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<nettime> “Wash Your Dirty Money With My Art” - Hedvig Turai in Conversa
Geert Lovink on Fri, 13 Feb 2009 16:08:30 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> “Wash Your Dirty Money With My Art” - Hedvig Turai in Conversation with János Sugár

“Wash Your Dirty Money With My Art” - Hedvig Turai in Conversation  
with János Sugár
Sunday, 25 January 2009, see also: http://www.artmargins.com/

In the summer of 2008, János Sugár exhibited the sentence "Wash your  
dirty money with my art" at the Kunsthalle, Budapest, as part of an  
exhibition entitled What's up?(1) Parallel with exhibiting the  
sentence in this safe context, he also displayed it on the pavement in  
front of and on the wall of two private art institutions in Budapest.  
Soon after this, one of these institutions sued him for damaging its  
property. After Sugár's exhibition at the Kunsthalle it was easy to  
identify him as the artist, and soon Sugár was summoned by the police  
and prosecuted. Sugár admitted that he had sprayed the sentences and  
added that he considered them a continuation of the art work he had  
earlier displayed at the Kunsthalle. However, Sugár's gesture was not  
deemed art by the authorities and was classified as vandalism. The  
damage was estimated at $7,500, a startling amount given the  
relatively small pavement area covered by the sprayed text (40x60  
cm=1.3x1.9 ft). Sugár refused to pay such a high amount and a second  
estimate was made, this time at the expense of the artist, who refused  
to pay this second amount as well. According to the Sugár he is being  
sued for an artistic gesture, while the owner of the art institution  
refuses to accept it as art and demands compensation. Sugár's trial is  
pending a new damage estimate is under way.

Hedvig Turai: Where did the phrase “Wash your dirty money with my  
art” come from?

János Sugár: I have a few sentences that I have been working with.  
Questions or statements like, “What question would you most like to  
respond to,” “Seemingly small things determine seemingly big  
things” or “Work for free, or do work you would do for free.” I  
always keep a notebook with me and jot down notes.

H. T.: Was the sentence that triggered this legal issue one of those?

J. S.: I would begin earlier. In 2007, within the framework of the  
German-Hungarian Bipolar project, I participated in an exhibition at  
the Kunstverein in Wolfsburg, Germany. There I exhibited a stencil  
pattern with the sentence “Work for free, or do work you would do for  
free.” I sprayed one copy on the wall of the exhibition space and  
left the stencil and some spray paint there so that visitors could  
borrow it and take the stencil out into the town. They could have  
completely covered the walls of this “Volkswagen town.”  I did the  
same piece later in Berlin, where it actually was borrowed and  
graffiti sentences were sprayed in various places in the city. I  
happened to be in Berlin when I set down this sentence in question  
today. A couple of weeks later, already in Hungary, I found again in  
my notes, “Wash your dirty money with my art.” The sentence struck  
me because I understood it as it is a reference to street art. It was  
interesting for me to think of it this way; you put out something  
using the tools of street art, which can be literally washed off.

H. T.: So, what does the sentence mean?

J. S.: There is an ambiguity, a semantic play in it, as well as a  
critical tone. It is a certain kind of offering of one’s self, here I  
am, wash your money with me, use me to wash your money. All money by  
definition is dirty, all money is polluted with blood. By coincidence,  
I gave the presentation and actually exhibited the work at a show at  
the same time, and  visitors could have borrowed it and take the  
stencil out into the town.(2) Somewhat later at a conference on  
graffiti art organized by the municipal government of Budapest, the  
city launched a campaign titled “I love Budapest.” The idea was  
that activists would clear the city of graffiti. Budapest has devoted  
50 million HUF (about 250,000 dollars) to this purpose. So, when I  
found the sentence in my notes, I connected it with the anti-graffiti  
movement, with “washing” dirty money, and that the thing that  
should be washed was art itself. All these things are connected, and  
this is the meaning of the sentence. Also, a young artist duo,  
SZAF(3), Miklós Mécs and Judit Fischer invited me to contribute to  
their exhibition box in the Kunsthalle as part of the exhibition  
What's Up?

