An interview with artist Dénes Farkas, who will represent Estonia at the 55th Venice Biennale
Today Dénes Farkas is known for his photographs that speak to the viewer in a laconic visual language. His large and small-scale images of inexpertly formed paper models are often contemplating social structures, which he never avoids to accompany with captions. During our conversation, Dénes Farkas leaves an impression of a serious artist, which is why it is surprising to hear that just a few years ago, he was determined to leave the art world. Since then, his artworks have been included in the collection of the Art Museum of Estonia, as well as in numerous private art collections. This summer Dénes Farkas, together with curator Adam Budak, will take over the Estonian Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale.
Born in Budapest in 1974, Dénes Farkas moved to Tallinn fifteen years ago. In a way, it happened by accident. Determined to live and study architecture in Helsinki, Dénes Farkas had to rearrange his plans when his application for the university fell apart. So instead, he decided to visit his grandmother in Estonia. Soon after, Dénes Farkas enrolled in a printmaking course at the Academy of Arts in Tallinn and extended his studies with a Masters Degree in new media and photography.
How did you first become interested in art?
After high school I was interested in music, but I couldn’t play any instrument. I didn’t know anything about music. I just felt that I wanted to do something. So my grandfather told me that before going to the university, I should work. I decided to build church organs. During that period, I became more and more interested in architecture. I started to draw and study mathematics and physics, but I never tried to pursue it in Hungary. I knew I wanted to go to Helsinki. I had lived there during an exchange year in high school. I really liked it and I spoke the language, but it never happened. I don’t know how I chose printmaking. Maybe it was because it runs in my family – my father and my mother are printmakers.
And how did you become involved with photography?
Good question. (Laughs) During the printmaking course, we had to study photography – and I hated it. I didn’t like photography at all. I think I associated it with the kind of photography that I still don’t like. I’m not really interested in it.
What kind of photography are you talking about?
Nice photography. Good quality photography. Technically, I know very little about photography. Now I know more, because I have worked with it. I develop my own negatives. I started doing it just six months ago, but now it’s my biggest worry. For me, photography is just the easiest way to achieve what I want to achieve. I cannot draw and I cannot paint.
I understand that you started making the paper models, because you wanted to learn how to draw. Is that true?
Yes. It was a long time ago. In Hungary, I took drawing classes four days a week. I was the only one who wanted to study architecture. Everyone else was drawing models, the nudes, which looked like real drawings. But I was sitting in the corner and focusing on the space. I started to build the models because I wanted to learn how to draw objects. I really liked it.
Then I finished the photography course and I did my first exhibition. Back then I was mostly interested in portraits. I was interested in people. I was really naïve. My final work consisted of portraits of women who were living alone. It differed from the traditional Estonian photography, in which old masters are still fighting over who was the first one during Soviet times to show a nude in an exhibition. They were heroes. I just wanted to show that women are human beings. But now I know that in reality, it was quite naïve and it didn’t work at all. They were just beautiful images of women. I didn’t achieve anything.
Afterwards, I wanted to show myself through photography. I wanted to express who I am. I had been in Estonia for almost 10 years, but I suddenly realised that I had no history there. Everyone else, my friends, could share memories, but if I talked about my childhood, it was very different. No one really understood me and I didn’t understand them. That’s when I decided to visit Hungary, to visit the places I remembered. It was a self-portrait, but it only looked at the spaces that I wanted to show. It was also very naïve and made a funny exhibition. Soon after that, I realised that it was not working.
That’s when I finally started to think about the responsibility of an artist – that I have to say something. I had to prove that I’m not just drinking red wine at nights. It doesn’t make me an artist. There had to be a reason to do art, otherwise I should just go to work and do something reasonable. That’s how I started to focus on political and social issues. Not everyday politics, but how our society works. I was looking for questions, but I didn’t want to give answers, as I didn’t know how to change the situation. I just wanted to see how we could simplify things and how we could start a discussion. It worked quite well. That’s how I began working with this theme, to build these scenes.
Are you still working on these questions?
For a while, I was, but now it’s different… In 2010 I wanted to quit and that’s when I made the exhibition “Lets Play. The Game is Over”. I felt that I couldn’t continue. All that I was doing as an artist in Estonia seemed very stupid. So I collected my works within these little books and put them on the walls of the exhibition space for everyone to take a piece. I really thought that it was the last thing I would do as an artist.
Why did you want to quit being an artist?
