an imaginary encounter narrated by Zsolt Miklósvölgyi and envisioned by Márk Fridvalszki
“Have you read the 1688 thesis written by Swiss medical student Johannes Hofer on the psychosomatic disease of Heimweh or homesickness?”, the middle-aged Hungarian philosophy professor asked his British colleague.
The two professors were invited to an international workshop that took place in Dunaújváros. They were sitting opposite each other on a silent regional train rumbling, along the Danube river, towards the industrial city in central Hungary that had once been called Stalin City.
“As you may know in his thesis...”, continued his explanation, the Hungarian professor, in his gentle yet identical Eastern European accent, “...Hofer has analysed multiple medical cases of Swiss mercenaries, peasants, and students serving, working, or studying away from home, and who were all suffering from various physical and mental illnesses.”
At this point, the British professor’s gloomy eyes widened slowly. While leaning slightly closer towards his companion, he inevitably expressed his moderate interest in the otherwise one-sided conversation. As if his Hungarian colleague would be talking to one of his students and not to a world-renowned author of acclaimed books about the phenomenon of nostalgically longing for lost futures.
“After examining every single medical case, Hofer has concluded that the only common feature that interconnects the otherwise completely different symptoms of the patients is the fact that they all spent long consecutive time far from their homelands. In each case, as soon as the sheer promise of returning home arose on their existential horizon, the patients started to recover swiftly.”
The train passed by the gigantic oil refinery of Százhalombatta and the whole view framed by the window turned into an alien technosphere landscape full of pipes, chimneys, and gigantic mazes of metallic architectural structures. Completely untouched by the eerie industrial scenery, the Hungarian philosopher carried on with his thoughts.
“As you may know, Mr Fisher, with the intention of conceptualising the disease from a medical point of view, Hofer has coined the Greek term ‘nostalgia,’ a portmanteau that combines the words of nostos or ‘returning,’ and algos or ‘grief’...”
At this point, almost unexpectedly, the British professor took over the thread of their conversation.
“It is interesting since whenever I think of the term nostalgia, it is not so much of an idea of, or a longing for, a place or space that comes first to my mind. I am rather interested in the temporal and chrono-political aspects of this notion. I am not saying that I don’t find any inspiration in, for instance, nurturing a fantasy for a space or place that one might also call home. But I think I have always been sceptical of the politically and historically corrupted metaphysical concepts of home or homeland.”
Mark Fridvalszki, Takes You Into, 2018. Acrylic transfer on canvas, 70x100 cm. Photo: Dávid Biró.
The British professor stopped for a brief moment as if he would be either seeking for a point of reference or for the sympathy of his Hungarian colleague.
“Perhaps my scepticism also resembles the thoughts of your fellow Hungarian Marxist philosopher György Lukács who, in one of his early works, argues that in contrast with the ancient Greek worldview in which the ideas of home and cosmic destiny were bound together in a closed totality, the modern spirit can find a home anywhere, and yet nowhere.”
Ignoring the clearly emotional expression on the face of the Hungarian professor—the sign of stubborn refusal that was perhaps triggered by the sheer mentioning of Lukács—the British professor kept on with his thoughts.
“This is what Lukács called transcendental homelessness in his text that he happened to write while studying abroad, and thus perhaps also foreshadowed his subsequent years in exile.”
The almost completely empty train with the two professors on board was getting closer to the former Stalin City. The name of the city and, thus, the spectre of Stalin, reflected the matter of steel that outlined the urban fabric, as well as communist Hungary’s triumph of industrialisation. The city was planned and designed for producing steel, a material that was used for building the entire socialist state. Stalin City, in other words, embodied the aspiration to become the pinnacle of socialist urbanism in Hungary, a city of steel that is now haunted by the spectres of socialist modernism and working-class heroism. In the imagination of the Hungarian philosopher, the name of Lukács as well as the idea of Stalin City merged into an uncanny image of a failed and compromised vision of utopian socialism.
“I have to admit, Mr Fisher, that I have a truly ambivalent intellectual and emotional relationship with Lukács...”, the Hungarian professor tried to hijack the direction of their dialogue.
He was definitely not alone in this estranged relationship with Lukács. His whole generation was both touched by and alienated from the intellectual radiation of Lukács and his students who became members of the so-called Budapest School. Just like his other fellow academics, during his university years, the Hungarian professor drifted as further away as possible from Lukács and Marxist philosophical traditions. He continued his explanation to his colleague with a slightly lethargic tone.
