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In conversation
with SI-LA-GI

János Kurdy Fehér, 2023

When we spend time with Szabolcs Szilágyi, artistically known as SI-LA-GI (sometimes spelled Silagi), we can most keenly sense and capture the global and local winds of art, existence, and life management. The Hungarian artist's spiritual and artistic compass serves as a reliable guide through the realms of the globalized art world. However, the domestic recognition of his four-decade-long, thousands-strong oeuvre is still awaiting its time: the three-masted, fully rigged world-traveling clipper, so to speak, is still waiting to be unpacked. J. Kurdy-Fehér.

Editor's Note: This in-depth interview provides valuable insights into SI-LA-GI's artistic vision and philosophical perspectives. For additional interviews and resources to further explore SI-LA-GI's work, please visit the "Other Resources" page.

 🇭🇺Magyar változat 

Full-rigged World Traveler

The mixed media artist created his first photograph at the age of 6. He was born in 1949 in Tokaj, into an aristocratic family with Transylvanian and Upper Hungarian ancestors. Between 1964–66, he attended the Budapest Secondary School of Fine Arts. In 1966, he emigrated to Italy with his friend through Yugoslavia: they swam across the stormy Adriatic Sea at night. He intended to go to Picasso in France but ended up in Stockholm. He continued his studies at the Stockholm Academy of Fine Arts, majoring in painting and graphics, and later at the Stockholm University, where he studied art history and also taught. In addition to painting and graphics, he has been involved in experimental filmmaking and photography since 1968. From 1973, he was one of the first in the world to turn to experimental video art and video installations. In the late 1970s, he co-founded and became the director of the Stockholm-based Video Nu art studio. He became the founding artistic director of the internationally recognized Aktual'Art Gallery in Stockholm, where he also showcased Hungarian artists.

He was also among the first in 1968 to turn to the Far Eastern meditation culture while actively practicing karate under the supervision of his Japanese masters. He embarked on adventurous journeys in Ceylon, India, Sikkim, Nepal, and Tibet. His Buddhist teaching masters included the 16th Gyalwa Karmapa, the 12th Tai Situpa Rinpoche, and His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, among others. The experiences of his long journeys, as well as the imprints of his Japanese martial arts and Buddhist studies, can be precisely traced in his conceptual-based art. In an interview with HVG, he commented on the diversity of his artistic experiences: "I had fantastic experiences, new impulses, unreal situations, incredible encounters with freely living, thinking, and creating people. To mention just a few examples: I smoked weed with Jimi Hendrix, and later, in a similar situation in Key West, fate brought me together with Tennessee Williams as well. Later, in connection with my works, I met many already recognized American artists, such as Andy Warhol and the musicians, painters, and writers active in the Village. I was very free and even more curious during this period, but I was also continuously recharged during my travels."

In addition to his individual creations, he enjoys working collaboratively with other artists as a painter and mixed media artist, including the Thai Tawan Wattuya. The results of his artistic career have been seen by the public in about 80 exhibitions worldwide in Sweden, the United States, Japan, Luxembourg, France, Germany, China, and Hungary. In his lifetime, he has illegally crossed 15 borders on 5 continents and believes that there are no political, artistic, or spiritual boundaries in reality. One of the most outstanding representatives of contemporary Hungarian fine art, he has been living mainly in Budapest since 1990.

Below the Kiscelli Museum, in an Óbuda street surrounded by trees, stands SI-LA-GI's peculiar house, which, with its ensemble of objects, represents a ship from a 19th-century Far Eastern expedition, transformed by its owner into a 21st-century avant-garde curiosity cabinet. In the garden, there are Tibetan flags; in the rooms, the remnants of family furniture transported to Hungary in freight wagons after the Treaty of Trianon, oriental carpets, and a Biedermeier portrait of an ancestor named Szidónia. A Buddhist altar with an excellent calligraphic painting. Numerous paintings, graphics, photographs, ceramics, prints, and sculptures collaged from spiritual objects. The attic is the studio: a narrow and unstable wooden staircase rises to the hold of the imaginary three-masted clipper. Inside, there are thousands of SI-LA-GI works.

Despite the many concrete objects, the aura, insight, and intuition of transitions evocative of the Buddhist doctrine of "dependent origination" pervade the entirety of the ocean liner, the fully-rigged clipper formed from the house. "Insight" refers to the understanding of the fundamentally empty nature of phenomena and the five aggregates (skandhas) of human existence: form (rūpa), feeling (vedanā), intentions (saṅkhāra), perceptions (saṃjñā), and consciousness (vijñāna). Upon entering the SI-LA-GI ship-house, we may also feel that our everyday sense of space and time is erased. "Or rather: cataloging time in fixed theses that can be moved reversibly (...) it represents the perpetual restarting of a directed cycle in which, at any moment and undoubtedly - starting from any thesis and with the certain knowledge of return - one can offer oneself the game of birth and death."

When we talk about art with the Hungarian artist, we are literally talking about Everything. This "talking about Everything" is framed by the "speaker's body of knowledge," that is, the world that the speaker themself currently understands. Thus, we are forced to personally enter this "speech-act," together with our visual sensations and experiences that cannot be linked to sensory outputs. During the SILAGI discourse, we may feel that those who omit, neglect, or "fear" this personal entry can only gain impressions of one part of SI-LA-GI's art, and the lesser part at that, merely its material aspect, such as the traces of paints on a white canvas. The more, the essential, the greater part lies beyond the material traces and can only begin with bringing the work into communication. With SI-LA-GI, the experience of drifting away from the concrete world actually gives the feeling of arriving at a more complete world. The feeling that dimensions can be actively dissolved through the accumulation and shared experience of knowledge. His art comes to us fresh, as if the process that we later call art had just been invented. That is why the question that seems like self-reflection comes to the fore with SI-LA-GI: "what is art," while he questions the nature of general human cognition, that is, he subjects the given abilities and the results drawn from them to criticism.

SI-LA-GI has not had a major solo exhibition in Hungary for 13 years. It is completely incomprehensible why the Hungarian art scene ignores an artist whose oeuvre, on the one hand, maintains complete synchronicity with global contemporary art from its beginnings, and on the other hand, has been noticed by iconic creators such as Andy Warhol and curators such as Pierre Restany, without whom today's contemporary art would be unimaginable.

With SI-LA-GI, the work becomes personal and concrete. Bound to the moment, it fills the viewer's full attention. Then comes the viewer's realization that art is the most extensive experimental formation: we are its subject, its predicate, its object. Driven by this breeze, we are then propelled by stronger winds. If we start from the broadest and most permissive definition that "art is what we consider it to be," it leads us to the same place as when we try to verify art and say that "art is what experts accept as such." When we enter the space of art, through doors, windows, cracks, openings, that is, the perspectives of our individual knowledge, we have already fallen out of it, but not into nothingness, but into a potential that, through the operations of communicative acts, leads to the smallest and largest elements of our perception of the world. There are artists who short-circuit this and say, "my art is what I like." And there are those who believe that "their art is a path under which the invisible becomes visible." For example, the Self through the Other, or the metaphor used here several times, the wind.

Artworks, it dawns on us in the wake of SI-LA-GI, are aggregates in a practical sense. They are sets of elements that are in contact with each other, but not in an organic but energetic relationship. The connection between the aggregates is realized by communication, that is, the opening up of knowledge, spaces, times, and intuitions, ultimately by the viewers. Thus, the artwork is an epistemological and energetic model. However, it is not its model-like nature that is interesting, but its coming into operation, its use, its personalization, its openness.