H. T.: Where else did you place that sentence?

J. S.: In two more venues. On the wall of the building of VAM Design  
Center in Király street, Budapest and on the pavement in front of the  
KOGART(4) building. VAM Design Center is the institution that three  
years ago announced that although in Hungary one needs 20 years to  
become successful, they can make an artist successful in two and a  
half years. I have several problems with this. First of all, it is a  
very attractive but empty slogan, a sham. It does not clarify what  
success is. What is success and why does it take exactly 20 years to  
reach it? What does it mean to be successful? I think it is an  
important part of art that it needs time to enter the network of  
understanding. The later this understanding or success comes, the more  
exciting and valuable that art is. The art that we cannot immediately  
take in is intriguing, bothersome, upsetting; it does not blend in  
well, and this is what makes it valuable and interesting. What they  
advertised is a simplified concept of success. It does not do any  
artist –let alone young artists– much good to think that if they  
are not immediately successful there is something wrong with them.  
Plus what I know about the practical side of it makes me very upset.  
Does simply selling works of art constitute success? On the one hand,  
this is a rather naïve concept, on the other, it shows a rather  
superficial knowledge of how the contemporary art works  
institutionally. So I thought I’d put out my stenciled, sprayed  
sentence in What’s up? this young and funny exhibition in the  
Kunsthalle, and wait to see what happens if I put the same sentence  
into another context, onto the wall of some private contemporary art  
institution, and not legally but illegally.

H. T.: Why is money dirty, what is the connotation of “dirty”?

J. S.: I connect it to the naïve, early socialist, leftist way of  
thinking. As Brecht said, “What is the robbery of a bank, compared to  
the founding of a bank.” Now that the world is in a financial crisis,  
it seems that it has even more meaning.

H. T.: Was it a provocation?

J. S.: Yes, it was a provocation, but a provocation can be reacted to  
and understood in several ways. They could have said, how great that  
we have a work of art here. A ball was lobbed for them to bat back.  
They could have preserved it, capitalized on it – tried to sell it,  
for example. I chose the other venue in the same vein. In the case of  
KOGART, what bothered me was how this private institution has ignored  
art professionals’ opinion and work, and how it applies for and  
receives state funding, state sponsored money. I think neither side  
really understands the role of the state and the private collector.  
Some private entrepreneurs consider contemporary art a form of cheap  
and easy PR. In a way, they use contemporary art for business the same  
way they use a restaurant.

H. T.: So, although the sentence is ambiguous, the venues that you  
chose are actually your statements.

J. S.: I think it looks evil only to those who harbor evil thoughts.  
“Money laundering” is the correct English expression. On the other  
hand it really is ambiguous, and really funny.

H. T.: How long did your inscriptions remain readable on the wall and  
on the pavement respectively?

J. S.: It is hard to tell. It was summer, I was traveling, and by the  
time I came back, in late August, both had been covered. KOGART had a  
somewhat different, and from my point better, more rational reaction  
to it. There is a fence between the building and the pavement, so in  
this case, I had no chance to spray on the wall. The pavement is not  
private property, and to put graffiti on the pavement is not damaging  
private property. In case of VAM Design, I was well aware that I  
painted on the wall, on private property and I damaged private  
property. It was in late August that I learnt about what happened  
earlier. In a few days, after I put the sentence onto the wall of VAM  
Design, policemen showed up in Studio Gallery. Studio Gallery is an  
association of young artists to which Miklós Mécs belongs. The  
policemen were looking for him. He also happened to be abroad at the  
time, so the policemen could not contact him. It is rather exceptional  
that policemen in uniform go to a gallery in search of an artist, to  
investigate a graffiti case. It was rather easy to find Miklós Mécs  
as a starting point, since “Wash your dirty money with my art” was  
shown in their booth in the above-mentioned exhibition in the  
Kunsthalle. In a few weeks, he received a letter requesting him to  
report to the police. When he went to the police station, some of us,  
accompanied him, and I assured him that he could admit that it was my  

H. T.: Were you clear about the legal consequences of this action?

J. S.: I tried to ask for advice but I could not really reach anybody.  
I received a phone call on the very same day that Miklós Mécs went to  
the police station, and I was called in after a week. It is obvious  
that I could have denied it, and that it would have been difficult to  
prove my authorship. But I wanted to take it upon myself. However, I  
got myself into something that had several unexpected aspects. When  
the interrogation began at the police station, we had a long and  
actually quite interesting conversation about graffiti, art, what art  
is and is not, and so on. But sooner or later the police investigator  
had to go into the heart of the matter. I was treated as a criminal,  
that is, my fingerprints and palm prints were taken, registration  
photographs were taken of me, and later my apartment was subjected to  
a search.  They were searching for the stencil pattern of the text.  
They could not find it since I had discarded it.

