Online Portfolio of Dóra Berkes

Art Historical Portrait

A young artist whose art ranges from canvas paintings to gigantic light environments; she paints building-sized permanent paintings and also creates all-embracing sound environments. She likes most if one can participate in both sensory experiences at the same time. These monumental genres make it possible for her art to reach many people yet it’s not that the artist’s ego or its ideological or other issues are being channelled; there is no message, instead there is festive magic inviting personal experience, presence.

Walking in a light environment where colours change with each step resembles most the experience of walking in a classic gothic cathedral in broad daylight. The psychophysical effects of different coloured lights projected on the body are being studied mainly in Switzerland as one of the Western holistic healing methods inspired by Eastern medicine. (Dr Lüscher’s work since the forties officially has, of course, more sceptics, but it has just as many followers.)

The physiological effects of coloured light have also been drawn on in art by American neon artist Keith Sonnier since the sixties in his brand the “colour light bath” (BA-O-Ba), and by Dan Flavin in his statues addressed to specific persons made of commercially available neon tubes.

The idea of a permanent building bathed in coloured light returned in the 1920’s with the work of Bruno Taut – his building models made only of tinted glass panels (“building blocks”) still exist and are being manufactured in series in Czech glass factories. Since 1992, Alan Parkinson exhibits all over the world his inflatable Luminarium made of PVC; here one can wander through spaces that break down sunlight to different colours.

Dóra Berkes does not attempt to shut out the surroundings; on the contrary, she barely adds anything to public spaces, she does not alter them physically but with the projections these familiar places are totally transformed. The tradition of decorating buildings’ facades with garlands and wreathes for festivities is continued but more precisely, her artwork continues the tradition of creating decorative floodlights on special evenings in the greatest royal residences, most popular in baroque times. Using candles and torches – points of light – they outlined the silhouette of the building’s main divisions, the permanent visual element, crowned by the magnificence of fireworks. At the end of the 19th century, to promote the more widespread use of electricity, the baroque effect was achieved again with rows of light bulbs; a sensation at world fairs with the United States in the forefront. In the twenties, this lead straight to permanent night lighting schemes, often in many colours, for the top floors of sky scrapers, creating wholly novel cityscapes. The decorative lighting schemes of cities and the lights designed to emphasize certain buildings follow this idea.

Looked at from afar, one might have the impression that Dóra Berkes’ installations also emphasize architecture, but one must look from very far away for this. As we near the scene it becomes clear that it’s about pictures. An early example of this that I know of is from the thirties in Berlin; it’s true though that they only modulated the lights of an anti-aircraft searchlight to project the logo of a chemical company brand on low passing clouds. It was a modest image, like a paper cutting. To create detailed projections the size of the magic lantern had to be increased and by adding an electric light source the theatre background projector was developed to project large, detailed pictures; this projector is the one Berkes uses, in open air too.

In her light environments the synthesis of the two is brilliant: her artworks emphasize architecture with paintings so neither is to the detriment of the other. That’s why Dóra Berkes’ genre is neither purely architectural decoration nor projected paintings, but rather ‘light environment’.

There is a baroque feature to this too though: due to the nature of projections, there is a viewpoint – directly near the projectors – from which the original picture can be seen as a “whole”. Only a few could enjoy it if the spectacle would depend upon this one particular angle. This was the primary reason baroque illusionist frescoes were criticized, but even Jaybo’s work projecting graffiti on the Berlin Dome in 2008 could show the famous ocean wave wood engraving of Hokusai outlined by the gloved hands of Disney characters only if one was near that certain angle.

Dóra Berkes plans her series of paintings specially for the buildings in each location, giving consideration to architectural surroundings. On the one hand, this means her compositions consist of abstract elements which are not damaged by being broken up by projection or if seen from a side angle. On the other hand, this also means that if she does use representational elements, the smooth surface necessary for the projection to work is there. Keeping these in mind, she plays with another artistic possibility: larger geometric elements sometimes strengthen and sometimes fully question the geometry of the illuminated building. Her abstract elements are not only the result of paintbrush marks (because miniature things are greatly blown up). Using the physical properties of the material, she has long experimented with mixtures and clashing drying times. Similar methods had first been introduced in canvas painting by Jean Dubuffet in the forties of the past century. The effects achieved by Berkes not only include – originally microscopic – endless form and colour combinations, but also convex effects caused by lens optics.

Her painted abstract elements either create a repetitive woven-like design – even by using a mechanical marking object – or they are geometrical elements not resembling anything, inviting free association. I also perceive the influence of Friedensreich Hundertwasser in her non-figurative painting style of lively colours and strong contrasts, contours.

This division into abstract and non-abstract elements would be rather forced because the boundary is narrow between the not woven-like elements and the elements shaped into strange beings by images of eyes and mouths. When we want to understand the picture, our conscience uses this mechanism and the visual signs or fragments to create a meaning; this is the basic idea behind surrealism. Creatures emerging from the netting of lines – after Paul Klee – appeared in Hungary in the artwork of Lajos Vajda of Szentendre in the thirties. In Berkes’ visual world we see the return of these artists’ themes involving figurativism, repetitive patterns, even celestial bodies. The Sun and the Moon are among her favourite motives, sometimes depicted as faces surrounded by rays.

The nets of lines could also paraphrase the image of printed circuits representing graphical values or city layout plans. For this reason, we can also include constructivism as a strong influence: the already mentioned, virtual “continued construction” or “opening” of buildings is also achieved through this. All of this is even more true for Dóra Berkes’ canvas paintings; the only difference is that here the elements don’t need to be breakable because the canvas provides a frame to plan each composition within familiar boundaries. There are many more figurative elements here – of course, fewer woven-like patterns – using also the collage technique, and there is a much stronger message.

Let’s not forget that although light environments provide a significant freedom for the artist due to the technique itself, but they are always (except the festivals in Frankhegy) made to order; weightier subjects usually have no place here. But Dóra Berkes does not wish to multiply her thoughts seriously endangering the existing order of things – like a revolutionary – through her paintings, because her portrayals primarily originate from a non-critical point of view: the urban masses, cable networks, steel constructs, gadgets and high-rises only document a possible human experience of our technicized age, sometimes even with an optimistic approach. In this we can discover the continuation of the big city collages of László Moholy-Nagy at the end of the twenties or Dadaistic collages, where some artworks draw a parallel between mechanical machinery and the human organism. The love of bright, lively colours transmits the same positive attitude towards life as the light paintings do.

Dóra Berkes’ permanent (exterior and interior) façade designs translate the same approach into another medium. The same playfulness is apparent in the buildings; the way she sometimes emphasizes original masses, lines of force and sometimes defines new accents. She de-materializes a mass and at the same time gives it new coherence. This genre (design) is also extremely hybrid; being three-dimensional, it is not only painting. If it would be sculpting with colours, then it would be architecture but it is not that because its primary instruments are flat surfaces and colours.

In the sixties, those who dared to move beyond the confinement of the canvas experimented with similar things – mostly in interiors. Exteriors of houses had been planned similarly already in the twenties by De Stijl artists; they used buildings as canvasses for neoplasticist paintings or regarded them as gigantic statues. The interiors of movie theatres and cafes had been designed by geometrically structuring wall surfaces with huge flat patches of colour. Berkes’ activities in this field follow this trend because they too were interested in the total effect when planning a building’s exterior and interior, with attention to every detail.