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Unfolding a Collection
An interview with Kinga Hamvai, Sungah Serena Choo and Zsolt Petrányi

Patrick Tayler

When an expanding collection wants to preserve its momentum, it cannot stay within the confines of the local art scene for long. Instead, it has to be activated and re-investigated in various new contexts, generating several alternative interpretations that further inform the collection’s pieces. MNB Arts and Culture has shifted its attention, thus, to re-imagining the perspectives of Hungarian art on an international scale. I asked Kinga Hamvai, Sungah Serena Choo and Zsolt Petrányi about the institutions’ latest projects, the exhibition titled Folded – Unfolded, which was accompanied by the very first exhibition catalogue issued by MNB Arts and Culture. To point beyond reconstructing the show from the installation shots and the well-crafted bilingual (Korean and English) volume, I invited Kinga Hamvai — the initiator of the project and the head of MNB Arts and Culture –, as well as Zsolt Petrányi and Sungah Serena Choo – who were the curators of the exhibition – for a discussion. The following dialogue aims to give the readers insight into the behind-the-scenes events that informed the project.

Simon Hantai: Aquarelle / 1971 / watercolour / 65,5 × 56,5 cm / Apartment Gallery / Photo: courtesy of MNB Arts & Culture

Ferenc Ficzek: Untitled / 1979 / silver plastic film on fibreboard / 100 × 100 × 11 cm / Photo: courtesy of MNB Arts & Culture

Patrick Tayler: Folded – Unfolded was imagined as a form of dialogue where the Korean and Hungarian curators not only contributed to a complex exhibition but also interacted professionally, exchanging knowledges. How does MNB Arts & Culture approach networking?

Kinga Hamvai: As one of the main goals of MNB Arts and Culture’s mission is to contribute to the global visibility/acknowledgement of Hungarian art, international networking is crucial for us. During the preparations for the exhibition, we travelled to Seoul to find and select the venue, visit museums and galleries, and have conversations with local art professionals. Previously, I knew a few creatives from the city and got in touch with them. Then, they recommended other people who might be interested in collaborating with us. This is the so-called snowball method, and this is how we got in touch with the co-curator of the exhibition Sungah Serena Choo. These conversations, actually, all shaped the exhibition.

PT: And how did you apply these notions in a more institutional setting?

KH: In order to deepen our connections with the international art scene, we also got in touch with Frieze. The parallel, local fair KIAF (Korean International Art Fair) also recommended our show to its visitors. To strengthen our ties with Korean audiences, we organized several events, such as a wine-tasting reception with Hungarian wines, or a reception for international diplomats based in Seoul, since H. E. Dr István Szerdahelyi was newly-inaugurated as the Ambassador of Hungary. Apart from these events, we hosted guided tours every afternoon for the general public, which were quite popular. We believe, in more general terms, that the international visibility of artists from the Hungarian scene should correspond to the exquisite qualities their work has to offer. We chose Korea, because it is one of the most important centres of contemporary art in Asia, while also becoming a flagship of contemporary art globally. Frieze chose Seoul to host their Asian fair, and the debut of Frieze Seoul this year naturally raised the interest of international art audiences. The art market is growing quickly in South Korea, according to Artprice, for example, the turnover of contemporary art grew by 344% in auctions just in the last year.

Installation shot, Folded – Unfolded – Abstract painting by Hungarian artists in the 1960-1970s / MNB Arts & Culture × Sungkok Art Museum, 27. 08. – 15. 10. 2022 / Photo: Courtesy of MNB Arts & Culture and Sungkok Art Museum

PT: What does the exhibition’s title refer to? What is, in fact, exhibited?

