Behind My Back, so that Even I Can’t See the Result...

Behind My Back, so that Even I Can’t See the Result...

Interview with László Beke (Budapest, 21 March 2017)

Kata Krasznahorkai
El Kazovszkij; Tibor Hajas; Böröcz-Révész duo; János Szirtes; Orshi Drozdik; FMK; Miklós Erdély; Dóra Maurer; Éva Körner; Lajos Vajda; Julia Vajda; Tamás Szentjóby; Katalin Ladik; self-documentation; self-archiving; self-theoretization; self-historicisation; Eastern Europe; Hungary; socialism; performance art; happening; pre-performance; couple performance; archive; documentation; remake.

KK: Self-documentation, self-archiving and self-theoretisation are artistic strategies among (not only) Eastern European artists, but under socialist cultural politics they had special characteristics. Performance Art and Happenings were affected by missing reflection of a wider public debate or art professionals on their work. Doing performance art history became since the 1960s an artistic act itself, even more so as it was a strategy to overcome this missing link. Artists did, and in many cases still do self-historicisation. You have been involved in doing performance art history as an actor and as an observer: as a ‘performing art historian’. How do you see your own position concerning performance art in Hungary – how were you ‘doing’ your art history?

LB: This is such a complex question that it is practically impossible to answer. As far as I remember, I was probably the first art historian to make a performance in Hungary. It was random, a collateral event at Orshi Drozdik’s exhibition at the FMK (Fiatal Művészek Klubja / Young Artists’ Club) 19771. But this would raise serious terminological problems, because I am resolute in claiming that happening is not performance, because happening is an antecedent. By definition, there are several differences between performance and happening. At the same time, they sometimes overlap. However, I would say that “real” performances in Hungary started around the end of the 1970s, with the activity of El Kazovszkij, Tibor Hajas and the Böröcz-Révész duo, but János Szirtes should also be mentioned. The others could be classified as happening or action art. As an art historian, I actively took part in many of these. I was a kind of co-creator particularly next to János Szirtes, which meant he could use me at his will in his performances.2 For instance by beating my back to pulp under the pretext of “Massage and Message”.3 I had to lie on a bed with naked upper body and try to read a theoretical text aloud. He, in turn, was happily pounding away on my back with immense force.

KK: What kinds of performances did you participate in as a theoretician in the 1970s?

LB: An anecdote is due at this point, one that editors usually don’t like… let’s just call it a narratological insert. Orshi Drozdik made a very famous event at FMK (Young Artists` Club), entitled “The Nude”. This meant that she was painting a nude under this title in the main exhibition hall of FMK. The model was a superb person, Piroska Német, a favourite of this generation – she was a professional model. Orshi Drozdik, the first feminist artist in Hungary, carried out this public act in a way that the door was open to the room she was painting in, but it was impossible to see inside. The exhibition was opened by a different person for 5 nights. Miklós Erdély, András Halász and two or three others… My concept was that at 9 PM I stood with my back to the room and started talking. I took an oath that I would talk and drink alcohol as much as I could.

KK: What did that mean?

LB: This meant 17 cognacs until 1 AM. I spoke for four hours on end. This has to be pointed out because the whole deal sounds funny, except it isn’t. Petr Štembera had done a very similar performance in Pécs4 and he was hospitalised for days, although he had only drunk wine5. I wasn’t there but we learned that he had been very sick. I just got a little drowsy and then went on into the night.

KK: Why do you find it important to emphasise this concerning doing performance art history?

LB: Because in my interpretation, the essential element of performance is what the word means. In French and English, it means accomplishment in the most physical sense of the word. Countless people did that, starting with Marina Abramović, like driving a car around in a concrete pool until complete exhaustion, etc. – this is the basic version of performance.

KK: And what about the happening?

LB: There were no such things in happening. Interactivity and improvisation were much more important there, while in performance, things like sportsman-like endurance were key.

KK: So then pre-performance (by Tibor Hajas) was just a warm-up for ‘real’ performances?

LB: I’m modest and I don’t want to say that I was the first. This can easily be called pre-performance. Especially as Tibor Hajas was very strict and he made a distinction between pre-performance and real performance.

KK: How did Hajas interpret the notion of ‘pre-performance’ and how did he distinguish it from ‘performance’?

