Transylvania.. The name evokes a world full of magic whose mythical monsters stir our imagination; terrifying, bloodthirsty, we associate it with a dark and romantic image, nevertheless inspired by local folklore. In reality, this territory located between the Carpathian Mountains and the Apuseni Mountains in the heart of Romania is full of landscapes and natural treasures worthy of the legends it harbours. Coveted by the Saxon, Roma, Hungarian and Romanian peoples, its culture and history are rich. Zalán Szakács is interested in historical subjects that fascinate through their obscurity. He deconstructs the elements of mystery to reconstruct them through an immersive art installation. Between reality and perception, Zalán offers us a perspective of the most enigmatic region in Europe.
The genesis of the project comes from Zalán’s personal interest in Transylvania, where he is originally from, and his attraction to mystical subjects; the artist had been interested in understanding the reasons why this territory is associated with paranormal phenomena, both in local and global popular culture. The idea came to him to create an installation around the myths of the forest to be compared with its natural ecosystem, and thereby underline its fragile ecological balance. Entitled Tisztás, which means forest clearing in Hungarian, it refers to a space for contemplation and introspection surrounded by trees.
His practice is based on design and media archaeology methods ; when he approaches a subject, he looks at existing research and then dissects and analyses each element to understand its different aspects. This ranges from the simple mechanism of a tool, to its political or cultural impact. Art history helps him to interpret how society has integrated the device in question at a given moment, and how its perception has evolved over time. Zalán seeks to understand the effects on ourselves as contemporaries, the collective memory, and the technologies we use. Once this process is complete, the artist reconstructs these elements in an immersive and sensorial installation through which he transmits his own vision.
So this is how Zalán proceeds: he starts by learning about the different localities and the ethnography, while leaving room for the discoveries he will make during his trip there. He then gets in touch with József Bartha, a curator from Târgu Mureș, a central city of the region, who helps him to organise the trip by putting him in touch with guides and other artists and advising him on the itinerary. Indeed, Zalán tries to avoid touristy places and to focus on rural areas to guarantee the maximum authenticity of the elements to be collected. Once the preliminary stages of the project are launched, he surrounds himself with European artists and researchers specialising in video, sound, photography, smell, design. It is July 2022, and the team is ready for a 10-day excursion into the Romanian countryside.
Zalán plans the tour, arranges meetings, writes interviews, and prepares for the unexpected. At every opportunity, the group immerses itself in nature to fully experience and appreciate the impact of the environment on cultural practices. But the presence of a guide in rural and mountainous areas is recommended to ensure the protection of the group from wild animals and to communicate with the inhabitants of the villages. The lack of information and infrastructure contributes to the image of a Transylvania inhabited by a strange and dangerous nature, whose secrets are known only to the locals. The journey gradually becomes an organic one, in which spontaneity is the order of the day; routes are deviated, encounters are postponed, and new characters are added to the group for a few hours.
The places the group is about to discover have a rich history of urban legends, myths, and scientific curiosities. The adventure begins in the village of Câmpul Cetății, and its surroundings where they take photos, videos and 3D LiDAR scans. Here, they work to recreate a fairy tale that depicts a magical lake that grants eternal youth. But Zalán’s chosen lake has turned into a swamp, and heralds a new and previously unseen artistic approach; the impact of global warming, a vision that will accompany the group throughout their stay, and which cannot be ignored in the future.
The next stops are the high altitude volcanic lakes Sfânta Ana, and Tinovul Mohoș, each on a different mountainside. Although linked by the same volcano, these lakes are opposites; the first was once known for its beauty, clarity and the richness of the ecosystem that surrounds it, while the other, black in colour, is deadly to both the vegetation and those who dare to venture too close. What could be the scene of a horror film is in fact an exceptional phenomenon; the blackness is due to the layers of coal formed by the blocks of ash from the erupting volcano, and its toxicity to the quantity of sulphur present. The villagers avoid the area because they lose their cattle. Here, Zalán and the sound artist take the opportunity to record the sound of the water; without minerals or oxygen, it is silent, a unique phenomenon.
As for Sfânta Ana, the ecological situation is deteriorating for several reasons; an invasive species of fish and the proliferation of algae, which is said to be due to the communist administration. The tourist craze has not helped matters.
But in the mountains of Harghita, in the “Peștera Sulfuroasă”, the team offers us the best example of mythological creation. All kinds of apparitions can be seen here, and the place has a sinister reputation: many people have come here to kill themselves. In reality, the cave is a mofeta, a natural opening in a volcano from which natural gases escape. In this case, it is strong sulphur fumes, recognisable by their nauseating smell and the yellowish markings on the walls. No vegetation can withstand it either. Inhaling this gas can be fatal, a simple solution for those with incurable diseases for whom medicine was once powerless. When the temperature is high, the gas causes mirages, explaining the possible ghosts seen near the cave. Today, this place has become a health resort, and the gas emanations in the cave and the surrounding water sources are useful for treatments related to blood circulation.
