An Artist Said a Hungarian Biennial Pushed Him to Alter a Work That Took Aim at the Country’s Conservative Prime Minister, Viktor Orbán
An uncensored version of the work will be included in a special exhibition organized by Budapest Pride on June 16.
A subversive piece of video art that criticizes the conservative and anti-LGBTQ+ policies of Hungary’s far-right, autocratic prime minister, Viktor Orbán, was apparently censored by an art biennial in Budapest in April. The artist alleges that the event’s organizers took issue with the work until he submitted a redacted version in which he had blurred out the politician’s image.
The short video features a visibly transfeminine character dancing on and smashing up a typical Budapest police car with an image of Orbán’s smiling face on the hood, before getting behind the steering wheel and driving it off a cliff. The work is set to a famous Hungarian folk song known as “Gloomy Sunday,” and was created especially for the biennial by the American activist/artist and self-proclaimed “troublemaker” Grayson Earle.
He was one of 62 artists invited to participate in the BINÁLÉ Digital Art Biennial this spring, under the theme of “Queering Democracy.” A letter sent by curators to prospective participants stated: “There is no better time and space to advocate the importance of democratic values with the power of art.” It also promised: “The binálé is a sovereign and decentralized exhibition in the culturally polarized and politically charged environment of Eastern Europe.”
Earle’s response to the theme was hardly off-topic, if perhaps a bit literal. “I wanted to make something specific to the circumstances,” he said, mentioning Orbán’s infamously homophobic policies. In recent years, the Hungarian government banned same-sex couples from adopting and crusaded against LGBT-related themes in children’s media or on the school curriculum. Orbán was re-elected in April 2022. His policies were not directly referenced in any of the other artworks.
“Aspiring fascists like Orbán are so overt in their tactics that I wanted to be as overt with the video,” said Earle. “But in a way that’s entertaining and also cathartic.”
Shortly after submitting the work, however, Earle claimed that it began to cause a commotion. “I had some idea that this might happen, of course,” he said.
According to one of the biennale’s three curators, Viola Lukács, her co-curator Peter Weiler was the first person to take issue. He brought the work to the attention of the organizers behind the Tavaszi Fesztivál, or the Budapest Spring Festival, the umbrella event that was hosting the biennial and has taken place annually since 1981.
“He expressed concerns that this artwork very directly criticizes the regime and that it is probably not the best advertisement for the entire project,” said Lukács, who grew up in Hungary but left because she “could feel the suffocation of the cultural scene being taken over by propaganda on an institutional level.”
Initially, the organizers told Earle that he would not be able to exhibit a video that used a copyrighted song. He rerecorded the backing track to meet their demand, the artist said, “knowing that they would obviously have to say the thing they really cared about is Orbán’s image being challenged.” When pushback against the artwork persisted, Lukács approached Earle and the pair came up with the compromise of pixelating Orbán’s face, although it appears that they were never explicitly instructed to obscure his features. Instead, they allege that they felt pressured by Weiler.
“I never found out what would have happened if I said no, but it was kind of a game of chicken,” said Earle, who admitted that he was actually happy to censor the work and “up the contradictions, have it be a collaboration between me and the censor.”
Lukács couldn’t be sure, either, that the festival would have rejected the uncensored artwork, even after asking its organizers. “They said they didn’t want to intervene, that this was our curatorial decision,” she recalled, but she found their statements vaguely ominous. “They didn’t want to take responsibility but they shared Peter’s fear of complications.”
“What is interesting is how subtly the tools of power operate, people living in anti-democratic regimes will censor themselves,” Lukács concluded. “It’s an echo from the Communist era.”
Weiler told Artnet News that he believed the video might “put us in a situation where the press uses it to label the binálé as violent, partisan and tasteless,” thus jeopardazing the exhibition’s “bipartisan goals.” As a curator, he had hoped to transcend rather than play into the highly polarized political fractures that he sees in Hungary.
The festival’s artistic director Máté Gáspár confirmed to Artnet News that he spoke to all three curators, noting that they failed to reach an agreement about how to handle the work. “No other instruction was given but to strive to get a consensus and mitigate the eventual risks (if there was any) that would harm the reception of the whole endeavor,” he said. “I have to firmly reject the perception of any ‘censorship.’ No claim was addressed to us either during the exhibition or after.”
There is a precedent for an artist facing legal trouble after protesting against Orbán by using his image, which Lukács claimed was raised to her by the festival’s organizers. In 2013, the rapper Dopeman, in collaboration with the Hungarian Solidarity Movement, erected and then toppled a styrofoam statue of the leader in Clark Ádám Square and detached its head, intentionally kicking it before a crowd of around 1,000 onlookers. He was charged with a breach of the peace but a court found no wrongdoing, according to Index.
Though he is not from Hungary, Earle sees himself as part of an international resistance movement, especially in light of Donald Trump and Steve Bannon’s attendance at the Conservative Political Action Campaign in Budapest in early May. “If I’m a position where I can resist better than a Hungarian artist who has more to lose, I would be happy to do that,” he said.
The artist is certainly no stranger to controversy. In 2015, his collective projected “KOCH = CLIMATE CHAOS” onto the Met in protest of a donation to the institution by the billionaire David H. Koch. The statement was removed by the NYPD, an action that was later ruled to have been in violation of the First Amendment.
“I think every artwork is political,” said Earle. “The more art seems to be apolitical, the more it is potently reinforcing the status quo.”
The uncensored version of One Such Plausible Interpretation of “Queering Democracy” will be included in a special exhibition organized by Budapest Pride on June 16.
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