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Tanja Muravskaja: "The conflict in Ukraine affects us all"

Elnara Taidre (2/2015)

Elnara Taidre interviews Tanja Muravskaja about her exhibition "Three Sisters", which looks at the Ukraine-Russia conflict at a personal level.


22. IV–11.V 2015
Hobusepea Gallery


Please tell us about the background – what is your Ukraine-story: who in your family are from Ukraine, what still ties you to Ukraine and how do they make you feel.

My parents were born in Ukraine, in towns around the Zhytomyr oblast. My father had visited my aunt in Estonia both before and after his military service, and once married, decided to move here with his family. So a year before I was born they moved to Pärnu. During this time we kept in touch with our relatives and visited them in Ukraine every year. My cousins and I – we were five in all, my mother and her sisters' daughters – we called each other sisters to emphasise our closeness. During the Soviet era, two families that we were related to moved from Ukraine to what is now Russia and they stayed there when the borders were re-formed. So now two sisters live in Russia, one in Ukraine and me here.

For me there exists the Ukraine of my childhood and now a new and different Ukraine. People from the events in my childhood are becoming more distant and the photos from that time are losing their romantic qualities and becoming more realistic; for instance, that which once seemed pleasant about country life, has now taken on a completely different meaning. Over the past few years my Ukraine has become new, political and harsh, rather the frenzied Ukraine of YouTube or international news channels. So in conclusion, my picture of Ukraine is layered and emotional, combining cheerful memories and harsh modern experiences. I don't want to seem too confident, but even back in November two years ago I had a feeling that the events at Maidan would expose symptoms of conflict in society and could lead to completely unpredictable consequences. Of course, I couldn't have predicted that the situation would become this serious. I couldn't tear myself away from the news; I was very empathetic and kept in contact with my relatives.

Tell us, where did the idea for the exhibition come from.

The situation became especially incisive when we found out that one of my Kiev-sisters was an active participant in the events at Maidan. This shocked us and we were very anxious about her safety. About a year after this I decided that I should express my opinion as an artist regarding this subject; perhaps not directly, but through some form of allegory. Using my experience as a journalist and journalistic methods, I decided go and ask the source object itself; find out what it thinks and wants to say. I went and spoke to her in January and then interviewed my sister living in Belgograd, Russia four weeks later. I heard two diametrically opposite perspectives. And I heard them in a very open manner, because it is one thing to speak via Skype, but a completely different one to do it face to face.


Muravskaja Kolm ├Áde


There were four of you, but you chose two of your four sisters.

I chose two who had a very active political opinion.

In the exhibition we see two sisters: and you are the invisible third. The sisters argue – the dialogue of the two videos seems to create a virtual argument – and you listen. You are a neutral viewer who poses questions for the sisters and, it seems to me, for the viewer.

When it comes to relatives, it is very difficult to maintain a neutral position, but my aim was to remain neutral, both as a relative and as an artist. Of course, I have an opinion, but in this instance I am positioned between the two sisters as a listener. For the viewer, I am present but invisible. The tone is created by the title, which indicates a third character. The viewer also inhabits this third participant.

The viewer, of course, cannot become you, but nevertheless sees through your eyes.

Yes. With the hand-written text on the wall, I tried to allude to my presence and existence in a minimal way. My absence is also political, because Estonia does not participate directly in the conflict, but I bring the two sides into the spotlight.

Perhaps we in Estonia are able to see the conflict with more objectivity.

For the time being. We of course engage in political discussions, while they do so via direct military action.

Let's speak about the title of the exhibition. The idea of the three sisters is a cultural archetype. It is amusing that my first association was with the group of buildings not far from Hobusepea Gallery, fairy tales with three sisters and also the three Charities of mythology. Only later did I remember the restlessness and aspiring towards something unattainable expressed in Anton Chekhov's play about three sisters.

"To Moscow, to Moscow!" can be replaced with other destinations.

"Towards freedom!"

Or "Towards peace!"

That being said, the new and old archetypes of the three sisters are contradictory. The first expresses the abundance of the trinity and the second instability and anxiety. Your title includes different levels of meaning, allowing various interpretations.

The three sisters idea seemed to me to be quite rich in content. It took some time to find a suitable title, because I wanted one that would immerse the viewer immediately. I could have chosen something striking like "Maidan" or "The Ukraine Conflict", but they wouldn't have had the same effect. I based the title not so much on the material, but on the message, which I tried to convey using allegory. The three sisters archetype is key to the exhibition.

