From isolation to publicity? Exhibitions New Art of Belarus (Poland, 2000) and Opening the door? Belarusian art today (Lithuania, 2010)

The article was written in the frame of research project ‘Zero Radius. Art-ontology of the 00s Minsk’. Published in the cataloge ‘Zero Radius. Art-ontology of the 00s Minsk’ (ed. R.Vaškievič, A.Źhiroŭskaja, V.Śparaha). Lohvinaŭ, Minsk 2012



Alaksiej Lunioŭ Total Zero

One of the most important events for presentation of Belarusian art abroad at the beginning of the 00s was the project of Polish curator Eulalia Domanovska New Art of Belarus (Centre for Contemporary Art Ujazdowski Castle, Warsaw, 2000). On the one hand, this project logically continued the process of Belarusian artists’ engagement into the world art stage that started with ‘the iron curtain’ fall. For example, in 1989 Belarusian artists took part in such major exhibitions as Eastern European Art and Red and White (The Netherlands), Stalin Yesterday. Today. Tomorrow (Belarus-Russia- Lithuania), Artists from Eastern Europe (The Netherlands).

On the other hand, the catalogue texts to the exhibition New Art of Belarus, in particular, written by Eulalia Domanovska, Irina Bigday and Olga Kopenkina witnessed that, despite active presentation of Belarusian art abroad in the 1990s – for example, projects Belart (Darmstadt, Germany 1990), We are (Warsaw, Poland, 1991), Neue Kunst aus Weisrussland (Munichgladbach, Germany 1992), Kunstler aus Weisrussland (Bonn, Germany, 1993),   Belart Zeitgenossiche Kunst aus Belarus (Ochtrup, Germany 1996), The Kingdom of Belarus (Warsaw – Slupsk-Gdansk-Belostok, Poland, 1998/1999) and others – this art still remained ‚new and unknown‘ for western curators (we can often see in the titles of exhibitions and curators’ texts the words ‚new’, ‚for the first time’, ‚unknown’)

From the end of the 1980s the main topic for presentation of Belarusian art abroad was Belarus as the unknown: it was enough to announce Belarus as the main topic of exhibition and the name worked. The exhibition  New Art of Belarus that was supposed to open a new page in the history of Belarusian art abroad turned out to be a failure. This exhibition not just failed to summarise the decade when Belarusian artists were extensively introduced to Western European art stage. It looks like western public meets Belarusian art anew; the decade was not enough for Belart to mark the borders and create a recognizable brand.   

Belarusian art as a chimerical phenomenon

The curator of the project Eulalia Domanovska in her introduction defines Belarusian art as a ‚chimerical’, and ‚underground’ (‚we study the underground world’) phenomenon, which is both difficult and easy to discover [1]. In her opinion the main reason for such self-isolation lies in the absence of art infrastructure, i.e. such things as system of galleries, the curator’s institution, research centers and art market. The artists have to exist without any structure or system; nobody archivates, systematizes, and analyses their works.

That’s why the curator defines several goals in her project. On the one hand, taking into account the absence of Belarusian artists’ database, she pays special attention to names: they are authors of several generations, including the latest one [2].  On the other hand, – which Domanovska defines as one of the project’s goals – analyzing the artists’ works she tries to understand how the identification process goes in Belarusian society and at what stage it is now. In other words, Belarus the unknown still thrills foreign spectators. Analyzing the contents and the ideas Belatusian artists work with, curators see in them, first of all, reaction to the processes going on in the country; method of realizing and reflecting surrounding reality – the artists don’t correlate their works with processes on the world art stage.

Thus, Eulalia Domanovska points out domineering abstract forms and autobiographical details in the works of Olga Sazykina, Igor Savchenko, Andrey Loginov; ironical distance from reality in the works of Sergey Babareka, Vitold Levchenya, Artur Klinau; Andrey Durejko’s work with individual mythology; theatralisation in Igor Tishin’s  installations, i.e. choosing this or that form (no matter how contemporary it is ) for art critics is the indicator of the situation in the country, the method one can answer the question about Belarusian identity in general.