“I have to confess, Mr Fisher, that I also find real intellectual fascination in, as you have said, ‘nurturing a fantasy for a space or place that one might call home.’ According to my understanding, however, this yearning for a home does not have to do so much with the metaphysical concept of Heim or Heimat as you would say in German. For me, and at this point I have to agree with the French philosopher Gaston Bachelard, this home is rather a poetic edifice, an oneiric house or shelter. It is closer to the literary idea of a dream house that does not so much belong to the past, but to the future. It is not an existing house, or a house that has once been, it is a house yet to be built. As Bachelard writes:
“Sometimes the house of the future is better built, lighter and larger than all the houses of the past, so that the image of the dream house is opposed to that of the childhood home. Late in life, with indomitable courage, we continue to say that we are going to do what we have not yet done: we are going to build a house. This dream house may be merely a dream of ownership, the embodiment of everything that is considered convenient, comfortable, healthy, sound, desirable, by other people. It must therefore satisfy both pride and reason, two irreconcilable terms.”1
1 Gaston Bachelard, The Poetics of Space (Boston: Beacon Press, 1994), 61.
The Hungarian professor, as if enlightened by some kind of spiritual epiphany, was staring into nothingness with his glowing eyes. Instead of addressing his thoughts to his British colleague, he was rather talking to this void of emptiness that he was gazing into.
“This house or home that Bachelard meditates about is perhaps not only a vivid expression of the poetic imagination yearning for a house that ‘shelters day-dreaming,’ that ‘protects the dreamer’ and ‘allows one to dream in peace,’ but also an unequivocal existentialist analysis of the modernist spirit that no longer seeks inspiration in the fragments and ruins of past memories. Instead, it is haunted by the poetic or utopian edifices of the future that are yet to be realised...”
Suddenly, out of nowhere, the British professor took the floor and tried to interrupt his colleague and finish his thoughts at the exact same wavelength of thrill. In the cold grey lights of the train carriage, the shapes of this unlikely duo resembled two asteroids circulating at the same rotational speed but in two entirely different orbits that would otherwise never cross each other’s paths.
“The spectrality of utopia, The Spectres of Marx, indeed!”, uttered the British professor and pointed his forefinger toward the void of nothingness where the eyes of the Hungarian professor were trapped. “There is, of course, a distinction between the two aspects of spectres that cannot be fully present as they have no being in themselves in mere ontological terms, since they rather ‘mark a relation to what is no longer or not yet.’ This constant spectral oscillation between solid ontological categories, between what is no longer and what not yet exists, is what Jacques Derrida aimed at conceptualising by offering the idea of hauntology in place of ontology.”
The Hungarian professor was now listening with his eyes wide open while his British colleague was ecstatically explaining his take on the concept of nostalgia.
“We can thus distinguish two major directions in hauntology. The first refers to that which is (in actuality is) no longer, but which remains effective as a virtuality (the traumatic ‘compulsion to repeat,’ a fatal pattern). The second sense of hauntology refers to that which (in actuality) has not yet happened, but which is already effective in the virtual (an attractor, an anticipation shaping current behaviour).2 But at one point I also had to realise the importance and its actual political weight of distinguishing different manifestations of nostalgia. Since the conservative-reactionary concept of nostalgia is nothing but ‘a formal attachment to the techniques and formulas of the past.’ On the other hand, precisely in this future-oriented spirit of critical nostalgia, what should haunt us is not the no longer of actually existing social democracy, but the not yet of the futures that popular modernism trained us to expect, but which never materialised. These spectres—the spectres of lost futures—reproach the formal nostalgia of the capitalist realist world.”3
2 The italicised section is taken from Mark Fisher, “What Is Hauntology?”, Film Quarterly, 66(1) (Fall 2012), 16-24.
3 The italicised section is taken from Mark Fisher, Ghosts of My Life: Writings on Depression, Hauntology and Lost Futures (London: Zero Books, 2014), 20.