I have heard that there are also many families in conflict without any Ukrainian lineage in Russia. Sceptical Russians see the events in Ukraine as just a part of Russia's neo-imperialist domestic and foreign policy.

I fear that this might only be the beginning of the process, which might spread like a virus. There are millions of people in Russia and Ukraine, as well as large Russian communities elsewhere. I'm afraid that the range and effects of the schism are broad and may surface in the long run. The events in Ukraine are not just a local crisis.

It's a global issue. There has already been talk of a second Cold War.

One could say that the conflict has provoked questions regarding Russian identity, which perhaps were not as pressing before. Now they have a very precise idea concerning their country, its place in the world and its future. I think we will be affected by this as a neighbouring country. The conflict in Ukraine affects us all.

The problem is larger than just the Ukraine crisis, because it alludes to greater processes. It is a search for Russia's own way, through antagonism.

The conflicts within families are also symptoms of a dangerous system. I could never have imagined my sisters developing such fundamental and opposing opinions. We have never spoken about political issues, but the current crisis emphasised certain characteristics and provoked a schism. We are currently seeing only the first effects, which frighten me. The motivation for my exhibition was this creeping fear of some approaching catastrophe. I wanted to complete this project sometime after the fact to check my emotions. Now, a year later, I feel just enough distance to make such a project possible.

The purely ideological thoughts of both sisters were frightening. The grotesque nature of the searching for identity in both Russia and Ukraine are quite incredible.

And both sisters are university educated. The Kiev-sister has an MA in international relations and the Belgograd sister has two degrees. She is a lawyer and economist and works as a lawyer at the ministry of health. I don't give the viewer too much information, though, making it easier for them to identify with both sisters. I also didn't want to present the sisters' idiosyncrasies, because many people think like them. My interviews were not haphazard. I asked them each the same questions on two different days to check whether their stories matched and this was mainly the case. They're not accidental statements; they're a thought-through presentation. I was amazed and couldn't believe that they, as adults, were speaking seriously.

Their stories fit the official statements.

Of course. They didn't make it up. It is official doctrine.

It's a manifesto.

Yes. For them it was important to express their opinion and that these would be made publicly known in Estonia and Europe. Also, the story they told while the camera was rolling was a lot like the one they told without it. They represent a way of thinking, ideological constructs, which, at the moment, have a stable foundation. I have also spoken to Ukrainian artists and they're opinions don't differ much from those of my Kiev sister. I was spoken to vehemently, and only in Ukrainian, even though my grasp of the language is insufficient for intellectual discussion. They refused to speak to me in Russian, the language of the enemy, becoming defensive and stressing their Ukrainian identity.

Perhaps this is partly due to the extreme nature of the situation, with numerous fatalities and the inability to discuss objectively or find a neutral position. There are only extremes; the world becomes black and white. Who isn't with us is against.

The sister who took part at Maidan said that people were very united behind the barricades because on the other side people were getting shot. She was gladdened by the national unity and the atmosphere of mutual aid in very difficult circumstances. And she was happy to remain there, follow the rules and risk her life. For me this was unbelievable. You cannot see this process in a peaceful or neutral way; saying for instance that society is going through the same phase that Estonia went through years ago. In the case of the Ukraine-Russia crisis, the search for national identity is being formed through conflict and fratricide. They kill each other and discover something about themselves.

The video of the streets of Kiev coupled with the sounds of the war taken from YouTube is impressive.

While in Kiev I couldn't get rid of the phantom explosions in my mind, which were coming from Eastern Ukraine. I was amazed at how people could celebrate the New Year, sit in expensive restaurants, take photos and live as if there was no fighting and dying 600 km away. By the way, the residents of Kiev have the greatest responsibility for the government from the last elections, because they have the most voters and are closer to the information and the power. But I was told that you can't just worry or feel oppressed, because you have to keep living, feed your children etc. But the fact that the residents of Kiev have accepted the conflict seems to suggest that they condone it. I returned with a heavy heart and this, I believe in some way, is expressed in the video.

My first impression was the contrast of the video and audio. The incessant shooting and explosions juxtaposed with the almost idyllic, sunny streets of Kiev with carefree pedestrians. Although, at some point it showed a memorial to which people were bringing flowers.

That was for the victims at Maidan. Not those who have died at the front.

