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Marianne Csaky: On the Cultural Nomad

Local Everywhere

Like many other artists, I spent most of the past few decades moving from one place to another, from country to country, from continent to continent, depending on where a residency program, an invitation or teaching work found me. Some stays were short, just a few weeks, while, some were longer than a year. In those places, we formed communities of nomads like me, coming from all over the world, and local artists who just did not go elsewhere at that time. Living this way breeds an intermediate state: you are not at home, yet, you are not a tourist. You do not visit local tourist attractions, but mainly work in the studio, talking with colleagues or visit hardware stores and paint shops. You naturally grow into the rhythm of local life, live like a local but bring with you your stories, habits, memories, all you have gained somewhere else. And everyone's package is very different. I called this way of life, my life project ‘Local Everywhere’.

In these places you find yourself in a very pleasant community, where, because of close coexistence, you only represent your individual self in communication, rather than where you come from. Mostly, you don’t use your mother tongue, but an intermediary language. In a large shared kitchen, with Iranian, Chinese, Korean, Indian or German fellow artists, we laughed while cooking, realising how in Kerala and Budapest they tell the same jokes about the police.

At the same time, we are surrounded by a broader social context of the country and the city, which identifies us according to its rules, traditions and history. In China I was a white European artist. In Korea I was an ancient relative of Koreans. In France I was an Eastern European, and the distant successor of the great generation of Hungarian photographers like André Kertész and Martin Munkácsy. In Germany, I was a fellow of the eastern half of their country. In New York, I was European with a faint reflection of Hollywood’s golden age on my forehead. It’s hard even to make a list of all that I was – not to mention the political connotations that all people of Hungarian descent have been subject to in the past 10 years when they leave their homeland. But due to our situation, it was usually not disturbing, nor did it define our personal relationships. We were in a privileged position: invited to those places, and they were glad we were there.

That is why this ‘identification’ is in no way comparable to what you experience when moving to a foreign world out of compulsion, to save your life, seek livelihood, find work – or when you become a stranger in your own homeland.

It is also unlike when the product you created in those places as a third-world, coloured or Eastern European artist from the periphery of the Euro-American centre leaves you and enters the Euro-American international art scene…

Representational inevitability

Having lived in Asia for longer periods of time, I was primarily looking for books by local authors or ones with their origin in the area (from whom I hoped to learn more about contemporary conditions there). This is how I came across a book by Aijun Zhu, a Chinese author living in America[1].

As I scanned the table of contents, one chapter’s title immediately struck my eyes, sparking a process of remembering that came like an avalanche: ‘Representational Inevitability’. Discussing the work and reception of four Chinese female writers, Aijun Zhu points out that third-world female writers and their works can only be interpreted by the Euro-American audience as representatives of their own ethnicity, and, as a result, the individuality of the work and the creator is lost. She argues that these artists become visible or achieve real success in the Euro-American cultural context only when their works paint the ethnic and social image that is associated with them on the basis of their origins. ‘Inevitable’ identification from outside is, of course, a really broad phenomenon. It does not exist only in the context of the art scene, nor in the context of ethnicity alone.

Growing up in communist Hungary, I have countless memories of all that starting from my early childhood. The very first one was the strange feeling of alienation and distrust with which I looked at the outside world because of the vulnerability of my family due to political discrimination. And that also led me to assume that everyone would look at me the same way.

It became clear to me only slowly why we lived in a remote garden – which for a child was a state of paradise –, where my family, forced by their dire shortage of money and work, produced almost everything to be self-sufficient. My father and grandfather were enemies of the ruling communist regime and were under constant close surveillance by the secret police. Although I have always fought bitterly against my feeling of alienation and exclusion, perhaps it will, to some extent, stay with me forever.

In retrospect, a very important lesson I have drawn from this childhood experience is that when you are stigmatized by your environment, you also stigmatize yourself. You already assume that others are averse to you, even though they might not be.

I started making art at very young age. Quite early on, I was led to realize that what I did in my art and how I did it – I made works referring to sexuality and desires – was not what women did. Since I presented my work for some time under the pseudonym Caliban, people who did not know me thought I was a man. Luckily, by then, I had developed a kind self-protection that helped me ignore the ‘inevitable’.

