Sugar, an interview with Llona Nemeth
Ilona Németh: Bleak fields and ruin-like structures through to the bourgeois homes, echoing bygone times of entrepreneurial culture
In 2019, I met Ilona Németh at the occasion of a lecture she gave at UCL – University College London, at the Institute of Advanced Studies. I was very impressed by the way she had been conducting her research on Sugar based on the reality and proximity of her contemporaries. Her pedagogy skills for sharing that story which concerns European policy made me curious because it breaks the usual North/South expected narrative through which Sugar is mostly associated with.
Ilona Németh is a conceptual artist, a Professor, and one of the most prominent figures of the Slovak art scene. In recent years, she has undertaken to explore a rather peculiar topic: the manufacturing of sugar in Slovakia. The first result of her research was her exhibition at the Kunsthalle Bratislava entitled Eastern Sugar, in 2018. Her hope was that there would be interest to build a new industrial memorial, a chimney from Pohronský Ruskov and a museum of sugar manufacturing, in cooperation with Šurany Urban Museum and with the support of the currently functional sugar factories.
More on Illona Németh here.
Cécile Bourne-Farrell (CBF): Could you please tell me why you started to work on the notion of Sugar as an artist and curator?
Ilona Németh (IN): I have been dealing with nationalism since 2010. That emerged from the second half of the 1990s, when relations at the political level between Hungary and Slovakia were at their worst. At first, I tried to keep a distance from these affairs, because of all the peoples in the vicinity. I think Slovaks and Hungarians possibly have most in common. However, here in Slovakia there were various powers at play and political games through which we were exploited. In 2010, I came to feel that as a Hungarian living in Slovakia I must speak out about that, both as an artist and as a citizen. When I was invited to be co-curator of an international exhibition titled Private Nationalism, I said yes, and that went on for seven years including The Universal Hospitality exhibitions in Vienna and Prague.
At the beginning of 2017, I was invited to Bratislava’s Kunsthalle to make a solo show, at a time when I was feeling that I now needed to move away from the theme of nationalism and try to think about the reasons for those changes which had happened in society over the past decade. I was pondering what was behind the growing nationalism and populism.
My conclusion was that after the political and economic changes which occurred in society from the 1990s on, “gaps and fissures” emerged with the loss of work opportunities, and the simplest way of filling those holes was with ideology. For example, nationalism spread rumours about enemies, and this was also fostered by the language of populism which had been cultivated in politics in recent years. It’s always easier to feed the most basic human instincts than to face up to real problems and seek solutions. But for that it would also be necessary to analyse the causes and name them.
I grew up in the Southern part of Czechoslovakia, in Slovakia, in the town Dunajská Streda. ‘Juhocukor’, the original name of the factory, in translation South Sugar was the name assigned to the largest Slovak sugar factory. It opened in 1969 and was situated in Dunajská Streda, following the accession of a foreign majority shareholder in 1993. Redesigned in this fashion (there were promises of investment, revitalisation, international connections and an overall flourishing of sugar production in Slovakia), the factory survived until 2007.
It occurred to me that through the story of the fate of Juhocukor - Southern Sugar factory, which was renamed Eastern Sugar in 2001 - I could examine the wider connections between the loss of work and hope, and rising populism. I could take it as a case study, to enable me to add something to the discourse about a common reflection on the current state of our society and culture, something on general tendencies, using the language of art. That sugar factory, I thought, could be a convenient starting point. It was about 500 meters from our home, although no one from my family worked there. It had been part of the silhouette, the profile of the town, with its chimney, its factory building, but nothing remained of it. Really and truly, nothing. Based on a treaty with the European Union (or based on an argument between the EU and Brazil and India about the division of the sugar market) it was levelled to the ground, in fact a further 2.5 meters underneath, so that production could never be renewed. Today it’s an empty space. I had been engaged in this research for more than two years already and I found out how many sugar factories there had been in Slovakia in the year 1989, before the political changes at the end of the socialist period and I visited them all and got to know people who had worked there.
On that basis, I continued my research. I discovered various things. For example, that there isn’t just one culprit. It would be very simple to say that the fault lies in Slovakia’s unpreparedness to enter the global economy, or in socialism, or in capitalism. Or in the European Union.
CBF: Why does your work address this topic and what does it say to us here in Europe, because usually sugar entails a North/South trade relationship?
IN: I came to the conclusion that one has to assemble a mosaic of reasons for the current condition of things, look at it from various standpoints, and build this knowledge and experience into future decisions. I had my prejudices: I thought it was just ourselves who had messed things up, or that it was exploitation from the other side, that foreign investors came and wanted to make fools of us.
In my opinion “we” - people from the region (political and economic decision makers) - were not prepared for dialogue with them. Maybe some investors came with evil intentions, but if we leave that aside, they were coming with entirely different experiences, which we had lagged behind over the previous fifty years. They might have thought they were going to have a relationship of equals with us. But it wasn’t equal, and it couldn’t have been. They expected us to stand up for our interests, that we would try to preserve our industry and our values, and we were seeing them as rescuers, saviours, quite literally. That unequal relationship has had profound consequences, to say nothing of Mečiarism, which pillaged our country.
Shortly after the fall of communism there were ten sugar factories in operation in Slovakia. Two survived. Yes, and currently they are not even one percent in Slovak ownership, which is rather important. Investors came in the 1990s, when wild privatisation began. There were several players, the strongest being World and Eastern Sugar: those gradually scooped up the sugar factories and afterwards sold them. Eastern Sugar, an Anglo-French firm, came to Dunajská Streda in 1993 and gradually acquired hundred percent ownership.
