Her work has always revolved around her own experiences, says Timea Oravecz, who has led an unusually nomadic life. In the space of fifteen years, this Hungarian artist has lived in six countries. Every time she landed in a new place, she had to start from scratch. Does it sound adventurous and romantic? Not really. At least not for many years. Timea Oravecz explains why she knows much better than most people what immigrants from outside the EU are going through and why she cannot stare indifferently at the refugee camp at Oranienplatz.
Your experience of immigration goes back more than fifteen years. At the time you first left Hungary, your status was completely different than it is now. What was the situation that you had to face like?
What made all the difference, was that I was coming from an ex-communist country that did not belong to the EU. As such, in order to live there I needed to obtain either a student visa or a visa that would allow me to work. I was 23 at the time and had just got accepted at the Akademie der bildenden Künste in Vienna, so I would go for the student visa, right?
Wasn’t the fact that you had been offered a place at the Academy of Fine Arts enough to get you the student visa?
No, it wasn’t. According to Austrian law I was expected to have at least 7,000 euros in my bank account. At the time that was more or less the value of my family’s apartment back in Budapest. Where would I find that sum? Work was my only option. But how would I work without a visa? Illegaly, that’s how. Most of the time those who employed me had no idea. They supposed that since I was a student at the Academy I must have had a visa. And at the same time, at the Academy nobody ever asked me to show them my visa. So I was working illegally in order to finance my studies and pay my rent, while at the same time trying to raise that 7,000 euros. After two years of living illegally, at some point I managed to save some money but it still was not enough. So my room mates, who had become friends and knew my problem, transfered an amount of money to my account for a day just so that I would be approved for the visa, and then I transfered it back to their accounts. It was quite a complicated and exhausting situation. And then I went to Italy where I had to start all over again.
Does your work stem strictly from these experiences? Is it largely based on your autobiographical details?
At first it was. When I started out I would base my artwork solely on what I have lived through. Gradually, though, I began to widen my view and look at other immigrants who have to confront similar situations. Moreover, I realised that people do not know what it means to have to do without legal documents; to be labeled an illegal person. They think that one is automatically a criminal. Of course this is totally wrong. It’s all a question of where one happened to be born and whether one’s country of origin is politically right or wrong by EU standards. Such is the case of the immigrants who have set up camp at the Oranienplatz, for instance. Most of those people have entered Europe through Italy, through Lampedusa. It is hard for them to gain refugee status because they can only claim it if there is a war going on in their country. Moreover asylum seekers are required by law to remain in the place where they were originally issued a temporary permission to stay. And while they’re waiting for their applications to be examined, they are not allowed to work. And if they do not work, how can they ever start a real life here?
In what does the installation at your “Camping Europa” exhibition comment on the everyday reality of these immigrants?
Watching and thinking of these people living in the tents for more than a year, has some times made me imagine them as a kind of urban nomads and it got me thinking about the ancient Hungarian religion, which was shared by the early Turkish, Uralic and Mongol communities. According to our mythology, the world is divided in three parts: an underworld, a middle world and an upper world. The middle world is the political reality that we are now experiencing. The underworld, as in Catholic faith too, is a kind of hell. Only the shamans can fly between the three parallel worlds and warn the community about imminent dangers. A shaman is like a guide for the people. Ever since humans have lived on earth, this had been the role of the shamans. But we do not believe in shamans anymore in Europe, and the structure of our societies has changed anyway. Artists often ask themselves in what ways they can useful to society today. In my opinion, the role of the shamans can in our days be fulfilled by the the artists.
Which one of the three worlds have you created?
The installation reimagines the refugee tents and invites the viewer to enter a sort of urban underworld, which refers to the insufferable circumstances under which the immigrants that come here from non-EU countries have to live under. I have set up an urban landscape painted in 360 degrees spread across the exhibition walls – which stands for the skyline of big European capitals like Berlin, London, Paris or Brussels. This circle is a symbol of a radical, centrifugal force which represents a vicious circle in which these immigrants are trapped. Because when someone is caught in a certain political, social and economic net as the immigrants who are called illegal are, it is very hard to break free. Persons becomes victims of the circumstances in their country of origin.
The floor in the interior of the installation is covered with a huge EU flag. With its background blue colour and the twelve yellow stars it inevitably stands for the sky. And as these stars form a circle, on the ground, they also can be seen as drawing a kind of border-line; just as the real EU borders within which it is very difficult for somebody who is not coming from a “politically right” country to get. The people who visit the exhibition have two possibilities: they can stand either inside or outside of the circle. Just as in real life.
At the Kreuzberg Pavillon, at the exhibition “Something bigger than the space can contain”, you are showing work that seems much more personal.
At the beginning of this year, I started working on a series of collages with pictures from furniture and home accessories’ catalogs, like IKEA. I put them one on top of the other. It’s as if they are balancing on a trampoline on top of which one could climb in order to reach a window and flee.
Collages with photographs of furniture is an interesting choice for an artist who identifies as a nomad. Do you even own furniture?
For fifteen years of my life I was living like a nomad, setting up home in six different countries. I have moved so many times…I made sure to own only what would fit in one suitcase –I even bought clothes when I arrived at my new destination- and naturally had no furniture. It was important that I could always move with as little fuss as possible. And then suddenly, for the first time in my life, I have a real contract for an apartment, a job contract and a contract for a wi-fi connection. And I also have my own furniture, given to me by friends. For the first time in my life.
And how does this feel for a change?
It scares me a little, to be frank. I would much rather be more flexible.
Isn’t it a relief to finally not to have to plan the next move, to be able to feel safe and settled in one place?
True, on the one side it is a relief, I can relax. But at the same time it is as though I am somewhat tied to Germany with all these contracts I have signed. I can’t help feeling a little anxious.
Where’s home to you?
This is very hard to answer. I have always craved to be free of dependencies.
Do you feel that being at home somewhere sabotages your personal freedom?
I think that the less personal belongings one has, the more independent and free one is. But home is where my family is; and home is where my friends are; and home is where my everyday reality unfolds. In this sense, all the places in which I have lived are home to me: Budapest, Venice, Granada, New York and of course Berlin. Because in every one of those places I had to build a life, to find friends and a job. And I still always keep in contact with my friends.
You would then like to keep on moving from home to new home?
I would very much like to, definitely. And for the kind of work I do as an artist, it would be wonderful to keep on living like that.
What do you miss most about Hungary?
I miss my family, definitely. But I think that I would now be as much of a foreigner in Hungary as I am everywhere else. My half life, exactly, I have lived it outside Hungary.
Why did you leave Hungary in the first place?
After finishing school I spent five years trying to win a place in the Academy of Fine Arts. At the time that was extremely hard to achieve -maybe it still is- because only five or six people from the whole country where accepted to study painting. And in a country of ten million people, there was only one school for the fine arts. So I was trying and trying, and then the fifth year I found out that it was possible to study abroad. So I applied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna and got accepted. And upon landing in Austria, I was immediately confronted with the reality that because of my home country I was someone different, that I was not like the other European students.
By the time you moved to Italy, hadn’t things changed?
No, not at all. I went to Venice and I had to begin from zero again. I had received a fellowship to study for two semesters at Accademia di Belle Arti so I enrolled but at the same time I was renting a place from a woman who did not want to declare it, so I could not even state a permanent address. Without an address you cannot even begin to apply for all the paperwork. Anyway, I didn’t have the necessary money for the student visa either, so I started to work, right away. I worried all the time about the police asking me for my papers. I only had a student pass.
You ended up staying in Italy much longer than an academic year, though. What kept you there?
I ended up staying seven years, until 2007. In Austria I had been studying figurative sculpture and I didn’t find it really exciting. Then suddenly I found myself in Venice, with great professors who opened my eyes to new directions, we used to travel in different cities and see exhibitions; I saw my first exhibition of Carsten Höller, for example. I experienced my first Biennale. And thus my whole outlook on contemporary art changed, dramatically. I could not go back to doing sculpture from a live model. I was too happy with all the possibilities that were opening up for me to give it all up. But I still had to start from year one.
