on site art projects

A small selection of appetizers was offered in galleries around Budapest a day before the official opening of OFF-Biennale, among which was Alfred Palestra, a collaboration between Berlin-based Katarina Šević and Tehnica Schweiz (Gergely László and Péter Rákosi) at acb Galeria on April 23.

Visually, the exhibition consists of conceptually transformed relics of academic study: eight perfect wooden objects resembling desks (or shields?) are positioned on the floor, each harboring a worn-out masterpiece of world literature (in French). Each of these shelf-shields has a pair of leather belts attached to it, suggesting that the items are not mere relics, and can be worn. In another political contexts, these smooth, angular objects might work as garments for an avant-garde ballet or a neo-concrete manifestation, however, in the contest of the “traditional turn” in the Hungarian education system, the didacticism of these objects has a clear lesson. (The artists have been collaborating with a Budapest school drama class, and the items will be taken from their “storage” at the gallery and performed on Wednesday, April 29 – see OFF calendar for more details)

In between the desks is a large, heavy object that combines the elements of a bourgeois recliner with a hint of conveyer belt; more paperback Dostoevsky, Shakespeare, Goethe, Verlaine… are waiting to be recognized and read. The strict, symmetrical positioning of the objects on the floor is supervised by a tall pedestal-like formation with a sword broken in two at the top – at the back wall of the gallery space. With some time, putting two and two together, you realize that the books fit into the large cupboard-like rucksack in front  – with four belts and hence to be picked up by two able bodies – and that the archive-library is meant to be packed and unpacked in various places. Incidentally, Alfred Palestra is a second iteration of an exhibition that was shown at the 2014 Rennes Biennale in France.

Conceptually, the exhibition is more nuanced. It is not intuitive, and if you miss some elements or you don’t speak Hungarian (or French), you can’t quite connect the dots. “Alfred” in Alfred Palestra connotes Alfred Dreyfus and Alfred Jarry, identities on the opposing poles of the cultural spectrum, who have been present in a single space (though at different times) in 19c. France. This historical space is now a secondary school in Rennes – hence palestra –which means “gym.” The books in the exhibition are taken from each one of the Alfreds’ personal reading lists: not surprisingly, these largely show opposing literary preferences (Jarry was a surrealist writer with an interest in metaphysics, and the Dreyfus Affair remains the symbol of injustice). That’s a lot, but the take-away is immediate: the “what-if” encounter, and innovative ways to locate connections in given, potentially oppressive, systems, which might include history, tradition and education….

To me, the spatial symmetry of the objects connotes a classroom, but the affect of rigor is enhanced through the clean angles of the forms, their smooth surfaces and toned color. Gergely László says that “it is a kind of machine,” but unlike the traditional conveyor belt of education, where literature is a device for indoctrination, the machine of Alfred Palestra teaches about overlapping narratives, new perspectives and odd encounters. And that in itself is a method of education.  Alfred Palestra mimics a machine or an ideological system, and does not suggest to destroy it, instead giving you a trick for navigation and the ambition to find the Rabelasian Gargantua in Gogol’s Taras Bulba.