SI-LA-GI has not had a major solo exhibition in Hungary for 13 years. It is completely incomprehensible why the Hungarian art scene ignores an artist whose oeuvre, on the one hand, maintains complete synchronicity with global contemporary art from its beginnings, and on the other hand, has been noticed by iconic creators such as Andy Warhol and curators such as Pierre Restany, without whom today's contemporary art would be unimaginable.

János Kurdy Fehér: What did you do today?

SI-LA-GI: I woke up and got out of bed this morning. (Laughs)


Do you keep a strict daily routine?

SI-LA-GI: I avoid routine actions. I try to remain as spontaneous as possible.

I'm up for as long as it feels good, as long as I'm active. I usually get up between 7:00 and 9:00 am. I do my daily one-hour meditation practice in the evenings, that's the one thing I stick to. I don't bind myself to routines with nature, eating, or sports.


You go kayaking on the Danube every day.

SI-LA-GI: If it's very windy or raining, I don't go. I'm out on the water two or three times a week. Of course, more often in the summer.


How far do you paddle?

SI-LA-GI: 13 km.


Water plays an important role in your life, for example when you fled to the West through Yugoslavia at the age of 16, and the stormy Adriatic Sea nearly swallowed you.

SI-LA-GI: I haven't analyzed the interplay between water and my destiny from that perspective, but it's true that I love the sea. In Asia, when it's 28 degrees, you can float on the waves for hours, and swim, it's good for the body, good for the soul.


When do you find time for creating?

SI-LA-GI: I don't think it's good to create routinely, because that affects the content and form. In creating, essentially nothing should be routine. I create when I have something to say. When content emerges within me, I start looking for a form for it.


Can you describe more precisely what it's like when this urge to create appears in you?

SI-LA-GI: Questions, answers related to anything can arise in me, prompting further reflection, examination from different aspects. The relationship between thought and form, their mutually canceling or counterbalancing effects, as well as the unpredictable results of these processes, are what currently interest me.


When I look at your works, the "complex occurrences" you described seem to appear in me and reach me. Perhaps this is also related to the fact that I see your paintings as abstract, in which figuration sometimes appears in the background, as well as concrete, with wild brushstrokes, words and texts.

SI-LA-GI: We really don't know where things and events come from, just as we don't know where our own character comes from, or where it will lead. We are simultaneously complexities and uniques. We are essentially an unknown theorem for ourselves, whose beginning or end we do not know.

At the same time, visuality is often a counterpoint to the rational mind, i.e. it can reveal contradictory emotions and decoding possibilities. The key is that the personal possibility of search, research, and recognition appears in the viewer as well, which may be quite different from my own motives and references.


Please give me an example of this.

SI-LA-GI: For example, the unfinished, or 'unfinished', is the theme of one of my recent paintings, which is partly a representation of itself, and partly a reflection on the phenomenon present in all areas of our lives. This is the manifestation of our acceptance of our own incompleteness, as the unfinished is present here as complete.


Péter Nádas says that the European novel cannot be finished, only closed, left as is, interrupted. This is a bit of a digression, but it leads to the fact that on the one hand you paint large canvases, and on the other hand, how much time does it take you to create such a large canvas, for example?

SI-LA-GI: I generally like to paint the picture in one go, because if I return to it the next day, different energies are already present. Painting a picture can be very quick, like in calligraphy, where the density of thought, passion, and energy carry it. However, this is preceded by a longer internal process, which manifests itself in a spontaneous, quick creation. It can also happen that I add to or subtract from the finished painting later. I'm generally in favor of simplification.


As we sit here in front of one of your paintings that I really love, it seems that the deep golden background and the free-flowing calligraphy in black that stands out are almost palpable in their energy. How do energy and thought interconnect?

SI-LA-GI: A painting: thought, feeling, dynamics and force. I worked a lot on the background of the painting you mentioned, which is not immediately visible, but the applied gold has a pattern like a woven fabric or written text. The calligraphy itself was done in 15 minutes, or 10 minutes, or perhaps even less.


Your calligraphies are sometimes just abstract lines, while at other times they even contain words or texts.

SI-LA-GI: The painting you mentioned is composed of two panels. The right-hand panel first appears to be an abstract gesture, but in reality it depicts a mountain. To represent the mountain, I had to intuit the essence of the mountain. A branch extends from the rocky peaks of the Asian mountains into the golden emptiness of the left-hand panel, where a turtle is climbing. The painting depicts an unrealistic situation, since turtles do not climb on tree branches.


Is the turtle a symbol?

SI-LA-GI: The turtle has numerous explanations in Asian philosophy and mythology, but even without that, it is an interesting creature - a soft body encased in armor. The shell is the home to which it can withdraw. We know there are turtles that are hundreds of years old. It is the essence of life, time and slowness that is condensed in the turtle's movement.


I saw a nature documentary that said turtles feed on the dust of galaxies, incorporate the building blocks of the universe into themselves, concentrate them in their eggs, and thus sustain their species and connect to the cosmos.

SI-LA-GI: I don't have anything to add to that.


There are also two red seals on the canvas. Are these your artist's seals, or do they signify something more concrete?

SI-LA-GI: I use several seals - HUM, HRIH, JUME, the latter being Japanese and meaning "dream". In reality, everything is a dream, including our life. OM AH HUM has an external, internal and secret meaning. OM purifies the body, AH the speech, HUM the consciousness, that is, the essence of action from thoughts and emotions. HUM represents the wisdom consciousness of the Buddhas. HRIH is the seed syllable of self-respect and conscientiousness, symbolizing the Bodhisattva of compassion, Avalokiteshvara. The seals are carriers of hidden messages, with positive effects.


There is the mountain, the branch reaching into the void, the two mantra syllable seals, and you have installed it in your studio as a kind of altar piece. When you created it, did you intend for the painting to have a spiritual role?

SI-LA-GI: Every painting as an object and phenomenon can take on a spiritual role. Previously, there was another pair of paintings in this place: two human ears, right and left, without a face. "Hearing" and "inaudibility". (Laughs) This is a word play in Hungarian. It associates the connection between hearing and not dying, that is immortality. On the one hand, that I cannot hear, and on the other, the immortality of the enlightened being. The infinite space and the absurd situation of the turtle crawling on the branch is the content itself.


Your paintings do not allow for easy interpretation. Our attention is riveted by our curiosity, our concentration remains on and in them, and a certain confusion and respect also arises in us about what we can actually see, what the painting wants to convey to us.

SI-LA-GI: Yes, my paintings are objects of thought, further reflection, contemplation. KOAN-like visual puzzles that jolt and inspire, have an emotional impact, if we give ourselves the time and don't rush on to the next painting.


The interpretation of your paintings evokes how all this came about from your personal life. You were born in Hungary, went to an art academy in Sweden, traveled to the Far East, America, a total of five continents. On the one hand, there is a European and a Far Eastern artistic interest in you. You have been involved with Buddhism since the 1970s. Does the viewer need to be well-versed in Buddhist philosophy and symbols to understand your paintings?

SI-LA-GI: In the world we wander as quasi-foreigners. When you go to a country whose language you don't speak, you can still communicate with a few words, even with gestures. What's important is concentrated presence and attention. One can relate to the paintings on multiple levels - emotionally, intellectually, or intuitively. The goal of Buddhism is to recognize the true nature of things and to relate to them meaningfully. In my works, the Buddhist perspective reflecting and responding to worldly phenomena appears in an indirect way, in various forms. Of course, I don't use a traditional Buddhist formal language, but a contemporary toolkit, like Cage - who was known to be a Buddhist. My works contain knowledge drawn from my personal life experiences, Buddhist philosophy, as well as Western and Eastern cultures. An open curiosity is required from the viewers to interpret my creations. It is important not to be satisfied with the possibilities given by the visual, as we will not get closer to the essence based solely on art historical knowledge and perspectives.


