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"Slowly but surely, this nostalgic fear of the future has been compounded by ecological anxiety and grief, also known as Anthropocene trauma." – Annika Toots, "Dancing on the ruins of the future" (KUNST.EE 2021/1)

 

The wounds of silence

Santa Hirsch (1/2021)

Santa Hirsch analyses the exhibition "Difficult Pasts. Connected Worlds".




28. IX 2020–7. III 2021
Cupola Hall of the main building of the Latvian National Museum of Art,
organised by the Latvian Centre for Contemporary Art
Artists: Aslan Ġoisum, Jaana Kokko, Quinsy Gario, Lia Dostlieva, Andrii Dostliev, Paulina Pukytė, Ülo Pikkov, Vika Eksta, Zuzanna Hertzberg
Curators: Ieva Astahovska, Margaret Tali



"Difficult Pasts. Connected Worlds" can be described as a collage of various times and spaces to shed light on similar experiences in the histories of different Eastern European regions. The curators and artists seek to exterminate generalisations and myths that prevail in the official historical narratives written by "the victors" and address the common mechanisms of traumatic experiences caused by violent geopolitical conflicts. In some sense, the exhibition transforms into a collective psychotherapy session where words and visual forms are given to formerly suppressed and silenced memories, but professionally it aligns with research-based contemporary art practices that explore the micronarratives of histories and herstories, and their marginal, oppressed and/or unknown episodes that still affect our lives.

At first glance, the theme might seem too broad to be handled in a comprehensive manner, but the exhibition zooms in on different microelements of everyday life and the life stories of people that are usually neglected or even removed from the spaces of remembrance. The artists focus on the difficult, still present "afterlife" of these complicated pasts. Our relationships with these pasts, especially in post-socialist countries, are still too intense to be referred to as "traces" – as this exhibition confirms, they are ghostly but still a perceptible part of today.

The group exhibition continues the interdisciplinary project "Communicating Difficult Pasts" that included a summer school, symposium and publication. Sometimes in these kinds of long-term multidisciplinary projects, artworks become secondary and look too pale in comparison with all the research work and theoretical background they seem only to supplement visually, and informative overload leaves no place for the visitor's own reflections and feelings. In the case of "Difficult Pasts. Connected Worlds" the exhibition's compactness (eight artworks) makes it possible to highlight all the stories equally, without allowing some aspects to disappear in polyphonic noise. It also echoes the rhizomatic model of curating, establishing narratives from significant details, ambiguous gestures, and accidental parallels. This approach seems even more logical when focusing on narratives of memory, post-memory and making visible the previously invisible – those layers of materials that hitherto were not considered of any aesthetic or historical value. In order to make new, improved and more inclusive versions of histories, one must start with a new point of view and this exhibition predominantly is an attempt to construct new lenses through which we can look at the past.

This new gaze reveals itself in the installations by Paulina Pukytė, who has recognised and highlighted the similarities between totalitarian ideology and neoliberal consumer capitalism in the forms of symbolically charged ordinary everyday items such as a clock and a string bag. Vika Eksta's installation "Conversations with Dad" (2020) for me turned out to be one of the most fascinating experiences of the exhibition. As the title suggests, the artist documented her conversations with her father about his experience in the Soviet-Afghan war, which was lost for the Soviets, and therefore erased from both Soviet and post-Soviet Latvian political awareness. The traumatic experience of the leading character appears through his body language, surrounding environments and daily activities; in other words, in the way he talks, not in the words or facts. The video strikes us as absolutely natural, un-histrionic and sensitive. At the end, the father with a group of his friends are throwing themselves into a cheerful dance, as if trying to symbolically dispose of the horrors that the film talks about. This final conga line dance, which in Latvian is called a "train dance", visually responds to the cattle wagon scenes from Ülo Pikkov's animated film "Body Memory" (2011), which addresses Soviet mass deportations using fragile yarn puppets that unroll from their bodies, as if their umbilical cords were falling apart.

 

 

Ülo Pikkov
Body Memory
2011
puppet film, 9'30'',
installation
Courtesy of the artist
Photographer
Margarita Ogoļceva


 

This accidentally repeating train metaphor also refers to the title of the exhibition and its general emphasis on visual art as a tool to connect different times, regions, worlds and us as individuals. In this collective healing process, the artist performs as a medium that connects the past with the present by recognising new, important parallels and similarities, as well as connecting its opposite modes. For example, Zuzanna Hertzberg restores the memory of Polish and Latvian Jewish women who fought in the Spanish Civil War, adding abstract portraits to their biographical information. A similar strategy of juxtaposition is used in the work of Lia Dostlieva and Andrii Dostliev, in which they explore traumatic feelings of guilt caused by the post-memory of the Holodomor trauma, using prints of their discarded food and anonymous landscapes in Ukraine.

Focusing on microelements of ordinary life accomplishes the exhibition's conceptual aim to reflect on the histories of minorities, making the artworks less didactic, because the artists mostly enter as neutral documentalists, observers and re-contextualisers of these silent testimonies – most striking of which seems to be the installation of street signs pierced by bullets during the Chechen wars in Aslan Ġoisum's work "Fearsome" (2011–ongoing). It allows the repressed themselves to speak instead of representing and patronising them, and this perspective can be interpreted as an answer to the classical questions of postcolonial discourse – whether the oppressed can speak and how. The overall atmosphere of the exhibition lacks any irony, provocation or highly critical statements; it is deeply serious, but also not cold or distant, as often happens with very thoughtful, well-considered projects. The artists and curators have created a kind of emotional, empathetic safe space among these islands of disasters.

 

Santa Hirsch is a freelance art historian and critic, who lives and works in Riga.



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