Gábor Arion Kudász interview

The Hungarian photographer talks about his recent projects — documenting Europe’s wasted spaces; telling the story of his family; and exploring the workings of memory in the wake of his mother’s death.

Interview by Fraser Stanley
Published November 2013

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i.  Guard dog on duty, Slovakia from Waste Union, 2009
ii.  Dump, Romania from Waste Union, 2007
iii. Winter from Memory Guidebook Vol II (Garderobe), 2011 
iv. Drama from Memory Guidebook Vol I (Literature), 2011
v. — viii. Selected works from Middle, 2005-2011

All images © Gábor Arion Kudász, 2013.

Where did you grow up and when did you first develop an interest in photography?

I was born in 1978, to a single-parent family in a then-socialist Hungary. Looking back, it was the best possible way to make use of my childhood: my mother would paint in her studio; I would spend most of my time around her, mimicking her movements. I was definitely isolated from the corruption of those times.

Images prove that I had an early interest in photography. I took lots of self portraits in a big baroque mirror, with flash. The real thing came when I signed up to a photo workshop in high school. I was in love. The darkroom was the place of endless talks where we could barely see each other’s expressions and gestures – we were focusing solely on the sound of the words. It's not like being on the phone. 

Waste Union is a four-year project that focuses on the wasted open spaces surrounding many European cities. How did your interest in the subject develop? Did you have a particular method for finding the landscapes you photographed?

Do you think it is about waste and cities? It's hard to ignore that the work has some environmentalist aspects. On the other hand, I became amazed at how space is regarded, how the value of space is determined. The subjectivity of this given value was of course most evident around cities, but not only there. I usually stopped at views that showed a great oscillation of usage, land value and visual style within the same place/view.

Waste Union was not the result of a conscious building method – rather a collection of examples I found interesting on my trips. By the end of the first year it was obvious that the wider, less definite, less intrusive images work better for me. I started to like the effect that people didn't exactly know what to look at, or that they were confused about what they were actually seeing, so their response was more emotional, maybe more honest.

Some photographs don't fit well with others, but eventually I don't care if the series is not homogenous – it is constructed in the same way as its subjects were.

The project shows how countries use space differently but also how they respect or disrespect their environment. Why was it important to travel to different countries to complete the series, and what similarities or differences did you notice?

I was often on the road during these years, so expanding the source of my examples was an obvious decision.

Europe is unified by force, which causes unsolvable conflicts today. I suppose there is a more organic process of unification or ‘uniformisation’ that is the culmination of waste. Landfills in Hungary, Romania or France show a great resemblance, and this invades our notion of culture. It happens when the presence of the aesthetics of waste starts to be more sensible in the look of contemporary architecture than local tradition and history. Knowing this, one might say I was not looking for differences at all – quite the contrary. Similarities were my prey, to see what was connecting these otherwise different landscapes. 

“I literally took pictures of everything that came out of my mother’s apartment.”

Your most recent work, 
Memory Guidebook, deals with the loss of your mother. It is an extensive body of work catalogued in eight volumes that not only document her personal effects but also investigate her personal space. Could you tell us about the process behind this work, the use of multiple volumes and the effect it had on you personally?

The work is still in progress. New volumes are born. What you find on my website are fragments.

I literally took pictures of everything that came out of my mother’s apartment. I wanted to remove myself as far as possible from being emotional, so I developed some kind of photographic equivalent of data mining that would be my addition to the long history of the art of passage – a social memory. Volumes were needed in order to separate things that are only visible in quarantine. These are mostly her collections.

The process itself is very difficult sometimes, but I find it comforting and in a way it often gives happy moments. I would say this is the first work in my practice that continually surprises me as it develops. 

“I believe in choosing the technique for an idea and not the other way around.”

Both of your newest projects, 
Memory Guidebook and Middle, deal with your personal life, while the majority of your previous work is documentary and investigates the outside world. Do you feel this is a distinct shift in your practice or thinking?

When she died I immediately knew that something changed in me. I just let Waste Union go, and tried to grasp what the mechanics of memory are. It is a really interesting field to research and understand. Since then I've been working along this line.

Maybe it is too harsh to say that after the outside world I discovered an inside one. First, Middle and Waste Union cover about the same time in my life. Second, I believe in choosing the technique for an idea and not the other way around. In both Middle and Memory, I was more interested in how a set of memories can be structured, and less in the actual story. In this sense, I can really closely connect it to the method that I used during Camp in 2004, for example. Of course, an honest approach when working with memories is to deal with my own experiences, family life and memories.

Your work often culminates in an exhibition or book – sometimes both. When working on a project do you have a specific outcome in mind? How does your process change when working on a book as opposed to a gallery show?

A long-term commitment deserves a proper farewell. In photography it's usually either a book or a show. As the work starts to gain shape, different possibilities also emerge.

Camp had to be a book first, and it had to wait until this summer to be exhibited as a solo show. Then it was the right decision both artistically and financially to trade in a show for the making of a book. The logic of the series is more present in the book.

This isn't exactly the case with Waste Union and Tourists. They were both collections of single photographs around a theme, so the dissonances worked nicely in an exhibition space, not to mention that size is a vital part of the experience, which is very problematic in a book format.

Playing with books is fun and rewarding in the long run, but it needs the right work. Middle was a difficult struggle to convert into an exhibition or a book – having done both, I would say I used its online format as an example. It formulated an idea in me to move away from presenting my works as if these platforms were interchangeable. Memory Guide will be the first example, next spring, to have completely different content (even different titles) as a book and as a show. 

“The most depressing feature of family albums is that they evolve from the cradle to the grave. So much energy is lost in this structure…”

I'm particularly interested in your presentation of your 
Middle work, as the linear (or non-linear) structure of the work seems to be employed universally, through the design of the book, the exhibition and even the digital presentation on your website.

Middle would have remained unpublished if my mother had not died. I took the pictures for myself but in 2010 I had to rethink what privacy means. In a way, it’s the first chapter in the Memory project.

It is definitely non-linear storytelling. I believe family stories don't show progress with time, so there must be no chronology involved. The most depressing feature of family albums is that they evolve from the cradle to the grave. So much energy is lost in this structure, because we tend to remember things in a different network, maybe by importance or by constellations. My wife Bogi did save the work by generously offering her piece of literature – a diary to rake the pile of photographs together. Both the exhibitions and the books are playing with associative connections, parallel storylines. 

I understand you spent a number of years teaching art students at the Moholy-Nagy University of Art and Design. What was the experience like?

Actually, I never left school. It's something to regret in way; I was never on my own really. This is my 15th year at MOME altogether. You can call it a love and hate relationship. The input is so amazing it is worth it, whatever the price. 

What are you currently working on and what are your plans for the future?

Memory Guide will be presented as a solo show for the first time simultaneously at two Budapest venues in February 2014, accompanied by a book. Right now I'm in search of support and further venues for the afterlife of the project. There is little room for ideas about what to do next. This one has to be left behind slowly.