So you don't have an expectation that the viewer should have detailed knowledge of Buddhist culture, because you say that even if they know little about it, they can still communicate with the painting through its details, forms, and colors?

SI-LA-GI: Partly yes, if the viewer is open to it and seeks interpretive possibilities. It's not necessary, but good if they have knowledge of Eastern culture to recognize the connections. But the painting can also communicate in other ways, simply arousing curiosity, like when we look at a person. When we meet a stranger. We look and look, and thoughts, sensations, assumptions arise within us, which may or may not be true, but the curiosity triggered is what's important, because it is creative and inspiring.

The "viewer fine-tunings" can also occur in such a way that the viewer might think of American pop art, Fluxus, Lettrism, Conceptual art or abstraction - currents that have grown out of the European painting tradition - and only then does your reflection on Asian thought and art emerge. In the painting you mentioned earlier, what first spoke to me was the openness, the flow and the energy.

Simplicity, simplification is present in both Eastern art and American pop art, not complication. Simplification in form, in technique. Most artists learn the techniques, then their identity and visual world crystallizes, and they repeat this over years, decades. This is when it is said that their stylistic features, artistic personality have formed. I think about this completely differently. Art is not the repetition of ourselves for me, but experimentation and reflection on external and internal events, experiences. Art is a tool and an opportunity to be personal, provocative, thoughtful, experimental, independent, free. To bring my thoughts to the surface means making a statement, but at the same time questioning my own assertion. Creating is a complex process; a trace of momentary changes, even random, from the external, internal, conscious and unconscious. Courage, freedom and strength are needed for meaningful creation. Creation is a delicate process, a kind of essence, and not the copying of an image that appeared in our own heads. It's worth speaking up when one has something to say.


What was the inspiring force that oriented you towards Buddhism?

SI-LA-GI: It wasn't Buddhism, but the mystery of life that interested me. Why is someone born rich, another poor, beautiful, smart, stupid, this or that. Something arises from nothing, but there are great differences in the processes of coming into being. What creates these differences? What is behind the transience? What is after death? These questions still fascinate me, and I am happy to discuss them with practitioners of different religions. How each one sees it, how they interpret the philosophy and worldview behind the religions. This was the basis, and I intuitively set out eastwards, which meant not only religions, but also art and the millennia-old cultures, and I became curious to get to know them. I was interested in Indian art, music, architecture, beliefs, philosophy. Important inspiration was the encounter with my Japanese karate masters, Takashi Masuyama and then Hiromi Suzuki, from whom I learned one of the traditional karate styles, Okinawa Goju Ryu, which I practiced for over a decade. The spirituality of this, which permeated my everyday life, clearly pointed the way towards Buddhism.


In one of your interviews, you said there was another, more everyday or rather contemporary artistic reason for turning from the free West towards the unknown East.

SI-LA-GI: When I started my art studies in Sweden at the Stockholm Academy, the political spirit of the '68 student uprisings prevailed, and everyone professed romantic left-wing ideas without any real experience.


How did you relate to this?

SI-LA-GI: I tried to tell them that communism in reality looks quite different, and advised them to take a little tour and gain firsthand experience in Eastern Europe. The following year, a group went to Bulgaria, where the boys had their long hair cut off and their sideburns shaved at the border, and the girls wearing miniskirts were stoned in the villages. They came back with very glum faces, but didn't talk about it much. I painted large, expressive paintings, while they painted left-wing political propaganda paintings, which were completely alien to me, because I had concrete experience of the constricted, ideology-saturated world of realized socialism and the fiercely proclaimed communist future. My goal was to find artistic freedom, which was connected to the interest in the East that was already within me.


What was the first moment when you experienced Eastern thinking?

SI-LA-GI: In 1968 I set out for India, but only got as far as Lebanon by hitchhiking through Turkey. In 1971 I first ended up in Ceylon, not by hitchhiking this time. (Laughs) There the Theravada Buddhism is the dominant school, which emphasizes renunciation, turning away from the world, which touched me, but not to the same extent as the teachings of the Tibetan lamas I had encountered in Sweden from 1974 onwards. These teachings had an immediate and profound impact on me, like when you meet an old friend you haven't seen in a long time. In 1974, the 16th Karmapa visited Stockholm, giving teachings and initiations. There was a Buddhist center in Stockholm, which was a meeting place for Swedes interested in Buddhism, but it lacked spiritual leadership. In 1974, Lama Lodro arrived, who introduced authentic Tibetan Buddhist practice. Two years later, Lama Ngawang became the center's leader. He became my personal master for life, and brought the importance of practice into my life. Both philosophy and practice, like the right and left hand, are needed. I asked him thousands of questions, and always received such authentic answers that were comprehensible and logical to me, so the teachings weren't based on faith. Faith also has great power, but understanding was important to me. That's when I started daily meditation practice. Gradually, the desire arose in me to personally visit Gyalwa Karmapa2 in his Rumtek monastery in Sikkim.


This second Eastern trip of yours was an adventurous and also symbolic journey, could you tell us about it?

SI-LA-GI: The 16th Gyalwa Karmapa had such a great impact on me that in 1978 I decided to travel to Sikkim, which was an independent kingdom amidst the Himalayan mountains and valleys. They didn't give me an entry permit there, but I was so determined that I decided to go in even if I didn't have permission, even if illegally.

In Darjeeling, where I managed to get a permit, I tried to make contact with Tibetan émigrés who could somehow smuggle me into Sikkim, but without success. From Darjeeling I reached Kalimpong on the other side of the valley with another permit. I thought I would go on foot from there to Gangtok and then to the Karmapa monastery in Rumtek. In the morning I asked the locals which way to go. They pointed a direction. (Laughs) So I set off with just a small backpack, containing three bananas and my nunchaku. No water, sleeping bag or other equipment, totally intuitively. I had no map or other navigational aids. The journey took three days. The darkness comes suddenly, almost without transition, in those areas at nightfall. After a day of uninterrupted marching, on the first evening before the darkness set in, I saw a bamboo-built hut in a rice field, with a beautiful woman standing in front of it. I went over to her, and although we didn't speak each other's language, she silently pointed to a small bunk in a fenced-off area of the hut. I lay down. The whole time I was thinking about this beautiful woman - I was 28 years old - whether I should go over to her, whether I should, whether I shouldn't. That's how the night passed. When I got up at dawn, there was no one in the hut. In fact, there was no sign that anyone lived there. It was all completely dreamlike.


I continued up the mountain and down into the valleys. I drank from the springs gushing out of the rocks. There was no path, just the jungle. I walked non-stop all day. When it was getting dark again, I saw a small fire in the pitch black. Stumbling over rocky ground, I slowly made my way to the fire. The two woodcutters were just preparing their dinner. When they saw me, like a spiritual apparition, all they could muster was "ahhhhhhhhh". For minutes they stared with open mouths, as we were a day's journey from any inhabited area. Neither tourists nor anyone else passed through there. They prepared some rice, which they served to me on a banana leaf. I spent the night lying on a half-split log. I kept thinking that these two woodcutters might just snuff me out. All they had was my jacket, which was a fortune to them. In this state I dozed until dawn, then peacefully said goodbye and went on.


