László Győrffy

The Rhetoric of Flesh

On the art of Géza Szöllősi






(excerpt, translated from the french by: Richard Herne Shepherd)



The provocative art of Géza Szöllősi sounds a unique voice in the body canon of Hungarian contemporary art, whose reigning discourse is slow to recognise the inevitable decadence of the fin de siécle. His vision integrates more easily into the mainstream current of the international scene, where representatives of earlier generations (Joel-Peter WitkinPaul McCarthyCindy Sherman) already established the malaise and the postmodern tradition of horror culture in the depiction of the body – while on the Budapest scene, only in the early 2000s did a few younger, ambitious artists appear, who, with various devices, drove into flesh, but more deeply than their predecessors. Szöllősi was among them, whose most characteristic and most consistent endeavour was his Flesh project, begun in 2003, in which he sewed together human portraits and sculptures simulating preparations of genitalia, from raw animal meat, mainly from pork and innards. It was not by chance that this project was launched with a self-portrait: “The selfish pleasure one gets from making art is actually a pleasure of being disembodied. While it seems to be the tenure of the artist to express a latent ego, to make it manifest, really, the real condition for that ego in making a work of art is being completely severed: you produce an object which is schizophrenically not you.”2 Upon examining the nature of artistic creation, the Freudian death drive axiom is reinforced (“the aim of all life is death”), as if the artist were working continuously on returning to the inorganic condition, unceasingly producing the objects representing – and outliving – him. The artistic transcendence of the limits of the Ego is a perfect point of departure from death, or in the apprehension of aversion to the innards of our bodies, which we might link to the category of the abject. According to Julia Kristeva, Narcissus is not the unwrinkled image of Greek youth, but abjection is the narcissistic crisis itself, as the image reflected of Narcissus calls forth the splitting of personality, which Nietzsche interpreted as the battle of Apollonian and Dionysian forces. The functional mechanism of Szöllősi’s meat sculptures is inherent in the act of transgression: “There is always a limit, to which the individual conforms, with which he identifies. He catches the loathing with the thought that this limit could disappear”, but it is exactly the fear (horror) that drives the transgression of limits, i.e., the “prohibition is there precisely to be breached.”3 By Kristeva’s definition: “It is thus not lack of cleanliness or health that causes abjection, but what disturbs identity, system, order. What does not respect borders, positions, rules. The in-between, the ambigous, the composite.(…) Abjection is above all ambiguity.”4 The primary markers of Szöllősi’s works are the anatomy of aversion, in which the breaching of the symbolic order that means security results in the blurring of dichotomies that define our culture at its foundations: the obliteration of the dividing line between the internal/external, living/dead, natural/artificial, and conscious/unconscious, by which the unity of the body and the transcendence of the soul are questioned.


According to Hermann Nitsch, facing up to flesh is one of the fundamental conflicts of human existence, and since the direct occupation with meat became taboo, it is due precisely to its taboo nature that we react to it especially intensively with our sensory organs. “The face is produced only when the head ceases to be a part of the body, when it ceases to be coded by the body.” (Roland Barthes) In Szöllősi’s works, however, Dionysian ecstasy congeals in the 15% formaldehyde solution, and his referential base contains such names as Damien HirstJohn Isaacs and Marc Quinn, whose self-portrait made from his own frozen blood (Self, 1991) offers an even more organic interpretation of Plato’s mimetic theory than Szöllősi. Quinn’s blood sausage made from his own bodily material (Incarnate, 1996) can also be reconnected with Szöllősi’s pig-man synthesis, radically incarnating the “you are what you eat” gastro-theorem, and evoking the taboo of cannibalism, which threatens our civilisation with disintegration. David Bowie – prior to the explosion of the Sensation5 exhibition that created worldwide scandal into common knowledge – on his conceptual album entitled I. Outside (1995) experimented with amalgamating the self-mutilation attempts of the neo-avantgarde with the prostheses of cyber-punk, and with this gesture, the stars of Actionism and Body Art arrived to the galaxy of the space of pop culture. In the story accompanying the album, Bowie plays a detective named Nathan Adler, who, as commissioned by the Art-Crime office, investigates art “crimes”, roaming through time and space. Géza Szöllősi’s activities would feature in an illustrious place in the ever growing reports of Art-Crime: his deeds constructed with deliberate intention are immediately recognisable, and his motivations are unavoidable. The associational richness of his flesh sculptures evokes as a reflex serial killers who have been made into stars by the mass media that is built upon necrophilia, such as the “artworks” of Ed Gein, made from real human body parts, or the sewing workshop of Buffalo Bill (The Silence of the Lambs, 1991), moulded after him, not to mention the gore and slasher horror film genres abundant in flesh and skin commodities. Though, as opposed to the profiles of pathological cases, it is not possible to reconstruct the personality traits of the originator of Szöllősi’s flesh-compositions. The often (trans)sexual motivations of these true crimes, moreover, conceal within them the redemptive, therapeutic nature of the recurring acts, contrary to the laws of Szöllősi’s flesh-theatre, which do not hold the promise of liberation from the prison of subordination to the body. The gender and trans-gender discourse (by virtue of its ideologisation), in any case, peels off from Szöllősi’s body parts – despite the fact that in his works he connects a traditionally masculine pursuit (butchery) with a feminine one (sewing) – as his dispassionately melancholic works that neutralise sexuality lie just as far from a feminist reading as they do from a sexist one: “my aim was to present flesh just as it is” (Géza Szöllősi).


