BOZHENA CHAGAROVA: DIALECTICAL MATRIX
This essay by Polina Limina was the winner of the Stedley Art Foundation VII Art History Contest.
Imagine that you live in the small village of Vchoraishe in Zhytomyr region. The village has only about a thousand inhabitants, and I’m sure you’ve known them all long and well. You get your information about the outside world from two magazines: Novoye Vremya and Korespondent. Sometimes you read something in the small library in the local school. True, you recently got a TV with several channels. So, having only this information, what can you say about society?
I’m not sure you’d want to express your thoughts through dozens of embroideries. Probably not, but who knows. It’s monotonous work that takes two to three weeks. First you need to create the design and get the composition and its main elements right based on the size of the fabric. Then you need thread, lots of thread, preferably of different colors. To buy them, your dad has to go to the district center or Zhytomyr city, 19 and 80 km away, respectively. Those are the only place they’re sold.
You may be asking why your dad has to go, why can’t you go on your own? And in general, what’s the barrier between this person who wants to know everything and the world itself? It’s probably best to end the guessing game here and move on to a real person – her name is Bozhena Chagarova.
I’ll be honest, I didn’t believe she was real at first. We easily believe in things that fit organically into existing patterns of thinking: something contradictory can annoy us, although it’s also quite normal. Bozhena is another story. She herself became a pattern of thinking. A way of thinking about art, comprehending it, asking questions. Quite pretentious, wouldn’t you say? That’s why it was so hard for me to believe it at first.
Let’s start from the beginning.
Everyone who’s worked in a gallery or a museum knows these kinds of visitors: artists or their relatives who bring some of their work and don’t leave you alone until you look through everything. The situation usually ends uncomfortably – you have to turn them away.
That’s exactly how things began one morning at the art center where I was working on a project. A man came in, he was uneasy, became flustered, and obviously wanted to leave as soon as possible. He asked my colleague to download some files from his thumb drive and look through them when we have time. He said his daughter made what’s in them and he thinks we’ll like it.
After he left, we opened the first folder. What we saw was something familiar – technically good images of flowers, horses and sunsets. A Ukrainian woman with her cow in the field. Everything was usual, except for the format – it was all embroidery. If this was the first time we’d seen something like that perhaps we would have started a discussion on “what differentiates art from craft”, but that’s gotten old.
It’s a good thing my colleagues opened the next folder named “PINCHUK”. The name probably caught our attention. And it’s a good thing it did.
There were “stars” from the contemporary art world, and they were embroidered. There were quotes from interviews with Chichkan senior, Pinchuk, Zabolotna, Soloviov, Troitsky – embroidered. There were quotes by Ukrainian politicians – embroidered. There were passages by Shakespeare, Schiller, Panas Myrnyi, Rylskyi and Lenin – all embroidered. There were strange images of humans with five heads, pigs, cows, bizarre houses, Jesus and the flames of hell – all embroidered. And all of this in one piece of embroidery. But what was strangest of all was that it all came together harmoniously. The idea reaches the viewer quickly and sharply, at least it did with us. And then you become uneasy, because you realize that conveying the same idea so laconically and clearly any other way would be impossible. The author created a concentrated image that conveys not only a narrative, but also a logical and self-justifying system of coordinates in which the narrative develops. Bozhena creates not just artistic texts, but a language in which she speaks. Let me put it better: it’s a language the artist had to invent to allow herself to exist. But more about this later.
After we looked through all the files, we didn’t know what to think and what to do. I thought it was all a joke. Maybe someone in the art community created an alter ego to mock them? There have been lots of hoaxes in history, and they’re nothing new for the Ukrainian space.
The only way for us to be certain this wasn’t a new Emile Ajar or Stanislav Perfetsky was to call the man who brought the drive. He returned to the gallery very quickly when he heard that we were interested in Bozhena’s work. A long conversation followed: about his family, about their small village Vchoraishe in Zhytomyr region, about his daughter’s love of embroidery over the last 15 years, about the two magazines that she reads. About how she finds the information in the “culture” and “politics” sections of the magazines, how she teaches crafts at the local school. And about Bozhena’s diagnosis – paranoid schizophrenia – because of which it’s not recommended that she travel: every trip harms her health.
So I went to Bozhena myself.
Th Chagarov home is extremely clean, too clean. All the horizontal surfaces – tables, pedestals, windowsills, beds – are free of objects. Bozhena’s mother sits quietly on the ottoman, listening carefully to our conversation and smiling. Her father takes some large folders from the cabinet. They are in fact archives with hundreds of cutouts from newspapers and magazines from the last ten years. Under the photographs of artists, curators and museum directors are interviews – that’s where Bozhena took the quotes for her embroidery. The cutouts act as documentary evidence: nothing in her work has been made up, everything is precise and factual. “Reality is sometimes more terrible than contemporary art”, Bozhena embroidered. Under the words is the name: “Natalia Zabolotna”. If you ask about this piece, her father will open one of the folders and find the magazine cutout of the interview with Zabolotna and this phrase. “Reality is sometimes more terrible than contemporary art.”
One of Baudrillard’s hypotheses is that the present reality becomes too obvious for the preservation of mystery and illusion in art. Bozhena, without having read Baudrillard, rejects every hint of auratic art (she hasn’t read Benjamin either). For her, art is a language that can be translated and structured into something she understands, she find her own signs of contemporary art. And the horror of reality is that distance and often abstract symbols need to be applied to oneself, thus making a comfortable distance to this reality impossible.
But for some, creativity is one of a few ways to get closer to life. Bozhena began working with visual images on the suggestion of a doctor in a psychiatric facility. The artistic process became a way of processing information from the outside world, a way of controlling the flow of ideas and feelings and how she perceives them. We all do this, but for most of us this is natural, whereas for Bozhena it is clearly regulated, and she is aware of this. Understanding the world requires effort, reflection and self-expression, not something natural and inseparable from people. The question is how ready are we to dive into reality. How urgent is the need, so as not to be cast out of society.
There are several basic elements to Bozhena’s thought process. The first, which I already mentioned, is quoting other people whose words the artist finds in the media and books. The artist carefully selects the fragments of words spoken by others: she only uses those ideas that she can impose on her own life. Personal observations about other people in the village, everyday life and herself – this is the second element. Typically, these two elements collide and show the ambiguity of how reality is manifested in her descriptions. This results in a space of absurdity that can’t be denied or confirmed, only felt. But Bozhena succeeds in conveying this contradictory image.
In addition to her father going to neighboring cities and towns to buy her the right colored threads, he also finds embroidery patterns – girls, boys, flowers, animals, trees, Jesus – clichés that help create the resulting bizarre, almost mythological images. The cows have splitting heads, Jesus holds men and women upside down, a pasture with sheep looks like men’s underwear. What should be a template remains an inherent style, but breaks its very essence. It’s like a letter that has a familiar shape, but doesn’t have any sound – it just hints at the possibility of language.
So, three elements. Quotes from the outside world. Observations about oneself. And a conditional symbol that manifests a logical fissure between the two previous components. Bozhena understands that the ability to express oneself is an achievement. You have to come to terms with the fact that in reality you will never be able to express yourself.
We don’t talk about this in the Chagarov home, but somehow we illustrate it. Bozhena and her parents try to explain every piece they show me: they read aloud the embroidered words, explain the stories behind them. They really want to convey something more, but realize that they can’t. Maybe our conversation is harmful – additional words just erode the focus of her creativity.
As always, we don’t just talk about the pieces that interest me. All of a sudden Bozhena takes out icons she embroidered. Then her father brings a stack of embroidered huts. This work is just as close to the artist as the others. For her, they don’t differ from the textual ones – they are both a means of expression. The question “is it craft or art?” doesn’t matter: language can be used by the same person for sublime poetry and for communicating on everyday things, just as Bozhena “expresses herself through embroidery” in very different formats.
In the end I ask Bozhena whether she likes to write. “Oh no”, she responds quickly. “I have a hard time writing texts. In school the teacher always yelled at the way I write. Although now she really likes my work.” This answer makes me think, because it wasn’t a random question. When her father came to the art center and left the photographs of her embroidery, the archive also had the artist’s texts about most of the series. In many ways they didn’t differ from Bozhena’s visual images.
In her embroidery Bozhena explores not only society, but also herself in it. The way she relates to other people, what differentiates her from others. Often her lyrical heroine seems to be standing in the semantic center of the embroidered picture, she combines in herself completely separate narratives. But this doesn’t prevent Bozhena from treating herself meticulously, sometimes even with naïve disdain. “A poor, miserable cripple”, she writes about herself, although without any hint of whining. That’s how she transmits the way she feels about herself, her fears and desires – in fact she creates an autobiography.
Conversations with Bozhena often involve questions about the future. She wants to be preserved in this world and isn’t ashamed to say it. Her father visits Kyiv galleries and museums with a thumb drive of her work not to sell them or to organize a show. He wants something else: for the work to not be lost, for his daughter to be guaranteed the right to be “written” into history somehow. Bozhena expresses her desire to remain with the same clarity that she expresses her opinions about culture, society and politics in her embroidery. Without any added constructs or adornment – pure and frank.
The awareness of this right comes from within her. It’s not important how others see her or how she sees herself – she wants only because she can. When you gain the ability to express yourself (for example, as a result of long-term treatment), this ability becomes valuable in and of itself, and nothing can change this.