At one point on the route, I reached the edge of a cliff, the slope covered densely with dry leaves, sliding like on ice. When I realized the real situation, that I couldn't go up or down, it felt like I had been scalded. I sat on the edge of the rock and imagined that they would one day find my skeleton there. For about an hour I pondered, and realized that I could only go forward, that is, down, because it was impossible to go back. Clinging to the cracks in the rock, I reached a point, but no further was possible. Then I noticed a bush growing out of the rock about 2-3 meters below me, so I let go of the rock I had been holding onto and fell onto the bush, which fortunately held me. From there, I traversed to the base of the cliff, where I encountered a 3-4 meter high nettle jungle. I used my nunchaku to push aside the huge plants, but I still felt the stinging of the nettles. Then I reached a flat area, crossed by a 10 meter wide, shallow but very fast flowing stream. I stepped into the water, which immediately swept my legs away, and it was as cold as if sliced by a razor. I was at an altitude of over 4000 meters above sea level. Finally, I slowly and carefully made my way across, with a stick in each hand, while the strong current washed away the pebbles from under my feet. I walked on all day and in the evening I found a house decorated with Tibetan prayer flags. A Tibetan family lived there, who without asking took me in for the night. The next day, when I asked, they showed me the way to Gengok, the Karmapa monastery, and I arrived there that afternoon.


Weren't the monks surprised when you showed up?

SI-LA-GI: They weren't surprised, but they told me that if they caught me, I would get six years in prison, because it was a strictly closed, militarily controlled area, claimed by both China and India. They gave me a room and informed me that the Karmapa would come out of retreat the next day. The next day I personally met him in the garden, surrounded by many birds. Following Tibetan custom, I presented him with the white scarf, the Kata, and he blessed me and had me sit down. I shared my concerns about the return journey, the possibility of a six-year prison sentence, which worried me a little. The Karmapa assured me that there would be no trouble, and that my return would be fortunate. I stayed there for a week, then they drove me by car near the border. I had to cross the same ice-cold, fast river again. Bypassing the border station, I reached the main road and hitchhiked and bussed my way back to India, all the while keeping the Karmapa's promise that there would be no trouble, and I did indeed return safely.


When the teachings of Buddhism 'penetrated to your heart' in the early 70s, it was still a very avant-garde thing, you were among the first wave coming from the West to the East. In those years, eastern teachings and India were turning to rock musicians, artists and psychoanalysts too. To what extent was this a fad or following the zeitgeist for you?

SI-LA-GI: Completely independent of the fashion, I had been interested in the East since my childhood. The hippie mindset also meant freedom from material things. The Buddhist and Hindu traditions teach the recognition of the nature of consciousness, and consider the turning away from worldly goals to be the path to follow. The fashion was more about freedom itself, the demolition of bourgeois boundaries and lifestyles, which manifested in music, fashion, sexual freedom.

Buddhism was not a decisive factor, rather a possible alternative that attracted many young people.


In the 70s you met teachers who deepened your knowledge even further. What periods did you spend out there, weeks, months?

My first major trip to Asia lasted more than half a year. I consciously visited the holy places in India. There are four very important places: Lumbini, where Buddha was born, Bodh-Gaya, where he meditated for six years and attained enlightenment, Benares/Varanasi, where he gave his first teaching, and Kushinagar, where he entered parinirvana. I sought out Tibetan masters in monasteries in India, Sikkim, and Nepal. I spent weeks at Sonada, in Kalu Rinpoche's monastery near Darjeeling. I received teachings and initiations at these places. At that time, Asia was still characterized by an immovable, ancient traditional culture and way of life. There were no traces of Western influences.


Were you with companions?

SI-LA-GI: No, I always traveled alone.


Now let's rewind the "wheel of time" from the 1970s all the way back to your birth in 1949. From the Tibetan monasteries, we return to post-World War II Hungary. You are a descendant of Transylvanian and Upper Hungarian aristocratic families. On your father's side, you are a baron, and on your mother's side, ten of your great-grandfathers were chief justices of Vaskó County, and after Trianon, of Zemplén County, and your grandfather was the chief justice of Tokaj.

My mother always said that nobility must be realized by everyone themselves. So the title is just an empty form. (Laughs) We have to earn our spiritual nobility ourselves. What I am proud of is that my families earned their nobility not through war, but through "peaceful contribution and noble deeds". Our coat of arms has a lion with three wheat sheaves. My grandfather was not a soldier, my father was not a soldier, and I was not a soldier either. My mother told me about my grandfather being invited to a hunting trip. When a deer appeared in the clearing in front of him, my grandfather raised his rifle, the deer looked at him, they looked at each other for a long time. Then my grandfather lowered the gun and never touched a weapon again. It is also inspiring that only two of the county chief justices in Hungary resigned their offices due to the persecution of Jews. In Tokaj, 45% of the population at the time was Jewish. After he could no longer protect them from being ghettoized, my grandfather resigned in protest.


You lost your father at a young age. You were in his arms when he died.

SI-LA-GI: In 1954, at the age of 5, I contracted pneumonia with a fever of 41 degrees Celsius. We lived in Tokaj, my father was a district judge in Nyíregyháza, and I was hospitalized in Debrecen, where there was no antibiotic for my illness. My father made this triple journey every day. Meanwhile, he was under political attack for convicting a party secretary for a common crime. A hostile newspaper article was published about him, saying that the "old bourgeois spirit must be aired out of the courthouse". According to my mother, my father prayed in the hospital that if he had to die, he would die instead of me. After a week I got better, and we went home by train to Tokaj with my parents. That evening my sister was lying in bed with my mother, and I was lying with my father. I woke up to my mother calling my father, turning on the light, and seeing that something was wrong, she ran to call a doctor. But my father was already dead. As I sat by my dead father for an hour, a very strong and defining realization came over me. I felt that this body was no longer my father, that there is the body and there is the soul, and the soul had left the body.


This makes your interest in the ultimate questions of life very understandable.

SI-LA-GI: I thus gained a lifelong experience and teaching about the transience that accompanies human life.


How did you end up in Budapest?

SI-LA-GI: My mother did not want to stay in Tokaj, but it was not simply possible to just move to Budapest at that time, but first only to Pest County. We had large estates in Tokaj that were nationalized, then the chairman of the council, out of sympathy, returned some of the vineyards to my mother, which she sold, and with the money she bought a villa in Rákoshegy. My mother went to the English Convent, living in a protected aristocratic environment, not understanding practical matters. Although we had many lawyer acquaintances, she did not want to ask for favors, so she turned to an unfamiliar lawyer who in 1957, after a year, obtained for her, for the price of the villa in Rákoshegy, a third-floor council apartment without an elevator in the 11th district, at 12 Ballagi Mór Street. Later it turned out that because of the fraudulent lawyer, she even had to pay a fine for this, which was deducted from her small salary for ten years, from which she had to support the four of us, as our elderly great-aunt also lived with us.


How did art come about, and how did you end up at the Török Pál Street School of Fine Arts?

SI-LA-GI: From the age of six, it was evident to me that I was interested in art, as there was an artists' colony in Tokaj in the summers, with a lively artistic life. They painted on the banks of the Tisza, and there were film screenings in the evenings. I saw the empty canvas transform into a landscape in front of my eyes. As a young child, this completely captivated me. In Budapest, I applied to the School of Fine Arts from elementary school. Nearly 900 people applied that year, but only 28 were accepted to the painting program. I only attended the school for two years, as I then dropped out, but it was a very formative period for me. Our painting teacher was Jenő Benedek Sr. I was very lucky, because the other half of the class was taught by a painter named Miskolci, whose attitude was by no means comparable to the free-spirited approach of Professor Benedek. For example, in 1963 I painted a still life on a large ORWO photo paper box, leaving the label on the box as the background. This was considered a completely new thing at the time. We had a good class, freely following our artistic instincts.


The idea of defection came relatively quickly. What was the source of this?

