78,000 characters equals sixty-two typewritten pages according to the old standard. An obsolete standard. No counting by standardized pages anymore, neither little nor big. But the detailed data of a sculptor’s career, sixty-two typewritten pages worth, have finally been recorded on the last pages of Ildikó Várnagy’s album, a veritable monograph. You can only read this last section with a magnifying glass, and you couldn’t possibly count the number of exhibitions. Bibliographical and biographical facts, one after the other, almost as if incidentally, at the end of the 344 page volume.
The life of a sculptor, in a book. A distinguished work, tastefully presented on unglazed matte paper, about a kilo and a half. The weight? Indeed, how much of the weight of the sculptures can one sense from these pages?
The question is moot. You can’t really see the sculptures anywhere at identified venues, galleries, private collections, the places where one finds works of the plastic arts. They are scattered here and there, perhaps at a friend’s place, a studio, for the most part inaccessible. There is not a single one (though I may be wrong) in any public space. You cannot walk around them, climb them, lean on them, wait beside them for a friend, a lover, a broker. These works of art created for three-dimensional space are forced to withdraw, as if they were hiding, escaping into meta-spaces, or wishing to emerge from the flat plain.
A reader who is coming across these works for the first time may well believe that there is no real need for space, for dimension. The majority of the sculptures are signs, or at least forms that approximate signs. The sign, however, in accordance with its nature, is readable and intended to be read, and seems, in the process of transformation into a system of signs, to have settled into a structure of planes and lines; it has become a language. Does it suffice to identify the plastic sign from one of several possible perspectives, to unravel its contents and assign it to other signs, as if thereby arriving at a complete sentence, an interpretable meaning? In cases in which the arrangement of the signs in space is apparently indispensable, the photograph offers assistance, somewhat like documentation: the reader is able to situate himself or herself in the now virtual space and complement it with his or her own mapping. Furthermore, Ildikó Várnagy’s signs are never metaphorical; rather they are metanymical. They do not suggest, they denote. They do not ask, they assert. They do not tend towards expansion, but rather narrow to a single meaning. Throughout her oeuvre Várnagy has suggested that the world is not one of resemblances, but rather identities, and in this, if perhaps in nothing else, she bears an affinity with contemporary writers like Dezső Tandori and Miklós Mészöly. Meaning as identity, however, is by no means unproblematic.
In the case of a sculptor, the first and most important question is whether the sculpture is in the space or the space is in the sculpture. If the sculpture is in the space, then it is part of the space, it is in a reciprocal relationship with the space. It both radiates and absorbs its meanings in the space. The space, naturally, is capacious. It comprises the space of history, culture, civilization, and the spirit, beyond the constructed and the real. The sculpture initiates a dialogue, a discourse into the space of which anyone can step, a discourse anyone can transform and mould in his or her image, the image of the system he or she represents. This is not necessarily a narrative stance, but it is in any case metaphorical: the meanings refer to one another, they resemble one another or vary, creating interpretive fields.
If, however, the space is in the sculpture, then the space itself becomes a dilemma. It cannot be “real,” for then it would “resemble” other spaces. But what space is not real, what space does not resemble the spaces in which we live? Inner space, one might reply, mental space. We could circumscribe the issue with terminology, so that it would appear as a photonegative. Magical space, we could say, referring to the ancient, hidden domains of existence. But these domains themselves raise the same problem: they signify something, and with the exception of the sign, almost nothing of their contents is revealed. Reason is useless, the compulsion to understand flows into helplessness.
If the space is in the sculpture, I am not viewer and interpreter, I myself am the sculpture. Of the various relations only one is valid: being. A state of consciousness in which there is neither reflection nor interpretation: a state of immersion, dissolution, complete participation.
The sculptures of Ildikó Várnagy create such spaces, both large and small, whether they are made of textiles or bronze or stone. The size of the sculpture and the material of its construction are incidental; the majority of the sculptures are in an eternal state of pre-objectification. Inevitably, they broaden the subjective space of the sensual reception of the signs and the possibility of identifying with them. For if the work itself is also more friable than permanent, then immersion in the space need not be accompanied by any alarming fears of the rigidity of the relation to the conclusive.
The most striking problem is the possibility that the subject may arrive back in the world of objectivity if the individual uniqueness of his or her personality is threatened. For over half a millenium European culture has proclaimed the autonomy of the individual and the continuous protection and consummation of this autonomy as its greatest achievement. And while it is true that from time to time it has adopted other ideals (for instance notions of archaic cultures, conceptions of the world from Asia and the East, the cult of the objet trouvé, the print, the ready-made, advertising iconography, etc.), it nonetheless is thrown into a state of alarm whenever any intellectual or spiritual force destabilizes individualism. The culture of interpretation and the culture of acceptance are almost irreconcilable.
The art of Ildikó Várnagy is quite distant from the sacral, so distant that the search for any affinity whatsoever seems forced. But this is only the case if one understands the sacral as a matter of orientation in some moral or ideological system, the acceptance of some teaching and the transformation, quite possibly rife with struggle, of personal relations to conform to it. But if we understand the sacral as unity with the reality that extends beyond us and encompasses subjectivity then the essence of Ildikó Várnagy’s manner of seeing is much the same as the essence of Neolithic sculpture, the sculptures of Easter Island or Stonehenge, or those of Giacometti and Diana Arbus.
