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ISPAROMAR YORK (Zsolt Szabó)’s Photographic Series Titled Give Me a Soul In The ZSDRÁL & DESIGN Gallery in Pécs

“I attribute to photography the task of recording the real nature of things, their interior, their life.”
André Kertész

Zsolt Szabó’s photographic oeuvre is underpinned by a desire to capture meaning beyond what meets the eye and to explore detail. The artist soon discovered that this is the way in which he can best convey his message and his inner world. His black&white photographs arouse a powerful reaction, always drawing attention to the essence of things. Szabó (Pécs, 1980) pursued his studies at the University of Pécs and at Sorbonne University in Paris. He found his means of self-expression in analogue photography and regards the oeuvres of two masters of Hungarian origin, André Kertész and Brassaï, as his models. He holds Italian fine artists Giorgio de Chirico and Piero Manzoni in high esteem; their surrealistic vision and conceptual artistic approach was an important source of learning for him. Szabó’s objective is always to capture a passing moment and a unique visual world, through which he creates a special milieu and atmosphere for his pictures reflecting the cyclical nature of existence and the eternity therein.

His themes explore the relations between objects, the natural environment and human bodies as well as the emotions sparked off by them. Some of his photos convey sensual experiences too, at times through the representation of the lack of desired fulfilment. He is looking for temporal and spatial connections and at times helps different situations to engage with each other. He frequently shifts perspective to represent space, depth and distance. He thinks in terms of series, the elements of which are sometimes more and at other times less closely interlinked. He regards the symbolism in objects and bodies as important, even the symbolism of numbers, which is manifest in the number of elements he includes in his photographs or in their physical dimensions. He devotes special attention to the development and technical implementation of his photographs. He uses analogue film and manual techniques both in taking and processing his works. He often works with special and even vintage cameras or camera systems, which are often to do with the message he intends to convey and thus (can) help viewers to better understand his works. He does not insist on analogue techniques out of nostalgia or fear of defiance but to seek new experiences that are different from the more usual and ordinary digital solutions, as Canadian author David Sax writes in his The Revenge of Analog, an approach that clearly informs Szabó’s oeuvre and way of thinking. He often makes silver gelatine prints and at times opts for giclée, which resembles analogue prints the most closely out of the modern printmaking methods. He develops his pictures on high quality Baryte paper, through which he lends his works a unique touch. He always installs his works in an individual fashion free from superfluous detail, thus helping the observer to primarily focus on the photographic world that opens up through the images.

In his series titled The Shadow of Coincidence and The Light of Coincidence it is the accidental or intended alignment of lights and shadows that serves as the vehicle for expressing his feelings and thoughts about the special moments of life. The tension inherent in these pictures is created by the paradoxes of wholeness perceivable even through absence, while in his ensembles Nature Morte and Understatement he records beauty through transience and the moments of change in nature. He explores what lies beneath the visible, simultaneously depicting the fragments of the past and the captured moments of the present. Due to the universal truths expressed in his photographs, his series are rarely linked to specific places. However, location played a crucial role in his project Take Me to Paradise, photographed in the USA in 2018. The photos in the American series not only highlight the importance of remembrance and the fragility of life in general but are personal imprints of the terror attacks that took place in New York on 11 September 2001. The series contains 56 pictures, this number being a reference to the Hungarian immigrants who were persecuted in their native land during the revolution of 1956 as well as their hardships in their newly found home.  The images distinguished by great sensitivity and focus on detail evoke the horrors of terrorism and remind us of the importance of not forgetting. The size of the developed prints – 19 x 19 cm – refers to the numbers of the tragic date. Szabó’s series titled Breath and Space prepared the way for his latest, now debuting project: Give Me a Soul. Filling a gaping void is only possible if the artist lends soul to objects through the medium of photography.

Creating something living out of what is lifeless is only possible through the sacred. When God breathed life into the first man, Adam, an inconceivable miracle took place. It was a gesture that is inimitable and unattainable for us, mortals. Yet, we have been given something that enables us to do something comparable. It is the mimetic power of art, which allows us to create something out of what is lifeless: the magic of giving things soul. Szabó’s 33-piece Give Me a Soul (2019-2021) describes this magic in the language of photography. The photos are each 6 x 6 cm, black&white and analogue, developed on Ilford Baryte paper. They were taken with a Hasselblad 500EL camera system, similar to the one that was used to capture the Moon Landing on 20 July 1969. These are pictures titled Luna I-II-III. pays tribute to this historic moment, with its surface textures imitating the surface of the Moon. The photos in this series are not square in shape and were taken with a special large-format Horseman L45 camera.

