Chernobyl Diaries

Of all the questions expats ask of each other, what do you do is probably right up there as the most common. I’m in finance. I’m in sales. I’m in publishing. Package expats, those working in Hungary for a multinational, are a breed apart from the freelancers, the English teachers, the artists. And while the paid pensionable positions significantly outnumber less lucrative take-the-work-when-you-get-it (in my experience), there’s an undercoat of artistry and creativity seeping to the surface.

I first came across British artist Michael Pettet a couple of years ago. At the forefront of digital art, Pettet embraced the challenge of imbuing the product of technology with soul. He showed me how his canvas is his drawing tablet; his paintbrush, a touch-sensitive electronic pen; his palette, Photoshop. He approaches his digital paintings much as he did when he used traditional materials. The end result evolves from the interweaving of thought and inner dialogue and, as with any art, the magic lies in its interpretation.

With his environment a major influencer of his work, Pettet’s portfolio can be categorised by location. One of my favourites, Lament, harks back to memories of his childhood holidays in Scotland, a series entitled Scapa Flow. Another, one I still covet, is from the Sala de Uyuni (salt flats) from his time in Bolivia.

A huge fan of his work, I was intrigued to hear of his Chernobyl Diaries, most likely because Chernobyl is the bogeyman in my life, the personification of a danger that has indelibly tainted the power of nuclear in my mind. In the aftermath of the 1986 explosion at the Chernobyl Nuclear Power Plant, Irish activist Adi Roche went to help with the children who had suffered the consequences and in 1991, set up Chernobyl Children International. That the environment was damaged is a given. But the lasting human scars, the legacy of that radioactive explosion,  removed from the abstract of news reporting and made all so real to the Irish of my generation by Roche’s work are something nightmares are made of. It may have happened over 30 years ago, but the disaster that is Chernobyl isn’t going anywhere.

The CCI website says:

Two million people in Belarus, of whom 500,000 are children are high-risk, still live in heavily contaminated zones. Continuing low dose exposure through the food chain remains a huge risk for the populations: Some areas of land will be radioactive for 24,000 years, as much as 1 million hectares cannot be farmed for 100 years.

Pettet recently visited the ghost town of Pripyat. What he saw there left a lasting impression, an impression he has diarised in his art, covering the explosion and its aftermath and the faint attempt at rejuvenation. But his artistic commentary isn’t limited to one incident and its consequences. Pettet’s latest series holds up a mirror to our global self-indulgence and reflects the consequence of our failure to adjust our lifestyle to mitigate climate change.

That we are ignorant of what might be in store is no longer credible. The evidence is there. Science has spoken. That we are ignoring the signs of what the future holds speaks either to a seriously misguided optimism that it’ll all work out or a carpe diem lassitude that takes living in the present a step too far. Twenty-first-century hedonism has little regard for consequences. Consumerism is our new mantra, smartphone screens our preferred landscape. We’ve eschewed both the broader picture and the microscopic viewpoint, preferring to live in echo chambers of our own making. Our complete disregard for nature, our wanton destruction of our natural habitats, and our reckless depletion of our natural resources mark us as misguided idiots, at best. For Pettet, Chernobyl embodies the

conflict between humanity and nature, how we are going to manage our existence with ever increasing energy demands and how things can go horribly wrong if we cut corners or become complacent.

The pieces that make up the Chernobyl Diaries include broad sweeping images of an empty world and smaller compositions of the minutest detail that suggest atoms at play. Each one speaks to the viewer and positions itself in their memory, coloured by their recollection and knowledge of what happened in 1986. Pettet deliberately plays to our fears, tapping into the concerns that riddle our collective consciousness.

Although no stranger to the topic of war and disaster [most of his work is about conflict, even his portrait series, which deals with internal conflict as we enter the age of real vs virtual existence], the Chernobyl Diaries are more about the tenacity of nature rather than the horror of nuclear disaster.

I decided not to challenge myself to deal with the horror as above all I wanted to impress that whatever we do to the planet, it will survive us. It may take many thousands of years to recover from our parasitic consumption of its abundant resources, but nevertheless, recover it will.

Chernobyl Diaries Michael Pettet

Chernobyl No. 3 (92cmx93cmn

Viewed through this lens, this body of work is both inspiring and chastening. Each piece, like a single diary entry, can be taken alone, but together, they tell a story of evacuation and desertion driven by radiation and destruction. They tell a story of reclamation and rejuvenation. They tell a story of resilience, of how the planet will recover, of how it will survive, despite our best efforts to destroy it.

The Chernobyl Diaries are the result of a conversation between the artist and his subject. The exhibition facilitates a conversation between the viewer and Pettet’s art. At first glance, they’re gripping. But when viewed a second or even a third time, something shifts. It’s this fluidity that marks his work as special. Through this body of work, Pettet’s ‘realisation of just how small and insignificant we are and yet how dangerous and threatening we have become’ shines through.

