Bence Molnár wearing his golden keys

The Golden Keys

I was a fan of the 1980s American TV series Hotel, which opened with establishing shots of the legendary San Franciscan hotel The Fairmont. I’ve a great photo of a much younger me and my bestie Lori sipping Bloody Marys in the bar hoping to catch sight of Anne Baxter, James Brolin, or Connie Sellecca. Read more

Krisztina Dávid shooting in Rio

Living on a battery: Krisztina Dávid

Eons ago, I hung out with a guy who, as a teenager, lost the use of his legs in a shooting in New York. Wrong time + wrong place + stray bullet = life in a wheelchair. Cursed as I am with a brazen curiosity, I asked more questions than considered polite when we first met. I was horribly patronising in my effusive admiration of how well he got around. He was simply living his life and there I was congratulating him for getting out and about! I cringe when I think of it. Earlier this year, I was introduced to World Shooting Para Sport (WSPS) European Champion Gold Medallist Krisztina Dávid. My admiration this time wasn’t for the fact that she gets out and about in her wheelchair but that she’s an international shooter, winner of Hungary’s first European Paralympic Gold in a sport I know nothing about. We met up last week for a chat. Read more

2019 Grateful 37: Thought police missing?

Last year, Hungary made the international news because of a controversial decision to pull a production of Billy Elliot. Billy Elliot musical branded gay propaganda in Hungary and cancellations follow, said the New York Times. Billy Elliot musical axes dates in Hungary amid claims it could ‘turn children gay’, decried The Guardian. Hungarian State Opera axes Billy Elliot shows after homophobic campaign, noted The Telegraph. Read more

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

 

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

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

The gift of art

Nothing makes me feel more ‘of’ a place than running into someone I know on the street. That sense of knowing someone from somewhere else immediately robs the place of its foreign feel. I don’t have to know them well, or even to have known them for long, it’s the knowing that cinches it. I was nearly a year in Budapest before I first ran into someone I knew on the street, before that foreign feeling left me. And even today, chance meetings in the city are a rarity, a symptom perhaps of different lives being lived at different paces. But a few weeks back, while over in Buda, I ran into British artist David Stuart Sutherland. Unusually, both of us had time to spare, time for a quick coffee and a catch-up. It’d been years. Many years. Back when a mutual friend was living in Hungary, we’d socialised a bit.  I’d a faint notion that he painted and took photographs and was into some sort of whacky music, but I didn’t know the half of it.

In the years since we last met, Sutherland has come into his own. Focusing exclusively on his art, his interplay with mixed-media painting, analogue photography, and sound belies an innate curiosity about stuff. Yes, stuff. Plain, ordinary, everyday stuff. Standing one day with the guts of a Hoover bag in his hands, he upended the contents. There among the dust were pieces of his son’s Lego, splotches of colour that greyed out the already grey dust. Where I’d have seen a mess, he saw a pigment. The result was a 25 cm x 25 cm piece called Ash Vacuum: vacuum cleaner dust and paper on canvas, a piece I’m secretly coveting.  Sutherland doesn’t limit himself by paint when he makes paintings. His thing is to mix found materials. A 1966 ledger he found on the street in Budapest, the forerunner of the modern-day Excel spreadsheet, resulted in a series of three pieces entitled Harbor, and heralded his venture into ‘found’ art.

But his work is not just about physical media that can be fashioned into something for people to look at. Sutherland is also into sound as art. In 2014, he founded the audio-visual group m o n o f o g with  Tamás Ilauszky. The pair of them dug out some lo-fi, junk instruments and started playing. Their work looks at acoustic bodies as art objects as well as sound makers. And here, too, there’s the thread of found art and a homage to our disposable world. Imagine a fiddle bow tickling the spokes of a bicycle wheel and you’re one step closer to picturing what they do. If you need to hear it to believe it, have a listen to their track, Dodo do do, on Sutherland’s website https://www.davidstuartsutherland.com/sound-works. It’s heady stuff.

