A mixed media exhibition on the history and present of the Jewish Quarter of Budapest, named after the quarter's total area, presented the diversity of the quarter through 9 defining buildings.
The exhibition organised by the Balassi Institute - The Hungarian Cultural Center in New York, aimed at showcasing 'the history-defying existence of the Quarter, where Jews and non-Jews converge again'.
Andrea Ausztrics, exhibit's curator, grew up in the Budapest Jewish Quarter, and her personal artistic and academic work has primarily dealt with Jewish themes - from a documentary on third generation Hungarian Jews after the Holocaust, to her current research focusing on a comparison of US and European Jewish museums. Below you can read a brief interview with Andrea, while we can start by finding that the diversity of the Quarter was also mirrored in the approaches and techniques of the participating artists.
‘The concept was to invite young artists from Hungary to reflect on each building with a conceptual video work. We tried to choose artists working in different genres in order to present a wide picture of the quarter and also of contemporary art in Hungary.’
How did the initiative for an exhibition dealing with the Jewish Quarter come about?
The idea originates from 2013 when the Balassi Institute wanted to come up with projects in connection with the 70th anniversary of the Victims of the Holocaust memorial events in Hungary. They tried to create projects that relate to the subject in a novel, innovative way, and our goal was to include the modern, contemporary aspect as well.
Due to funding issues we had to wait a lot to get everything together but finally last year we were able to start the intensive planning and implementation phase. My co-curator, Zita Mara Vadasz had this idea to create an exhibition about the Jewish Quarter of Budapest.
The artists seem to have had great liberty in conceptualising their work - some projecting their personal narratives and others playfully reimagining or reinterpreting the spaces.
Was that part of the concept, or more an organic development during production?
We (the curators) gave them all the help they needed to create their pieces (such as the research support and the relevant knowledge) but we didn’t want to influence them and their thoughts too much. They were supposed to create their videos as a reflection on the building and they had the freedom to decide what and which angle they would like to focus on.
I had the opportunity to work closer with the artists - some of them needed more guidance but most of them came up with their own concept and worked independently after receiving all the background information.
Of what relevance was whether or not the included artists had a previous personal connection to Judaism or were themselves Jewish?
There are Jewish and non-Jewish artists among the participants, all of them however have a strong artistic background and a personal relationship with the Quarter. Being Jewish was not obligatory to be featured in this project, as the district has always been a religiously and ethnically diverse place, Jews and non-Jews had lived together here since the Jewish community first settled down in the 19th century. On the other hand, the area is not only the historical Jewish district of Budapest but also the city center - with pubs, ruin bars, restaurants, theaters and art venues all around.
Zsófi Szemző, 1260 seats: 786 prayer chairs for men and 474 for women. Later the number changes to 1332, other sources say 1372. I was interested in those 80 years of the Rumbach Street synagogue that were filled with life, in the kind of life that was going on here, in this space, those who frequented this space for generations. For decades, this space has been half in ruins and empty.
We have chosen nine buildings representing three important aspects of Jewish life: the sacred spaces, public places and local businesses. For the two locations that have a strongest religious connection (the synagogue and the mikveh) we picked artists who have dealt with Jewish topics before in their artistic practice. Parallel to this it was crucial to keep the pool of the artists as diverse as the Quarter itself.
The exhibition was curated by you and Zita Mara Vadasz. Could you tell us something about that cooperation and the curatorial process.
Zita is the curator of the Balassi Institute who came up with the idea for this exhibition a while ago. We met in New York City in the fall of 2015 and had a long conversation about my field of research which is when she explained the project. She said that she wanted to find someone who had a deep connection with the Quarter and also has the experience of dealing with artists and organizing cultural projects.
Dániel Halász: The building of the Fészek Arts Club is a time capsule that gives us a glimpse into 20th century Hungarian history. Starting it’s life as a Jewish girls’ orphanage it later housed an elite members-only artists’ club with a bustling illegal nightlife, then was bordering the ghetto and thus used to smuggle secret messages through a hidden room, subsequently nationalised by the state only the regain independence in the 90s and struggling with financial difficulties ever since.We had a very narrow timeframe to put this show together so we basically did everything together, working 24/7 shifts, especially in the end of the project. Zita was more involved in the research part (buildings, photos) and I was more in charge of finding and dealing with the artists, but we made all the decisions together.
It took quite some time to find the right people to contribute to the project, as it was challenging to manage artists and curators who are working and living on different continents.
The exhibition was accompanied by two panel discussions - one on the contemporary Jewish identity in Hungary, and another on the Jewish heritage and "Jewish space" within East Central European societies.
How do you see the exhibition fostering those conversations?
The exhibition proposes a dialogue between the past and the present not only by showcasing the still existing buildings and edifices that are related to Jewish life and culture, but also the ways in which Jewish culture once thrived in the Quarter and how it is going through a revival in this 585,000 m2 area of Budapest today. The panel discussions are dealing with Jewish identity, cohabitation and certainly art, which is what brought us and the entire project together.
To learn more about the exhibition, visit www.585000m2.com