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The (neon) imprints of Budapest’s history in Isabel Val’s photographs

The nightscape of Budapest has been defined for decades by colorful neons, many of which still watch the city undisturbed. However, most of the fluorescent lamps proclaiming the achievements of the socialist era have been forgotten, so they disappear from the roofs of buildings year after year. This phenomenon, which was rooted in the past but also influenced the present, absorbed visual artist Isabel Val from Barcelona too, whose photographs show the neon advertisements of Budapest as memories of the past regime. We came across her photo series, Lights of Budapest, in connection with the MyMuseum gallery’s Back to the Present exhibition.

Isabel Val moved to Budapest in 2015: initially, she wanted to stay here for a year, but as she said, she fell in love with the city and finally spent four years in the Hungarian capital. “What struck me most about the city at the time was how different layers of history were visible on the streets and buildings—a kind of nostalgia that fascinated me. Coming from a tourist-centered city like Barcelona, Budapest felt like a much more honest place to me,” remembered Isabel.

In her work, she is most concerned with nostalgia, the continuous dialogue between the past and the present, and the links between collective and personal remembrance. This kind of creative attitude appears to be concentrated in the Lights of Budapest photo series, which captures the former neon commercials and labels of Budapest. Through her pictures, the creator not only documents these old neons but also takes them out of their decadent environment, giving them a new kind of life.

“Neon commercials shaping the cityscape caught my attention very early on, and I found them very interesting aesthetically as well. I’m surprised there are so many of them left! When I think of neon advertisements, I usually see saturated and pastel-colored images of American neons, so I thought, why not try to transfer the same aesthetics to the crumbling neons of Budapest. As I discovered more neons in the city and learned their meaning and context, the project itself gained more and more meaning: it received new layers of meaning from the perspective of political ideologies and propaganda, as well as the weight that these signs carry in collective memory and their historical value, as more and more of them began to be removed from the streets,” said Isabel.

Finally, the light advertisements taken by the camera are presented to the viewers in square formats, in a saturated color palette, with the past and the present facing each other. “I contrasted the crumbling state of neon ads with a very light blue background, making the composition as clean as possible. I also considered it important to work with a frontal view and square format as a reference to the American ‘golden twenties’ world, whose aim was to create the idea of modernity and false prosperity,” said Isabel.

The creator also revealed that one of her favorite neon signs was the PINCÉRNŐ (waitress) and the FÜRDŐ (spa) and that she was proud to have photographed some of the inscriptions after they were removed or moved, such as the BÁB SZÍNHÁZ (puppet theater) or the FÉNYKÉPÉSZ (photographer) neon. “It was really interesting that many people from Budapest pass by the city’s neon signs unnoticed, as they are only part of a vague landscape: it helped me to be more confident about the project and my artistic responsibility. As a foreigner, I could see the value of these neons with fresh eyes, but I wanted to be cautious and respectful in dealing with the issues of collective memory and a culture to which I do not belong,” said the creator.

The photo series of Isabel Val, including the works of Kristóf Murányi, can be seen in the exhibition hall of the MyMuseum until 26 May 2022. To make the exhibition Back to the Present even more complete for the visitors, lightboxes of Isabel’s work will be placed in the window of the Három Holló.

Isabel Val | Web | Instagram

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