In Search Of Nostalgy
In Search Of Nostalgy
”János Kádár died. I actually felt sorry for him. I was sorry that his name was not going to be said on the news, I was sorry that the scenes of our childhood would disappear that the pancake stall had been taken down at Kálvin Square and that entire blocks of buildings would disappear, that streets would turn the other way and in the chain of events some strange void arises that cannot be permeated by continuity that everything would be so different from what we were used to” — sounded in the mouldy darkness of a weekend house at the beginning of a short story entitled Vaktérkép (Blind Map) by Kriszta Tóth. In these lines the past and the future close a circle for a short while; in the present tense of the story the main character already talks back from the different era. This much was needed for a political system and along with it also the potential future to perish.
I could be a witness to the same transformation of time when at the end of summer I visited Ildi Hermann’s exhibition entitled ”Weekend”. The artist mapped the world of weekend houses built on the Island of Szentendre in the 60’s and 70’s where construction materials and solutions, DIY and the remaining furniture and utility objects strongly preserve the atmosphere of the era. The photos themselves are documents without any exaggeration and irony. In their way of creation they are closely connected to the previous works of the artist, which we could get to know under the title ”Space” and ”In Space”. In the pieces of the former series empty indoor spaces can be seen reminding us of the 80’s where in the relation of objects geometric arrangement and symmetry receive emphasis. In this neat world the potential traces of human presence are completely dissolved. The alienating impact of the reality appearing in the picture is also maintained in the photos of ”In Space”. The persons appearing in a space completely shaped by humans are not creators of their environment, the traces of their personalities are missing, their stories and presence melts into the internal logic of spaces. The ”Weekend” series is related to those in such a way that the world of objects and people creates an unbreakable fabric just like the uniqueness of holidaymakers is dissolved in the uniformity of their personal objects.
Wall carpet with patterns, key chains with cats, soda siphons, painted plates on the walls, strip curtains and oilcloth table covers can be seen in the photos. Peculiar objects and patterns which for me are already relictums (1). Relictums as I can see that these small houses have survived as inclusions the changes in politics and also in visual culture. Maybe it is the basic characteristic of weekend houses that time gets stuck in them as already in the beginning the outdated couches, the worn-out, old or shabby clothes of urban homes landed here saying ”it will still be ok for the weekend house”. However, the later modifications of the buildings, the builders’ and contractors’ (often the same people) present life and the presence of their children and grandchildren reminds us of the changes.
What is revealed in the photos is ordinary and exotic at the same time. The origins of the latter duality – how the ”usual” becomes ”special”- is of key importance to understanding the photos. On the level of ordinary days the immediate environment becomes a space that is invisible to those who live in it. The visual aspect of this consists of the coexistence of typical colours, shapes, and associations that has a locality and timeliness. The visual ”spaces” of different origin, sociological nature, with different meanings and phrasing exist next to each other and at times wedged into each other. Thus as a consequence of historicity tiny islands preserve the imprint of earlier periods and other spaces. The little worlds that live on by routines become visible at the moment when someone senses the backside if these, when someone comes from outside or gets outside of them. The German notion “ostalgie” refers exactly to this distance by merging the words Nostalgie (nostalgia) and Ost (East) and by reaching back to the related symbolic content. The nostalgia unfolding in front of us is not the artist’s attitude to a past world, but this question is made current by the network of perspectives, approaches and positions intersecting in work of art.
From the sociology point of view all this means that the way we look at the world defines the meaning of the objects around us and places them in the web of contexts (on the level of both everyday practice and thinking).
We all notice different things and interpret the world differently according to who we are. (The comments and fragments of discussions caught at Ildi Hermann’s exhibition opening also testified about this interpretive relation.) In terms of the Kádár era this question is even more accentuated as primarily in case of older generations it is closely related to the question of self-definition and self-positioning whether it is about isolation or some kind of ”homesickness”.