What’s important, I think, is to reflect on everything that happened, and on how we can be better prepared for the things that are happening now. And to see all that through the story of our sugar manufacturing. That is why I’ve also recorded what was said by a French expert working in Eastern Sugar, who talked about global circumstances. He spoke about a court case led by India and Brazil against Europe for sugar quotas. It put the whole story in a totally different context, and in that context, our losses also, which we perceive personally or regionally, appear in a different light.
CBF: Your work opens up another perception of global investment in Eastern Europe. Can you be more explicit why how this happened and failed?
Eastern Europe entered the so-called capitalist world as a world of finance and commerce, and we didn’t have any experience of it. Not that we weren’t competitive, because in certain branches of industry we could have been, but we simply didn’t know how to uphold our interests. On our side there was naïvety. We weren’t prepared for the “normal outside” world. That can be seen vividly through the sugar industry, but it happened in various branches of the economy. And therefore, I see this subject as a case study.
However, we also did have the era of Mečiarism (Vladimir Mečiar former Prime-Minister of Slovakia), when some people were prepared to stand up for their interests. There were power groups here that knew how to pursue their goals, even amongst the general unpreparedness.
CBF: How have you been trying to bring the memory of sugar alive in your artistic and curatorial approach? Civil society seems to take a large part in the process of your work?
IN: I am considering the entire history from the 19th century, when entrepreneurs from Bohemia or of German or Jewish origins came to do business in our territory, as it was then. During the interwar period, they reached world-class levels in various things. Not only in the mode of production, but also in the entire culture of responsible enterprise, with care for their employees. They continued their enterprise during the 20th century. Some of them, for example the Kuffner family, who founded the sugar factory in Sládkovičovo, managed to emigrate shortly before fascism, others were murdered.
After the war, came nationalisation and the harsh years of the 1950s. And even in the 1990s we ruined a lot of things here. The entire twentieth century has left its marks on our sugar industry, along with our own story of capitalism, fascism, socialism, and then capitalism again. Currently we are destroying many things through our own bad decisions. I believe that when we understand something, we have an opportunity to protect ourselves by different means in the future. So that history will not be repeated.
CBF: What is your methodology when it comes to working with archives? You proposed the creation of a Museum of Sugar in the Bratislava Kunsthalle…
IN: The Archive synthesises our long-term research into the history and the gradual extinction of the Slovak sugar industry. Together with our collaborators, we carefully mapped and ‘archived’ the sugar factory sites in Slovakia that operated in 1989, the year of the Velvet Revolution, including their individual narratives. This multi-part installation traces the architectural remnants, from iconic views of factory towers, bleak fields and ruin-like structures through to the bourgeois homes echoing bygone times of entrepreneurial culture. It presents testimonies of key figures outlining their individual roles during the latest transformation processes affecting the fundamentals of sugar trade and production.
The archive of the Eastern Sugar project includes photos, videos, recordings and documents. It was created gradually during the field-trips we undertook with photo-artist Olja Triaska Stefanovic. During the study trips, I met various experts and recorded interviews, videos and collected artefacts. The collected material was transformed in various ways for the purposes of the exhibition. The exhibition will conclude through a publication containing a part of the archive material in the form of a visual essay.
I invited Miroslav Eliáš to participate in the Eastern Sugar exhibition and to develop a pilot version of the Museum of Sugar project. Mr. Eliáš is an expert on museology and has been collecting artefacts and documents of the Slovak sugar industry for more than a decade. In cooperation with architects Plural Studio, we created a “Fictitious Museum”, which can be the basis for establishing a real museum of sugar.
The Municipal Museum of Šurany has been, for more than 8 years, collecting artefacts and documenting resources relating to the former local sugar factory, that used to be one of the most renowned in the country. Since 2014, the Museum has been following current scientific research aiming to document the sugar industry in Slovakia. The initiation of the Museum of Sugar benefits from the fact that the sugar factory of Šurany was the longest-running sugar factory in the country. It was actually the first sugar factory built in the Kingdom of Hungary and, as such, it was also a training-site, preparing experts who subsequently disseminated their knowledge throughout other factories. The exhibition at Kunsthalle Bratislava presented various elements of the facility, including several objects, historical paintings and photo-documentation, all of which were based on extensive archival research.
CBF: Can you mention further projects which are planned for showing the work in the coming Months and how it might evolve?
IN: In 2019, we received a grant for the Eastern Sugar project from the Creative Europe Programme, which we implemented in cooperation with the Slovak National Gallery and Bratislava Kunsthalle. We developed the project with the participation of several international partners including Austria, Germany, the Czech Republic, Hungary and France. Apart from 5 exhibitions, the project also included lectures, educational programmes, audience development programmes, university cooperation, workshops and the publication of a book. The exhibition part of the project always varies depending on the results of local research, involves new artists and is complemented with other specific themes. With regards to continuation, I consider it important to address the experience of the last 30 years of the economic transformation from the Eastern, as well as Western European perspective. In cooperation with artists reflecting on these issues in their art, we examine neo-colonialist economic processes and their impact on today's political and economic situation in the former socialist countries, comparing them with the consequences of traditional postcolonialism. Our project is interdisciplinary, we cooperate with experts from various sectors.
CBF: With regard to the question of the migration of populations and the issue of sugar production, have you been able to witness, through your research, how Migration is an element of the economy of Sugar and its landscape in Eastern Europe, or at least in your country? And what were the consequences after the demolition of the factories?
IN: Multinational sugar companies from the 1990s – if I tell it in a very simple way - bought the sugar market for their own sugar production. Companies in Central Europe are mostly German and Austrian property.
In our region, agricultural production changed a lot after the political turn in 1989, agriculture was privatised, later the family-owned small farms, mostly finished their production because they could not compete with cheap agricultural products from abroad. The sugar industry has recently been replaced with the multinational car industry recently.
Edited November 12th, 2019