Ladies and gentlemen,
Destroying landmarks of a people’s history is a painful form of intimidation. In the Balkan wars of the 1990s, historical monuments have been targets of purposed destruction. The famous 16th century bridge in Mostar was destroyed in 1993, not just for military, strategic reasons. It was a functional bridge, but also a proud icon of Islamic architecture and a symbol of Islamic culture in the history of the Balkan. It was rebuilt in recent years. At the end of the Second World War, many cities throughout Europe were in ruins. When they were reconstructed after the war, the remaining historic buildings were often incorporated as landmarks of their culture. If there was anything left at all. Warsaw for instance was completely destroyed by the Germans, under the eyes of the Red Army waiting on the other side of the river. After the war, the citizens of Warsaw have in a joint effort to reconstruct their capital rebuilt the entire old city centre as an exact replica of what it was before the war. The big 6th century Buddha statues in Afghanistan were considered un-islamic and were demolished by the Taliban regime in 2001. The present Afghan government and international organizations – recognizing their value as cultural heritage – are now planning their reconstruction.
I am giving these examples to illustrate the inevitability of what we call Cultural Memory. This year the theme for the Erasmus Prize is Cultural Memory. It refers to how we are dealing, both in psychological and in practical terms, with our history, or if you like, with our cultural heritage. This heritage includes buildings, statues and monuments, as well as the events they symbolize. Monuments were intended to evoke memories of events that were felt to be meaningful. But what is meaningful and valuable for one group may be different for another. Besides, our perception of history changes as time goes by. Our cultural heritage is not a book with a fixed form and content. It is to some extent fluid. This is why Cultural Memory is a field of polemics, where emotion and controversy reign.
Current debates about what should belong to a nation’s canon focus on the question of what we find important enough to transmit to the next generations. But the matter is complicated. What do we wish to preserve, for whom and at what cost? There are many players in this field, such as researchers, artists, journalists, civil activists, politicians and industry. Their ideas on which cultural landmarks are worth preserving do not necessarily converge. An example in the Netherlands is the recent decision to designate a large number of post-war architectural high-lights as cultural monuments, and the mixed reactions that were to follow. It is good to realize that our Cultural Memory is inherently unstable, transforming itself under various pressures and influences. This may be ‘an inconvenient truth’, but it is a process that by itself is worthy of attention in a world where the ‘Bildungsideal’ has been superseded by a wide-spread and speedy forgetfulness.
Fortunately we have museums, libraries and archives to help us in keeping memories alive or re-installing them. The same holds for historians, biographers, novelists and authors of memoirs. All of them reach a broad general audience and fulfill a great role in the transmission of culture and making history alive.
Artists, too, play their part. There are artists who creatively use cultural heritage as material for original works of contemporary art. Picasso was influenced by African art and Van Gogh by Japanese prints. An interesting illustration of the artistic transmission of culture is offered by the work of the famous Hungarian composers Zoltán Kodály and Béla Bartók. They crossed the country to collect traditional folk melodies and store these into an archive. Their zeal was not just inspired by historical interest. They used these recordings for their own original compositions – pieces of music that were inspired by and rooted in these traditional music styles. But Kodály and Bartók gave this music a new dimension, leading to musical innovation. At the same time their work kindled the interest in the original folk tunes and inspired other musicians and students of music to study and conserve their national musical traditions.
Following this line of thinking, one can also think of film makers. There are film makers who have created a documentary opus of great significance, and have thereby deepened our understanding of the past. Ladies and gentlemen, Péter Forgács, Hungarian film maker and media artist, is such a man. He composes films as if they were musical compositions – by using found material.
Forgács’ films and installations are exclusively made up of found footage, material from the archive of home movies, an archive that he established himself. This Private Film and Photo Archive in Budapest comprises more than 300 hours of home movies, the result of a long collecting activity. Most of these films originate from Hungarian middle class families, who have documented their private lives in these films. They form the treasure trove of Forgács’ work. The genre of the home movie focuses almost exclusively on events in the personal lives of families. As such these films can be rather boring for outsiders, as mr Forgács himself has repeatedly stated. But Forgács uses these films as ingredients for a greater story.
The merit of Forgács is that by an ingenious manipulation of this material he brings back to life certain episodes of 20th century history, mostly periods of repression and totalitarian rule. Forgács does not take his responsibility lightly. He has carefully dealt with historical fact and in composing his message has availed himself of insights from psychology and philosophy. He brings back historical periods through a manipulated medium, namely by inserting key moments of history into the personal accounts of the home movies. In these intrusions we see Forgács’ personal interpretation and message. He captures the viewer by creating a painful contrast between customary family scenes and the violence of the time – repression, deportation, civil war, holocaust. Without such a treatment, these movies would probably do no more than leading meaningless, dusty lives in attics or on the shelves of archives.
It is this subtle interference, often unnoticeable for the ordinary viewer, which has attracted attention from historians and students of film. They have asked themselves what exactly Forgács is doing: What is the effect of manipulations such as focusing, slow motion, stopping and breaking up images? What effect does the music, mostly the minimal music composed by Tibor Szemzö, have on the viewer? Finally, the historian may ask whether what Forgács does to the sources is permissible in terms of historic reconstruction. How far can interpretation go before it becomes fiction, melodrama or in the worst case fraud?
One thing is clear: we are not dealing with a regular sort of documentary films. Forgács’ films are primarily conceived as works of art, not as willful historical documentaries that claim to reveal an objective truth.
Mr Forgács, you have created a remarkable oeuvre. We see episodes of European history, revitalized and shaped, as it were, by your artistic imagination and skill. Your work brings to life episodes which are easily forgotten; the private lives are placed into the context of the storms of twentieth century history. Whether this is the life of the Hungarian middle classes under communist rule, the Spanish civil war or the Nazi occupation of Greece and the Netherlands. Your work is of a genre apart. It appeals to our cultural memory and urges us to think. You are well aware of the relativity of such historical reconstructions: Your favorite motto is a quote of Wittgenstein: Everything we see could also be otherwise.
It has not been our deliberate purpose to award a Hungarian citizen with the Erasmus Prize. In a way this is accidental. (I recall with a nod to Wittgenstein: Everything that is could also be otherwise). But it is also very fortunate and gratifying. There is a long tradition of cultural relations between Hungary and the Netherlands. The well-known photographers Ata Kando and Eva Besnyö are just an example. In fact there have been at least two waves of migration from Hungary to the Netherlands. The first took place in the nineteen twenties of the twentieth century, when a group of children, mainly girls, came to the Netherlands to recover from the war. The second wave took place in 1956, when some five thousand Hungarian refugees found shelter in the Netherlands. Among them were persons who would play a prominent role in the cultural life of our country. We attach great importance to our cultural ties with the Hungarian people. Mr Forgács, your work is known in the Netherlands and your films have been broadcast by VPRO television. You have many Dutch friends and colleagues with whom you have worked, friends who are now here to pay homage to the exceptional artist you are. I hope that this distinction will re-affirm our ties with you and with the Hungarian cultural scene.
May I now ask you to come forward to receive the ornaments of the Erasmus Prize.