The field trip ends in the Ghimeș valley, near Moldova. Little known, it is said that the population lived in the forests and mountains, sheltered from the world and in complete freedom. But in the 19th century, a period marked by political instability and the industrial revolution, the first major railway lines were built and with them the first major deforestation. Yet this part of Transylvania is relatively unspoilt. The natural diversity is unique. The population is superstitious and suspicious, aware of the impact of the stories the outside world tells about their region. Thus, Zalán has the opportunity to interview locals about rituals and beliefs, provided he is careful with the processing of information and does not create a new “Dracula”; he learns about new rituals, or that the Romanian language is preferred for casting spells, and that many of the legends related to the forest are similar. Only their name is different depending on the part of the region we are in.
Zalán is now working on a documentary that attests to the research process, and a sketch of the future installation ; a landscape that evolves over time through the use of natural materials, and the creation of elements such as wind and smoke. Each artist in the team is at work; extracting smells from the plants, images and sounds from the landscape. The idea would be to immerse oneself in it and even recreate the humidity of the air and the notion of time. The aim is to reconstruct the natural atmosphere of the Transylvanian forest and its mystical ambience, while conveying the oppressive character of the ecological disaster, but without making it informative.
Zalán Szakács has chosen to challenge our perception of the complex Transylvania, a country torn between Western modernism and ancestral traditions, whose mystical image is actively promoted by the whole world.
By triggering the workings of our imagination through our senses, he invites us to travel and encourages us to accept the darkness that resides in each of us.
Photo & video credit
Cocky Eek – mentor/spatial artist
BJ Nilsen – sound designer
Klara Ravat – smell artist
Tamás Böjte – director of photography/editor
András Gábor – camera
Orsolya Portik – stylist
Milla Kata Kovács – performer
András Gáspár – tourguide 1
István Albert – tourguide 2
Csaba André – tourguide 3
József Bartha – curator Arteast B5 studio (Targu-Mures, Romania)
“I want to create atmospheres or temporary spaces for people that, in a way, create an escape from everyday life, almost like a break.” Beyond expressing a message, a feeling or a criticism, artists have the ability to create bubbles through which we can experience another reality, of which we are not aware. Zalán Szakács is interested in obscure subjects, bordering on the strange and mysterious. Through his immersive installations and performances, he tells us stories that are nonetheless very real; invisible and untouchable, his works alert all our senses, in a breach of space-time.
Originally from Târgu Mureș in Transylvania, Romania, Zalán leaves the country at the age of twelve to move to Austria, and attend school in Vienna. He continues his higher education at the Design Academy in Eindhoven where he dabbles in architecture, film, storytelling and media design. After graduating in media and communications, he enters the Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam for a master’s degree in media design and experimental publishing. There he learns about different types of codes, how to integrate the responsibility of the artist in all stages of the creative process, and how to make it public. He learns to take a critical look at technology, to understand its evolution and its influence on society and politics. For his graduation project in 2019, Zalán seeks to combine his interests in media archaeology and visual performance.
He set his sights on magic lanterns, the ancestor of the projector; based on the same principle as slides, they allow painted images to be projected onto glass plates using the camera obscura system. The source of artificial light comes from an oil lamp or candle, passes through the plate and then the lens, which consists of a concave lens, in order to project the painted image upside down. While doing his research, Zalán comes across the mysterious world of phantasmagoria, but his curiosity is further aroused when he discovers that it is in fact a primitive form of audio-visual performance. Its particularity is that the projection is done on a canvas or smoke, and its subjects are macabre. The projections take place in a closed space, in the dark, reminiscent of seances. Very popular in Paris at the end of the 18th century, the messages of the subjects dealt with were closely linked to the French Revolution and more generally to the political instability of the time. The audience goes there to experience something out of the ordinary, to experience the horror and to be able to laugh about it, while at the same time feeling safe. Zalán finds this balance interesting and decides to turn it into a project: Eigengrau.
At this time, he develops methods of media archaeology, examining theoretical texts, interviewing experts, visiting archives and museums that have original magic lanterns and slides in their collections. His aim is to understand the world behind these devices, from the mechanical functioning to the psychological impact on the individual, and more widely on society. He then finds a way to apply it to our time, as if he were translating a dead language into a living one. Zalán is very interested in the culture of the screen, which is often treated as a medium, in this case smoke. He wants to use it himself as a medium in a dark space, for the narrative of his work. He is experimenting with LED technology and looking for a way to spatialise the sound that will be associated with it. The sound environment is designed by Sébastien Robert who is researching the origin of the sounds used during the phantasmagorias.
Zalán knows his subject, his medium and knows what technology to incorporate into his project. He designs 3-metre diameter LED circles whose light creates immaterial walls that the public can walk through, all in an enclosed, dark space. The smoke and the high-pitched sound used in the installation contribute to its mystical character, the visitors who move around are only silhouettes. For the artist, Eigengrau is his first large-scale project, for which he is working with a multidisciplinary group (sound design, choreography, smell design, product design, production, architecture, video and photography).
