János Vetõ NahTe, photographer, self-taught painter, and musician, was a leading figure of non-conformist photo art in Hungary’s neo-avant-garde period (up to 1980) and the New Wave period that followed, and continues his approach today. During the second half of the 1970s he collaborated with the body artist Tibor Hajas, assisting and photographing Hajas’s actions. They also jointly created photographic art works in which Hajas performed solely for Vetõ, who was already renowned for his photographic work that radically challenged the conventions of portraits, self-portraits, and nudes. After Hajas’s accidental death, Vetõ collaborated with the painter Lóránt Méhes (Zuzu), and began applying paint onto his photographs. In 1991, Vetõ moved to Copenhagen.
Two of Vető’s collaborative works with Tibor Hajas are on display in the exhibition Promote Tolerate Ban at the Wende Museum in Culver City. We spoke on July 20 in the Wende Museum garden.
Paula: How does it feel to see this exhibition?
János: It’s very nice. When I saw it first I said, “Oh, it's a strange kind of mixture of art and history.” Then I got the point that it's a dedicated history museum for the Cold War. It’s great. It's a very nice collection and a very informative exhibition.
Paula: Does it bring back some memories?
János: Yes, a lot of memories. For example, I was there [in 1989] when Viktor Orbán made his famous speech in Heroes Square and expelled the Russians at the funeral for Imre Nagy. [Ed: Imre Nagy, a former Hungarian Prime Minister, was executed after the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. He was reburied in 1989 and was given a funeral as a symbolic marker of the end of communist rule in Hungary.]
I didn’t want to go to the event, but a friend of mine was part of a German press team and so he convinced me to join him. There were secret police everywhere, and speeches from people who survived from that period. Along came this youth communist party member, Viktor Orbán, and I thought” Who is this young Communist kicking that lion [Russia]? Everybody knew they were already on the way out. It was a fake, a KGB trick. It is possible to make fake history. I think it's necessary to mention this to people, because lot of people misunderstood his role in this story.
Paula: The title of this exhibition is Promote, Tolerate, Ban. What does that mean to you?
János: It was a cultural policy. If you are banned then you have no chance as an artist. If you are tolerated you sneak into the museums, or if you were promoted then you got everything. Flats, accolades, money.
Paula: What did it take to be promoted?
János: Well, there are good Lenin statues and bad Lenin statues and they promoted the ones they preferred. They had a lot-- writers, poets and even actors and movie directors. Then a new generation came along with a lot of question marks. I can only talk about the end of the 60s and when I started my own art. I was a young man, a young kid, who was very much interested in contemporary art and I really wanted to be a part of it. Very early by coincidence I found my way to the avant-garde.
When I was a child we had a neighbor who was an actor. One day he stopped and asked my mother, “Can I bring János to the theater? We have a character something like him.” Luckily she said yes, and I started to work in the theater. I worked with some of the biggest actors of the time in many different pieces. Suddenly I was there with all of them. There was a little bookstore for the actors and the directors, and the man in the bookstore gave me very good books by Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs. Not really for kids, but they were great for a quiet young man and gave me a push. When I became a teenager and my voice started to change I was out from that theater, but by then I was on the track. Later I spent a summer at Balaton Lake and near there was the Balatonboglar Chapel gallery, which had exhibitions. I found my way there and suddenly I belonged to this group of artists.
Paula: There's a lot of fate in your story.
János: Just fate all the time. I call it psychedelic organization.
Paula: Psychedelic organization.
János: Because you don't do anything for it, it just comes. Just as I am here now.
Another time a few years ago I was visiting Zuzu, another friend and collaborator in Budapest, and he gave me directions to his house. At one street he told me to turn right, but I accidentally turned left and ran into a photo gallery, the oldest photo gallery in Budapest. I hadn’t visited this gallery for a long time so I went in. There was a beautiful exhibition but there was nobody there. Suddenly, a secret door in the wall opened and out came the gallerist to ask what I wanted. I went into that back room, and my pictures were all over the desk. They were working on an exhibition. I didn’t know anything about it. That’s psychedelic organization. I was going somewhere and something made me turn in another direction. Then we started to work together. I answered questions and helped her as much as I could for the exhibition. I don't know where she got them but she had very nice prints. It was a great pleasure to see my old works, because when I married my wife, a Swedish artist, and moved to Denmark my family threw away all my stuff, all my paintings, all my collections, I had Josef Beuys works, I had Warhols, I had art I had collected and my own works, and they just threw away everything.
János: Well, but through coincidence, I had all my negatives. The Copenhagen flat was rented from an American friend who had built a photo lab for me in the apartment as a gift. So I had brought my negatives with me. That’s why all my negatives are safe.
János: It's an amazing story. All my prints were gone but I had my negatives. I think that a dealer may take some of my photographs to Paris Photo this year. Everyone is always obsessed with vintage prints. I lost all of my vintage prints but I think it’s better to have new prints anyway. They will be better than the vintage ones. We will see what happens.
Paula: What’s attractive about photography to you?
