This year (technically last year) I spent Christmas in Budapest; a city I’ve been keen to visit for many years and having now been find it difficult to fully make sense of. Straddling the Danube, it was brimming with late nineteenth century architecture (both original and recreated), art-deco and art-nouveau (again both original and recreated!), littered with festive markets and the scent of mulled alcohol, and even snow on Christmas eve. Amongst all of this seasonal cheer I visited the less festive House of Terror which helped make sense of this interesting city and its need to restore, rebuild, and indeed remember. The museum focuses on the brutality faced by Hungarians under both the Nazi and Soviet occupations, and also acts as a monument to those who were imprisoned, tortured or killed within the building itself. You are greeted by a tank in an atrium three floors high with black and silver portraits of victims displayed floor to ceiling. The rooms leading away from this atrium outline the fear, chaos and inescapable presence of these regimes by illustrating the propaganda, secret police, uniforms, religious attacks, forced-labour camps and gulags of both the Arrow Cross Party (Hungarian Nazis) and Soviets, as well as a mock polling station when there was a one-party “democracy” in place, and numerous examples of Hungarian resistance. A lift slowly moves visitors down to the basement, at the back of which a plasma screen shows a documentary revealing a variety of execution methods in a manner devoid of emotion. Once in the basement you are faced with a series of cells where prisoners were kept in a cruel, damp, confined conditions – one cell simply has a noose in it. Situated on a main boulevard, this museum provides a bleak and powerful image of life during that period and the horrors that openly took place within the heart of the city.
Tongue-in-cheek, intelligent and provocative, the ‘Natalia LL Probabilities’ exhibition at Roman Road Gallery poses questions that are as relevant today as they were when the artworks were originally created in the 1970’s. The two main walls of the gallery are dominated by two grids, each host to twenty black and white portrait photographs from the artists Consumer Art series – one is titled ‘Blonde Girl with Banana’ and the other ‘Blonde Girl with Sausage’. In-case your imagination has failed to conjure up an idea of what these images depict, allow me… all forty photographs feature the same blonde female, innocently framed with her hair in bunches, suggestively fondling, licking and biting either a banana or sausage (as their titles suggest). Far from cheap pornography, Natalia LL is making a feminist comment using phallic shaped objects to show men as a mere product consumed by the girl. This resonates further when put into context, as Natalia LL was a female Polish artist working in a male dominated Communist regime whose works were then used as a political tool to fight for equal rights and challenge masculine domination. These photographs are accompanied by two retro television sets playing different films, both depicting young, attractive females eating sexualised objects or writhing in their remains once they have been consumed! Finally a text based vinyl piece spanning the entire height of the gallery, plays with the artists own name ‘NATALIA!. Originally the letters were rearranged into over 5,000 new possibilities; a more succinct version is currently on display but still manages to achieve its’ goal of revealing that a persons’ name is just a fragment of their identity and the multiple variations of it highlight the subjectivity of women and how they are portrayed and indeed interpreted. Feminism is certainly having a moment in London galleries, and I’d advise a visit before it closes on 14th January.
The Berlinische Gallerie (or Museum of Modern Art in Berlin) is housed in a former 1950’s glass factory and opened as a museum in 2004. Whilst the upstairs galleries showcase German art from the late 19th century Wilhelmine era through to the post war art of the 1960’s and ‘70’s, it was the ground floor exhibition ‘Radically Modern’ examining Berlin’s architecture that really grabbed my attention. The show comprises 300 architectural drawings, photographs, models, collages and aerial shots thoughtfully displayed flat on the floor allowing visitors to experience the sensation of seeing the city from above. Beginning in 1950 and taking a loosely chronological approach, it discusses the post-war boom in construction and architectures’ heavy links with politics; most poignant in the construction of the Berlin wall in 1961. Initiated by a deliberate move away from “the megalomaniac planning under the Nazi dictatorship” it looks at subsequent differences between the Easts’ neo-classical style to try and emphasise the confidence of the new state, versus the Wests’ re-appropriation of 1920’s avant-garde styles. Particular points of interest for me were the desire to destroy rather than preserve older buildings, though two key exceptions can be seen in The Reichstag and Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial chapel. I also enjoyed viewing the construction of the Television Tower which continues to dominate the skyline, as well as city planners’ visions for reunification including a 1960’s Berlin as a “city on electronically operated conveyor belts” and a collage of the “Socialist City Model” seeing city dwellers relaxing by a pool in front of their uniform blocks of flats. In many ways it is a relief that architecture is no longer as explicit a political tool, however this exhibition did highlight modern architects’ reluctance for self-expression and to push boundaries creating their own utopian visions, but today seem more driven by economics instead.