“Why is the sky blue and the meadow green? It is enough that this is how it is.”1 In fact, this is not entirely how it is. Yet how could Adam, in the Garden of Eden, have known that the sky is not blue, but only appears to be so – if he had never seen a rainbow and had not met Iris? Ágnes Eperjesi did not only see a rainbow, but she made one too. Thus she knows that reality is in the eye of the beholder. Her works speak of the contradictions between individual experiences and social codes and scientific beliefs. They tell of the fragility of our perceptions and everyday existences, of how we know something, but still do it – or of how we do something as though we do not know it.
In the installation Az egy mondat a házimunkáról [A sentence on housework], life ordered from endless and thoughtlessly undertaken housework, is presented in a grid. In the thick colour pictures covered with Perspex, we see work-fragments, impalpable busy wiping hands. The pictograms collected from the packaging of rubber gloves and wipes and serving as instructions were treated by Eperjesi as negatives, which she then enlarged. While the use and appropriation of found pictures is a form of de-skilling known from conceptual art, serving to limit the artist’s intervention, the application of analogue photographic techniques – enlargements resulting in complementary colours and changes in tone – emphasises the mediality of the photograph and presents photography as a manual art. In Eperjesi’s hands, photography, art-making and housework are systemised and as András Beck has written, “in her pictures there is not only a hand, but rather the hand intrudes into the picture, and in this way it suddenly becomes an emblem for artistic intervention and the manipulation of images.” 2
The order and brief empty places of the photographs in the series Az egy mondat… can be rewritten, so that the monotony of everyday work modelled as a language is changeable within the system. Just as a photograph exists as a (multiple) copy without an original, so Eperjesi’s works appear in various configurations and tangible forms – as an installation, as a motion picture or as a book; that is, as an object that can be taken in hand. The diversity of a photograph is illustrated by the transitions and exchanges between the pictures visible on the wall and those contained in the books. Eperjesi’s photographs – taken from the same source, but printed in various colours and sizes and equipped with different labels – migrate freely between books imitating commercial catalogues or private historical documents and series intended for exhibitions. In this way, from the smiling trio of father, mother and infant in Szüleimmel [With my Parents] (1964) (Családi Album [Family Album]) to the deterrent example in A példa nem azért van...[The example is not there for…] (Önarckép-szeletek [Slices of Self Portraits]), Eperjesi’s migrating pictures become empty or full, depending or their milieu; they use and caricature the photo as – in Tibor Hajas’s words – “a climatic environment.” 3
The series Önarckép-szeletek [Slices of Self Portraits] is concerned with the ductile identity of pictures and their viewers. The figures collected from the packaging of commercial products intended for women consumers were enlarged by Eperjesi; she laminated them on to large aluminium plates and then added found and fictitious inscriptions which might be understood as confessions. The placard-like works consisting of digital vignettes but rich in painterly effects tailor and individualise the nameless and worthless packaging material according to the fiction of self-exposure, and in this way they intimate to the possibility of identification with clichés of females roles and activities. In the recycled works, Eperjesi places the iconography of housework and the home in a framework of relations covering work, identity and language, and she turns the consumption of objects into the production of pictures. By transforming disposable packaging material into objects of art, she subverts and sabotages the commercial exchange of goods. The forms of the pictures and the changes in meaning render manifest the limits of linguistic and pictorial representation, leaving no doubt that pictures of everyday life and its objects do not merely portray or copy our world – as photographs have always done – but also serve to create it, never doing so innocently.
The migration of pictures exchanging place, level and meaning is continued in Konyhatransz [Domestic Trans], based on the recycled figures of the series Önkiszolgáló [Self-Service] (2002). Similarly to the objects of art, the artworks and motion pictures modelled on functionless waterfall pictures used as home or restaurant decor, are also static objects appearing in illuminated boxes. The diagrams of instructions for cooking ready-made dishes were transformed by Eperjesi into vulgar landscapes and meditation tools, which, as we cook, we can look at either in amazement or in melancholic boredom. The photographer’s motion picture possibilities are also examined in Minden világos [Everything is clear], which is also based on recycled pictures. The two-layered dura-trance prints, which are placed in illuminated boxes and based on the three primary colours, link the spectacle of clothes spun in a washing machine with the phenomena of optical colour mixing. The colours and scripts mixed through the rotation of pictures promising profane enlightenment show not only the dynamism of the colours and the mobility of the visual, but also exemplify the extinction of meaning. The use of the inscription “there will always be fresh laundry” is evocative of the language games present in Duchamp’s Rotoreliefs, but this results not in homonyms, but in image disturbance – in complete harmony with work. How can dirty laundry be fresh? And how can everything be clear, when evidently nothing is so, because everything has been mixed up and together?
