The Somlói—Spengler couple has one of the most impressive contemporary art collections of not only our country, but the whole region. A selection of nearly 700 artworks, Stories We Live With is an exhibition about collective traumas, personal journeys and current issues such as the situation of women and the environmental crisis. Besides the greatest names of the national and regional scene, stars such as Olafur Eliasson, Erwin Wurm, Daniel Spoeeri and Grayson Perry appear. We attended a guided tour by the curator of the exhibition, Mónika Zsikla, where Katalin Spengler and Zsolt Somlói also shared some stories.
The couple started their collection after the regime change, in 1992, they purchased their first artifacts before buying a car. In 1996, they turned their attention to contemporary art and bought their first international artwork in 2002, while they constantly expanded their knowledge. Today, they are members of the acquisition committee of Tate Modern and Centre Pompidou, as well, supporting the extension of their Eastern European collection. In 2022, they were ranked 2nd on the Power 50, the list of the most important figures in the domestic art scene, and Katalin was named the most influential woman in the Culture category by Forbes.
This exhibition is hosted by Q Contemporary museum, opened last year, whose owner and founder Queenie Rosita Law fell in love with the Central Eastern European contemporary art during her studies in London. As Queenie’s quote says at the entrance of the exhibition space, “Central Eastern European contemporary art fascinates me because I feel its sense of struggle and power, a feeling that is so deep yet so hidden.” The Somlói—Spengler Collection fits perfectly to the mission of the institute, although it is from within and beyond the region, it is clearly rooted in the reality of Central Eastern Europe.
“When we started working together, Kati shared a folder of over 700 pieces of art. It was fascinating just looking through the folder, as no Hungarian public collection has such an amazing contemporary art set. It was very difficult to choose 64 works that represent the main characteristics of the collection, while presenting artworks that are rarely shown in public. The title ‘Stories We Live With’ refers to artworks that actually discuss stories we live with and important social issues, be it current politics, geopolitics or history,” Mónika Zsikla pointed out about the concept. However, the exhibition is not limited to the region. “We are constantly studying what collecting has been like in Hungary over the last hundred years. It was clear for us from the beginning that we didn’t want to return to the collecting traditions from before the regime change. We considered ourselves a new collecting generation and we kept up-to-date on trends in Europe, America and the world. It became clear to us that Hungarian art cannot be studied or collected in isolation. As collectors, our task is to put Hungarian arts in an international context. Our ambition has been unbroken since 2002,” Katalin shared.
The subjectively selected and organized exhibition presents three possible contexts for the large-scale material in the collection. The section called Poetic Crosstalk deals most specifically with issues affecting the region. The opening work, a lightbox by Bulgarian-born Kamen Stoyanov, „Guys, this is not LA, but it’s a cool place too!”, is an important moment in the atmosphere of the regime change. A hacked situation that reflects on the face of the region with a humorous twist. „I really like this piece, we brought it from my workplace near the reception. Due to our age, we were children of the regime change. The young Bulgarian artist put this advertisement on a run-down panel building, which could be here in Hungary, in Salgótarján, for example. It’s a nice representation of how the Eastern European regime change, consumer culture, advertising and the advertising industry is accumulating in this post-Soviet, 1950s situation,” Zsolt said.
Zbigniew Libera: Different type of prison
On this floor, there’s a series of photographs by Polish artist Zbigniew Libera, called Different Type of Prison, a documentation of a concentration camp built of Lego. The Danish company’s logoed building blocks depict executions, cremation ovens, and bodies carried out of the crematorium by fellow prisoners and buried in the ground. “The idea that led to the creation of this work is linked to the rationality that is the basis of Lego: you can’t build anything out of Lego that isn’t based on a precise, rational system,” the artist pointed out. Moving on, Slovak artist Mikyta Svatopluk’s 18-piece drawing installation manipulates Communist Eastern European book clippings, exploring the relationship between sport and propaganda. There is also a planted Karl Marx and Heidegger head sculpture by Polish artist Goshka Macuga, while the Ex-Artists Collective’s (Tamás Kaszás and Anikó Lóránt) huge chalk drawing installation presents the aesthetics of agitational political posters without the original context. Csaba Nemes’ photo collage, Continuous Past shows the relationship between East and West from an unconventional perspective. He has paired Dutch and Hungarian images from the 1950s and 1960s, focusing on similarities rather than differences. “It was a real discovery to see how similar the images from the two different countries are, sometimes almost identical, in terms of composition, subject matter and approach,” the artist said at the time.
The next thematic unit of the exhibition was named Enviroments we inhabit by Mónika. The four subtopics of the section, Nature, Water, Void and Environmental Crisis observes the evergreen topic that has been on the minds of humanity for centuries. How does nature affect us and how have we affected it? Here, for example, is one of the most recent pieces from the Somlói—Spengler Collection, purchased a few months ago. László Fehér’s 100 cm pink composition from his series The Story of Lake Balaton features a little boy clinging to a buoy. Next to him, Dóra Mauer’s work in paper pulp, called Water Locks, captures with incredible sensitivity the persistent force of nature reclaiming its own territory. And Olaffur Eliasson’s photo series Melting Ice on Gunnar’s Land documents a melting block of ice in Iceland that eventually disappears completely, just to highlight a few of the colorful selection.
The last section is Female Roles, depicting on the female identity and the representation of women’s roles with artworks from different eras, flipping the male and female perspectives. Women as the symbol of freedom, an harnessed human being, a mother, a wife, a worker, a sex symbol and an artist. The closing item of Female Roles and the whole exhibition is Csaba Nemes’ painting of the collector, Katalin Spengler. According to Katalin, the painting process took place in the traditional way, not based on a photograph, but as a result of hours of posing as a model. In the painting, Katalin glances back at the female characters in the room, who each experience their own femininity in different ways, in the face of the expectations of society. She also looks through the entire exhibition, which she and her husband have shaped through thirty years of work, growing expertise and an expanding network. For these are stories not only of the subjects of the works, but also of art collecting as a life’s work.
The exhibition is open until 17 September.