Anyone who sets foot on the Mária Valéria bridge in the Slovakian city of Štúrovo will see beneath them the Danube river, peacefully rolling by. On the other side of the river, the cathedral of what was once Hungary’s capital, Esztergom, dominates. And it is impossible to tell that for almost 60 years, this bridge consisted only of a few stumps, projecting out into the water from both river banks.
For Karol Frühauf, who was born in Štúrovo, the fact that the bridge has been reconstructed is a symbol of peace. The bridge was first built in 1895 but only stretched across the river for a few years. During World War I it was destroyed by an explosion. And in 1944, German troops blew it up again. During the following years, and the Cold War, nobody wanted to invest in the bridge’s reconstruction.
And when the Mária Valéria bridge was finally able to be rebuilt in 2001 with European Union funding, it was clear to Frühauf already: “We have to guard her.” And that was when the programmer, who resides in Switzerland, created an artists’ residence, Bridge Guard. The idea was that artists, authors or scientists could undertake their work for three to six months in a guard house on the Štúrovo bridge for free, if they acted as symbolic guardians of the structure.
The artists keep a logbook about the bridge, accompany school trips and work on their own projects. The resulting artworks are just about as different as the bridge’s various guardians themselves. The Korean artist, Jung-ki Beak, used the bridge’s steel beams as antennae to catch radio waves. Thomas Hauck and Sabine Kaesar wrote a poem on the bridge using sieved flour. And Briton Stephen Turner made chestnuts gathered in both Slovakia and Hungary into colours, with which he could do his drawings.
The artworks are exhibited and attract audiences from both sides of the river. In 2018, Romanian researcher Cristina Vidrutiu became the 44th guardian of the Štúrovo bridge. “I’ve been collecting stories about how borders can be overcome,” she reports.
After all, the Danube has been a border between nations for centuries and has seen many violent conflicts too. The river has separated people from one another but it has also brought them together.
“During the time of the Iron Curtain, everything stopped,” Karol Frühauf recounts. “It was almost impossible to communicate between Hungary and Slovakia, without censorship.” That is why, in those times, Hungarians and Slovakians would agree to meet at certain spots along the Danube’s banks when there was no wind and it was particularly still, and whisper messages to one another. The water would carry their words over 500 meters, from one side of the river to the other. Today the only thing that reminds of the former border point is a small placard.
The far-right Fidesz party which is currently in power in Hungary is worsening the relationship between the two countries. That’s why Frühauf believes it is particularly important that history is not forgotten here. His AquaPhone event is a reminder of the difficulties of communication back then. During the event Slovakian and Hungarian poems are read on opposite sides of the river while musicians improvise along. The public can only hear the chaotic soundscape, as it arrives – late – on the other side.
“I wanted to establish virtual bridges between the two countries with the bridge guardians and with AquaPhone,” Frühauf says. “Because if these bridges can hold, then maybe people will finally stop trying to destroy the real bridges.”