By coincidence (or shall we call it fate?), almost all of the female artist friends with whom I came into close contact at the artistic residencies have moved to Europe. My Iranian friend lives in Ireland, my Chinese friend in Sweden and my Korean friend in Finland, while I chose Belgium as a long-term residence. Thus, we have all experienced another facet of the nomadic way of life – in a less protected position. The ‘representational inevitability’ we had once experienced as a barely perceptible background in the closed art communities where we first met, has now become our everyday experience, both in our personal relationships and our artistic activity.

Identity crisis

Perhaps I am not mistaken in saying that one of the roots of the heightened interest in Third World art in the Euro-American art scene over the past decades is to be found in the identity crisis that has overcome the Western world. With the end of the Cold War, the global power relations that had defined the complex system of relations between the ‘West’ and the ‘East’ after World War II were reshuffled. The rapid economic development of certain Third World countries, such as China and India, has contributed to this. Waves of interest in art from India, China, the Middle East and Africa came one after the other. The changes in the political situation across a number of regions also played a major role in this process. In 1990, Eastern European art also had its ‘fifteen minutes of fame’, and vanished soon. Their cultural background, their Chineseness, Indianness, Middle Easternness or Eastern Europeanness played a major part in the popularity and attraction those, often excellent, artists enjoyed while riding those waves.

It seems to me that the orientalism and interest in the art and culture of the Third World in today’s Western World is different from what it was before the end of the Cold War. If we look at the interest of early conceptual artists in the East, such as the work of John Cage or, of a later generation, the early works of Bill Viola, we can see that they were actually looking for synonyms for their very stable, modernist creative attitude, and they found this in ‘oriental’ art, which confirmed their Western creative position. However, neither they nor the art market thought that the contemporary art of the Third World cultures could be interesting in itself.

In recent decades, the Western art world has already taken a different interest in Third World art, and the contemporary art of these cultures has become interesting in its own right. At the same time, today’s politicized art world prefers that you as an artist represent your own social and political environment. The basic formula is perhaps still true today, as many have deduced, that Euro-American art, which dictates norms, seeks to strengthen its own self-image through the exotic (social, political, and economic) otherness of the East. However, this Western self-image has faltered to some extent, and in the otherness of the Third World creators, the Euro-American art world focuses more on finding ‘solution models’ based on different ethnicities, cultures and political arrangements, and much less on personal, individual approaches. In recent years, identity politics has also become one of the key defining elements of the Euro-American art scene.

I have also experienced personally that this demand exerts a tremendous force on artists who work on the periphery. Third World and Eastern European artists' relationship to this situation is very contradictory. They claim that they want to be the centre of attention not because of the culture and ethnicity identified with them, but because of the uniqueness of their works. However, whether in order to achieve success, or, especially when they have left their home, from some kind of self-preservation, they often count on the identity-political determination of the Western world themselves and they try to meet this expectation both in their creative attitude and in the visuals of their works.

Healing process

My artistic practice has developed in a way that the power of my security lies precisely in the fact that I do not allow external expectations to affect my inner freedom. The most beautiful and productive moments of my nomadic ‘local everywhere’ creative journey have been collaborations with artists from all over the world: artists with whom collaboration was based solely on our spiritual and intellectual disposition. One example is the re-enactment video animation Delete [2], in which Chinese colleagues replayed a traumatic event in my life based on a family video of a Christmas celebration from the ’70s. This was a kind of healing process for me. Every time I look back at these recordings and see the faces of my colleagues, my friends as they play my own story, it confirms that fortunately, at the level of personal relationships, it is possible to avoid the ‘inevitable’.

[1] Aijun Zhu, Feminism and Global Chineseness: The Cultural Production of Controversial Women Authors. Youngstown, N.Y. : Cambria Press, 2007 [2]


Marianne Csaky : Artist, born in Hungary, living and working in Brussels, Belgium. Besides artistic work, exhibited internationally, she founded and runs the Streetview project, an artist-run exhibition space in Anderlecht. She also writes essays and fiction. instagram @mariannecsaky


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