As much as I consider myself an enthusiastic reader of Mark Fisher’s texts, I have always felt an emotional detachment from what he calls ‘popular modernism.’ The reason I cannot fully engage with his concept on an emotional level is because there is no political and historical equivalent of Fisher’s ‘pop modern’ in the Eastern side of the former Iron Curtain where I’m from. At least not in the sense of unifying generational experience about which Fisher writes when he talks about the “vanishing tendency” or “virtual trajectory” of the UK’s popular modernism. As he convincingly points out, this tendency was not only unfolding in various social programmes but also in various cultural forms of the 1960s and 70s. Such as in the emancipatory media ecology of public service broadcasting and printed media, as well as in “postpunk, brutalist architecture, Penguin paperbacks, and the BBC Radiophonic Workshop.”4
Of course, for the sake of speculation, one could find possible counterparts of such trajectories in the 1960s and 70s of the former Eastern Bloc. The Hungaroton record label from Hungary, Polish jazz festivals during the Communist era, iconic buildings of socialist modernist architecture, or New Wave cinemas of Eastern Europe, just to name a few possible examples. However, regardless of their aesthetic or social values, these cultural and art initiatives either served as primary propaganda tools of the official state ideology or were controlled and censored by the central political apparatuses of their respective communist regimes. In these circumstances, it would be hard to talk about popular culture in this region, at least in the sense that Fisher attributes to this notion of ‘popular modernism,’ since the intersecting tendencies of the modernisation of Pop and the popularisation of modernity that he writes about have unfolded from the social welfare state of 1970s Britain. This political and social frame, however, not only fostered the democratic ethos of public services, but also created the opportunity for counter- and subcultural scenes to flourish. It was simply impossible to imagine such co-emergence under the political conditions of the former Eastern European countries, where the official culture propagated by the state and the oppressed underground cultural scenes diametrically opposed each other. The Hungarian Communist Party’s cultural policy of the triple Ts (TTT: Tiltott, Tűrt, Támogatott5) was a peculiar exception as they created an intermediary position of ‘tolerated art’ in between the completely banned and fully promoted sides of the cultural scenes.
At the beginning of 2021, I repeated the journey of Mr Fisher and his unnamed Hungarian colleague. I travelled to Dunaújváros to visit the exhibition of Berlin-based Hungarian artist Márk Fridvalszki at the ICA-D Institute of Contemporary Art. The show managed to change my previous perspective on Fisher’s nostalgia for the future-oriented promises of popular modernism. A promise that, according to Fisher, has vanished and eroded by the neoliberal turn of the 1980s and thus led us to the “slow cancellation of the future.”6
4 Idem, 19.
5 The triple Ts—TTT: Tiltott, Tűrt, Támogatott—mean: Forbidden, Tolerated, Supported.
6 Franco Bifo Berardi, After the Future (Chico, CA: AK Press), 13.
The exhibition, titled Future Perfect, focused on a historical period of the post-war era defined by two milestones: two major turning points on both sides of the former Iron Curtain: 1968 and 1989. The two years (’68 and ’89) that mirror each other not only typographically, but also historically, prescribed the chronopolitical area of interest for Fridvalszki’s archeo-futurological research. The architectural bricolage of the ICA-D Institute of Contemporary Art functions as a perfect spatial backdrop for the artistic and curatorial endeavours of the exhibition as it consists of two main parts: a classic social modernist museum interior extended with a postmodern annex where Fridvalszki’s solo show also took place on two floors. The first installation An Out of This World Event I (Rehaunted) that welcomed the visitors in the entry hall of the exhibition space also functioned as an artistic statement that perfectly outlined the objective of the entire show. The curator of the exhibition Barnabás Zemlényi-Kovács outlines the intention of the installation with such an illuminating power, that it is worth quoting his description in its entirety:
An Out of This World Event I (Rehaunted) is a synthesising vision of the countercultures of ’68 and ’89, equally built around psychedelia, experimental visuality, and music, during two paradigm-shifting periods in politics, economy, culture, and technology. The hippies of the ‘Summer of Love’ on the West Coast meet here with the ravers of the ‘Second Summer of Love’ in Britain; Superstudio’s grid surface, representing a social structure of complete freedom and equality, lives on in the light grid motif of the Eighties and the Nineties; a psychedelic 1969 painting by Wojciech Fangor is mixed with the Mandelbrot set, used in hypnotic rave visuals; Pink Panther, a Sixties embodiment of coolness, finds his Nineties equivalent, Fido Dido; applied abstract motives float together with the elements of early rave flyers and a Macromedia Freehand design catalogue from 1995. It is as if Fridvalszki’s desire was to compress so much utopian energy from ’68 and ’89 into a single entity that it would reach the point of explosion and fructify our futureless present.7
