Magda Csutak

Approaching Zero

Translated from the original German by Christopher Barber

Here are the most important steps, the stations that indicate how my work has led me to the question of zero,
(I have landed at the edge of the quantum field vacuum).

Matter forms, explains

My interest in material goes back a long way. When I think back to the point at which it unequivocally became acceptable in my work, it carries the title In Honor of the Earth, actually a vertical relief MATTER EARTH, a massive 3×3 m2 work in fireclay weighing tons. The mass modeled in wave forms in 9 elements, square, blocky, GEO-METRICALLY structured. Here this can literally be seen as the intervention of a GEOMETER (and not geometry being called a direction in art).

I don’t feel any affiliation with the geometric artists merely on account of my use of geometric forms. We have definitions (categories), but we often err with regard to their linguistic usage. Here visual language comes to our aid. This is how my work is set in scene in the landscape.1 The high fired elements are set into the ground of the park landscape in such a way as to show ambivalence. They could indicate archaeological objects that have sunk into the earth, or meteorites that have impacted it.
Later, in the 1980s, when I was already in Vienna, I integrated many archeological elements into my work. Thus the unity between the image2 and the image-carrying material (bone china) is accented.
Further on, later, the above-mentioned image-carrying material would be juxtaposed as paper-thin “porcelain papyrus” with Erdély Miklós’ sheets of matzo: for temporal level, temporal dimension, for organic/inorganic, for the body, for the spirit, for structures, for bread. In unequivocalness grows equivocalness, fragility, endurance of injustice, spirituality, Judaism, Christianity, image and visualization.
My interest in material began early, during my studies at university in Cluj-Napoca. I decided to enroll in the ceramics class of the former University of Fine Arts. Here we had teachers whose thinking was very progressive and who had enjoyed an excellent humanist education. Despite the political situation, we were able to practice an analytic way of thinking. Fierce debates followed the expression of our wish for freedom. Every new thing, every new form of expression was liberating in our feeling of isolation. Here I found my own language. The hidden language that rests deep in matter. Hidden universe?  For us, language was never unambiguous. Technical language and individual diversity were to be respected.
We knew exactly how manipulating language can be. Is not the meaning of school to develop the ability to think?! A great sensitivity developed through reacting to circumstances. Proudly I note that Ligeti’s3 conversations, which I would later hear in Vienna, reflected this many-facetedness, the coexistence of many languages that I learned in Cluj-Napoca. We know about so many languages, but the accompanying sensitivity of being able to explain is not in the dictionary. Nonetheless, one must at least make the alphabet one’s own.

How does one find one’s way into the language of matter?

As an employee of the Bucharest Research Institute for Optical Glass and Fine Ceramics, I for the first time had the opportunity to penetrate deep into the structure of matter. As an instrument of DEEPER SIGHT we had the electron microscope. At the center of our research stood optical glass and photosensitive glass. On account of its photosensitivity, this silver-containing mass can be precisely structured activated with light and chemically treated.
Thus light is present in two contrastingly reacting materials – silver and silicon – in an image-making, form-giving function.
Suddenly new dimensions opened. Making visible the invisible was a new and exciting task. Over a rather long path, in many experiences and continuously new experiments, I followed the silicates on a number of levels.
In many respects, I advanced toward the selection of material intuitively, although it was later to pose me many puzzling questions. It often happens that much later, one level or the other takes on the right meaning, or significance, and shows me new paths, new possibilities.4 I had already long been interested in the representation of space and the search for a new form of language.
Clearly, matter always takes a leading role, being actively involved in the recognition of itself, like instruments giving insight into the micro- and macrocosm: microscope and telescope.5 The ACTIVITY OF MATTER is actually the essence of its being. The deeper our insight into the realm of particles, the better we understand the universe as a WHOLE.6 In order to understand the very largest structures of the universe, we must also know its very smallest particles.
We move in the largest space. The particles of the subatomic world are not only active in the sense of fast motion: they are themselves processes!
“EVERYTHING FLOWS” said Heraclitus of Ephesus, as did Lao-tse.

Space and matter

For physicists, space is a system of coordinates.
For artists? – Freedom!
On the basis of this thesis, I created a series of works in Bucharest during the 1970s as a self-assigned visual task.
The three-dimensional porcelain object, combined with positive-negative/negative-positive reproductive elements,7 was intended to give rise playfully to a liberating construction within a space strictly ordered by Cartesian coordinates, something that is actually absurd. [photo]
Our visible world is based on the polar duality of positive and negative principles.
Contradiction is one of the must fundamental bases of life, says the Austrian physicist Herbert Pietschmann.
All in all, my works are also based on contradictions, such as:

Nothing and Something
Motion and Rest
Existence and Nonexistence
Continuity and Discontinuity.