With photography part of everything we do these days, some say that that the art itself is dead. Mind you, didn’t they say that about painting, too? With the millions of photos posted hourly on social media (an average of 95 million photos were uploaded each day on Instagram alone in 2018), everyone with a smartphone fancies themselves a photographer. Digital has done wonders for the democratisation of photography but how much of the art itself has been diluted by editing tools and filters? I wonder. Sutherland is old school, though. He’s analogue all the way. His black-and-white photos of the city are shot on a MicroPress 5×4 Xenar 1:4 camera with a 7/134 Schneider Kreuznach lens. He develops the sheet prints in his home studio and then makes the contact prints. His series Budapest F32 is in Mai Manó House, the Hungarian House of Photography, over on Nagymező utca (signed, dated archival prints are available for sale: my picks are Vajda and Liszt). There’s an old-world feel to these contemporary images that grabs hold of you. It’s like being transported back to a place where people had both the time and the inclination to stop and look and listen. There’s something about Sutherland’s work that resonates; it’s almost as if he’s been around before.

The curator at Rugógyár Galéria thought so, too. Earlier this year, Sutherland was chosen as part of the gallery’s Innen és Túl az érzékelés határain (From here and beyond the limits of perception). He was in good company. Featuring abstract paintings from 1947 to 2018, the exhibition showcased the works of three artists: Tamás Lossonczy (1904–2009), Árpád Szabados (1944–2017), and David Stuart Sutherland (1966–) himself. It sought to find the parallels between the three artists, to find a share visual language, and in doing so to show how even though we come from different places and live in different times, our views of life can be similar. To share the same wall space with Lossonczy, who learned the tools of modern art from Picasso in Paris in the 1930s, had an almost poetic feel to it.  Back in 2005, Sutherland and his wife Judit took their infant daughter to Műcsarnok, a contemporary art museum in Budapest. There, they fell in love with one of Lossonczy’s paintings. They positioned her pram in front of the painting and snapped a surreptitious photo. Little did Sutherland know that some 13 years later, his own paintings would be hanging beside those of Lossonczy in a new gallery on Szarka u. 7.

Sutherland’s work is being exhibited as part of the December Group Show at Rugógyár Galéria, alongside paintings and sculptures by Daniel Horváth, Szilárd Cseke, Tamás Lossonczy, Árpád Szabados, Balázs Veres, Henrik Martin, and Ágnes Hardi. It runs from 11 December.

As Christmas approaches, shopping lists grow longer. Decisions on what to buy for those special people can wreck your head. Consider giving the gift of art this year. I’m making it easy for you; I’ve given you my three Sutherland picks ?

Nollaig shona daoibh go léir | Boldog karácsonyt mindenkinek | Happy Christmas to you all.

Published in the Budapest Times December 2018

Ether Tide (acrylic on canvas 50x50cm 2018)

 

The Fridge is Open ( acrylic on canvas 70x70cm 2018 )

 

Sputnik 1000 (acrylic on canvas 70x70cm 2018)

Save this man

In 2013, when the Hungarian government first criminalised homelessness, the  BBC reported figures from The civic group, the City Belongs to Everyone, estimating that 10,000 people lived on the city’s streets or in shelters they had fashioned in the forests on the outskirts of the capital. Yet, they said, there were fewer than 6,000 places in hostels, a serious shortfall. But the government said there was ample shelter available, almost 100%.

In 2018, it’s difficult to tell what the real figures are, but a simple walk around the city shows that homelessness in Budapest is pervasive. Last month’s amendment to the Constitution which now reads ‘Habitual residence in a public space is forbidden’ has flooded social media channels with opinions for and against the edict.  Those supporting it want the streets cleared, conscious as they are of the approaching winter and of the inherent aesthetic blight; those against say it does little more than criminalise poverty.

But shouldn’t the issue be how to prevent homelessness in the first place?

Meet A_. Born in 1964 to a music conductor and a socialite mother, A_ has been beset by illness since he was a baby. His mother, more concerned with her social standing than the wellbeing of her baby, left him out in the rain in his pram for a day. His kidneys never recovered. A_ trained as a cook and worked in restaurants in the city and also inherited some musical talent from his father. He was, he says, quite a good bass guitar player. Life was good. He had a job, a doting father, and his music.

