Miklós Erdély, Time Traveler

An excerpt from Hungarian Art: Confrontation and Revival in the Modern Movement

By Éva Forgács

Miklos Erdély (1928–1986) would not have thought twice about boarding a spaceship, sweeping aside physical fitness and other pedestrian worries. Space seemed to promise first-hand answers to urgent and intriguing questions; for example, whether or not God exists, or whether some God-like power could be perceptible.

Having direct access to knowledge and first-hand experience spelled freedom for Erdély. He represented a holistic approach in Hungary reminiscent of Buckminster Fuller who talked about “spaceship Earth”, and asked “How do we think in terms of wholes?”[1] Erdély, too, was inquisitive and a fearless thinker, intent on living the full dimensions of space-time through the porous, intangible space spreading from the Big Bang to an infinite future. Albert Einstein’s suggestion that the time-space continuum might be warped and that time may be not a permanent one-way road pervaded Erdély’s thinking. He admired Einstein’s imagination and thought of Einstein as the greatest artist of all times; no mistake – Erdély, not unlike Fuller, provocatively overlooked the difference between scientific and artistic imagination.

Erdély’s inquiries into the dimensions of time and space could be presented in a hypothetical exhibition accompanied by those early twentieth-century artists inspired by the sciences and those who hoped that new scientific discoveries would reveal novel features of earthly life and previously hidden truths. Included would be the French cubists as well as Russians who admired Piotr Ouspensky’s Fourth Dimension [2] written in 1909, as well as Ouspensky’s 1911 treatise “Tertium Organum,”[3] which outlines “a new Universe,” in his posthumously published book In Search of the Miraculous.[4] Besides theories, the miracle of early aviation was one of the foundations of the new perspectives of the cubists as well as the Russian cubo-futurists, specifically Kazimir Malevich, who, in his suprematist works, claimed to have virtually relocated into the future, and out into cosmic space. His 1915 Black Square on White Ground is his closest visualization of a black hole. Two other works that would seamlessly fit with an exhibition of Erdély’s work would be Vasilii Zhuravlev’s 1936 film Cosmic Voyage,[5] based on Tsiolkovsky’s 1920 novel Extraterrestrial and Ilya Kabakov’s installation The Man Who Escaped into Space from His Room made in the year Erdély died, 1986. Kabakov’s work, accompanied by a description of an imaginary journey into space, takes us full circle, back to Erdély’s starting point and the most essential fuel of his imagination and scientific interest: FREEDOM, writ large.

Science fiction for Erdély was that soft territory between science and art, between rigorous facts and free imagination. Here, he felt very much in his element. Both components of the phrase were vital for him: “science” was the core truth he wanted to acquire from popular and serious scientific publications, and with “fiction” he meant to creatively contribute to the discourse on futuristic and limitless thinking. Science fiction was the natural extension of his intense interest in sciences, particularly physics and astronomy. He was, for example, taken by the mystery of the Moebius strip – some of his artwork testifies to that – and one of his favorite science fiction works was Armin Joseph Deutsch’s 1950 short story A Subway Named Moebius, in which a subway train in Boston disappears from sight and from the central control panels, entering a different dimension.

Miklós Erdély (1928–1986), Metaphor I–II, 1972. Photograph. Courtesy Dániel Erdély and György Erdély.

Erdély was a regular reader of popular science journals and considered it a human right to have access to the latest results of scientific research despite a political context in which every field of activity and information was limited and controlled. As a “citizen who is entitled to be informed,”[6] he considered the sciences a public domain and access to current information a political issue. Informed citizens do keep up with scientific discoveries because knowledge, Erdély knew as well as Foucault, is power. To be under-informed is a humiliating deprivation, as he suspected that communist Hungary’s authorities were aware. To be under-informed about matters of science, economy, and social studies challenged the authority of the artist. Of course an artist in the twentieth century, an age of high specialization, could not be a renaissance man with the multi-expertise of Leonardo da Vinci. Still, Erdély thought that artists had to have more than a layman’s knowledge in order to be relevant as thinkers as well as artists.