János: Because I was a young man, naturally I wanted to take pictures of naked girls, because I was so curious, so the camera was good for that. I was very much part of the conceptual art movement so I made all kinds of experiments with positive and negative, with painting on photographs and with combining images. My whole generation found photography at that time mostly because cameras became a bit easier to get. Still difficult -- I had to smuggle one in from East Germany across the border. They caught me, and it caused me a lot of trouble. They had already threatened to take my passport. Later they did take it, and for 10 years of my life I was not allowed to travel, not even within the Eastern bloc.
János: I never got the answer, the real answer. My mother was an economist and a vice general director of an investment bank, and kind of part of the system. She tried to find out what was going on and they told her “Your son knows very well, you should ask him” but they refused to talk to me. I remember that was first time she broke. She really began to question the people she was serving. Her career began to suffer after that and so she retired. It happened to a lot of people and even worse things. When I would go to the club where young artists met late in the evening, I was sometimes stopped by the police in the street to ask for my ID twice within those five blocks between my house and the club.
Paula: Do think it was to intimidate?
János: Just to make it uncomfortable for everybody, and especially for the youngsters. Scary. If you said something in a direct way against the system, then they would count it as a criminal act. There were a few examples of that. For example Tibor Hajas was a very accepted poet in the underground circle. He was the best in the gymnasium and the best in the university, and he was put in jail for a year and a half because of a poem he wrote called “Comrade Fascist.” This was before I knew him, but from looking at pictures it seems he was a different person after that.
Paula: Speaking of Tibor Hajas, what can you tell me about Vigil, the piece that you worked on together?
János: Vigil was his last performance, and probably the most dangerous one. All of the performances were dangerous and kind of self destructive, but this was the worst. He never had an accident when I was his assistant, but when he had to do it without me, because I didn’t have a passport to follow him, it always ended with unconsciousness or Tibor burning his face or something. We started to work with magnesium to make lights and explosions, and he burned his face in Amsterdam during a performance. Another time at a performance festival in Poland he hung too long by his wrists from a rope and lost consciousness. The audience had to take him down.
So the Vigil. Actually I never forgive him because I didn't really understand what he was proposing before it happened. We talked about the task and we made the environment for the performance and we found a perfect dog, a perfect young dog. We recorded the vocal performance two days before the physical one. He sought out beautiful text to recite. When the performance started, he walked in with a bucket of water and threw it on the floor. He had a lamp, just a light bulb with a long wire, which he put to the water. He talked with the dog, and got on his knees in the middle of the room. It was a huge place, an architectural collegium restaurant, but completely empty, no tables, just chairs for the audience. There were over 100 people in the audience, or maybe 200. It's a huge place.
Then a doctor gave him an injection of anesthesia, like for an operation. It stops all the life functions. There were two of us two that had to move his body and wash away the water between the audience and the dog. With one wrong movement he might never have woken up or he could have been paralyzed. I didn't know that before. Carrying a human body, even if he was very fragile thin person, is not easy, especially when it's completely unconscious. We were lucky.
Paula: So why did he do these kinds of things?
János: He always wanted to stretch the borders. He was a very, very intelligent person. He read a lot and he spoke several languages and was a very fine, very aristocratic person. Very friendly, with a lot of authority. I was very privileged, he was a mentor for me, I was very much in this avant-garde movement, and I heard about him and I saw his works, but I didn’t understand why everybody said he was so great. His art did nothing for me, actually. When we met, I immediately got his personality and we came to be very good friends. I suggested we do something together, and what we started to do together is completely different from what he did before.
Paula: I read an article yesterday from The Art Newspaper, that the Green Party has created a petition on the Internet called the Brussels Declaration for Freedom for the Arts. Among other issues, it says that Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán’s government is sponsoring art that is ideological, that's in line with his nationalist agenda.
János: Yes, that’s happening now.
Paula: They are responding by trying to create an international declaration for artists’ freedom.
János: The German Green Party?
János: It’s very good that you mentioned this because the German Green Party was founded by Josef Beuys. If you read the Bible, what is the Bible? A declaration. God declares something and it's here. The declaration is very necessary. Warhol declared that everyone is an artist, and now everyone is an artist. There is no way back. Joseph Beuys declared that social sculpture is the new art form, and since then, whether conscious or unconscious, every politician uses art in this way. Quite dangerous.
On the other hand there are good Lenin statues and bad Lenin statues. We have good social sculptures and bad. What’s going on in Hungary is a good example of bad social sculpting. It’s as if we are already back in the 50s or even the 30s as well, and it's not funny. It is not funny because we know what the next step is.
Paula: What do you think about having a museum of the Cold War?
János: Great idea. It was a very terrible time. We have a museum for the Napoleon wars as well. It’s not good to forget. They have made the sculpture cemetery in Hungary where they put all these communist monuments in a safe place. [Memento Park] They don't display them but they keep them together; they don't destroy them. It’s a very scary place actually, with all these monster Lenins and Stalins and Red Army soldiers.
Paula: There’s some conversation about that here. We had a civil war in the US and there are a lot of confederate monuments in cities in the south. Some people believe they should be taken down because they don't represent us anymore.
János: Yeah, I read about that. They should put them somewhere else, maybe not in the middle of the city, but they should find a way to keep something to understand the history.
Paula: Well they say if we don't remember history, we're doomed to repeat it.
János: History happens. Without war we don’t have Goya, we don’t have the Guernica. Many good things happen too. And we are here.