At 30, A_ was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS) and sentenced to life in a wheelchair. His father bought him a tiny house in Páty village in Budapest county. He managed okay until his father died, leaving him alone in a house he was unable to maintain. His wheelchair sentence was miraculously commuted; he regained some of his mobility, but not enough to do the necessary maintenance on his home. His disability pension didn’t stretch to paying anyone to do it either.

Two months ago, A_ had a heart attack while in the village. An ambulance took him away. Had he been at home, he’d surely have died. My friend in Páty noticed he hadn’t been around and knowing he was short on relatives and friends, tracked him down. She took him money, clothes, and food. He was well looked after in the hospital and came home with a new pacemaker. But his living conditions had deteriorated in his absence.

Today, the roof of his cabin has a gaping hole. The only thing stopping the rain and snow from coming in is a thin sheet of plastic.  There is no insulation. No bath. No shower. No kitchen. No gas. No heating. No chimney. Just about all it has, in addition to its four walls, is running water and electricity. But last month, the electricity failed. A_ has paid his 300 ft bill each month (he uses just one 25w lightbulb) but his system has worn out. It hasn’t been updated in 40 years. To bring it up to code will cost at least 120 000 ft. This has to happen before ELMÜ will switch his electricity back on.

A_ is resilient. He’s a survivor. He can take the hunger, the dirt, the cold but he cannot handle the darkness. A passionate writer of short stories, freestyle poems, and self-reflections, writing has become his life, his raison d’etre. But he cannot write in the dark. Preferring to go hungry and be cold, he spends his money candles. If neighbours offer to bring him food and clothes, he asks instead for typewriter ribbons.

His future looks bleak. Although intelligent and well read, A_ has some psychological problems that make him incapable of arranging complicated things like the electricity reconnect. It won’t be long before his house falls down around him, leaving him homeless. As for moving to a shelter, he says he’d rather freeze in the dark than give up his independence.

A_ visits my friend regularly. She washes his clothes and feeds him. They chat about books, films, and music. He recites chapters from his favourite novels and verses of his favourite poems. He’s very positive, she says. Although he’s in constant pain, always cold, and most probably hungry, he still has a sense of humour. That, and his passion for writing keep him going.

A_, like so many others, is just a hair’s breadth from being homeless. But with help, he can live with dignity, maintain his independence, and keep on writing. And if this help is immediate, local, and well-directed by someone who cares about his needs and dignity, A_’s home can be saved.

Christmas is just around the corner. The ads are out. The tinsel is in. The shops are gearing up for the inevitable tide of mass consumerism. Hundreds of euro and thousands of forints will be spent on presents often neither wanted nor needed. My decision was an easy one. When my friend told me his story, I knew immediately that helping to keep A_ housed and warm and writing would be a better use of my Christmas budget. I made the transfer to help sort his electricity problem so that ELMÜ will reconnect his power. But his roof still needs fixing and his house still needs heating.

Are you disillusioned with the widening gap between the haves and the have-nots? Do you realise that but for the grace of whatever God you worship or whatever force you believe in, you could be in A_’s shoes? Do you believe that local solutions to local problems work better than the overly costly, unnecessarily legalistic, and very quickly political solutions introduced by state bureaucracy? Would you like to help save one man’s home, and in doing so, save his dignity? Let me know. I’ll put you in touch with my friend in Páty who is working to make sure it all happens.

First published in the Budapest Times 16 November 2018

 

Scream, Shout

I’ve had a string of bad news lately. Death and dying are featuring heavily in my conversations. Death notices are more frequent than marriage announcements and funerals more commonplace than weddings. It sucks.

It sucks to see people spirited away before they’ve had time to finish what they’d started. Granted, many of us haven’t a clue what it is we want from our time on this earth, other than some vague notion we have to be happy. More of us as so focused on the next goal that we lose sight of the life unfolding around us. All too few of us manage to strike a workable balance.

