Born in 1956 in the Hungarian town of Kazincbarcika, Gyula Várnai grew up in the city of Dunaújváros, found in the centre of the country. Associated with a school of Hungarian neoconceptual artists, Várnai entered the public sphere in the early 1990s, and since then his work has been displayed in Budapest, Paris, Istanbul, and cities in the US. In addition to his home town and its short yet significant history, Várnai’s studies in mathematics and physics have proven influential factors in his art. Peace On Earth! is his latest exhibition, and will be displayed in the Hungarian Pavilion at the Venice Biennale between May 13 and November 26. The exhibition is organised by the Ludwig Museum, one of Budapest’s primary contemporary art museums.
Created during the Communist era, the young city of Dunaújváros was purpose built in the early 1950s to accommodate a steel works and provide the model Socialist city, with little heritage or tradition to speak of. Várnai credits growing up in a city bearing such little history with causing a focus on the present and future – themes that are front and centre in Peace On Earth!. Speaking of his hometown, the artist says that, ‘For us, the notion of tradition was unknown, it was replaced by the cognition and the exploration. We experienced the present as future’.
Peace On Earth! takes this idea of the present as future and contemplates both utopias of the past and preconceived ideas about the future. Through installations, interactive video works and sculptural pieces, the exhibition sees Várnai take everyday objects from the past and turn them into thought-provoking art works, using the contextual placement of seemingly usual or regular materials and items to comment on our often idealised ideas about the future. The concept of utopias and their credibility is central to the exhibition, with curator Zsolt Petrányi summing up its core message as a consideration of ‘the viability and necessity of utopias’. Past perceptions of future utopias rarely, if ever, come true – however, Várnai contemplates whether this means they are therefore defunct, or rather a motivational concept necessary for human development.
Drawing on his upbringing in Dunaújváros, originally named Sztálinváros (Stalingrad), artefacts left over from the Socialist era often find their way into Várnai’s pieces, and Peace On Earth! is no exception. The exhibition will feature, for example, a rainbow formed of 8,000 badges from the 1970s, during which time Hungary was still under Communist rule, as well as a Ferris Wheel from the artist’s home city.
In today’s conflicted world, with politics, economics, migration and natural crises dominating the headlines, Várnai challenges an often discouraging world view. His work at the Hungarian Pavilion is a reminder and exploration of the idea that humanity requires a utopian vision of the future to progress and reach its goals, conveyed through pieces that are both simple and thought-provoking.
The Hungarian Team
National Commissioner: Julie Fabényi
Curator: Zsolt Petrányi
Organizer: Ludwig Museum – Museum of Contemporary Art, Budapest
Dates: May 13 – November 26, 2017