H. T.: What is the punishment for damaging private property?

J. S.: It depends on the amount of damage. This was classified as  
damage of high value. According to the estimate of the specialist  
asked by VAM Design, the value of the damage, that is, restoring the  
damage caused, was HUF 1,463,000 (approximately 7,500 USD). The  
policeman also referred to the possibility of my being charged with  
public libel. It is still not clear, since there has not yet been yet  
an official filing of charges.

H. T.: Have you been able to ask for legal advice since then?

J. S.: Yes, I went to TASZ.(5) Their lawyer said that it was a simple  
case; it was a matter of the physical damages. I acknowledged the  
damage that I made, which must be compensated, and the only question  
was how much I was obligated to pay. And it was pretty obvious that to  
repair the relatively small size of the surface damaged cannot cost  
1,463,000 HUF. If they charge me with libel, that is a different  
matter and they should prove it. The text itself is not defamation, it  
is ambiguous or can be interpreted in a number of ways. As I said, I  
think it looks evil only to those who harbor evil thoughts. If they  
think it is libel, it is their interpretation.

H. T.: So we are back again to the point -- do you consider this a  
semantic problem while they consider it a legal problem?

J. S.: For me the text is connected to the literal process of washing  
off graffiti, that is, to the fact that it is good business both to  
sell the paints to paint graffiti and the liquids to wash them off.

H. T.: Where is the process now?

J. S.: About a month ago I was called in to the police station again.  
They presented me with the estimate of the cost to repair the damage,  
asking if I would accept it. I refused. Now they need to ask for  
another estimate. At the moment I am waiting for the official filing  
of charges and the actual trial.

H. T.: It seems to me that there was a silence or at least not much  
publicity around what happened. What were the reasons? And what was it  
that has changed the situation, that you are now giving interviews  
about it?

J. S.: I did not really remain silent about it. A small circle of art  
professionals and friends knew about it. I also sent the photos of the  
wall and the pavement with the inscription to the internet journal,  
Exindex, where they were covers for a while with the caption “What  
next?” (6) So, the photos had been on the cover before the police  
investigation started.

H. T.: You have talked about attention deficiency, and you expressed  
your opinion several times that Hungarian contemporary art scene is  
suffering from attention deficiency syndrome. Why did you not use this  
opportunity to generate attention? Even if it is a scandal, scandals  
are good for capturing attention.

J. S.: It was summer, sort of a dead season for art, and I was also  
awaiting the outcome of my other project proposals, which I did not  
really want to endanger with a scandal. I also wanted to see what  
would happen. I thought that the filing of charges would happen sooner  
and that I could clearly see what the charges were against me. Also, a  
scandal is a little different when it happens to you. And, I must add,  
that it is a more complex situation to have the same work in a legal  
art context and outside of it. But of course I have been thinking  
about this problem of attention. In Hungary, solidarity is missing,  
although there were several occasions when solidarity and mutual  
support could have been practiced. To mention just two examples,  
solidarity could have been expressed when Little Warsaw’s work, the  
re-contextualization of the János Kovács Szántó(7) statue aroused  
harsh emotions, or in the case of the removal of László Rajk’s 1956  
memorial. Ours is a scene that cannot defend itself, that cannot  
generate discussions that would culminate in producing important works  
of art. I was wondering if I had enough stature to provoke solidarity  
of this scene. After the police interrogation, I felt that what I did  
was a kind of solidarity invention. I felt solidarity with those that  
went through something similar. I consider my work a public artwork;  
this is not street art, I have my name publicly, openly attached to  
it, and the reactions raised by a public artwork are parts of it. I  
hope that this work will be a good opportunity to discuss the  
sensitive points of the Hungarian contemporary art scene; among  
others, that those who have money and power think they have a power in  
art as well. We need more impact, more momentum. It would be very  
useful if this would be the last drop in a pot that would trigger  
discussion of other problems as well.