Thinking about drive and ambition, what came to mind was a seesaw, with that duo balanced by the twins, value and worth. I recalled an interview I did about a year ago with a 22-year-old from Gyomaendrőd who was set to take the music world by storm. She goes by the name of AGGI (the caps are all hers). What struck me about her was her determination to be herself, not a carbon copy of some other 22-year-old, pressurised by expectations to fit someone else’s preconception of who she should be. She didn’t want to be told what she should or shouldn’t do with her life. She had a plan. She knew what she wanted. In need of affirmation that the world was working for someone, I thought I’d see how she was getting on.

Photo by Bardócz Letti

She’s still writing, still recording, still singing. She went back home in April and topped the bill at the Gyomaendrődi Nemzetközi Sajt és Túrófesztivál and was thrilled to see her 91-year-old great-grandmother up front and centre along with 700 or so proud locals who’d come out to see their girl on stage. In May, she played a more intimate live gig at Legenda, and in September, she opened for The Hooligans when they played Barba Negra Tracks. That’s some progress. AGGI comes into herself when she’s on stage. She has stuff to say and she wants the world to hear it.

Already a regular on local and national radio, a sponsorship deal from a Japanese guitar company, Guyatone (and another with their US parent company DeMont), led to AGGI getting lots of airplay in Japan of all places. They love her. She has a regular slot on Radio FM RaRa (in English) on the third Saturday of each month and judging by the amount of fan mail, her 10-gig Japanese tour scheduled for spring 2019 will be a sell-out. ‘My voice is in Japan’, she told me, understandably excited. People 9000 km away have heard her sing, like what they hear, and want to hear more.

In February, on her birthday, she got the present of her dreams – a record deal from a record company in Italy. But AGGI chose not to unwrap that particular gift. Rather than jump at the deal just to have a deal, she and manager Terry V decided to hold off and wait for the right one to come along. And it will. It’s just a matter of time. The girl has plans. And she’s making them happen.

Last time we spoke, she told me she was doing her dissertation on Stephen King’s novel, Rose Madder, in which he deals with the bruising issue of domestic violence. I remembered that she’d had a keen interest in gender issues and woman power and was determined her voice would be heard.  I asked her if she’d graduated, if she’d finished the dissertation. The completer-finisher in me was a little disappointed to hear that she’d taken a gap year to focus on her music, and was only now returning to complete her final year of study. ‘But’, she said proudly, ‘my voice was heard.’ She and Terry V had written a song to mark International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. Scream, Shout was released on 25 November and for a few hours that day, AGGI’s video featured on the UN website. It tells the story of a young woman who takes back control and finally says Enough! It’s a simple, powerful video that stands on its own.

Although she’s not yet a household name, AGGI seems far too grounded to let the recognition that comes with national and international airplay, the sponsorship deals, the live gigs, the upcoming tour, the strong video following on YouTube, and her growing fanbase go to her head. But while she likes the intimacy of smaller gigs, she thrives on big crowds. When facing a teeming audience visibly engaged with what she’s doing on stage, she’s in her element. ‘It’s feedback’, she said. ‘I need feedback.’  At one gig, a former colleague came up to congratulate her on how far she’d gone since they’d worked together. She was chuffed. A classmate who’s also studying music told her that hearing her play gave the younger girl the confidence to keep pursuing her own dream. Her family is still as supportive as ever and goes to all her gigs. Her brother and sister have been in both her videos. She’s playing to nobody’s tune but her own.

Photo by Bardócz Letti

AGGI, along with her co-writer and manager, Terry V (guitar), Bence Kocsis  (drums), and Benedek (Beni) Nagy  (bass), has been busy doing what she told me she’d do. She’s making things happen. Listening to her music, it’s evident that she has a very strong sense of worth. At 23, she knows what she wants and knows the hard work it’ll take to get it. But most importantly, she wants it all for the right reasons: She has a voice, she has something to say, and she’s determined to be heard. Music was her hobby. Now it’s her life.

Is the world working for AGGI I wondered? I think it’s more case of AGGI making her world work for her. An example to us all. Catch her at Dürer Kert on 22 November.

First published in the Budapest Times 12 October 2018