János Brückner’s latest exhibition is on display at Scope BLN in Berlin, Germany. On the occasion of the exposé, critic, editor, and art writer Zsolt Miklósvölgyi prepared an interview with the Berlin-based artist about his recent work. Interview conducted in partnership with Budapest-based Artportal.


In your new solo show at Scope BLN titled Emergency there are three new video installations in which you embody a mud-covered subhuman in different dancing, partying and singing settings. Who is this muddy creature and what does it have to do with the enigmatic title?


The gallery has two exhibition spaces: one on the street level and one in the basement. This setup gave me the idea to approach my theme in two ways: large, monumental drawings of ravers from the early 2000s Hungarian party scenes and in the basement you can see the Mudboy in ecstase on three music videos and on three lightboxes.

The Mudboy was called to life more than 2 years ago by the artist group ‘We Didn’t Do It! Crew’ (Bátory Péter, Brückner János, Falvai Mátyás, Fillér Máté, Szabó Ottó, Tóth Márton Emil), and we keep it alive ever since with Márton Emil Tóth.

The Mudboy is a creature which has many appearances and features, based on who is the person who embodies it. It comes to life through a simple magic: we cover ourselves completely with mud / dirt. In my view, the Mudboy is the complete opposite of civilization. Whatever the Mudboy touches, becomes dirty. The Mudboy is unable to use almost any objects of our civilized life without destroying it. And the Mudboy is unpredictable. It’s either good or bad: it’s just outside of most frames of our civilized everyday. That makes the Mudboy become free. 

And when I was preparing this exhibition, I knew I wanted to manifest my theme rave2000 not only in drawings but also in music videos and photos. For that I found the Mudboy to be the perfect character. In the music video ‘Sin With Me’ (which is a remake of the Hungarian pop song from mid-90s with the same title), a guy is crying and bursting out steeped in desire to have sex with another person. For me it’s the moment when desire takes over—it’s a sort of ecstasy, hence the connection to the theme—and it’s a state when you look and feel exactly like the Mudboy. Or in the video Cosas della vita (which is the remake of the duett of Eros Ramazzotti and Tina Turner), the Mudboy is manifesting a deep, ecstatic state of desire and pain through dance. The photos also show the Mudboy in a rave, they are retakes of party photos.


Besides these video works, you have also exhibited large-scale portrait drawings that are part of a longer term project you’ve been working on, called rave2000. Its focus is on a very interesting aspect of the Hungary party culture of the 2000s, forming a media-archeological memento of sorts, from an era just before smartphones and social media, but already replete with digital party photos. How do you approach this aesthetic theme through the medium of drawing and painting?


I call this approach ‘emotional realism.’ Realism, because I think life is way more compelling than fiction, and art as an instrument, lifestyle, and perspective is capable of conveying some of that delicious confusion, complexity and ambiguity we as humans experience. Art is capable of making these experiences accessible. And it’s also emotional realism, because my themes are always centered around an emotional dramaturgy/interpretation. 

In terms of painting specifically, a certain strand of realist representation seemed the most suited to my aims. Basically I work with digital or analog photographs, and blow them up into paintings. I have developed a technique, with which I can transform a digital, pixelated system into the register of painting. This method I call Human Printer, because it is my view that compared to the perfection of digital images (which today basically composes the whole of our visual reality), human error, imperfection, glitch are those elements which contain an aesthetic surplus. What is more, it is precisely these errors, imperfections that form the raw material, so to speak, of my images. For example, a ‘frame’ extracted from a trash porn film, the portrait of someone orgasming, painted along these lines, has an entirely new meaning than in the original image. And yet through all its transformations, the original meaning still vibrates, the enjoyment and fear, the mutated yet beautiful facial expression is present. Extreme emotions, all in one. Just like life. This is the program I first developed in 2012, and have been applying in my paintings and community installations ever since.

The party photos of the early 2000s are very much relevant to this concept of painting: faces showcasing extreme, contradictory emotions, situations in which participants step out of themselves, losing themselves in the moment, yet the whole thing is very funny also—that’s what a rave is all about, captured in a single moment. Apart from this emotional background, these images fit in well with the Human Printer project. These were all made with early digital photographic printing technologies. From our perspective, they are raw, low quality. For me though, they contain a quality which I really like using. Also these party photos never really had a physical extension, they were usually never printed. They only exist online, and I like to think my paintings have given them a second life.

It is also important that I use these photos with love. That’s why I use very few techniques: I usually change some colors, tones, sometimes I shift the original composition, some elements are repeated on the image, and that’s about it. I didn’t want to decompose the images or make them into a collage, or use some sort of surrealist or parodistic method. Everything else depends on the method of painting, which for me is a dramaturgic possibility to expose the contents in the original images.