H. T.: If this is a public work, then it may have a positive outcome.

J. S.: Yes, there is an implicit possibility to discuss this artistic  

H. T.: But your critical artistic gesture is interpreted as a criminal  
act, which is sort of censorship, a new type of censorship of money.  
Generally art provides a defense. Why do you think “Wash your dirty  
money with my art” was not granted the status of art and thus lent  
art’s defensive value?

J. S.: Today freedom of speech is seriously controlled. Art is the  
last refuge of the freedom of speech, a space in which it must be  
carefully guarded and totally preserved. As I see it, in our society,  
art is a space where things can work differently, in opposition to one  
another, against the grain. This way, suggestions could be made for  
previously unrecognized or unforeseeable problems. It is important to  
keep watch over this field, so that inspiration for these potentials  
can be born here. Solutions for future problems can be found only if  
we keep watch over this freedom, and guard against losing this  
freshness. Art remains almost the only basis for freedom of speech.

H. T.: What is the best and the worst scenario that you expect to  

J. S.: The best is that an amount will be defined, it will be a  
realistic amount of payment for the damage and I will pay for it.(8)  
Then, I need to find out how it can be corrected that now I have  
criminal record. Also, there is much interest in the work already. A  
private collector has already bought it and exhibited it; it was also  
exhibited in Berlin in Lada Gallery’s stand at an art fair, and  
although the curator was a little a hesitant, not wanting to offend  
anybody, she said that actually there was much interest in it. The  
Hungarian Museum Ludwig is interested in buying it as well. There is  
the potential to trigger a discussion on the situation of Hungarian  
contemporary art. I hope that it could lead to strengthening the  
position of contemporary artists, and artists could draw some  
conclusions from it.

H. T.: What do you want artists to learn from it?

J. S.: That they can be more radical and that there is a scene that  
can defend them, that is behind them, that shows solidarity.

H. T.: And the worst scenario?

J. S.: I do not think that there really is a “worst” scenario.  
There is a very narrow-minded attempt to influence public opinion  
against graffiti. It should be recognized that those who make graffiti  
belong to the same society, and they are the children of the decision- 
makers, who actually shaped present society. These kids will pay the  
pensions of today’s adults, and they are not alien oppressors or  
idiots. Rather, graffiti should be paid attention to, and their  
message should be properly understood.


Hedvig Turai is a former contributing editor to ARTMargins. She lives  
and works in Budapest.

Conceptual artist János Sugár studied in the Department of Sculpture  
at the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts in Budapest (1979-84). Between  
1980-86 he worked with Indigo, an interdisciplinary art group led by  
Miklos Erdely. His work includes sculpture, installations,  
performances, video, film, as well as theoretical writing and  
publishing. He served on the board of the Balazs Bela Film Studio  
(1990-95) and has been teaching art and media theory at the Intermedia  
Department of the Hungarian Academy of Fine Arts since 1990. He has  
exhibited widely throughout Europe, including at Documenta IX, Kassel  
(1992). Sugár's films have been screened at the Anthology Film  
Archives in New York in 1998.


     1. <http://exindex.hu/index.php?l=en&page=14&id=52347>
     2. <http://ruganegra.uw.hu/stencilshow/stencil.html> and <http://ruganegra.uw.hu/stencilshow/prez.html 
     3. SZAF: Szájjal és Aggyal Festők Világszövetsége – AMBPA  
- Association of Mouth and Brain Painting Artists of the World. <http://szaf.blogspot.com 
     4. KOGART: A private museum in Budapest, named after  
entrepreneur, art collector and owner Gábor Kovács.
     5. TASZ: Társaság a Szabadságjogokért – Association for the  
Rights of Freedom.
     6.  <http://exindex.hu/index.php?l=hu&page=3&id=583> and <http://exindex.hu/index.php?l=en&page=3&id=585 
     7.  <Much-travelled Monument>. See <http://exindex.hu/index.php?l=en&page=3&id=269 
     8.  In the meantime, this second estimate has been done. The new  
amount to be compensated is HUF 214,000 (appr. USD 1,100)

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