SI-LA-GI: The need for freedom. I felt that I was curious about the world, that the whole world interested me, and I could not get this in Hungary. In the two years, I learned a lot and got a good foundation. We did not have a direct confrontation with the political system at the time, I just strongly felt the limitations. I told two friends of mine living in the neighborhood and another classmate that I was planning to defect to Italy through Yugoslavia. I had no concrete idea, because that kind of information was not circulating. After 1956, the outflow from the country had stopped. Since we didn't have a gym at the school, we went swimming at the Gellért and the Sports Pool: this later proved to be very useful. Finally, in the summer of 1966, the two of us set out towards Szeged by hitchhiking. We had a transit visa through Yugoslavia to Romania. It was an adventurous trip, for example at one point only my friend was picked up by a car. We had agreed to meet at the entrance to the Belgrade highway, and when I got there, he was nowhere to be found. I had no money at all, my friend was handling it. I slept hungry in a park. The next day I went back to the agreed place, and he also arrived, as he was delayed due to a car accident.

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And then came the big water, the Adriatic.

SILAGI: We reached the campground near the Yugoslav-Italian border by hitchhiking. We rented a tent, put down our bags, and went down to the beach to assess the situation. It was late afternoon. We saw that the sea was calm. We looked at each other and decided. The plan seemed simple: we would swim far into the sea, and then swim towards Italy. We undressed down to our underwear, and without a thought, we set off. We just kept swimming and swimming, and as night fell, and since there were no illuminated beaches at the time, we lost our bearings after a while, and had no idea which way we were going. A stronger, stormy wind arose, with huge waves. The salt seawater stung our eyes, we swallowed water, vomited. It was no longer swimming, but a struggle for survival. Luckily, we were able to stay next to each other. At dawn, a Yugoslav fishing boat swept away by the storm found us. They pulled us out of the sea just in time. Fortunately, the boat drifted west, so they docked in Muggia, Italy. Wrapped in blankets on the boat, when we saw the fishermen disappear from our sight, we quickly ran down the gangway to the road. There an Italian woman picked us up in her little Fiat 500. Without a word, we got in, and she took us to the nearest police station without asking. The police welcomed us, and seeing our completely exhausted state, took us to the nearest hospital. A few days later, they placed us in a refugee camp near Trieste, in Padriciano.


Is this how you imagined arriving in the free West?

SILAGI: Even in the hospital, we were waiting for the press to come, because we thought it was a huge sensation that two young people had successfully escaped from behind the Iron Curtain, but nothing like that happened. Weeks later, they took us to the refugee camp in Latina, near Rome, from where my friend soon ended up in Capua. That's where our paths finally separated. In the camps, there were thorough interrogations by the Italian authorities and the American CIA. Most of the questions they asked us were about military potential, but since we were 16 years old and had no defense and infrastructure knowledge, they didn't get very far with us. Among the refugees there were Bulgarians, Romanians, Poles, Czechs, Hungarians. But in the whole camp, I was the youngest, not yet 16. After the interrogations, we were given a refugee ID with which we could go to the city. I went to Rome by hitchhiking, snuck into the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel, where I saw Michelangelo's impressive frescoes and the Last Judgment in reality. At the Colosseum, I ran into a small film crew. Years later, I recognized that they were filming Pasolini's film The Hawks and the Sparrows with Toto there. The spirituality, culture, and the directness and kindness of the Italian people captivated me. Meanwhile, in the camp, they asked the question of which country I wanted to emigrate to. Of course, I chose France, where I wanted to continue my art studies, but I could only choose from the USA, Canada, Australia and Sweden. I chose Sweden, about which I didn't know almost anything, but it was the closest to Paris, and that was the decisive factor. Later, looking back, I was amazed at my naivety, that I thought I would just show up in Paris, be introduced to Picasso, who would pop open a champagne bottle, and I would send that photo back to my classmates in Budapest. That photo never happened (laughs), but I did send my class a Rolling Stones Painted Black single, in the cover of which I had pasted a map showing how to get from Yugoslavia to Italy. I learned in the refugee camp that there was a railway station where one side was Yugoslavia and the other Italy, where you just had to run across the tracks from East to West.


How did things turn out for you in Sweden?

SILAGI: I ended up in the newly built refugee camp in the small town of Alvesta, where my Swedish language education began, and gradually everyone was placed in different jobs. I declared that I wanted to continue my studies. Soon I was placed in a religious and musical college, the so-called folk high school in Ljungskile, where as the only foreigner, I learned Swedish in a few months. I immediately appropriated the boiler room of the dormitory, set up a studio, and painted daily. The school immediately bought me an easel, paints, and brushes. In 1968, I finally made it to Stockholm, where I missed the entrance exam to the Art Academy, but Evert Lundquist, the painting professor, looked at my 15 paintings and said I was accepted, and I could start my higher art studies the next day, in painting and graphics. In the summers, I hitchhiked all over Western Europe, visiting museums and galleries. The full recognition of culture and contemporary art drove me.

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Even as a child, you took photographs, and in the mid-1970s you turned to the then emerging video art.

SILAGI: I was indeed one of the first to start using video as an artistic medium. At first I still worked with open, spool-based tapes. I made works of different orientations; experimental, documentary, but I also used video as part of installations. I was one of the founders of the Stockholm VideoNu (video now) experimental studio, which provided opportunities for visual artists to experiment. During this period, I was already teaching video art in addition to painting at Stockholm University. In 1985, unfortunately, all my 12 years of video work was stolen. This had such a shocking effect on me that from then on I did not engage in video anymore. Except that in 1990, for my retrospective exhibition at the Ernst Museum, I reconstructed an old video work, and I later made 3 smaller works.


Could you mention one of the videos?

SILAGI: I would mention my conceptual minimalist video installation Shelters from 1984, in which I built a moving image monitor into photocopies made from my body.


Around this time, you also got in touch with Hungarian artists?

SILAGI: In 1975, I first returned to Hungary after nine years. A few years later, in 1980, I was the director of the Stockholm AktuelArt Gallery, which became known throughout Europe as well. I got in touch with Gábor Bódy, who invited me to Infermental, as well as with János Vető, Lóránt Zuzsa Méhes, János Xantus, and Loránd Hegyi. I would have liked to exhibit Miklós Erdély as well, but the Budapest Képcsarnok Company did not allow the export of his works.


You conducted an interview with me at Andy Warhol's The Factory in New York. I'll quote a part of our conversation: "When I was teaching art, I noticed how much people are afraid of freedom and experimentation. They don't even dare to mix different techniques. They're afraid to do something they don't know how to do. And now I'm talking about art, in rigidity is even greater! But just as a still image is a continuation of a moving image, all arts are connected to each other." Were you not bothered that a popular artist was asking you about your artistic principles?

SILAGI: I first met Warhol in the early 1970s, during a longer trip to America. I was getting to know the world, my own limits, curious about everything, but art was my main interest. On the East Coast, my two friends and I renovated an old American pick-up truck that we could even sleep in, and we set off on Route 66, heading east to west, and then down south. It was a dense tapestry of jazz, rock music, free conversations, and adventures. We listened to the music in small clubs and pubs, not big stadiums. I met all kinds of people on my trip: the destitute and billionaires, hipsters, known and unknown artists, Asians, Blacks, Whites, gays, prostitutes, seekers. To answer your question, meeting Andy was no different for me than meeting anyone else. He was a fellow artist I met, talked to, exchanged ideas with. This particular interview with Warhol was done later, in 1985. But I also met, for example, Tennessee Williams in his house on Key West, at a party, or later in Stockholm, Jimi Hendrix, with whom I smoked grass. At that time, the "stars" were not separated from the people like they are today. Really, there is no difference between people, everyone is happy and sad, lives and grows old, and sooner or later, dies.


