A Burning Need for Art
Flames bathed military fatigues in a red glow. The right-wing faction was holding a "Night of Purification," a book burning of Jewish authors and porno magazines. But this was not the streets of Berlin in the days of the Third Reich—this was the Hungarian city of Miskolc in 2013.
Atop the pyre was a collection of Miklós Radnóti poems, reigniting horrors of the not-too-distant past. Radnóti was a Jewish-Hungarian author whose work was praised throughout the 1930s despite increasingly restrictive anti-Semitic legislation promulgated by Hungarian prime minister Pál Teleki. When war came, Radnóti was conscripted into labor battalions far from home, yet he continued writing until his execution in 1944. He was 38 years old.
News of the 2013 book burning rekindled bitter memories for artist George Peck. On the first night of the Hungarian Uprising of 1956 (also known as the Hungarian Revolution), a teenaged Peck was drawn to the window of his home in Budapest.
“I lived in a building where, on the main floor, there was a Soviet bookstore, and the first night of the revolution this huge crowd gathered and broke into the bookstore, broke the plate windows, threw out the books onto the street, and started burning them,” says Peck. “I was horrified.” Peck soon emigrated to America and didn’t return to his homeland until amnesty opened safe passage eleven years later. After political change in 1990, he began showing his work in major Hungarian museums and galleries, as well as visiting to teach at the Fine Arts Academy (now University).
When the 2013 book burning occurred, Peck knew he had to respond with art, and he knew the right collaborator—filmmaker Hugo Perez. (The two men had met in Budapest when Perez was finishing "Neither Memory nor Magic," his documentary on Radnóti.)
In a whirlwind exchange of inspiration, Peck painted watercolor storyboards that Perez used to formulate their treatment on film. The final result: BOOKBURN / Library of Books Burned, a jarring meditation on the suppression of culture.
BOOKBURN debuted in October 2018 at New York's Museum of Jewish Heritage. At that installation, video projections of people throwing books into the fire illuminated flowing scrims, surrounding a sculptural pyre lit by video flames. Exhibition visitors were engulfed in the hellscape of burning books. “We really think that the power of the piece is that the viewer comes into the space, and the space is taken over by the video projections,” says Peck. “The person comes in and they are inside the action; they are not viewing the action per se but are part of the action.”
Disembodied voices intoned book titles and authors, which were echoed physically by shelves of neatly arranged jars of ashes labeled with titles of books burned by the Nazis in Germany in 1933.
BOOKBURN has been invited to show at the University of Humboldt of Berlin, the site of a massive Nazi book burning held under the auspices of Joseph Goebbels. Peck and Perez also hope to exhibit at the newly rebuilt National Library in Sarajevo, which was destroyed in 1992 by Serbian shelling. (More than 2 million books were destroyed in Sarajevo.)
The frightening truth of BOOKBURN is that it can resonate with audiences anywhere. Peck and Perez have their eyes on current reports of nationalism and suppression. “A wave of factionalism seems to be enveloping the world—Hungary, the US, Brazil, Italy,” says Perez. “You look around the world and it's not just an isolated case here or there. It’s all over.”
“In the literal sense, we are dealing with book burning, but in a larger sense, we are dealing with ways in which culture is not destroyed but suppressed,” Perez says. “It's not just about people literally throwing books in fires, it's also the school board saying, 'You have to take Catcher in the Rye off the school curriculum.’”
One place you won't see BOOKBURN is in Peck's country of origin. When he was showing his politically charged video installation DREAMSTATE in Eger, Hungary, Peck was the target of harassment by the Hungarian government. The exhibition, which contained historical accounts by Dr. Pál Solt, the former Chief Justice of the Hungarian Supreme Court, was suppressed entirely before it could be shown in Budapest. Subsequently, Peck was warned not to bring BOOKBURN to Hungary. “The Orbán government is carefully monitoring all the enemies of their new reconstruction of history,” he says.
LIGHT IN THE DARK
History tells us that the first people to be rounded up by an oppressive regime are the artists and intellectuals. At times, amazing people commit amazing acts of art, refusing to allow their spirits to be crushed even as their bodies are—people like Miklós Radnóti.
“Despite the darkness that was consuming him, he always felt that it was important to keep writing, and that in the end, poetry would survive long past the darkness,” says Perez. “The last year of his life when he was in an internment camp and on a death march, he was writing poems. He was shot by the fascists into a mass grave, and a year and a half after the war ends, they dug up his body and found a little notebook in his pocket with his final poems, literally soaked in his blood. So his poems come to us from beyond the grave.”
It’s easy to see why Perez became enthralled with Radnóti, and why he and Peck were compelled to create BOOKBURN. Perez believes that it’s the role of the artist to continue creating during dark times, no matter the danger.
“Go out and create art,” Perez says. “If there is anything we can hang onto, anything to give us hope or to inspire us, it's to go out and create something and cast a little light into the world. And if enough people do that, maybe we can brighten things up a little bit.”