Colour mixing phenomena are also examined in Eperjesi’s colour photograms Staféta [Relay Race] and Kontakt [Contact]. When creating the ten inter-variable pieces of Staféta [Relay Race], Eperjesi used metre-long colour Perspex tubes, some of which she fitted together in order to mix the colours of the transparent acrylic surfaces. In the picture visible in the frieze-like arrangement, the light imprints of the objects are anchored in the complementaries of the original colours, but they are now darker; that is to say, they appear in accordance with the imperatives relating to the mixture of the coloured lights, but do so on a substrate that adheres to the rules governing the substractive mixture of colour. Kontakt [Contact] consists of pieces of coloured foil glued on to white cardboard strips and the contact copies of these objects. Here too, the mixture of coloured light is presented together with the colour theory phenomena of coloured material known from painting. That is to say, both additive and subtractive colour mixing comes into play. Staféta [Relay Race] and Kontakt [Contact] prove that “the making of a photogram amounts to provoking with simple means the imperatives of reality so that they can show themselves in innumerable variations.” 4 But the unexpected and dual effects of colour mixing are not unique to photograms. Since the light-sensitive paper used in photography follows the subtractive model of colour mixing rather than the additive model, in a photograph we see the merging of the contradictory scientific principles relating to the nature and behaviour of colours. Eperjesi’s pictures speak of colour in a manner unique to photography.
Whether she is collecting objects, mixing materials or researching lights, Eperjesi searches for phenomena that defy the facts and inevitabilities of the vision and spectacle consensus. She is a solitary observer and viewer of what she encounters. In the picture A megfigyelő módszerei [Techniques of the Observer], this is a bookcase or a light beam decaying into colours and projected on to the object. What the artist does not see (but is visible to the viewer) is an opaque blur on the left side of the picture – which is just as incidental as the light shining through the shutters in Newton’s study in Cambridge. The refractive error visible in the picture both shines a spotlight on the artist and the act of observation and it also encourages us to meditate on the loss of the aura of the reproduced images. But there are things that are not incidental, such as the passage in Goethe’s Farbenlehre, which applies, in a bewilderingly perfect manner, to the picture A megfigyelő módszerei [Techniques of the Observer].
“We have not placed arbitrary signs before him instead of the appearances themselves; no modes of expression are here proposed for his adoption which may be repeated forever without the exercise of thought and without leading anyone to think; but we invite him to examine intelligible appearances, which must be present to the eye and mind, in order to enable him clearly to trace these appearances to their origin, and to explain them to himself and to others.” 5
The picture, which borrows its title from Jonathan Crary’s book, is a self-portrait, the portrait of an observer embodied, the methodical demonstration of artistic work soaked in irony, and also a model for the dualities that appear in Eperjesi’s work in dialectical mutual relationships: the blind spot and the rainbow; the mistake and the model; the home and science.
“The wise grey painted with grey,” 7 Eperjesi wrote, following in Hegel’s footsteps, for the title of an exhibition presenting her colour theory works. In doing so, she appears to have let us know that she is not wise, but excels in the science of housekeeping – she collects packaging material, marvels in the colourful cavalcade of piles of laundry, wipes the tiles, and sorts the family’s photo album. If irony had a colour – let’s say grey, so that it includes everything – Eperjesi’s works would be in shades of grey. Irony and simulation constitute not only a rhetorical element stemming from conceptual art and its post-modern heritage. Rather, they are a fundamental attribute of Eperjesi’s way of thinking and creative methods, as she strives to create impressions in the midst of doubt, doing so in the footsteps of Socrates and Iris.
In Eperjesi’s works, the photograph and photography appear in a diagrammatic system and discursively, as an imaging procedure, an object, a representation model and medium of perception. This analytical and modelling approach is complemented by the historical dimension of the technology and use of pictures and objects and of the examination of vision. The enlargements based on the pictograms collected from packaging material and photograms demonstrating colour theory experiments, make use of – in an atavistic manner – the indexical imprint nature of the photograph in a post-photographic era in which there are no analogue pictures. Her colour and light experiments establish a dialogue with the colour theory and optical research carried out since the 17th century and with the experiments of Newton, Goethe and Helmholtz, while her packaging foils collected since 1989 preserve and form the material culture of Hungary at the end of the Kádár era and in the post-Kádár era. If photography is, as Eperjesi writes, “a rich store of borderline cases,” 8 then the works in the exhibition observe and traverse the boundaries between pictures and objects, between vision and knowledge, and between seeing and desiring.
1 Madách Imre Munkái [The Works of Imre Madách] (Budapest: Franklin Társulat, 1904), 48.
2 András Beck, “Ha tudod, hogy itt egy kéz van, akkor minden egyebet elismerünk neked” [If you know that we have a hand here, then we shall recognise everything else you do], Balkon, (2000/5): 34.
3 Tibor Hajas, “Töredékek az ‘új fotóról’-ról” [Fragments on the ‘New Photo’], Mozgó Világ (1977/1): 68.
4 Dóra Maurer, Fényelvtan: A fotogramról [Light Theory: On the Photogram] (Budapest, Balassi Kiadó, 2001), 8.
5 Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Zur Farbenlehre. Didaktischer Teil (Weimar, 1808). Translated of extract by J. Murray, 1840.
6 Jonathan Crary, Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity (Cambridge, MA: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, 1992).
7 The quotation is taken from the wall text of an exhibition on Ágnes Eperjesi’s work entitled Rövid ima [A Short Prayer] and held in 2009 at the King Saint Stephen Museum in Székesfehérvár. Cf. “When philosophy paints its grey on grey, then has a shape of life grown old. By philosophy's grey on grey it cannot be rejuvenated but only understood. The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.” Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Grundlinien der Philosophie des Rechts oder Naturrecht und Staatswissenschaft im Grundrisse (Berlin: 1833). Translation of extract by T. M. Knox, 1952.
8 Ágnes Eperjesi, Artist Statement, 2013.