Irina Bigday in her text Real Virtuality: Made in Belarus speaks in more detail on the phenomenon and reasons why exactly such tendencies as mysticism and universalism are domineering in Belarusian art. She draws an evident connection between political, social and historical situation in the country and the artifacts created by the artists. The author of the text introduces the notion of real virtuality in which Belarusians live. This phenomenon, unlike virtual reality (based on computer technologies and existing according to certain algorithms)  is devoid of any logical structure. Belarusian art is ‚occasional’, ‚unpredictable’ and ‚disoriented’ [3] (just like any processes taking place in Belarusian society). So, having the potential, but being situated outside centralized, regular structure Belarusian modern art as a phenomenon remains vague; it’s realized on fragmentary basis and is personalized by separate artists.

The problem of self-idenification as a problem of escaping  from reality.

Despite the fact that Belarusian artists work with different plots and use different methods of work, all their creative activities have one thing in common; they are separated from contemporary time and place (when and where the work is made – the answers are given only in captions under pictures). Domineering motifs of nature (in photographs of Andrey Loginov, (A Night Walk), installations by Vladimir Vasiljev (A Bridge), by Artur Klinau (Palazzi Per Ucelli) say rather about escaping from reality than about its research. The works where the texts are used (A Tablecloth of Petals by Sazykina, Reading-Writing by Natalya Zaloznaya) we can also see the artists’ escape from a clear statement. The text is abstract, vague, it’s the text only if we mean it in its artistic conceptual sense. Even in  Commented Landscapes by Igor Savchenko text ismore a means of separating from reality than denoting it; it is some abstract ‚today’, parallel to existing ‚here and now’ and constructed by artists themselves.

Irina Bigday, analyzing Belarusian art presented in the project, considers it exclusively in the context of the absurdity the artists live in and which they may not even realize. That is the reason why nature is domineering there; the artists get their inspiration and get ‚isolated’ escaping from the absurdity of everyday routine to their ‚real virtuality’  – humanistic art, that expresses itself in extreme humanity [4]. Being placed in a ‚zone’ denied by official Belarusian art, their activity not being evaluated,  Belarusian artists work by ear, like the blind. ‚Real virtuality’, accoring to Irina Bigday, is not a theme of separate works, but a trend of Belarusian art of 1990s and the beginnng of new millennium ( the future will show that in the 00s the tendency will continue).

Olga Kopenkina finds different reasons for Belarusian artists’ self-isolation [5], apart from those denoted by other authors (the absence of infrastructure and speculation about the political and social situation); one more important reason, in her opinion, is a Belarusian mentality, which can be seen in works of Belarusian artists.

Domineering abstract motifs in Belarusian modern art, with its blurred borders and shapes, is the sign of problems with self-identification. Thus, in Kopenkina’s opinion, Belarusians don’t differentiate themselves from others (some ‚conglomerate’ situated somewhere between East – Moscow and the West [6]). There’re some historical reasons for that; Belarus was part of Great Duchy of Lithuania, Rech Pospolitaya, Russian Empire and later the USSR – all these influenced Belarusian self-identification making Belarusians think they are nation in the outskirts (the center is somewhere ‚out there’). Kopenkina also mentions one more important factor – the migration of the Belarusians both to the West and to the East.

Migrant and Partisan as main strategies of Belarusian art. 

According to Kopenkina, logical outcome of disorientation of the Belarusians both in outer world and in their own country was the fact that ‚house’ becomes their main nomos, while being ‚migrant’ or ‚partisan’ [7] become their main subconscious strategies of existence. i.e. (self)-isolation of Belarusian art is not an artificial phenomenon imposed on Belarusians from ‚outside’ or by the official Belarusian ‚inside’. First of all, it’s a choice, probably subconscious, of the authors themselves, when they, while defending their personal creative territory,  their individual world from hostile, as they think, intervention from outer world with its socially oriented art, working with daily routine. Belarusian artists are secluded in their ‚nomos’  – ‘extremely humanistic’[8]  art. Thus we may arrive at the conclusion that topics actual for the world art process – no matter gender, social or political ones – are not identified by Belarusian artists as meaningful for art. Real art, in their opinion, must be eternal, humanistic, ideal; it should work with eternal topics (the abstract kind and the evil, life and death, love and hate) or with artist’s personal feelings, which have minimal touch with external, real world.

