I sat down with Balint Zsako, an artist whose work has appeared several times in Harper’s Magazine, for coffee on Bleecker Street in Manhattan a few weeks ago to talk about his current project, a series of collages titled Birds of America. The work, based on John James Audubon’s illustrated series of the same name, juxtaposes Audubon’s birds with Old Master paintings, creating wildly imaginative narratives while examining the history of collage.
Zsako was born in Budapest, Hungary, and lived in West Germany and Canada before moving to Brooklyn. His paintings, drawings, sculptures, and collages focus on the universality of the human form and of shared experience. We began by talking about Birds of America, and wound our way toward cave-painting methods and Western ideals of beauty.
EM: Can you provide some background on your Audubon series?
BZ: I’ve been making the images for a few years now, and they’re always changing. It all started when I found this small book of reproductions of Audubon’s birds — this lovely little book that’s as thick as it is wide, and it contains every one of Audubon’s Birds of America. There are 435 plates, so my project is to make a unique collage for every one of them. I don’t mix birds from one plate to the next, so my work becomes a taxonomically correct alternate to Audubon’s version.
In the originals, sometimes they’re fighting, sometimes they’re injured, so there’s a little bit of narrative, but mostly it’s straightforward depictions of birds. For my series I can create all these wild stories: in some of them the birds have a small part to play while all of these other things are going on, and in others the bird is the main focus and it’s obvious that they’re the most important part of the image.
At first I made collages that combined the Audubon birds with Old Master paintings in a seamless way. These look like they could have been painted in the eighteenth century, but then if you look closer they are weird, or the narrative isn’t what you expected, certainly not consistent with the conventions of the time. And the more I’ve been doing them, the more they’re changing. They are tracing the history of collage. So I’m going from the collages Max Ernst made with his engravings, all the way to John Stezaker or John Baldessari, who do things that are the equivalents to film editing, in which one scene falls after the next. That one’s like that [points to his collage in the February 2013 issue of Harper’s] where it’s like three scenes from a film connected by cuts but with the narrative carrying over:
EM: How do you decide which Old Master paintings to use — that is, which new contexts to place the birds into?
BZ: I love the Strand bookstore because they have enormous quantities of Sotheby’s and Christie’s auction catalogs. The quality of the reproductions is fantastic, as good as you would find in a beautiful art book. They only cost a few dollars, and so I have a stack of catalogs that’s as tall as I am. I cycle through these and keep looking, and in a way that’s the work — looking is the work. You’re spending time finding the right character, or finding the right hand, or finding the right story, and then figuring out how to make it all fit together.
I also like the fact that they’re not well-known paintings. Many that show up in those auction catalogs are by people I’ve never heard of — a nineteenth-century Dutch still life by a minor professional. It’s not like you’re cutting up the Mona Lisa. Then you’re dealing with the history of that image, which can be heavy. Though I have done the Mona Lisa in this series, but only because somebody had copied it badly — which is kind of funny. But for the most part I like to use obscure images.
EM: What is the relationship between the birds and the people in the collages?
BZ: Well that’s complicated, and goes into the history of the prints. Audubon created this amazing set of artworks, but he also shot and killed all the birds he painted. So that’s one underlying relationship I’m trying to get at. In my collages, I’m expanding the world in which the birds and the people interact to make it far more complicated than the passive and aestheticized natural-history one. Sometimes the narrative is literal — a naturalistic representation of a situation that, no matter how strange, could happen — and other times the bird is a symbol of a conflict, or a mental state, or an emotional state.
EM: You’ve talked elsewhere about your desire to depict archetypes and archetypal experiences. In many of the collages either the face is removed, or it’s covered up by the birds or some other sort of flora or fauna. Are those things related? Does the creation of an archetype mean covering up the face, and thereby removing the personality?
BZ: That is a part of it. Without a face to identify with, it becomes more a question of the universal human and the universal human experience. But it’s also practical, in that it makes you look around more. If, as a viewer, you see a face, you’re immediately attracted to it, which makes it difficult to focus on what else is going on in the image. Without that face, you look around to see what are the hands doing, what are the different elements of the picture doing.
EM: Looking at your entire body of work, you cover the whole history of representations of the human body, from really early anatomical engravings to drawings of cyborgs and machines. What effect do you think technology is having on the body, and on representations of the body?
BZ: One of the first paintings was made by someone who put red pigment in his mouth and essentially spray-painted the outline of his hand on a cave wall. That example of the intersection of ingenuity and anatomy is a precursor to a future where we can change what form the body’s going to take and so how we’ll value it.
Today, in many places from Korea to the United States, we have airbrushed ideas of human beauty, and some people find that attractive. But that’s an abstract ideal; many people go in the opposite direction, fetishizing the flaws in the body. These possibilities will make things more interesting. Who knows what’s going to excite when you have all these options available to you?
I don’t want to take a position whether this is morally good or bad. I find humans fascinating. I want to convey in my work that people are amazing, that the things people do — whether barbarous, saintly, or funny — are always surprising.