'Even if I were to tie-dye, write poetry or folk songs, the medium of photography would keep haunting me'

Interview with Péter Puklus about the infotechnological practice of image processing, József Csáky and the UNSEEN campaign

Német Szilvi

Hungarian Cubism is 'a quasi virgin territory, a term that has not even deserved a subchapter in our handbooks yet.' – declared Gergely Barki on the pages of the August issue of Artmagazin. Today, the research of this specific historical period seems to keep up the interest beyond the circles of committed art historians. The project of Péter Puklus revolving around the pioneer Hungarian cubist sculpture, the ‘Head’ of József Csáky has gained attention with the aforementioned article simultaneously. The visitors of the Amsterdam-based Unseen Photo Fair & Festival are exposed to the remake of the Csáky statue on posters, citylights, entry tickets etc. Péter Puklus who was in charge of the the complete visual identity of the festival was interviewed by Szilvi Német about the rediscovery of the lost sculpture, the remake process and the campaign in general.

From left to right: 'Painted plaster head' (Self-portrait of a man in orange), 2015; 'Painted plaster head' (Self-portrait of a man in blue), 2015; 'Painted plaster head' (Self-portrait of a man in red), 2015

Szilvi NÉMET: When you first set your eyes on this archive photo of Csáky’s statue, did you check with Gergely Barki? Now you are launching the somewhat falteringly termed 'Hungarian cubism' together, in a beautiful synchronicity.
Péter PUKLUS: The story starts from the fact that I love looking at other people’s pictures and I’ve got a handy system for that, a feed reader, where I can collect blogs that I want to follow. The image in question [the photographic reproduction of the statue ‘Head’ made by József Csáky in 1913 – ed.]  appeared while browsing this news feed. Usually I save the images that I find interesting in a folder on my laptop and I never open it again. I have something like 10.000 pieces in my virtual collection already. I tend to forget about them completely.
Meanwhile, I am working on the project called 'The Epic Love Story of a Warrior', in which I came across quite a few ideas that are connected somehow to statues, so I decided to visit the sculpture depository of the Hungarian National Gallery; where [the art historian] Judit Szeifert guided me through. I wanted to see what Hungarian sculptures there are. I have walked through five huge storage rooms and shot some photos, but I’ve still had a sense that something was missing. Even if I only had a vague concept about what I am searching for, I felt that I haven’t found it. Then it flashed into my mind that I have already seen the statue I was looking for. I dug up the aforementioned folder in my laptop. I didn’t know much about it at the time: black and white portrait, plaster, no attribution. So I did an image searched it on Google and found out its history. Afterwards I went back to the National Gallery with the reaffirmed plan that I am seeking a Csáky statue. I’ve also bought some albums and books about him, but the sculpture 'Head' was only mentioned as a sidenote. His oeuvre is quite a diverse, but I still fancied this piece the most of all. All in all, this is the story how the statue ‘approached’ me, and for a long time, nothing happened. I had the basic knowledge on him: Csáky, lost statue, Hungarian Cubism, Paris… Then the chain of events seemed to stop up until the moment that I received a call from Sasha Stone, the then-director of Unseen Photo Fair & Festival that they commission me to produce the campaign images for the upcoming festival. It would be thrilling to say that I stood on the peak of Dachstein, when the phone rang, but I wasn’t there, but in an other ski track in Austria.

Still, the avalanche started to rock..
Yeah, the commission meant that I am responsible for the whole campaign, all the promotional images, citylights, posters, entry tickets etc. This year is the fourth time that the festival takes place in Amsterdam, and each year they co-operate with a selected artist on the visuals. First it was the Blommers&Schumm artist duo from the Netherlands, the year after Viviane Sassen was in charge, than in 2014 Lorenzo Vitturi and now it is me. The task combines commission and art, but basically I’ve got free hand on whatever I want to do, except from the overarching thematics being ‘portrait’. I recommended more versions and paths, among others I took out the picture of the Csáky statue and indicated that I am inclined to work on that further. Anyway, I am quite drawn into the three dimensional world, and overall, that is a portrait, so everything pointed in the same direction. As far as I know, only one black-and-white photograph of the Csáky's 'Head' endured, which was on the cover of the Canadian Cubist newspaper, Montjoie’s issue of 1914.