Olga Kopenkina points out that a key moment in the language used by Belarusian artists is absence of concrete images. It’s hard to find images of man or the artists themselves as well; i. e. the work is realized only on the field of inner world, the place to express it is a natural landscape, blurred figures, abstract objects, some conditional ‘canvas’. But it’s the absence of signs (and clearly outlined images) that in Kopenkina’s opinion can become the main characteristic feature of cultural and territorial identification of Belarus [9] (and, consequently, Belarusian art).

It is worth to mention here works by Ales Pushkin, which at first glance, stand apart from universal works of other Belarusian artists presented at the exhibition. In his murales in Bobr church we can see the political forces acting in Belarus here and now due to which we can define time and place of making these works. Shall we consider such a work as an example of political art? As a work connected with the topic and a means of protest – yes, of course.  (Domanovska, when she was speaking about connection of Belarusian art to politics means exactly this work). But, at the same time, it’s evident that the political in these murales doesn’t go further than notion of nomos house Kopenkina writes about. The work is created in the context of religious i.e. universal and despite its concrete character it has an ambition to belong to eternal art. Pushkin’s works are an interesting example of political art in confrontation with outer world (the artist just fixes the fact of reality and, the work doesn’t leave the enclosed space of the church, which is in the outskirts of the country’s political life).

Thus the project New Art of Belarus became significant not only as a benchmark for Belarusian modern art. First of all, it’s an attempt to answer the question – what is going on in Belarusian art at the beginning of a new millennium and why? The domineering abstraction as a form and universalism as a topic, the absence of real life signs and objects (works presented at the exhibition are virtually abstract) is a sign of subconscious intention of the artist mot to define what they want to say. The artists themselves don’t want to be found out. They migrate inside and outside (during the nineties in the framework of Western residence system and grants Belarusian artists actively acquired Western Europe, some of them immigrated. This process continued in the 00s).

In this context Ales Pushkin’s Workshop in Belarus looks quite significant. It shows a big padlock on the wooden door. Who hang it – the one who is outside or the one who is behind the door?

Belarusian modern art: opening the door?

In 2010 curator of Contemporary Art Centre in Vilnius Kestutis Kuizinas comes to Minsk to select works for his project about Belarus and he gets into the ‘underground world’ described before by Eulalia Domanovska; for the decade passed there is still no consistent infrastructure; meeting the artists takes place as a result of a spoken word (just like Domanovska did it 10 years ago). I think that what Kuizinas saw there (I mean not the form but (self) isolating contents (work with the inner world) hardly differed from the situation at the turn of the millenniums. Though, technically the art was new.

But unlike Domanovska, the curator didn’t try to compile the project from the works provided by artists, thus preserving Belarusian art (with its evident time gap) in its natural ‘isolationism’ [10] The curator decided to build a new idea of Belarus. He didn’t want to complete a necessary jigsaw but to provoke Belarusian artists to create myths about themselves and about Belarus in general. Kuizinas suggested to work in the zone of artists’ taboos and self-limitations, i.e. to cross the border of the nomos, Kopenkina was talking about.

What he received was not just convincing sizing up of art 00s, but a new page of Belarusian modern art (first of all, inside Belarusian art environment itself); a benchmark, from which, in my opinion, ‘the reload’ of Belarusian art started [11]. It happened in the background of processes of liberalization and democratization taking place in Belarus at the time (presidential election campaign 2010). It looked like after the events and discoveries taking place around the project and in the period of the project preparation (a series of discussions and talks), Belarusian art will start developing differently – the padlock will fall and the doors will open at last. Running ahead, I should say large scale changes never happened (expected hopes at some ‘wonder’ of changing the political situation didn’t come true). However, the fact that very important drift in the authors’ consciousness took place is evident.