I suspected it was for them.

I don't give too many clues, because specific facts would lead to specific conclusions, which is something I would like to avoid. The exhibition consists of three videos, which in total play for about an hour. I attempt to give the viewer the gist with the minimum amount of footage to watch. Observant viewers can analyse the plotlines in the video of the streets of Kiev or the semantics of the sisters' stories, which allows the viewer to delve even deeper. But one should be able to get an impression after a relatively cursory glance.

One gets a strong first impression from the exhibition, but going deeper adds a lot more. Looking at the streets of Kiev I started to feel that the conflict was happening right there and the people are watching from viewing platforms like from a theatre balcony. And do nothing. As well as Europe, the whole world is watching these events, either powerlessly or cynically.

The main emphasis in the Kiev video was the aesthetic components, but in fact it played many rolls including presenting the cityscapes as if seen from a distance.

A good piece or exhibition is always multi-layered, with many layers of meaning. The deeper you go, the more you get. At one point, the birds coincided so well with the explosions that I thought they weren't birds, but bombers. I almost flinched. In this video you start with two separate sites, one portrayed with video and the other with audio, but at some point they become one in the mind of the viewer. The scene is constructed in a curiously psychological and sensory-phenomenological manner.

I'm glad that it has had such an effect.

As well as the content, I believe the methods you used to achieve the perception of such a difficult subject are very important. It's not just documentation, is it? Why is it an art exhibition? Here you have your own methods, dramatization, which as well as the theoretical and political level, has an aesthetic and emotional effect. In the case of the video interviews with your sisters, which can only be seen together in the exhibition, my first impression was one of complete chaos.

Exactly, you feel like you want to leave, it is hard to stay and watch and listen.

My first impression as I entered the exhibition space was the sound of arguing voices, which was created by the video of the two sisters positioned in the corner, opposite each other. The corner, as a sharp geometric form, conveys the conflict well. I found the way you amplified the documented drama through creative methods very interesting. They're not material from an anthropological expedition, which are placed together on the wall, with different perspectives so that they can be viewed separately.

In addition to the act of collecting, I also had an artistic purpose.

As a viewer you feel like a neutral listener who is thrust into the argument. The collision of the two differing world-views even has a physical effect as the body of the viewer, between the two visual and aural sources, becomes the area of conflict, the battleground personified. Although, I can't see any opening for a dialogue, solution or reconciliation.

There's none of that. The exhibition presents a certain phenomenon, creates a certain atmosphere. Although, as the artist, I cannot see a solution here. I don't take sides or say who is better. My education leads me to make incisive, critical pieces. Of course I also think about the viewer, in the sense that I don't want to completely traumatise them, neither do I necessarily want to create a comfortable atmosphere at the exhibition. My work always deals with people, portrays them in a certain manner, but by doing this you also examine yourself, as in a mirror, answering questions about yourself. I am tackling quite a few ethical questions with this exhibition. How not to offend the views of the viewer? How not to offend my family or change my sisters into my enemies? How to remain myself and preserve my own position? I also want the viewer to experience my work aesthetically, an experience of art that is well executed and respectful of the viewer and not feel offended. In that way I do care about the viewer, but I also don't want to present them with an overly cheerful experience.

You also care for the viewer by presenting first-hand information. It has reached Estonia in a pure form, not like that which we read in the papers. You allow the viewer into your family and trust them with your family's story, a personal drama. It's quite a privilege. And it is never easy. I understood from your sisters' stories that they are trying to maintain family ties in spite of political topics. The sister living in Russia stressed the importance of relatives. For me that was a nice positive point. Of course, I don't know how much the fact that both sisters ended their stories by stressing the importance for personal relations and family ties was affected by your questions or manipulated by the editing.

No, they both finished like that independently.

That held some hope that people are not completely blinded by ideology.

Not all are. We avoid political subjects to stop family relations disintegrating completely.


Elnara Taidre is an art-theorist, curator and critic who works at Kumu Art Museum.


Tanja Muravskaja is a photographer who lives and works in Tallinn. She studied photography at the Estonian Academy of Arts 2002–2010 and the University of Westminster 2004–2005, before that she also studied journalism at Tallinn University. She rose to prominence in the Estonian art world in the second half of the 2000s with solo exhibitions of mainly photographic portraits dealing with (new) nationalism. She has pieces in the collections of Kumu Art Museum and Tartu Art Museum.

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