When and why did you move back to Hungary?

SILAGI: I met my wife in 1974 in Sweden, where she had come to visit her brother, who was my friend. We got married in Budapest in 1979. Zsuzsi didn't feel well in Sweden. She had left behind so much - her job, family, friends - so in 1984 she moved back to Budapest. I commuted between the two countries, and from 1990 I spent more and more time in Budapest.


Let's come back to the present and focus more on your artistic activity. You post content on Facebook almost daily - photos, comments, recommendations. What does this Facebook presence mean to you?

SILAGI: I publicly share the thoughts and questions that I also ask myself, that interest me. It's like a kind of monologue in an open public space. I'm interested in art and the role and goals of art, to a lesser extent also politics, although one is aware that one has no individual influence on it. Nor does the individual have any influence on the art world, but here there is a greater chance of addressing those who are interested in the questions I raise, who are themselves creators, or have a deeper interest in contemporary art, and the thoughts, problems, and feelings that also interest me.


Let's talk more about the interplay of words, concepts, sensations, and actions in your painting, which you've already mentioned. But this time I'd start the question by saying that the procedure you use can also be attributed to a critique directed against the "society of spectacle", namely that "we must dismantle the outer shell of the world to get to the reality". So your canvases seem to attract the viewer to get clear about how the human mind, the human brain works. I find this critique particularly true if I think of technological development, that extended reality, i.e. AR, and mixed reality, i.e. MR devices could mean a business worth hundreds of billions of dollars by the end of the next decade.

SILAGI: New materials and techniques are becoming increasingly dominant. Virtual reality has become more "dazzling" than life itself. This is attractive to the masses, who enjoy and admire this illusory appearance, which makes them forget the need and possibility to search for the true content behind the surface. What, for example, do Jeffrey Koons' sculptures, which are made of spectacular and special materials and techniques, represent? The pure spectacle becomes the message and the goal. As if any substantive conceptual content were deliberately to be avoided, and the creator and the recipient find each other in meaninglessness. The art that has been reduced to the level of decoration and entertainment partly stems from the material interests of those who direct the art. This mass of creators eager for success and wealth enthusiastically serves this. But precisely this self-contained spectacle excludes the viewer from thinking further - that the surface of the work is certainly good, interesting and beautiful, this material is undoubtedly special, but what is the work about? What does this material and this form represent? What idea is behind it? When we encounter the five hundredth identical statue that only varies slightly in color, it becomes evident that this is simply mass production, a product, a commercial enterprise. There is no thinking based on one's own subjective experiences, but money, the desire for conformity, acceptance and the compulsion for success.


A river full of the promise of encyclopedic knowledge, but with a lot of silt?

SILAGI: This is also part of it, but let's look at what is now considered accepted, sellable, successful art. Mediocre artists generally join an existing ism, an already created epistemology. They settle into a "house built by others". Here they try to create something qualitatively acceptable that is similar to the "already existing", but which is not personal, since the ism, the tendency is already accepted. In this case, it hardly matters whether the work is done well or badly, because the thought born of individual recognition is missing. Those who follow their own path, who express their own discoveries or questions, run up against the rejection caused by lack of motivation and disinterest, the "immediately unrecognizable" or "incomprehensible". So for the viewer, too, the immediate experience or understanding becomes important, because there is no time, desire or motivation to deal with the longer understanding of things. Fashion is also about this: people don't wear what they like, but what influential people in the media consider current and up to date.


You let yourself be carried away.

SILAGI: Yes. Following fashions, i.e. imitating others, has become dominant in all areas, including arts.


I often feel that the contents in your paintings would enter between the viewer and the canvas. And they call for the discourse that you have so vividly expounded on earlier.

SILAGI: The painting is a statement, an assertion and/or a question. Hopefully the viewer will continue the train of thought, start looking for the answer, the connection between form and content, which of course may take them in a completely different direction than what my aim and motive was, but that's not a problem. The important thing is the thinking that has been set in motion.


Could you give an example of this?

SILAGI: In classical exhibitions, I often look at the paintings with a magnifying glass. Through the brushstrokes, I get into the creative process, I identify with the creator, their emotional and mental state. I get close to their world, thereby getting to know another perspective. In contemporary art, on the other hand, one does not connect with the work and its message through the brushstrokes, but by opening the senses through the intellect.


The words, letters, writing present on your canvases are important, and I often feel that you use them without their "meaning", their "content", as if they were "non-worldly figures" or "spirits".

SILAGI: There are several ways to approach the relationship between images and words. The word on the painting is on the one hand a form, which at the same time also has meaning, which the viewer either understands or not. After all, they see words in different languages, English, Hungarian, Japanese. So only the mystery remains, the question of what this text might mean. On the other hand, for those who understand the text, they can start looking for the connection between the text and the image, which often contradicts, counterpoints the image, thus creating a new context. It provides a jarring or contemplative, thought-provoking approach. For example, I applied the word "Compassion" to one page of an official Mercedes car calendar (points to the image on the wall). The use of the word "Compassion" raises the question of what connection compassion could have to washing luxury Mercedes cars, and to the exclusive house in front of which the car is parked. 


What is the connection between the car, the building and the inscription? Contradictory, critical, humorous or ironic?

SILAGI: Like a corporate slogan, "Compassion Inc.".

(Laughs) There are many directions in which the interpretation can go. I leave it open for the viewer.


The SI-LA-GI works move between great emotional intervals: from a kind of Wittgensteinian philosophy of language, according to which the meaning of language lies in its use, so we have to understand the words precisely, otherwise we just talk at cross purposes, but really have no idea what we're talking about, all the way to the "meaning storm" that suddenly descends on the viewer, or even the "blaring laughter". Often it's as if your canvases were scores that the viewers sing out.

SILAGI: The aim of my paintings is to "stimulate active participation", so that we are not satisfied with just the visual experience, the appearance, its beauty, its interest, but take a step further into the image, into the represented content, and take on a role in it. This can have a positive effect not only on our relationship to the image, but also to each other and to the world.


At the exhibition "Anarchy. Utopia. Revolution" at the Ludwig Museum, which presented contemporary art from Eastern Europe, you later supplemented your painting there with an illegal action, thus causing an "institutional disturbance". Why did you consider it important to subsequently supplement your painting with a graffiti inscription?

SILAGI: Revolutions, anarchistic phenomena and movements in art and societies were an important artistic, political and social trend in the 20th century. My exhibited work was about "asking for forgiveness": I intended it as a symbolic gesture of reconciliation, with European countries apologizing to each other for the wars, atrocities, and crimes committed. However, when I visited the exhibition, I saw that there were also many works that had nothing to do with the announced title: neither with revolution, nor with anarchy, nor with utopia. I pondered what could be added afterwards to the exhibition to truly present the meaning of these three strong concepts. For this reason, while respecting the work of other artists, why couldn't I touch my own work? I graffitied my own painting and the immediate area on the wall, and wrote the words "utopia" and "anarchy", as it were, questioning the pictorial manifesto of my quest for peace. We also recorded this with a video, which upset the room attendant, and the institution's director also reacted incompetently, becoming outraged, filing a complaint, and demanding that I pay the cost of repairing the wall. I was surprised that an art professional in a leadership position did not understand, but rather reacted in a petty bourgeois bureaucratic way to an authentic artistic action.


We may also feel that the SI-LA-GI paintings are "encouragements" to "don't stop, go on!", not to accept what is said, what is seen, nor even what is perceived. We keep going deeper and deeper, towards the supposed center of some "secret". And all this is very practical, humorous, and not at all surreal. Do you think artistic creations improve the world?