Zalán is passionate about creating situations in which we lose track of time and space. According to him, living these experiences allows us to reconnect with ourselves and provoke feelings that we do not experience in ordinary life. Darkness is perceived differently by each individual, both metaphorically and scientifically; the singular feeling of being in the dark, but also the shapes that appear when our vision becomes accustomed to it. He is also interested in the link between feelings, the body and the work; although free to interpret, the work works if it provokes a specific feeling. Zalán also experiments personally; he trains in lucid dreaming, and does sensory isolation sessions that usually put the body in a state of tranquillity, and let the mind wander. He is inspired by his personal feelings and conveys them in his work, while allowing the audience to explore their own feelings.
For each project, Zalán finds an opportunity to add depth to the immersive dimension, and to test new experiences. For one of his recent projects, Lichtspiel, he researches the use of magic lanterns before phantasmagoria; by analysing every element in the lantern representations and translating 17th century manuscripts, he learns that they were used for propaganda purposes by the Jesuits. He then seeks to deconstruct the mechanism of the lantern and reproduce the spiritual atmosphere in a new installation; an enclosed space that invites mediation, even lucid dreaming, through the sensation created by the light coming from outside. After experimenting himself in order to understand the qualities of the light, Zalán entered in a conversation with a physicist ; the aim is to reproduce the effect of oil lamps with LEDs, and to determine the locations of the light sources and lenses.
On a different note, the artist also completed a project commissioned by a hospital in the Netherlands, for which he had to push his limits; Gloed, which means “glow” in German, is supposed to last 25 years, and he cannot use strobe lights, smoke or low sounds, elements he usually uses. So he finds new ways to materialise his work and collaborates with a company that produces recycled acrylic sheets. These will be placed near a bay window in the entrance hall, allowing natural light to strike the sheets and make patterns appear on the floor, which will change according to the time of day. This time, he is referring to leadlight technique, and once again, is evolving his palette of immaterial mediums.
Today, Zalán is focusing on the realisation of his latest project Tisztás, exhibiting his work between the Netherlands, Austria, Romania and Hungary, and working on the construction of an inflatable pavilion at the Eye Filmmuseum in Amsterdam, entirely dedicated to Eigengrau.
Phantasmagoria was a starting point for the exploration of illusory spaces, forgotten technologies, and spiritual experience.
From the smoke to the smells and the light, Zalán takes us into a unique universe, like a journey to a place where time has stopped.
With only two or three countries separating it from the West, Romania has retained its natural character, almost giving the impression in places that it stood still in time long ago. Its fauna and flora are rich, and it has the largest population of wild animals in Europe. Its history, however, is very complex; it lies at a crossroads of peoples and cultures, where languages and alphabets intersect, and where legends and folklore mingle. Myths are rooted in oral culture, passed down from generation to generation, and it is in rural areas that people continue to live these stories on a daily basis; Transylvania is a perfect example.
Before embarking on his new project, Zalán Szakács does some research into the local belief system. Among his references is the work of ethnographer and folklorist Éva Pócs, who is interested in the narratives of Hungarian-speaking Catholic peoples in Romanian villages such as Ghimes. He learns about miraculous stories and superstitions, and understands that paganism and religion are subtly intertwined. During his journey, he tries to bring this theoretical knowledge closer to reality; he makes a point of privileging the stories of the inhabitants he meets on his way.
Although some of the characters have more or less rational points of view, several stories about the forest come up and Zalán retains some of them; some people sometimes see a glow over the marshes, others warn that the spirit of a young woman prowls the forest and drives men mad, others speak of the evil eye.
In European folklore, these glows are forest spirits commonly called will-o’-the-wisp, often ill-intentioned, who seek to lead travellers to their doom. In Transylvania in particular, it is associated with a demon, Lidérc in Hungarian, capable of entering the homes of the inhabitants to bring misfortune and eventually death. As for the evil eye, although it is found everywhere in the world, each people has its own specific rituals; in the province of Ghimeș, at the border between Transylvania and Moldova, parents or elders smear their children’s faces with coal or mamaliga (a dish made from polenta) so that the evil eye does not reach them.
However, each myth is linked to a phenomenon that can be explained by the physical or human sciences. The light associated with Lidérc is the result of a natural chemical reaction. Bioluminescence is caused by the emanation of chemical compounds that may come from decomposing animals, for example, and come into contact with oxygen.
The daughter of the forest, or Fata Pădurii (not to be confused with Muma Pădurii, the mother of the forest), is a scary story, a phenomenon just as common as the previous one; it prevents those who dare to venture out from going too far and getting lost. In Transylvania the winters are long, the nights are cold, wild beasts roam and living conditions can be harsh. Unlike in Western countries, the forests are left untouched if not deforested, and in a rural environment with little development, fear is an effective tool to keep villagers safe.
Mysticism and rituals are fashionable in the fields of art, science and new media. Zalán explains this by our unconscious need to connect with each other, and to reconnect with ourselves. Magic, and more broadly spirituality, is one of the most intimate things we have within us. Our beliefs characterise our instinctive need to belong, and our personal stories, when shared, sometimes become the legends that become part of the collective memory.
We live in a troubled era; today, more than ever, myths play an essential role in reconnecting with nature and humanity.
Thanks to artists like Zalán Szakács, we can continue to discover and live them, through their eyes and with poetry.
Photo & video credit