Former Laureates

Péter Forgács

2007

Hungarian media artist Péter Forgács (1950) received the Erasmus Prize for the original way his documentary films have contributed to the transmission of culture and the memory of the past. The theme of the Erasmus Prize was ‘Cultural Memory’: how history is kept alive and how the past is transmitted to younger generations. Péter Forgács has built up a large collection of amateur and family films and made them accessible for purposes of research and artistic inspiration. On the basis of this ‘found’ film material, Forgács has created an impressive body of work. His films are not documentaries in the usual sense of the word; they are new creations made from documentary material. They establish a relationship between the private lives of ordinary people and the major events of twentieth-century history, thus bringing back memories of periods of repression and totalitarianism. By artfully and artistically manipulating the materials available to him, Forgács addresses our cultural memory and sets the viewer thinking about the world of today. His most important films are the twelve-part series Private Hungary, Maelstrom, The Danube Exodus and El perro negro.

Citation

Article 2 of the Constitution of the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation reads as follows:

Within the context of the cultural traditions of Europe in general and the ideas of Erasmus in particular, the aim of the Foundation is to enhance the position of the humanities, social sciences and the arts. The emphasis is on tolerance, cultural pluralism and non-dogmatic, critical thinking. The Foundation endeavours to achieve this aim through the award of prizes and by other means. A money prize is awarded under the name of Erasmus Prize.

In accordance with this article, the Board of the Praemium Erasmianum Foundation has decided to award the Erasmus Prize for the year 2007 to Péter Forgács. The Prize is awarded to him on the following grounds:

  • Péter Forgács has built up a large collection of amateur and home movies and made this collection accessible for scientific research and artistic inspiration.
     
  • Based on this found footage, Mr Forgács has created an impressive oeuvre of films, films that address important and painful episodes in the history of the 20th century, films that make people reflect on the world of today.
     
  • His films relate events in the private lives of ordinary citizens to key events of 20th century history, and thereby bring back memories of episodes of repression and totalitarian rule.
     
  • The films, which are the products of his ingenious artistic manipulation of found material, make a strong appeal to our cultural memory. They form an outstanding example of how memory can be kept alive and culture can be transmitted to future generations.
     
  • The film oeuvre of Péter Forgács is characterized by a critical analysis of the sources, and a non-dogmatic, open mind to the diverse perceptions of historical truth in Europe. These Erasmian values clearly form part of Mr Forgács’ intellectual and personal approach to the subject matter of his films.

Laudatio

Ladies and gentlemen,

Destroying landmarks of a people’s history is a painful form of intimidation. In the Balkan wars of the 1990s, historical monuments have been targets of purposed destruction. The famous 16th century bridge in Mostar was destroyed in 1993, not just for military, strategic reasons. It was a functional bridge, but also a proud icon of Islamic architecture and a symbol of Islamic culture in the history of the Balkan. It was rebuilt in recent years. At the end of the Second World War, many cities throughout Europe were in ruins. When they were reconstructed after the war, the remaining historic buildings were often incorporated as landmarks of their culture. If there was anything left at all. Warsaw for instance was completely destroyed by the Germans, under the eyes of the Red Army waiting on the other side of the river. After the war, the citizens of Warsaw have in a joint effort to reconstruct their capital rebuilt the entire old city centre as an exact replica of what it was before the war. The big 6th century Buddha statues in Afghanistan were considered un-islamic and were demolished by the Taliban regime in 2001. The present Afghan government and international organizations – recognizing their value as cultural heritage - are now planning their reconstruction.

I am giving these examples to illustrate the inevitability of what we call Cultural Memory. This year the theme for the Erasmus Prize is Cultural Memory. It refers to how we are dealing, both in psychological and in practical terms, with our history, or if you like, with our cultural heritage. This heritage includes buildings, statues and monuments, as well as the events they symbolize. Monuments were intended to evoke memories of events that were felt to be meaningful. But what is meaningful and valuable for one group may be different for another. Besides, our perception of history changes as time goes by. Our cultural heritage is not a book with a fixed form and content. It is to some extent fluid. This is why Cultural Memory is a field of polemics, where emotion and controversy reign.