LB: To him, pre-performance wasn’t pure enough in terms of genre. He didn’t like it.

KK: What disturbed him?

LB: That it wasn’t extreme enough. The one that was screened at Cabaret Voltaire in János Vető’s interpretation under the title Vigil6, now that was extreme. I don’t know whether or how much Vető had manipulated the documentation, but that is what I call exclusive and extreme. A real performance. In fact, the question Hajas posed was not one of life and death but bringing the audience into an extreme situation insofar as he closed the door and there was no entry or exit. He lost consciousness – deliberately. So, the leitmotif, with the big flash, the magnesium explosion, he referred to as one that burns the sight into the spectator’s eyes forever.

KK: This is a final yet historical gesture. Because it means that Hajas consciously places this fundamentally ephemeral genre into the historical dimension, with the intention of burning it into the audience’s minds. Which also means that he regards the genre in a historical perspective. But the question remains: who makes performance history?

LB: This is a beautiful theoretical and historical construct, but to me it’s just a variant, to which I should add – this is where one line of thought leads us to the eternity of the moment. Stopping the moment – and this is a profound thought, because there is no such possibility in life, but this is what photography is about. The first such work by Hajas, which could still be considered playful, was when he tried to take a snapshot of a swinging camera with his eyes closed at the exhibition entitled “Exposition”7. But the role of light is stronger here; existentially and philosophically it is life itself. He had experienced these events radically.

KK: What is the role of art critics in performance history? If critics ‘act’ in performances, do they turn to artists as well?

LB: I was preparing to steer back to the first question and talk about my efforts around 1970 to become such an artist by deliberately misinterpreting Joseph Kosuth, who denied the role of critics, and who said that a conceptual artist will make his or her own critique.

KK: And what did you do?

LB: What did I do? I said that in that case I will start making art myself.

KK: The art critic strikes back?

LB: Yes, although to this day I’m not sure I can stand by the fact that I might be an artist. Back then I was a quasi-artist. I did what they did. Today I am sure I’m not an artist. More precisely: I am a non-artist.

KK: Is it possible to convey the debate between you as a critic and you and the artists on this topic?

LB: This requires three or four answers. With my entire presence at Cabaret Voltaire I wanted to represent that I am somehow between art and history. For my presentation would have been a series of presentations about my life.

KK: How do you see the intertwining of your life and art, throughout this biography?

LB: The situation around 1970 involves a very important aspect. I tried back then to collaborate only with artists who were my best friends. Friendship and art were intertwined in that case.

KK: According to you, friendship works as a force melting art and history together – is this an Eastern European phenomenon?

LB: No, absolutely not. There are sensibilities, universal sensibilities. I’ll say a name: Charlemagne Palestine, who was a very good friend of mine. A first-generation American performer, and an antecedent of the Drozdik-performance – he had done something very similar to what I did, thirty years before me. In a way that he was walking around in a room and listing his deceased friends and drank something after each of them, then threw the glass away. Another metaphor for me was friendship.

KK: Was friendship coining performance history?

LB: Yes. For instance, I sought out Joseph Beuys with the intention of befriending him. Such friendships lasted a very long time even with the greatest personalities.

KK: How did Beuys react?

LB: In the beginning of the 1970s I spent a lot of time in Germany, and I travelled to Düsseldorf to meet him. I called him from the train station and said “Ich bin ein ungarischer Kunsthistoriker trallalala”. He said ”Komm zu mir right away, get on the tram and come to Drakeplatz”. Beuys and I became good friends, and I thought to myself, I couldn’t do this with Andy Warhol, I couldn’t be friends with Warhol. There were some open people back then, with such inclination. Warhol was something else…

KK: Laszlo Glozer describes the relation between artists and art historians in the 1970s as they [art historians, art critics] learning from the artists.8

LB: It might as well have been said by Boris Groys. I had a lot of issues with both of them – regardless of this being a very acute characterisation.

KK: But how would you describe the relation between you and the artists?

LB: Idyllic in the sense that in the first period, the entire Iparterv group was practically my best friend. And vice versa. That was friendship. And I’m saying this now as I always have, whatever has happened, Szentjóby was one of my best friends, and then came Tibor Hajas and he became my best friend.

