...Titles of sheet-iron works on the sole/footprint theme: counter-step, one-legged...[Translator's note: The titles are superbly inventive variations on the words "step", "stepper", "stepping", "sole", "standing", "on foot" in their vast array of concrete and metaphorical senses, often used in combination with the polysemous jargon of life under socialism: "framework", "valve" (as in "safety valve"), "permanent", "undercover", "liberty", "directed/direction", "edge/ahead", etc. Most of the titles are not only heavily polysemous, but utterly context-relative; ironic and playful witticism that they are, they would need serious annotation for the points they make not to be lost in the translation. The editors, thus, have opted to refer the interested reader to the original Hungarian text for the rest of this paragraph.]
Perhaps the above examples will provide the clue to Galántai's language, and to his technique in dreaming up these devilish word-collages.
There is a very telling work of his, an object-collage made in 1984 which he called Nyelv [Tongue]. It is nothing but an aluminum frame reminiscent of an open mouth, with Galántai's hallmark sheet-iron "footprint" inside it, lying flat as a tongue in a mouth. "Art's sticking its tongue out at you", might be the Dadaistic message one arrives at after some contemplation. Fortunately, however, the work also has a German title, which reads Sprache [Language]. Thus, of the two senses of "tongue", the artist, it seems, had in mind the less obvious, i.e., language as it is spoken. Or perhaps he was simply referring to puns, that playful use of language, and to the pranks that one can play with meaning.
Most of the titles of Galántai's works have a flip side, and he himself seems always to opt for the less evident interpretation. He gets a chuckle out of the spectator's falling into his linguistic traps. Perhaps the best example of this deceptively simple collage technique is a composition of his entitled Kormányülés [literally: steering wheel/government; seat/sitting; an actual word in Hungarian, meaning "cabinet meeting".] As opposed to what the title as such would bring to mind-i.e., the members of the government holding a meeting-what we see is a steering wheel and a tractor seat welded into one at the two ends of the steering column.
There is, however, a dimension to these compositions which, I think, is of the essence. At first glance, Kormányülés does not come across as the formulation of some inspiring message; at most it's a good joke, a jab at those in power. On closer inspection, however, we see it as an anthropomorphic object, a wicked play on the functions to which a seat and a steering wheel are usually put. At this point, it ceases to be a joke, and becomes unsettling.
Galántai's object collages, thus, not only play political or semantic tricks, but are paradoxical also at a deeper, ontological level.
The fact that most of his plastic compositions are built around his hallmark "footprints" cut of inch-thick sheet iron places the observer in the psychological position of a child at play: he himself becomes a part of the game, he himself becomes part of the sculpture, for he cannot avoid the impression that it's his feet that have been built into the composition, that it's he himself who runs, jumps, bounces back, creaks, rings, bumps and revolves. All this, although there's nothing in the sculptures as such which actually balances, revolves, swings or changes position in any other way. This, of course, is the very reason why anything in them that strikes us as peculiar, deformed or morbid becomes our peculiarity, our deformity, our morbidity, and seems so existentially threatening.
Unlike the objects of classical Dadaism-Duchamp's toilet bowl or bicycle wheel, for instance-these objects will not strike us as shockingly absurd or incomprehensibly strange. They are not objets trouvés, but intensely programmatic compositions which can be interpreted with a rather high degreeÞ of certainty. This holds true even when their message is aggressively facetious or downright destructive. And just as importantly: Galántai's works have nothing in common with Arman's object accumulations or Tinguely's brand of Neo-Dadaism. They are never just a cluster of objects, and they never fall apart.
Tinguely's object collages, on the other hand, were essentially self-destroying works which did; their slackness and the brazen racket they made as they came tumbling down suggested that all such compositions are absurd and fortuitous. Galántai, on the other hand, leaves nothing to chance, for his works carry a moral message, one that is equally relevant for the future. In a word, he is an artist who, for all his apparent nonchalance, is deeply, sincerely, touchingly didactic.
What's the lesson he teaches?
From the first moments of his political awareness, i.e., since his college years, he'd had one decisive experience: the experience of totalitarianism. It was something that he would come up against time and time again: as an artist setting up an unofficial gallery, as an illegal publisher, and as the founder of a semi-legal cultural institution. It is obvious that his footprint is the symbol of the human condition; and two footprints one after the other the symbol of progress. The meaning of the motif as such might be summed up as follows: "I leave a footprint, therefore I am".
The footprint restricted and set in absurd contexts symbolizes the precariousness, the utter vulnerability of the kind of life that is worthy of man. The foot behind bars, the foot stumbling against a rusty lock represent life situations which it takes all one's strength to master. The message of Galántai's entire system of metaphors is that-this modern age notwithstanding-the artist living in a world of bars and rusty locks is no less a potential hostage to arbitrary power than the knights of old, and in defying despotism in all its varied guises he is himself a romantic hero. No less so than Delacroix, painting his fellow citoyens on the barricades, or Courbet, the very incarnation of the Republican revolutionary tradition in his constant conflict with the authorities. When all is said and done, the artist's task is not to produce art, but to hold his banner high. And this banner reads: Liberty!