The Artist as an Ethnographer
On the works of Balázs Beöthy

Innumerable metaphors were created in the 20th century to describe artists – especially those who used art for criticism. These metaphors are often mixed with those used to describe art, and also, art itself can be conceived as a field of production based on a 'great metaphor,' specialized in producing metaphors. The 'great metaphor' is a means to grasp the relationship between reality and its representations. It puts an equal mark between two activities: one related to the field of art, and the other to a field outside art – the artist as an engineer, the artist as a Bohemian, the artist as a revolutionary, the artist as a sociologist, etc.

The conventional space to display the products of metaphor production is the art museum, while the products of another figure of speech, metonymy – and especially, its special version, synecdoche – are traditionally displayed in the museum of ethnography. The division is based on the colonialist views that regard societies outside Western Civilization as timeless, natural, comprised of 'nameless' entities, as opposed to a culture conceived historically, comprised of individuals, created by humans. Artefacts exhibited in ethnographic museums were not produced by people who had a name – rather, they are some kind of natural products of primitive societies, signs that are fragmentary but can still refer back to the whole they were once part of. All the more so, as their museum exhibit function lies in their fragmentariness and potential to refer to the whole.

The question at this point is how to eliminate the dichotomy of the artistic and the ethnographic, what critical means theory and artistic practice can provide to reveal the colonialistic attitude underlying this opposition, to expose its ideological motivations and contents, and to create new models. Obviously, it would be a mistake to reduce the works of Balázs Beöthy to this ethnographic approach, but if we are to find some kind of coherence in his oeuvre so far, then the method of ethnography appears to be a justified metaphor.

When the artist assumes the role of the ethnographer he or she takes a critical stance not only towards the traditional concept of art but the elements of the institution of art (the museum, education, market and media) as well. In the ethnographic paradigm, the main question is in whose name the artist speaks. Who is the Other whose 'voice' he or she represents? What means and possibilities are there for the artist to make his or her statement without taking the role of the patron of the Other, that is, the role of a person superior to the Other? It is important to note here that by now, in the spirit of post-colonialism, the subjects of colonialistic ideology and ethnographic approach can be not only those living far away from Western culture, but this ideology and approach can also serve as a tool for the critical description of power structures that are based on the inferior, negative essentialist representation of the Other, when this otherness is manifested socially, sexually, racially or in gender.

The works of Balázs Beöthy define an artistic position which uses a critical approach to the critical artistic-ethnographic attitude described above. In one of his works, for example, Beöthy documents his yearly cigarette consumption by collecting the cigarette packs and arranging them aesthetically. Beöthy uses himself as the most evident subject of his ethnographic observation. As a result, in the narratological sense, the subject of focalization and the narrator are identical, and the question of power is eliminated. On another level, this work refers back to the traditional dichotomy of art objects and ethnographic artefacts: the artwork is produced through "transsubstantiaton" of a raw material, which resembles what many people do with Coca-Cola cans in poorer countries: they are used to create objects totally different from the original function of the cans, and thus, the status of these objects is also different from the original secondary status of these materials as waste.

Smuggling as a special sub-cultural activity is the subject of the work Utazó titkok (Travelling Secrets). In this work, the artist presents the results of his observations, and, by doing so, he involuntarily helps the activity considered illegal. As a result, the artist symbolically takes the side of this subculture, and by adopting this position, he eliminates traditional dichotomies.

Beöthy reverses the traditional power relations of curator and artist in his installation made exclusively of white objects that he borrowed from artists and art historians for the exhibition. In this work, curators become exhibitors, while the artist becomes a curator. Here, the exhibits do not become artworks but function almost as ethnographic documents. The objects appear as a result of the research of a subculture that is easy to define, but since Beöthy himself also belongs to this community, the source of his commentary is not the power position of an observer outside the community.

Beöthy's works also eliminate two other colonialistic premises. One is the timelessness of ethnography as opposed to the temporality of art. His works always observe the ethnographic aspect within a concrete time spectrum, by which they render this distinction meaningless. The other colonialistic premise is that the colonizer and the colonized are seen as entities existing essentially, which is manifest in the antithesis of two absolute subjects. In this view, these subjects are defined from a kind of 'Archimedes' point', and it also presupposes that the various cultural codes are always totally and coherently accessible. Beöthy's works function and produce their effect in this spirit.

Katalin Timár