The Arts of Erika Szőke

Erika Szőke, work: Southeast Wind, video, 7'31 ", sample, 2020, photo: the author's archive

Erika Szőke, an artist with Hungarian-Slovak roots, belongs to the mid-generation authors. She primarily focuses on photography using an unconventional approach. Working on various media and employing conceptual methods, she often reaches for unusual and experimental techniques resulting in ephemeral and unique objects.

Her artwork captures various traces, prints, and “fossils” of the past, as well as reminders of personal, family, and historical memory. It depicts a kind of volatile poetics and transience with an attempt to grasp the perceived moment and reflection of vanity itself. There are also issues of the relationship between man, nature, and the environment manifesting in Erica’s ecological approaches/practices, in which she combines visual art with scientific knowledge.

Erika Szőke, Reflection of the Rising Sun I., digital photography, 2019

Erika, you studied at the Department of Fine Arts and Education at the UKF in Nitra. Since graduation, you have been engaged in free creation – but when did you become interested in photography?

Artistic creation, experimentation, and the search for new means of expression have automatically become an essential part of my everyday life after graduation. As soon as I entered the darkroom, photography fascinated me. That was when I was still in college. At that time, we were working with the photogram technique. This moment mesmerized me so much that photography has become my main focus.

You experiment with photography. In addition to classic techniques for creating digital and analog photos, you also use your own proprietary or unusual technological methods. You often make your own photographic devices, such as pinhole cameras (camera obscura). Why do they fascinate you?

Portrait of the author Erika Szőke, photo: the author’s archive

Pinhole cameras work on a very simple principle. Anyone could create one. A simple shoebox is all it takes. I am attracted by their recyclability, reuse, and rich possibilities for experimentation. The exposure process requires maximum concentration, as there is no viewfinder. Such a sensing method allows very long exposure times, even lasting for months. I am fascinated by camera obscuras’ unpredictability and the uniqueness of the image. They create an unrepeatable atmosphere that digital photography would hardly achieve. My father often assists me in making more complex cameras, such as pinhole cameras made in blower style. This type of camera tries to translate the breathing process into an image. Exposure of the photograph corresponds to the “inhalation” and “exhalation” of the blower, which changes the captured image. The result is a series of paintings called Reanimations, where I capture carcasses or even tomatoes harvested in our garden.

You involve your family members, who are essential to your creation. The performance/video, where you exercise with your parents while connected to a kind of organism through ribbons that guide your movement is very creative. What is the central theme of this work?

A work called Exercising Parents with Children created a metaphor for how dependent we are on our parents, how we copy their movements and habits willy-nilly, and how we try to compensate for their mistakes and cover the loss of balance. I am in this video/performance in the role of a marionette, and I have to adapt to the movements of my parents – my mother in front of me and my father behind me. The very recording of my parents and their involvement in creation is also a kind of self-portrait because they are my mirror images.

Erika Szőke, Reflection of the Rising Sun II., digital photography, 2019

In addition to your parents, you also worked with your grandmother, who was a great inspiration to you. In one work, she even transformed her voice into a spectrogram (“sound print”).

Even during college, my grandmother was always my focus. I can say that her gradual withering – aging took place before my eyes. I couldn’t overlook the physiological changes. These were noble moments that I have recorded countless times. In a series of photomontages of Granny’s Jewelry, I applied some parts of her epidermis to mine. For example, I placed her wrinkled neckline on mine like some precious jewel. The cycle On the Road with Grandma was also created in this period. It is a combined technique – I transferred my experiences from trips and vacations to the photo depicting my grandmother’s wrinkled skin in an authorial way similar to the monotype. Symbolically, it meant as if she had experienced all the trips on her own. I tried to process the sadness and grief of her loss from 2014 in the series She Left I-III.

You also deal with intergenerational trauma using the principles of baking, mixing dough, and leavening. This “living” material comes from your family memory. What’s your story?

I think that each of us suffers from some kind of trauma. It can also be a trauma from the past, inherited, which we try to deal with or, on the contrary, obscure it. Mine is traded through my grandmother: my grandfather was a war prisoner at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp, where he was forced to work as a baker. They were ordered to mix an unknown substance into the dough, while they were forbidden to consume the finished product. Later it turned out that the unfamiliar ingredient was arsenic. So my grandfather, in a way, forced and unwittingly, was involved in a terrible plan for the poisoning of Jewish prisoners. I tried to process this family trauma in the installation Souvenir from the War. It represents sliced bread, which is connected with patches for scars. Part of the installation is also a period document from the concentration camp, which shows my grandfather’s name and his job in the camp. The motif of bread and dough has become an integral part of my work. It carries an encoded effort to revive something, whether my or others’ memories constantly.

