Elena Tolstik. The Art-00s in Belarus. A Sketch for Portrait

To give a short review of the art of the 00s is not easier than to speak about Belarusian art in general. Actually, it’s hard to find positive characteristics for both. By positive I mean the presence rather than absence of these. What is contemporary Belarusian art? Does it exist? The questions arise whenever we speak  about any more or less meaningful art action connected with Belarusian art context. The existence of contemporary Belarusian art is so fragile, and I would say, ephemeral that any other disputes about its peculiarities, quality and prospects get stuck in uncertainty of search for an answer to these main questions.

Unlike the art of previous centuries, the art of today should amaze and disturb not by its power of aesthetic impression but by something completely opposite. We almost got used to the art that doesn’t give us pleasure; it’s mostly called to widen the framework of our experience; it places us into situations where we would never get without a special effort. That’s why the notion ‘art’ sounds outdated today; we can see different practices, projects, gestures, actions etc. instead.

Our art environment is still rather conservative. Our adherence to conservative forms is clearly seen. We can see extreme rigidity to any latest, radical forms of art practices. Clear evidence of that is the principal role of painting among our contemporary forms of art. Here I mean shape-generating principle (according to which most of the projects are created) where an art object i. e. «reality» is much more meaningful than an accompanying artistic gesture. Performance as a form of art is still a rarity. Art exhibitions are still the main form of art life but they are social events rather than a reason for serious talk or social resonance.

The Art-00s in Belarus doesn’t have a distinct profile that could define their difference from the 80s and the 90s. But they have the potential that gives us hope for a possible breakthrough to new horizons in future.

To get a clear and recognizable profile of contemporary Belarusian art it’s important to understand it not as a series of actions made by different authors, but as a system process that includes the development of art-market with its complicated structure and the education of the public; the thin layer of those who ‘belong’ should turn into masses of viewers and the appearance at the international level later and so on and so forth.

There is one significant moment that says much about our modern art. Even in the framework of this project the figure of curator is not claimed as a principal one. On the one hand, we have absolutely clear grounds for that. A curator here acts mostly as a helper or a consultant of an artist, but almost never as a co-author. More often an artist himself/herself acts as a curator, jealous to any external intervention of his/her idea. This, on the other hand, points out internal isolation of the majority of artistic actions that rather tend to have nothing to do with the projects of their colleagues, than to react to them, even in the form of critical challenge.

Thus, defining the profile of the art-00s in Belarus, I‘d like to mention the events, that were, in my opinion the principal steps to create a certain system.

NAVINKI International Festival of Performance that has been taking place for more than ten years under the direction of Viktor Petrov. It’s hard to overestimate the meaning of performance as one of the main forms of contemporary art. Alongside with that, performance is a complicated show that needs not only a place but an organized reaction of the public. It is always a provocation of the audience and a risk to a person who initiates the provocation. The merit of the festival is that it allows seeing foreign, as well as local, examples, and studies of the masters of the genre.

There have not been so many really bright artists so far that could be called masters of performance. So we can’t avoid here such an important figure as Ludmila Rusova (1954–2010). The artist that was always keen to add a degree of modernity to her art by looking for new art forms. One of the most striking actions The Dancing Place 2003 included photomontage works by Sergey Zhdanovich, photo series by Andrei Velikzhanin, a video by Natalya Zubovich, music by Alexey Vorsoba and performance ‘Living Sculpture’ performed by Irina Simanovskaya.

The competition On the Way to the Modern Museum (under the direction of Alla Waysband) was the project of German-Ukrainian-Russian society Europe without Borders and took place from 2009 to 2011. During the first two years the most interesting curators’ projects were selected. The third year was given to the works of art critics specializing in modern art. The principal idea of a deeper cooperation between young novice artists, curators and critics with more experienced participants of art process proved to be most fruitful here. One of the most memorable projects of the competition was “The Woman Autopsy”, whose curator, a third year student of EHU Maria Marinich was working with the established artists Antonina Slobodchikova and Mikhail Gulin.

The realization of meaningful social projects in Belarus is connected with big difficulties. So the creating and holding of Gender Route project (curator Irina Solomatina) for a number of years (since 2005) is extremely important. The project represents a series of actions (exhibitions, discussions, round tables) etc.), where gender problems are a means of setting their special perspective to any other topic and any artistic gesture. It seems strange but on the Belarusian territory gender studies serve as one of the few more or less legitimate loopholes to speak about social and political issues.

Belarusian Pavilion of the 53rd Biennale of Venice 2009 should be particularly noted (coordinator Ruslan Vashkevich). The event itself turned out to be more important than the art projects it included. It’s hard to remember any other as successfully planned event of the kind that would provoke such a striking succession of actions from the Lithuanian exhibition Opening the door? Belarus Art Today in the Center of Modern Art in November 2010 (curator Kestutis Kuizinas) to the participation of Belarus in the 54th Biennale in Venice (2011).

“Ў” gallery as an art-center (Minsk, Belarus) and the platform for presentation of contemporary Belarusian and European art started its work in 2009. It’s the first platform in Belarus that aims to organize contemporary actions on regular (not occasional) level. That is the only exhibition space where the concept of White cube can be adequately presented. Undisputable pluses of the gallery are finding the reasons for serious artistic art provocations. At the same time (seen as a drawback of the gallery activity) the gallery held a number of outright commercial exhibitions, which is a vivid symptom of ‘normalization’ of art process and its modernization in Belarus.

The enumerated projects, events and actions look standing apart, each in its field, so they are just minor touches to the portrait of contemporary art in Belarus. Paraphrasing the idea of Michel Foucault, we could say that ‘to be modern is to reinvent ourselves’. In this sense Belarusian art has immeasurable prospects, and the main task of the exhibition that took place in the framework of this project could be put as follows: the invention of modern Belarusian art starting from point zero, in other words, from the art-00s.

Elena Tolstik  –  art critic, curator of the Bachelor program Theory and Practice of Modern Art of the European Humanities University (Vilnius, Lithuania).

Article was published in the book Zero Radius. Art  Ontology of the 00s. Minsk, 2000-2010/ed. by O. Jguirovskia, O. Shparaga, R. Vaskevich. - Minsk: I. P. Logvinov, 2013. - 532p. - (Novaya Europa series)


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