From 1969 to 1981, the city of Pécs in southwest Hungary was home to the Pécsi Műhely, (Pécs Workshop), a group of artists whose neo-avant-garde, sometimes humorous work played with and challenged conventions during János Kádár’s Soviet-backed regime. In 1977 the Pécsi Galéria opened, run by Sándor Pinczehelyi, an artist who was part of the workshop, and soon became a significant centre for Hungarian contemporary art. Growing up in Pécs, Kíra Krász didn’t know about the workshop or the contemporary scene though. It was during a visit to Paris Photo in 2018 that she was overjoyed to find out that these artists lived in her hometown.
Born in 1995 to a family with no links to the arts, and attending a high school that, while exceptional in other subjects, “was not designed to prepare me for an arts university course in Hungary,” Krász found a way into photography through her own curiosity. An observant child who loved picture books, she became fascinated by a ten-page catalogue from a local grocery shop and then, when she could access the Internet, via photographs found online. “I often spent hours browsing and finding things which triggered my imagination,” she says.
“I put the treasures I found into genres and, when I got my first camera phone, these photographs were transferred to it, so I could look through the collection any time. That big collection of images was something of an education; it probably set the standard for my taste in photography. I always loved images of people and nature the most. Natural mysteries, natural abstraction.”
Her father encouraged her to take photographs and, when her brother Zsombor was born when she was 7, he naturally became her muse. When she was 14 she discovered Sally Mann’s intimate photographs of her children and, though she went on to study photography at the University of Brighton, it was shooting her brother back in Hungary half-way through the course that proved her breakthrough. Returning to Pécs for her great-grandmother’s funeral, she went for a bike ride with Zsombor and, drawing on her family’s heightened emotions, Zsombor’s state of mind as he approached adulthood, and the dreamy light of the day, she took a series of photographs of him talking, asking “not to be the model this time”.
The resulting series is called Blooming Autumn (2018). It’s soft and dreamlike, but also rooted in reality, capturing Zsombor, his distinctive gestures, and his slim, newly tall body. Krász shot the images on colour film but printed it herself on black-and-white paper, using “very long exposure times and lots of filters to make him visible”. “When developing the images, I saw such a clarity of those gestures, which became more defined on the negatives,” she explains. “That made me think about our past, about the changes in our personality, the differences between us. Blooming Autumn was my first experience in the darkroom and, at the end, I took out almost all the experimental attempts of the project. Clarity was what made those images real.”
Krász still prints her own work, and says doing so, especially with unusual papers, allows her to “step closer to the visuals of a dream, mainly in tone or in texture”. She’s also inspired by Hungarian conceptual artists such as Géza Perneczky, Dóra Maurer, and Sándor Pinczehelyi, and especially the experimental, resourceful nature of their work. She picks out the “making and taking element” in Pinczehelyi’s multimedia works as something that particularly appeals, for example – his propensity to take existing symbols and signs, and rethink and subvert them. For her, his dedication to pushing past norms and coming up with new possibilities is the closest you get to dreaming. “Conceptual art offers infinite variations and with that, infinite ways of thinking,” she explains. “It documents the ‘what could it be’.”
Her BA graduation project, Thought after Taught (2019) [above] draws on this questioning, experimental approach. With a black-and-white, quasi-scientific aesthetic similar to Géza Perneczky’s, and with a subversive approach to received knowledge that evokes him and other Hungarian conceptual artists, it shows images of people and plants printed on pages taken from educational books: an atlas, textbooks, or the yellowing sheets of old exercise books. Krász started the series because she was suffering from a broken heart and trying to find a scientific explanation for this feeling, she says. “I was trying to force some direct theory onto my own photographs. I was striving to build up my own science, to measure love in inches, with a compass and a protractor, or to use formulas for these abstractions”.
It didn’t work and, realising she didn’t have to understand her old algebra textbooks anymore, she started to find looser connections between the image and the page, between science and lived experience. The project says something about nostalgia and memory, she says, about what we remember but also what we forget; it also asserts the importance of the subjective, in the face of knowledge that’s taught or received. “Like water upon rocks, the knowledge that we all learn is in a process of continual erasure, paling, due to the selective process of our memory,” she writes. “Through dismembering books of theory, I am also re-membering the principles of algebra, geometry, biology, and other fields of science, understanding them from the perspective of intuitive human experience.”
Krász’s most recent project, Squaring each other to fit as the space will be tiny, the days will be long (2020), uses images she printed herself on an old digital machine, on various papers she’d kept over the years plus sheets rescued from the recycling. The images show herself and her partner, artist George Roast, posing in shapes inspired by the classic video game Tetris, which they got into playing during the lockdown. Sharing a two-bedroom flat in Hove, UK, with another couple throughout the quarantine, they were using their room as a place to sleep, eat, and work, circling round each other with “too many limbs” for the small space, as Krász puts it. Eventually, the game came to suggest a metaphor for this mental and physical experience. In Squaring to fit each other, images slot together like blocks in Tetris — and Krász has also made an accompanying animation showing how this looks in action.
Squaring each other has brought Krász success in the shape of an article with the influential Photoworks organisation, and it was also taken to Brussels as part of Hangar’s The World Within exhibition. She’s already moved on, though, thankfully leaving the small room as soon as Roast had finished his degree in Brighton. They now live in Hungary in a holiday home surrounded by nature, and spent the second lockdown happily “harvesting our own fruit, playing chess on the meadow, making cider or art, and developing images in our darkroom”. The couple intend to stay long term, Roast keen to learn Hungarian, and Krász planning to study at the Hungarian Academy of Arts. She’s now started a new project on the Nagyharsány Sculpture Park, which is in a former quarry not far from Pécs, founded in 1967 by experimental, non-figurative artists whose work didn’t fit with the contemporary style for public sculpture.
Other techniques she’s experimenting with include images shot against a white sheet, which served as an outdoor studio, plus an empty space once inhabited by a sculpture. As in Squaring to fit each other and Thought after Taught, Krász works with framing devices which shape the possibilities of what’s put within. It’s a trope that evokes the Hungarian conceptual artists of the 1970s, who were concerned with pushing back boundaries and subverting the regime in which they found themselves. Is Krász doing something similar, against the backdrop of Viktor Órban’s increasingly autocratic government? She resists this reading, pointing out that she’s not restricted in her work as artists in the Soviet era were, and suggesting much bigger targets, beyond the here and now.
“I didn’t envisage my camera as a weapon, and I do not have plans to use it as one,” she says. “My approach to photography is rather poetic I hope. I use the positive impulses or digest the negative — but personal ones — through my work. I am more interested in taking my part in preserving states of being, places, or timeless ideas through my images. There are always trends in politics, it is changing like fashion. I am looking for eternal contents, feelings, and moments.”