On exhibition at The Studios, BrodyLand (Vörösmarty utca 38) until 23 April, Chernobyl Diaries then moves to Fuga Art Gallery (Petőfi Sándor utca 5) opening 4 May and running for three weeks. One not to be missed. Check him out at https://www.michaelpettet.com/

First published in the Budapest Times 12 April 2019

Chernobyl Diaries Michael Pettet

Chernobyl No. 5 (60cmx60cm)

First published in the Budapest Times 10 April 2019

 

Kis-Balaton

2019 Grateful 40: Kis-Balaton Tour

I’ve driven the road from the village to Sármellék and on to Balatonszentgyörgy often enough to comment repeatedly on the dead trees and reed fields that follow it on either side. I knew the Kis-Balaton (Little Balaton) was once drained to increase the amount of available agricultural land in the area but when the Balaton waters started to suffer because of it, it was reflooded to act as a much-needed filter for the lake that is the backbone of Hungary’s domestic tourism.

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Gary Lukatch

On not waking up: RIP Gary Lukatch

The expat community in Budapest is reeling at the news that long-time resident Gary Lukatch has died in his sleep while on holiday in Beirut.

On 28 March last, he posted on his Facebook page

Once more into the Breach, Dear Friends!

Yes, I’m off on another amazing adventure. This time it’s a week in Beirut, Lebanon. Will be out of touch until April 3, so no need to respond to this message. Watch for photos and upcoming blog when I return, unless you see me on the evening news first, wearing my keffiyeh and babbling an incoherent confession for something.

Until next week…..

Gary was a staunch supporter of Gift of the Gab when it was in its infancy. He made a great judge. He’d show up, usually, alone, but once there, he was never short of company. The title of his blog Travels with Myself speaks to how comfortable he was with himself; the tributes pouring into his Facebook page show how comfortable others were with him. I didn’t know him very well – and we certainly disagreed on what makes an Irish pub Irish – but if we turned up at the same event, we’d chat, swapping stories on where we’d been and where we planned to go next. I’m not around Budapest much these days so it’s been a while since we’ve run into each other – the last time was at the Caledonia when he happened to pop in while I was there and he joined us for a beer.

He expected to come home from Beirut. Everyone expected him to come home. I was looking forward to reading his blog posts as it’s on my list of cities I want to see. That he won’t be around to bump in to is something that’ll take getting used to. But man, what a way to go. In his sleep, on his travels, doing what he loved to do most: explore.

I grew up among aunts and grandaunts who listed in their nightly prayers a prayer for a speedy death, a quiet death that caught them unawares. It’s my prayer, too. Death is something we can’t escape. Not all of us will drop dead of a heart attack on the 17th green after sinking a putt for an eagle. Or die in a deckchair while sitting in the evening sun listening to waves lap the beach. Or in our sleep in a hotel room in Beirut.

But those, like Gary, leave a legacy of goodwill and fond memories. RIP teacher man. Safe travels. And thanks for the final lesson: Live life to its fullest, as you did, because we never really know the morning we’ll wake up for the last time.

Intelligent films

Many years ago, I was at a musical in Dublin with a mate of mine. At the interval, we went outside. I asked him what he thought of it so far. Expecting a comment on the singing or the acting or the story, I was completely taken aback. He’d sat beside me through the first half looking at the same musical but through a completely different lens. He builds sets. He sits with producers and directors and listens to what they want on stage. He asks questions to make sure he understands their vision and then he goes and realises it. I write stories. So while I was caught up in personalities and voices, he was talking about backdrops and backflaps and flying bars and other terms completely alien to me. I’ve never quite looked at a staged performance in the same way since.

Last weekend, I went to the cinema three times. The first time, on Saturday morning, was to an invite-only screening of a diploma film, The Freelancer, written, produced, and directed, and starring the inimitable Steve Collison. For the 35 minutes or so that it ran, I was fully engaged, trying desperately to figure out how it would all end. I read more than my fair share of detective novels and crime fiction, so I’ve gotten quite good at figuring out plots (says she, immodestly) but he stumped me. I didn’t see it coming. And I was all about the story.

In the Q&A afterwards, though, there was talk about shots and angles and scores and all sorts of stuff that left me reeling. I was immediately back outside that theatre in Dublin listening to my mate go on about the sets.

On Sunday, I went to see the Granny Project (Nagyi Projekt) in Kino Mozi. Directed by Bálint Révész, it’s

… a seven-year-long investigation of three young men coming to terms with their heritage through the extraordinary lives of their grandmothers: an English spy, a dancer from Nazi Germany and a Hungarian communist Holocaust survivor. These guys move back and forth across Europe at the same time as their grandmothers set off on a virtual journey of memory. They transport their grannies back to their youth and in doing so provide us with an insight into the transcendental connection between grandparents and grandchildren, on the verge of the 21st century.

I’d double-checked to make sure it was subtitled – and it was – in Hungarian. English to Hungarian. German to Hungarian. And Hungarian as Hungarian. Perhaps because my understanding of German is limited to a handful of words and my Hungarian doesn’t stretch to fast conversation (the only story I fully understood was that of the English spy), I found myself looking at shots and angles and listening to the role the score played in the telling of the story. I even noticed the use of natural light. It’s an excellent documentary, by the way. Worth watching.