Work with Belarusian routine

In the frames of the project Belarusian artists all of a sudden started working with topics they (no matter how subconsciously) ignored before; we can see works about the political, social, reflection of the authors on Belarusian contemporary everyday life; they started working with urban environment. As Julia Fomina, the curator’s assistant points out [12], in the exhibition catalogue Belarusian artists easily use international modern art language; we can see different genres such as installation, various media and performances at the exhibition. But what is clear, that unlike the project of 2000 in Vilnius it was not just about Belarus, but it was about modern Belarus. (Belarusian artists act not just as chroniclers in their works but document and archivate the environment, reproduce its fragments’ [13]).

Of course, the artists took the role of chroniclers mostly due to the curator; one of the principal moments here was to clash the artists stayed in Minsk with those who emigrated [14]. ‘Both sides of disintegrated artistic community are represented in the framework of one project not for the first time, but here it’s very important that this time it takes place next to their native country’ [15]. Belarusians ‘from outside’ brought not only different vision and feeling of Belarus but gave the benchmark, due to which it became possible to look at Belarusian art and Belarus in general from different perspective. It’s the benchmark not only for viewers but for the artists who live in Minsk, who due to their colleagues’ example can see new ways of working with Belarusian context that, probably, looked dull and boring before.

The motifs of nature loved so much by Belarusian artists were no longer seen here. On the contrary, in many artists’ works we could see urban space. It’s urban environment where the artists’ ideas start developing. It is a research subject in High Heels by Anna Shkolnikova (here it’s worth mentioning A Bridge by Vladimir Vasiljev in the project of 2000, where he created the shaky and dangerous feeling, picturing hanging bridge surrounded by natural landscape, above the landscape; Shkolnikova denotes this ‘bridge’ in urban environment). The urban environment dominates in the works where background works as a natural landscape, like in Oleg Yushko’s work Fully Linen Jacket, where the Belarusian perform their routine actions dressed in linen suits. But it’s clear that unlike the works presented in the project of 2000 the presence of nature is just the condition; it’s not the purpose and the means of the work. The story the artist tells us belongs to the city.

Minsk’s Soviet architecture is being mythologized by Artur Klinau in The Sun City of Dream; the understanding of the Soviet as a past (photo series of Igor Peshekhonov (Iron concrete. Memory material) is also an important aspect of the project. It means that Belarusian artists started to feel time distance – but not towards the present, as it was pointed out in ‘New Art of Belarus’ but towards the past.

It’s interesting to compare how the ‘word’ was used by the artists in the project of the year 2000 and in the project Opening the Door? Belarusian Art Today. It’s clear that in 10 years the word, as well as the visual gets more and more concrete. The message of Alexander Komarov in (No) News from Belarus is rather direct (which can be compared with Reading-Writing by Natalya Zaloznaya). The word, turning into text which is possible to decipher is the main form for Lena Davidovich in  A Story of A Wife as well as in the project ‘Hellriser’ part 2 or in the series The End of the World’ by Ruslan Vashkevich. 

The Political as the main taboo? 

But the most important achievement of the project is vivid claim about the political in Belarusian art. Some of the artist use existing state symbols openly, putting them into critical context. Image of Belarusian National library in the form of ‘Belarusian globe’ was the main characteristic feature of the project by Yury Shust and Ilya Dovnar; the Palace of the Republic (The Palace by Alexander Komarov); the coat of arms of the Republic of Belarus (The Way of Sun by Marina Naprushkina). A Hare by Alexey Lunev, (Multipli) including the idea of the emblem of Belarusian ruble. Belarusian artists form ‘outside’ were more brave with state symbols to avoid ambiguity; they tried to express themselves more directly. Alexey Lunev works with metaphysical idea of time and reference to Belarusian context doesn’t have is not the main idea of his work. Just like Ales Pushkin in his Fresques, Lunev places Belarusian ‘here and now’ into universal context, thus adding to the work rather reflecting but not acting character.