Current debates about what should belong to a nation’s canon focus on the question of what we find important enough to transmit to the next generations. But the matter is complicated. What do we wish to preserve, for whom and at what cost? There are many players in this field, such as researchers, artists, journalists, civil activists, politicians and industry. Their ideas on which cultural landmarks are worth preserving do not necessarily converge. An example in the Netherlands is the recent decision to designate a large number of post-war architectural high-lights as cultural monuments, and the mixed reactions that were to follow. It is good to realize that our Cultural Memory is inherently unstable, transforming itself under various pressures and influences. This may be ‘an inconvenient truth’, but it is a process that by itself is worthy of attention in a world where the ‘Bildungsideal’ has been superseded by a wide-spread and speedy forgetfulness.

Fortunately we have museums, libraries and archives to help us in keeping memories alive or re-installing them. The same holds for historians, biographers, novelists and authors of memoirs. All of them reach a broad general audience and fulfill a great role in the transmission of culture and making history alive.

Artists, too, play their part. There are artists who creatively use cultural heritage as material for original works of contemporary art. Picasso was influenced by African art and Van Gogh by Japanese prints. An interesting illustration of the artistic transmission of culture is offered by the work of the famous Hungarian composers Zoltán Kodály and Béla Bartók. They crossed the country to collect traditional folk melodies and store these into an archive. Their zeal was not just inspired by historical interest. They used these recordings for their own original compositions - pieces of music that were inspired by and rooted in these traditional music styles. But Kodály and Bartók gave this music a new dimension, leading to musical innovation. At the same time their work kindled the interest in the original folk tunes and inspired other musicians and students of music to study and conserve their national musical traditions.

Following this line of thinking, one can also think of film makers. There are film makers who have created a documentary opus of great significance, and have thereby deepened our understanding of the past. Ladies and gentlemen, Péter Forgács, Hungarian film maker and media artist, is such a man. He composes films as if they were musical compositions - by using found material.

Forgács’ films and installations are exclusively made up of found footage, material from the archive of home movies, an archive that he established himself. This Private Film and Photo Archive in Budapest comprises more than 300 hours of home movies, the result of a long collecting activity. Most of these films originate from Hungarian middle class families, who have documented their private lives in these films. They form the treasure trove of Forgács’ work. The genre of the home movie focuses almost exclusively on events in the personal lives of families. As such these films can be rather boring for outsiders, as mr Forgács himself has repeatedly stated. But Forgács uses these films as ingredients for a greater story.
The merit of Forgács is that by an ingenious manipulation of this material he brings back to life certain episodes of 20th century history, mostly periods of repression and totalitarian rule. Forgács does not take his responsibility lightly. He has carefully dealt with historical fact and in composing his message has availed himself of insights from psychology and philosophy. He brings back historical periods through a manipulated medium, namely by inserting key moments of history into the personal accounts of the home movies. In these intrusions we see Forgács’ personal interpretation and message. He captures the viewer by creating a painful contrast between customary family scenes and the violence of the time - repression, deportation, civil war, holocaust. Without such a treatment, these movies would probably do no more than leading meaningless, dusty lives in attics or on the shelves of archives.

It is this subtle interference, often unnoticeable for the ordinary viewer, which has attracted attention from historians and students of film. They have asked themselves what exactly Forgács is doing: What is the effect of manipulations such as focusing, slow motion, stopping and breaking up images? What effect does the music, mostly the minimal music composed by Tibor Szemzö, have on the viewer? Finally, the historian may ask whether what Forgács does to the sources is permissible in terms of historic reconstruction. How far can interpretation go before it becomes fiction, melodrama or in the worst case fraud?
One thing is clear: we are not dealing with a regular sort of documentary films. Forgács’ films are primarily conceived as works of art, not as willful historical documentaries that claim to reveal an objective truth.

Mr Forgács, you have created a remarkable oeuvre. We see episodes of European history, revitalized and shaped, as it were, by your artistic imagination and skill. Your work brings to life episodes which are easily forgotten; the private lives are placed into the context of the storms of twentieth century history. Whether this is the life of the Hungarian middle classes under communist rule, the Spanish civil war or the Nazi occupation of Greece and the Netherlands. Your work is of a genre apart. It appeals to our cultural memory and urges us to think. You are well aware of the relativity of such historical reconstructions: Your favorite motto is a quote of Wittgenstein: Everything we see could also be otherwise.

