Balazs Kicsiny

St. Louis

at Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum



Balázs Kicsiny’s installation “Killing Time” (2012) seems plucked from a lost Peter Greenaway film—some arch pantomime of pleasure courting death in a halted interstice of time. One enters a single, immersive installation, not unlike a movie set, via an unlit corridor filled only with the discordance of three overlapping soundtracks: the rumble of military radio transmissions, the dull thwack of thrown knives hitting a target and the clatter of dinnerware at a bustling restaurant. Resembling an abrupt film cut, the dark introductory hall dead-ends at the main gallery space: a dramatically lit circuslike arena defined by a large circular layer of sand on which four clothed mannequins are composed in static play. A male figure aims knives at a woman who is strapped to a white rotating disc; both wear checker-patterned aprons and combat helmets with surveillance cameras affixed to them. Nearby, a black-clad couple sits at a table, clutching knives as they gaze at television screens, which display their colleagues’ surveillance footage, embedded where plates should be. A white circle riddled with knives in an arrangement suggesting a clock looms brightly over the scene, while the gallery’s perimeter is enshrouded in black velvet curtains. Obscured in curtain folds, six more figures are interspersed; each holds a television screen lit with a bold red “X.”

Kicsiny, who was raised in Communist-occupied Hungary and currently resides in Budapest, conceived of the exhibition during a teaching residency at Washington University St. Louis, where he worked with lecturer and exhibition curator Robert Gero as well as students from the university’s art school to fabricate the piece. “Killing Time” was the first museum exhibition in the U.S. for Kicsiny, who is perhaps best known for representing Hungary at the 2005 Venice Biennale, and the installation feels very much the product of cross-cultural exchange. Elements of reality television (“America’s Got Talent” uses a similar “X” to reject participants) and closed-circuit surveillance mix with the rigid regularity of Kicsiny’s customary palette (black, white and red) and macabre symbolism, yet no simple agreement among them is struck. In keeping with the violent intimations of the title, all potential lead-ins to pastiche or political commentary are dead on arrival, making the exhibition feel like a bizarre netherworld existing beyond the familiar confines of narrative time.

This hermetic place does not even allow the infiltration of contemporary art discourse. Kicsiny’s lexicon and deliberate illogic seem throwbacks to Surrealism: knives, curtains, gendered figures, the Freudian slippage between aggression and desire. The texture of cultural translation is most apparent in his use of these motifs, blending a kind of folk storytelling tradition, not with irony, formalism or conceptualism, but with something more akin to magic realism. In that sense, Kicsiny radically enacts a “frozen performance”—as his work is often described—during which one can only pause and submit to its cues. It’s a massive game board poised for war, dinner or broadcast—where pawns forever mourn their manipulation by an off-camera arbiter.

Photo: Balázs Kicsiny’s installation Killing Time, 2012; at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum.