'I observe the deformation that time creates'

Why did you decide to become an artist? Was choosing this profession something you did deliberately? 

It all started when my dad taught me to paint in oils at home, then he sent me to an art school, where I learned about the Minsk State Art College named after A. Glebov. Then I had a goal – to get there. “Glebovka” altered my consciousness, it’s was the most intense and happiest time. Everything felt somehow different there – the teachers, the place, the friends. I had a wonderful study course and a good environment, there was a group people with whom I always spent time together. When I was in Minsk for the last time, I went to see the alma mater once again. It’s a pity that there was nothing left there, except for piles of garbage and the facility certificate, which said “Start of construction – January 2010; completion of construction – date not set.” (In 2009, the building of “Glebovka” was declared dangerous (dilapidated). On February 26, 2010, by the decision of the city authorities, the tear down of the building began. The artists were promised that they will get a new building built for them in return – one with a dining room, a gym, showrooms for exhibitions and spacious auditoriums. However, as it turned out later, the money was spent on other objects in possession of the Ministry of Culture of Belarus, and the main investment priority at the time was the construction of a Belarusian nuclear power plant – editor’s note) It was sad: this place had a spirit of creativity and a sense of connection with the previous generations.

Why did you decide to get an education in the field of sculpture?

It’s very simple: I did not succeed in painting.

A new form of behaviour, series of photographs, 2018.

You graduated from the Wroclaw Academy. What was the topic of your graduation thesis?

The work Ghost is about the Soviet “past” and monumental art, but also about the close connection between the present and the past, which will never let go of us. When I came to Minsk while studying in Poland, I was most struck by the monumentality of Soviet architecture and sculpture. At the same time, observing the processes of decommunization in Ukraine, where they tried to get rid of Soviet monuments in a rather radical way – by direct destruction of the architectural heritage – I remembered when at the end of 2016 in Minsk, at the territory of some factory, the workers asked to have a monument to Lenin that used to be there re-erected. The Ghost monument, which was taken as a basis, is a monument to Lenin made by S. Selikhanov, a sculptor from my hometown of Stolin. I used to see this monument often on my way to art school, and I have complex feelings about it. In 2017, while I was making that artwork, it seemed that the topic of monuments had exhausted itself, but recent events have shown that the issue of monument as a memorial object has not been fully resolved yet.

This artwork of mine is an object of 4.30 meters in height, made of steel and felt, and complemented by a series of silkscreens. The sculpture, for all its monumentality, is light and mounted on wheels, so it can be moved around an exhibition space. Now this work looks different to me than it did 3 years ago. When I started working with fabric, I assumed that felt had the ability to change its shape, and now I observe the deformation that time casts upon it. Everything changes, but this monument, despite its history, still lives on. With each assembly and disassembly this suit ages; the curves and folds already know where they belong, and the knees, the collar and the elbows are wearing out. After some time, the shell will completely disappear, leaving only the structure beneath, just like after the bygone Soviet era, when the idea and the main concept get washed out, but its strange echoes, that still determine the form of life in Belarus, remain. Almost nothing remains of that past, yet we still remember. Monuments were created to live forever, but they age and pass away – sometimes of their own free will, and sometimes under duress.

Ghost. Steel, felt, silkscreen 2017. BWA Gallery of Contemporary Art, Wroclaw, Poland.

At the same time, you also have some performative works…

Yes, it’s like a continuation of Soviet upbringing – if you need to ‘give birth’ to an artwork, then it’s worth breaking a sweat. This is how my first experience of working with a performance appeared, for which I sewed a costume – a general’s parade tunic, a large one, and then spent a week studying a fragment of the ballet The Rite of Spring by I. Stravinsky. Thinking about the absurdity of the situation with the Victory Parade (celebrated annually in honor of the liberation of the territory of the Soviet Republic of Belarus from the Nazi German invaders – ed.) and its significance this year: while a pandemic is declared in the world, a military parade is being held in Belarus with the participation of veterans who are most at risk of contracting and suffering from the disease, and people are brought in both voluntarily and compulsorily.

A choreographer friend of mine gave me some tips for working with the body. She said that when learning a dance, it will gradually become easier to work on it, since the body starts to remember the motions. Then I asked myself a question: what is the Belarusian body? The body, which was originally assigned a suit cut by someone else, a kind of shell. Despite the fact that I was born in the ’89, my conscious life began later, where “he” was already in power (Alexander Lukashenko – editor’s note). It’s scary to even think that my whole life was originally set by one rhythm,  one movement. And I like that every subsequent generation is trying to get out of the binds of this system.

The Rite of Spring. Performance, live 9 May 2020, BWA Gallery of Contemporary Art, Wroclaw, Poland
The Rite of Spring. Costume’s detail.

A certain interest in clothing can be seen throughout your works.

This interest has to do with this question – what is the Belarusian body like, and what or who gets to form it? Many of us will likely remember those awkwardly uncomfortable and boring-looking brown woolen dresses at school. Their wool prickled the neck; it was too cold in them in winter, too hot in summer, and they never felt comfortable. It was the first costume we wore, but it was imposed on us from the early stages of personality formation – it was from that time that we were taught not to stand out from the crowd. We try on different kinds of clothes every day. We think that we form our own style, our behavior. But more often our style can change depending on the conditions that are provided to us, and we often do not choose what clothes to wear – the appropriate garments are pointed out to us, and sometimes even imposed upon us. Clothes in my works signify a kind of a shell that can cover the individuality or signify certain meanings.

Giveaway photo frame. Video 2,03 min 2020, Galeria Arsenal, Bialystok, Poland.

Why do you deal with the Soviet legacy in your work?

I often ask myself this question. It seems to me that our society has not been able to completely get rid of or fully recover from the Soviet trauma. It takes time and effort. It seems that not all among those of the older generation have recovered from this shock of the Soviet, but, at the same time, there are those who yearn for the past, who miss the way it used to be. But today everything is changing very rapidly. Belarusians show that they have already changed, along with the time. In Poland, I observe and compare myself to them in an old-new context. This feeling is like an old, heavy, leaky coat, which is a shame to throw away.

Looking through Soviet propaganda magazines for women, the Soviet cinema, how the woman and her role in society was presented, I often think about the power and monumentality of Soviet propaganda still present in our upbringing. Although we are already different, it is difficult to simply shake it off. 

I work not only with the Soviet past – rather, it is the relationship with the present, which makes me return to the past, resolve this or that issue and then move on.

In Polish reality, moments from the past appear in my memory, experiences that get reinforced and lived through again. Perhaps because of the information and stories that I elaborate upon while preparing my projects.

Pose. Position. Way. Shoes, steel, video 57 sec. 2019, Aperto Raum, Berlin, Germany.

This type of rethinking of the Soviet ergonomics for women can be seen, for example, in your work titled Pose. Position. Way. Is this correct?

I was thinking about a collection of impractical shoes, the type that doesn’t really suit us or feel comfortable, but we still have to wear. How to choose a posture so that it meets the expectations of society and does not get rejected. I thought about the question of a stable position and the next step. As an artist, I want to draw attention to the issue of objectification in general, and that of women in particular. And the symbolic Soviet star, biting into the heel of a leg dressed in a snow-white stocking, is about what is left of the past and is still with me. This is about the ergonomics that we perceive differently today, sometimes as something hostile. But back then it used to be quite organic and comfortable. 

You mentioned the technology of communicating propaganda, which has its reflection in architecture, clothing, and norms of behavior.

I work with a set of various symbols, but I rethink it through the here-and-now, I speak about them through myself, making it about my own experience and body. When I was in Belarus I wanted to escape from all these Soviet things, and now I am trying to understand or accept the reason for it. Why did I use to feel this way?

During my study of Soviet shop windows, their design, at some point I went further to analyze the aesthetics of both everyday and festive decorations of a Soviet city – all these flagpoles, the wall banners, the placards. As this whole oppressive form of constructions, the slogans, the red madness absorbs all that is human, the individuality. There is only architecture and all these decorations, but no personality to be found anywhere. This is about how power enters into the domain of the individual. For example, in the work Every gram counts I think about soft power – an invisible force that, like soft tissue, like matter, receiving an impact, becomes a transmitter, a carrier of certain information. Moreover, I ask myself the question – what is the method of influencing a person that could be related to this Soviet approach? How, for example, does ideology of one country get spread to another? It can be through food, among other things – while barely perceptible, it does have an effect on the subconscious. Or the language, for instance. I, for example, know Polish and French well, but I still have to learn English. I’m made to do so by the environment.

Every Gram Counts. Installation, steel, fabric, dimensions variable 2020, Contemporary Museum Wroclaw, Poland. Photo: Małgorzata Kujda.

What project are you working on now?

It’s not about particular topics, but rather about the questions from which I derive my projects. How the past affects the future, the future affects the present, and how my reality is transformed under the influence of various social and political processes. The closed borders and the open space in which I find myself now. The search for the ideal space and the perfect communication. Now I am working on several projects in parallel, but I am more closely involved in the issue of food in politics: I am researching the menu of the Soviet people, their culture, as well as kitchen conversations.

How to wash suede gloves. Installation, steel, fabric, fabric blinds, artificial leather, Wroclaw, Poland, 2020.

Are there any artists whose works inspire you?

It’s really difficult to single out someone – I get inspired in different ways at different times, due to certain events and circumstances, and depending on the topic that I’m working on at a given time. Now, while working on a future solo exhibition, I remembered the Sophie Calle exhibition at the Hunt and Nature Museum in Paris in 2017. Analyzing it, I try to understand how she managed to successfully come into agreement with such a complex space. The exposition, its objects and text – everything was very concordant and harmonious. I got an emotional boost in quarantine from watching a film by Alexei German. I noticed the amount of light in his films, the fact that he uses it in a special way. Sometimes there is so much light in the frame that it annoys you, as if you are being tortured with it. Sometimes, with the help of smoke and steam, the light is beautifully blurred and fills the entire space – it seems as if even the hero’s white shirt is glowing. And sometimes these are just small lights that dictate and designate some kind of territory, beyond which the path is closed.