A Memorial That Neither Victims nor Perpetrators Want but Is Needed: An Interview with Ilona Németh


In March 2022, the General Assembly of Budapest announced the winning team of the juried competition for the public memorial, Memory of Rape in Wartimes: Women as Victims of Sexual Violence, a unique memorial project that aims to address the difficult history of violence against women during wartime. The winning proposal, Memory of Rape in  Wartimes, by Slovakian-Hungarian artist Ilona Németh, architect Gabi Mészáros, and poet Anikó N. Tóth, is to be realized in 2023. Hedvig Turai recently spoke with Ilona Németh about their project.

Hedvig Turai: To set up a memorial to wartime victims of rape is a really challenging task. Please describe your project and its concept.

Ilona Németh (artist), Gabi Mészáros (architect), and Anikó N. Tóth (writer). Model of Memory of Rape in Wartimes, 2022. Maquette: wood and concrete, 1:75. Image courtesy Budapest History Museum. Photo: Ákos Keppel and Attila Szebellédi.

Ilona Németh:The place of the project is a “gap,” an empty place where once stood a house that was destroyed by bombing during the Second World War. Since then, the land has stood empty as a silent memento of war. In a symbolic sense but also in practice, bombing is more associated with masculinity. The emptied plot of the house destroyed during the war accurately symbolizes the tension between the great political narratives and personal, women’s tragedies that are more associated with femininity. The place is like the emptied body of a raped woman. We will not turn this place into a monument by “raping it,” that is occupying it and raising a pedestal of our own greatness. Rather, we intend to supplement this place so that it represents women’s trauma as well as the collective violence to which the monument is dedicated.

Our plan is also site specific. We realized that this empty place symbolically includes everything about that terrible atrocity that happened, and is still happening in wars today, including in neighboring Ukraine. The shape of the memorial ground is defined by the concrete walls that remained there after the bombings, surrounding the empty place. There are some trees standing there, which we do not want to cut down. Our concept is based on repeating the already existing walls from a somewhat different material, in different colors. We defined the scales and sizes of our new walls so that when you enter the site, you feel that you are encompassed by the space around you. Symbolically speaking, as if you were inside a wound.

HT: Could you talk a bit about some of your earlier public works and artistic interventions in public spaces?

Ilona Németh, The Mirror, 2009 (with architect Marián Ravasz). Public intervention at Honvéd Liget, Győr, Hungary. Mirror, metal, metal construction, 5.35 x 7.88 m. Photo: Ilona Németh.

IN: I have been engaged in historical, political questions, and how these issues intersect with gender. I mention those that I consider the most important, especially in the context of the present memorial project. In Győr (Hungary), I set up The Mirror (2009), turned towards the  memorial for the Hungarian Revolution of 1848, with the mythic Turul bird on its top, also a symbol of Trianon, when Hungary lost a great part of its territory as a consequence of the First World War. Turul itself was turned back to its original position, facing the railway station. With the help of the mirror, I made the inhabitants of the city aware of the changing message of public monuments in different political regimes and directed attention to the tensions that are currently inherent in such symbols. The passers-by had to confront these related problems that today are strengthening nationalism and populism. The Fog (Bratislava, 2013 ) was a public art event, in which Freedom Square was imbued in artificial fog for a short while, after which symbolically it became possible to clean up this public space in order to create space for new narratives and discourses. Then is an ongoing travelling public art piece, where sentences from a famous text by German theologian and pastor Martihn Niemöller, who opposed the Nazi regime, is paraphrased and displayed on billboards. The work is a protest against indifference, highlighting the dangers of silence and calling attention to our common responsibility.

Ilona Németh, The Fog, 2013. Public art event and video (4:53) in cooperation with Cukru production-Martina Slováková. Freedom Square /Námestie Slobody, Bratislava. Organizer Public Pedestal, Bratislava. Videostills courtesy the artist.

One of my most recent projects, still unrealized, is a Memorial for the salt cooking women (working title) in Crikvenica, Croatia (2019). With this memorial, created with Marian Ravasz, we wanted to bring in a narrative very much missing from the public space, acknowledging female strength, knowledge, and how women have participated in history in difficult times. Right now, I am working on a new version of an earlier work, Floating garden forthis year’s documenta 15, to be realized with the cooperation of local gardeners, researchers from Kassel University, and Czech, Slovak, and Hungarian consultants.

HT: It seems that the Memory of Rape in Wartimes project fits well into your interest and earlier public works. What specially attracted you to the project?

IN: I really appreciated that a long, preliminary process preceded the call and the realization of the actual memorial. I think it is important that each and every public memorial should be based on cooperation with the town, the local residents, and the district. It was also important that the memorial was to address a taboo topic— rape. Since rape is considered a shame, it would not have been enough to reach out to a certain group of people; a public discourse had to be created, to talk about a topic that neither victim nor perpetrator really want to discuss. I consider this a proper process that should prepare the call and competition of all public work, while all public work should, of course, be selected following a call and competition. I felt in some way touched by this theme. There are only a few memorials devoted to women; indeed, there are very few memorials devoted to sexual violence. It was obvious that we absolutely needed to consider a submission. I use plural here very consciously as it was evident thatI did not want to submit a proposal on my own.