It was clear to me that the longer I remained a student, the less trouble I would have with the visa issue. So I always actively tried to have student status. I was practically studying for a decade. I would study in the mornings and work in the evenings and weekends. And all through the summer. I didn’t go on a holiday for more than ten years. I’ve done all sorts of things, from cleaning houses or baby-sitting, to working at metal workshops. But what was actually exciting was that I worked for the Biennale, every year. That was great, I learnt a lot.
What brought you to Berlin?
I had spent three months here, in 2003, on a fellowship and I loved it. Everything in art here looked so refreshing, so progressive. So I made a point of coming back. Then upon completing my studies in 2007 I applied for a DAAD fellowship and got it. Initially I was going to stay for a year. But here I am.
This time you didn’t need a visa. Things had changed for Hungarian citizens. That must have been a huge relief.
It was, indeed. However, the job market was not yet open for us at the time. So yes, I could be here legally, but I could only support myself thanks to the fellowship money. I was not yet allowed to work; that became possible only in 2011. In any case, 2008 was a wonderful year. I was finally able to concentrate full time on my work and not worry about money. I got so much work done during that time. And as the year was drawing to a close, I applied for the Hans Purrmann Prize and got that too, so that meant I could finance one more year. Germany is good for me I thought.
You earlier mentioned that you feel it would be better for your work as an artist if you kept moving. Why is that?
I am a little nervous about settling on a bourgeois life, I have a fear that it makes one feel a little too comfortable and thus probably a little lazy.
If you’ve thought of the danger, you’ve probably also thought about a solution. What would that be, in your case?
Honestly, I cannot solve this. But then this is what I am doing with the “Camp Europa” exhibition. I am convinced it is important to do something about people who find themselves in difficult situations. For example this is the case for the people at Oranienplatz. I want to show how tough what they are going through is, because after all I have already gone through this. It is a matter of great urgency that needs to be addressed and solved. I’m not a politician so I can’t change the laws, but I can try to help change public opinion. This is what I try to achieve with most of my projects; I try to make people sensitive to certain situations. I don’t want to be someone who is doing “empty art”.
How do you define empty art?
Art that is merely decorative. That doesn’t aspire to convey a meaning, to pose a question, to make a suggestion. Not only politicians and journalists get a platform; artists have a platform too and we might as well use the instruments at our disposal in order to communicate and point at some difficult issues. I think that we have a certain, more acute sensibility. As an artist I feel as though I am holding a membrane through which I observe the society and then, on this very fine filter I attempt to show things that maybe other people have not noticed.
You have been a fellow at the Institut für Raumexperimente. In what way has your time at the institute enriched your outlook?
The time at the institute was absolutely fantastic and I am glad that I was there after having acquired some experience as an artist instead of being a student. I believe that I was able to be more open and to benefit in ways I wouldn’t have had I been younger. The greatest thing was that I had the opportunity to collaborate with professionals from different sectors. And then there were some of the most interesting people that I have ever met who would come to talk with us and show their work.
Your 2010 project “Transparent Rooms-Nach Hause”, involved you working along Vietnamese and Russian immigrant women in Berlin. How did this meeting come about?
It’s quite interesting how this project was born. It goes back to my plans for my DAAD project, for which I initially intended to do something regarding the district where there are many Plattenbau buildings. I wanted to start by observing and studying the way of life in the areas of Berlin where people live in the Plattenbau. I wanted to compare their experiences with mine, because I have also grown up in one such building in the periphery of Budapest. So what I first did was to head out in Marzahn to observe and take pictures. That’s how I saw this Kiezhaus. I went in and found some Vietnamese women cooking and chatting; other women were in a workshop, painting. It was basically a place for neighbourhood women would meet, socialise and do all sorts of creative things. They even had a workshop where teenagers would come and fix their bikes or they would make wooden objects. The women there came from Vietnam and Russia, but there were also some older German women. It was a great place, very warm and welcoming. It felt to me like a whole new world.
What was everyday life like in Marzahn for those women? Did they talk to you about their years in Berlin?
Apart from that Kiezhaus, they lived rather isolated lives. And they spoke very little German, even though some had been living here for 20 years. But they had come mostly come to Germany as contract workers, in the GDR. And then stayed on. The Vietnamese women had married German men in order to be able to remain in the country, they had raised families with them. But most had not been able to find further employment. The micro-world they had created, though, at that Kiezhaus was bustling with life and joy. Kids would also gather there after school.
