a kiss, a hat, a stamp Book with texts by Jade Niklai published by Distanz

A kiss. Diango Hernández’s practice is frequently described as ‘conceptual’: inspired by versions and visions of many lived realities. It is deeply rooted in his Cuban upbringing of the 1970-80s and therefore resonates with the attitudes and visual semantics of the Soviet era. Objects are found, materials are (re)appropriated and political rhetoric engages lived intelligence, subtle humor and personal sentiment.

Blood Mountain Foundation, a private non-profit arts organization based in Budapest, invited Diango as its inaugural artist-in-residence in November 2010. His poetic approach and Hungary’s own history as a former Soviet satellite state were an obvious match. The residency comprised three tireless weeks of looking, finding, assembling and re-appropriating materials from flea markets, antique dealerships and a specialist artisan workshop. The resulting exhibition, ‘a kiss, a hat, a stamp’, became a tribute to the city’s age-old tradition of independent creative practices and its rich culture of second-hand goods. It focused on fragments and edges, rather than whole objects and actual surface areas, allowing the discovered elements to take on new forms and new meanings in their revised settings.

The first of three exhibition spaces presents two free-standing sculptures, another sculpture positioned at ground level, two wall paintings and a collage. Objects (1) and (2) consist of a tabletop, a table’s edge, the frame of a mirror and chair fragments. Positioned loosely across from one another, one is transparent and circular, the other is solid and rectilinear. The juxtaposition with a lampshade and an aged stamp, respectively, complete their compositions.

Object (3), displayed directly on the ground, is a long totem-like work composed of furniture elements with rounded edges and ornamental detail. Three elements are positioned under its linear form as if to support the flow of its narrative beyond the confines of the object and the setting. Its resemblance to the Transylvanian woodwork that characterizes much of Hungary’s built environment, together with a homage to Brancusi’s signature totem poles, are not accidental.

Local audiences will recognize the materials and motifs of Object 3 from period furniture, which among many places, decorated the halls of Blood Mountain in its heyday: a former family estate built during the Habsburg empire. The iconography of the aforementioned artworks serves as an additional nod to the objects and lives which defined Hungary’s subsequent socialist era.

The installation’s articulation of the city’s character and layout is powerful. Simultaneously divided and united by the voluptuous floor piece (the Danube River); it is voluminous and airy on one side (Buda), compact and grid-like on the other (Pest). The additional elements of white ceramic lamp motifs suggest the stark socialist structures that pepper the elegant Buda hills. The generous curves and color scheme of the opposite composition, accompanied by a colorful Hungarian stamp, is characteristic of the grand neo-baroque buildings that define Pest’s charm and beauty.

Diango’s work relies on the inherent narrative and beauty found in ‘the incidental’. A chance finding and grouping of objects creates new ‘realities’ and at once expresses the artist’s fascination with them. There is however nothing inadvertent about the chosen elements and their placement: the meeting of two materials is destined and is at best compared to an embrace. ‘a kiss’ is thus indicative of a physical sensation as much as a fortuitous meeting of minds.

a hat. Beyond the discovery of poignant objects and emotive elements during his visit, Diango also encountered several locals, whose professional expertise and personal engagement became defining factors in realising his project. One such find was Valéria Fazekas, a beacon of light in Hungary’s diminishing artisan community. Valéria appropriates wearable objects with the language of felt to create her own dialogue between the present and the past. Training as a milliner at the height of 1980s socialism, Valéria at once paid her respects to Budapest’s pre-war celebration of the individual and stood in stark contrast with the de-personalisation of her times. Even in light of today’s liberal climate, the expressive nature of her work is often misinterpreted as extravagant and at worse, remains unnoticed. Diango’s discovery of her works and their re-contextualisation as objects of contemplation, beauty and deep sentiment, are significant characteristics of his own practice.

