5 December 2023

Multidisciplinary artist Ronan McKenzie is pulling from Budapest’s rich history on her latest project

HUNGER sits down with the artist to discuss the process of creation behind her bespoke chess board, which was produced in collaboration with the W Budapest hotel.

Multidisciplinary artist Ronan McKenzie grew up in the borough of Walthamstow, east London, and briefly attended Central Saint Martins but quit to forge a career as a photographer and filmmaker, before entering into the world of art and designing. In 2015, she would go onto curate her debut exhibition, A Black Body, at Doomed Gallery in Dalston, which aimed to normalise the black body and challenge the overt sexualisation that often accompanies it in mainstream media. And since then, McKenzie has only continued to push the boundaries of her creativity, opening her own multifaceted creative space, HOME, in 2020, whilst also founding her own fashion label, SELASI, during lockdown. 

Now, in 2023, the artist has partnered up with W Budapest to introduce her artistic spin on the classic chess board, taking inspiration from the rich culture of the Hungarian capital. As Budapest celebrates its 150th year of unification, W Budapest is positioning itself as a cultural hub offering a novel way for people to connect and converse through chess. The classic game is deep rooted within Budapest’s history, and McKenzie honours this through references of the city’s most iconic elements, blended with inspiration from the W Budapest’s building sparse history. The bespoke chess boards will be available for guests to play when staying in the Fantastic, WOW, and E WOW suites at the hotel.

Here, we sit down with McKenzie to discuss the creation of the chess board, finding inspiration through Budapest and much more…

HUNGER: Hey Ronan, thanks for taking the time to chat to us! Could you start off by telling me a bit about the project and the inspiration behind it all?

McKenzie: This has been a special and exciting project to me. So I’m just excited for people to get their hands on it and I hope people actually play it. W invited me to design a chess board inspired by Budapest and inspired by W Budapest specifically. And it was just a really special commission for me because I’m not necessarily a product designer. I’ve never made a piece like this, but I think they were interested in my practice being quite multidisciplinary and touching on different points. And design comes into my practice in different elements with the clothes that I make, and I’ve made a chair before… And then curation, photography and everything else. 

I think they were interested in celebrating that approach. A couple of the themes of the hotel were transformation, second skin and ballet and things that were really already quite fundamental to my practice. They invited me here to have a trip to explore Budapest and get to know the hotel and the space. A couple of the things that jumped out to me straight away were the Drechsler Palace (where the hotel is), all the transformations that it’s been through, like from when it was built to having being used as like a social space and a cafe and things like that, then dancers from the Opera House right opposite would train and stay here and things like that. And then it was apartments. So for it to then be transformed into the W is a really amazing way to respect what’s come before whilst also looking to the future. There’s also a second skin design narrative about double layers and that informed me wanting to have this almost two step approach [in the design of the board].

The third and fourth things which intertwined were Budapest’s connection to water. Obviously it’s Buda and Pest, the two sides are separated by water. And water is a big part of my practice I guess, it’s inspired me a lot in different disciplines, and then similarly the architectural references. So, the reason why I wanted to have these pillars is because there are all these beautiful pillars and beautiful buildings and architecture around Budapest. They were my starting places. I’ve played chess since I was little, I’m not a pro or anything, but I played and I have a chess set and know how to play. So it was just firstly, I was really honoured to be invited to work on it because I think often people or brands would normally reach out to do something with me that I’ve done before. It’s amazing when someone trusts me to throw myself at something completely different. And that was just super exciting, especially as it’s been in the last couple of years that my practice has really broadened. 

And what was your process behind creating the board itself?

My process all really came to life when I came here in August to get to know Budapest. Going back to the water, the board is made up of the top board and the base board. The base board is the bottom part which has these beautiful, super shiny reflective steps, and this part of the board is supposed to represent water, and water being the base of Budapest, and the pillars that come out of it are the top board representing Budapest. Linking to the architectural references I was talking about, all these beautiful pillars that are here in the city. And I love that you have this mirroring effect, so it really feels like water when you look into it, with the super shiny blue. Then you come up to the top board and you have one side of the board that’s stepped and one side of it’s flat. So that’s to represent the two sides of Buda and Pest, where one side is flat and one side’s really hilly.

And what was your process behind creating the board itself?

My process all really came to life when I came here in August to get to know Budapest. Going back to the water, the board is made up of the top board and the base board. The base board is the bottom part which has these beautiful, super shiny reflective steps, and this part of the board is supposed to represent water, and water being the base of Budapest, and the pillars that come out of it are the top board representing Budapest. Linking to the architectural references I was talking about, all these beautiful pillars that are here in the city. And I love that you have this mirroring effect, so it really feels like water when you look into it, with the super shiny blue. Then you come up to the top board and you have one side of the board that’s stepped and one side of it’s flat. So that’s to represent the two sides of Buda and Pest, where one side is flat and one side’s really hilly.

