Issue #32, 2009

Alfred Hitchcock’s Birds, by Dénes Miklósi and Szilárd Miklós
Ciprian Mureșan

Dénes Miklósi was born in 1960 and lives in Cluj. He studied at the Ion Andreescu Fine Arts Institute in Cluj between 1980 and 1984 (Professor Ioachim Nica); Akademie der Bildenden Kunste, Vienna (Professor Denys Zacharopoulos), Etching Studio, 1991–1992; DLA – Hungarian University of Fine Arts, Budapest.

Szilárd Miklós was born in 1981, lives in Oradea and Cluj. He gradu­ated from the University of Art and Design in Cluj. He took part in some major exhibitions, among which GPS – Unknown Territory, Ernst Museum, Budapest; Across the Trees: Romanian Art Now, David Nolan Gallery, New York, as well as his personal project After the War Is Before the War at the Protokoll Studio, in Cluj.

One of the institutions that thought useful to connect the artists with other mediums and social fields, to give the artist a “chance” in this society, absolving him, at least from time to time, of his role to satisfy the need for “beauty” of the sometimes too bourgeois audience, Art dans la Cité wants to introduce art in hospitals. We must empha­size the fact that this is a Western institution. Such institutions are rarely to be found in the East, as the ones functioning here are busy with conservation and evaluation (searching for new hero-artist), where the predominant idea is that Romania has no collectors, the social class that allegedly emerging from the newly rich in order to save contemporary art and its artists.

Dénes Miklósi and Szilárd Miklós were asked to perform an artistic intervention at the Clinic of Infantile Psychiatry in Cluj, to involve the patients, if possible, in the “creative process”. Given the special situation of these children and the profile of the hospital, it is not clear whether the sponsors-organizers intended the artists’ project to be a therapeutic one, aiming to improve the child’s condition, or the artists is free to do whatever he wants in a certain niche, a very special one, that of cultural animation. From the artist’s point of view this means using this opportunity experimentally as with any other material that he works with. In the first case, the objective constraints (including the medical deontological ones) weigh heavy and one could think that the functional purpose should come first; the second case involves subjectivity in a greater degree, which is more consistent with the metabolism of an artistic intervention. In my opinion, the project of the two Cluj artists combined these two situations and maybe this is the point and the big gain of these inter-institutional (interdisciplinary) projects. The artists’ refusal to clarify the “personal reasons” for getting involved in this kind of project (one may guess a refusal of hypocrisy), a detail specifically requested in the application form, was well received by the organizers who, once the proposal was accepted, agreed to guarantee the ethical or social implications.

The venue for this artistic intervention is a building unsuitable to serve as a hospital, due to the lack of space and improper architec­ture, a fact too common when it comes to Romanian hospitals. Given this precarious situation, what other expectation could the beneficiary had than adding a touch of colour to the building or harmlessly animating the in-patients? (Colour can’t hurt, isn’t it, or an extra portion of “soul”, as teaching religion in school wouldn’t hurt either!) On the other hand, involving artists in this kind of interaction with children admitted to a psychiatric hospital creates interesting per­mu­tations between the specific areas of the fields involved. In this case, a first level of understanding things consists in turning the project into a special two-way pedagogical interaction – the artists learn something from the children and maybe vice versa – in order for the “pedagogical” action to be finally recoded as an artistic action. An interesting question remains to be asked, that of the degree of objective significance of such a project as art. Among other things, it produced a series of photographs which were exhibited on the hospital walls and also an intarsia on the dinning hall floor. Is this enough for the artistic meaning of the project or does it only come to fulfilment through its documentation and maybe through its being exhibited in front of a public?

But what can contemporary art offer to the children committed to the psychiatric hospital? The proposal coming from Art dans la Cité seems challenging for both sides, tempting for the artists due to the “therapy” used (a therapy through labor, by giving them some­thing to work). Being in fact committed themselves for 6 weeks, the artists worked on a project called “The Birds” by Alfred Hitchcock. It consisted in a series of meetings with the hospitalized children, an ephemeral process which was doubled by two vertical floral instal­lations on the building’s exterior (named by the artists Bed of flowers) as well as other visual interventions within the hospital halls, which had a definitive character. This interaction with the children aimed at the development of an alternative means of communication with them through prompting every single child to create characters or masks.