(Thinks for a while) Because I thought that no one really cared. You make an exhibition, you spend a year or two years working really hard on it and then 200 people come to see it. But 180 people out of those 200 don’t even know how to see art, how to read it and what to do in an exhibition space. For some years, I used to teach at the Academy of Arts. I had this feeling that I could change something, that I could try to teach people how to communicate, but actually the problem is much deeper. It is a really long story. I think you can see it everywhere.
So how can you change the way people read art exhibitions?
Why? What is this deeper problem?
I think it starts at school, or even at kindergarten. People who are supposed to tell the children what is art and how to communicate with it, don’t know it themselves. So they don’t know how to teach it. I think it is the easiest way to describe it. I don’t know where the problem lies, but I know that if you say “contemporary art”, people immediately associate it with something bad. As if it is a crime. I think it is really hard to change this attitude. There is always an underlying notion that artists are using good taxpayers’ money for nothing. I think it is the basic attitude and it builds on that.
How would you want the audience to treat contemporary art exhibitions and act in an exhibition space?
They could at least try to understand what I am trying to say. I once saw that people came into my exhibition, realised that these are photographs of paper models, and went out. They didn’t find it interesting. I understand that they can be seen as boring, but you cannot really say that if you haven’t looked at them properly. Maybe they didn’t like the fact that these models were not built very well. If you only hear that art is something executed in a superb way, it’s hard to understand art that looks badly done. But that’s not what it is.
In 2010 I was really angry and I wanted to quit, but then I realised that this is the only thing that I can do. Soon after, I received an annual prize from the Cultural Endowment of Estonia for this very same exhibition, which I thought was really funny.
Was it not difficult to pick yourself up after you had decided to leave the art world?
It was, but in that same year many other things happened. I met Adam Budak, who is the curator of the Estonian pavilion at the Venice Biennale. Back then, he was doing a photography exhibition in Kumu [art museum of Estonia]. At the beginning, it was hard, but at least I had someone who was thinking with me. I could send him an e-mail and he replied. Although it wasn’t always positive, we had some really good ideas. Since then, we have done a lot. I think it’s working quite well. The problem is that now it’s all too deep. I think the exhibition at the Venice Biennale will only be interesting for the art world. My idealistic idea – to reach people from the street – is just not working. I think I have given up on that. If there is someone who can find something in my work, then that’s ok, but I’m not concentrating on it anymore. It’s quite sad. (Laughs)
So what do you want to tell with your artworks?
I don’t think I want to tell anything. I prefer to show them. (Takes out the little book from the exhibition, “Let’s Play. The Game is Over”, and starts to share details about the works). I was influenced by the Watergate scandal. There was also a movie with Robert Redford. I liked the movie, but I really loved the Washington Post interior. I wanted to relate to it. This is why I have chosen to use quotes and images of other people’s creative work.
Is the title for your artworks as important as the image?
I think it doesn’t work without the text.
Many times you have used foreign languages (not Estonian or English) for these captions. I assume that it must be difficult for the Estonian audience to understand them.
I’m not doing that anymore. Now it’s in English. It was really important to find the right language. It used to be too contemplated – the way I work. I think there were too many different things in one package. It was hard to understand. Now I don’t want to change the world anymore by raising political questions (laughs). This is just another thing that I cannot change, but there are some things that I can change.
What are these things that are in your power to change?
The way I see it… I can turn on some of the lights in the darkness of communication – in the possibilities of communication. If I say something, you will probably understand it slightly differently. I call it a game. It makes communication interesting. There are always so many different meanings. Sometimes I find it impossible to communicate at all. I don’t know how to describe it.
I want to create an installation where people could communicate with it, with me and with my work. I really like the idea of people coming in and taking whatever they want, so that after ten days or after two years, they can pick up my book and find something within it.
This is something that you already started with the “Let’s Play. The Game is Over” exhibition.
Yes, but the Venice Biennale exhibition is going to be a collection of it all – of my older ideas.
Could you tell me more about the project “Evident in Advance”, which you will present at the 55th Venice Biennale?
The inspiration and the text for this exhibition were taken from the book “The World as I Found It”, by Bruce Duffy, an American writer. He has published stories on Ludwig Wittgenstein and his connections with philosophy. It is a fictive story based on real events from Wittgenstein’s life. My aim is to link this text with my paper models, which will be based on Wittgenstein’s house. He built this house for his sister in Vienna and it is still there. I think the building reflects Wittgenstein’s idea of language and philosophy. But this exhibition will not be about Wittgenstein or Wittgenstein’s philosophy. It will look at the language and the possibilities of the language. The space will be divided into the main exhibition and smaller rooms, which the viewer will be able to use as dictionaries in order to understand what has been displayed in the “big” room. It’s very complicated, or it sounds complicated (laughs).
