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Decolonising Central European Nature: M┼▒csarnok Exhibition Histories

by Maja and Reuben Fowkes
Published in Ars Hungarica no.4 vol.43 (2017)

The natural environment on the geographical territory of Central and Eastern Europe has undergone several waves of colonisation in modern times. During the period of state socialism, and most markedly at the height of Stalinism, the ideological resistance of natural materials was treated by planners as an obstacle to the building of a new society, to be overcome through massive infrastructural interventions in the physical fabric of the biosphere. Under the conditions of neo-liberal globalisation from 1989, environmental considerations were sacrificed for short term economic gain, with nature objectified and subjugated as a material resource to stimulate growth and for the accumulation of speculative profits in global financial centres. The spread in the last decade of a virulent strain of nationalist popularism has led not to a curtailing of the exploitation of the natural world by global capital, but instead in many cases to its intensification. This paper sets out to examine the processes of the colonisation and decolonisation of nature as they are present in the art history and contemporary art of Central Europe. It focuses in particular on Hungary, taking as a case study the exhibition histories of curatorial engagements with nature themes at the Budapest Kunsthalle from the 1950s to today, while also considering the response of contemporary artists to the multiple legacies and current forms of colonial domination of the natural world. The decolonisation of nature in art practice is discussed in relation to recent theorising of the notions of geontopower and the hereish, as a position between the global and the local with relevance for the condition of Central European art. Also addressed is the issue of the particularity of attitudes and behaviours towards the natural world in Central Europe during the socialist period, and the extent to which these should be seen, following Andre Gorz, as part of the wider project of industrial modernity. Setting out to identify the processes of past colonisations of nature in specific periods of art history, the paper considers the extent to which art works could be analysed as documents of wider social and political attitudes to the natural environment. At the same time it examines specific moments in which social and environmental agendas coincide, and asks whether such events in art history could be associated with the wider process of decolonisation.