So your project was about life in this specific Kiezhaus? Did you do a film?
That too. I started going there regularly. I would film and take pictures, I became friends with the people there. So eventually the decision to do something about it came naturally. The thing is one day we learnt that the Kiezhaus was going to close down and be renovated. The municipality of Marzahn had decided to change its use. The women were shocked. Well, we all were. For the following five months I was filming the space as they were emptying of everything, but then I began to film the new space the women found. That was the amazing thing about them; they did not give up even though it was very hard to find something. Everything was too expensive. Finally they managed to find a new space which is much smaller -it’s only one room- but they are still together and very active. And two years later they even founded a kindergarten.
Would you still briefly describe how it was growing up in a Plattenbau in communist Hungary?
When I look back it looks like such a completely different world. It has all changed so much and so fast that when I look at photographs I can hardly believe that this is me I’m looking at. But it is and I remember everything very clearly. We lived in a neighbourhood in the outskirts of Budapest, in a Plattenbau that had been constructed on top of what had been a landfill site. And there was another one at a small distance. Around us there were factories; at one side a pharmaceutical factory and at the other an elastics factory. When the neighbourhood was first built, there were not even real roads, there was no asphalt; just earth and the dust everywhere. There was no super marker, no school, no playing ground for us kids, nothing. There were no trees around, either. We would play in the parking lot. It took some time before all that changed and it became a real urban neighbourhood.
While growing up did you already have an interest in art?
Yes, as long as I can remember myself. Not only was I passionate about drawing as a child, but I cried my eyes out when I was six until my mother agreed to allow me to have ceramics lessons. And then at thirteen I seriously started studying drawing. I would go to the museums in Budapest on weekends, I used every chance I had to look at art. When I was fifteen my grandmother together my parents gave me a bus ticket to Venice, as a birthday present. I left Budapest in the evening, arrived in Venice the next morning and came back the same night. That was all they could afford. For lunch I had a sandwich my mom had given me. But I had an amazing time, truly amazing. I remember standing before a painting by Mantegna for an hour; I had never seen anything like it. If someone were to tell me that ten years later I would be living in Venice, I would have thought they were crazy.
What do you remember most vividly about 1989?
The taxi drivers’ strike, that brought Budapest to a standstill. The drivers were protesting against the increase in gasoline prices. People were worried it might all climax into a violent revolution and my parents were telling me to stay at home. But there was no chance I would stay in. I was with my friends out in the streets all the time. And because my father who was a driver had joined the barricades, I would go there to join him. He would ask me to go home but I wouldn’t, it was too exciting to turn my back to. And of course I remember the day Janos Kadar passed away. In general that year was a time of hope for us, we expected that everything would change for the better. But 20 years later my family don’t have a better life. OK, sure, they can travel abroad; but they have no money to do so. And right now, it is not exactly a democratic government running the country.
I was planning to ask you whether you consider returning to Budapest, but I guess there’s no reason to do so.
That’s right. I would be returning to a dictatorship; that’s how living under the government of Viktor Orban feels. Oh, we could talk about it for the next two days…But let me just say that in all the years that I have been living abroad, my friends -architects, artists, journalists- never wanted to follow my lead. They used to work in museums, cultural institutions, the media. And now they are coming to Berlin, one after the other. They cannot stand the situation in Hungary anymore. In the last two years, half a million people have fled the country.
Why do your friends choose to come to Berlin?
For us Hungarians Berlin has always felt very close. I believe it also has to do with our common experience of life under communism. In fact when I meet people who have lived in the GDR, they tell me how they love Hungary and how they used to see it as a European New York.
Do you find you have a lot in common with artists who have lived in the GDR?
I don’t know many, but with those I do know, yes, I find that we have quite a lot in common. When I see the work of an artist that has similar experiences of life under communism, I recognise things. Because my own past -my childhood which I lived under communism- informs my work, I don’t need any explanation when I recognise things in the work of someone else. It might even only be the irony; an irony that is characteristic to people who have lived under communism.
When you wish to look at something beautiful and comforting in Berlin, where do you turn to?
The Botanical Garden; especially the palm trees house.