A host of contradictions follow and form my image constructions.

Space and matter in the quantum field

I would like to refer to our quantum-theoretical age as the SILICON AGE. Just like the earlier Ice Age, Stone Age, Bronze Age etc.
Let us name several materials that I allow to act, sublimate.
Silver: Can reflect light. As a mirror, the entire world seen in it (reflecting telescope). Can capture light (photography).
Carbon: Essential to life. Variously determined by lattice structure: soft, opaque, dark in graphite, hard and transparent in diamond.
Quarz (SiO2): In its elemental form it is silicon. Second most common mineral, present in the sun and in other stars, hard and brittle, forms compounds in porcelain (opaque) and glass (transparent). Conductive (electron), storage (electronic storage).8All of them are instruments of DEEPER SIGHT and are fully contradictory.
Whether invisible principles are expressed in the visible world, whose timeless aspect is nature, continues to remain questionable. That the image world is dependent on light is evident. Light, which is always spreading out further and is always penetrating the human being more and more, is well known to us. But that the photon, as the little “building block” of light and as the elementary constructor of the perceivable image, should also be referred to as matter, is something that is not clearly imaginable to us. Using various materials to show their presence, I pursue massless particles, photons, that are racing at the speed of light in SPACE-DISSOLVING interaction.
I selected two ways of capturing images of the phenomenon light in connection with glass.
In one of them, the principle of chance was foregrounded. Thus I named my work Shadow of Chance. [Fig. P. 57] I let jackstraws fall on the glass plate of a Xerox machine a number of times and created images of their various random arrangements (gravitation). Reproduced on transparent film, these images gave me the possibility of creating images of that which had previously been hidden – the shadow – and of putting it on a visible level.
The other image/visualization way involved “disturbing” a light-conducting glass surface with diamond scratches. Here the semiconductor glass shows its conduction of light with shadow effects.
The plaster works that have been made light-sensitive are more ephemeral, more full of mystery than the preceding images. They provide information about the disappearance of light particles.
Yes! – this tiny little photon is path-breaking – it informs us. We must only decipher!
According to the criteria of chemical-physical qualities, I selected two oxides as additives to the raw material in order to color my sheets of “porcelainpapyrus”, which heretofore had been white: reddish iron oxide and green nickel oxide (complementary colors). At first I added arbitrary doses of the two oxides. Strong color contrasts arose, as in the work Even Number, 1992.
These two oxides gave rise to a another color palette in Still Life. The dosage was calculated with increasing exactitude, so that the color is homogeneous; only the tonal differences between the individual sheets are noticeable.
The melting into one another of contrasting complementary colors formulates itself as the simultaneous fusing of fire (1260 °C, the porcelain’s firing temperature). Here the iron-nickel glows together with the porcelain mass like a meteorite or like the cosmic nickel-iron alloy that has been identified on Mars.
(By the way, it was only later that I learned of this cosmic relationship.)
In the key work Subject and Predicate(1997–1999) [Fig. P. 70–71], the cosmic-earthly hybrid, the space-matter-time unity was consciously formed on a plane. This work deviates from classical perspectival representation of space. It is to be interpreted as an illusionistic spatial plane, not in the sense of a Euclidean plane.9 There is an impression of depth, where the perception of space orders itself through color tone, beginning with the wall plane (blank space) and continuing with rectangular oxide porcelain plates (5 in number – prime number) that darken from front to back. This is all an indicator of the commonality of cosmic space, which would be impossible in classical perspectival representation. Here the zero appears for the first time, as blank space, as emptiness in a numerically labeled space.10The vanishing point in the perspectival construction, the origin in the coordinate system, the point of intersection in space, as monad? number? place value? point of intersection in an energy field?……………what is it? this nothing?????

The power of the infinite

We have already known for a long time that our world can be deduced from mathematical principles, and that the laws of nature can be described using mathematics. Mathematicians, scientists, musicians, visual artists, authors use standards and units of measurement to analyze the numeric “patterns” behind natural phenomena.
Matter forms its own history. It shows its structures, presents its complexity, in a measurable system. Then it disappears before our eyes and other sensory organs. For us there remains the task of working endlessly on the endless.
Zero is a strategic element in our continually advancing thought, where we are always suspecting interactions existing off in the distance. In my permanently moving works conceived in the dimensions of particle measurement11 – generally two ellipses that in their proportions are very difficult to differentiate – the zero stands available to the variable in order to set the infinite in scene, to “calculate” it.
My quasi formulas and image constructions are determined by numerical or other transformations. I anticipate approaching the exciting FIELD of the continual matter/light dialog while using a minimum of form and material. Light consists als FIELD.
Seeing and apprehending, in interaction between object and observer, can be understood. In quantum field theory, as Heisenberg said, this means that “what we observe is not nature itself, rather nature that is subjected to our mode of questioning”.12In this sense, artistic work can accompany the balancing, channeling process of knowledge.
It is an ordered freedom, a continually alternating process of emptiness and form.
Is a vacuum in fact a LIVING EMPTINESS?
In closing, instead of the usual literary or poetic quote, I would like to write down the beauty and truth, the truth and beauty of the “most beautiful mathematical formula”:13

