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

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


Giving it soul

I’m not a great follow-upper. If I’m out, at some do or other, and if we get into conversation and I agree to send you information, I will. I’m the product of a convent-school education. The nuns are still hovering in the outer reaches of my consciousness. I’ve always done my homework. I still do it. But if there’s nothing tangible said, no specific action needed, then I’ll rarely, if ever, follow up.

At a gig in March, I ran into Budapest-based artist Michael Pettet. The name didn’t mean anything but when we got to talking, I had some vague recollection of being invited to an exhibition of his that I couldn’t make. And, as I’ve recently come into possession of some blank walls that will eventually need adornment, once they’ve been plastered and painted, I handed over my card and said I’d like to see his work.

He followed up.

Pettet’s life to date was made for serialisation. It’s got all the ingredients of a good TV drama. He was born and raised in the plummy SouthEast of England where leaving school to pursue a degree in Fine Art didn’t raise an eyebrow. He lived next door to portrait artist Simon Goldring, a graduate of St Martin’s in London who is now making a name for himself in Madrid. Pettet, himself a graduate of Kingston University, has seen his work hang in galleries around the world, including Knights Park Gallery in London, Centro Colombo Americano in Santa Fe de Bogota, Colombia; and Museo del Ex-Convento, Tepoztlan, Mexico.

From living in a squat and painting on an Enterprise Allowance of £40 a week, selling mainly to friends and friends of friends, he went on to be a part-time art technician in a sixth-form college in Esher under the benevolent brush of Joe Turner. Rather than waste Pettet’s talent on cleaning paintbrushes and palettes, Turner gave him a small studio so he could paint. He wanted his students to be around a working artist. It was as close as Pettet would come to being an artist in residence.

Everything we’ve done till a particular moment in time has brought us to that moment … for a reason. I firmly believe that. In 1993, Pettet met Joanna, who had joined the school as an English teacher. They’ve been together since. Their story is a pleasant change from the usual, where Mrs follows Mr as he’s posted around the world. It is Joanna who is offered the jobs abroad, the first a 10-month maternity cover in Milan (they travelled there from the UK by motorbike). A choice between Madrid, Paris, Istanbul, and Bogota saw them up easels and move to Colombia. And later to Mexico City where they’d spend 14 years before moving to Budapest.

Around this time, computers were making headway. Graphic art was taking on new dimensions. Digital art had come into play. And rather than cling to the traditional oils and watercolours, Pettet embraced it. He wanted, he says, to give it soul. Recognising that the digital age, although still in its infancy, would soon become an intricate part of our daily lives,  he experimented with binary numbers and started painting.

The morning I went to see his work, I wondered what I’d find. A few years ago, I visited a working studio belonging to Goya von Gerendássy Ács György, known and loved by many as simply Gyuri. There I saw the easels, the canvases, the pigments, the paints – everything I expected to see. Pettet’s canvas is his drawing tablet; his paintbrush, a touch-sensitive electronic pen; his palette, Photoshop (which he uses rather than one of the many dedicated painting programs  that try too hard, he says, to simulate traditional techniques and therefore produce images that look fake and overly synthetic).

We sat and had a coffee as I leafed through some of his catalogues. I was blown away. It was clear that his environment influences his work. His body of work from his earlier time in South America consists mainly of landscapes – I particularly liked one of Colca Canyon in Peru and another of Hierve el Agua, a set of natural rock formations in the Mexican state of Oaxaca.

Colca Composition IX

Hierve el Agua I

But these weren’t challenging enough, intellectually. Although the medium is radically different, the approach Pettet takes to his digital art is much the same.

I approach the paintings in exactly the same way that I did using traditional materials […] the intellectual process which is at the core of what I do. The images form themselves through the working process and my dialogue with the way they are taking shape. The resulting piece is therefore something that was not imagined at the outset. To this end there is no difference in my mind between techniques whether oil on canvas or digital.

During his last six years in Mexico City, he hearkened back to his childhood holidays in Scapa Flow. It’s mesmerising, the Lament, in particular, and Sandstorm with its animalistic forms that are at the basis of all human emotion. A series of portraits completed in Budapest based on photos of friends is particularly striking. As I listened, my walls were taking shape in my head, with rooms being redesigned around them.

Scapa Flow – Lament III


I asked the usual question – Why Budapest? It was another choice for Joanna – Budapest or Rome, and they plumbed for Budapest. The contemporary art world here is not quite as suspicious of digital art. Places like the Art Factory are fielding some talented artists being recognised abroad (Márta Kucsora currently has a solo exhibition in London). But the distrust is still there driven by the underlying doubt as to how much of the art produced is the artist and how much is the computer. And while the latent texture and sensitivity that many associate with traditional art are more difficult to master digitally, the blend of the virtual world and the real world is something we need to get a handle on.

Think of it. Our interaction on social media is limited to the construction of sentences and ideas in Tweets, Facebook updates, Skype newslines. We write, we share, but it takes a sympathetic reader to reconstruct the feeling, the emotion, the latent meaning behind it. Emoticons don’t capture all the nuances. So, too, with digital art. Its beauty is in its interpretation. Its soul is in how it reflects what we think we see.

Drowning 2016

Each piece is limited to a signed, numbered run of 50. No more. And he doesn’t do commissions (the portrait series is stunning – I had to ask). Life, he says, is too short to reproduce someone else’s ideas.

As my walls are nowhere near ready for anything other than paint and plaster, I’d planned on taking my time to populate them. But I’ve already picked my Pettet piece, from the Salar de Uyuni (salt flats), in southwest Bolivia. I just hope that 50 other people haven’t had the same thought. Check him out.

Uyuni VIII