HT: How did you choose your collaborators?

IN: First, I wanted to work with women. I also thought that it would be good to work with someone of a different generation. Gabi Mészáros is an architect. I know her well and have been following her professional career. She is knowledgeable and follows contemporary architecture; we also have similar tastes, which is important for not having big arguments at every step and over each detail. We needed to work in a harmonious way. I find it inspiring and important working in a trans-generational way. The other collaborator is poet and writer Anikó N. Tóth. She entered the picture when we felt the need for a text, and it was important to have a professional writer do that. There will also bea fourth participant in the project, a typographer, who we haven’t selected yet but would like to be a woman.

HT: What is this text?

INIt is a poetic text which powerfully represents the topic of rape without being literal or explicit. The text, as well as the overall visual design of the memorial, reflects upon trauma, but are not illustrationsof each other. You need to walk into the memorial to be able to read the visible parts of the text, the rest of the text needs to be “found.” The text’s last line is in a “secret” place, printed onto the top of the wall. This text can be seen and read when there are no leaves on the trees or when the wind is blowing. It cannot be taken for granted that the visitor will read the text in the order that N. Tóth has written it.

HT: What is the location for the memorial and why did you choose it from among the eight sites that were offered by the Budapest municipality? James E. Young, who was a member of the jury of the competition, says in an interview that sometimes the place of a memorial is selected because that place is empty. Did you research the place? Does it have a spirit?

Site of the future memorial in its present state, 2022. Hunyadi János Street, District 1, Budapest. Photo: Ilona Németh.

IN: In order to be able to create something relevant, you need to have options to choose. Place is very important to me; I often start working from a specific place. I visited all the sites offered several times. The place we chose was attractive for many reasons: its form, its implicit meanings, its rich historical content. This is a place where people have been living for hundreds of years; it is a historically loaded place. Moreover, the place is at the border of Viziváros (a district of Budapest) and Castle Hill, in the immediate neighborhood where Hungary’s sovereign, king or head of state is located. It is a power center. It is in this traditionally powerful place, traditionally associated with men, where female experience and suffering appear.

As I mentioned, there are trees on the ground, and we left these trees untouched. Under these trees we plan to plant some vegetation. As very little light can enter here, we had to carefully select the vegetation that can survive and grow here, paying close attention to the ecosystem of the place. We tried to integrate some benches into the memorial. The benches will be made from the material that will be mixed into the new concrete walls that we build around the ground.

HT: Your concept is to repeat the space as if you were putting it on a stage. This new, boxlike space is surrounded by a corridor between the original walls and the new ones. This corridor that you describe as a space for thinking and mourning also comes with some risk. It is narrow, dark, hidden. Did you consider eliminating this risk and in what ways?

IN: We did not want to create a dark space. This place is already dark. We plan to install a lighting system with reflectors, and there will be three cameras as well to ensure security. But you need to walk in the corridors, and feel uncomfortable, for this pain cannot be spared.

HT: Could you talk a bit more about the symbolic elements of the memorial? The meaning and function of the colors, dimensions, and the herbs planted here.

IN: Considering the jury’s opinion after the first turn, we began thinking about how to make the presence of women more prominent. Adding the above mentioned text was one element to do so. Another one was to work with female dimensions. Thus, the lower part of our new walls will acquire a slightly different, darker shade of color up to a height of about 160-170 centimeters, which corresponds to the average height of a woman in the region. Here, I was inspired by Roman Ondak’s work Measuring the Universe (2007), where a beautiful structure is born on the wall from measuring peoples’ heights. The pink marble powder that we will mix into the concrete to color it is a mixture of crushed recycled marble from Tardos. This red marble (limestone) was widely used during the Austro-Hungarian monarchy and is still used today across Eastern Europe. The benches will be made of this marble as well. To experience, to feel this place is a bit like homeopathy. Pink is connected to the body, to the wound, to the color of the flesh.

We also wanted to provide visitors some support, some positive message. Therefore, around the trees we will plant medicinal herbs. (These herbs are traditionally used for gynecological diseases.) They bring the symbolic message of healing. Last but not least, these herbs can survive here in the given ecosystem.

HT: When Peter Eisenman was working on the Holocaust memorial in Berlin, he could rightly assume that people knew what the Holocaust was. People in Germany also knew what counter-monuments were. He did not have to explain the basics of the memorial. In Budapest, it is different. Your project refers to something hidden, a story that has not been told. Here, the language of contemporary memorials is also lesser known. Artists and art historians probably will understand this sophisticated new language and symbolism, but what will the general public understand?