I usually like to work with the space where the actual exhibition is going to take place. But this time, it has been a problem as the Estonian pavilion is just an apartment in Venice. It’s not a very interesting space. It was great that we found Wittgenstein’s house. I really want to see this exhibition. Although there are still a few months left, I have already started to panic. But then I remind myself that I used to make exhibitions in a much shorter time frame. There is still plenty of time and lots of work has already been done.
You said that the artworks usually relate to the space they are in, but does that mean that when you take an artwork out of that space, it looses something?
This is quite problematic. Last year I made an exhibition in Finland and it was in Alvar Aalto’s building. There was nothing really specific about the space, besides it being very Finnish with a strong presence of Aalto, but this nothingness made it very nice. I think it also worked quite well with my images, but now I can’t do anything with them. I don’t know if I can use them anywhere else. It is always problematic. I try to keep it as abstract as I can. I don’t know what will happen after Venice, but now we are creating the space for these images. I think it’s a great solution.
For the first time in my life, I am working with a really big team. I am collaborating together with architects, a curator and even a philosopher. It has been fantastic to work with them. As an artist, I know nothing. I only have a half knowledge of everything. To be honest, in the beginning I was really scared that it would become a project belonging to other people. I was used to working alone, and that’s how I felt confident to give an exhibition my name. But now, although the exhibition is going under my name, there are 15 or 20 people involved. I think it works quite well. I share my ideas with them and it gets better and better. At least, I hope so. But it still feels strange.
Will it be difficult to go back to working alone?
I don’t want to think about it. (Laughs) I don’t want to think about what will happen after this project. It’s quite nice to be a real artist, and that’s what I have been feeling like for some time now.
Did you not consider yourself a real artist before the Venice Biennale project?
Not really. I was an aspiring artist, a hobby artist working only on Saturdays and Sundays. Now, every morning I can go to my studio. Also, I have time to think about my things. It’s the best – having time to think, not having to work all the time.
Is this what the team of people gives you – more time?
Yes. As well as the title of a Venice artist. (Laughs) Also, every month I get paid, so that I can afford living like this.
What is the process of creating a single photograph? How do you usually start?
I draw. (Laughs) Yes, I draw quite a lot and then it develops from there. Although the models are quite small, I like to enlarge them, and that’s how all the mistakes and all the dust comes alive. The images become more interesting. I capture everything on film. It is a really slow process. I can take only six images a day, but it makes me concentrate more. For me, this is the hardest. If I have an idea, I just want to do it. I don’t want to think about it a lot. But now I really have to sit down and think. It takes a day before I see the image. It helps me a lot. But of course, technically, I can control the image much better with this technique.
Although I like to show imperfections in the prints, the final installations have to be controlled. It’s my work and it just has to be the way I have intended it to be. There cannot be any mistakes. I think it was nice that the first question that Adam Budak ever asked me (and he has been the only one to ask me this) was – why are you doing these models like a four-year-old child? (Laughs) I wanted to throw him out of my studio because of this question.
How did you answer?
I couldn’t find the words to answer him. I was really angry with him. I didn’t understand it at all. But then I started to think about it, and I recognized his view. I think it was really helpful. This question helped me a lot, because I started to think about my artworks. I started to see them differently.
Do you still allow the artworks to be imperfect?
Yes, but at the same time I am lazy. I am really lazy. I have many ideas, but, when I go to the studio, I don’t do them. I hate when I’m doing that, but that’s how I am. Now it’s slightly different. Maybe it’s because I’m not doing as complicated things any more. Or maybe it’s because I see the whole thing as a game. I have created a special game and I am just playing with the pieces.
What are the rules of this game?
(Laughs) There are no rules. Well, of course there are rules, because you are in an exhibition and, as a visitor, you have certain rules. Usually, you cannot touch anything in an exhibition, but here, if you will not touch the books, for example, you will miss the whole thing. You have to decide what to do. No one will tell you if you can do it or not.
But can the visitor touch the photographs?
That’s a good question. I don’t know. I think there are some rules which we all know… how far we can go. That is how the language, how the communication works. There are rules, but no one is sitting down and discussing them beforehand, before we start talking to each other. So, I really hope that no one will destroy the Venice Biennale exhibition on the first day. (Laughs) Although, it would also be fun. I think so. But I don’t know what the rules are.
And what is the goal? Is there a goal?
(Laughs) That people will like me. I guess it’s a goal for every artist – to make at least some people think about certain things. It is just a hope. But I am not that serious anymore. Now it’s more fun being an artist.