In Hungary, the underground art of the 1980s took place mainly in private venues, in front of a small audience. After they were made, these works of art did not receive any publicity, they were displayed in small galleries at most, leaving them largely unreflected. Zsuzsi Ujj’s art is a particularly obvious example of this trend. She received no attention outside her narrow circle of friends; her work was presented in two exhibitions at Liget Gallery, but was essentially unknown to the art world of the 1980s.
Zsuzsi Ujj has been creating in several genres simultaneously. She started writing lyrics at the beginning of the 1980s and making photographs in 1986. Her photographic output is confined to a few years only, she gave it up in 1991. Thereafter she became known as the founder vocalist of the band Csókolom. Zsuzsi Ujj’s photographic and musical careers have gone hand in hand and have had a significant impact on each other. The title of the exhibition is a quote from one of her lyrics from 1987; as in her songs, so in her photographs, she is searching for love, talking about sexuality and desire with her self-conscious, unstoppably rebellious attitude.
The circumstances surrounding the creation of the photos are inseparable from the photos themselves. She began to take self-portraits in the absence of her then-lover, the photographer István Halas, after he left for abroad. She was angry with him for leaving her and moving to another country. She wanted to show herself to him. She wanted to present herself as beautiful. We see a high degree of self-disclosure in the photos. They are actually intended as love letters, taken in the absence of the man she loved. She sent a message through Halas’ own medium, photography. In most cases, her photos were taken with a self-timer. Her friends (most often Tibor Várnagy and István Halas) helped her to develop the negatives, as she herself would not have had the technical knowledge to do so. In order to view the negatives (since she had no money to develop them), she would turn them into flat films and enlarge them on the wall to the desired size. Some of her shots exist in several versions, there are both soft and hard versions of the same photo. Hard images display hard contours, similar to photocopies, with no subtle transitions. The visual aspect of these works was undoubtedly influenced by the emergence of the photocopy or xerox, popular in the art of the time. Besides this, another important source of inspiration for her was working at the Béla Balázs Studio in the second half of the 1980s, as well as at Péter Forgács’ Private Photo and Film Archive.
Her self-portraits taken with mirrors constitute a separate collection. The mirror is a recurring element in Zsuzsi Ujj’s oeuvre. In her early mirror series, her shadow image appears on the wall, while the hanging mirrors reveal parts of the artist’s body. Her mirror works were inspired by Lenke Szilágyi’s photographs, which Zsuzsi Ujj saw in the Lajos Street exhibition hall of Budapest Gallery around that time.
Besides her self-portraits, she also experimented with body painting. She dressed herself up as different characters and created almost storyboard-like photographic documents of herself – similar to Tibor Hajas’ one-man performances. She made series, some of which are included in the current exhibition. First, she painted her face in polka dots, portraying herself as an innocent young girl, while on her naked body she applied a diamond-shaped image that could be interpreted as female genitalia. Most of the photos were executed in the corner of her room, and many of them do not clearly show the motif painted on her body because she is in a crouching position. Some pieces in the series feature the handle of a broom, a wine bottle and a mirror. The photo entitled Broomstick, in which she appears as a witch perching on a broom handle, also belongs to this group.
The second time she applied paint, she drew a skeleton covering her entire body. Zsuzsi Ujj dressed herself up as a skeleton several times and made various such series, some of which have a complete narrative. Her naked body is covered only by a thin undergarment, yet the primary sexual characteristics of her body are not obvious, as her nipples are covered by large black dots. Some of the pieces in the series feature a real skeleton, with whom she took posed wedding photos. Another one imitates a wedding night, with the artist in a dominant position over the real skeleton. And to continue the story, a hand-rocking infant skeleton even appears in the series. In her series Wrapped, the skeleton figure is shown in a transparent body bag, in a foil. Another similar subset of the series is the Flying Images, in which the artist appears to be levitating. The most iconic piece is the one entitled Throned, in which she sits on a covered platform or throne looking serenely ahead. The counterpart of this suggestive work is With Egg. The two photos, although displaying the same body painting and similar props, present two completely opposing scenes. Photographed from below, from a frog’s-eye view, the photo With Egg captures a more confused moment, with the skeleton sitting on what appears to be an egg-like object between its legs – in fact, on the same throne.
Her series With Öcsi was admittedly inspired by Tibor Hajas’ Lou Reed Total, and can be regarded as a documentation of an individual performance. The artist, who poses in sunglasses, leather jacket, make-up and fishnet stockings, is accompanied by a man in sunglasses and a hat. The black-eyed female figure, the disregardful attitude of the man, the lowered stockings and trousers all evoke scenes of a violent, abusive relationship.
Zsuzsi Ujj’s later photos were not produced in such a large series. In her work, which won a prize at the 7th Esztergom Photography Biennale in 1990, she once again returned to body painting. This time she drew a face on her back, with huge staring eyes. In the photos, she places the face in various situations, thus lending it a highly expressive context.
The Torsos, depicting female nudes, are also late additions to the oeuvre. The torsos are lacking certain body parts, and in some cases even the head is missing, which depersonalises the female figures. The Circle series, the final work in the oeuvre, is equally lyrical. In some elements of this large series consisting of four photographs, headless female bodies appear as negative images, going round and round until they disappear from the last photograph.
Zsuzsi Ujj’s art has long gone unnoticed by the institutional system. Her forgotten photographic oeuvre was ignored for two decades until the 2009 MUMOK Gender Check exhibition in Vienna brought her photos into the spotlight. A few years later, in 2012, her photos were included in the TATE London exhibition A Bigger Splash: Painting after Performance. Both exhibitions featured her photo entitled Throned. It was only after this that Hungarian institutions and public collections began to show interest in Zsuzsi Ujj’s photographic art.
MissionArt Gallery and Tibor Várnagy, the former founding director of Liget Gallery, whose works were presented in 2021 at the MAGMA in Sfântu Gheorghe, has played an immesurable role in the creation, presentation, promotion and follow-up of Zsuzsi Ujj’s oeuvre.
The event is part of the 3rd VISOR Photo Festival of Szeklerland program series.