Belarus is the country where in searching of “progressive nostalgia” (if you believe that nostalgia can lead to some progress) you inevitably face only diverse but equally striking forms and manifestations of “progressive nostalgia”. Longing for the Soviet, not too secured, but such a simple and clear past, is discernible everywhere.

© Konstantin Goretsky / «Pioneer» / photo / 2006

This is a doll empire, an attempt to build your own Soviet Union in a given area. Restoration is especially ironic because of its concentration in a small area far removed from the Soviet ones by size.  The situation becomes completely absurd and borders on a slight sense of mental hospital when it is suddenly discovered that the ideology, on the basis of which the authorities are trying to build this new happy state, has nothing in common with the real life, which is fumbling around somewhere down stairs, it is obeyed, it is decorated with flags, it hangs around portraits of the president and arranges into welcoming line-ups. The inhabitants of paradise look like asleep and hidden, they hide all their manifestations behind the ceremonial, ideologically tinted facade. But despite all attempts to be wealthy the ideology are cracking what is seen on the visual level, sometimes in a very funny way like a broken nose of mannequin dressed in a clothes with the state symbols with its head held high. The real life happens and hides behind tulle curtains.

The main focus of the artist Konstantin Goretsky is to find, to spy, to split to atoms this opening in its entire ingenuous naivety world, which is opposed to what “the new empire” is trying to proclaim and build. Konstantin Goretsky denotes his work on this project as “In Chase of the Escaping Emptiness”. The photos wasn’t subjected to the standard “improvement” intentionally in order to show the shabby and faded ideology – in all its manifestations – both in private and public life. That’s why the quality is close to the quality of the Soviet press, as well as the level and aesthetics of life in Belarus are close to the Soviet reality, which seems not real, dead, and therefore crumbling and deteriorating. This is a clear demonstration of aesthetic blindness and deafness, which is evident at all levels.

It is especially interesting to consider Constantine Goretsky’s  work in comparison and contrast with the works by Alexander Korablev, another Belarusian author who pays attention to the front side of the empire (the series “From the Life of the President”, “Holidays and Weekdays of the Empire,” “Kingdom of Crooked Mirrors”). If you imagine a long, narrow room, divided by the conditional “tulle curtain”, than on the one side it would be placed a glamorous pathos of “the new empire”, all visual representations and attempts to form a new person on the basis of “new” ideology, which is presented by Alexander Korablev`s works.

On the other side in the works by Constantine Goretsky we would find the same life in the same reserve country – just without the ideological superstructures, the same person – but without the complex of “the builder of a bright future”, where without any comments on the visual level the whole futility and the inevitable failure of public constructions become obvious: there can be no ideology within the absence of not just clearly formulated but even formed idea. A certain rollback to the past appears – to the era of clearly formed ideas that persuaded us and called us to follow them. And this rollback, a dreamy and enchanted returning to the past happens sometimes in a sad, sometimes in a very funny and ironic way, manifesting itself in everyday details which are familiar and forgotten at the same time – as if you suddenly find yourself in the native kindergarten. Carefully looking around, waving away from the flags, which strike the eye, and from all these happy faces on the giant general posters “For happy (and other) Belarus”, suddenly you horrified discover infernal faces of the nationals – who don’t wait anything, who are silently concealed and live their frightened life in this inner silence.

© Konstantin Goretsky / «Mogilev hall of fame. Suboch Piotr Viacheslavovich. Machine operator at Agricultural branch office «Sputnik» of JSC «Belsvyazstroy» / photo / 2006

By the way, on the official website of the Belarusian Telegraph Agency such propaganda posters “For …!” can be found in the big set and diversity so you can order a favorite one for your native city, village or enterprise. They are thematically thought out: here is a girl, a factory worker; here is a miner, with a focus on one of the largest companies in our country, “Belaruskali”, children, pensioners, defenders of the homeland, a happy childhood and talented young people in ethnographic wreaths – we didn’t miss anyone – choose on your taste! … Some fields and areas of social, political and other public life are manifested most clearly when you look at them through the prism of art by both authors.


Restoration and superstructure (the ideology over emptiness)

Let’s have a look at the picture by Alexander Korablev – pioneers in a friendly rush flung up their hands, and the red flag are solemnly carried through the line-up.

