Free Budapest exhibition “Suicide” throws light on personal plights
Soul-stirring, unsettling yet well conceived – these might be your first reactions upon visiting a new Budapest exhibition on suicide. Stepping inside the spacious and well lit room of the OSA Archive on Arany János utca, an unusual and unique layout awaits. Instead of boldly hanging on the walls, pictures are hidden in plain folders fastened with a paper clip, lying on small cardboard stalls where only one viewer can stand at a time. These most intimate and personal images are ones their subjects will never see. When you pick up a folder and peak inside, you feel like an investigative journalist or an outsider looking into the last desperate moments of souls now lost forever. Intimate and slightly intrusive, “Suicide” is an extraordinary exhibition, and well worth a visit. It’s open to over-18s, free of charge, until 4 November.
Suicide is a sensitive topic that is only whispered about, when it needs to be talked about. When someone decides to take their own life, it is a most personal decision, with strong emotional repercussions for those left behind, forever wondering what pushed someone to the point of no return. For three decades, roughly between the 1950s and ’80s, the suicide rate in Hungary was the highest in the world. On a yearly average, nearly 5,000 Hungarians took their own lives. Addiction, depression, financial problems and heartbreak are common factors, but is there a tendency? Is there any connection between all these cases? Can suicide be predicted and therefore be prevented? Should suicide be frowned upon or is it an actual crime? This exhibition seeks answers to such questions.
When the photo archive of the Crime Scene Investigation Unit of the Budapest Police Headquarters was transferred to the Budapest City Archives, among the uncategorised and unprocessed negatives taken between the beginning of the 1950s and the end of the 1980s, there were thousands of photos of suicide. These inspired the exhibition.
Each folder contains photographs and a text in English and Hungarian. The images are discreet, mostly showing the surrounding scene or small details, leaving it up to you to put the pieces together and guess what might have happened – pills, a hanging rope or the gas left on. Whenever the victims are featured, they cannot be identified. The texts are categorised into facts, explanations, moral arithmetics, philosophical explanations, public debate, social background or details about traces and clues. The folders are all numbered, which helps you sort the texts into separate categories, so you will know what you will be reading next.
The most heartbreaking photos are the ones showing suicide notes, as they bring you one step closer to understanding the victim’s train of thought. As these photos are original police shots, they are in Hungarian. One letter leaves money to family, another tries to make sure that an appointment at the heart hospital for September can be given to somebody else, while another simply says, “I love you but you treated me badly”. A particularly tragic one shows a piece of cardboard nailed to a ladder, stopping the next person coming home, warning them not to let their little daughter inside the house.
The high suicide rate in Hungary during those three decades makes a lot of researchers seek connections between the cases. Some blame it on the political situation, the oppression of the Soviet Union, but this tendency already seemed to be improving in the ’80s, well before the Regime Change. Others found a possible association between suicidal behaviour and the consumption of tap water contaminated with arsenic. Others blame poverty, a burning issue in this country. But not all of these cases can be explained with one of these reasons. Even if there may be a loose connection, topographic or demographic, between certain cases, suicide is always a personal and intimate decision – but it is a social issue. This exhibition gives you background, possible motives and particulars, while also presenting the desolation and desperation that tortured the nation for 30 years after World War II.
Suicide – Hungary 1956-1986
OSA Archive, District V. Arany János utca 32.
Open: Tue-Sun 10am-6pm. Free of charge but over-18s only. More details