7 Márk Fridvalszki at ICA-D Institute of Contemporary Art, Artviewer, Online at: https://artviewer.org/mark-fridvalszki-at-ica-d-institute-of-contemporary-art/
All of a sudden, as if I entered a secular summoning ritual, the spectres of failed utopian attempts, the spectres of popular modernism, and the spectres of lost futures appeared in front of me. The resulting cumulation made me wonder, what if, regardless of the otherwise incommensurable ghosts of popular modernism and social modernism, at least in the frame of the exhibition at Dunaújváros, the two could mingle in a fertile way? What if the exhibition was not only fusing ‘utopian energy from ’68 and ’89 into a single entity,’ but also allowed two different historical and geopolitical plains to merge into one? Thus, opening up a field for speculative imagination where the spectres of Mark Fisher’s thoughts and the genius loci of Dunaújváros still haunted by the promises of socmodernism could interfere with each other. In this sense, it is safe to say that not only was the curatorial concept of the exhibition inspired by Fisher’s thoughts, but the scope of Fisher’s philosophical idea of ‘critical nostalgia’ was actively expanded by the artworks of Márk Fridvalszki. As curator Zemlényi-Kovács writes, “the nostalgia that pervades the exhibition is thus not for the Sixties or the Nineties but the Future: contrary to conservative-reactionary nostalgia, ‘critical nostalgia’ summons the exorcised ghosts of Modernity in order to burst out of our claustrophobic Present with the wide horizons of Popular Modernism.”8 This concept of critical nostalgia is also capable of transcending the romantic cultural sentiments of Ostalgie, or ostalgia, that express a longing for the Soviet period not only in Eastern Germany but also all over the former Eastern Bloc after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
This spatial poetic attempt of ‘widening the horizon’ manifests itself in the exhibition in numerous forms. Whether it is through the abstract grid surfaces of the Italian radical architecture collective Superstudio; the Op-Art imaginary spaces reflecting the ‘surrealism of the Space Age’ attitude of the 1970s; or the synthetic visual hallucinations fueled by the rave-optimism of the 1990s, an ever-expanding field of social and aesthetic imagination is prevailing throughout the paintings and prints of the artist. But perhaps the most comprehensive attempt to embrace such panoramic immensity is detectable on the gigantic wallpaper installation titled 1968-69: A Time Odyssey. The installation evoking socialist modernist mural paintings is a collaborative work of the artist and the curator presenting 690 artworks of 320 artists from the 1968-69 period. The iconic works on the wallpaper framed by a wall-to-wall Op-Art raster are not only representing the quintessence of the post-war Western art canon, but also expressing the revolutionary momentum of the era. This total panorama of art history is then continued in the red plastic Space Age sculptures made out of Hungarian Pille retro stools (cheap Eastern European copies of Henry Massonnet’s legendary Tam Tam Plastic Stools). When stacked upon each other, they resemble the formal aesthetics of Romanian sculptor Constantin Brâncuşi and his Endless Column.
Talking of endless utopian edifices and the infinite project of modernism, the idea of Future Perfect that served as a title for Fridvalszki’s exhibition is echoing one of the key concepts of Eva Horn’s book The Future as Catastrophe: Imagining Disaster in the Modern Age. By analysing various films, literary works, and theoretical texts that expose different forms of post-apocalyptic scenarios, Horn concludes that our contemporary imagination is defined by the collective cultural obsession of futurum perfectum. According to Horn, this obsession implies a dark aesthetic fascination with a posthumanist future perspective that allows human beings to confront ourselves with the aftermath of our own extinction.
A few years ago, among other Hungarian artists, Márk Fridvalszki also participated in a group show titled Futurum Perfectum. That exhibition, held at the Stúdió Gallery in Budapest and curated by Márió Z. Nemes, was an exciting take on this peculiar posthumanist point of view that Horn also writes about. At that time, Fridvalszki still approached the concept of our futureless present time with a rather darker or apocalyptic aesthetic overtone. However, since then, his artistic interest decidedly shifted towards a brighter, more optimistic and energetic vision of the future. His exhibition at the ICA-D Institute of Contemporary Art in Dunaújváros is an unequivocal sign of his commitment to ‘not giving up the ghost,’ that is the ghost of utopian possibilities.
Zsolt Miklósvölgyi is a critic, editor, and art writer from Budapest, Hungary. He is a Co-Editor-in-Chief of the Berlin-Budapest-based art collective and publishing project Technologie und das Unheimliche (T+U) and editor of the Café Bábel essay journal. His ongoing (para)academic, artistic and curatorial interests include post-digital printing, comparative ethnofuturism, spatial and geopoetic speculations.
Márk Fridvalszki (born in 1981 in Budapest, lives and works in Berlin) graduated from the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna in 2011 and was a postgraduate Meisterschülerstudent at the Academy of Fine Arts in Leipzig (2014–2017). Fridvalszki is the co-initiator and graphic editor of the publishing project and cross-disciplinary collective Technologie und das Unheimliche or T+U (since 2014).
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