1 It is important to note that the location of this Land Art work is the site of important archaeological finds pertaining to the Hamangia Culture in Medgidia, Rumania, in the vicinity of the Danube and the Black Sea.
2 Image of fossilized bird dinosaurs from the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna.
3 Ligeti lived in Cluj-Napoca (Romania).
4 Here I would like to quote John Locke: “Nothing is in the intellect that was not first in the senses”. [Nihil est in intellectu, quod non fuerit in sensu.], in: An essay concerning human understanding, 1690). Quoted from: Simonyi, Károly: A fizika kultúrtörténete [Cultural History of Phisics]. Gondolat, Budapest, 1981. p. 248.
5 Magda Csutak, “Grenzen von Bewusstsein” in Peter Weibel (ed.), Jenseits von Kunst, Passagen Verlag, Vienna, 1997, p. 425.
6 In 2006 at KFKI (Central Research Institute for Physics, Atomic Energy Research Institute of the Hungarian Academy of Sciences), while I was preparing my exhibition at the Kiscelli Museum in Budapest, I had an opportunity to see the atomic structure of graphite through the scanning tunneling microscope.
7 Negative forms were originally produced in plaster for molds. But here, instead of plaster, everything was in porcelain. In photo technology the same positive-negative rule applies for image reproduction. (The digitized image world built up on the binary number system.)
8 Optical prisms and lenses, mirrors, fiber optics, fiber optic cables, optical storage devices (CD, USB, etc.)
9 PERSPEKTIVA, PERSPECTIVE, edited by Peternák Miklós and Erőss Nikolett, Műcsarnok/Kunsthalle, C3, Budapest, 2000, pp. 176–177.
10 My first “zero work” in elliptical form was created in 1999.
11 1023 particle seconds = 0.000000000000000000000001.
12 Werner Heisenberg, Physik und Philosophie. Weltperspektiven, Ullstein, Frankfurt am Main, 1973, p. 40.
13 This Eulerian formula was presented and analyzed in 2006/2007 by the Viennese mathematician Rudolf Taschner in a series of 6 lectures on the individual elements.

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Magda Csutak

My Kunstkammer,
Materiality in the Media Art or the activity of the matter.

The phenomenon of our time, the increasing loss of our physical substance through the digitalization as well as the ever growing flood of data and information let us forget and ignore that exactly in the essence of the substance itself, in its activity lies the possibility to make the invisible visible. The substance itself is an actor in the cognitive process.

In my work I made a selection of materials according to the most important criteria of their characteristic, allowing them to act, such as: silicon, carbon, silver, nickel-iron oxid.
I am aware that “Counting with the pencil stroke” is not an utopia anymore. The silicon electronic with graphs (graphic platelets, which have only the size of one atomic layer) could drive the miniaturization to the atomic dimension. This material – already known since the antiquity – the graphite with its atomic grid structure, multiple superimposed honeycombs is becoming soon a functioning reality for quantum computer. Our atomic clock ticks unrecognized.

*The both physicists Andre Geim and Konstantin Novoselov got in 2010 the Nobel Prize in Physics for the creation and analysis of graphs.

In the present work (see detailed image) I intend to show graphite in form of graphs. This work (work in progress), which has the title “My Kunstkammer” for a long time already, is developing in my laboratory, in other words on the wall of my studio. It is quasi a networking diagram of thought-elements generated by me.

It consists of:
4 pieces of Polaroid photographs
astronomical images
wooden sticks
plastic rulers
head shape
porcelain plate, coated by photo emulsion
and tracing paper with graphite tracks.

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Emese Mucsi

A Momentary Break from Mortal Fright
Magda Csutak: Distinction, 1979, 6 x 5 cm, bone china, gold
© Courtesy of Márk Radics and the artist
Photo: Márk Radics

Was das Computer horror – this mysterious inscription is found on a work made by artist Magda Csutak (1945, Sfântu Gheorghe) in 1978. Although the frail bone china artifact created with a peculiar procedure shares certain properties with brooches – it is fastened similarly and the material it was made of is just as meaningful as that of jewelry – this outward appearance is faded by the message conveyed and advertised by the object. So this is not a badge, this is a Distinction as its title confirms. It is not general but it is unique. It can only shine on the chest of who is worthy. But who can deserve such a thing and with what? Based in Vienna at the time, Csutak created the Distinction in the late seventies within an art project, and at one point she distributed her unique awards among her friends who were mostly the main actors of the Hungarian underground art scene. A fair number of people received one, including László Beke, Annamária Szőke, and Tamás St. Auby. Upon the bestowal of the items, each laureate was notified that this personal recognition was also meant as their urn.

