Solvita Krese: “There is a fear of waking up in an irreversibly changed world”
National Art Museum of Ukraine presented art-project “Identity. Behind The Curtain Of Uncertainty”. Over 30 artists from Ukraine and Nordic-Baltic countries participated in the exhibition. KORYDOR talks with curator and director of Latvian Contemporary Art Center Solvita Krese one what Scandinavia, Baltic and Ukraine have in common, things only immigrants can see, and new European fears.
Yevheniia Oliinyk: First, let’s clarify the names. What’s “Curtain Of Uncertainty” in the title is all about?
Solvita Krese: I’m very excited about Roman Minin’s work, which is one of the central ones and opening one, because he somehow illustrates the title very literately. He’s created a curtain with the image of “Donbass mythology” using this “harsh style” of Soviet era depicting Donbass minors, but translates it into contemporary language. And behind this curtain we have a painting of Mykola Ivasiuk “Bohdan Khmelnytskyy entering Kyiv in year 1649”. And that’s exactly what exhibition is about: our identity consists of so many layers; one has to unveil one layer after another to figure out what real identity is.
It’s very important to talk on this topic now, particularly here, in Ukraine, because of quite complicated social and political situation, because of war. I tried to raise the question of identity with defining what it is. Is it about stereotypes dictated by ideology? Or should we probably look at identity from individual prospective, focusing on social roles we play every day or our gender or language or nationality, political statement or whatever? It’s like a kaleidoscope of different approaches to identity gathered in this exhibition.
Y. O.: Do Europeans feel endangered because of the war in the East of Ukraine?
S. K.: There is no one answer for all Europe, but at least Baltic countries are very sympathetic to the events in Ukraine. We still remember Soviet Union occupation time and we still have very tense relationship with Russia. We are aware about how this situation can influence the fate of Europe. But in Nordic countries people are quite far away from this situation. For example, Scandinavians haven’t had a war for a very long time and all those typical difficulties that people in Baltic countries went through. And actually in Europe I’ve met so many people, even among friends of mine, who have no clear opinion about which position is the right one, and it always makes me very angry.
Y. O.: Is it because of propaganda or it’s just the background?
S. K.: Obviously, it is propaganda. I tried to watch Russian television and physically couldn’t stand it. But it’s surprising how many people, even very intelligent and clever, became victims of that brainwash. And also the leftist tradition, which is related to ideas of communism, is very strong in Europe. Many intellectuals of 20th century belong to the leftist movement: Adorno, Marcuse, Sartre and so on. There’s some kind of nostalgia for those ideas, longing for utopia, although communism as a concept obviously failed and modern Russia is an empire with very severe capitalism.
Y. O.: Ukraine and Baltic countries have a lot in common because of Soviet past. But Nordic countries, seen as wealthy and stable, are almost on the opposite of what Ukraine is. What are the points of intersection here?
S. K.: I should say that the project was initiated by the embassies of Nordic and Baltic countries in Ukraine and first was rather a political gesture. When I was invited to curate the exhibition I was also thinking how to find common fields to focus on. The geopolitical location was an answer. We all Nordic, Baltic countries, Ukraine are borderlands of Europe. Ukraine is something in between Russia and Europe, but has a tendency to develop towards Europe. And Nordic countries somehow are still peripheral. They are strong states with great welfare systems, but their geopolitical location is considered to be marginal. So we are always on the crossroads, having to squeeze between very strong political powers, being marginal, but at the same time playing very crucial role because of being on the border.
Y. O.: There’s a lot of reflection on immigrant experience in the project. How does refugee crisis change European identity?
S. K.: The idea of Europe, which is based on freedom and democracy, and values, used to be taken for granted, are questioned again. Many Europeans are really scared of that huge amount of refugees, of different culture. It feels like there’s no stable ground anymore. In the exhibition participate many artists whose origins are in Iran or Turkey, they speak of how they feel being foreigners or strangers in countries they live in. Some people welcome everyone, some are very xenophobic. In Latvia we have a very few refugees, but society is full of prejudice. Although this problem is familiar for us: when Soviets came to Latvia, many people left the country and were just as Syrians are now. They went to Sweden, for example, and created Latvian communities there.
Y. O.: There’s this work of Bita Razavi, Iranian artist, – the photographs of the very same things in Finnish houses, which she took when she worked as a janitor. It reminded me of Ukrainian artist Maria Kulikovska, who lives as an immigrant in Sweden with her wife and delivers her story as an art-project. Where is the line between personal and artistic experience in those cases?
