"The food we eat, the way and the environment in which it is prepared are so many identification markers pertaining to the thought processes and codes of a specific society" it has been remarked in connection to the celebrated ‘cooking artist’ Rirkrit Tiravanija. /1/ One should not take Eperjesi Ágnes’ Cooking Instructions literally either; instead of real culinary secrets, these objects are best seen as metaphors describing the mental state of the Hungarian society following the political restructuring over the past decade, as a desire to reconstruct the past and to build a new identity construction on the place of the vanished system of old identification. The mystery of the metamorphoses, the change of consistency is obscure like ancients rites of passages and initiations.
Self-service (Önkiszolgáló) follows the practices of an earlier project, Busy Hands (Szorgos kezek), the collection of visual waste and fragments, raising them out from anonymity, from being unnoticed and with the help of their artistic recycling, lending them a new identity and monumentality. This personal visual archive helps memory to work. Also it invokes the absurdity of that scientific practice that insists on reconstructing the totality of life from its minute accessories and fossilised fragments. /2/ These works call the attention of a society suffering from collective amnesia to the need to remember in an age where all its energies are devoted to escaping and decolouring the past – an obsession that has infiltrated all social discourse. These pieces serve as warnings – we inhabit the haunted castle of our history and the future will not be built without working through and integrating the past. Self-service’s monochrome, “working-class movement” red world, the strict and minimalist forms, the impersonality of rites (things that just happen to us without even being aware of them) and the sharp contrast with the title, i.e., the accompanying rhetoric, immediately create a deep sense of familiarity regardless of the obscurity of the unfolding narrative.
In her next series, The Tender Art of Cooking, Eperjesi Ágnes does not disguise the personal, arbitrary and even constructed nature of memory and its attendant narratives. The series is closely related to the previous one, and this relationship is what perplexes us. The viewer already has a disposition how to approach her pictures and now s/he seems to apply the same approach to this other series. That is, to see them as documents of the age, to give them the respectful aura of “authenticity.” However, in time, these visual narrativesstart to take different directions from the previous ones. If memory cannot take place at the level of “real life”, it finds room on another plane - in the realm of imagination and fiction. It appears these memories have been to hell and back. With their white outlines they shimmer forth from inky darkness evoking the illusion of how memory works: images flash back, flicker through the mind, glow intensely for a second only to sink into oblivion again.
The artist draws small pictures on transparent wrapping foils and uses them as negatives. Consequently, complementary colours and inverted tonal qualities, floating spots of colour, and white negative-silhouettes radiating with unnatural neon-like colours appear in the pictures. The inversion of the negative is an attempt to make the spectres of the past visible, evoking the 19th century method of spirit photography, as well, where the spectre is engendered and distanced from real, flesh and blood beings as a negative image. With theses images ̪gnes Eperjesi joins the tradition of a magic realm of photography (a path she had already taken once before in her photo grams when she placed new-borns on photographic paper) that holds out the promise of fixing an image of the invisible world /3/, and continues today with photographing UFO phenomena. However, instead of the paranormal, she is preoccupied with capturing events in the mental sphere using a wide range of cultural references. The transmuted ‘diptyches’ of ripe fruit turning to rot, the ensnared fowl, the feast and the pile of bones left behind all function at times as so many images of Vanitatum Vanitas, at times as mementoes of human disruption of the natural order in charts following the rules of sequential narration. Occasionally, there is a small glitch, and the violence screened by seemingly innocent acts is suddenly revealed: the thigh still attached to its bone is fed through the grinder, or the order of images is mixed, or a “dissonant” note is introduced in the form of hunting dogs from a previous stage of preparing food. Sometimes we find ourselves reading banal stories into this modern Bible Pauperum the other way round. What appears to be banal and common, a sort of cooking guide, recalls the images of Rembrandt and Bacon, where raw meat is transfigured to the strong emblem of violance. At other instances, foodstuff and animal carcasses evoke cultural topics (17th century Dutch still life), or serve as substitutes for humans like the sausage wound around the neck of a wild boar (animal sacrifice, Laocoon), or show the dignity of the body part placed on the table cloth (relics).
Stag, pheasant and hare – images of noble foods bring back the memories of the genteel poverty of the Socialist era, when, in the 1950s, during the economy of shortage, cookbooks still included recipes for the aristocracy. They also refer to the vanity of the contemporary nouvelle rich, the desire of the new gentry for the old richness, as if they were to illustrate that: -“The food we eat, the way and the environment in which it is prepared are so many identification markers pertaining to the thought processes and codes of a specific society”. /4/
Ágnes Eperjesi appears to escape from the realities of today, hiding behind long -forgotten recipes and retreating into a private sphere, to its most despised corner – house-keeping. In fact, her work is a recognition of and reflection on the loss of identity in the wake of fundamental social and cultural restructuring.
Translated by Paul Salamon
/1/ Yvane Chapuis “Rirkrit Tiravanija: The Space of Unconditional Action.” Parachute, no. 101, pp. 11-25.
/2/ Hayden White, “The Burden of History.” In, Tropics of Discourse: essays in Cultural Criticism, John Hopkins University Press: Baltimore and London, 1985. pp. 43., 82.
/3/ James Coates, Photographing the Invisible. London: N.L.Fowler & CO., 1911; see also: “Thematic Investigation: Photography and the Paranormal.” Art Journal, 2003, no. /4/ Chapuis op.cit. pp. 66.