Conflicting binaries collapse within the voluptuous mosaic sculptures of Zsófia Keresztes.
The Hungarian artist gives shape to ideas around intimacy, empathy and selfhood in the digital age. Her anthropomorphic sculptures have a visceral and seductive quality, teasing the viewer’s senses with both their organic tactility and glossy materiality.
Represented by Gianni Manhattan gallery in Vienna, she has been exhibited internationally including at Carl Kostyál in London, Elijah Wheat Showroom in New York alongside many solo and group presentations in Eastern and Continental Europe. Her most recent exhibition Conquered Storage took place at Parthenón-Fríz Hall in Budapest and she’ll also be representing Hungary at the upcoming Venice Biennale in 2022. Portraits by Éva Szombat.
Your proposal with curator Mónika Zsikla has been recently selected for the Hungarian Pavilion in the upcoming Venice Biennale – exciting! What is special to you personally about this project?
This is my first time working with a curator for such an extended period and with such intensity. It is actually a three-year long collaboration, as in 2023, following the Biennale’s finissage, the entire material will be exhibited at the Ludwig Museum in Budapest. This is a fascinating process for me, and it’s a real challenge. On the one hand, there are more responsibilities than if I was working by myself. On the other hand, the fact that I am not alone with the task takes a lot off my shoulders. The conversations with Mónika also shed light on many new possibilities and perspectives. It’s also a unique experience for me to work on such a large-scale exhibition. Usually I prepare for a solo show for a maximum of four months, a process that has now extended to a year and a half.
Your work seems to be concerned with a kind of duality or binary conflict – I’m thinking of the tension between desire and taboo, libido and ratio, Ego and empathy. Do you see such contradictions as inherent to the human condition, extending into virtuality?
Yes, I think this kind of mutual tension can be traced back to the sculptures’ symmetry. It is as if our opposing ideals were confronted in one body, doomed to an eternal struggle, but also a kind of adaptation because existing without each other is not an option. Hence, the two segments start to resemble each other, trying to make the experience of coexistence as smooth as possible. One thread deals with the possibilities of the individual finding their identity and the solidity of the self. In contrast, the other thread points to our desperate yearning for togetherness, by which we might become vulnerable and defenceless. The virtual sphere is one of the heads of a two-faced mutant. It is a conveniently elastic and mouldable, facilitated terrain, where we can intervene with everything, where we can assume different forms and join a community with ease. The boundaries that are so difficult to break down in real life are almost entirely eliminated here. Unfortunately, our counterpart – sitting in front of the screen – is sometimes slower in shattering these boundaries. Thus there is a difference in pace, making the cherished self-image more and more distant.
What could we imagine your mood boards to look like? Do you collect certain images, quotes, materials or other fragments that inspire you?
Yes, my phone is full of screenshots, photographs and various paragraphs cropped from articles and books, but these are usually lost among the private content. Sometimes, when I later come across these artefacts on my phone, I try to decipher them, interpreting what these fragments might have meant when I saved them and what they mean to me, reappearing in a different kind of context. My other »mood board« is much more physical. This is my collection of vintage items I have assembled during flea market visits. Visual aids used in medical teaching, vases with organic shapes, a group of extremely kitschy ornaments ranging from the forever-lonely Pierrot clown to a simple titty mug. It is fascinating for me to research the history of these objects, and their particular formal language also contains a lot of inspiring aspects. However, these objects constantly fluctuate around me. When I get bored, I pass them on, and I get hold of new pieces instead.
Your visual language as an artist is very distinctive – the mosaic tiles, anthropomorphic forms and surreal compositions are instantly recognisable. Can you talk about why you’re drawn to the material and how your approach to it might’ve changed over the years? Would you say you’re still learning from/through it?
I started experimenting with glass mosaic in 2017, looking for some kind of shiny, glossy material to enclose my sculpture’s carved shapes in. I wanted them to have robust visceral associations, reminding the viewer of the slimy gleam of our inner organs. Later I found that I am also attracted to the fragmentation inherent to the mosaic technique. It smuggles back a strict sense of geometry as if the grid was preventing these voluptuous bodies from flowing apart. Additionally, each tiny piece has a dimension of its own. Lining up snugly on the surface like an infinite number of small information panels, they animate the entire sculpture in different ways depending on which piece catches the light. I also discovered analogies with our personality’s fundamental structure and our human relationships’ basic constellation in these intertwining physical interactions.
Do you feel like at this point in your career you could completely abandon the material and still engage with the same subjects, or has it become an integral part of your identity as an artist?
Yes, that could happen any time, but I don’t want to force anything. I would like this shift to happen when the material isn’t exciting for me anymore. It’s typical of me that every few years, I find a technique that is initially unfamiliar. Still, after a process of experimentation, I discover a personal angle. So far, I have tried to integrate alien materials into the mosaic bodies, such as threads, fake leather, ropes, chains and rivet shelves. These have all moulded into my works. I can imagine that one of these additional materials might prevail and eventually take over the dominance from the mosaic.
Manifesting the »pixelated« self in physical form is an important element of your work, but I’m wondering whether the aspect of how they’ll eventually look on screen influences your process as well?
No, it doesn’t affect the form itself or the way it is conceived. However, it is true that documenting an exhibition is always the moment when I calm down and feel like I’ve finished something. The moment when the objects start to exist in the virtual sphere helps me in letting go of the work process.
In your recent presentations »Conquered Storage« at Parthenón-fríz Hall, Budapest, and »Glossy Inviolability« at Elijah Wheat in New York, there is a recurring motif of giant eyes and oversized mosaic teardrops – could you talk about your ideas behind that?
I think of the motif of the eye as a receptive organ that aids cognitive processes. It was in my exhibition »Conquered storage« that I first used the motif of the giant eye, which is forced open by teardrops hung from the eyelashes by chains. These weights are like fossils of experiences, sacrifices we offer for others and ourselves… I considered this to be a central motif in the case of my future Venice Biennale exhibition as well. This moment of self-confrontation fits perfectly with the title of the project, »After Dreams: I Dare to Defy the Damage«.
I’m enjoying how in these recent works, naked industrial materials – like the supporting metal structures – visibly peak through your luscious, organic forms. It seems to add more to the existing material friction that makes the work so powerful.
I used these rivet shelves for the first time in »Conquered storage«. I wanted the show to evoke a kind of »warehouse atmosphere« as if someone had loaded these storage systems with their memories and traumas. Abandoned by the individual, the mosaic tissues start to proliferate along with the industrial structures, slowly fusing into one monolithic body. Thus, when these shelf fragments are revealed among the mosaic-embraced shapes, they emerge as the sculptures’ skeletal structure.
The Biennale already counts as a major project in an artist’s career but I’m wondering – what’s your dream project, collaboration or exhibition?
I don’t really have one. Especially when I’m concentrating on such long-term work, it’s hard to daydream about other projects. I think this current challenge has arrived in perfect time. I needed some kind of shift in scale, and I hope I will be able to tackle this. Of course, once this project is accomplished, I will be looking forward to future challenges.