SILAGI: They can, because they have improved me. The true art cause is independent of success and its material aspects. It is much more a tool, primarily for the creator, and secondarily for those who understand or want to understand. Why do we live, what is the purpose of life, what is death? In my opinion, the basic function of art, like philosophy, is to raise the small and large, personal and general questions of life, and thereby prompt further reflection.


How visible is art in today's world alongside politics, sports, science, i.e. the spectacle, globally and locally, for example in Hungary?

SILAGI: One of the main reasons is that the operation of the museums, galleries, theorists, and curators representing art is driven by interests, not intellectual motivations. Who are these people? What is their intellectual level? How independent are they from material considerations? How much do they want to conform to the dominant art trends in the world, which are predominantly present? The value system derived from the material interests of those who control the leading galleries in the predominant and wealthy countries, such as fashion, almost affects everyone. Individual thinking, individual paths are very rare, because they are difficult to assert if there is no large apparatus and capital behind them. How this will affect and will affect art and those involved in art, I don't know, but I see that a major transformation is underway. I experience that gallery owners after a while lose interest in the spiritual content of art, fatigue and professional apathy and disinterest set in, and only business activity remains important. They no longer see art as a spiritual path. Art institutions are no longer independent either, as they are partly expected to generate visitor numbers, which is the expectation of the funders, and partly the influence of sponsors, leading galleries and collectors is felt in their programs. Experimentation and content have been replaced by entertainment and form. Of course, there is a big difference between the foreign and the Hungarian art scene. In Hungary, the influence of government politics dominates at the institutional level, while in the private sphere it is the pushing through of personal relationships. Recently, the artificially inflated art prices have shifted the emphasis to the material aspect of art: how much a particular artist is worth, i.e. how much money can be made from them. What is central is when and what is sellable. Observing this process and serving it has become their task. So to answer your question, material, monetary considerations prevail over the spiritual ones.


In your view, are people interested in art? Do they even need it? How do they use art in everyday life?

SILAGI: Very few people are affected by art. Those who use art focus on its material aspect and decorativeness. Of course, it indirectly affects many things, but what is essential is that an artwork can provide a condensed, essential experience that goes beyond the material. Nevertheless, people tend to value the materialistic aspects of art, hanging it on the wall as decoration, as a display of prestige, and considering its material value important, in which snobbery also plays a big role.


You often mention that there is no real art criticism in Hungary! What does the lack of this cause?

SILAGI: This is a small country where everyone knows everyone, where everyone is connected to everyone, especially in the field of art, and therefore diplomacy prevails, which is "I won't write a negative review about you, you won't criticize me", and if you're in a position, you support each other. Of course, they express their critical opinions among themselves.


This already leads to a culture of gossip.

SILAGI: Unfortunately yes, but if there were open substantive debates and critiques, it would lead to a deeper understanding of art.


Science somehow describes the material world. In your opinion, what is the role of art, how does it help people?

SILAGI: Science deals with matter, breaking it down to subatomic particles, and makes statistics and analyzes about it. The social sciences deal with the matter of thinking and society. In art, however, individual, intellectual intentions dominate. Subjectivity, which may be completely wrong, may be peripheral, may not be significant, but with its flaws it presents aspects that science is not capable of.


To what extent has the visual arts swallowed up literature and theater? Visual artists are producing more and more commentaries. What is the relationship between painting and the other arts?

SILAGI: Everything is interconnected. We get experiences, encounters, from which we draw. What is doubtful is the appearance of amateur social science and political texts and reactions in visual arts. The encounter of different arts can complement and enrich each other. Verbal formulations of keys are needed to understand visual works, as understanding the forms, signs, and words that appear on paintings requires appropriate knowledge. Everyone knows the four basic mathematical operations, but in the case of a complex mathematical formula, many see only numbers and symbols and understand nothing. The same applies to art.


Some visual artists are, with a slight exaggeration, in the rock star category: Damien Hirst, Jeff Koons, David Hockney. What does it take for someone to reach this status? Who shapes the international trends in art? What do you think of the contradiction between the incredibly expensive artworks and the completely peripheral contemporary art?

SILAGI: To become a star, you have to want it, as not everyone wants to become a star. This desire is accompanied by luck and a targeted network of connections. I consider the ones you mentioned and other star artists more as clever businessmen than as creative artists. A creator does not repeat himself, but constantly thinks, reflects, searches, in contrast to success-oriented artists who have specialized in identifiable product manufacturing.


What will art be like in twenty years? How will it change? What is certain to remain, and what will change?

SILAGI: What will the state of the Earth be in twenty years? The current trends don't promise much good. Many have said that we are at a "turning point", which is indicated by many signs. On the one hand, the emergence and expansion of total control, on the other hand, the advent of total catastrophe, collapse. Both are negative. The tendencies are not moving towards peaceful, consolidated harmony. There is no other option than to individually find how, in this very confusing and very dangerous present, in the face of the emerging dark image of the future, we can stand firm individually, create an internal spiritual ground. What will be in twenty years is completely unforeseeable, and perhaps it is not even worth dwelling on. We should pay attention to what we, you and I, create within ourselves and in our environment, so that whatever happens, we can still exist and stand firm morally, ethically, humanly, intellectually, spiritually.


Buddhism is also a path, and art is as well. You have constantly chosen paths, defecting, the great trip to America, journeys to the Far East. What is the connection between the Buddhist teaching and art?

SILAGI: Nothing is static, everything is always changing, we are constantly on the move. Both art and Buddhism are a path. They both lead me in the same direction: towards the understanding of my environment and the world, which ultimately leads to the understanding of myself. In my life, I have illegally crossed 15 national borders for different motivations. Crossing borders has never been a problem for me if I had a goal. There are external and internal borders. When you find a way to cross the borders, you realize that there are no borders, because they are all passable.


Today, brain research is unthinkable without the involvement of Buddhist practices. What is it that Buddhism knows better about our mind that Western science and practice should also adopt? What makes the Buddhist path so sympathetic?

SILAGI: The answer is actually not in the brain. The brain is physics, the consciousness is independent of the brain, and this Buddhist realization is what science and physics are trying to scientifically and physically prove. Science has also recognized that matter does not really exist, does not exist, Buddha's teachings revealed this illusion, or its functioning, and provided methods for relating to it.


Some of your paintings seem like the visual parts of a Buddhist ritual. Are your paintings Buddhist paintings? Or do you just use the questions and epistemology of Buddhism?

SILAGI: Certain visualizations are part of Buddhist practices, which the practitioner dissolves at the end of the practice, and remains in that state for a longer or shorter time. The entity that has emerged from the infinite and identified as the self, reuniting and becoming one with the whole, that is, with the infinite. My paintings are not such practice-related images, but rather like a Koan, which stops you, jolts you, makes you think. It creates an unusual perspective, directs attention to the mind and its functioning, jolting us out of our entrenched interpretive schemes. I express the insights gained from meditation in the language of contemporary art.


An important Buddhist teaching is emptiness. How is this related to nothingness? How do you use the Buddhist insight of "form is emptiness" in your works?

SILAGI: The essential teaching of Buddha in the Heart Sutra is: "Form is emptiness, emptiness is form; emptiness is nothing other than form, form is nothing other than emptiness." Nothingness is a nihilistic approach, emptiness is not nothingness, but potentiality. That is, the essence of things is emptiness, while the illusory objective and pictorial world is the totality of constantly changing phenomena arising through secondary causes. In my paintings I am concerned with the representation of this complex and seemingly contradictory content.


What is the difference between nothingness in the Western sense and emptiness in the Eastern sense?

SILAGI: It's what you fill it with. So emptiness is a vivid energy that can manifest in form, but it also has the same potential without form.