KK: What caused the rift?

LB: The rift…

I have to say one more thing, about Hermann Hesse’s “Narcissus and Goldmund” – I was Goldmund, which I have just rediscovered, just like Steppenwolf. The other simile was that creating an artwork is like giving birth.

KK: That last, I doubt. Does this stand in your interpretation for all artworks, or just for performance, based on the aforementioned principle of extreme physical accomplishment?

LB: All artworks that are good. I meant to say that you put in all you’ve got, but what is born is not you anymore. Only almost. This is where the rift came. I told a group of friends my ars poetica. The writer György Spiró commented “but I don’t want to bring out the greatest in me, I want to bring out the dirt, the filth inside me.” I pondered this and figured that this was the exact opposite of what I was saying. Since then I always stop to think three times before I say something.

But Hajas did everything like this: even the tiniest pencil mark to the fullest extreme, to be ultimate, irrevocable, unrepeatable.

KK: This ‘extremism’ triggered the mythicization of his performances, thus enabling him entering performance history?

LB: Yes, but it also killed him.

KK: What was the role of documentation in the relationship between you and the artists?

LB: Annamária Szőke and I compiled a chronology of all kinds of performative art events from 1956 until 1981; today it can be accessed at Artpool Art Research Center. Starting with Miklós Erdély’s Unguarded Money, that was the first, countless things got included, even peculiar exhibition openings, etc. The fact that every serious thing had already happened in the 1970s or the early 1980s, is also peculiar. On the one hand, there was Péter Forgács, who worked with Steve Reich, with Tibor Szemző’s concerts. Then there was János Szirtes, who carried out the exact same performance several times and called it a show. And then Annamária Szőke and at that point I said, wait a minute: theatre repertoire pieces – that’s another story. Thus, we stopped at 1981.

KK: You stopped compiling the chronology of performance art because the genre of performance had changed?

LB: Partly. And partly because we focused on events that could be considered visual art, and we didn’t want to include everything from theatre through experimental theatre and dance performance.

KK: The year 1972 marks another historical construct of yours, the theory of coincidence – what do you mean by that?

LB: I’ve been documenting peculiar incidents in a diary since 1972 – this is connected to Miklós Erdély. First, there were peculiar events in art history. Then these were named action or act. An interesting act. This is why Dadaism arrived, with Arthur Cravan, who boarded a boat and was never seen again. I used to say that Hugo Ball invented happenings. These are early insights, then came Duchamp who came up with everything in advance. Everything except video art. And in the sixties, happening appeared, and body-art emerged with conceptual art – it can be considered both action and performance.

KK: But where do you put the genre you call “pure performance” on this timeline?

LB: In Hungary, not before 1980. For Gábor Attalai’s photo series with the grimaces published in Flash Art9, that’s not performance.

KK: Did you think the same in the 1970s? For instance, the 1976 performance by Hajas that you’ve mentioned – did you think it was not a performance but something else?

LB: Yes.

KK: And what did the 1980s bring for you?

LB: They definitely brought about “pure performance.” But the whole thing doesn’t make much sense, because in postmodernism, anything goes. So, three years ago I came up with this: what if we say the term ‘contemporary art’ is vorbei? Since then I prefer saying ‘postcontemporary’, you can’t go wrong with that.

KK: Éva Körner was also a leading art historian whose writings and whose presence coined the Hungarian neo-avant-garde scene. Next to her writings, she documented a series of performances and actions that are today's unique documents of this era. How do you see her role in this period?

LB: Dóra Maurer and I made a film entitled Views10 in 1973, addressing these issues, featuring Éva Körner, who said how she saw it. Éva Körner was a “Mitfahrerin”. She was an admirer of artists, but she was about a decade older, another generation. She projected everything onto the young artists from the angle of Russian Constructivism. She had incredible sensibility and cleverness in chronicling the young generation. She had a very important role in documentation, she had the good fortune to have the opportunity of writing the history of conceptual art in Hungary apropos of the exhibition of Joseph Kosuth at the Hungarian Pavilion of the Venice Biennale.

KK: You and Körner moved around very similar topics. Also, friendship, as you mentioned a significant issue in performance history was one of them. However, it seems that these ties are over by now. Instead of the principle of ‘friendship’, the ‘collectives’ now have their turn.