S. K.: Both of those aspects are parts of their identity. Focusing on one or another depends on situation. In this case that artist is a Ukrainian, an artist and an immigrant, that’s at least three identities she could share. And I guess if Bita Razavi was Finnish, she wouldn’t even have noticed those things. They are considered to be traditional souvenirs in Finland, and they are beautiful, but without any real use. And it’s funny how she saw they are all hidden in far end corner and treated almost like garbage, but still are considered to be a part representation of national identity. When you’re an immigrant, you still own this natural curiosity about things, you find the punktum.
Y. O.: What it is like to work within National Art Museum’s space?
S. K.: It’s a big challenge. It’s all you imagine about classical art museum: high ceiling, guards sitting in the corners, watching you. I wanted to have this feeling that we landed with another, non-existing space. And the architect of exhibition, Eriks Bozis, really managed to solve this. It helped us to create a dialog between two spaces, two languages that try to communicate: traditional art and contemporary art.
And we also have some artwork which is directly related to the museum collection – it’s Matt Leiderstam’s installations. He chose four anonymous paintings from “special fund” through which he comments the theme of the exhibition, collection itself and the fate of those paintings. For example, he chose one landscape, small painting, and then scientific department of the museum said that it’s supposed to be landscape from Donbass – that because of industrial buildings depicted. And immediately this painting became very political for him. It’s exhibited backside, and you can see it from the front only when you walk around.
The landscape is placed in the room with another Swedish artist’s works. It’s Matts Adelman, he creates some objects of pieces of wood he finds in the forest; there’s a lot of influence of naive art and this traditional craft in his work. He had a weird painting of Swedish landscape, and I wanted to connect those two paintings – of Donbass and Adelman’s. And today I saw that both artists turned their paintings – on the easel and the chair – backwards. I really like that dialogue between works.
Y. O.: After Maidan, when war started, we suddenly realized that there is some kind of “war of identities” taking place inside the country. Is it ever possible for the nation with such background to gain some common identity?
S. K.: Yeah, usually it’s rather a problem of integration of the newcomers. But in your case – people who lived in the same country for many years, and suddenly this clash happens. I tend to step back to the history and look for references. I saw very interesting exhibition of Melnychuk-Burlaka Group in Visual Culture Research Center. They presented maps according to different historical circumstances. And it showed how many perspectives your really have to look at the same territory from. And in this case contemporary art might be a tool for creating common language.
Y. O.: For a lot of people in Ukraine language is a great part on their identity. And while some speak Russian, but define themselves as Ukrainian, others protest against any usage of Russian. How do you deal with the language issue in Latvia?
S. K.: It’s a question of generations. In 1991, when Latvia became independent, there was such a big denial of Russian language. Every title in Russian was just painted over. People refused to speak any Russian and there were really two language communities which hardly communicated. But now my colleague, who is 25, doesn’t know Russian, as well as my son, who is 16. There are so many Russians around, but he considered Russian to be one of the foreign languages. And now he wants to learn it as Russia is our neighboring country. The historical trauma faded away, but it took about 20 years. I guess, in Ukraine it might be more difficult because both Russian and Ukrainian are Slavic languages and are quite similar.
Y. O.: And what about your experience of rethinking Soviet past?
S. K.: In our case all those Lenin monuments were taken down on the second day after Soviet Union split. But comparing to Ukraine, we didn’t have so many nice mosaics, highly valuable artwork in public space. I think, removing symbols it was a mental need. But we should distinguish strictly between ideological memory containers and really fine artworks. In this exhibition Open Group refers to Soviet time they revisited public art pieces, took those group photos in front of the places where monuments used to be. Most of them disappeared, vanished even before the “decommunization laws”, and there’s no more that past witnesses. K
ristina Norman, who also participated in the project, had this work about “Alyosha” monument in Tallinn. The sculpture dedicated to heroes of Second World War was overloaded with Soviet ideology and was removed from the center. There was a great protest among Russian community in the city. Kristina made a small copy of this monument and placed it where the real “Alyosha” used to be. And people began to bring flowers to it. This is how those monuments work: they are containers of memory; space becomes overloaded with meanings and signs.
Y. O.: There is also the topic of militarization discernibly presenting this exhibition. Is there any fear?
S. K.: Yes. Those recent events in Ukraine aroused fear of Russian presence, I guess. We are full of memory about all those terrible moments of occupation of Baltic countries. And at the moment we are building a real physical wall on the border. One of the artists, Flo Kasearu, made her work “Uprising” in this very moment when all the Baltic countries were waiting for real war. When even our government came out with suggestions what you should do if war starts. Flo told me she saw the workers taking off those old iron sheets from the roof, folding them like a huge paper airplane, and simultaneously she was listening to the news. That was the moment she really felt that war is coming – and her state is helpless. So she decided to build her own “air force”– those small iron airplanes. In spite of everything, this work is very poetic. And now probably it’s less a direct fear of war, but a fear of some unpredictable changes. Fear, that when you wake up next morning, you might be in the same place, but the world around you would irreversibly change.