Then not an hour later, I was around the corner in Cirko Mozi watching Rossz Versek (Bad Poems), directed by (and starring) my favourite Hungarian director Gábor Reisz [remember For Some Inexplicable Reason?] and my favourite Hungarian actor, Zsolt Kovács. It got a rave review at the Tallinn Black Knights Film Festival and I loved, loved, loved it, too.

This is a film about a grown-up man longing to live his childhood dreams, and constantly wondering how his life would be had he done things slightly different. This [is] also a film about the frailties of masculinity, and how to grapple with them.

But again, I wasn’t paying as much attention to the story as I was to the shots and the angles and the sequences, things I’d never have noticed before. My silent wowing was in danger of spilling over into audible gasps. It’s bloody brilliant.

That filmmakers can see each shot in their mind’s eye and then tie a tattoo from one frame into another half an hour later. Or thread a piece of red cord throughout the film just so it can tie it all together in the end. That sort of visionary stuff is mindboggling.

Are these art films because they’re shown in art houses, small independent theatres? I don’t know enough about the genre to comment. For me, what makes them different from the ones that gross millions, is that they’re intelligent. They’re clever. They’re the type of film that I could watch repeatedly and always find something new. And that’s just what I plan on doing.

Dented!

I’ve long since given up on trying to figure out what makes people think it’s completely okay to toss an empty water bottle or a sandwich wrapper onto the verge. I’ve never even attempted trying to fathom how anyone could think it okay to dump a washing machine, or a fridge, or a wardrobe on the side of a country lane. And as for tossing a week’s worth of household trash in a ditch!!!! It’s beyond me.

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2019 Grateful 43 – Celebrating St Patrick

St Patrick’s Day in Budapest has a long lead-up. From the Embassy’s National Day celebrations on Wednesday evening to the IHBC gala dinner on Saturday night, the parade today – and everything else in between – you need to be made of strong stuff to keep going. I’m feeling my age. Trippin’ the light fantastic isn’t as easy as it once was. I’m always surprised at the local interest in the best known of  Ireland’s three patron saints. A couple of times over the course of the last few days, I was asked to explain why or what we (Irish) celebrate on St Patrick’s Day. His is a story that varies in the telling, but today, I was reminded by the lovely SR about this gem.

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The Greening of Budapest

St Patrick’s Day this year falls on a Sunday, which is perfect for the St Patrick’s Day Parade, the ninth annual gathering of painted faces and leprechaun hats walking beneath banners and behind Irish wolfhounds celebrating one of the patron saints of Ireland. When the first 546 people showed up in 2011 for the inaugural St Patrick’s Day parade in Budapest, I wonder if they had any inkling of how popular an event it would become. Participants, now numbering in their thousands, will start gathering around 12 noon at Szabadság tér for face-painting and the like, with the parade itself starting at 3 pm. There’ll be live Irish music on a stage with majorettes twirling up a storm. 6:3 Borozó will be running a bar, a food truck will be whipping up 100% Irish beef burgers, and Guinness will be on tap to pour you a pint of the black stuff. You’ve no excuse. Come for lunch! And don’t worry if you don’t have your green; there’ll be plenty of Paddy’s Day t-shirts on sale. Read more

Juli and Flo Catch Budapest

Catch Budapest – Learning Hungarian

I couldn’t tell you the number of times I’ve made a determined effort to learn Hungarian. I’ve gone to classes twice a week. I’ve taken an intensive course and even got an A on my final paper. I’ve had private tuition with various teachers. I’ve tried CDs. I’ve bought books. And still, so many years later, I’m still struggling. Read more

Cripple of Inishmaan

The Cripple of Inishmaan

I’m secretly in love with Martin McDonagh. I’ve never met the man but I did live in his neck of the woods in London for a while and I like to think that we might have reached for the same carton of milk in a corner shop at some stage. Or perhaps we sat sipping coffee at our respective tables, scribbling away. I like the way his mind works – the quirkiness of his plots and pieces. He got me playwise at the Beauty Queen of Leenane and won me over heart and soul with his movie In Bruges. I saw his play, The Lonesome West in Hungarian (Vaknyugat), with English surtitles, and was blown away at how well it translated and how much the Hungarian actors got him. They could have been Irish. I only recently saw Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri, a movie that set me on the trail of the talented Sam Rockwell – but I digress. Read more

New Year, New Local

The lads have bought a bar. A neighbourhood joint in the IXth district. I was surprised. They’ve put in their time as punters in hostelries around the world, but I’d never figured them for publicans. One’s an architect. Another works in disaster response coordination. The third’s an academic, and the fourth, well, he makes things happen. A Canadian, a Geordie, a Brit, and an American, all have been in Hungary for the best part of 20 years. They speak the language, they love the food, and they get the people. But perhaps most importantly, they have an innate respect for tradition. Read more