Erika Szőke, Esther, 2020, video, 22’14 “, a scene

The recurring presence of the dough or the acidification process in your works is also closely linked to the physicality or the human body’s absence. The works thus carry several connotations (not only about the female body and feminism) but also refer to a kind of essential creation of forms and images in general. Is this theme limited?

The dough is moldable and can be varied. I try to use all the forms and properties; thus, it is an endless source of inspiration. I used the leavening, flowing dough in the photo series Mass I-III, which symbolizes physiological changes in the female body. For example, I used baked dough in the installation called Found Bodies, where I applied portraits of unknown people to the surfaces of loaves utilizing the author’s technique, which I collected in cemeteries from various parts of Europe. I also baked “lenses” similar to matzah, which were used to expose images from my home in the work of Inmensa Luz. I learned how to make hand-pulled strudel dough, which then (in black form) appears in the video/recording from the performance Expansion of the Universe and the Hood. The last time I created a dead dough installation was called Hotep, which was part of an exhibition at the Synagogue in Šamorín. The installation resembled a sacrificial table with 12 hollow loaves while visually and haptically evoking ceramics. Of course, it should be remembered that dough as a material, in any form, does not have a long life. It is a non-durable material and will disintegrate over time. Most of the time, it becomes a victim of the drugstore beetle, which in a sense, can be understood as another random layer of artistic work. I am attracted to ephemeris and fragility. I try to observe and look for the boundaries of visibility and the possibilities of documenting transience as a process.

Your works take into account the principles and practices of visual arts and go beyond other disciplines. For example, tomography/thermal prints, where you use thermohydrographic and thermographic devices, are intriguing. You allow the resulting images/slides to be exposed for several months, even up to the whole year. What inspires you?

I am inspired by natural processes, weather, and various measuring devices that record data such as temperature, air humidity, etc. Using these measuring devices, I create thermograms and thermohygrograms for numerous photographs, leaving a graph on them. It is a line recording the presence where the captured moments or figures in the photos become as if alive for some time. For example, I would like to mention a work called Evergreen Walnut Leaf, in which such a “meteorological” entry lasted from October 31, 2020, to June 8, 2021. I first created a lumen print from a fallen family walnut leaf. I installed it in a thermographic device and let on its surface record the temperature fluctuations until the crown of the tree’s leaf, where the meter was placed, grew again.

Erika Szőke, Esther, 2020, video, 22’14 “, a scene

In recent years, you have also been dealing with bio-art, using live materials, microorganisms, molds, and the like as part of your artistic exploration. An exciting technique is your yeastograms, which refer to the transience and disappearance not only of human memories but also of everything living and inanimate. How do you make them?

Yeastogram means an image formed on the surface of organic matter composed of agar and activated charcoal, on which yeast is cultured. It is then covered by an image printed on the foil and exposed to UV radiation. The resulting image is produced after a 36-48 hour exposure where a black raster image protects yeast cells, and UV rays kill only those unprotected. The yeastogram technique is a time-consuming process. The experiment is not always successful. It requires determination and great patience. After all, nature cannot be outwitted. The aim of creating vivid images is to clarify my attitude and relationship with nature. I want to watch the invisible world of the microbes, bacteria, and small creatures surrounding us. It is also a way of dealing with the fact that the image will inevitably disappear, just as we do, in the life cycle. The created series of yeastograms bears the name Fossil Memories and depicts the memories of strangers who are gradually dehydrated and deformed.

In autumn, you exhibited at the festival DOM expedícia súčasného umenia 2022 – Garden, which took place in the Prüger Garden in Bratislava, where your intervention referred to the renewability of natural resources and endangered and extinct species of plants in Slovakia. Part of it was also the work Revitalization II., where using the energy generated from the fermentation process of mother sourdough powered by an old slide projector, designed images of extinct flora. How did you figure out how to attach the projector to the sourdough? Since when have you dealt with this issue?

