What do we watch when watching TV? How are we to understand this question? Nobody knows...

The television is a medium, an aggressive and omnipresent one, a medium trying to capture the attention of the whole world. Where the television is turned on, life comes at a still, people stop speaking and start watching, no matter what is on.  remote corners of Earth in some way.

The television is a different matter – we have not spotted it, we have not seen it yet. Ernő Bartha has. And he put it at use. But the place he spotted it in and the way he uses it are out of the ordinary...  (Zoltán Sebők, 2009) 


TV Cage II, 68 x 40 x 65 cm, 2008

Fairy Tale, 60 x 15 x 40 cm. canvas, cotton thread, 2009

Glory Box, 80 x 52 x 55 cm. wood, glass, metal, 2008

Stone TV, 56 x 37 x 37 cm. stone, 2009

Green TV, wood, grass, 2009

Animal Planet, 69 x 45 x50 cm. wood, glass, 2006

Munkácsy Color, 73 x6 x50 cm. wood, frame, canvas, 2008

Zen TV, 72 x 52 x 55 cm. vood, glass, gravel, sand, 2008

Monte Cristo



Wash and go

Vote TV

TV Chips, 43 x 74 x 167 cm, glass,  metal, 2008

Brownian Motion


Téka, 65 x 46 x 55 cm, wood, glass, neon, 2008

Sit down, 50 x 43 x 40 cm, tree,skin, 2006


TV Dresser

TV Cage I


I spotted some strange objects that looked as if they had tried to become television sets and changed their mind at some point in time to become something else – something different each time: a bird’s cage, a stool, a stand for flowers or even a bookshelf. These were works of art as well, as I had found out, things of unexpected function, statues, or simply objects, if you will. They were urban objects, too urban in a space torn out of the Garden of Eden. Awesome, I thought, and I encouraged Ernő Bartha to try further variations of the theme and to create television objects for an entire exhibition. I was curious what might the television become in such a place, in the very middle of Paradise.
We might go back to the fact that the television is a medium, an aggressive and omnipresent one, a medium trying to capture the attention of the whole world. Where the television is turned on, life comes at a still, people stop speaking and start watching, no matter what is on. They say us, Hungarians are especially so, as according to statistics we are top of the list when it comes to the time spent watching TV. We are world champions it seems, world champions in staring at the television in a dumb haze. One more reason for us to start and deal with the phenomenon in a serious and methodical manner, to deal with television as medium, as they say. I think the fact that neither modern nor post-modern, neither Hungarian nor foreign art has yet started to deal with the television is a minor miracle. Ever since I came across the first television objects by Ernő Bartha I have wondered where did they fit in, what were their possible archetypal images. And I was simply incapable of answering the question.
There is, of course, a long list of names of artists who have from time to time used the television set in their work but as far as I know none of them had used it in a methodical way. The first name to come up in this respect is usually that of Nam June Paik, related to the Fluxus-movement, nevertheless except for the beginning, the Korean artist employed video instead of television. Video is a different medium.
By saying medium we utter one of the key concepts of our age, one that occurs in scientific studies and in everyday language just the same. In an implicit or explicit way we imagine the medium is the thing that in one way or another determines our conscience, our imagination or our relation to our surroundings and to the wider world. We get the majority of the information on the world – says German sociologist Niklas Luhman – through various media, a statement so valid that not even critical media sociologists are an exception. It is not a chance fact that the problem of the medium has been a central theoretical topic for the last fifty years and that it has reached a greater prestige than any other concept so far. Still, if we examine it with greater care, we will conclude that it has simply got no meaning, that is to say it has got so many meanings it is close to impossible to tell which is the “real” one. The present status of the medium reminds me of the significance the matter of the Holy Trinity used to have.
Not much before his death, Michael Foucault, former leader of French spiritual life, awoken perhaps from a deep sleep, had asked himself the following strange question: why are we not concerned with the problem of the Holy Trinity any more? He meant why did the intellectuality of his time and he himself neglect this matter. Foucault’s question is indeed grave if we consider that this has at least for three centuries been the central topic for the elite of European spiritual life. So why do we neglect it now? What is it we are dealing with instead? Because to say we have solved the matter of the Holy
Trinity would be far fetched. We did not solve it. Then why is it so passé? Foucault couldn’t answer the question. He couldn’t, despite the fact that he was the most competent in answering it. Thus we are left with the other question, of what are we dealing with instead. Leafing through recent German book catalogues I have found two key matters adopted by the international intelligentsia nowadays.
The one is globalization, the other is media theory. Further more, the two are closely related as there is no globalization without media. To be able to speak of globalization, we need to connect two remote corners of Earth in some way. This act of connecting, this connection is the medium.
In Hungarian, the word itself means agent, vehicle, and unfortunately a lot more. This is due to
Marshall McLuhan, the Canadian parent of media theory who managed at the very beginning to create such a chaos of concepts that nobody has ever since been able to disentangle it. His interpreters are in a contest of finding more and more meanings to the word medium in the body of his work. As far as I know, they have got twenty such meanings so far. And the gain here is not a trifle. In case we discover the exact meaning of “medium”, we will know what the Canadian thinker meant when he said all the revolutions of humanity were media revolutions and we would also understand his much quoted slogan according to which the medium is the message. If we introduce this in English (The Medium is the Message) in any Internet search engine we will for sure – I have tried it – come across more than forty million occurrences. But, pardon me, how can the medium be the message? In what way is the medium the message and a message of what content is it? Many others have pondered this question especially in what television is concerned: do we turn the television on to watch the television or to watch cartoons, the news or a movie? What do we watch when watching TV? How are we to understand this question? Nobody knows, yet this is not an impediment to those who keep quoting the famous slogan which, by the way, at its origin related not to television but to painting, to a significant trend in modern art, namely Cubism. And we should not forget to add that in the original context the slogan made perfect sense. It is difficult though to determine exactly what sense did it make, because a few pages later the medium is no longer an agent but an extension of the human body, even further of the human senses. To say the least, at a certain point McLuhan considers clothing a medium because it “extends” the temperature of our body.
