b u d a p e s t
Postcards from Budapest
There is none of the usual superficial and sugary sentimentalism one associates with post cards in this series of initial impressions of Budapest by Michael Pettet.
Statues of Soviet Man cast in iron to endure the passage of time and to arrogantly proclaim the power and permanence of a new occupying ideology. They once were symbols of worker solidarity, celebrating the triumph of communism, but now have become the embarrassing reminders of a Russian withdrawal from Hungary and the betrayal of the promise of a classless society. These men and women of iron with arms raised still against the Budapest skyline, left stranded in time; abandoned by the Soviets in 1991 as their Empire disintegrated with rebellion at its very centre and the satellite states of Eastern Europe unravelling. Lenin striding confidently across continents with his fiery message of permanent revolution, just one of numerous events that Budapest has witnessed, all of which have come and gone, but have still left their mark upon this beautiful city.
One senses that Pettet’s aim is not to glorify Budapest as simply a treasure trove of cultural artefacts, though undoubtedly its architectural grace and beauty are a testament to man’s creativity and ingenuity. Pettet ‘s approach is much more subtle and reflective. He is less interested in the initial visual impressions of the “I wish you were here ” post card variety but more with creating an emotional response within his audience through his focus on the diverse and ultimately absurd material clutter – ‘atomic robot man’- that has been deposited and collected within this city over time.
We feel unsettled and disorientated by these untidy reminders of those numerous generations that have lived and perished before us. Our sense of chronology fails us. The walls of this great city peel at every turn and beneath each wallpapered layer, another story of human existence, long forgotten, is revealed to those who still inhabit its nooks and crannies. It is the turn of today’s living residents to pursue their dreams among the decaying reminders of former lives now extinguished but once full of vibrancy and aspirations of endurance and permanence.
At times the point of reference within the postcards is intimate. In the framed pictures of honoured family members, one can recognise the attempts of individuals to try to make sense of their own place in the wider scheme of things by organising their own genealogical lineage. But one feels that these individual efforts to give shape and sense to their pasts are ultimately futile given the evidence of governmental involvement in the historical process. There is a constant reminder of the determination to be seen to have conquered, and to have shaped time, whether we speak of the Habsburgs, or indeed, the Soviets. The aspirations of dynasties and ideologies in all their vanity are made more ridiculous by their obvious decline and ultimate collapse, their symbolic power reduced to the haphazard and random litter stuck to Michael Pettet’s peeling surfaces. We speak nonchalantly and moralistically of the lessons to be learned for the better from the past with each new generation ever hopeful to avoid the mistakes and shortcomings of its predecessors.
The truth is much more humbling and brutal. There is a constant morality in the work of Pettet that reminds us of who we really are: the hideous and lecherous face of Dorian Grey behind the acceptable public portrait. Pettet is constantly unmasking and revealing to us our true natures. This is not only because of a passage of time of which we have no control but also because of the fundamental flaws of human nature. The ability of man not only to build forever upwards to the skies but in the next instant to reduce, in a fit of spite and rage, his cities to rubble and dust. Man constantly overreaching himself, undone by his own insatiable appetites. The unbridled nationalism and the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand leading to the outbreak of the First World War and the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The double-speak of Soviet communism where the Hungarian people’s uprising of 1956 could be dubbed a counter-revolution.
There are not only reminders of failure and deception but of cruelty. The disintegrating railways lines and timetables in Pettet’s images that allude to the deportation of Jews and the movement of populations to Soviet work camps in the East. There are references to Nazism and Communism with their common systems of terror, and the betrayal of ordinary men and women by the prophets and purveyors of false dreams on both extremes of the political spectrum. One can sense beneath the peeling surfaces the cynical faceless torturers who moved so seamlessly from right to left serving different political masters but still plying their gruesome trade.
These postcards show the cumulative effect of past events upon our collective identity and memory. In Budapest a sense of the past is all encompassing but what use can be made of it? Pettet recognises our dilemma as we constantly try to orientate ourselves in time.
We try to decipher the lessons of the past, from a precarious place in an ever changing present while looking ahead into an uncertain future.
Budapest is a city that still has to determine what lessons are to be drawn from its most recent and traumatic Soviet past. It remains dazed, paralysed and anxious – trapped in time; it has not moved on. Budapest and, indeed, Hungary’s future path remains unpredictable and uncertain caught now between the new political reality of a Western European Community rallying around the benefits of collective cooperation and to the East, Putin’s Russia anxious to make its historical mark by flexing its newly found nationalistic muscles. In the face of such realpolitik the historical lessons that Hungarians can use to see their way to a better future seem as tenuous and as illusive as ever. This unsettling uncertainty and sense of anxious foreboding runs like strips of barbed wire through the visual language that Michael Pettet employs to convey to us his initial impressions of Budapest.
Dominic Simmons September 2014