Damien Hirst, the best known employer of artistic conservation, by way of the genre of postconceptual installation, reinterprets the existentialism of Francis Bacon: by the fact that he places animals preserved in tanks of formaldehyde in the context of the exhibition space, he establishes a secular, high-tech translation of the Baroque vanitas cult, in which the role of God is taken over by the artist (and Co.), who is capable only of the expansion of death by way of conservation. In his formaldehyde works, Szöllősi goes much farther than Hirst’s industrially executed readymades, enticing with the illusion of intimacy, and in the course of transformation, his dichotomies of impersonality/personal and human/animal are made dynamic in his sculptures, in which he re-vivificates their dead nature. In this way, his works can much rather be compared to Witkin’s nostalgic anthropological scenarios, in which the photographer similarly domesticates and personifies his preparations. The extraordinary intensity of the flesh constructions lies in the similacra that are faithful to the point of deception, which in fact are created from the material of an imitative origin, and paradoxically are only as repulsive as they are human. Szöllősi, however, almost always leaves a small window for the viewer who has fallen into the trap of intellectual incertitude – in the underside of the pelvises of a dual perspective – where the means of preparation becomes evident. In his series, My Lovers (2003-07), he applies the devices of character building among the entrails: photos, hair-clips, dolls, i.e., the pseudo-personal paraphernalia of each constructed girlfriend (Min from China, 2005), while in Hetero-Genital I (2007), in order to avoid flesh-scandals of the pudenda, he also provides them with the appropriate EU seal. His newest sequence of profane relics, the self-reflective Vagina Refreshing (2010), in the tension field between the extreme luxury specialisations of the beauty industry of developed civilisations (vaginal rejuvenation) and the sacral genital mutilation customs of the third world, he refers to the possibilities for constrained artistic renewal. The examples show clearly that the aquarium of the flesh-sculptures bathes its subjects in such a scathing humour that every bit of pathos is squeezed out, and the “tragedy strips it of its hygiene” (Márió Z. Nemes).


The reality of vagina manufacture at once creates and destroys illusion: love is fleeting and volatile, while the artwork attempts to preserve it, and is dead; its endurance is guaranteed by none other than a tank of formaldehyde, a refrigerator system, or photo documentation. The medical gaze6 that exposes the secrets of the interior of the body is the dominant viewpoint of the art of the new millennium, already obscene in itself, because it shows something to the viewer that is not supposed to be seen. In J. G. Ballard, science directly becomes pornography, “whose main aim is to isolate objects or events from their context in time and space”.7 This medical gaze, stolen from God, also renders, by way of the body, the soul recognisble – insofar as the biological being summarises the individual. However, Szöllősi’s works undermine the Cartesian model of Western enlightened thinking, because they confront us with the phenomenology of a theatre presenting the body as a spectacle: we have already seen every part of the body, but we are unable to solve life’s greater problems, nor are we able to overcome the force of destruction. If the bodily humours treated as waste represent the other side of the border (dermal surface), where the “Self” cannot reside, the human corpse presented as a carcass goes even further; the border itself becomes the object that expels the “Self”: “The corpse, seen without God and outside of science, is the outmost of abjection.”8 While the dead of Professor Gunther von Hagens’ controversial anatomical theatre (BodyWorlds), superseding the formaldehyde procedure, and vitalised with the much more attractive plastination, by way of their exaggerated aestheticisation, end up in the no man’s land of representation, as a sad Pygmalion in his own museum, Szöllősi discredits the means of science, bringing his compositions to life in such a way that he is well aware: There is no Aphrodite, nor will she come to his aid.

