Tradition, labour and religion.
Words by Gergő Bánkúti & artwork by Gergő Bánkúti
‘My strength is dried up like a potsherd; and my tongue cleaveth to my jaws;
and thou hast brought me into the dust of death.’1
As a painter, I started using old family photographs or photographs I’ve made of them as the basis of my paintings. I have been interested in memories for a long time. Many of my works concern the issue of memory and our relation to our ancestors’ inheritance.
For my installations I use ’ready-made’ materials from my home village such as relics from my family’s private history, to make memorials of the past life – both as a personal narrative and a larger social history about the disappearing village life. The traditions I grew up with influenced my life but, of course, I had come to realize that I cannot live my ancestor’s life. For me, the important thing is to find out and perceive my inner traditions in the world I live in and explore my past through my relatives’ lives.
My most recent project, the Potato Sculptures deals with the problem of remembrance and the complex connection between labour and religion.
Potatoes are tightly connected to agricultural work. In our home, the whole family took part in the process of growing them. These actions, like all sorts of housework, are inherently monotonous. However, a repetitive working procedure can also be seen as a sort of meditation or a prayer. In the life of the Hungarian peasantry work and religion have always composed an inseparable and organic unity.
I remember my grandmother’s shelves full of religious calendars, pictures of saints, crucifixes, figures of Virgin Mary and rosaries. In order to preserve the memory of this life, I started carving these images into potatoes. The conservation of the potato-sculptures is implemented with salt. With this phenomenon, the moisture – the ’water of life’ – seeps away, while the potato itself shrinks. This process is connected to the distortion of our memories. The water’s disappearance from the plant is parallel to the fading of our emotions when we look at one relic left behind by our ancestors.
The Potato Sculptures are also connected to passing away. Not only with the drying out process but also with the fact that the core of the whole series is connected to the relics of my grandmother, who is not among the living now. From this viewpoint, these tiny carvings are not just statuettes for diligence and spirituality, but also some sort of memorial for my grandmother. The soil has various meanings in different cultures, yet the most significant is associated to afterlife.
‘Every creature gets his life from it, therefore it is an abundance-symbol, at the same time it absorbs and takes everything after death. […] In Hungarian folklore it is a symbol of life and death, they put both the dead and the newborn on the ground.’2 And with the celestial theme, on the contrary, the whole series somehow links the transcendent (sky) and the material (ground) world together creating a strange, still complete atmosphere. ‘Ground: In a symbolic meaning it is the opposite of the sky (air): subject, passive, feminine, wet principle; against the dominant, active, masculine dry principle. […] She is the mother earth, who gives birth to her star-children, the waters and the plants from the soil, the animals from their lairs; her womb hides every usable material.’3
Thus, the Potato Sculptures has a more complex meaning: the fact that it is connected to the creation, but apparently also to vanishing. The art pieces deal with the problem of continuity and perpetuity. In this way its connotation is an extension of the monotonous, perpetual occupation both in work or religion.
Lastly, I would like to quote one of my childhood textbooks, which included a drawing of my grandmother spudding in the garden:
“I like the spring much more, at this time we sow with the mama.”