Their faces are stern and solemn. Just like many years ago, only a green band have appeared on their ties; and the names of those who are in the system sound a little bit strange to the ear, accustomed to clear definitions: heirs, scholars, leaders.

And here is another pioneer – the work by Kostja Goretsky: the one that had previously been gypseous and claimed to be a marble, now is painted in bright colors that call to rejoice and welcome the “new life”. His paint has peeled off, an icicle hung down from a provocatively raised trumpet, his eyes are sadly absent. Nearby, on a pedestal of silicate bricks, a vase is placed, which claims to be Greek or at least sort of an heir of the Stalinist-Empire style and made in the vein of the sad pioneer.

They are frozen on the background of long peeled shed, inescapable birches, pale sky suffused with sadness of desolation and abandonment. There is no place for upturned hands and heads held high. There is a sadness and longing – because there is no place to go and no one to greet in a common joyous rush, where hearts are connected. The implementers of this unfounded ideology devoid of delicate feelings didn’t notice how compassionately had began to look an unhappy pioneer – the representative of the former glorious era. They also didn’t notice how in this strong desire to embellish and refurbish everything (but not to create something new) a distinctive complex was revealed. In psychiatry, such a patient’s condition is defined as very disturbing: a man, who maniacally trying to put things in order without any conscious creative efforts, but with the desire to improve and put everything in right places, is suffering from severe depression, which is now typical for the Belarusian State and for the vast majority of its citizens.

© Konstantin Goretsky / «Holiday is coming soon» / photo / 2006

Let’s have a look at the photo taken by Alexander Korablev, who was moved by taking out from a mailbox the paper “Soviet Belorussia” (exactly Belorussia, not Belarus as the modern state is formally called) and seeing very familiar phrase of the Soviet propaganda machine “Praise the hands that smell like bread”.

It would seem, well, let them smell, but you should imagine the importance attached to the Belarusian agricultural work, sowing and harvest time. The whole country sympathizes these processes continually facing reminders and appeals. One of them can be seen in the work by Goretsky, where a poster “For the generous Belarus” (with a woman with sheaves on it) covers cracks and stains on the dull yellow wall. And a poor fir tree with the same inescapable tinsel is just an expressive addition to the whole hypocrisy of loud statements.

And here is the photo taken by Alexander Korablev during the 2006 elections: a scary holiday – people singing in national costumes, playing accordion with a smile. But how gloomy and angry are the faces of those present. As if they know that the evening will come, they will return to their low houses on the street “50 years of the Belorussian SSR,” and everything will be as before.

The citizens of our country are fond of watching television – one of the main entertainments, which has been left for them. However, the range of available programs is very limited, but sometimes you can see amazing things – like the president in a general’s peaked cap, which size has become a byword – on the backdrop of a solemn parade. Look more attentively, look closer: they have no faces, only backs – to be equal.

© Alexander Korablev / «BRSM badge” / photo, computer design / 2006

Let’s shift our glance from the photo of BRSM badge taken close-up by Alexander Korablev to a courageous face of a young man. His look is severe, his lips are tightly compressed. He looks like a few embalmed representative of a famous tribe of Komsomol members-conformists of the 70s. The same badge reservedly sparkles on his chest. Kostja Goretsky is especially fond of the honor rolls – these rarities, which are not just extant, but flourish with a lush color and strike our imagination by the very fact of their existence and by faces, but most of all by the inexplicable blindness of the authors of such portraits, who do not see, do not realize how terrible – much worse than in life – are the images created by them. It’s a kind of an original cemetery in life – the best visual representation of the Belarusian order – all is improved so much that there isn’t a clean spot to be seen, all is placed, painted, bolted with rough iron screws – throughout – for centuries, as if each of these people (looking not very alive) is going to live forever. Of particular interest are the persons collected by Kostja in his series entitled “Hall of Fame” (he has found them in the most remote corners of the country) in comparison with the portraits by Alexander Korablev.