LB: It would appear that in my life this is over. Or it’s starting to take on new forms. But you are right. By the 1980s, duos and trios appear in a loose group, known informally as New Painting.

KK: Couple performances appear already in the 1970s – cooperation models in performances blurring the lines between friendship and a strictly professional collective.

LB: There was an even more interesting phenomenon then. Another theme, even more intriguing from a gender perspective: married couples, always dominated by the man. Eventually, the wife would come out of the kitchen wiping her hands, and then they would add: yes, she also paints…

KK: Couples’ performances have a special focus in our research project “Performance Art in Eastern Europe 1950–1990: History and Theory” – how do you see this situation in Hungary?

LB: The phenomenon of performance-duos wasn’t so typical in Hungary. Lajos and Julia Vajda – in Poland there were many couples like that. I can’t think of anything in Hungarian terms right now. I organised three or four couples exhibitions at Goethe-Institut, specifically to overcome this machosupremacy. 11 That was in the 1980s–1990s. Everyone was really surprised. Equal artist couples – I can’t think of any other example in the period.

KK: Did you create pair performances yourself – as a ‘performing art historian’?

LB: Of course. I did.

KK: What was the distribution of roles between you and the other performer?

LB: That leads to something rather strange, but I’ll answer that shortly. First, I have to tell you a funny story related to the Drozdik performance. In 1973 there was an artistic soirée or event, with the title Cry Wolf, subtitled: Educational Actions, Attitude-Forming Exercises 12. This has been amply discussed. Miklós Erdély, Szentjóby and I participated in it at the Ganz-MÁVAG Culture House. I was working at TIT (Society for the Popularization of Scientific Knowledge) and organized educational lectures, so that was how I could carry it out.

KK: How did you contribute to gender issues?

LB: Cry Wolf comprised of three happenings or performances: Szentjóby read the text on Buddha’s Fire Sermon. The fire extinguisher would have been the fire sermon – Szentjóby spraying everything with foam, except it didn’t work. As a background story, Erdély did an astonishing action: he dragged a giant funnel 3–4 metres long onto the stage, held by a white-dressed “Indian dancer”, and he projected a film into the hole on the other side. The audience didn’t see that. These relationships are more interesting than the artwork itself. Erdély had a tenant, Menyhért Lakatos, a Romani author, who had a daughter acting as the “Indian dancer”. In Erdély’s mind this all came together as a hologram. Finally, I really put a lot of thought into my part: I came up with a concept taking István Ferenczy’s sculpture Shepard Girl. The Beginning of the Fine Arts (Pásztorlányka. A szép mesterségek kezdete, 1820–1822) as my point of departure. Ferenczy had sent this sculpture home from Rome, hoping it would be the beginning of Hungarian national art. I would have started out from this and ended up at the 1968 revolution. Half the avant-garde was sighing for a revolution around those times. What is new? Revolution! Tamás Papp was supervising the drawing workshop, so I borrowed a model from him, but right before the show it turned out that the young Júlia Veres had just started as a model and didn’t want to get naked. So, she was kneeling there in a blouse. Somehow, all of this matters. This was the nature of male-female relationships in my performances.

KK: Performance duos are not necessarily male-female.

LB: Then I shall return to Szirtes and Drozdik.

KK: How did the distribution of roles emerge?

LB: I will continue with Erdély’s specifically misogynistic actions. There was that hardcore soirée at a place called Eötvös Club at the University ELTE in Budapest, performed by Jenő Balaskó, Tamás Szentjóby, Margit Rajczy, and Miklós Erdély: Szentjóby would have read a letter by Angela Davis, but Margit Rajczy tried to hinder him in all kinds of ways13. Then came Erdély with a lecture on The Female Evil. Well, this was a little misogynistic. He performed it with his tie hanging into a bowl of soup and his hands covered in feathers.

At another happening in 1968 by Tamás Szentjóby and Miklós Erdély a human figure was wrapped in aluminum foil, posing as an UFO found and unwrapped by Katalin Ladik in Szentendre at the Danube14 – a happening orchestrated to arrange a meeting between Szentjóby and Ladik for the first time in Budapest. Erdély was sitting in the Danube, whipping his back bloody while a young girl was manicuring him.

