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Oct. 5, 2010

The heavy hand of Hungarian politics seems to have streched across the seas to blight the life of New York artist Janos Stone. Back in May, the artist was commissioned to present a large-scale sculpture at the Hungarian Cultural Center in SoHo, Sept. 14-Oct. 31, 2010, alongside another artist, Thomas Lendvai. However, days before installation was to begin, the exhibition was abruptly cancelled, leaving Stone to pay more than $3,000 in fabrication costs himself (Lendvai had not completed his work, and was able to recoup the cost of his materials). According to the artist, he suspects that his show was "collateral damage of what happened in the elections in Hungary."

In April, parliamentary elections in Hungary swept the conservative Fidesz-Hungarian Civic Union party into power after eight years of rule by the liberal Socialist party (the ultra-right Jobbik party also made startling gains, touching off international alarm). The country has been hard-hit by the financial crisis -- it was the first to receive a rescue package from the International Monetary Fund -- and looks now to be turning towards some brutal austerity measures to stabilize its deficit position. Meanwhile, the transition from one government to the next seems to have brought a change in cultural policy from the capital.

Both Stone and curator Corinne Erni, who put together the show, say that they received word that the new head of the state cultural institute in Hungary, Pal Hatos, had decided that he didn’t want to go ahead with the New York exhibition. "The official reason given for the cancellation had to do with the budget," Erni says. "But it was a political decision -- they didn’t want anything that the previous people had started to go ahead." She calls the cancellation "politics at its worst for the arts." Erni has also not been paid for her labor on the exhibition.

A representative at the Hungarian Cultural Center, Eszter Gyarfas, told Artnet Magazine that she couldn’t comment on the reasons for the cancellation of the Stone/Lendvai show, since the decision was made in Hungary. She added that the Center was trying to get compensation for those involved with the cancelled show, though there was no timeline for when this might happen: "Change of government is not a very quick thing," she said. "Everything takes a bit more time than usual." Since Stone, Erni and Lendvai had inked contracts to produce the show, the center is technically in default of its obligations.

What direction the Hungarian Cultural Center itself will take now is unclear. Under the direction of Jakab Orsos, it had been attracting quite a lot of attention for the country’s contemporary culture, launching initiatives like last year’s "Extremely Hungary" festival, which partnered with major venues like the Museum of Modern Art, the Brooklyn Museum of Art and the International Photography Center. Now, Orsos’ term of service has expired (he’s moved on to direct the World Voices Festival). No upcoming events are listed on the Center’s website, and Gyarfas says that no program can be established until a new director has been appointed.

In the meantime, Stone is left holding the bag. "My wife and I drew down our savings for this," he says. "It’s pretty par for the course with these commissions -- you get paid at the end. I was happy to do it for this piece. But now. . ."

The completed sculptural installation, dubbed Any Sufficiently Advanced Technology Is Indistinguishable from Magic, is impressive. Eleven feet tall and some 146 feet long, it is made of hundreds of hand-cut sheetrock polyhedra, each featuring a still grabbed from a YouTube or Vimeo video depicting the night sky, from different parts of the world. Stone describes it as his exploration of the relation of virtual to actual worlds. It is currently in storage at his Greenpoint studio.

Despite his financial investment, in the end, Stone says that the most crushing thing about the whole affair is the loss of the opportunity to put the ambitious work before the public. "I’d love to show this thing," he said. "That’s my number one priority."

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