Like many unofficial Eastern European artists of his generation, Tamás St. Auby (b. 1944; he also goes by numerous alternate names, including Szentjóby, St.Turba, Staubsky, and Emmy Grant) became renowned in underground circles as a pioneer of performance and conceptual art who worked in a wide array of media. In 1966, he cocreated the first Happening in Hungary, and he continued to promote the ideals of the international Fluxus movement in his native country until his forced exile in 1975.
In 1973–75, using the resources made available by the Béla Balázs Studio, St. Auby made the film Centaur, which was banned by the authorities before completion and released publicly only in 2009. According to Tranzit.hu, the venue that premiered the completed and restored version of Centaur, “The film’s determining character is a disturbing dissonance that derives from the tension between the images familiar from the tedious propaganda films of the era, and the post-synchronisation of dialogues and ideologies leaning toward the witty, philosophical, and often grotesque.”
According to the art historian Klara Kemp-Welch, to make the film, St. Auby worked with the cinematographer Jánas Gulyás to film footage on location in workshops, factories, a collective farm, and a design office, as well as in public spaces as a bus, a café, and a workers’ dormitory. Much of the imagery captured in these spaces would have fit comfortably into a stock socialist propaganda film if combined with an appropriately upbeat narration. Instead, St. Auby overlaid the scenes with dialogue that he wrote himself and recorded with the help of friends. He thus put words in the mouths of the workers, farmers, and other ordinary citizens whom Communism was meant to benefit in order to question—in terms that range from the cerebral to the anarchic and poetic—whether the promises of the system coincided with its reality. The answer for St. Auby was a resounding no, and the dialogues insistently return to the idea that the people depicted in the film are deeply dissatisfied with the status quo and are looking for ways to create change in individual consciousnesses and society at large. Indeed, inspiring people to imagine the possibilities of such change was the goal of all of St. Auby’s art in an environment where “the pseudo-communist military bureaucracy was constantly panicked by any initiative coming from below."
Kemp-Welch notes that St. Auby’s film was made at a time when Hungary’s dissident intellectuals were pointedly criticizing the Communist system—in whose fundamental goals they also believed—for its failure to deliver on the promises of dealienated labor and economic and social equality. To these true believers, “goulash Communism” represented a compromise that betrayed the very people in whose name those in power claimed to rule. In May 1973, the writer Miklós Haraszti was arrested for distributing to friends a manuscript titled Piece-Rates (it was later published in English under the title A Worker in a Workers’ State), which was dedicated to St. Auby. The book was an indictment of the piece-rate payment system for workers in Hungary’s industrial production—a system of “payment by results,” which, Haraszti argued, endangered lives, led to low-quality products, and kept workers poor by measuring their output against impossibly high production quotas. In 1973–74, two Hungarian sociologists, György Konrád and Iván Szelényi, went even further in their book The Intellectuals on the Road to Class Power, concluding that “under the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ it is actually the workers who make up the most underprivileged class.” It was the possession of this book’s manuscript that precipitated St. Auby’s arrest in 1974 and subsequent exile in 1975.
Notably, St. Auby himself goes to great pains to explain that his film was not intended as a comment solely on the Hungarian situation. “Unfortunately,” he writes, “often there are misunderstandings. Using their old Cold War reflexes, curators and critics say that Centaur denounces the working conditions in the socialist state. In these cases, I used to tell them that this film was shot in France, Germany, Poland, Sweden, Spain, USA, Hungary, Brazil, Australia, etc., all around the world." St. Auby’s conceit highlights the truth that the film could have been shot in any number of places regardless of whether they were socialist or capitalist. “And if [the film] is about ‘bad socialism,’” St. Auby adds, “then it is about ‘bad capitalism in socialism.’”
Similarly, to St. Auby, the title of Centaur—a reference to the creature of classical mythology that is a horse with a human torso and head—stands for something more universal than a chimerical joining of ideologically incompatible image and sound. To St. Auby, “there is a visible—understood in the filmic sense—animal part; and an invisible, audible part, which is the Centaur’s human side." Speaking to the animal side, one particularly memorable scene shows a sea of boxes streaming on a conveyor belt toward the viewer while two invisible women outside the frame fold them rapidly, constantly on the verge of being overwhelmed by this tide. This scene and others show mind-numbingly repetitive manual labor and banal everyday activities in real time, and the added sound track at first seems like an absurdist joke. Over the span of the film’s 40 minutes, however, as the sound track imagines the workers posing philosophical questions about their existential condition and the true meaning of freedom, it does force viewers to reexamine their assumptions and ask earnestly, as Kemp-Welch suggests, “What would workers talk about, and dream about, if they had a voice in society? What if they were eloquent in expressing their desire for a change in consciousness, fulfilling their human capacity to think, and to realize their freedom? What if workers thought and talked more like intellectuals? What if they were to become the dominant class, in reality?" “The film,” St. Auby insists, “is not at all about work-conditions—but about the tension, a chord between the visible (existing) reality and the audible (not-existing) idea in general."
Returning to the film’s historical context in the moment of its making, it is worth stressing that in making his work, St. Auby did not disavow the interests that the authorities encouraged artists to pursue. Indeed, he eventually came to call his art “Neo-Socialist Realism—the mutant child of Socialist Realism and Fluxus." Yet the censorship and persecution he faced highlighted the narrow-mindedness and disingenuousness of the official calls for art with and about the common worker. Adam Szymczyk has noted at least one similar case in Poland where successful exchanges between heavy industry workers and artists took place during the First Biennial of Spatial Forms in Elbląg in 1965. Yet by 1968, “the workers were maneuvered into a clash with young intellectuals and given the role of the defenders of the nation and socialism, against the ‘Zionists.’” Working in Yugoslavia in the late 1960s, Želimir Žilnik also faced considerable difficulties in making such films as The Unemployed and Black Film, which highlighted the failed promises of socialism in the name of making it stronger and truer to itself. After his own immigration to Germany and return to Yugoslavia, Žilnik continued to tell workers’ stories in films such as Vera and Eržika, a more down-to-earth counterpart to the socialist utopianism of Centaur. — Ksenya Gurshtein