For the younger people the sixties and seventies is the lost world of their childhood. Several notions were shut outside their empirical space, which are the definitive elements of dialogues and descriptions typical of the Kádár regime, such as shortage items, (anti)imperialism, or the WYM (World Youth Meeting). These words they rather know from the light, entertaining movies of the nineties, than from their own experiences. However, the objects representing the world of the sixties are endowed new meanings in today’s cultural context through a unique transmission in space and time. Several factors play a role in this reinterpretation process from market conditions to the cultural and scientific processing of the era. On the one hand the rediscovery and introduction of certain products as brands into the public knowledge resulted that the once commercial products were turned into fashion- (2) and at the same time the expressions of a lifestyle. Tisza shoes were put on the feet of young people back in the days instead of a coveted ”western brand” and in the age of globalisation choosing Hungarian products could also illustrate criticism against globalism. (3).
On the other hand after the regime change the discovery of personal remembrance has become an important part of the reinvention of the past. The individual has stepped onto the scene, the source of the historical events and everyday world of life. In addition to the interview collection built on the spoken collection of experiences (’56 Institute), private photos and everyday objects have also marched into history and its institution. Exhibitions were opened one after another such as the exhibition showcasing the object culture of the 50’s and 60’s entitled Kitsch and Cult (Sándor Palace, 1999), Sex and Communism (Central Gallery, 2002), NDK–GDR–DDR (Central Gallery, 2003)(4), or Plastic (Museum of Ethnography, 2006). Related to the latter exhibition the Museum of Ethnography has posted a call entitled ”Bring an object” asking people to send plastic objects that have an important meaning for them. The material of the collection gathered this way was also published in the book entitled Plastic Works (5). These very different tendencies together result in the fact that in the design shops the products of young designers and the products of the Red October Textile Factory are hanging side by side, Tisza shoes have become a brand having an a definite character along with a certain consumer style while DJs mix the old hits again. Naturally, as the notion of ostalgie also well illustrates it can only be realised from an external perspective that grace in bumfordism, design in materials and shapes and parody in the often senseless functionality can be discovered.
For the older generation these objects are part of another story. According to the public concept after 1956 in socialist Hungary life had two basic characteristics permeating all spheres of life in Hungary; one was that the system would last forever the other was that the quality of life would increase year by year and the system would become more and more flexible in economy and culture. The future visions appearing this way; the opportunity of planning and the homeliness of the future were the key to the partial legitimacy of the Kádár regime (6). For those who were given a chance for the first time in the sixties and seventies to plan and realise a personal fate deemed to be acceptable, the regime change came with the loss of orientation points. Primarily they are the ones (”the losers of the regime change”) who think back with nostalgia to the once predictable and safely liveable life. Since the longing is not directed towards the political or ideological system, the parts of the everyday life and world played a role in the recollections. In their stories their relation to object received highlighted significance since through this they recollect the world of a certain kind of social status, comfort and safety. Therefore, their weekend houses refer to the one-time secure existence and at the same time to the loss of all that.
The ”Weekend” photo series could become important by carrying the different relations attached to a certain era and to its remnants. These weekend houses and the countless tools and props found in them bring such cultural layers to the surface that are also there in our remembrance and minds. The same way as in an apartment there are not only objects that were manufactured after 1990, but there are many different kinds depending on where people live, what they have inherited, what tradition they come from and what fashion they are attached to. Ildi Hermann turns towards the world of weekend houses with a visual sensitivity typical of her generation and with their various references and stories she installs them in the exhibition space. In her exploration path she does not only notice the special things, but also the melancholy of the passing time. She shows us that the past is nothing as than the lost, sweet home.
(1) Making a difference between relic and relictum follows the semiotic definition of metaphor and metonym. A metaphor is a clear symbol that is a relic while a metonym is an object remaining from the past that is a relictum.
(2) Consumer style in the language of sociology.
(3) Péter György: Party Dictatorship and everyday life in the German Democratic Republic. In: Life and Literature [30.] 30/7/2007.
(4) I find it important to point out that CEU exhibitions stepped up against exactly this melancholy of ”ostalgie”.
(5) Editor.: Zoltán Fejős– Zsófia Frazon: Plastic Works (MaDok-booklets 4.). Museum of Ethnography, 2006.
(6) The issue of Replika entitled ”Consumer socialism” discusses the topic in detail (1997) 26.