In 1972 the artist Bálint Szombathy carried out a series of works under the title Flags – photographic documentations of performances that deconstructed the Yugoslav flag. The Yugoslav flag consisted of the French Tricolour, rotated by 90° and with a red star outlined in gold added in the centre. The colours of the Tricolour symbolized liberty, equality and fraternity, while the red star stood for the victorious revolution. The context for Bálint Szombathy’s Flags (1972) was the onset of stagnation within the alternative utopia of self-managed socialism. Szombathy bought several hundred Yugoslavian paper flags, some of which were misprinted, with either the blue or the red colour missing. This gave him the idea of ‘using them as deconstructive elements, applied amongst the regular paper flags.’1 The first photo action took place at a lake near Subotica. In one version, the blue upper ribbon was missing, showing the colour white only. The modified, small version of the flag was stuck to a wooden pole and photographed. By displacing the flag, the artist teased out different meanings of this symbol of statehood.
Since the lake was experiencing a fish kill at that time, Szombathy combined the flags with bleeding fish carcasses, introducing fish as a significant symbol in his photo series.
Szombathy comes from Subotica, a border town in the autonomous region of Vojvodina in Serbia. Belonging to the large Hungarian speaking minority, Szombathy took part in art and cultural activities as a co-founder of the group Bosch+Bosch in 1969 together with Slavko Matković,2 also crossing the border and supporting nascent new art in Hungary.3 Szombathy has been recognized internationally as a leading protagonist of the new art practice in Yugoslavia.4 The new art shared the new sensibilities as expressed by the contemporaneous student movement. In Yugoslavia, a student uprising in June 1968 had been met with a mixture of concessions and repression. In major cities, Student Culture Centers were opened where new, experimental art practices could flourish. At the same time, this freedom was a precarious one. In 1971, Szombathy became graphic editor of the Novi Sad-based Hungarian-language magazine Új Symposion (New Symposium). “The No. 77/1971 issue was banned because of a film essay, published in Hungarian translation, by the young Serbian artist Miroslav Mandic, in which he satirized the personality cult that had developed around Tito,”5 recalls Szombathy. Mandic received a one-year prison term, and the editor of the magazine, Ottó Tolnai, a suspended sentence. At the time, Szombathy was also graphic guest editor of Student magazine, for which he designed the cover of a special issue on American underground culture, “with texts by Jerry Rubin, Timothy Leary, William Borroughs, Ebbie Hoffman, etc. […] This issue was immediately banned from distribution, so it never got to the public.”6 The front cover showed the US flag flipped around, with the caption, “Made in Yugoslavia.” The letters of the magazine’s title were shaped from images of naked human bodies.
In 1948, the Yugoslav leader Tito broke with Joseph Stalin, and Yugoslavia consequently adopted an independent path to Socialism based on the notion of workers’ self-management. For many years, “third way socialism” was quite successful, raising interest abroad. The French translation of self-management as “autogestion” entered the language of the New Left7 and became the battle cry of the ‘68 movement. However, the reaction of the Yugoslav regime to its own student revolt in 1968 and external events, such as the violent suppression of the Prague Spring, foreclosed any further development of real political emancipation in Yugoslavia. In 1971 and 1972, progressive and popular politicians were replaced by party apparatchiks in the context of the so-called Croatian Spring, first in Zagreb, then in Belgrade, and other capitals as well. Szombathy recalls:
In this respect, 1972 can be seen as a borderline, even though several university periodicals had been terminated way back in the aftermath of the 1968 students’ protests. Certain progressive intellectual processes were slowing down or had died down already, as their representatives—both within and outside the Communist Party—were considered enemies of the party and the working class. With this they essentially hindered young people from being active members of the party leadership, which resulted in gradual seizure of the country’s leadership, i.e., political power, by a gerontocracy. With the of the old generation of political leaders, the Socialist system ceased to exist, just as it happened elsewhere in Eastern Europe.8
The price paid was not only general stagnation, but, in the long run, also the violent disintegration of Yugoslavia in the early 1990s. The deconstruction of Flags in 1972 was thus also extremely anticipatory of future events. Aware of possible repressive measures, Szombathy did not publish the work at the time. Twenty years later, in Flags II (1993), a performance, Szombathy recontextualized the earlier work by making explicit its relation with the Yugoslav war. Szombathy’s Flags captured the moment of the Yugoslav experiment’s demise. One version of the work shows a bush in a hilly landscape with a ribbon made of the Yugoslav flag wrapped around it in the manner of flower decorations at funerals.