It has not been our deliberate purpose to award a Hungarian citizen with the Erasmus Prize. In a way this is accidental. (I recall with a nod to Wittgenstein: Everything that is could also be otherwise). But it is also very fortunate and gratifying. There is a long tradition of cultural relations between Hungary and the Netherlands. The well-known photographers Ata Kando and Eva Besnyö are just an example. In fact there have been at least two waves of migration from Hungary to the Netherlands. The first took place in the nineteen twenties of the twentieth century, when a group of children, mainly girls, came to the Netherlands to recover from the war. The second wave took place in 1956, when some five thousand Hungarian refugees found shelter in the Netherlands. Among them were persons who would play a prominent role in the cultural life of our country. We attach great importance to our cultural ties with the Hungarian people. Mr Forgács, your work is known in the Netherlands and your films have been broadcast by VPRO television. You have many Dutch friends and colleagues with whom you have worked, friends who are now here to pay homage to the exceptional artist you are. I hope that this distinction will re-affirm our ties with you and with the Hungarian cultural scene.

May I now ask you to come forward to receive the ornaments of the Erasmus Prize.

Acceptance Speech

Your Majesty, Royal Highnesses, Excellencies, Ladies and Gentlemen

One must ask the question, where does all this come from? The idea of dealing with other people’s banal memories, will they replace my own? Or my dreams? To find the dreams of inner and external realms, the point of view, the perspective and the changing view of the point, the changing perspective? The changing aspect?

How and why do I remember again and again– in multiple layers, together with all the meanings – and what is the motif of this stubborn quest for the ruins and remnants of what the personal and collective amnesia left for us, the fragments of memory? Films? Not always. The rhythm, the music and the continued observation, analysis of the ruins… Ruins of a house, remnants of a life, and the vision of the phoenix that disclaims the loss…. An East- or Central-European saga?

I remember when at the age of six my mother sent me down for ice, as the ice carriage bell was heard on Attila street pulled by huge fuming horses, and the ice man chopped the cubes into my bucket and I paid about two forint for that heavy load. In the summer of 1956 I had no idea of the electric refrigerator, nor of the history of the open air restaurant that was built on the vanished site of a destroyed house… The house of Dusi and Jeno, my later Private Hungary series film heroes, whose neat bourgeois house stood there before the war – it was about 300 hundred meter south of my home; nor did I have any knowledge that on that very hot summer the Stalinist regime melted like the ice in my bucket - if I hadn't run home… The time came again for my late maestro Ferenc Mérei, psychologist, who – after six years of inner exile was back again in politics in the hot summer of ’56. From 1940 he spent years in Forced Jewish labor. After the war, he thought his time had come, he reconstructed and created the new Hungarian Educational system and the children Psychology and social psychology education… This lasted only three years…when the Soviet system ruled him out, put him on the sidelines. Logically, after the ’56 revolution Mérei was thrown into prison with thousands of other revolutionaries. There he suffered a brain stroke – for a longer period living literally on bread and water after a prison strike. His left side was paralyzed temporarily, and he could not speak for weeks. But he diagnosed himself and realized his perspectives and illness, and started to cure himself. Like a revived spirit of Count Monte Christo, he escaped into creativity and memory re-construction.

He wrote four excellent books on toilet paper that was kept and collected through the solidarity of the other prisoners. It took him three years to complete books on Group Experience, on Allusion, on Emotional Intelligence, and Implicated Knowledge in Dreams, which have all at a later stage become groundbreaking ideas in Hungarian Psychology… He collected and analyzed his prison dreams (had about sixhundred), wrote his own French-German-English vocabulary as a self-designed memory therapy… And had time to cure and support the others in there.

Why am I talking here about his life? Well, I learned from him how to see, observe, collect, de- and re-structure, create, connect, analyze ideas, trauma, dreams, banalities, emotions, group, my own self; for a good decade he taught me how to process individual and collective emotions, private and public history and arts.

I was a rebel in much luckier times: in the early nineteen seventies just thrown out of the Art Academy, and of all universities in Hungary, but not put into prison. And this deviation offered me new ways to discover at the same time Mérei's ’private university’ in his home and the underground avant-garde art movements of my country.

From the mid seventies I could understand the repressed memory, the double speak of a regime, the suppressed hidden past, the trauma and hysteria of the personae – of one’s family and tribe, or of a whole nation. Moreover I had the good support of my dear director of the Cultural Research Institute Iván Vitányi who is here today too. He saved, covered some politically deviant researchers and artists like myself in those not always easy times. He made it possible to create the Private Photo and Film Archive in a covert way, in the shadows.