Nevertheless, social political message sounded exactly in the idea of work by Sergey Shabohin Transparent Choice that immediately refers to Belarusian ‘here and now’ [16]. An absolute leader here is The Bureau of Antipropaganda by Marina Naprushkina. For many of Belarusian artists it’s one of the most disputable art projects, as Naprushkina entered, probably, the most taboo ‘zone’ for Belarusian art. Her works are ready-made (anti)agitation material; as a result the border between art, which cannot be engaged (biased) (in Belarusian art environment still try to refer to the notion of ‘masterpiece’ and ‘eternity’ in art), and artist’s participation in political life of the society and the country.

It’s worth bringing up here the fresques by Pushkin, who, as was mentioned above, separates Belarusian ‘here and now’ (in the fresques the present president Lukashenko is also pictured). Naprushkina not only brings her workout to the public space but places Lukashenko in the context of contemporary Belarus, above any universalism. Thus, at the end of the 00s, it’s evident, that Belarusian author managed to overcome time distance. It can be noticed in other works (photographs of Alexey Shinkarenko, for instance). But in The Bureau of Antipropaganda Belarusian ‘here and now’ is not just recognizable, but it becomes the principal hero of the research, the topic for critics without putting it into universal context.

On the way to constructing personal identity 

Thus, working at actual topics about Belarus artists improved the form: it got much clearer and more precise; the artists stopped aiming at creating ‘masterpieces’ and an artistic gesture takes central place in their creative work. Overcoming temporary and geographical distance authors leave their safe ‘real virtuality’ behind and get to their Belarusian (though absurd) ‘here and now’. It not just widened range of topics artists can work with now (I mean here removing their self limitation) but principally changed the situation with the topic ‘Belarus as an unknown’ [17]

Of course, not everything became known and clear about Belarus after this project, but definitely it got a bit clearer. As well as we can’t say that the ‘doors’ into (or for) Belarusian art opened [18].  And still the most important thing changed – the attitude towards the context. Before artists themselves were exhibition ‘objects’ i.e. Belarusian project was the set of artists’ statements due to which we could imagine the project named ‘Belarus’ (and the artists as part of the project). In the frames of Opening the Door? Belarusian Art Today the authors with curator’s help started constructing the project themselves. For them Belarus becomes first of all an object of research and their statements are not closed, not turned inwards, but are addressed to the viewer outside.

Can we thus state ‘the end of partisan movement’ in Belarusian art? It was exactly then, during Opening the Door? Belarusian Art Today when the idea of art activism was aired to be implemented later by the initiative of Sergey Shabohin – on-line magazine about Belarusian contemporary art ArtAktivist. Before we answer the question, let’s compare two works – Exit by Andrey Durejko, presented at the exhibition New Art of Belarus and The End of the World by Ruslan Vashkevich, demonstrated during Opening the Door? Belarusian Art Today.

In Durejko’s work we can see the motif of artist’s escape from reality into harmonious natural bright world. In the End of the World, through irony Vashkevich demonstrates despair. On the one hand, it’s surprising that work got into the project that was to change life in Belarusian art. On the other hand, the events after the elections in 2010 showed how far the prospects of further changes are and how ‘actual’ the statement of Vashkevich is.

It means that retreat is the most effective tactics. And the strategy of ‘art-activism’ at its full (I mean, as a real working power) that was supposed to come instead of ‘partisan’ state of affairs, for some reasons cannot come true so far. One can play ‘activism’ not crossing the territory outlined by ideological machine. ‘Partisan’ seems to be the most sensible strategy of the artist’s survival in current situation. Nevertheless, the events demonstrated that ‘partisanship’ is no longer a distanced from reality subconscious choice; defense of one’s nomos. ‘Partisanship’ here is a conscious strategy – not only for survival, but for action, if necessary turning into ‘activism’.