Erdély was intensely interested in the unfathomable powers that were at work in the universe. As demonstrated in his writings, it appears that his interest in science originated in the idea of a transcendental reality, which, he intuited, scientific research would one day reveal. Anyone who engaged in conversation with him was likely to find the talk, sooner rather than later, turning toward the universe’s black holes. Discovery, or the presumption of the existence of these was of central importance to him and never stopped intriguing him.

Thinking more like an artist than a scientist, Erdély was taken by the dilemma of black holes: that is, they are either extremely dense concentrations of material, or the exact opposite – voids, vacuums in the infinity. Informed by reading Einstein he thought of a black hole as a locus where past meets future. If a black hole is a maximum density of compressed material, it is an emission station that shoots out new planets, whole galaxies – and in this case, the black hole is a kind of pre-creation parking place for cosmic material, a signifier of the future. If a black hole is vacuous, however, it is the site of the annihilation of earlier forms of material, the incinerator in which entire worlds perish, falling into it. In either case, Erdély believed black holes signified the same kind of discontinuity that artwork signified in culture. The mere existence of the concept of a black hole demonstrated that the fabric of the universe, or the monotony and sameness of a culture could be disrupted.

In his manifesto titled “The Marly Theses”[7] (named after the town where he conceived it), Erdély proposed a work of art does not have meaning but instead operates in the opposite way: it constitutes a space where meaning is suppressed. Like a black hole, artwork has the power to bring the world to a halt by merely appearing in it. It does not matter whether it does so by being unfathomably dense or a void, as long as it is fundamentally different from the banality of everyday culture. Erdély’s view on works of art are similar to Malevich’s theory of an “additional element”[8] in painting – that is, a strange new form that enters the existing system from the outside, disrupts it and, once it has managed to make the system fall apart, organizes its own new order.

Time and space were, however, not purely theoretical questions for Erdély. In a two-piece conceptual artwork titled Metaphor (1972), one image of which shows him sitting on a garden chair while the other features the same chair without his presence, Erdély gives a simple picture of transition in time and space. At one point in time you are here, at another point in time you are not. The “metaphor” of the artwork connects the two moments. Unlike Joseph Kosuth’s 1965 Three Chairs, comprising a chair, a photo of it, and its type-written verbal definition – a piece that Erdély may have well been familiar with – Erdély has a simpler, but more piercing message: rather than entering art discourse on the level of the definition of an artwork, he highlights mortality, the disappearance of the living.

Miklós Erdély (1928–1986), Time Travel, I–V, 1975. Photomontage series, number 1,
Szent István Király Museum, Székesfehérvár. Photo Szent István Király Museum, Székesfehérvár. Courtesy Dániel Erdély and György Erdély.

A more elaborate existential work is his five-part series Time Travel (1975), which is more specifically personal than Metaphor, examining his own experience with the passing of time. Projecting a 1975 self back to previous points in time, Erdély draws parallel lines between past and present to depict different points of space-time that increasingly approach his 1975 self. In the first picture he is represented as a black hole in his family, lingering as a future possibility, a nothingness, a yet-to-unfold potential. As he enigmatically wrote in “Time Moebius,” a text that accompanies Time Travel, “ready is that which is getting ready,”[9] meaning that he, although not yet born, not “ready” yet, was in the process of “getting ready,” and in that sense, already virtually existed.

Miklós Erdély (1928–1986), Time Travel, I–V, 1975. Photomontage series, number 2,
Szent István Király Museum, Székesfehérvár. Photo Szent István Király Museum, Székesfehérvár. Courtesy Dániel Erdély and György Erdély.

In the second picture he brings together his 1975 self and his two-year-old child incarnation. Dressed in dark clothes, as in each of the 1975 photos, he squats down next to the toddler as an aura of light surrounds him and tries to give the little boy a message from the future. However, the distance between them, though visually reduced to a minimum, does not allow contact. The light enveloping the adult Erdély’s hand and appearing behind him is a familiar device from science fiction. The photographic trick – it is important to remember that there was no Photoshop in 1975 – is similar to the descriptions of strange lights in science fiction literature that visualize something alien and generate an atmosphere of the unknown. Here, the two-year old child who has all the life before him that the forty-seven year-old Erdély has behind, is staring past the adult whose past he has actually become. The time gap is not bridgeable, just as parallel lines following the warp of Euclidian space can approach one another but never meet. The photomontage presents physical closeness as metaphysical closeness, but what comes across is the uncanny distance between child and adult.