Zsolt Petrányi: Our aim with the title was to refer to the exploration of something unknown. The word “unfolded” has many connotations, like when you open a present or unfold the cover of a book… However, the title also refers to certain techniques and methods the artists were using. For example, Tibor Gáyor’s, Margit Szilvitzky’s or Simon Hantai’s methods but, actually, Dóra Maurer is also folding a textile in one of her video works. The body of exhibited works presents a selection from the collection of the Hungarian National Bank – which actually focuses primarily on painting. It was Kinga Hamvai’s idea to direct our focus for this special occasion in Seoul, towards the abstract painting of the 1960s. For us, it was a challenge to integrate artists who were in emigration at the time, and also, how to include artists who played a key role in the era – but are not represented, at least this period of their work does not appear in the collection. We missed the works of Imre Bak and István Nádler, but we had the opportunity to exhibit Dóra Maurer’s two experimental films, which show how abstraction can be approached conceptually. We analysed the different modes of expression in the exhibition by establishing three sections, one for the geometric approach, one for the more ornamental or pop-oriented artworks, and finally, one for different experimental and conceptual approaches, which included the artists who did not live in Hungary at the time. This focus on media helped us in revealing individual differences between practices.

PT: Zsolt, you found an art-historical connection while researching the previous instances of Hungarian artists being exhibited in Korea. What was the story, and how does it enrich the current exhibition?

ZsP: While preparing for the exhibition, the primary issue we faced was determining the context. Therefore, Kinga Hamvai suggested the participation of a Korean curator, who could help us navigate the local contemporary cultural environment. My secondary interest was if the selected artists had any former appearances in Korea. Regarding this question, I would name three former events that defined the Hungarian approach toward Korean culture. The first was the travels of Aladár Farkas and Gyula Hincz to North Korea in the 1950-60s, which resulted in anti-war artworks about Korea, exhibited not just in Hungary but in some western countries as well as a symbol of the suffering of poor socialist people under USA aggression. The next occasion was in the 1980s. Korea, at the time, was a new, rich, developing country with a rising economy that showed a new vision. The occasion was the Olympic games in 1988, where a huge public art project took place in the Olympic park. György Jovánovics was invited to realise a large-scale sculpture which is still visible today, but there was a sculpture and painting exhibition as well with the participation of Ilona Keserü, Tamás Hencze, Gyula Pauer and István Haraszty. All of the artists donated an artwork for the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art in Seoul for the occasion. The next exhibition was organized by Lóránd Hegyi in 1991 in the Seoul Arts Center, where important artists of the 1980s exhibited together with some of the younger generations: Imre Bak, Klára Borbás, László Fehér, Tamás Hencze, Károly Kelemen, Péter Kiss, Károly Klimó, András Koncz, Attila F. Kovács, László Mulasics, István Nádler, Sándor Pinczehelyi, János Szirtes and Tamás Trombitás. These former appearances serve as a reference point, not speaking about the fact that we have an artist, by chance. participating in 1988, 1991 and 2022 as well: Tamás Hencze, and in 1988 and 2022 Ilona Keserü!

Installation shot, Folded – Unfolded – Abstract painting by Hungarian artists in the 1960-1970s / MNB Arts & Culture × Sungkok Art Museum, 27. 08. – 15. 10. 2022 / Photo: Courtesy of MNB Arts & Culture and Sungkok Art Museum

Installation shot, Folded – Unfolded – Abstract painting by Hungarian artists in the 1960-1970s / MNB Arts & Culture × Sungkok Art Museum, 27. 08. – 15. 10. 2022 / Photo: Courtesy of MNB Arts & Culture and Sungkok Art Museum

PT: The exhibition presents an era from Hungarian art-history embedded in a complex cultural and political context. How did you translate this for the Korean audience?

Sungah Serena Choo: Audiences in Korea are mostly familiar with Western European abstraction. Based on this situation, we wanted to highlight the differences between the exhibited artworks and Korean abstract painting from the 1960–70s, which is, of course, influenced by Western Europe. Artists working in Korea or Hungary were both influenced by Western European tendencies, however, they developed this core narrative in strikingly differing directions: the exhibited Hungarian abstract paintings and the well-known examples of Korean Informel and Geometric Abstraction of the 1960s showcase similarities, yet they unfolded in different directions according to different national and regional sentiments. We wanted to show that Folded – Unfolded intends to introduce abstract paintings from Hungary that reveal markedly different traits from the formal explorations seen in Korean abstraction. I was actually pretty surprised that certain members of the audience were a fan of Vera Molnar or, for example, Simon Hantai. Especially, collectors were very interested in Molnar’s work and most of the audiences loved the geometrical shapes of Lantos, Geller B.’s playful colours and patterns, Szilvitzky’s abstract textile pieces or Ficzek’s shaped reliefs. It would have been hard to find these experiments in Korean abstract painting.