Drawing this conditional parallel “glamour – tulle curtains” once again we find faces, mostly girls’, who “would like to” and in whom that infernality which fills the space of Kostja’s photos have already appeared. Here are “dreamy girls”, here is their idea of beauty. On the background of a sunset, a dawn, a sunrise there are girls in a military uniform (“this is so sexy!” – as it’s written in magazines), girls, who folded their hands, eyes and lips as it’s also shown in these magazines. And here once again the reality hidden behind the tulle curtains comes out. A girl is sitting on a bed, painting an egg for sale, on the wall is a beauty in a ball gown, next is a sewing machine, “And I will have the same! … And I’ll be the same! …”

© Alexander Korablev / «Independence day» / photo / 2006

Speaking about progressive nostalgia, we cannot but address to the conventional national celebrations – those, which are organized by “the ruling circles” for the people in order to feel their community and belonging to the state. On Korablev’s photos the sun is shining brightly, flags are rinsing, planes are flying, but it is a holiday for the Empire, which (with its whole available power of the ideological machine) claims its right to exist, using the visual tools created during the heyday of the Soviet Union but not convincing now. People get bored and drink beer on the grass. And during their free time, when they feel a bit hidden from the all-seeing eye of the state, they ecstatically imagine creativity and holidays. For example, the preparation to the most beloved, the most nationwide holiday – A New Year – where a flight of simple fantasy leads to amazing artistic results. In Belarus, where, from the last year, the Chinese language is imposed as a compulsory course in several schools, the population with special love follows the selective traditions of New Year celebrations by the Chinese calendar. There is a terrifying mixture of traditions and customs, which have been brought from everywhere: the remains of Slavic paganism combine in a marvelous way with Orthodox icons, Catholic wreaths, Soviet decorating skills and complete in a sort of graceful element in the form of home-grown domestic pig (everyone remembers that 2007 year was the year of Pig) made from makeshift materials – for example, from pillows, from a bag with haricot, or other cereals, from a bucket with bold painted lips, or a pumpkin, which is quite familiar for the Belarusians. The state glamour inevitably pales on the background of such national glory!

Although, it is impossible to avoid shock when you see a brisk portrait of a pink pig next to the image of Lady Mary on the background of gloomy scowling saleswoman. At once continuing the bored theme “religion for sale”, you can briefly mention the same blindness of the Belarusian society: what forces to set trade places with icons, candles and similar attributes of non-secular life next to the most unexpected products: women’s clothes, food and alcohol-cigarette sections. We are not saying that the passion for such an arrangement is very ambiguous, but on the visual level the sight of mannequin legs in pantyhose (Kostja Goretsky has taken pictures of them in different places and cities) shot up over the lady in the middle of paper icons is seriously puzzling.

Thinking about that unsuccessful attempt of the revolution, which was tried to be held in Belarus in March last year, and focusing on its visual representation, one comes to disappointing conclusions. Speaking about the opposition, it cannot be conclusive that looks so artistically unfounded. The field of my interests doesn’t include the consideration of the artistic features or their absence in the oppositional set of visual tools, which should wake up and call for a fight. It should be noted that on this background the authority is looking more persuasive, despite some tendency to necrophilia.

But it was interesting for me to fix in Belarus and compare with other specimens of my collection (“collected” throughout), the traditional forms of anarchist street protest spread throughout the world such as graffiti or stencils (a figure drawn on a surface with a stencil). It should be noted that on the Belarusian spaces they take a strange, unexpected forms which have nothing in common with the protest. I put a lot of efforts just to find them. The result has exceeded all my expectations: a dreamy portrait of Lukashenko with his head thoughtfully bent on his hand – in the spirit of Sergei Esenin – is a clear demonstration of quiet careful tenderness to his people.

It becomes quite unclear: whether the authorities have decided to use popular forms of youth creative work in order to be even closer, or we see another manifestation of nostalgia, where the only means of artistic expression is conventionally new, but the hero is all the same and all the prototypes are well known. It becomes obvious that as long as the opposition calls look so miserable on the background of such masterpieces, the rates of progressive nostalgia in a particular country-reserve will only increase, scaring foreigners by regular visual incidents.

Alena Boiko

Alena Boiko is a critic and curator from Belarus (born in 1976 in Soligorsk and now lives in Prague). The Russian editor of the Czech contemporary art magazine UMELEC (since 2004). 

/ © Moscow Art Magazine / 65-66 / June 2007 

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