The idea of János Sugár’s project, the Fire in the Museum was presented first at a Pecha Kucha Night in 2007 and was planned to realize in the Kiscelli Museuem in 2012. Although the original exhibition could never be realized, the idea lived further. In the frame of Check Your Head! section of the OFF-Biennale Budapest the fire was set and kept alive for twenty-one days.
Kinga Lendeczki: You created the idea of the project Fire in the Museum in 2009 and your original plan was to make a fire in the Kiscelli Museum and keep it alive for the period of the exhibition. At that time the project couldn’t be realized for security reasons. How came the idea to carry it out now in the frame of the OFF-Biennale Budapest?
János Sugár: The original fire project was blocked not by security, but by unknown reasons. It was a rather long preparation process until we had all the necessary permissions, and in the very last moment one lower ranking museum official changed his mind and said no. For six month with a group of curatorial studies students (MKE KET) we worked all the details through, and we were really about to launch the campaign for fireguards.
Many of those students started to work in the preparation of the OFF-Biennale, and it was they and not me who made this proposal. I was absolutly glad. This means, that dispite the blocking of the original project, the idea lives further, and finally I could play the sceptical, until a point, when we found the venue.
K.L. The concept of Fire in the Museum was inspired by the proposal of Tamás Vigh, and it would have offered a way to commemorate the revolution and its heroes of 1956. What is the relation of the current project to this original concept?
J.S. In my interpretation the beauty of his proposal is, that we must face with the contradiction of our ideals and our acting. The easy coming nice statements about „remembering“ versus the reality of practical discomfort of being there. If we can overcome of the uneasyness of acting, it would have an enormous effect on every aspect of social life.
K.L. In 2012, since the fire could have been present just symbolically in the museum, you installed a big, rustic stone, The Monument to the Nameless Rabble instead. However, this installation was also just symbolically presented in Kiscelli, as it couldn’t be placed at its planned site, similarly for security reason. How do you see this project today?
J.S. I consider this project as actual as it was when I first exhibited it. I created The Monument to the Nameless Rabble in 2010 and I exhibited it for the first time in Württembergischer Kunstverein Stuttgart (RE-Designing the East) in a less dramatic situation as it was in the Kiscelli Museum. When it turned out that although I had a fixed exhibition, my project was cancelled, I decided to exhibit this rustic stone in the Kiscelli. It seemed like a solution which could commemorate the Fire in the Museum project in regard to its minimalism as well as its reference to 1956.
K.L. What did you consider when you chose the place for the fire? In which way was this site different from the church space of the Kiscelli Museum?
J.S. When they persuaded me to realize the project in the frame of the OFF-Biennale, these kind of open-air pubs and beer gardens were the first places which came into my mind. We needed an open and accessible place in order to avoid practical difficulties in running the project. Based on this we started to look for a place and surprisingly we got very positive answers. Finally we found Rombusz Terasz, a big and special place, which is situated on an empty lot. On the backside of the site took place the fire. The environment looked like a rural industrial shed with high firewalls and small, single-floor industrial storage buildings. The fire took place on a strange, hybrid place which was in the centre of the city, but its environment didn’t look like urban. Here the fire became meaningful in the context of the OFF-Biennale. Partly as a romanitc metaphor of cooperation and partly as a practical act.
K.L. The fire should have been kept alive for the entire duration of the biennale. Could this be regarded in some kind of way as a trial of the contemporary art scene?
J.S. Seemingly yes. Although I believe that one of the main characteristic of these kind of public art interventions is that they show and reveal something what was not visible before. What I mean exactly is the reaction of the society to a request or an initiation. Because of this all of these projects work like X-ray pictures. In the case of OFF-Biennale what is more important that the shutting down of the fire was not a refusal. It was just a sign that showed how difficult is to leave our comfort zone. The big majority of the guards were not artists, but people involved in this or that way in OFF-Biennale.
K.L. How many people applied to keep alive the fire?
J.S. Not so many, about 5% of the email adresses replied positively. When on the 21st day we finally shut the fire down approx 80 guards were missing and we had approx 150 guards who kept the fire alive. I found two things interesting connecting to this. One is that most of those people who guarded the fire for a while, wanted to come again. The fireguarding, by day as well as by night, was an unusual, but not necessarily bad experience. There were usually more people around the fire at the same time, and some of the guards organized their programs there. The other thing which was interesting for me, is that people, who were not part of the art scene, reacted more positively and we had more applicants from them. We didn’t have so many applicants from those members of the art scene who, I thought, could apply regarding to their age, attitude or other things. The first artist, who applied to keep alive the fire, was Martin Piaček. He guarded the fire for a night. There were Hungarian artists as well, but mostly those who sympathized with the OFF-Biennale or got in touch with it not just by emails, but also through different trainings, discussions, workshops involving people also from the civil sphere.
K.L. What do you think, can the project have a long-term impact on the contemporary art scene itself as well as on its situation?
J.S. Art and culture are more absurd and irrational, they are not working like arithmetic or Newtonian phisics. Such a simple action could have a long term impact or on the contrary. I think that the impact of this project will become the part of those actions which started before the opening of the OFF-Biennale: action days at tranzit.hu, the different kind of protests, activist movements, Living Memorial at Szabadság square. I don’t think that a striking truth will turn out from this project. I think a more delicated truth will become visible. One part of its delicacy will be that everyone could try to interpret it, told his or her own story about it and draw a conclusion either from the chain of these actions or just from that what this project meant or created.
K.L. What kind of role should contemporary art take today, if it should take one at all, in promoting and supporting social changes?
J.S. As I see art has been left alone in supporting positive changes in thinking of the people and in empowering them to become more creative, tolerant and inventive. It seems like the great period of modernism came to the end. We are coming up against borders in the field of politics, economy or ecology. During modernism art played the role of a small antisystem based on non-practical principle while it was part of a bigger system based on practical principles and it aimed to provide help in finding solutions for the future questions based on creative, independent and lateral thinking. The institutional system was built in this context. However the context changed and we are living now in a perfect storm of multiple crisis. In this new context art has a unique ability in changing peoples catastrophic way of thinking. Art has the role to create situations and address them in a non-conventional way. There is an urgency for this now and art remained the only field in which people can still trust in. Distrust is one of the characteristic of postmodern, and it came very close to us in politics as well as in the private sphere. For that very reason art could play an important role, maybe just this role is different from that one which politics wants to regard to it.
The article originally was published on June 1, 2015 on ArtGuideEast.