PT: How do you see this difference between the two countries’ abstract heritage?

ZsP: The abstract movement in Korea developed differently after the Second World War. Reacting to the political situation and the need of defining artistic identity, the so-called “Dansaekhwa Movement” focused on the minimalistic use of materials, canvas, paper, and used natural colours like ink black, brown, white and blue oil paint, with a strong aesthetical manifestation and the expression of transcendence. In Hungary, the roots of abstraction go back to the turn of the 20th century, to Cezanne – and that is a big difference. Regarding similarities, I found one: the technique of Lee Seung-jio reminds me of Tamás Hencze’s paintings from the beginning of the 1970s.

SSC: I would add that abstract artists in both Eastern Europe and Korea believed in the notion that different forms and attitudes incurred by “modernity” would lead to the liberation of the individual as a core concept. Commonly, both sides of the country operated in response to the hopes and needs of the post-war period after the Second World War and the Korean War. There was a tendency of Avant-gardist existentialism that – based on modernist ideas of space, time and “distantiation” – focused more on the question of “How shall humans become?” than “What shall humans become?”.

Installation shot, Folded – Unfolded – Abstract painting by Hungarian artists in the 1960-1970s / MNB Arts & Culture × Sungkok Art Museum, 27. 08. – 15. 10. 2022 / Photo: Courtesy of MNB Arts & Culture and Sungkok Art Museum

PT: How does the Korean art scene relate to the canonisation of its artists from the second half of the 20th century? Do these artists appear in the spheres of the art market, private collections, museums and the gallery system?

SSC: In Korea, traditional European forms and concepts have been adapted by a range of artists who have embraced the influence of modern Western culture. This points far beyond a narrow acceptance within a simple hierarchal relationship and focuses instead on adapting these influences to the Korean context and local sentiment. The early abstract paintings in Korea were also used for the sake of certain political goals, such as the eradication of the remnants of Japanese colonialism and the promotion of the independent reform of militarism. At the same time, many Avant-garde groups stood against academism. Key artists such as Kim Whanki, Lee Ungno, Kim Ki-chang, Suh Se-ok, Yoo Youngkuk, Han Mook, Jung Sang-Hwa and Rhee Seund Ja, for example, reflected on the attitude of Korean painting by depicting natural objects and urban landscapes with old palaces as motifs and let the art market, commercial and museum institutions re-contextualize their artworks.

PT: What current projects of MNB Arts & Culture seek a global outreach?

HK: At the moment, we are preparing a show in Abu Dhabi. Earlier this year, in March we already had an exhibition (New Perspectives on Hungarian Abstract Art, 8-14th March 2022) in the United Arab Emirates, which was a collateral event of Art Dubai. Here, thanks to the previously mentioned networking, we got an invitation to show a selection from our collection at Etihad Modern Art Gallery in Abu Dhabi. The curator of the exhibition titled Picto/graphy: Calligraphies, Signs, Gestures and Letter Images (15th November – 4th December 2022) is Katalin Keserü and the coordinator of the project is Anna Bagyó, who is an advisor of MNB Arts and Culture. Apart from that, we have also loaned a János Bortnyik painting to the Berlinische Galerie for the exhibition dealing with Hungarian modernism. Of course, we hope to participate in many more international museum shows in the future!
We recently also organised pop-up exhibitions in Budapest, where curators were invited to articulate particular viewpoints to the collection. In May, we had three exhibitions in Budapest, which was a series to introduce our collection to the Hungarian public. To do that, we invited the three members of our acquisition committee, Julia Fabényi, Gábor Rieder, and Zsolt Petrányi, to curate three shows, which revealed different aspects of the collection. We are planning further such exhibitions, as we think it is important to introduce our collection to the Hungarian audience as well.

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