That’s why she centers the world in her embroidery around her own personality, and its looks very harmonious and logical. Her work is “The Gospel by Bozhena”, a subjectivity that doesn’t try to deny itself. This is an important point too because the artist builds her creativity on quotes and clichés. She absorbs them in herself, processes them, and sends them back, with her own signature on each element.
Fragments of texts by Bozhena Chagarova:
“I read in Korespondent magazine Viktor Pinchuk’s statement that: “everyone should have equal opportunities, equal access to education and healthcare”. Anyone who lives in a rural area a priori cannot have “equal opportunities” compared with people who live in the city.”
About “equal access to education”. I’m reading an interview with Svyatoslav Vakarchuk: “One of my go-to books is Seneca’s ‘Moral letters to Lucilius’. It’s very strong.” Who is Lucilius? Why did Seneca write him moral letters? Where in this rural wilderness can I find this book?”
There lives on planet Earth a very good and nice person, the winemaker Robert Guliev, and he tells me in the magazine Novoye Vremya (12 August 2016, #29): “I’m currently reading Jose Saramago’s ‘Blindness’. Dostoyevsky pales in comparison. It’s not an easy read, but it’s a must read.” I became so interested that my dad took the bus to Zhytomyr 100 km away to get this book. But the bookstore never even heard of this author.”
Every word in Bozhena’s texts are used in the literal, textbook sense, without mocking the author, as it may seem at first glance. When you speak to the artist one on one, it’s obvious that a “nice” person is a sincere thought. But there is more to read in this than at first glance. Bozhena forms her impressions not as “I’m certain this is a nice person”, but rather “I can see that this seems like a nice person.” The difference between the two approaches is huge, because it shows that the artist is analyzing all the information. And only afterwards does she give her own expression a simple and uncharged view. A polishing of meaning.
Bozhena Chagarova is also very symmetrical. Not only in her work, where the embroidery is evenly divided into left and right. More interesting is the symmetry of “high” and “low” culture. For every contemporary art situation that the artist contemplates, she finds an answer in her village. It’s a preservation of equilibrium, almost a challenge: let’s take your “elite” ideas and see how they function without the vapid, unrealistic and artificial conditions of “intelligent” life.
Fragments of texts by Bozhena Chagarova:
“The people in my village don’t know about Jan Fabre, so for them to understand the eternal meaning of my cross stitch picture they should look at the photo of this artist’s work in Korespondent magazine (30 April 2010). As soon as I show them the photograph, they get it, and I hear “there are many words in print format that I can’t repeat” (Leonid Kuchma, About the Most Important).
Let me remind you that Jan Febre’s “work symbolizes the artist’s creative potential, who, in order to gush out ideas, must rely on tradition”. In the village, the potential of the intelligentsia (after 0.5 liters [of alcohol – ed.]) is enough to trickle urine in their pants, not to “gush”. I’m walking through the village when I see Uncle Vova and Uncle Ihor carry Petro Trokhymovych by his hands and knees and put him down by the fence. Then they go back to the house and sit on the bench in the shade under the tree. While they talk, Petro Trokhymovych continues to raise his head to listen to his friends’ conversation. Every time he raises his head it falls back down. He tries again and again, but “creative potential” is a heavy burden. This amazed me, so I asked them:
- Guys, why did you put Petro Trokhymovych by the gate? Look at how he’s trying to raise his head to listen to what you’re saying.
- Bozhenochka, darling, you’re not looking in the right place. Look at his fly! When you look there, you’ll see that Trokhymovych pissed himself, and we put him in the sun by the gate so that his pants dry out”.
Östlund “The Square”. In Ukrainian decorations.
By following the life of the art community, cutting out texts about curators and artists and keeping them in folders in the cabinet, embroidering biographical moments of public figures, Bozhena understands that she will never belong to this circle. She will not come to the opening of her show, won’t attend all the high-profile events. But she doesn’t need to. The main thing is that the artist, thanks to magazines and television, understood the semantics and system of signs within the art community. Then she processed them on the personal level. She assessed the discrepancies and confusions (for example, between “accessibility” and “openness”). And, ultimately, she expressed it through embroidery on fabric. The cycle is complete, the subject is conquered. Perhaps you don’t even have to want to be part of the crowd if the crowd is already in you.
I can’t say that I figured out how Bozhena thinks. Moreover, I can say for certain that I haven’t figured out how I think and see the world. But when I looked at Bozhena’s embroidery, when I spoke with her or read her texts, I got the feeling that she understands herself. To the extent that she can clearly translate the neural impulses in her brain into works of art, structure the flow of information from the outside world, and (perhaps most importantly) be certain in the need to preserve her own personal language. Why? Because it seems you’ve created the personal dialectical matrix of Bozhena Chagarova.
The Culture Mirrors cultural journalism residence project is realized with the support of Culture Bridges program financed by the European Union and implemented by the BRITISH Council in Ukraine in partnership with European Union National Institutes for Culture (EUNIC).