The attraction-repulsion mechanism

“The painter is condemned to please.(…) The purpose of a scarecrow is to frighten birds from

the field where it is placed, but the most terrifying painting is there to attract visitors.”

(Georges Bataille: The Cruel Practice of Art)

Since Bataille’s essay written in 1949, the double-edged sword of attraction and repulsion has been transformed into an institutionalised cultural form, in which the art object is based on its capacity to transform horror into rapture. “Images of the repulsive can also allure. (…) All images that display the violation of an attractive body are, to a certain degree, pornographic”.9 Even the word “obscene” carries the etymological meaning of that which is outside of the “scene”, that which is beyond representation, and thus expresses perfectly the nature that cannot be revealed“If we ban something from representation and conceal it from the gaze, then its power that appears as a clandestine image eclipses everything that would have been attainable through its presentation”.10 Szöllősi’s artworks point to the fragility of humanist liberalism, whose hyper-consciousness is generated by precisely its bad conscience: “Political correctness lends itself as a phallic maypole around which all the naughty children skip and play and recite obscene rhymes”. (Jake Chapman) The flesh-scene entitled Homo-orál (2007) presents the Sadean conception of love (“the desire for love heightened to the extremes is equivalent to the death-wish”) as interpreting the attraction-repulsion dynamic in connection with sexuality-death: the meat-puppet that looks like a penis without a body, with the momentum of a hardcore scene, impales the man’s head, its substantial size adorning the chasm that feeds the repugnance. Among the archetypes of this deconstructivist body concept to be mentioned are Hans Bellmer’s super-fetishist objects, which, among Surrealist artworks, placed at the forefront the body unconscious vis-à-vis the psyche unconscious: instead of Freudian dreamwork, Sadeian transgression and Bataillean anti-idealist materialism. Szöllősi, in comparison with his flesh-objects shrinking the artificial genitals of his real lovers, progresses in the opposite direction in his print series, entitled Suzuka and her friends (2006): here he creates an imaginary living quarters for a lifelike silicon doll found on the internet, that offers sexual satisfaction, again and again bringing into the range of interpretation the conception of the body and women of Far Eastern (chiefly Japanese) culture that occupies him almost to the point of obsession. The partner-prostheses of Doll (1934) and Suzuka mediate the libido by way of perversion and death, because death is the condition for restructuring the body as a “clean slate”. According to Deleuze-Guattari, “The face is produced only when the head ceases to be a part of the body, when it ceases to be coded by the body”.11 Producing the face of the whole body, through the mechanical and unconscious “operation”, renders everything sexual – though not necessarily anthropomorphic: in this way, Szöllősi’s collage technique also evokes the possessed medic of the Bride of Re-Animator (1990), who tries to resurrect his dead bride from found organs – but finally the body parts asserting their autonomy take over. Szöllősi reconstructs his lovers under the seduction of the mutually erosive forces of memory and oblivion; thus, in his method of alienation-personification, the fragment becomes substitutive for the whole – and since the genitals show just the same sort of individual features as the face – in the artist’s poetry constructed from formless clumps of meat, the hierarchy of up and down ceases, and metonymy takes the place of metaphor.


