In 1974 the Center for Art and Communication (CAYC), an Argentinian art center famous for its innovative exhibitions, hosted a show of conceptual art by 24 Hungarian artists, Hungría 74, and produced a portfolio now at the Getty Research Institute.

One of the objects in the show, Like a Bird, consisted of a cage that had been transformed by the artist István Haraszty into a conceptual piece. He installed an electrical-magnetic system, which controlled the door’s movement in relation to the position of a bird inside the cage. As the artist explained:

When the bird sits on the red-black resting pole, the door of the cage opens.
When it flies towards the door, the magnetic field disappears.
And the door once again closes.

This ingenious mechanism that controlled the cage mechanics, and consequently the bird’s existential condition, suggested a metaphor for a world in which one may feel the illusion of freedom but cannot truly experience it when attempting to embrace it.

Two pages of diagrams showing the various states of the bird cage.

Like a Bird, 1974, István Haraszty. Hungría 74, Centro de Arte Y Communication, Buenos Aires. Getty Research Institute. © István Haraszty

The captions in Hungarian explain the movement of the door in relation to the position of the bird inside the cage.

  1. The bird’s position in the enclosed cage is monitored by the electrical system.
  2. Its steps in the cage are indicated by numbers and lights.
  3. When the bird sits on the red-black resting pole, the door of the cage opens.
  4. When it flies towards the door, the magnetic field disappears.
  5. And the door once again closes. (Translations from Hungarian courtesy of Arpad Kovacs, Getty Museum)

Two years earlier, Like a Bird was exhibited closer to the artist’s home near Lake Balaton, Hungary, at the legendary Chapel Studio, an abandoned countryside chapel transformed into an art studio by artist and curator György Galántai. Over three consecutive summers between 1970 and 1972, Galántai curated various exhibitions at Chapel Studio with Hungarian and international artists, mainly from the Eastern bloc countries.

In June 1973, however, authorities shut down Chapel Studio. They viewed this art collective as a potential threat to social order. Art historian Maja Fowkes writes in The Green Bloc: Neo-avant-garde Art and Ecology Under Socialism that it is likely that Like a Bird was interpreted as a provocative political commentary, and triggered the shutdown of the studio.

Galántai chronicled the vibrant art and unfolding politics at Chapel Studio in his evocative essay How Art Could Begin as Life: Supplement to the Boglár Story. Graphic works from Chapel Studio in the Getty Research Institute collection were contextualized recently at the Wende Museum of the Cold War, in the exhibition Promote, Tolerate, Ban: Art and Culture in Cold War Hungary. Combining the two Los Angeles collections, the exhibition (and its companion book) showed how—under the Hungarian regime of the 1970s—art and politics were quite intertwined. Exhibitions not approved by the official art apparatus could be banned; art could be silenced, just like Haraszty’s Like a Bird and the Chapel Studio programs.

A large cage with the door closed

Poster of Like a Bird, 1972, István Haraszty. Getty Research Institute, 2014.M.36. © István Haraszty

A year after the closure of Chapel Studio, Like a Bird was selected for the Argentinian show. Hungarian critic László Beke made a selection of works which, as art historian Klara Kemp-Welch noted in her book Networking the Bloc: Experimental Art in Eastern Europe 1965-1981, “included many propositions with a political twist.” Certainly Like a Bird was one of them.

In his introductory essay for the show, Beke pondered:

Is art able to do something for the future of humankind at all?

Art on freedom and personal responsibility

In the 1970s, Haraszty used art to challenge the concept of freedom in society through the metaphor of the cage-controlling mechanism. The shutting of the door crushes the bird’s hope of flying away, thus promoting passive resignation, compliance, and apathy. Through the conditioning of the bird’s behavior, Haraszty expressed the illusion of freedom and civil liberties in an authoritarian regime and triggered its reaction.

As important as it was when and where it was created, Like a Bird remains a thought-provoking and poignant critique. Issues of stifled freedom, systemic oppression, and individual withdrawal are universal—and a cage with a self-closing door can relate to many different fights for liberation. Between polarized politics in America, the unfettered, rapid spreading of messages over the internet, and even socially-responsible distancing during COVID-19, the elusiveness of ultimate freedom in the bird’s cage is still active today. Haraszty’s art functions as a tool to explore one’s own struggle for freedom and the invisible mechanisms at play. It embodies the everlasting value of art in society.