Creatio ex nihilo. The holy book of Judeo-Christian culture, the Bible, also begins with the operation of such a potential in the Book of Genesis. To create something from nothing by the spirit. If we follow this story, then we arrive at a double creation, on the one hand the emergence of the universe, and on the other hand the matter of the Earth is filled with spirit, and from the clay, which in Hebrew is called adam, man is created. If I now want to give the Earth a chance to survive, fearing a catastrophe, then I have to give the water, the mountain, the minerals, the animals the equal right, that is, I have to recognize them as intelligent and equal creatures, who have the same rights as humans. While we are made of the same as the world around us, we have so far granted ourselves privileges, which we now have to change quickly for our own survival.

In the infinite space of the universe, the infinite variety of energies and manifestations are active in visible or invisible, perceptible or imperceptible form. The emphasis is on the infinite. It is important to be aware that the infinite exists, and that we are part of it, that is, the infinite is also present within us. You said that from the Judeo-Christian perspective this is the divine potency, the creative force, which does not necessarily create. The paradisiacal state, it could be assumed, is not the narrative form encountered in the Bible's description, but rather the paradisiacal state where the self is dissolved and united with the divine consciousness in a joyful state. This is my conception.


We have returned to art, because in many cases art provides us with a sense of "hopefulness" according to our hopes and experience. How important is the presence of positive elements in art?

SILAGI: The essential part of my paintings is to inspire contemplation, that is, the depicted image acts as a starting point, a gateway that activates, inspires, and creates an opportunity to turn towards a direction beyond the material for those who take the time to connect with the image on a sensory level.


When you say it's on a sensory level, are you referring to a conscious sensory level or the physical perception?

Sight, sensation, thought, making space for intuitive perception and reception. The physical level becomes a sensory level, like when a bird takes off from the rock and begins to cooperate with the sensation of the air.


You have published a Buddhist commentary, a beautifully designed book, for each copy of which you have created your own calligraphies and drawings. Why was it important for you to create this book in this way?

SILAGI: I met Tai Situpa Rinpoche XII, who wrote this book in English, in Nepal in 1978. I received it from a friend who is a student of Situpa and spends six months a year in his monastery. This book simply and understandably introduces the essence of Buddhist teachings. Whether believer or non-believer, Buddhist or atheist, or follower of another religion, there are useful guidelines for everyone, so I thought I would publish it. It was prepared in an edition of 300 copies for the occasion of the visit of His Holiness the Dalai Lama to Hungary. I had the book designed by one of Sweden's most renowned book designers, and it contains nine of my calligraphies created for this book. I also gave an original signed ink calligraphy as a gift with each book.


Who were the most important Buddhist teachers for you?

SILAGI: Lama Lodrö, a Tibetan lama, was my first teacher, whom I met in Stockholm in 1974. My most important teacher was Lama Ngawang, who taught me for more than three decades and with whom I did many retreats. I received important teachings and initiations from the 16th Karmapa, Kalu Rinpoche, His Holiness the Dalai Lama, and His Holiness Sakya Trizin, Beru Khyentse Rinpoche, Bokar Rinpoche, H.E. Garchen Rinpoche, His Eminence Dzecün Kushok, and Trogawa Rinpoche.


Are you planning another longer trip to Asia in the near future?

SILAGI: The Far East has played a defining role throughout my life. Since 1971, I have traveled all over Asia, from India through Nepal, Thailand, to the Philippines and Japan. Thailand is a peaceful Buddhist country that I love very much and that inspires me. I have been going there for decades because I have very good artist friends there with whom I have exhibited our collaborative works.


Are they locals or Europeans?

SILAGI: Mainly Thais, among whom I would highlight my friend Tawan Wattuya, with whom we continue our collaborative work not only in Thailand, but also during his visits to Budapest, where I have also involved Pál Gerber and street art/graffiti artists. These collaborative works have a special atmosphere and process, as we never communicate verbally at such times, but rather respond alternately to each other's visual expressions. There is complete freedom, we can freely intervene and even overpaint each other's image details. The content of the image can turn upside down with a single intervention, and this is what gives it its beauty - these differences in interpretation and changes. It is a dialogue of generations, cultures, and perspectives.

This collaborative work has also resulted in an exhibition in one of Asia's largest art institutions, the Tang Contemporary Art Gallery in Bangkok. This gallery also represents Ai Weiwei.


Where is the gallery located?

SILAGI: In Bangkok, but they also have a presence in Beijing, Hong Kong and Seoul. I met Tawan through the Tang Gallery, which recommended several artists to me with whom I could potentially collaborate, and I chose him. Years later, this led to the birth of our joint exhibition KOAN'S. Since then, he has become an internationally known and acclaimed artist, with exhibitions in New York, Tokyo, Paris, and London. When we met, he was still an unknown young artist.


Could you shed some light on what the relationship between a master and a student is really like?

SILAGI: In art, the most important thing for me is the conceptual content. This requires a message, which in turn comes from openness, curiosity, search, and experimentation. The result of personal realizations and insights. The master can teach a way of seeing, freedom, and independence. Techniques, whether painting, photography, or anything else, can be quickly mastered, but individual messages can only be born from individual life experiences, from a free, open way of life. In addition, the academy has the practical advantage of getting used to making creation and the use of visual means of expression a part of one's life. These are the advantages of the Academy. Not much more.


Since you mentioned art masters, what is a Buddhist master like?

SILAGI: The Buddhist master has a similar effect as the art masters, with the difference that individual practice is preceded by various practices, empowerment, initiation, and explanation by the master. But the essence is the personal application in our lives of the realizations gained through practice, that is, the formation of a perspective, making it personal. Karate was also an important part of my life, and my masters, Takashi Masuyama and Hiromi Suzuki, and other Japanese masters, recited the practices, but the student had to perform them millions of times until they started to function intuitively without thinking.


In Buddhism, the master-student relationship represents a lineage that can be traced back to Buddha.

SILAGI: Yes, exactly. The line of disciples who realize and pass on Buddha's teachings is a living chain to this day. The current living masters, such as HH Dalai Lama, Sakya Trizin, Karmapa, and unknown masters and yogis, are the latest realized masters of this chain. The current chaotic civilization is making it increasingly difficult to create retreats and realizations that lead to an enlightened consciousness.


When was your last exhibition in Hungary?

SILAGI: In 2012 at the Budapest Gallery.

Note: After the written version of the conversation was completed, the joint exhibition of SI-LA-GI / Zsuzsanna Kovács DRÖMLA, titled Objectless, opened at the Tér-Kép Gallery in Budapest. The exhibition can be viewed from May 19 to June 9, 2023. The curator of the exhibition is Balázs Fodor.

Do you have any collectors in Hungary?


What is your relationship with the contemporary Hungarian art scene?

SILAGI: None. (Laughs)

Do you attend exhibition openings? Who do you keep in touch with among contemporary Hungarian artists?

SILAGI: I only very rarely go to exhibition openings. Exhibition openings are not about the exhibitions, but about building social capital, which I'm not interested in. I look at the exhibitions I'm interested in after the openings. I keep in touch with very few people.

What are the biggest challenges for you in the current global situation?

SILAGI: Being meaningfully present in a vacuum. (Laughs) Every moment is a choice, let's use it. Polish ourselves, it affects our environment. Striving to realize nobler spiritual goals, it is important to give precedence to material goals. In art, beauty is not the goal, it is just a by-product. In life and in art, one must strive for maximum honesty, moral and ethical conduct, and meaningful presence. Become independent of success, expectations, and fearlessly incorporate the fact of impermanence into our consciousness. Rejoice in what is and what is not. Rejoice in the empty canvas.

Thank you for the conversation.