Based on personal histories, Diango and Valéria have similar cultural backgrounds and despite their linguistic differences, a common visual vocabulary characterises both their art and their lives. They are akin insofar that they both ‘build’ – adopting and adapting ideas, materials and motifs from the past – to create something new and contemporary. Room Two of the exhibition is a tribute to this shared heritage and resulted as a spontaneous collaboration. A generous rectangular room, typified by curved windows and a grand balcony door on its long axis, is contrasted on the opposite wall by a built-in, dark, wooden bookshelf. Rather than eliminate the dominance of the latter, Diango chose to integrate it as one of the strongest and largest elements in the exhibition (1). Twenty unique headpieces made by Valéria in shades of grey and black are displayed on it in a single row above eye level. They hover gently above a horizon line created by a queue of original press photographs, depicting images of industrial life, collective recreation and new architecture of the bygone Soviet era (2). By displaying images of political doctrine below the heads which would metaphorically encase the minds that the felt hats would be assumed to protect – and in the context of an otherwise empty bookshelf – the installation becomes a powerful example of Diango’s signature style of social critique. Impressions of Josep Beuys’ social sculpture as a ‘gesamkunstwerk’, suitably linger throughout the display.

The formalist and thematic dialogue between the felt objects and the displayed images are abundant; it is difficult not to interpret Valéria’s works as symbols for the people who inhabit the photographs below: monotone and indifferent from a distance, but increasingly unique and intriguing upon closer inspection. The result is a moving comment on the city’s past and present, and a poignant reminder of the artists’ shared socialist histories and compatible working methods and motifs.

The room is completed by a suspended work, commissioned by Diango and created by Valéria (3). Hanging from the ceiling above head-level, the object at first appears as an exotic fruit, characterised by a furry surface and meticulous symmetry. Up close however, it becomes an obvious reference to one of the felt pieces on the bookshelf (4): rotated, replicated and seamlessly joined. The once wearable object is now re-interpreted and rendered dysfunctional, allowing Valéria’s work to exist exclusively as a work of art, rather than as an object of fashion or design.

When entering the exhibition in Room One, the viewer is at once confronted with a corridor view of the above display, allowing one’s mind to wonder beyond the distinctly geometric wooden sculptures of Diango. Additional display devices are used effectively to connect the two exhibition spaces, namely the formal relationship between the architectural details in Room One and select pieces in the subsequent room (5). This is further emphasised by the importance of the various globe-like lamps, which are incorporated as integral components of the installation. The exhibition’s title and the resemblance between Valéria’s commissioned works and Brancusi’s ‘Kiss’ is serendipitous, as neither Diango nor Valéria was aware of the other’s intentions during their collaboration. ‘a hat’ had thus also become the fortuitous meeting of two meticulous minds.

a stamp. The third and final exhibition space is the artist’s studio, where Diango lived and worked for the duration of his residency. A long timber bench reveals elements of his working process: books, sketches, drawings and found objects. A nearby projector presents samples of locally sourced second-hand stamps (1). Long out of use and almost comical in their naïve visual tone and low currency value, the stamps become quiet reminders of the epoch represented by the aforementioned press prints. They also become a clever exhibition device, reminding the audience of the stamp collage and a small detail on Object 2 in Room One. The exhibition is thus complete and the process of exiting it in reverse becomes an analogy for Diango’s working method: reflecting on past narratives and revisiting their material world for fresh ideas and tangible inspiration for the future.

Blood Mountain Foundation is grateful for Diango’s commitment, thought and emotion in unravelling the complex history and remarkable beauty of Budapest. He authored celebratory moments, which at once honoured the city’s glorious past and contemporary inhabitants. In generous exchange, Diango has left behind the sublime and unforgettable collection, ‘a kiss, a hat, a stamp’.

Catalogue is publised By Distanz, Editor: Jade Niklai, Language: English, Format: 21 X 28 Cm, Feature: 70 Pages, 70 Color Images, Softcover