It was 2006. Rhonda Byrne’s book The Secret had everyone dreaming the impossible dream. I read it, too. Just to see what the hype was about. I remember being singularly unimpressed that nearly all (if not all) her examples of asking and receiving, of visualising, involved bigger houses, faster cars, better stuff. They all seemed to be about getting and having rather than dreaming and doing. That said, it was a while ago and I could be misremembering.
Heading back from a party in Tát on Sunday, we took the long way home to stop by Zalacsány and the Örvényeshegy piknik. Billed as three days filled with music, theatre, literature, and children’s programmes, we caught the tail end of the proceedings – the Sunday afternoon.
I’m not a great one for wine-tastings. I have a thing about pretentiousness. I don’t trust the lingo. Talking of balance and body and finish and legs and such brings out the blue collar in me and I resist what I see (irrationally) as poncey. I’ll fess up. It’s my issue. It’s in my head. Mine alone.
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.
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
First published in the Budapest Times 10 April 2019
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.
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.
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
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
Corvin Sétány is alive and well. New places are opening on a regular basis. The latest addition that I’ve noticed is Nine Tables, which has taken the spot previously occupied by Bombay Curry Bar, next to Costa. Presumably a Spanish sister to the self-billed American restaurant on Tompa, this piqued my curiosity so much I tried it blind. No sneak peek at the menu beforehand. No price check. No review check. Sadly, I may well have learned my lesson.
True to its name, it has just nine tables, three of which were occupied the night the four of us turfed up, with a reservation. Granted it was early in the week and not a great dining-out night but still, the area has more than its fair share of tourist traffic so I’d have expected more people.
The wine offer was decent enough with a nice array of reasonably priced Hungarian wines to choose from. Interestingly though, the standard glass was 1.6 dl. Not the usual 1 dl or 1.5 dl, but 1.6, I wondered if this was being different for the sake of being different or it if was simply a typo. It must be difficult to divide a 75 dl bottle into 1.6s. But I wasn’t there to do the math. At least I thought I wasn’t.
The menu was limited but enticing. Lamb. Salmon. Prawns. Steak. A little pricey I thought but hey, it’s not every day I see lamb on a menu in Budapest. When we ordered, our waitress cautioned us that the portions were small – tapas-sized – so we might want to reconsider. Wow. Tapas-sized portions at full-main prices? mmmm…
I like my tapas. I like the idea of sharing different dishes. I like the idea of tasting a variety of stuff. We ordered the lamb, the salmon, the prawns, the chorizo, the croquettes, and some fries, warned as we were that food would come as it was cooked and not all together.
We were four. The first dish up, the croquettes, had three croquettes. We got three prawns, too. And the paper bag with the (cold) bread that came with the chorizo had five slices.
I despaired. Obviously, the whole concept of initiative was missing from the training. Four people sharing a dish designed for three? How difficult would it have been to say – This dish comes three to a plate. Or better yet, this dish comes in threes but we can add an extra one (and charge accordingly)? I felt as if I was back in short socks and mammy was dividing the last sausage between the cousins.
It’s not the first time I’ve wondered whether we’re evolutionizing out of our ability to think independently. Have we become victims to rote training, standard operating procedures, and a blind acceptance of This is simply the ways it’s done. Period. Are today’s service-industry workers allowed any leeway to apply common sense or is theirs simply the job of applying the rules, literalizing the menus, and sticking rigidly to the offer. The last time I remember calling this into question was also on Corvin Sétány in a sushi restaurant that refused to slice its rolls. Perhaps it’s something in the air.
Nine Tables or no?
The much-anticipated lamb (two cutlets) was bland and overpriced. The whole experience was disappointing. When I wasn’t in conversation and looked around the room, I was drawn to the two skulls on the bar or the TV above it. I’m not quite sure what the game plan is with this restaurant, but it wouldn’t be getting my vote for somewhere to go unless I simply fancied a bowl of excellent fries (really nicely done) and a decent glass of local vino.
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