Again, really thinking about making sure that the board’s playable, but also that it’s specifically for W Budapest. So coming onto the top board, the hexagons are a reference to the traditional Hungarian tiles that you can see on the Drechsler Palace and they’re also in W Budapest in different areas. And I thought it would be really interesting to come away from the traditional square pattern, the typical tile pattern and make it very Budapest focused. Then you have the pink and the red. The colours are taken from two Hungarian people, people that have inspired the hotel in different ways, Harry Houdini and Zsa Zsa Gabor.

The pink is to represent Zsa Zsa Gabor, and the red is to represent Harry Houdini, and they both come into the pieces as well. So the pawns, the pawn pieces: the ones for Zsa Zsa Gabor – which is this piece – which is just a beautiful head figure. And then the one for Harry Houdini, with this cut out escape bit at the bottom. So, on both sides of the board you have both players. Then my rook is more of a typical architectural reference, I was inspired by seeing loads of beautiful shapes and architectural references. So the rook comes from that.

Then my knight, my king, and my queen are all ballet references. So again, looking over to the Opera House and taking abstract shapes and ballet movements come in there. With the king and the queen I also really wanted to think about communities and how communities build the strongest players. The king and the queen are both made up of two to three dancers in abstract forms. So those are why they’re the strongest and the most important players, because they’re people banded together. And then my bishop is another Harry Houdini escape reference.

So the figures are super inspired by being here and linking to Hungarian culture and also just this playfulness. There’s a playfulness around W Budapest and it really inspires gathering, and community and exploration.

I read that you prefer to not have to put lots of specific moodboards together before starting a project, and you just want to be informed by the place or informed by a specific thing, so it sounds like this is like a really perfect project for you.

McKenzie: I felt really free and I felt like I was briefed on the design narrative of the space but also just given so much time to be free and wonder and take inspiration, take things from things that inspired me, and even in the feedback process and the process of working with W, it’s been just a really fruitful project where I’ve been allowed so much room to just explore and play and been really celebrated in that. And that’s such a luxury for any creative, I think, just to make something that I’m really proud of, but also I think it’s that kind of push and pull. It’s like something that I’m proud of, but because of the space and the freedom I’m given, I really want to make something that is super strong for the client and for W Budapest too, so I think it’s been a super exciting and balanced project in that sense.

I read that you prefer to not have to put lots of specific moodboards together before starting a project, and you just want to be informed by the place or informed by a specific thing, so it sounds like this is like a really perfect project for you.

McKenzie: I felt really free and I felt like I was briefed on the design narrative of the space but also just given so much time to be free and wonder and take inspiration, take things from things that inspired me, and even in the feedback process and the process of working with W, it’s been just a really fruitful project where I’ve been allowed so much room to just explore and play and been really celebrated in that. And that’s such a luxury for any creative, I think, just to make something that I’m really proud of, but also I think it’s that kind of push and pull. It’s like something that I’m proud of, but because of the space and the freedom I’m given, I really want to make something that is super strong for the client and for W Budapest too, so I think it’s been a super exciting and balanced project in that sense.

I wanted to talk a bit about your journey into the art world, because it sounds like you took a different path and it sounded really interesting, if you could just talk to us a bit about the route you took?

McKenzie: Yeah, I mean, I wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do in the arts and creative world. I went to study fashion communication and promotion, but after a couple of days, I just realised that at that time I wanted to just learn things in real life and have experiences. So I assisted stylists for a couple of months, then I switched into photography and just started winging it and it went from there. And then I built that up, independently learning as I went along and exclusively did photography from 2014/15 til 2017. Then in 2017 I was invited, similarly to this project, by Eloïse King who was a commissioner at ID at the time to make a video. So I’d never done a video before but she was like, okay, I see your work, I think you can do video. So then I did a film piece, and then until 2020, I was working pretty much exclusively on video and film. But I’d curated an exhibition in 2018, so I was also starting to be interested in more experiential or I guess socially engaged works. Only to the extent that I think fashion can be fairly limiting in the way people experience it, or events which are not open to the public most of the time, you can’t really engage in it.

And so I was starting to want to create more things that people could engage with in different ways, or I could just share my work with people in a way that was more than just looking at something in a magazine or online which is, I feel, still fairly limiting in terms of who can engage with it, because you have to know about that thing to even find it, for example.

So, in 2020 I really broadened my practice and started curating more, opened the gallery HOME and started making clothes, and started just working on lots of different projects. That’s been the last nearly three years of expansion and exploration that led me to have a really varied practice where I pick things up as I’m interested in them, like making clothes or making furniture… Now making chess boards, or making whatever else I am interested in making next.

