Within this authoritarian context, performance work flourished—as ephemeral works proved difficult to censor and commercial viability wasn’t a concern—and particularly so among women artists. In some of her performance works, poet and artist
would appear completely naked, barely clothed, or costumed, challenging normative gender roles. “The freedom to use your body in a dictatorial state is the last freedom,” Szántó says. Beyond formal strategies, it’s also possible to trace connections between East and West at points of oppression. Ladik in Hungary and artists like
in the United States used their bodies to transgress and challenge systems that marginalized their gender.
The exhibition at Elizabeth Dee opened on May 1st, May Day, the same day Szombathy daringly carried signs of Lenin around Budapest. Much has changed in the intervening 45 years, but the slow march of history lent these Hungarian artists mixed results. In 1989, when Hungary became independent, the linear tradition of the avant garde “was really over,” Szanto says, “and their scene was over too.” Many found themselves in the difficult position of being yet another struggling artist in a commercial society. “I think there was a let down,” Szanto adds. Still, with many now yearning for a form of political art that doesn’t sacrifice power for subtlety, these artists are all the more relevant today.