KK: According to the script and also upon Ladiks recollection15 she was to arrive in a Budapest hotel, spend a night there, the next morning receiving a letter at the reception and had to follow the instructions. She was part of the happening but had no role as an author. This ‘role’ has changed diametrically to its opposite as Ladik was asking you and Miklós Erdély to ‘assist’ her at her own Author’s Night-performance at the FMK Culture Center 1982.

LB: We made a ‘replica’ in a way of the UFO happening at the FMK Culture Centre 16. As I remember, it involved – I don’t know where that motif came from – having to whip a hand basin full of water. Ladik was standing above me and Erdély, and I didn’t know what she was doing while Erdély and I were beating the water at full force with whips.

KK: Was this ‘replica’ of the UFO happening a reversed-reenactment concerning gender roles in performances? A kind of re-writing history?

LB: This is not what I wanted to talk about, but as you’ve raised it, let’s address the subject of remakes, reconstruction, retro and so on, which became fashionable in 1990. His UFO piece already counts as such. It is a remake. If somebody would perform a happening five times in 1968, that’s just stupid. But this is recollection. Reconstruction, replica. Remake.

KK: Was this an act of historicizing that period too?

LB: Probably yes, but not historicizing ourselves – but the event.

KK: An event that was not witnessed live by a larger audience; only known through documentation.

LB: This brings up something we’ve talked about on another occasion. The first time we saw video in Hungary was in 1977. Since then, how many performances have been conceived that organically employ video technology? For instance, either someone is taping it, or a TV is on in the background. I didn’t want to talk about this, but the appearance of video is incredibly important in terms of reconstruction, documentation, and from a historical aspect.

KK: How do you perceive the aesthetic shift from b/w Super 8, 35mm films to manipulated or distorted video, with regard to performance documentation?

LB: The difference is enormous. I can only interpret this as a historian above all. In fact, Miklós Peternák, some others and I organised a big conference with the title “Film/Art”17. There we discussed everything from 8mm through Super8 and 35mm to video and multimedia.

KK: How has this mediatic shift affected the genre of performance?

LB: I can only talk about this from a cinematic aspect, because the dullness or blurriness of photograph was equivalent to barely visible, grainy, clackety in Super8, 35 mm… compared to this, colour video in perfect sync might even be called kitschy. It was difficult for artists to find adequate digital formats, because even film was black and white for so long. Gábor Bódy began addressing these issues in Infermental. He was very wise when he announced Infermental18 as “anything that moves”. I learned a lot from this. Anything that moves. If someone said this and that was the gesture, they could send it in on film and we would compile it. I have quite a lot of the first videos either in my mind or on tape.

KK: What kinds of early video documents can be found in your archive?

LB: Any early video made in Hungary. And they found a ridiculous amount of different uses for it. First, to document everything. Its second function was experimentation, effects, blue box, etc.

KK: How did you as an art historian assess this shift to new media technology in performance documentation?

LB: This is again an issue that art historians and critics experienced in the 1980s, namely that the new media were at once genres and techniques. In painting, the brush is not a genre.

KK: You say you date the emergence of real, pure performances from the beginning of the 1980s. That coincides with the emergence of this new situation of mediatic documentation-aesthetics. Is pure performance related to this mediatic shift?

BK: Yes, but not with everyone. Laurie Anderson comes to mind, who was part of the first generation of performers, and I always emphasise when teaching that they should note that she was a violinist, which is a performing art, like theatre. When Anderson stood on a lit block of ice on ice skates, that was wonderful, and it was called multimedia, but it was the proverbial performance. Her singing was astonishing. A Hungarian example might be Group 180 with Tibor Szemző19 or Boris Nieslony with the collective Black Market20.

I have a personal story about this as well – there weren’t many New Wave and rock concerts I hadn’t attended until 1984. Then it was enough. The last concert I went to see was David Bowie in 1984 in Vienna.

KK: Concerning documentation and archives as acteurs: you as an actor and observer of performances also documented and archived these actions. Could you talk about your archive with regard to performance? Can you interpret the concept of performative archive? An archive that itself is an actor?