Yeah, for sure. I’m excited by what that means we can all do. And you mentioned briefly the gallery that you opened, how has that been? 

McKenzie: Yeah, I’m figuring it out to be honest. I started it to have more space for artists and people like myself to show their work. Myself and the team that I worked with, we put on 10+ exhibitions and did special projects with different people and it was beautiful and amazing, but it was just way too much for me to hold up by myself. So I decided to close and it was the hardest thing, one of the hardest decisions I’d ever had to make until that point and it was almost a year ago. But actually it turned into the most expansive thing because it has enabled me to work on different projects. I’ve collaborated curatorially now with Carl Freedman, done a show at the RA, recently did a Top Boy exhibition for Netflix at Somerset House and and I’ve been consulting and working on different projects and it’s just given me more time for me again.

I think it allowed me to reevaluate what I want to do. Then with the team that I work with at HOME, it’s now becoming something that we all share. It’s up to us all to ‘flesh out’ what we want to do next with it because we don’t have a physical space anymore – so part of the initial key focus is missing. And I always think it’s really important to continually evaluate what’s working and what’s serving me and us and then in turn, the creative landscape. I think a big part of HOME’s original mission now isn’t the direction we want to continue to go in. So we’re rebuilding it, but we have a really lovely newsletter, the five of us, and we have a podcast, and now we’re figuring out what’s next. So it’s such a special experience because it broke me into arts in a new way. Not necessarily on purpose, but just something that I yet again stumbled upon. And I’m really thinking now about how I want to exist in that world, and if I want to exist in that world and and jus feeling it out and being quite intuitive about the projects I take on or the spaces I’m in or even the amount of things that I’m taking in. So yeah, I think the last couple of years have been super transitional. But I’m really inspired and guided by projects that just excite me.

That’s a really nice feeling to have. And so I guess, there’s a community art element to your practice?

McKenzie: Yeah, yeah, absolutely. Something that I was so excited about in working on this chess board for W is that people will actually use it. It’s something that will live in the hotel and live in the space, and guests and visitors can come and actually just play a game. And whether having seen the board inspires them to think differently, or the conversation they have while they’re at that board with another person or group of people, I’m interested in how work can exist in a way where it’s additive to a life. Even fashion to an extent, I love making clothes, I’ve always loved clothes, I love making imagery, but what I love about garments is that they’re something that we can add to our day to make us feel a certain way, and then whatever we do while we’re wearing those things is another thing as opposed to the garment being the final.

You know, the final stamp of, okay, I’m wearing this thing now. It’s like, no, okay, but what can you do in that? And how does it make you feel? And therefore, how does how you feel inform what you do with your time? And that’s what’s really, really interests me about processes and practices that are conversational or that are empowering, but not empowering in a sense of, okay, I’ve seen that and that makes me feel good, but more like I feel held, or I feel comfortable, or I feel as though I’m presenting myself in a way that makes me feel visible and so with that, what do I then do, if that makes sense?

Yeah, that’s really interesting. I feel like we’ve already touched on it a bit, but I was wondering what do you see yourself doing next?

McKenzie: I think there are lots of things that I’d like to learn at the moment. And I want to play in that a little bit. There are lots of things that I’d like to make. And I’m about to do another SELASI collection. That’ll be out at the end of the month (November) and I’ve collaborated with my partner who has a fragrance brand called deya. We’ve made some fragrances, and we’ve made a bag, and I think I’m gonna make some other pieces. I may look at some garments, but I’m gonna make some other things too. So, I think this process of working on this project has also really opened my eyes to what I can do. Having seen it online where it can be produced, or working with Sirat, who’s an amazing artist who worked on the renders for me for this project means that, okay, now maybe I want to learn to render or I want to learn some carpentry, or I spent a long time learning Portuguese and now I’d like to learn Spanish.

So I just feel like I’m in a learning point, which feels really liberating because I don’t feel like I’ve had a focused period of learning for quite a while, you know, I’ve been working on different things and I’ve learnt so much through working on this and being able to also work on a project that isn’t so closely tied to identity and because I feel like so much at the moment is always, always, always about one’s identity, it always has to be about us.

I’ve really enjoyed learning about Hungarian culture, about design narrative, about W Budapest, about how people are, through this project. And that’s inspired me to want to learn other things, that of course are informed by my identity in a capacity because it’s always going to be me making them, but that’s not the first step. I’m able to learn about others and that’s been really enjoyable, and another reason why I’m so excited for the launch tonight because I want to see how, how and if people relate to some of the themes that I put throughout the board and how they feel about them, me being someone who’s not Hungarian or hasn’t spent much time in Budapest. That’s exciting to me, so next i think just more play, more experimentation, and more learning.

  • Writer Kat Beckwith

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