We could say that these images are archeological traces and snapshots of the euphoric moment of 2000s era Hungary, which since then, because of global crises and the last 20 years of Hungarian history, seems like a distant memory. The atmosphere of these paintings contains a certain spectrality, being at once familiar yet distant, haunting us. All this connects very well to the cultural theory of Mark Fisher. We can speak of a kind of ‘party-hauntology.’ This expression allows us to recognize how the initial utopian energy of the rave movement has all but vanished, being only present in the form of ghosts haunting the club cultures of late capitalism, as well as referencing the ‘post-rave’ feeling of a night spent partying, something very familiar to a certain generation. Was the haunting feeling already present, which these images are trying to capture, or rather, did the spirit of the archived images somehow make itself felt through this phantomlike method of artistic exposition?


In these photos there is a double aspect: everything we see is at once free and lost, happy and dark. This is strange, this doubleness, and I think yes, it’s present in the photos themselves—just like in many of these raves. Of course, I don’t care about theory so much as the visual value of photos and paintings. I mean, what drives me is visual curiosity: how can we give expression to a complex situation, a feeling, in a single image? What’s the story here? What’s the dramaturgy at work in the situation, why do I find a certain party photo compelling? And how can I represent this in a realist way, to make the hidden content accessible to others through my paintings? These are the questions which drive my work. Eeriness is part of the theme, in a visual sense. Of course, and in the party culture of the 2000s more broadly, there’s a lot in play, as you mentioned regarding Mark Fisher. These meanings for me are secondary, although I am aware they play a role in my work. How could they not? Then there’s the concept of nostalgia, which has become unpopular for some reason. Several friends of mine called these paintings nostalgic. I don’t have a problem with that. These raves, these moments, they have truly ended, and it is painful to recognize this fact. It’s very hard to return home while knowing that the moment is gone and won’t ever come back. This era of euphoria has well and truly ended. It is very painful to look back from the present—compared to the 2000s, the future—and see how different the future these people imagined for themselves was. Especially compared to how things look now. But that’s realism for you, that’s life.


Regarding the choice of title and the archive party photos you have found, it’s interesting that instead of underground music and party subcultures, your artistic focus has been on mainstream party culture and the collective euphoria which was present in that scene. So your paintings depict not so much the dark basements of the techno, jungle, or breakcore parties, but rather the trance and eurodance worlds of commercial radio stations, the trucks of Budapest Parade, and the synthetic foam-parties of rural discos. In this spirit you had a guided tour with Pumped Gabo, about which a commercial TV station also made a report. Why the focus on this particular aspect of pop culture in the rave2000 project? Is there a sort of emancipative artistic gesture or aspiration in this? Are you trying to mix high art with the pop culture of the masses, so to speak? 


I think simplicity is a virtue when it comes to an artwork. It’s important that the viewer recognize a moment, a situation, and realize, ‘yeah, that’s really what it was like.’ It’s no problem if contemporary art has entertainment value. It’s great if a contemporary painting is accessible to a wider audience—if not in great depth, at least through a momentary, fleeting impression. That my paintings contain something easily accessible doesn’t mean that I make compromises regarding the deeper stuff of art. Absolutely not. These works of art invite the audience to situate themselves in front of an image, to ‘fully view’ the image, until it has told its story. I’m not saying this on the basis of anything theoretical. I simply like those kinds of artworks which contain something which is accessible, beautiful, funny, sad, or entertaining. When I encounter something like that, I stop, and the seriousness of the work starts to come to the fore. And I respect the audience enough for me to always try and give them this type of experience.

I’ve been following Pumped Gabo for over a year now, and I really admire his directness and sincere simplicity. When the idea first came to me regarding the exhibition at the Longtermhandstand Gallery, I recognized that Pumped Gabo as a character is definitely in sync with the spirit of my exhibition. We invited him, he came, and there was a great guided tour event, with a very interesting talk, from which we made a short video. After this there was also a TV report, which I think summarized the exhibition very well. Of course, this is just a question of personal taste: as someone who visits exhibitions regularly, I’m sick and tired of all these high theory talks which take place next to artworks. I wanted to avoid that as much as possible.


Not only on the international stage, but also in the local contemporary art scene, we can see a trend in which the club culture and rave aesthetics are making a comeback in art. For example, there was the Techno Worlds exhibit at the AQB Project Space, but we can also point to Márton Nemes’ exhibition at the acb Gallery, and Márk Fridvalszki’s works as well. Is your rave2000 project compatible with these tendencies, and if so, what themes or directions does your art contribute to this shift?


My tradition is the Eastern European absurd, which is absurd because it is realistic: this is what reality is like, at once black and white, funny and deeply sad. This is what I experience, this is what I work with. There’s nothing new in this, maybe it’s a little different from the latest trends. The world of rave is a raw and wild world, that’s why I chose it. There’s this continuous self-contradiction which you can experience for yourself. My choice wasn’t an aesthetic decision, let’s put it that way.