In Szombathy’s work the foreboding of the end of the Yugoslav dream of socialism was not met with sarcasm and nihilism, as may have been the case in the works of the Zagreb Group of Six Artists who mercilessly attacked symbols of socialism and statehood. Szombathy’s work was a “nomadic traversing of the avant-gardes,”9 “a cognitive map of traces.”10 At about the same time Szombathy made two of his landmark works, Lenin in Budapest (1972) and Bauhaus (1972), demonstrating his interest in the political and artistic avant-gardes by juxtaposing the sign-character of the heritage of the avant-gardes with the everyday, creating new meanings through contradictions and paradoxes. The works did not just stand for themselves but were part of a language that Szombathy created through photography and semiotic interventions. Attention should thus be paid to how the deconstructed flag was integrated into the Yugoslav everyday and how photography was used in order to highlight the linguistic aspect of the work as a sign in a system of signs.11
Flags sits at the borderline between late modernistic neo-avant-gardes and an art that was ‘taking place at a different scene behind the principle of hope promised by the Marxist utopia.’12 The year 1972 thus stands not only for the beginning of the end of Yugoslavia but for any utopia based on the European enlightenment and humanist tradition. The unassuming and unpretentious character of the work only intensifies this tension between a truly paradigmatic shift in the world, and the almost private circumstances of the conception and making of the work. The piece both highlights art’s strength and feebleness, its ability to look into the shifting tectonics of the ages and also its inability to directly affect such structural change.
Cover image: FLAGS, photo-action, Ludas Lake near Szabadka (Subotica), 1971. Photo by Bálint Szombathy
About the author
Armin Medosch, PhD, is a Vienna based artist, curator and scholar working in art and media theory; in 2014, he curated the international exhibition Fields (Riga European Culture Capital 2014); he is initiator of the Technopolitics working group in Vienna. His new book under the title “New Tendencies – Art at the Threshold of the Information Revolution (1961-1978)” came out at MIT Press in September 2016.
- Bálint Szombathy, email to the author, Nov 7, 2016, private archive. ↩
- Other members were László Szalma, László Kerekes, Katalin Ladik, Attila Csernik, Ante Vukov. ↩
- Emese Kürti, “Transregional Discourses: The Bosch+Bosch Group in the Yugoslav and the Hungarian Avant-Garde,” in Bosch+Bosch, trans. Dániel Sipos (Budapest: acb ResearchLab, 2016), 4–30. ↩
- Emese Kürti, ed., Bosch+Bosch, trans. Dániel Sipos (Budapest: acb ResearchLab, 2016), 7. ↩
- Bálint Szombathy, email to the author, Nov 7, 2016, private archive. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Klaus Ronneberger, ed., “Henri Lefebvre and the Question of Autogestion,” in Autogestion, or Henri Lefebvre in New Belgrade, Kataloge Der Oberösterreichischen Landesmuseen (Vancouver, BC; Berlin; New York, N.Y.: Fillip Editions ; Sternberg Press, 2009), 89–118. ↩
- Bálint Szombathy, email to the author, October 30, 2016, private archive. ↩
- Miško Šuvaković, “Art as a Political Machine: Fragments on the Late Socialist and Postsocialist Art of Mitteleuropa and the Balkans.,” in Postmodernism and the Postsocialist Condition: Politicized Art under Late Socialism, 1st ed. (Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 2003), 116. ↩
- Ibid. ↩
- Bálint Szombathy, “Landmarks in the Work of the Group Bosch+Bosch,” in The New Art Practice in Yugoslavia 1966-1978, Documents 3-6 (Zagreb: Galerija suvremene umjetnosti, 1978), 52. ↩
- Šuvaković, “Art as a Political Machine“ op.cit., 121. ↩