Every stage of Szöllősi’s career paved with scandal is a challenge to the tolerance level of the general public – often even the judgements of the art profession elicit emotional reactions, which invalidate the attitude of the discursive analysts and categorise the opinion-holders as naïve receivers.12 Szöllősi possesses anatomical knowledge of the construction of society adequate to aim his precisely measured jabs at its weak points: his foosball table setting taxidermied small animals in battle lines (Hamsters vs. Squirrels, 2005) is no more cruel than the fur coats of high-class model wives; his Woman-Measuring Table (2006), meanwhile, is more elaborate and entertaining than the fascist advertisements of sex-centred women’s magazines. In actual fact, it has already become daily routine for us to stroll into the meat-grinder of our own free will: the installation, Pigs eat pigs (2005), an expressive model of a stuffed pig struggling with its own sausages, sets an absurd incarnation of Laocoon, stripped from a myth, of the human desire for self-destruction, in the spotlight. Géza Szöllősi’s animals that have undergone unusual transformations feed on the unconscious of subliminal advertising on the road leading to the nightmare-factory, transcribing with a playful lightness the hygienics of the consumer empire, that Paul McCarthy has named “the religion of fascism”. The taxidermied animals that balance between design and fine art put the fun back into funeral, foreshadowing the laughing apocalypse, and wiping away the smile from the menacing self-assurance of the authority of “keep smiling”: “Laughter, in this sense, addresses the nature of being and limits of subjectivity, as well as the existence or death of God” (Tanya Barson). Szöllősi’s cackle is similar to that of Maurizio Cattelan, who, with his stuffed animals re-contextualised with Duchampian gestures, creates meaningless memento mori reflecting on the banality of death. Similar to Szöllősi’s work using squirrels as toy figures, Cattelan’s suicidal squirrel forced into a human milieu to its death (Bidibidobidiboo, 1996) singularly in a schizoid way accountable to art, continually attacks/expands its own institutional order. Members of the grotesque bestiary of contemporary art, such as Jake & Dinos Chapman’s dog-cat-mouse group-sex (Fucking with Nature, 2009), or Cai Guo-Qiang’s monumentally vertiginous installation of artificial animals (Head On, 2006-10), just as Szöllősi’s hamster-boxer, incapable of self-defence (Boxer, 2005), and cow’s heads rounded-out into three-dimensional cartoon figures (Cow No. 5, 2010), submit exclusively to the unconscious logic and marketing aesthetics of the bad conscience of consumerism, and set them on stage, offering as a gift the experience of collective hallucination to viewers hungry for spectacle.13


The objects and installations listed above were roused to a life of their own from the concept arts of Szöllősi for the films, Taxidermia (dir.: György Pálfi, 2006), winning countless awards and launching an international career, and Opium – Diary of a Madwoman (dir.: János Szász, 2007), awarded at the Budapest Filmszemle. In the case of both feature films, the deconstruction and deformation of the recent past are addressed, which elucidates the unsettlingly alien and extreme current position of the artist. Szöllősi himself also works from a filmic-director’s point of view and method, his parallel projects, accumulating media, and constructed with Renaissance disharmony, consolidating an hermetic anti-world, fusing complex, historical, religious-mythological and pop cultural narratives, just as we can experience in Alejandro Jodorowsky’s cultic film (The Holy Mountain, 1973) or in Matthew Barney’s Cremaster (1994-2002) cycle.

The Betelgeuse Project (2006-07), born from the decors of Opium, is a hybrid of Monarchy-era medical objects interbred with a contemporary set of sado-maso instruments, charged with the additional meaning of the mental institution milieu derived from Géza Csáth’s writings. Naturally, we can extend the concept of the mental institution to broader communities, whose collective conscious is projected by the artist directly through his prints onto metal surfaces: obscure mass-manipulations of the abominable periods of the 20th century mingle with the potential body-transforming solutions of the cyber-era, stirring a minor time-storm on the neutral surface of the digital interface. Szöllősi’s software, gone mad from mutant viruses, overwrites the files believed to be valid until now, proving that all our memories are false, while symbols are just as interchangeable as our body parts: “The broken image of Man moves in minute by minute and cell by cell... Poverty, hatred, war, police-criminals, bureaucracy, insanity, all symptoms of The Human Virus” (William S. Burroughs). It is without a doubt that Géza Szöllősi is a double-agent of the Interzone: despite their gravity, his works that operate as consciousness-modifiers hover between visceral reality and high-tech fantasy, over an inexplicably absurd region that we might even call Eastern Europe.