According to the artists, it was important for the children who participated to acknowledge the surrounding environment, described by the former as “hostile” and this is where the parallel with Hitchcock’s movie occurred. Although it might seem cruel to exhibit this movie to children, especially those committed to the psychiatric hospital, the importance of the analogy with their environment and in fact, moreover, with the very terrible phenomenon which they have to confront, with its intimate but voiceless experience – the movie is a perfectly expressive metaphor for one’s suffering – may be effi­cient as long as this analogy is in one way or another subjected to acknowl­­edgement. Anyway, the movie was played in the back­ground while the artists interacted with the children, so that it could catch their attention, but without imposing the show to them.

The two “sculptures” put forward for the exterior, the “bed of flowers” do not have any physical contact with the building, the importance of this detail being emphasized several times by Dénes Miklósi. Certainly, this is an explicit, even intense, but discrete denunciation of not just the improper architecture, but also of the inadequate environment ornamentation. The reference to the hospital beds and the significance of the exterior and of the flower usage, a living mate­­rial, invest these installations with an important charge, along their function of correcting the idea of “decorative” usually practiced within such institutions for their “embellishment” and “humaniza­tion”.


Sticking to the conclusion that the artist, with his possibilities and aptitudes, may intervene or meaningfully introduce himself into the relationship between child-patients and medical staff, I hereby transcribe the discussion I had with Dénes Miklósi and Szilárd Miklós about their experience:

Ciprian Mureșan ¬ In this year’s spring you have been invited to attend the event Art dans la Cité which is part of the Festival of Visual Art in Hospital. Before discussing about your project, I’d like to ask you a general question about responsibility in art and about how direct the result of such artistic actions can be or, more precisely, what do you think the result of this project is (I’m not necessarily talking about the therapeutic effect). I under­stand that you cannot or do not want to reveal the personal reasons for choosing to partici­pate on this project...

Dénes Miklósi and Szilárd Miklós √ Art dans la Cité has been going on for 10 years and has a large inter-institutional structure. Several European hospitals took part in the recent project, which included the Clinic of Infantile Psychiatry in partnership with the French Cultural Centre, both from Cluj.

In an application form filled at the beginning of the project, we said that the reasons for our participation are personal, because it was exactly the statement of the clauses of our participation which seemed questionable to us. In a way, we sensed that we had to do with a task, with a set of instructions from the hospital, but at the same time we were allowed to enter the clinic on the basis of a recip­rocal consent between the institution and us, the artists. Through this consent each side projected its responsibility and the material­ization of the project was expected to occur on this basis. The hospital, for example, expected ideas regarding various places within the building which obviously needed an investment. We built the project on a specific framework, not only that of the physical position, but also of the expectation of the Eastern institution benefiting from it and the Western organizer, each party with its role, according to the collaboration protocol. On the other side, we also ended up connecting the two institutional sides involved, the organizer and the beneficiary. The roles assumed could not remain very strictly delimited; sometimes one had the feeling that things should be pretty simple, but practically things went on quite chaotically, generally speaking.

¬ What about the outcome?

We came to the result by creating an interactive situation for the children in-patients through the interventions in and outside the hospital building, which obviously coincides with our work. I think this is where the outcome of the project has to be looked for.

¬ During the meetings with the children, did they take on the part of the (interactive) audience or did the situation itself become an artistic act, in which case the children you worked with turned from “patients” into co-authors or co-players?

Because of not knowing the internal rules of the hospital directly but only through previous depictions, the initial project consisted in a role-play subsequently adapted to the framework which was only clear after the beginning. From the very start we encountered the problem of the children participation: it depended on their parents’ signature. Of course, this is alright, and the parents’ consent could be of use, but in most cases it became an obstacle, on one hand because of the worry of worsening the condition of the children and on the other hand for fear of a media exploitation of their image. But with regard to the concerned, legitimate, even paranoid restrictions that we had to face in the beginning, it turned out that the hospital personnel in charge with the children let us do whatever we wanted to...

To trigger the communication we used Kaspar Hauser’s story, aiming to create a situation in which every participant, in spite of the con­struct­ed nature of the situation, regards himself spontaneously as being at the same level with everybody. This was also a kind of removal of the usual landmarks, reaching the zero level. We came up with a state in which the individual renounces the language, lacks the mechanism or the instruments which people use when describ­ing themselves of their environment. Starting from here, from the point drew on the nose tip, we offered the visual signs which they used, step by step, as contact points in relationship with themselves and the others. The new relationships between the children occurred suddenly, out of the blue.