Nevertheless let us be down-to-earth now and stick to medium as an agent. As such it is of ancient origins and it roots back to the tradition of clairvoyance. We should keep in mind the fact that within this tradition the medium used to be a living human person. An example from the art world: Óriás Aranka, the mother of Erdély Miklós, was a famous clairvoyant. How are we to understand this? She was the one who spoke during a spiritist meeting, her lips moved yet she did not convey her own message to the audience, but that of the summoned dead. Consequently, in this position, she “only” transmitted a message. But suppose we had a coffee with her after such a meeting. I had no chance to do that, but I am convinced she ceased to be a medium in the moment when she said the coffee was good. Then she became Óriás Aranka again, a nice person, speaking for herself. Well, this is the central problem of all media-theory: how far does the medium reach, how far is it still a medium, whatever its meaning may be.
In what pertains to television, the central medium of Ernő Bartha, the situation is the following: as long as the television set is turned on and it works properly, we watch the broadcasted program and do not see the medium. If it breaks down or we turn it off, we see the television set only by that time it ceases to be a medium and it becomes a physical object as any piece of furniture in the room. What is my point here? I am saying that at this point the problem of the medium resembles that of the Holy Trinity. Some say the matter of the Holy Trinity could be in the center of attention for several centuries owing to the fact that nobody saw God. The situation is similar now: we can endlessly go on speaking about media and television as a medium because media are just as invisible as God. Today’s artist finds him or herself in the difficult situation of the medieval theologian: both should make the invisible speak and appear before our eyes – a rather difficult
task. This probably explains the scarcity of artistic attention given to the television so far and it also sheds light upon why did McLuhan, this faithful Catholic drilled in medieval theological debates, become the first serious media theorist. I haste to add, because McLuhan knew it quite well, that media are invisible as far as nothing out of the ordinary happens to them. Painting as a medium for instance has been invisible for centuries at row until certain circumstances appeared, triggered for instance by the Cubists: the contents of a painting were reduced, suspended, derailed to such an extent that – as McLuhan had noticed – the way of transmission, that is, the medium became the message.
The television is a different matter – we have not spotted it, we have not seen it yet. Ernő Bartha has. And he put it at use. But the place he spotted it in and the way he uses it are out of the ordinary. When I first saw a few of his television objects in his studio, Charles Baudelaire came to my mind, who said that modern art was a ragman, collecting valueless, throwaway things around waste-heaps and turning them into treasures. It later appeared to me that even if involuntarily, Baudelaire in fact was speaking of McLuhan’s favorites, the Cubists, who daringly stuck to their canvases newspaper cuts and used train tickets or they pushed rusty nails through them. Ernő Bartha seems to be picking up things with the television at the point where the Cubists have left it off: the pieces of his series share the fact that each consists of such gathered, broken, used, dumped things. He tries to make use, in his own special way, of useless machinery. Well, the use here does not imply the capacity of hosting a huge number of channels broadcasting various programs because he turns these objects into media through which he articulates his own opinion on television and on the custom to watch television. I am not at all convinced that this way we will have a clearer notion of what television as medium is, nevertheless I am convinced we see much more than during its “normal” use when we stare at it without thinking.
Finally we should sum up the essence of Ernő Bartha’s relation to the television, again, a rather difficult task. I noticed how the majority of people smile when they see his work. What is this smile made of? Soren Kierkegaard, 19th century Danish philosopher thought smile and laughter trace back to two things: one is irony, the other, humor. According to Kierkegaard, irony occurs when a subject of infinite imagination comes across a trifle, while humor is exactly the opposite: the subject is small and insignificant while the object it has to deal with is infinite. The small, fragile subject totters under the weight of the huge object and in Kierkegaard’s view this is what we smile upon. Theoretically we should suppose television, the object of the artist Ernő Bartha, is so huge, it only leaves room for the second option. If we consider its effect and power, television seems to be almost infinite. Well, where a finite subject faces this type of object, the situation can lead to nothing else but humor. Nevertheless the series of television objects created by Ernő Bartha shows an unusually strong subject endowed with an almost infinite imagination capable of transforming everything according to its own likeness. This is to say we face a problem either way. I suppose this is a case of a seemingly infinite subject confronting a seemingly infinite object, in the very middle of the Garden of Eden. And now what kind of domain lies between irony and humor, between the original sacred and the rural profane – because this is the exact place Ernő Bartha belongs to – I cannot tell. I have not found the right words, so far.

Opening Speech of the Exhibition "TV MANIA" Budapest Galery, 24 april 2009 - (detail)
by: ZOLTÁN SEBŐK - essayist