Szöllősi’s basic condition, unrepentant levitation over the abyss, is an especially intolerable position for many in a territory in which the gravitation is so strong that most are forced to live their entire lives in a mental force-field close to the ground. In this society, currently several, completely disparate approaches to the body exist side by side, while their polarized adherents battle one another: on the one hand a demure aspect rooted in Judeo-Christianity, struggling with body-loathing and guilt; on the other a body-manic, sex-centred approach, reinforced by mass-media, which views man as an object stripped of its metaphysics. Szöllősi’s workshop is located in the crossfire of this tense, endless mental battle, convincingly articulating the rhetoric of the flesh, whose unabashed assertions prod the brain of the receiver with the sharpness of a scalpel; and if many feel that these responses are too audacious, that is only because they have not yet raised the appropriate question, which is naturally: Is there life before death? “The effect that my sculptures generate is not caused by me: it is simply the flesh that produces it,”14 – professes the artist, i.e., the continually mutilating and liquidating flesh-works of the art itself cannot be stopped, as it performs its work without the mindful control of the artist; moreover, it has already taken over the direction. Szöllősi, fulfilling the stop-gap mission of the employee of the mechanism, as a prepared tourguide, shepherds us through the netherworld regions of the body, where we have nothing else to do than confront our blatant desires and deeply buried fears, while we advance beneath the caption of the gateway to Hell, so full of promise, which we might translate according to the lexicon of the Chapman Brothers: KUNST MACHT FREI, i.e., Art Makes one Free.



1Jake Chapman: Meatphysics, Creation Books, London, 2003.

2 “Jake Chapman on George Bataille: An Interview with Simon Baker”. In: Papers of Surrealism, Issue 1, Winter 2003, p. 11.

3 Georges Bataille: Az erotika [L’Erotisme, 1957], Nagyvilág Kiadó, Budapest, 2001, pp. 182, 78.

4 Julia Kristeva: Powers of Horror. An Essay on Abjection. Columbia University Press, New York, 1982, pp. 4, 9.

5 Sensation: Young British Artists from the Saatchi Collection, Royal Academy of Arts, London, 18 September – 28 December 1997; Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin, 30 September 1998 – 30 January 1999; Brooklyn Museum of Art, New York, 2 October 1999 – 9 January 2000.

6 Michel Foucault: Neissance de la clinique. Une archéologie du regard médical. Presses Universitaire de France, Paris, 1963.

7 J. G. Ballard: The Atrocity Exhibition, Harper Perennial, London, 2006, p. 49.

8 Kristeva, Op.cit., p. 4.

9 Susan Sontag: Regarding the Pain of Others, Penguin Books, London, 2004, p. 85.

10 W. J. T. Mitchell: A kimondhatatlan és az elképzelhetetlen: szó és kép a terror idején [The Unspeakable and the Unimaginable: Word and Image in the Time of Terror]. In: A képek politikája [The Politics of the Image], JATE Press, Szeged, 2008, p. 275.

11 Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari: A Thousand Plateaus. Capitalism and Schizophrenia, London, New York, Continuum, 2009, p. 188.

12 Such an incident occurred, for instance, while arranging the exhibition, Hidden Holocaust (Műcsarnok/Kunsthalle, Budapest, 18 March – 31 May 2004), when, at the “request” of one of the authors of the catalogue, the curators removed Szöllősi’s series of flesh-sculptures for the period of the opening. Szöllősi had already appeared with a flesh-sculpture at the same venue, at the show examining current tendencies in contemporary Hungarian sculpture: Plastica Dreams. Szobrászat az installáció után [Sculpture after Installation], Műcsarnok/Kunsthalle, Budapest, 17 June – 3 August 2003.

13 The large-scale group show, Decadence Now! Visions of Excess, in Prague, served to place Szöllősi’s works most fittingly in an international context, displaying them in the same space with works of, among others, Joel-Peter WitkinORLAN and Wim Delvoye (Galerie Rudolfinum, Prague, 30 September 2010 – 2 January 2011).

14 Szöllősi, Géza: Q&A for There’s Still Life, Mauger Modern Art, London/Bath. More at:


Translated: Adèle Eisenstein