Activists in Hungary are coming up with creative ways to challenge their Prime Ministerby Rob Sharp / January 17, 2017 / Leave a comment
At one end of Budapest’s Szabadság Tér (Freedom Place) in late November, 20 people sat listening to a Hungarian activist discuss a recent trip to the United States. He brought up the US election. For him, Hillary Clinton would have been as bad as Donald Trump. “Clinton is militant… the people don’t adore her for it,” he said. Those around him nodded, and hunched up against the cold.
Left-wing activists in Budapest have little faith in American political elites—or their own. Trump’s victory may sanctify the illiberal policies of their own governmental strongman, prime minister Viktor Orbán. Trump and Orbán have superficial similarities, including their use of divisive ideology and anti-migrant sentiment.
But unlike in the US Orbán’s nationalism faces a society with little mainstream left-liberal opposition. As such, Budapest’s small activist population needs to be creative to subvert Orbán, who has tightened his grip on state-funded media and major cultural institutions. In doing so, the activists are rethinking the relationship between citizenship and creativity.
In Szabadság Tér the artists and activists have pitched up a short distance from a memorial to the 1944 Nazi occupation erected by the government in 2014. This kitsch statue, which depicts a bronze imperial eagle (Germany) swooping down on an archangel Gabriel (Hungary), has been widely criticised. Its opponents claim it downplays Hungarians’ complicity in the occupation, and the deportation of hundreds of thousands of Jews during the Holocaust. The statue exemplifies Orbán’s tendency to rewrite Hungary’s complex past along nationalistic grounds.
“We wanted to do something against the plan for the statue [in 2014], and we found the best thing would be to occupy the place of the planned monument,” said Rényi András, one of the founders of Eleven Emlékmu (Living Memorial), and director of the Institute of Art History at Eötvös Loránd University. “Practically and aesthetically, it’s not an appropriate place for a monument. The idea was to organise a flash mob to move people to come here and bring their own personal objects.”
Directly opposite the statue, people have built their own monument: photographs of loved ones, or commemorative mounds of stones, partly in memory of those lost during the war. András’s group cleans the objects, and has put out two white chairs to symbolise alternative forms of dialogue. Its members regularly organise public…