Atelier of the sculptor, István Buda with the two plaster heads

Did you manage to get the magazine?
I started a small-scale investigation, but basically I had it digitally in high-resolution, so there was not an immanent need to get the physical copy. At least, it would have been very expensive and tiresome to get it. Some volumes of the newspaper still exist in some French libraries, but to purchase it, that’s impossible. Then after several curves, the project reached the phase where the statue got reproduced. I’ve brought the photo to a sculptor in Budapest, István Buda and asked whether he could re-make the statue in a way that it also incorporates my face and fill in the missing sides (as the photo was made in full front) with his own aesthetic concept. Along the way, I found out that István experimented with a lot with Cubistic forms in his youth, so he has enjoyed working with this stylistic universe again. The process was quite intriguing producing something that fuses Csáky and me as well. I wanted the output to be a self-portrait kind of a thing. At that point did I have realised that originally I’ve started to like the statue because I’ve detected some semblance with myself.  The statue is an entirety, a whole in itself, totally integrated, still, as you start to observe the parts, the whole starts to fall apart. For instance, its nose is very slant, the distance between its eyes and mouth is different on the two sides, one of the lines on its cheek is curvy while the other one is straight (exactly what my face looks like). It preserves the stylistic elements of Cubism, so it is cut into sharp, crystalline edges, still there is a very soft dynamic as it twists and turns.  

So you have prepared multiple iterations of the statue in the photograph?
Around May or June, I’ve picked up the two plaster heads from the sculpture atelier. For two weeks, I’ve let them stand still in my studio, I didn't even dare to look at them. After a week, I’ve regained my senses and the whole project came together. First I started to reproduce very authentically the old image, a portrait with a dominant black background captured in a strong light, but I’ve jettisoned this idea very soon. I’ve searched for different ways, in which I can elevate the whole aesthetics from the primer situation. Then I have realised that it can be done by multiple layers as well, not exclusively emerging from the installation but also from the technologies applied. I used quite a lot of coloured lights and shadows, multi expo and Photoshop. What you see in the end is the result of these complex, multi-layered processes.  

Cubo Comic strip by Péter Puklus. Photo: Benedek Bognár & Zsuzsanna Simon©Artmagazin

What about that comic strip that you’ve glued to the window of your atelier?
That is one of my numerous campaign ideas. As the commission required 3 to 6 images, first I thought of the format of a comic strip, with which the idea can gradually unfold. I’ve given much thinking to the concept – even though I am not a sculptor – according to which there is inherently a statue in every stone.

Isn’t this from Michelangelo?
Yes, it is. Then I’ve flipped the narrative and started to sketch down a comic that starts ‘from the beginning’, but the story from the end: there is a cube, from which spaces and surfaces start to work off, and the end we reach the statue. I started the preparations with filling up the planes of the statue with plaster, so that in six steps I arrive to the cube form. The comic strip starts with the cube with three sides visible. As I’ve progressed, more and more colourful surfaces became visible, than again new and new ones, so that in the last phase, you can see 25 colours on the statue. In the end, the whole idea remained a thought-experiment.

Did you go back to the Gallery eventually?
I plan to go back, as I am determined to continue this project, even though I have found what I was looking for, or better say I’ve made it for myself. This is very characteristic of me, this is from where the 3D world enters my practice: a lot of time a certain need gets articulated in me, that I want to capture something on photo, what doesn’t exist. So, I am drawn to making it in order to photograph it later, but after a while I change tracks, and become more interested in the object itself and don’t even bother to take a photo anymore. Nevertheless, I will return in the storage of the gallery, as there are plenty of things that have grabbed my attention. To mention one, there is a sculptor called Attila Nemes, his works are obsessed with Socialism and he apparently saw the face of Lenin everywhere. I’ve found a behemoth stone from the Danube from him that is Lenin, and really, when you start looking at it, it really is.