LB: Even if I can’t think of such a thing right now, this has to be invented, that would be superb! Archive as performance.

KK: Isn’t your archive such?

LB: Well, it may be, but then the Artpool Art Research Center is more so, they were much more systematic. Alain Resnais made a short film about Bibliothèque Nationale, which was like a Piranesi come to life – that I would call performance.

KK: I’d rather inquire about your archive.

LB: My archive includes for instance a black and white film: a photo sequence about a performance by Terry Fox. It took place at the Ileana Sonnabend Gallery in Paris, and I’m the only one in the world who has it, because no one else was taking photos. It was more of a scripted happening. I have a lot of things, including music by Joseph Beuys in collaboration with Nam June Paik, I have a conversation with Marcel Duchamp, with his records, then I have videos by Gábor Bódy. Unfortunately, old techniques are becoming impossible to play back.

KK: In other words, an archive can expire – if it can be an actor, it can also become a deceased one.

LB: Exactly. Archiving performances is doomed. I’m saying this knowing that I have an immense amount of such data, a collection of decades. An example: I have the almost complete film and video oeuvre of Ivan Ladislav Galeta. Film doesn’t deteriorate as much as video. One could say I had everything that took place in Hungary until 1980–85, then it became more difficult. Now I have enormous difficulties maintaining my archive, because I can’t really do anything with it – it takes up more than a thousand boxes. I’m planning an exhibition, but I probably won’t make it that far, because archives and museums are not too fond of the idea. Every library says they have no space.

KK: What is the underlying concept of time in your perception of archiving performances?

[Beke is drawing a square on a piece of paper.]

LB: I have a theory that from around 2000, it comes from Baxandall: in order for me as an art historian called László Beke to digest Leonardo in 2000, I have to imagine myself in 1500. But I can only do this if at the same time, I’m experiencing it through the eyes of the contemporary artist. Here is Ben Vautier in 2000, I have to perceive this through his eyes. I have to compare today’s art with the art around the year 2000. When I’m done with that, I have to see what I can do with Vautier in 2010, etc.

KK: This in-betweenness of time shifts focus on today’s performers. Do you see young performers today who reflect on the history of performance?

LB: The duo Little Warsaw are doing a lot. But they are so ‘evil’ that I can’t always take them seriously. They are mean, not only to those who were criticised back then but also to those who were not.

KK: Another platform you encounter young performance artists is as a pedagogue. You also teach – by teaching, are you using performative methods?

LB: Young performers need to be instructed. In some cases, quite a lot. Art critic József Mélyi is a grand master of this; he makes theatre and mixed media with young actors and art students. The other day I called on theatre director Tamás Ascher and asked if he would direct an event for which I would write the script. It would definitely involve things like me sitting here with you and berating the waiter because the coffee is cold. And here comes a thing that surpasses everything conceptually. Here we sit and I ask you: Are you for real? Or: Are you playing a role? Am I for real?

KK: Are performative theories implemented in your pedagogical concept?

LB: I always make my students draw – I force them to draw spontaneously, but they can’t because even their scribbling is learned. I show them on the blackboard how to draw spontaneously. Behind my back, so that even I can’t see the result....

Translated from Hungarian by Dániel Sipos

László Beke
Hungarian Academy of Arts

Kata Krasznahorkai
University of Zurich


László Beke is director of the Art Historical Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts. Director of the Palace of Arts Budapest (1995–2000). Leading figure of the neo-avantgarde in Hungary since the 1960s.

Kata Krasznahorkai is Gerda Henkel Senior Researcher at the Slavic Department of the University of Zurich. Artists & Agents. Performance Art and Secret Services (ed. with Sylvia Sasse, Leipzig: Spector Books 2019). Forthcoming: Operative Art History or Who is Afraid of Artists? (Spector Books: Leipzig 2020).

Suggested Citation

Krasznahorkai, Kata. 2020. “Behind My Back, so that Even I Can’t See the Result... Interview with László Beke.” Sandra Frimmel, Tomáš Glanc, Sabine Hänsgen, Katalin Krasznahorkai, Nastasia Louveau, Dorota Sajewska, Sylvia Sasse (eds.). 2020. Doing Performance Art History. Open Apparatus Book I. DOI:


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