Horace said that a poem should be dulce et utile, sweet and useful. I can think of little better to describe Daniel Kovalovszky’s new series, “Scenes of Infernal Play”. Without a doubt the key term to describe this new body is conceptual, yet such a broad stroke of a term may underemphasize its duality. There is an aspect of documentary photography to the work, as it tries to capture both images of hungarian labor camp survivors, and the camps themselves. The crystal clarity of the images speak to this goal. The photographic, with its incredible ability to produce detail beyond comparison, at a speed a realistic painter wouldn’t dare attempt to match, proves perfect for the preservation of these scenes. Of course, cameras are not perfect reproduction machines, and Kovalovszky holds no pretence to such a claim. The images have an incredibly personal approach. The aging survivors feel protected and calmed by Kovalovszky’s caringly coloured backgrounds. His camera blankets them with care. The lighting feels not harsh nor penetrating. It just says, here everything is, as it is, a result of what was.
Those familiar with Kovalovszky’s previous bodies of work know that he is a Hungarian photographer in the true sense. His work is inextricably to the country’s geography and history. This series continues down the path of Hungarian collective examination. He explains that “After WW2 mankind believed that having learned from the bitter experience of living in the autocratic political systems of the past they would shape a more humane world in the future. The history of Hungary, similarly to other Eastern European countries, turned in a different direction.”
Caught in the crossfires of the Cold War, Hungary found itself under the control of Mátyás Rákosi, the leader of the Hungarian Communist Party, who “following the Soviet example, introduced a new Stalinist dictatorship in which human rights were severely violated.” The country quickly became Orwellian, with the promise of stability through order, the Hungarian communist party quickly instituted a regime of instability and uncertainty for the average citizen. As “a result of show trials, several hundred thousands of political convicts were sent to forced labour camps, were imprisoned and hundreds were executed based on fictional charges. Most of these trials were held with the exclusion of the public. In most cases the charges consisted in supplying data to western powers and secretly organizing a revolt against the people’s power. In order to be able to imprison such a large number of people, numerous new prisons, detention and forced labour camps were created.”
Susan Sontag once said that taking a photograph was “to participate in another person’s mortality, vulnerability, mutability”. In a way Kovalovszky’s new project is an extension of this concept beyond the person. In his own words he has “started investigating the fragility of human freedom and democracy” by visiting the historically significant scenes of the Hungarian communist dictatorship in their present state. Thus his work is a specific chronotope, where the horrors of the past are examined from an apparently stagnant afterwards. It is the same chronotope of renaissance painters whose subjects were Roman and Greek ruins; an examination of the past threw their imperfectly preserved physical history. He is “visiting the darkest corners of this to-this-date politically divisive” and socially insufficiently acknowledged era, “that is the world of prisons in Rákosi’s time and the early Kádár period.” Specifically, the era he is examining in this new series begins with the opening of the first labour camps in 1945 and ends with the 1963 amnesty.
After reading the memoirs of political convicts Kovalovszky decided to start a visual collection of the “dreary and unknown world” he had happened upon. His goal, to “shed light on a segment of what was happening during these obscure years that is unknown to many but still significant: the world of prisons before and after the 1956 revolution.” When asked how he copes with the horrors he has found himself investigating, he replied that, “These scenes will be holding the remembrance of the physical and mental suffering of thousands for a long time. The years survived there cannot be fully represented by photographs, yet I will try to bring forward some of the memories of the prisoners evoking the characteristics of the era.”
When visiting these places Kovalovszky can’t help but find himself “overwhelmed by a strangling feeling, thinking how I would have reacted to the horrors and the imprisonment.” Perhaps this feeling accounts for the slight distance we feel in all his photographs. Not the people, who are embraced by his lens, but the places and objects which seem removed from themselves. It is true that they are removed in time, but so too does there appear to be a conscious decision to place them purely as objects. It is clear in the photos that these material things have pretensed themselves successfully upon countless dark uses. Daniel Kovalovszky is trying his best “to explore the limits of tolerance of the human mind and the automatization of the survival instinct through the tools of photography.”
To see more of Kovalovszky’s work, you can have a look at his website.