Trouble has been brewing in Hungary in the last couple of years. Not only have the country and its inhabitants been suffering under economic blows and political corruption, but a great feeling of pessimism can be felt. Juli Vecsei, contemporary artist, has created a project, called The Promise, to improve the existence of the citizens of Budapest within the next couple of years.
Julí Vecsei is working around the clock when I arrive at the office of her project. Two people are standing in line, while a third is sitting at the table with Juli, going through forms and pamphlets and writing on official-looking scribbles of paper. Although it doesn’t look like it, this is the essence of the artists project, which could be described as a sort of time capsule.
Vecsei calls it a simple but ambitious plan, consisting of Hungarian citizens writing letters to their own self about how they can better the city of Budapest and the Hungarian country. “These acts can be big or small, concrete or abstract,” explains Vecsei. “Whatever, as long as they are true to themselves. In the coming week I will be receiving these letters and will publish them in 10 years time. What they do with the promise that they put on the paper is up to them.”
When Vecsei completes the letters and agreements with her remaining clients, we proceed to a coffee shop nearby, so she can always get back in time for when her break has to be stopped short. When asked about the progress of ‘The Promise’ she sounds enthusiastic: “Half the people said they wanted to publish their messages, which is nice since I guaranteed that their letter wouldn’t be published if they didn’t want that. I have to give a receipt with an address and a guarantee that I wouldn’t publish it without their permission.”
These acts can be big or small, concrete or abstract. Whatever, as long as they are true to themselves.
When I asked her why they would even write a letter if the participants wouldn’t want to get it published, she answers politely but in a tone like she’s heard this question before: “Because they write these letter for themselves, not for other people. The purpose of the letter is not to display it. It’s the same with New Years’ resolutions or quitting smoking; all it needs is a first step and eventually things will work.”
Vecsei’s project was being exhibited at one of the offices of the major Off-Biennale art festival. Off-Biennale, or simply OFF, was a series of exhibitions and art events that was being displayed in and around the city of Budapest. The festival took place from the end of April until the last day of May. OFF was an initiative for contemporary art and political art like Vecsei’s project, although Vecsei wouldn’t go so far as calling herself a political artist by choice.
“I’m not a political artist but I’ve noticed I have become one in the last couple of years. I have created a lot of political art. Because you can’t close your eyes. The government supports Christian art and nationalistic art, but not contemporary art. It’s hard to notice when you are a tourist but there is something ‘off’ about our daily lives in Hungary. You can almost sense it.”
What Vecsei’s project essentially comes down to is changing the state of mind of the citizens of the country. Feelings of discontent in Hungary are almost a cultural issue, that seems to not directly be connected to the standard of living – although this is not ideal in the city or the country either. The populist Prime Minister Victor Orban is described as being a nationalistic leader who sets ethnic and religious groups within the country up against each other. One of Vecsei’s colleagues during the OFF-festival, Lóros Borcsis, summarized the situation perfectly: “It’s like we’re back during the beginning of the war. Jews, Gypsies, immigrants… All living in the same city and all hating each other.”
All it needs is a first step and eventually things will work out
“A lot of my friends have already left the country and everybody is wondering what to do,” Vecsei says. When you are a tourist in this country, you wouldn’t see it but amongst the citizens it is very noticeable. The government doesn’t support contemporary art or culture. They cut our life support off and have closed a lot of institutions like Konsthallen. It is a question of being in the circle and a lot of starting and/or independent artists are left out of this circle. Every day we talk about how it is not so good here and there are a lot of protests, but nothing happens. You feel like a pawn. I’ve also thought about leaving the country, but I love it here. Why should I leave because the politics are horrible?”
As an artist
Although The Promise isn’t the most conventional art project you can think of; the project doesn’t involve a canvas or brushstrokes unless you’d count the pen people write their letters with. Still, Vecsei has a long CV, beginning with an exhibition at the Museum of Applied Arts in Budapest, with paintings, drawings, film and conceptual art. “I graduated at the Hungarian academy of Fine Arts. During these times I made a lot of video installations. Around 2004 or 2005 I began making drawings. I like them because it works faster and I can take them anywhere. Now I think in drawings and sometimes I visualize my drawings as sculpture.”
When I asked her if she gets by with her job as an artist, Vecsei sounds hesitant: “Not enough at the moment. Until three years ago I managed to get by. I sold a lot of artwork and had a lot of scholarships. But now, for example, I exhibited at a gallery and when I sell an artwork I still have to give away a lot of the money I made with that piece. I got 10 per cent of the profits, because of these new policies. I don’t understand why this system has to be here. I usually sell abroad now, since it’s more profitable. For example, I could exhibit my works at five or six art galleries a year but now I have to manage with one or two. Because the government doesn’t support contemporary art anymore. The artist can’t do this alone, since they have to rent the place and market their works. Now it’s a little harder and everyday I have to think how I can stay here.”
Vecsei’s project and the festival ended around the end of May. In 2025 the letters will get published. “I think that’s a long enough time to look at what has been going on in the country and what we are heading to. Then we can see the results and we can have perspective. Although I am not so positive about what will happen here, I do hope it will get better.”