the right shade in a pre-Dulux era of trial and error mixing. These blocks of colour that bizarrely survive on unfinished surfaces represent a subjective process of blending undertaken by the worker, until the right shade of blue, green or pink has been achieved. Like a pre-digital photoshop palette, the range of possible tones appears somewhat comically at the bottom of a shop front, the upper half of which has been finished in the finally chosen colour.
In close up, the colour trials look like accidental paintings and it is neither important nor certain that the nameless, lowly decorator did not consider the effect that the combination and layering of paints would create, or take pleasure in his preparatory brushstrokes. Perhaps it is possible to talk here about an impulse to deconstruct the elitism of art in a democratic spirit, or at least to demystify the exaltation of technique rehearsed by the defenders of painting. As to the shades themselves, they may contain a clue to the colours of actually existing socialism, which in addition to revolutionary red, extended from the full spectrum of industrial greys and the green matt of an old Trabant to the weathered glory of postcards of socialist cities, offset in unnaturally bright primary tones.
The black tubes leering from gaping holes in urban structures or emerging furtively from cracks in the ground in another series of the artist’s city signs are both uncanny and disturbing. Like unnatural growths, they disrupt the order that we expect from architecture, exposing the gory entrails of the city, the bodily functions of public organs that are usually hidden from sight behind the smooth concrete facade of institutions. There seem to be so many of them that it’s tempting to imagine the artist is offering us a metaphor for the decrepitude of the communist system of the early 70s and a comment on the unfinished project of building socialism, which like Derrida’s signifier, was always already deferred.
These black curvy things, flexible tubes designed to carry water or cables, seem to be surplus to requirements, left behind after the builder has departed, with no practical function. Presented as photographs, they of course take on new characteristics, are perhaps salvaged from their uselessness, offering up new meanings within the artist’s semiotic system. The twisted shapes they reveal should though probably not be read as signs in the sense of resembling alphabetical letters or exclamatory marks, but rather as intimations of an as yet undecipherable linguistic code, an abstraction of the possibility of a new form of artistic or human communication.
On another level, the tubes are the sculptural counterpart of the accidental paintings discovered by the artist on the neglected surfaces of buildings, creating unexpected configurations of physical matter in three dimensions. The aesthetic qualities again do not appear to reside in the objects themselves, but emerge from their reconfiguration within the frame of the image, as the artist enacts the transubstantiation of building waste into the photographic equivalent of a still life.
The pathos of empty and abandoned notice boards forms a natural part of Szombathy’s investigation of the erased and neglected spaces of the city. This most recent series of city signs illustrates the variety of framed signage systems while highlighting the odd effect created when their form is left without content to produce a semantic void on the street. Notably here we are no longer confronted with the fragmentation and decay of the socialist everyday but instead with the ravishes of post-communism and the visible scars left by rampant capitalism on the East European cityscape. In this context, a vacant light box is the moral equivalent of the empty plinth, although nine times out of ten the subtraction of meaning from public space is about economics and inevitable processes of social decay rather than political change.
Curiously these objects are reminiscent of the technologies of artistic presentation, from the simple frame to more sophisticated elements of installation art. It’s hard to not to look for aesthetic or semantic values inside the frame, signification in a padlock fixed to a metal grid, the image of a lamppost provided by a reflection on a sheet of glass, or a circle cut roughly from a rectangle to form a brutalist flag, random conjunctions of material and site reclaimed by the artist through photography. The purity of found forms in this series merges with emotional reactions triggered by indications of human failure from the demise of a corner shop to the automatic oblivion of having nothing to advertise.
If the empty notice boards are the equivalent of accidentally occurring installation art in an urban environment, the erased posters and trial blotches of colour random occurrences of modernist painting, while the convoluted tubes are interpretable as incidental site-specific sculpture, then the series of lines photographed by the artist are clearly cases of unintended drawing. The waves, lines and circles that found their way onto outdoor surfaces may not have resulted from human intention, but they still constitute recognisable figurations in our visual field. To direct our attention to them, to save them from certain oblivion, is a minimal gesture on the part of the artist that does not involve actual intervention in the physical world – let alone the production of an object, but which nevertheless allows the poetry of these found situations to emerge and be apprehended. Like chalk marks on the playground floor destined to be washed away by the next rain, these acutely ephemeral lines are cared for by the artist in an ecological act of conceptual conservation.