IN:This is the most difficult part of the contemporary memorial. People are used to illustrative, narrative, and figurative monuments that speak the language of the 18th and 19th centuries. On the other hand, contemporary thinking has changed, and today’s world is different from the one when these monuments were made. The language of art adjusts to the changes in the world. We cannot create obsolete, figurative monuments any more which were raised to the victims, to the heroes. I feel close to the way how Germans wanted to create a new memorial language to the victims after the Second World War, for example, Horst Hoheisel’s Aschrottbrunnen in Kassel, the disappearing monument of Jochen and Esther Shalev Gerz’ in Hamburg, Micha Ulmann’s book-burning memorial in Berlin, not to mention the central Holocaust memorial in Berlin or the 9/11memorial in New York. These works represent the process of how we think about memorials today. The spaces they inhabit should be transformed, supplemented to represent the issues we need to talk about. Our task is to open up this quasi-educational process in the same way as the topic was opened up.

HT: These are exactly the reasons why the preliminary work forthe present Budapest memorial lasted almost two years. However, in a recent poll that asked the public to vote on the six finalist projects for the memorial, their opinion was almost exactly the opposite of those selected by the professional jury. This memorial was not initiated by the victims, even less by the perpetrators. For whom is this memorial made? How will this place be used? There are already voices on social media that object to it, calling it unworthy to the memory of the victims.

IN: It is the essence of populism that you say what people want to hear. However, responsible politics and art are not about doing what you are expected to do and say, but what you are convinced of and believe in. Our responsibility is based on our professional experience, knowledge, and studies to create a work that weare convinced of and can express what we want to say. The site of our memorial already exists; we did not create it. Rather, we transformed an already existing historical siteinto a memorial by making the space better and layering it with the topic of sexual violence against women.

HT: To reach this goal, you need to organize a lot of educational programs, not only in connection with the topic of this memorial, but also more generally about public memorials.

IN: When you enter a public space you meet all kinds of people. Your work needs to address them, not a small intellectual circle. Also, you need to be involved in the whole process: how the topic and historic events are articulated and worked through; who are the people you want to address. In order to do this, you need to create a contemporary language, you need to engage in a discourse with the viewer.

HT: You referred to the importance of education. I understand that you are in the process of starting a program that specializes on public art in Bratislava.

IN: The commission to set up a Public Art MA program came from the Faculty of Architecture and Designat the Slovak University of Technology in Bratislava, which is an obvious sign that architects and artists need to think together about the uses of contemporary public spaces. What kind of issues should be considered in an intervention in public space? In what ways can public art address these issues? We want to teach those subjects and involve professionals who can help facilitate this process. The program will start in 2023.

HT: What are your expectations for the Memorial to Female Victims of Wartime Rape? How will people actually use the space?

IN: The Budapest Municipality has already done a good part in the work, and we will need them to realize the memorial. Although I have experience in managing big commissions, this is a huge project that cannot be carried out without their support. Further work is needed to organize programs, tours, and discussions. I think what the Silenced project (an online educational program created at the beginning of the memorial process) has initiated should be continued. There is an excellent website already, which I am sure has many followers. The significance of the memorial – to remember this silenced part of history – exceeds the question of whether or not people will like it. There is no memorial devoted to the topic of wartime rape in Hungary or the region.

I am sure there will be discussions and arguments, as well as people who will hate the memorial because they do not want to remember rape against women. Rape is a provocative topic; it opens up wounds. We offer a salve for the wounds, trying to break the silence and to help them heal. But the wounds are there. And now that there is a war in Ukraine, the memorial has a terrible actualityof calling attention to this “byproduct” of war. We cannot escape reality, and the memorial can be a trigger for society to continue the process of breaking the silence about sexual violence during war.

This article is part of the Special Issue Contemporary Approaches to Monuments in Central and Eastern Europe.  You can find links to the other articles in the special issue below:

Hedvig Turai

Hedvig Turai is an art historian and critic, who holds a PhD in art history from Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest. She currently teaches Visual Culture at the Internation Business School, Budapest. Her main interests are Holocaust and visual culture, politics and art, gender studies, memory, memorials, and monuments. Her publications include a monograph on the Hungarian painter Margit Anna (2002), coedited volumes  Exposed Memories: Family Picture sin Private and Collective Memory (2010, with Zsófia Bán), Art in Hungary: Double Speak and Beyond (2018, with Edit Sasvári and Sándor Hornyik), and as guest editor, two special issues of the Hungarian journal Enigma (2004, nos. 37-38, 2005 no.42) presenting the theoretical and critical writings on Holocaust and contemporary art.

Ilona Németh

Ilona Németh is an artist, professor, organizer and curator based in Slovakia. Her artistic practice is a search for the balance between personal experience of growing up in the country marked by plenty of political turmoil and the universal history of the Eastern Bloc countries during the transition period from 1990 until now.  She has exhibited widely both locally and internationally, with solo shows in, among elsewhere, Bratislava, Prague, Budapest, Vienna, Helsinki, and Rome. She represented Slovakia (together with J. Suruvka) at the 49th Venice Biennale in 2001. She co-curated the exhibition series Private Nationalism in six countries (2014-2015); Universal Hospitality 1., 2016, Vienna, Austria, and Prague, Czech Republic, 2017.  Her solo project Eastern Sugar, a long-term research and exhibition project in Hungary, Slovakia, and the Czech Republic, was presented at Kunsthalle Bratislava in 2018. As a socially engaged artist, East-Central European identity questions, post-socialist identity, and gender issues have  been the focus of her work and public art interventions.