From left to right: Maquette of a Monument Symbolizing the Liberation; 'Test Strip' (plaster sculpture of a female head, cut in five sections; dimensions: 25 x 25 x 45 cm 2012, Budapest, Trapéz Gallery); 'Negative Sculpture' (from the series 'The Epic Love Story of a Warrior')

What about your other sculptures?
This work consists of a series of four sculptural pieces. They run under the title 'Maquette of a Monument Symbolising the Liberation', but I used to call them Yugoslav Partisan Memorial. That whole period stays with me with a curious vividness about the arts and design of the Communist countries after the war: I have to admit, I am quite drawn by some of its architectures and the Soviet type of monuments. The theme started to condense in me and generated these forms. There is not a 'real' image behind, that I later copied, it just came out as it is.  I’ve made these four pieces last spring, during my residency in Vienna from found furniture and wooden pieces that I’ve gathered in the neighbourhood. I’ve started to collect images which are made in the genre 'artist in his studio'. I have plenty of images falling in this trope: you see the on-the-job phases of the process of making, which is usually lot more interesting than the final state of a work of art that’s get canonised in the end. There is indeed the whole studio interior with the tiny details that catch your eyes, with the plant entering in the frame, the drawings sticked to the wall, the nude sitting on the couch with a cat on her lap…

I have seen one of your constructivist objects on a view in Trapéz Gallery (Budapest), which casted six shadows simultaneously. What was the idea behind this?
There was a concept in my head about a form which, when properly lit, is made up of a great many of very composite, very disturbed shadow effects. As I did not have such an object again, with which I could play out this shadow play, it was a necessity to construct it to get to the shadows. The pictures were done finally, but today the objects are far more interesting to me, than the staged photos. Originally, I made the object to photograph it, but again the situation turned for end that I didn’t even had to make a photo, the object was enough in itself. 

You are coquetting with sculpture, aren’t you?
What I used to say is, that I don’t regard myself a photographer in any way, I am not really keen about this expression either, as it limits one’s practice. A stranglehold of technological restrictions, which presumes that your only one media is photography. This builds walls around the free-wheeling mechanisms of thinking and I rather speak of myself as an artist who’s primary means is photography, but not necessarily. The thought comes first, the expression urges in the direction of an adequate form and not vice versa. Let it be tie dying, poetry or folk songs – just to cite some extremes to underline my point. At the same time, whatever I do, photography keeps haunting me. Whether I construct an object or make an installation, in some layers there resides photography as inspiration, an idea or as a guiding principle. 

„Akár tárgyat hozok létre, akár installációt, valamilyen rétegében mindig benne van a fotográfia mint inspiráció, gondolat vagy vezérelv”

A magyar kubizmus „egy olyan kvázi szűz terület, amely eddig még csak alfejezetet sem érdemelt kézikönyveinkben” - olvasható Barki Gergely megállapítása az augusztusi Artmagazin oldalain. A terület kutatása azonban úgy tűnik, manapság nem csak az elhivatott művészettörténész kedvelt tevékenysége. Puklus Péter képzőművész a magyar kubista szobrászat megteremtésében pionír Csáky József Férfi portré című szobrát „körbejáró” projektje szinte egy időben kerül most a figyelem középpontjába az említett cikk megjelenésével. Az amszterdami UNSEEN Photo Fair & Festival látogatói szeptember 18. és 22. között posztereken, meghívókon, belépőkártyákon, a katalóguson, egyszóval mindenen a Csáky-szobor parafrázisát láthatják majd, és vihetik haza a világ számos pontjára. A rendezvény teljes arculatért felelős Puklust Német Szilvi kérdezte arról, hogy hogyan figyelt fel erre a műre, milyen utakon próbált rálelni az eredetire, hogyan dolgozott a témával, és végül hogyan találta meg őt az UNSEEN felkérése.