Miklós Erdély (1928–1986), Time Travel, I–V, 1975. Photomontage series, number 3,
Szent István Király Museum, Székesfehérvár. Photo Szent István Király Museum, Székesfehérvár. Courtesy Dániel Erdély and György Erdély.

In the third picture of the series, Erdély’s father and brother play chess on a garden bench in the summer of 1934. This point in time had slipped, by 1975, onto the other side of several divides: it was a moment of youth versus adulthood, and a pre-Holocaust family moment in the life of a Jewish family. The light that envelops the vacation scene highlights, once again, the distance between the past moment and posterity. Erdély’s 1975 self, stepping into the scene from the strange dimension of the future, is dark and, again, uncannily different, with hard outlines. His distance from his softly lit family members of the 1934 photo is paradoxically enhanced by his apparent participatory attention to the game while the other two characters, who inhabit the time-space of an old vacation, are encapsulated in that moment, ignoring his presence and utterly unaware of what awaits them, including his brother being killed.

Miklós Erdély (1928–1986), Time Travel, I–V, 1975. Photomontage series, number 4,
Szent István Király Museum, Székesfehérvár. Photo Szent István Király Museum, Székesfehérvár. Courtesy Dániel Erdély and György Erdély.

In the fourth picture Erdély steps closer to both his present self and the somewhat still younger one, showing almost full figures of both. The older Erdély seems to want to touch his younger self, perhaps half his present age, trying to put a hand on his shoulder. If only he could. As in the previous pictures, they inhabit different dimensions that are separated by a time gap, which is visualized by an aura of light. What is visually a distance of only a few centimeters nevertheless indicates separate worlds that cannot permit communication between them. Again, the figure in the present is clearly contoured while the one in the past is in the process of melting away, dissolving in light. To Hungarian viewers this image brings to mind a short story of the widely read Hungarian writer Frigyes Karinthy (1887-1938), “Encounter with a Young Man,” written in 1913. In the story, the twenty-six year-old Karinthy addresses his eighteen-year-old self, and takes stock of the great dreams of youth, which have faded even by early adulthood. Erdély’s image is not articulate about the dissonance between his younger and present self, but leaves room for imagining such discontents.

Miklós Erdély (1928–1986), Time Travel, I–V, 1975. Photomontage series, number 5, Szent István Király Museum, Székesfehérvár. Photo Szent István Király Museum, Székesfehérvár. Courtesy Dániel Erdély and György Erdély.

The last picture, a close-up, has something demonic about it. This picture of the young Erdély was taken at a moment when he may have been somewhat drunk. Eyes closed, lips parted, he seems to be envisioning, thinking, or saying something that may be inspired by what is called “altered consciousness.” It is ambiguous whether his older self, excited and determined to reach him, is whispering something important in his ear, or whether the younger Erdély is saying something that his future self is desperate to hear. Perhaps it’s both: ecstasy creates an illusory bridge between the two points in time. They do not meet, but an almost mystical connection is in the making – Erdély is his own medium here. He is also a good actor posing for this 1975 photo of himself, displaying power and urgency, so this closing image becomes the zenith of the series.

As a piece of craftsmanship, Time Travel is an exercise in evincing the interconnectedness of snapshots and those photos that Erdély made for the purposes of this artwork. Like Christian Boltanski, Erdély also presents family photos for their helpless vulnerability to the passing of time and to mortality. After all, family photos are mostly taken in an effort to bring time to a halt. They freeze a moment that will never be there again, contemplating it, as Roland Barthes explains in his essay “Camera Lucida,” already from the vantage point of the future. In the two images that comprise Metaphor, taken in his garden, Erdély grasped the quintessential feature of amateur photography: even when someone’s presence is documented by a photo, it is his future absence that is implied. In Time Travel, on the other hand, his old and present-day selves – to use one of Erdély’s favorite metaphors – are on the opposite sides of a Moebius strip.

Erdély had hopes that new findings in science would present the actual possibility of time travel, and that from a purely speculative, abstract theoretical concept, traveling in time would become scientifically warranted and even practically possible. He hoped that a spaceship could cross not only spatial, but also temporal boundaries and fly us back dozens, or hundreds, or thousands of years, or ahead, into the future. That was the level of cosmic freedom that Erdély imagined, living in communist Hungary, where he had to be extraordinarily resourceful to find more information about the progress of sciences than was locally accessible. Claiming a right to knowledge unfiltered by the authorities or bureaucrats was one aspect of his struggle for freedom, and alerting others to realize the great importance of staying informed was one of his relentless pursuits.

Erdély was architect, poet, painter, conceptualist, performance artist, filmmaker, and a lot more. Throughout his multifaceted artistic career he was consistently provocative, driven by Modernism’s fundamental desire to educate. He also schooled many who participated in the courses “Fantasy Development,” “Creativity Exercises,” and “Independent Thinking” that he held in the premises of a Budapest factory in the late 1970s and early 1980s, challenging set concepts in every field of art and everyday life. He provoked his fellow artists and his audiences to respond differently than habit would dictate, encouraging and eliciting imaginative thinking, notwithstanding any artistic pursuits. His exercises included the shrouding of a model with a sheet of fabric, so the participants had to reconstruct what the model’s position was under the shroud. As he did generally, here Erdély taught his students to see through appearances, and grasp that which is hidden from sight. In this pursuit of the hidden and the essential, although this may sound surprising, he was the successor of not only Kassák, but also the young Lukács and Balázs.

Time Travel is an example of how Erdély stretched imagination, a heroic experiment to expand and push the boundaries of human existence and an attempt to see through time, whether elapsed or yet to come.

[1] See R. Buckminster Fuller: Operating Manual for Spaceship Earth, Zurich: Lars Müller Publishers, 2008/2015, p. 67. Quote emphasis by Fuller. [2] Piotr Demianovich Ouspensky: The Fourth Dimension, Whitefish, Montana: Kessinger Publishing, 2005. [3] P. D. Ouspensky: Tertium Organum: The Third Canon of Thought, a Key to the Enigmas of the World. Translated from the Russian by Nicholas Bessaraboff and Claude Bragdon. Rochester, N.Y.: Manas Press, 1920. [4] P. D. Ouspensky: In Search of the Miraculous: The Definitive Exploration of G. I. Gurdjieff’s Mystical Thought and Universal View, with an Introduction by Marianne Williamson, Harvest Book series, San Diego: Harcourt, Inc., 2001. For a detailed discussion of these concepts see Linda Dalrymple Henderson: The Fourth Dimension and Non-Euclidian Geometry in Modern Art, Revised edition, Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 2013. [5] Zhuravliev: Kosmicheskij rejs (Cosmic Voyage; The Space Ship; The Space Voyage), 1936, USSR, 70 min. [6] Miklós Erdély: “Optimista előadás” (An optimistic lecture), 1981, a talk at ELTE University, Department of Aesthetics, Budapest, April 22, 1981. Printed in Tartóshullám (Permanent Waves), Budapest: ELTE, 1985, pp.143-149, and Miklós Erdély: Művészeti írások (Writings on art), Budapest: Képzőművészeti Kiadó, 1991, this quote p. 140. [7] Miklós Erdély: “Marly tézisek” (Marly theses), in Erdély: Művészeti írások (Writings on art), Budapest: Képzőművészeti Kiadó, 1991, pp. 125-128. [8] Kazimir Malevich: Die gegenstandslose Welt (The world of non-objectivity), Bauhausbücher No. 14, Munich: Albert Langen Verlag, 1927. [9] Erdély: “Idő mőbiusz” (Time moebius), in Erdély: Idő mőbiusz. Második kötet. (Time moebius. Volume 2.) Paris, Vienna, Budapest: Magyar Műhely, 1974, p. 95.

This essay is based on a talk given at the exhibition and conference co-organized by Tranzit.hu, “Report on the Construction of a Spaceship Module” at the New Museum, New York, NY, January 2014.