The Distinction is made of a porcelain mass containing bone ash for base material. The manufacturing process of the artifact involved a high-temperature kiln similar to a crematory. Originally, bone china was a British achievement, but different versions of the master batch have been experimented with at several other places. Among them was the Research Institute for Glass and Fine Ceramics in Bucharest, Romania, where between 1974 and 1977, Csutak, an artist and thinker at the crossroads of art and science at the time, studied and tested this matter as an industrial design intern (and also participated in photosensitive glass, optical glass, and laser trials). Concurrently, as an art scholarship holder, she took the experiments out of the institution into a studio to freely discover the potential in bone china, creating paper thin fragile planes of porcelain and many other things. After Bucharest, Csutak gradually complemented her mastery of materials and technical prowess with extended cultural and historical knowledge of silicate-based artifacts during her restoration work in Vienna where she had access to singular, mysterious pieces with eventful past. This experience made her relationship with silicates even more thoughtful. For her works created between 1977 and 1978, she turned this paper sheet-like porcelain film into a medium of written messages, partly as a result of her realizing that a large proportion of historical artifacts – clay tablets, incised bone fragments, sheets with handwriting and print, etc. – predominantly served as surfaces for storing data, leaving a trace, and remembering. All that makes these objects the keepers of a great share of human history coming together through the ensemble and intertextuality of the traces and meanings left on these carriers into an intelligible, but ever so controverted, integrity.

The inscriptions on the Distinction series are messages Csutak picked and expropriated from Viennese dailies because she found these passages and words particularly meaningful. In contrast to the alleged eternal validity of the marks found on ancient clay tablets, the selected textual fragments combined with the unenduring medium refer to the evanescence and quick expiry of the message. Was das Computer horror [What, the, computer, horror] – there are many possible answers as to why she chose this strange, question-like collage made up of separate words from the daily press. In the rise of the computer age, which began in 1975 and continues to this day, everyone was getting their own PC, and the flow of information was rapidly accelerating in comparison with past rates; concomitantly, the general data storage capacity was increasing and recording information was getting easier. In fact, it is not only these developments and the presence of the word Computer that link Distinction to the history of computers – the material composition also does. In addition to being the main substance of industrial products such as glassware, tiles, bricks, and porcelain, silica is used in the manufacture of silicon ingots, microchips, and other important components in information technology. A tiny silicon wafer can contain thousands of data-storing circuits and today is capable of performing about 20 billion operations per second.

In this way, this sheet of porcelain with a note on it manages to represent the millennial history of humanity recording data and striving to leave a trace. The word “Horror” on the other hand, the dreadful fear experienced when one confronts sublimity or unfathomable terror, can indicate the constant insecurity regarding the future survival of the information recorded and stored in computers and clouds in manners that cannot be traced by common users. It also warns at all times – and this is in close association with the above – of the self-deceptive nature of the delusional assumptions proclaiming the posthumous continuity of any message or memory left by a person, the illusion of bypassing earthly finitude, and artificially prolonging our presence in the world.

In this sense, the Distinction is an unusual type of vanitas object reminding us of the transience of life. Contemplating the object, both the distinguished “urn owners” and other viewers interpreting the work face their own vulnerability and finite nature. Also, the piece contains all the main symbols of vanitas representations; it only needs to be teased apart. The material of Distinction (i.e. bone china) contains both the hourglass and the skull; the manufacturing procedure (the fire of the high temperature furnace) evokes the died-off flame; and the text on its surface provides insight into the digitizing and ever expanding mega-archive of universal human culture (Was das Computer horror). The object is plated with gold, which is a precious metal that, besides representing material wealth and hence constituting a token of power, symbolizes the Sun and enlightenment. “Solidified light,” it is called, which sparkles in the eye from time to time giving a break from the constant fright of death for a very brief moment.

The original text was published in ARTMAGAZIN  93/2017/1 (HU)
Translated by Zsuzsanna Bodóné Hofecker

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Magda Csutak

My Contribution to the International Year of Glass 2022
Assembled and translated by Rebeka Erdő

I unite my body of work in “My Kunstkammer,” which connects the future with the past by posing three significant questions:
1)    What is matter, both corporeal and incorporeal matter (elementary particles such as electrons, photons, etc.)?
2)    The zero (nothingness or the ellipse).
3)    The relationship between the picture and image.
These three themes are closely interconnected and gain increasing significance through the use of electronic and quantum-based instruments in the so-called “PROSTHESIS WORLD” (microscopes, telescopes, computers, smartphones, etc.).

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