Ilona Németh: Eastern Sugar
Opening: 2022/05/06 19:00
On view: 2022/05/07 - 2022/06/19
Led by Slovak-Hungarian artist Ilona Németh, the expansive research project Eastern Sugar (2017-ongoing) began with the story of a single Czechoslovak sugar mill, Juhocukor, and led to a three-year investigation of fifteen sugar factories in Slovakia, the Czech Republic and Hungary: the oldest, Cukrspol, in Prague-Modřany (1861-2002) and the youngest, Juhocukor (1969-2006), in the artist’s hometown, Dunajská Streda.
Founded under the Austrian Empire on the cultivation of sugar beet, the Central and Eastern European sugar industry was developed under the Austro-Hungarian dual monarchy and later state-sponsored under Soviet-occupied Czechoslovakia. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and the split between the Czech and Slovak Republics, privatization, foreign buy-outs and the reduction of European Union sugar production led to its dissolution. Only a few factories still operate, though the EU sugar market has since been liberalized.
The exhibition at Trafó Gallery is the Eastern Sugar project’s debut in Hungary. It focuses on the project’s oral history archive and documentation of factory sites, with a selection of video interviews and photo-essays. The media and materials on display reflect upon the demise of eastern Hungary’s factory Hajdúsági Cukorgyár within intra-European dynamics, specifically the purchase of six Central and Eastern European factories – including Juhocukor, Cukrspol and Hajdúsági Sugar Factory – by Franco-British joint venture Eastern Sugar, for which Németh’s project is named. In 2006, the European Commission introduced measures to reduce European Union sugar production after a World Trade Organization dispute settlement found in favor of Australia, Brazil and Thailand, that Europe’s sugar exports were in excess of permitted levels. The company Eastern Sugar accepted EU restructuring compensations in exchange for the waiving of sugar quotas assigned to factories through EU national allotments. The demolition of factories was required if companies agreed to renounce their quotas in exchange for compensation.
Conversation is a critical method in Németh’s practice and, as dialogues with people and places, the video interviews and photo-essays exemplify active listening in thinking through sugar-related economic and cultural shifts. The artist’s last major institutional exhibition in Budapest was part of the retrospective traveling series, Dilemma (2011-2012), a central part of which was supposed to be an auditorium-like installation featuring a video-interview with philosopher Ágnes Heller about her grandmother. Amidst political attacks on the intellectual left, of which Heller became a symbol, Németh elected to replace the interview with a video installation that presented her own dilemma responding to the way the new political conditions would distort her original gesture. As a platform for sharing post-socialist experiences with neoliberalism, Eastern Sugar continues this conversational and self-reflexive approach to pressing questions.
Ilona Németh is an artist, organizer and curator of Hungarian nationality based in Slovakia. Her artistic practice seeks a balance between the personal experience of growing up in a region marked by political turmoil and the universal history of the Eastern Bloc countries during the transition period from 1990 to the present. She graduated from the Hungarian University of Arts and Design, Budapest, in 1986 and, in 1987, co-founded the nonprofit art organization Studio erté which organized the Transart Communication performance art festivals in Czechoslovakia and elsewhere in the region. In 2006, she defended her doctoral thesis at the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts, Budapest.
Németh is a participating artist in documenta fifteen (2022) through OFF-Biennale Budapest and recently finished work on the international exhibition and research project Eastern Sugar with the Slovak National Gallery Bratislava supported by the European Commission’s Creative Europe program. She has co-curated two traveling exhibition series: Private Nationalism, which traveled to Budapest, Bratislava, Krakow, Dresden, Pécs, Kosice and Prague in 2014 and 2015, and Universal Hospitality at the City Festival of Wiener Festwochen in 2016, then MeetFactory and FUTURA in Prague in 2017. From 2011 to 2012, her traveling retrospective, Dilemma, was presented in Budapest, Košice and Brno. In 2001, she exhibited the multimedia installation Invitation for a Visit in the Pavilion of the Czech and Slovak Republic at the Venice Biennale with Jiří Surůvka. She has participated in numerous international exhibitions and is respected as an important established artist of the region.
Text by: Emily Verla Bovino (researcher, writer and artist)
Supported by: National Cultural Fund of Hungary, Kult Minor, Agrana Sugar, Slovak Institute in Budapest, Cukru Production, Káli Kövek, Budapest Gallery, Post Bellum, City Gallery Bratislava