A Rebellion without Clues
by Pavel Büchler
The Hungarian Club in Bradford is no more. For a half of a century it was a place out of place, a token of a home left behind by a generation. Founded by refugees from the failed 1956 anti-communist uprising in Hungary, it had outlasted the end of its era, the Cold War and ‘Eastern Europe’, serving a shrinking expatriate community to maintain a sense of belonging to something which could have been had its time not passed even before it came. It had kept alive a collective memory of an ideal, a past inscribed into the present not as a history but as an ever-elusive promise.
One of the most enduring and eloquent images from 1956 – the year of the Suez crisis, outset of the Cuban revolution, Melbourne Olympics and Heartbreak Hotel – is a Hungarian flag with the insignia of the communist state cut out. At once a confrontation of a symbol of oppression and a violent gesture of revolutionary contingency, the flag with a hole became the emblem of the popular revolt against Stalinist political hegemony, Soviet military presence and ‘foreign’ cultural and ideological imposition. The void left in the middle of the flag instantly and dramatically reclaimed the iconography of resistance and struggle for the imagery of Hungarian national sovereignty and pride born out of the defeats, betrayals and retributions of the midnineteenth century war of independence and the military humiliation and territorial disintegration following the collapse of the Austro-Hungarian union, and fuelled by ethnic isolation and historic grievances against geographic neighbours.
In one of Diane Bielik’s photographs from the soon to be decommissioned club a few small Hungarian flags adorn an empty display cabinet as if it were a building decorated for the Independence Day. The arrangement has all the metaphorical efficiency of the revolutionary flag but none of its drama, defiance and patriotic pathos. The living room scale, the shelves left bare after the ornaments and trophies had been packed away, the dead surface sheen of the fake veneer, even the snug fit of the cabinet into the niche next to the chimney breast, all evoke values and sentiments at odds with the resolute battle calls of Sándor Petőfi and Lajos Kossuth and their twentieth century successors. The modest aspirations of this ‘makeshift monument’ undermine the very essence of the monumental. It doesn’t rise above the quotidian and commemorates nothing but fading memories.
In another picture, a large flag on a wooden pole appears to be flying triumphantly in the wind – but this is so only because the image is rotated ninety degrees and presented to us provisionally turned on its side. Such impromptu adjustments to the habitual ways of looking may not be enough to resolve the conflicts between the historical terms of reference, fatally contaminated by nostalgia, and the need to contest the significance of their symbolic currency in today’s global ‘postnational’ reality. They may be not much more than temporary diversions. But a diversion may be exactly what Bielik had in mind when she staged her last-minute photographic intervention into the symbolic deficit of the outmoded furnishings, utensils and decorations in the club’s deserted rooms. In her improvised scenarios the cultural displacement of the everyday objects and folkloristic motifs is unsettled once again by the manner of their display. The mildly bizarre configurations suggest a purpose but offer no clues and the more Bielik overtly tries to give these leftovers of meaning one last chance, the more they drift into ambiguity. It is as if every attempt to hold onto the affective ties to tradition and heritage were also a small rebellion against their persistence... for the time being.