Erika Szőke, Hotep/12 pcs of bread molds, cane mat, flour, water, glucose syrup, 2022. From the exhibition Pale Earth, At Home Gallery, Šamorín, 2022, photo: Cséfalvay Á. András

I presented my interest in renewable energy sources at the IN SITU artistic symposium in 2021. It was in the video/performance called Revitalization, where in nature itself, through a mixture created from soil, water, and a little salt, I put into circulation an old slide projector and projected extinct species of plants of Slovakia. The main source of inspiration was the well-known type of lemon battery, in which an interconnected piece of zinc metal and copper is usually inserted into the lemon. The energy generated by the reaction of metals is sufficient to supply a small device, such as led light. This way of obtaining renewable energies from natural sources caught my eye so much that I decided to continue looking for similar natural processes. Since the central motive of my work is dough and sourdough, I naturally came to the fact that I also used the fermentation process itself to produce electricity. The result was astonishing – 20 pieces of live sourdough managed to power the slide projector for up to 65 hours. Light intensity naturally decreases over time, but sourdoughs can produce energy continuously with appropriate care. In Hungarian, sourdough is élesztő, which literally means something like enlivener. I’m working with these symbolic connotations. Dough and sourdough become a medium for the revival of various contexts, memories, or feelings. In this case, I revive – revitalize extinct plants in Slovakia- a reflection of human indifference and inattention in relation to ecological disasters that occur in front of our eyes.

In addition to creating independently, you are also a member of the Hungarian-Slovak nature art association IN SITU, which organizes a symposium with the same name in Vojka nad Dunajom. What do you do?

We are a team of artists, graphic artists, architects, and photographers. Every year we meet in Vojka nad Dunajom, located on an artificially created island (Malý žitný Ostrov) between the original Danube riverbed and the new watercourse Gabčíkovo. Our works are closely linked to the landscape. We are inspired by nature, create directly in it and respond to various environmental changes on our planet. The completed works are often due to the nature of the materials used -processual and transient nature. There is an instability encoded in them – over time. They disintegrate; they are completed by nature itself. Therefore, capturing and documenting them is extremely important, especially in performances and happenings that are one-off and unrepeatable.

Erika Szőke, Evergreen walnut leaf, thermogram on lumen print, entry since October 31, 2020 – June 8, 2021, 2021

At your last exhibition, which took place approximately until the end of November 2022 in an unconventional exhibition space in the Synagogue in Šamorín, you presented, among other things, a joint work created with the Hungarian-Slovak artist Csilla Nagy. This worked on the principle of gradual evaporation of the top layer – camphor and detection of the slow exposure process and the material/structure that was expanded on the substrate. How did the idea of joint work come about?

It’s no coincidence that we say it disappeared like camphor. I found out about this property quite randomly because I used to add a small amount to freshly dissolved Arabic gum. It happened that I did not pack a small piece of camphor and left it in the air. The next day, I realized the miracle and started doing experiments immediately. Through screen printing, I made camphor paintings that disappeared during the day. I am still interested in this sublimation process and plan to continue exploring it. The joint work with the artist Csilla Nagy at the At home gallery in the synagogue in Šamorín was based on the principle of sublimation. It was a processual work, constantly changing until it revealed the final image created from various seeds on light-sensitive paper. The exhibition lasted until November 20, and before its end, when the camper had completely disappeared, we removed the seeds from the surface of a roll of photosensitive paper. The resulting image, the trace, was stabilized/fixed. The process and final form of the work are documented and published on our social networks.

Erika Szőke, Revitalization II., object, projection, photography, soil printing, paper, glass, sourdough, slide projector, electronic components, From the exhibition HOUSE expedition of contemporary art 2022 – Garden, Prüger-Wallner Garden, Bratislava, 2022, photo: Marcel Korec

What projects or works are you currently working on? What exhibitions await you in the near future?

 The autumn period was quite busy for me. The exhibitions and other events followed each other. Now it’s time to vent, let the experiences and experiences sediment, and then naturally enter the experimental and discovery stage of creation. In the near future, in May 2023, I will present myself with a large solo exhibition at the Ján Mudroch Gallery in Senica. Other events will be known late

Erika Szőke (*1977, SK/HU) graduated from the Department of Fine Arts and Education at the UKF in Nitra. Her work focuses on photography and its overlaps, the principles she also translates into the creation of objects, installations, videos, and performances. She has held several exhibitions and international awards. She lives and works in the Veľký Kýr near Nitra. More information at

Text: Marianna Brinzová, photo: archív autorky Eriky Szőke, Cséfalvay Á. András, Dominika Bolgáčová, Marcel Korec