Róza El- Hassan: a first name reduced to a letter



On October 20, 2001, after the NATO bombings and exactly on the Belgrade victory day of the independent corps led by Tito, The Museum of Contemporary Art from Belgrade opened again its gates to the visitors. For this occasion, Róza El-Hassan prepared the fifth part of her work “R. thinking about overpopulation”. The “R. thinking about overpopulation” is the title of a complex art ensemble, that consists of actions, statues and performances. During the performance in Belgrade, El-Hassan donated blood and organized a collective blood-donating action for the benefit of the local Red Cross organization. On the occasion of the aid organization that is setting up the transfusion center on the spot (camp-beds, medical control, the usual technical appliances), El-Hassan is laying on a linen, on which the life-size figure of Yaser Arafat is printed by computer-print technique, a picture of Arafat that became worldwide known as a media icon after the 9/11 events in New York. On that picture, Arafat is also shown donating blood. The life-size linen is being laid on the bed used for giving blood and on this El-Hassan is laying down without entirely overlapping Arafat’s body, moreover, the head of the Arab men not being covered by the artist’s.

The artist presented her performance in more places, such as Budapest, and later in the country where Red Cross was founded, namely Switzerland, more exactly in Zürich. On one hand, the changing of locations reveals interpretation variants of the theme determined by the local context; on the other hand, it indicates the global dispossession of the local viewpoints. Sustaining Arafat’s point of view has an entirely different meaning in Belgrade, and another one in Budapest. Moreover, the same visual sign can represent even different arguments reasons within the local context. At the same time, besides the layer of significance of current politics, the content is mediated through a female body. On her father’s side, Róza El-Hassan is an Arab woman of Syrian origin but regarding her cultural identity, she is a Hungarian artist. Taking into account this situation, her action can also be interpreted as a forbidden act, since she lies down on the body of an Arab male, to be more exact, she lies on the body of a well-known public figure, taking over his subject position. The question is not only that, at what extent we can consider El-Hassan’s attitude as being identical with the supposed point of view of the chosen media person, but it is also questionable, at what degree it is identical with its representation. Since the image-sign and the meaning are not in a direct, mutual relationship, the place determines the interpretation. The place itself in the interpretation of an image, an object, or an event means also a selected position, a placing defined by the political, aesthetical, geographical, or institutional discourses; it provides some information regarding the assuming or status of the given artwork. The symbolic reference to the various possible readings is only an alibi, since Róza El-Hassan considers her own viewpoint as a relevant frame. This latter one makes simultaneously visible, and mixes up, the possible readings established by various readers, and in this way it creates a visual trap, being present as image, but never carrying an unambiguous meaning. However, she does not use the signifier – signified game in an instrumental way, since the act of voluntarily donating blood enables with artistic features the effective, ethic standpoint of the artist. This repeatedly twisted viewpoint, that effectively liberalizes the overburdened visual signs, is ironic, still not cynic. The artist draws the attention on the necessity of taking up a moral position, and implicitly its complexity, in a world, where this can hardly be accomplished. The reason is that representation, as part of the power structure, can never be neutral, even in that case when it dispossesses a so-called “universal value”, in our case namely donating blood. The reading established by El-Hassan conveys an explicit political message in Belgrade, Budapest and Zürich alike. It pleads for the burning necessity of a collectivism situated outside of dogmas, that links all of us regardless race, gender or confession.

The various human-shaped wooden sculptures in different sitting positions are also parts of the “R. thinking about overpopulation” series. The modeling of the statues is rough, rather allusive, and never materializes the individually shaped imitation of nature. The support of the modeling, the “botchwork” aesthetic promoted by the artist still functions as a subjective rhetoric: it individualizes the universal sign of the human-figure, filling it with warmth. This warmth springs from that pleasant identification, that the common humanness evoked by the statue does not confront us with the strangeness, with the cultural “other”, it does not speak about its alienated existence, but about R.’s, namely Rózá’s – in this way, by leaving behind the family name. It is not Róza El-Hassan, but simply Róza, who, while introducing herself, suggests that she is not a stranger, but she is in a personal relationship with us. The title advertises the human solidarity: R. is a first name reduced to a letter, who thinks about overpopulation. The individualism of Róza El-Hassan opens gates towards mankind. She claims herself as being one from the multitude, identifies herself in the statue, and contemplates mankind through herself. Nevertheless, the title and the gentleness of the individualized introduction is accompanied by the ghost of the ideology of overpopulation. What does R. think about overpopulation? – the meaning remains open. The ecological catastrophe, philanthrophy, the famine and death from starvation caused by poverty, or the genocide can all create her meaning base. All that is perpetual is R. - sitting there, and thinking. But the location always differs: Metelkova, the former military barracks in Ljubljana, converted into a temporary museum building, or the venders, guest-workers or pedestrians populating Moszkva Square in Budapest.

Emese Süvecz

Translated by Adrian Bara