From this perspective, we can say that the first decade of the century played an important role for Belarusian art. It resulted not only in overcoming inner taboos, changing of nomos and changing signs of identity; Belarusian language, as well as the territory of Belarus stopped being the criteria of classification. Belarusian art made an attempt to realize its borders, breaking boundaries of certain stereotypes – an attempt to ‘construct its Eastern European identity’.[19]

© Taciana Arcimovič, 2012

[1] Eulalia Domanovska New Art of Belarus, exhibition catalogue, Warsaw, 2000. p. 6.

[2] The exhibition embraced works of both recognized (Olga Sazykina, Natalya Zaloznaya, Igor Tishin, Vasily Vasiljev, Igor Savchenko, Ales Pushkin, Artur Klinau) and young artists (Sergey Babareka, Vitold Levchenya, Andrey Durejko, Maxim Tyminko, Andrey Loginov, Bergamot group).

[3] Irina Bigday  Real Virtuality: Made in Belarus,New Art of Belarus, exhibition catalogue, Warsaw, 2000 p. 20-21.

[4] Irina Bigday  Real Virtuality: Made in Belarus, New Art of Belarus, exhibition catalogue, Warsaw 2000 . p 20.

[5] Olga Kopenkina Albarussia:Logic of the Nomos,New Art of Belarus, exhibition catalogue, Warsaw, 2000 p.22-28.

[7] Olga Kopenkina Albarussia:Logic of the Nomos, NewArtofBelarus exhibition catalogue, Warsaw, 2000 p.25-26

[8] Irina Bigday  Real Virtuality: Made in Belarus New Art of Belarus, exhibition catalogue, Warsaw, 2000 p.20.

[9] Olga Kopenkina Albarussia:Logic of the Nomos, NewArtofBelarus exhibition catalogue, Warsaw, 2000 p. 28.

[10] Kjastusis Kuizinas  Opening the door? Belarusian Art Today, exhibition catalogue, Vilnius, 2010. p. 13.

[11] Maxim Jbankov used this term in his video interview for internet portal to give his opinion on Radius Zero exhibition . But, in my opinion, a real benhmark of starting reload was OpeningTheDoor: BelarusianArtToday.

[12] Julia Fomina Particuliarities of BelarusianArt Language, OpeningTheDoor BelarusianArtToday? Exhibition catalogue, Vilnius, 2010. p. 80.

[13] Ibid. p. 81.

[14] The following Belarusian artists took part in the project:Anna Shkolnikova (Berlin), Lena Davidovich (Amsterdam), Oksana Gurinovich (Berlin), Alexander Komarov (The Netherlands, Germany), Artur Klinau (Minsk), Alexander Korablev (Minsk),  Alexey Lunev (Minsk), Marina Naprushkina (Berlin), Igor Peshekhonov (Lida), Positive Acts (Minsk), Igor Savchenko (Minsk), Sergey Shabohin (Minsk), Alexey Shinkarenko (Minsk), Maxim Tyminko (Germany), Philip Tchmyr (Minsk), Vladimir Tsesler and Vladimir Vojchenko (Minsk), Ruslan Vashkevich (Minsk), Oleg Yushko (Dusseldorf).

[15] Kjastusis Kuizinas  «OpeningTheDoor?  BelarusianArtToday, exhibition catalogue, Vilnius, 2010. p. 16.

[16] Exhibition OpeningtheDoor?  BelarusianArtToday opened before presidential elections in Belarus.

[17] It’s important to note here that  OpeningtheDoorBelarusianArtToday is not the principal breakthrough for Belarusian art.  Other projects such as Belarusian Perspectives (Byalystok, Poland, 2008) – where works of Belarusian and European artists were presented and we can see different approach to everyday routine, time and use of benchmarks – also  played an important role for certain ‘reboot’. But the pecifics of OpeningTheDoorBelarusianArtTodayis that Belarusian art became critical to Belarusian context.

[18] Discussions about what is the purpose of art and what can be called a work of art are still going on today.

[19] Julia Fomina Particuliarities of BelarusianArt Language, OpeningTheDoor BelarusianArtToday? Exhibition catalogue, Vilnius, 2010. p. 86.

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