Presenting lifeless objects as living harks back to a long tradition in the history of art. For example, objects depicted in a still-life are filled with life the moment they are transformed into the subject of a painting or a photograph. Things used in everyday life are given a new function – come to life, are given soul – when placed at the focus of artworks. It is our fundamental need to make drawings, paintings and photographs to immortalise the human body, which is seen by us as the most familiar yet greatest miracle. Szabó’s depictions not only throw light on the visible body but also the invisible soul. He lends new meaning to found objects, which were, in a sense, labelled as useless and disposable. The mannequins featured in his photographs were previously used as exhibits in the István Türr Museum in Baja. They once imitated idealised and perfect bodies, primarily female but also male, sporting clothes impeccably. Now stripped of their clothes, their previously concealed frames come into focus in Szabó’s photographs, often resembling still-lifes. Mannequins, which are designed to be replicas of the human body, are presented here as fragile and perishable, worn away with time and deprived of their original perfection. Their surface is marred by the repeated fittings and staplings of the past and are like wounds on the human body. They might bring the suffering of Christ to the viewers’ mind, especially coupled with the inscription INRI (Iēsus Nazarēnus, Rēx Iūdaeōrum, i.e. Jesus the Nazarene, King of the Jews), which can be seen in one of the photos. This interpretation is also consolidated by the mystical number 33, i.e. the number of photographs in the series, which is a symbolic reference to “Christ’s age”.

Thanks to the constructive power of art, the flawed and discarded mannequins can appear – or even shine – again in their wholeness. The gesture of giving soul can thus be seen as an act of creation through the photographer’s eyes and lens. The intended or haphazard alignment of the objects, their light and shade effects and their perspectival representation jointly imbue life to the mannequins and the objects around them. So much so that the observer can virtually feel the contours of their bodies and the pores of their skin, as if they were real. At the same time, the elongated heads are reminiscent of Amedeo Modigliani’s paintings. The nude bodies also exude a powerful sexuality. The male and female intimacy equally contains the gentleness of stroking and the heated gestures of desire. The softness of lyricism and romanticism is manifest in loving touches and in one of the pictures counterpointed by the objectivity of a building’s electrical drawing.

In some photos in the series the mannequins wear clothes bearing the imprints of the past. The movements of the bodies and their postures are vivacious, while the contorted or disattached heads and limbs are a strong allusion to the vulnerability and transience of existence. The mannequins can often be seen through or together with (blurry) photographs and a peculiar visual world is created by the artist shifting the focus of the depth of field. The inclusion of photos in the photos makes a meta-level interpretation possible and provides the opportunity for viewers to imagine earlier life situations.

The bubble wrap used in the pictures has several meanings. As wrapping material for artworks the air inside the bubbles serves a primarily protective function. The bubble wrap Szabó used in the works weighs exactly 21 grams, which the artist verified with pharmacy scales. This number evokes the myth – which was substantiated by a scientific research result, according to which the body loses exactly 21 grams of its weight at the moment of death. This was given publicity through the research carried out by an American scientist, Dr Duncall McDaugall. However, Szabó does not want to verify the scientific authenticity of this theory but rather focuses on the symbolic interpretation of this myth and the possibility of giving soul to things. In this sense, the heads covered in bubble wrap in his photos are filled with air, moreover, with soul. The use of wrapping material is also evocative of Manzoni’s Avant-garde conceptual works. Made into the object of photography, plastic is simultaneously shown as a sacred object and as disposable, useless waste. The paradox between vitality and transience appearing together in the cycle of life is thus lent a wholeness and is given meaning. The myth of creation and passing symbolise the beginning and end of life, but there is always the chance of rebirth. All this is not only possible through the sacred act of God but also through art. It is this optimism and the gesture of giving soul to things that are at the heart of Zsolt Szabó’s Give Me a Soul and his entire photographic art.

Réka Fazakas