I was somehow predestined to build connections between found film footage, scratchy images of memory, oral history, and the acquiring art – of Marcel Duchamp’s objet trouvé – the recontextualizing, the re-reading of visions; and later to find the bridge of time structure through minimal music – to find the music of images (thanks to Tibor Szemz?, musician and creator, who is also present here this morning). A connection between the archive, the art, the  individual and collective psyche; and past as present. History is present time.

Well, here I am with an amateur filmmaker's Faustian European stories and just like filmic memory they fight against decay, against death, a quest for eternal life.… these are endless Happiness Monuments, where filmmakers collect mostly the banal moments and I became the one who had the questions, many-many questions: why? where? I would like to see what was behind the picture. My way to see the world has grown out of many years of laboratory work of art. To look around without tears in my eyes, to see the private time, private history of my times. The motivation to share these found, repressed, forgotten stories with my friends came after six years of archeological work consisting of collecting my fellow Hungarians’ hidden stories, films.

But how come that I am standing here today, honored with the great Erasmus Prize? One needs a lucky moment beyond challenge, work and creation. This is what we need beyond a place in the world, deep devotion, ancestors, maestros, colleagues, discourse, reflection and questions.

This is my version: just one year after the Berlin Wall came down, in 1989, a wordless Dutchman named Albert Wulffers came to Hungary and in the independent Béla Balázs Filmstudio he selected among others also my work for the – at that time famous - World Wide Video Festival. It happened in this lovely city, near to this beautiful palace. I won a prize that was a great surprise to me: I asked myself how it could be that my Hungarian stories were readable abroad? And after that I met other friends with whom I have a profound dialogue since: like Cesar Messemaker, Peter Delpeut, Nico de Klerk, and Hans Maarten van den Brink. I had my time, my luck to build up a long lasting cooperation with excellent  institutions like the Netherlands Filmmuseum and the VPRO TV. This made it possible to broaden my field to the larger horizon of European private histories, to learn how we deal with our spirit. This is a place, this is a country, where I found a unique openness, curiosity and cooperation. I will use this exceptional opportunity to continue and support my quest for memory and culture through art.

Thank you Holland.

Biography

Péter Forgács (1950) is a media artist and independent filmmaker based in Budapest. He started his studies at the Academy of Fine Arts, from where he was expelled the same year. He graduated as a drawing teacher in 1977. He worked for the Adult Education Institute and the Education Research Institute. His field of expertise is the exploration of private photo and film history from a visual, social, aesthetic and cultural anthropological perspective. As an independent film and video artist, he has been working in the Béla Balázs Studio since 1978. He lectured at several film, history and literature faculties of universities abroad. He is also working for the Research Centre for Social Studies of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences.
Since 1978 Forgács has made more than thirty films. He is best known for the Private Hungary series of award-winning films based on home movies and amateur films from the 1930s and 1940s, which document ordinary lives that were soon to be ruptured by an extraordinary historical trauma that occurs off screen. In 1983, Forgács established the Private Photo & Film Archives Foundation in Budapest, of which he is the manager. This is a unique collection of amateur film footage and he has made this material the raw data for research and his unique re-orchestrations of history. His international debut came with the Bartos Family (1988), which was awarded the Grand Prix at the World Wide Video Festival in The Hague. Since then he has received several international festival awards – in Budapest, Lisbon, Marseilles, San Francisco and Berlin, where he won the Prix Europa for Free Fall in 1997. His most recent films are El Perro Negro (2005) on the Spanish Civil War and Miss Universe (2006) on the 1929 Austrian beauty queen Lisl Goldarbeiter.
In the 1990s Forgács exhibited his video installations in major museums and galleries in Europe. In the years 2000-2002 for fifteen months he was a fellow at The Getty Research Institute, Los Angeles and as a result held an exhibit of his interactive installation The Danube Exodus: Rippling Currents of the River. His work can be found in several public collections in Europa and the USA. Péter Forgács was awarded with the Béla Balázs Film Prize in 1998, and the Knight Cross Order of the Hungarian Republic. For an extensive list of works, awards and exhibitions see www.peterforgacs.com.

November 2007

Exhibition Péter Forgács in EYE 2013

The exhibition 'Looming Fire' in EYE in 2013 focused on the new work of Péter Forgács, Erasmus Prize winner in 2007.

Péter Forgács' Found Footage

The Hungarian director Péter Forgács received the Erasmus Prize in 2007 for his work on 'cultural memory'.