Ilona Németh: Sugarloaf Manufacture
Karlin Studios, Prague, CZ
14. 11. – 3. 12. 2017
Curator: Caroline Krzyszton
Sugar is a substance which has expanded modern economic and socio-political developments like few other commodities. As a seductive energy source, it has broadened and fuelled the human mind while simultaneously causing many dependencies. The addictive relationships that have emerged since the colonial expansion of sugar production can be traced most prominently in the exploitative monocultural model. Additionally, the quest for a substitute to sugar cane and to the British dominance over sea trade gave birth to the sugar beet, becoming an engine for belated industrialization in the Eastern European territories. Another angle from which the power of sugar can be revealed lies in the way it shaped taste standards across continents, becoming an indispensable ingredient of holidays and other festivities.
Ilona Németh’s solo exhibition Sugarloaf Manufacture departs from the Central European sugar industry, following its history from a prosperous economic activity to a site of decay and human frustration. In the Hungarian-speaking Slovak town Dunajská Streda where Németh was raised and is currently based, one of the region’s leading sugar factories used to stand in the vicinity of her home. Yet the Golden Age of the 19th century sugar rush of the region was to be overshadowed by wars and socialist centralization. In post-1989 Slovakia, factories like the example of Sládkovičovo recalled in Németh’s video, fell victim to rapid privatization and were taken over by often corrupt, local owners or finally foreign companies, who did not seek to rescue the declining industry branch. And once EU subventions and price regulations were abolished favouring sugar imports from low-cost post-colonial regions, the remaining factories became subject solely to investor interests. Only very few sugar plants in Slovakia, the Czech Republic or Hungary operate until today.
Németh turns the memory of a once thriving industry into oral history research and captures the image of abandoned factory sites on postcards, nostalgic strategies longing for the irreversible. Moreover, the artist transforms the main exhibition space at Karlin Studios into a production site: Opening times function as working hours, display modules offer stations for work and storage, and gallery visitors are invited to join the process of manufacturing sugarloaf. By referencing the traditional cone-form that was customary for serving and packaging sugar before crystallisation and cubes were invented, the artist proposes another, collective form of active commemoration. Yet, what can the nostalgic concept of a manufacturing process, the glare of the white production space, and the romantic ruin of an abandoned factory tell us about current social tensions and populist demands? Sugarloaf Manufacture exposes the entangled histories attached to our main source for sweetness, trying to understand the socio-political implications of economic transformations.
Krisztina Hunya - independent curator and art historian living in Leipzig.
Special thanks to: Olja Triaška Stefanović / Slovak Arts Council / Mestské múzeum Šurany / Dobrovická muzea
Supported using public funding by Slovak Arts Council