Venice Biennale: Hajnal Németh at the Hungarian Pavilion

Hajnal Németh: CRASH - Passive Interview, installation view, 2011.

Memory is deeply connected to the senses, far beyond the linear nature of storytelling. Words are often the farthest from the real “truth” of a scenario, leaving space for memory and imagination to take place. Sight and sound, smell and touch fill in the gaps that words cannot describe, and it is at this brink that Hajnal Németh’s installation CRASH – Passive Interview rests. Exhibited in the Hungarian Pavilion this year at the 54th Venice Biennale, Németh’s installation molds perception and memory through a simple event, adding layers of sensory experience to narrative.

CRASH – Passive Interview is loosely based on a recounted story of a car accident, slowed down to every minute detail. Entering the space, I was instantly filled with sensations of drama and pain erupting from the lifesize crushed car in the center of a large gallery. Sounds of an experimental opera encapsulate the room, while an extreme red light blankets not only the destroyed car but everyone in the space. Here, narrative relies solely on the emotive power of music and light, leaving the story to unfold as the space continues. The car rests as a relic of the story unfolding through the various sensory effects — transitioned from its objecthood by the light and sound into an almost uncanny filmic space.  The speed at which the narrative becomes clear mimics the sensation of experiencing a traumatic event, each detail is slowly understood.

Hajnal Németh: CRASH - Passive Interview, installation view, 2011.

In the center of the pavilion lies a space filled with stands for sheet music, providing visual access to the sensation of opera performances. The extreme, aggressive light from the destroyed car transitions into stage light, changing the sensory encounter from a largely cinematic experience into a performative relationship between the narrative and the event. Each stand holds the libretto, allowing one to follow the story through text. This text provides the first direct, although still disjointed, connection between sensory experience and narrative — unfolding the details of the crash that are simultaneously filling the space through audio and visual means.

Hajnal Németh: CRASH - Passive Interview, video still, 2011, camera: István Imreh.

In the last room, all parts of the narrative are brought together through a video of two singers performing the opera.  Although there is never a climax or revelation of the actual event, the elements of story, time, and sensory experience come together through the video. Here, CRASH – Passive Interview returns to the cinematic space of the room with the car, but removes the drama provided through the visual overload. This is the first time that Hajnal Németh provides the viewer with a picture of the event, even though it is through the image of the performers themselves.

In each gallery space, CRASH – Passive Interview turns the relationship between narrative and the senses on its head, leaving one with a disjointed story filled with perceptive and visceral sensations without concrete pictures. For an event as grandiose and dramatically visual as the Biennale, Hajnal Németh’s project for the Hungarian Pavilion offers a reminder that memory and consciousness go far beyond the pictorial field.