¬ I understood that during the workshop regarding these signs of a sui generis communication you suggested that they should watch Hitchcock’s Birds. How did you end up by building your perception on this workshop around the movie and why did you choose this theme?

The Hitchcock theme came up on the way. We seemed to have discovered a structure or a mechanism analogous with our hospital experience, where images or symbols, the language, generally speak­ing, grow on top of the people (it’s like, one could say, the fear of mass media drives man into a blind resistance).

Within the hospital spaces one often lives with the this feeling that signs seem to grow on top, strange or hostile... a language no longer relating people, at most an adornment, and a pretty uncared-for one. The objects in the hospital, the ones used in therapy or for other purposes did not come from the quotidian, they made everything look like a unique moment frozen in time, which can only disappear when wiped off completely.

At one time we intended to clean up everything floating threaten­ingly in the air. It kind of relates to what happens in the movie, when people realize in the end that they have no choice and have to live with the birds. However, during one of the last meetings with the children, when the experience was closing to an end and there were fewer children attending since there were fewer patients, we sug­gest­ed watching the movie and at the same time re-watching the whole project as a whole, already established on the same level as the activities carried on. And then the title of the movie seemed appropriate as a name for the whole project. Of course, we also thought that if this is the name of the project, then this theme remains pretty visible, without being imposed from outside, but instead occurring from within the project.

¬ How did the children respond to the creative workshop?

What we kept from the initial intention was the development schema. Each child was stimulated to develop a character starting from the point of color... Partially, this is what happened, but we were unable to strictly follow the plan as in being able to develop along with the children more characters and to get from them a depiction of the part, of the way it works, so that in the end to create a method through which to intervene in making the rules in a collective game, without our initiative being too determined. We knew all along that we were dealing with children detached from the daily rules of life, somehow more sensible, each of them affected in a way or suffering from a certain problem. As for their reactions regarding the depiction of the character, which is built like a mask, like a coat, we sufficed with the daily feedback. We took pictures and kept the images from the preceding day, an image of the stage we reached in constructing the character, and the next day they received the image back, they drew on it, adding new elements, “correcting” the portrait.

¬ Within this special context, were you confronted with changes of the children’s state?

Indeed, there were situations when some children had kinetic problems, while others took hold of all the objects that were given to then. For example, some painted their entire face, others could hardly control their intervention, and they were only able to make a dot. Of course such moments existed, with contradictions and tensions, but, on the other hand, it is exactly this kind of jam that can offer one a clearer view on their problems or the hardships they may have to deal with and help one adjust to the situation.

¬ What difference would it have made to do this workshop not in a psychiatric hospital, but in a normal kindergarten or school?

We’d have probably never gotten into Kaspar Hauser’s story if we were to work in a different environment. This historical story is recurrent in culture and the mystery surrounding it is still of interest for certain jurists, as well as for modern psychology. From our point of view, the pedagogical and medical practices used to treat/rehabilitate him in the 19th century are obviously ridiculous, looking foolish in the light of what seems normal nowadays.

¬ How did the hospital personnel react after the completion of the project?

As far as we are concerned, the reactions of the personnel consumed during the project. We don’t want to comment on the subsequent reactions.

¬ Usually, in this kind of projects, the client can be satisfied by some­thing superficial, he wants “something” decorative that can “cheer up” the atmosphere and the patients, regarding this intervention as a long term investment. Did you have to comply with these requirements?

Now, as far as fun is concerned, children can have fun with virtually everything... There was a boy there who was playing with the interphone, which makes a distinctive sound, or with the switch and was imitating the sound of a neon lamp turning on and turning of. It was his way of saying that each and every one of them was “good” at something. They were going, without hesitation, in a direction which, normally, means to break something; they were not using things “properly”.

One of the places meant for investments was the meeting point within the ward, where we changed the deteriorated floor and made an intarsia. For this purpose we used the stylized image of the clothes preferred by young people, hooded blouses and the snickers. On the hospital exterior we built some objects which we intended to be separate from the building and this is how the possibility aroused for us to use flowers or plants, something alive. It made no sense painting on the building, which already had its architectural and visual elements which one could do nothing about. Being meant for other functions, the building was a constant problem for its present use. Finally, we built two floral bodies on the vertical, on two opposing walls, using a plant which requires little attending. The objects almost touch the building, but are nevertheless separate from the walls, as if the building was being placed in the brackets.

Translated by Alex Moldovan