The essence, after all, is the prevailing, absolute I /or Self/ that lives its existence in the given forms of being. (One might say, now not metonymically, as a wind across the plains, a tree in a forest, a clump of sod in the ditch, a crag in the caves, always the same absolute I/Self and always in the absoluteness of reality, as both form and force of formation, where the substance to which shape has been given is the I/Self itself.) The individual always views him- or herself in the form of art, inserting him- or herself into the work and in the end undergoing a transformation from viewer to creator. If we do not seek to discern their meanings in them and particularly not in their system of relations, these works surprise us with the boundlessness of our inner forms. The sign as sculpture enables us to observe ourselves.
These sculptures act like this even when seen as a group or an ensemble of signs. Medea (1979), Öt alak (Five Figures, 1980), Vallatópad (Interrogation Bench, 1981) and Kígyós istennő (Goddess with Snake, 1991) do not unfold in front of us according to their external relations, but rather within us, according to how we situate ourselves in them. The sign is multiplied in its modalities, but it remains an independent sign. The changes are modalities until the observer chooses the identities that accompany them. (Arbus’ twins force us into the same system of connection, identity, and relation.) The same thing happens in the case of writing systems based on characters, whether we are speaking of actual idiograms or enlarged images. The “reader” is never given a text that is continuously developing as a series of intelligible signs, but rather a place of meaning in which sometimes one and sometimes innumerable relationships emerge between the signs themselves. The individual signs do not gesture in a single direction, but rather in several, depending on the knowledge, intentions, and adaptive abilities of the observer. A single sign is a station, a point of meditation, a position appropriate to the search for identity. Writing and play have a similar origin in Ildikó Várnagy’s approach to composition. Play is not role play, not the rehearsal of civilization’s system of rules or any prefiguration of manoeuvring for power. Play in the art of Ildikó Várnagy is the experience of the state of omnipresent being, the revelation of its contents, and assessment of its consequences. Writing, similarly, is the continuous record of the contents of one’s being, the clarification of one’s relationship to the consciousness and/or work of art in question, and the stabilization of one’s existence. It identifies works, artists, and thinkers as the contents of their consciousness. Thus it objectifies them. Várnagy does not imitate, nor does she draw connections. She does not analyse processes, nor does she ask or judge. Ildikó Várnagy seeks being in everything and gives it form. It is true that the day to day customs of our culture do little to encourage or reinforce this approach. Whether it is a mistake on the part of the culture we have created to prefer the construction of communication networks to the individual’s search for a non-communal identity (or rather, to derive the latter from the former) I do not intend to ask. I merely wish to note that this approach is absent from our culture’s image of itself, or at least it has been pushed to the background.
There is a phase in Plato’s Allegory of the Cave that scholars have been hesitant to touch. It is the return, and everything it brings. On his return to the cave, the chosen one, who has been selected to experience new dimensions (someone on the order, for example, of a saint, a prophet, or an artist), attempts to speak of the reality he has seen, a reality of a higher order than the cave wall and the world of the cave itself. He attempts to explain the existence of this other reality. But he has no language with which to do so, for there can be no such language. The tools are lacking, and there is simply no way of describing or representing the dimensionally different reality. There is no word for “light” and no word for “sky.” The chosen one (saint, prophet, or artist) is compelled, given his experience and knowledge of the truth, to use the language, words, and sign systems of the reality of the cave to express meanings similar to those he encountered outside. European culture is one of allegory and metaphor. The goal of the so-called artist is primarily to depict in the real the similar dimension that exists beyond the real, asserting and recording as he or she does that the value of art is that it can at least evoke the value of an existence of a higher order. “In his image, after his likeness…” – a culture that discerns the world through metaphor finds its own fulfilment in this system of relations. Without disputing the value of the European approach to understanding through metaphor, the appearance again and again of the spiritual inclination towards metonymy demonstrates that the essential sameness of celestial and earth-bound is present as a problem of metaphysical identity in Hungarian culture as well. Where lived experience of the oneness of fire and light, air and firmament, substance and spirit is as essential, indeed as existential to the subject as the inner yearning and outer compulsion to assimilate to the higher order reality.
Ildikó Várnagy’s oeuvre attains a kind of consummation in this existential experience. The fact that her statues are compelled to remain absent from public spaces and therefore make their inner spaces hardly accessible is presumably the result of tacit mutual agreement. That her works, deprived of their true proportions, the external spaces of reception, and the material through which inner spaces can be mapped, can be seen mostly as images on the flat pages of a book merely puts another incidental layer between composition and viewer. If one is able to disregard this, one can overcome this obstacle. Katalin Keserü’s detailed, thorough, analytical essay and the exhaustive system of notes help us make this leap.
(Ildikó Várnagy. Művészeti album [Artistic Album]. Ed. Ildikó Várnagy. Graphic design: Johanna Bárd. With an essay on her oeuvre by Katalin Keserü. Veszprém, Budapest, Magyar Képek Kiadó, 2009. 344 pages.)