The article summarizes the exhibition “Opening the Door? Belarusian Art Today”.

© Alexander Komarov / from the project «The Palace» / 2002-2007

 There are two things we most often hear about Belarusian art (including photography). On the one hand, Belarusian artists are constantly accused of self-isolation and their unwillingness to be interested in what happens not only in contemporary art, but in the current socio-political reality, including Belarusian one. On the other hand, if it is possible to organize an exhibition of contemporary Belarusian art abroad (it is rarely possible within Belarus), then this exhibition is always be politicized, as if Belarus would be of interest (and it would be clear to the foreign audience) only as one big political problem.The exhibition “Opening the Door? Belarusian Art Today”, which was opened in Vilnius in November 2010, gave another reason for discussing the state of Belarusian art.  It was a very significant event, since the exhibition have become the first large-scale demonstration of Belarusian art abroad, besides it was set up by foreign curators. However, at the opening of the exhibition the fact was revealed that the total exposition wasn’t able to compile works enough to fill the exhibition space of the center. The central hall of the gallery was empty. This emptiness, as well as the fact that almost half of the selected artists no longer live in Belarus, forced people to think about what’s going on with Belarusian art. Since half of the 19 authors represented their photographic or photo-based works, for us it is also a reason to think about Belarusian photography on the basis of this exhibition.The organizers made no secret that they were not interested in Belarusian art as a whole. Their plans didn’t include the retrospection of all the best things created in Belarus, as well as the invitation of only the most prominent and famous authors. Instead, Vilnius curators were aimed at finding the contemporary Belarusian art, taking “contemporary” as: 1) “the possession of the language of contemporary art” and 2) “an appeal to the actual Belarusian reality,” and “critical practices, rethinking the present.”Perhaps the most striking and interesting project presented at the exhibition was “The Office for Anti-propaganda” by Marina Naprushkina, who lives and works in Berlin. Within one exhibition space Naprushkina has compiled various artifacts of today Belarusian propaganda: posters, videos and public albums, books and manuals glorifying the amenities of living in Belarus. There was an extraordinary effect: collected in one place all these things produced not so much the feeling of nausea from the abundance of propaganda (this feeling usually dominates when you are exposed to mass media activity in Belarus), but the feeling of detachment and critical distance to what is happening, the wish to analyze presented objects as art.

© Marina Naprushkina / “The Office for Anti-propaganda” / 2007-2011

 Such making a distance towards propaganda, which Naprushkina reached by skillfully using the effect of gallery space, resembles another successful “project”: Belarusian political Internet-folklore with its tireless production of photomontages and derision of the most grotesque images of the present Belarusian reality. For example, after the events of December 19, 2010, when the demonstration against the results of the presidential election was violently dispersed, the Internet was filled with photos and video footage by professional reporters and “civil journalists”. However, some images were immediately used by bloggers to mock at the authorities and the sad Belarusian reality via a montage. A good example here is the community “Belpomoechka”, which exists since 2007.

The author is unknown

But is there any such work on propaganda neutralization and critical understanding of the political in the sphere of more serious art photography?

Returning to the exhibition “Opening the Door?” as a distinctive profile of contemporary art, it can be noted that here in the first place are “architectural” photo collages by Alexander Komarov, who took as the subject of his research the grandiose Palace of the Republic (the symbol of Belarusian authorities), and Sergei Shabohin who “destroys” the institutions of modern Belarusian art.

© Sergei Shabohin / «And there is nothing left», photomontage / 2009

Another openly political project is Oleg Yushko’s “Full Linen Jacket”, the series of staged photographs where all the models are unambiguously dressed in gray linen robes.

© Oleg Yushko / Full Linen Jacket / 2010

However, some spectators and participants of the exhibition didn’t like the politicization of Belarusian art. Several authors had reluctantly agreed to associate their work with political interpretations, preferring to defend “the neutral” nature of their works. For example, Alexei Shinkarenko presented the series of Polaroid photos entitled “Belarusian factual account”. The author claims that “he explores the attitude of the Belarusians towards time, space and human’s place in it”.

© Alex Shinkarenko / Polaroid 690 Valozhyn. January 8, 2010.

Igor Peshekhonov displayed the photo from his series “Steel concrete: the material of memory”, which is, in his words, “a large-scale photographic research of cultural, historical and visual landscape of Belarus”. Arthur Klinov once again displayed his famous “The City of the Sun”, dedicated to the theme of the past: “a big communist utopia”. The project by Igor Savchenko showed “the unedited documentary fragments of everyday life”.

© Igor Savchenko

Lithuanian curators made a great effort in order to give more specific socio-political interpretation to the works: according to them, there is “the study of public space”, “fixation of the modern country’s history,” “fixation of changes”, “criticism of the official way of history writing” in front of us. The problem is not that there are different interpretations of the same projects, it’s that the exhibition revealed the reluctance of Belarusian artists to enter the political field.

It is quite simple to explain the reasons for this reluctance. We still live in a country where it is possible to remove works from the exposition or even close exhibitions, to put the artist into the black list, to confiscate the albums even when there is the slightest suspicion of criticism of the government. But the reasons for this reluctance can be seen in a broader context of the development of Belarusian art: was there a time when Belarusian (photographic) art criticized the government?

In the Soviet period, Belarusian photo art has become famous with its great interest in “photographics”. In 1971, the photo club “Minsk” organized a major international exhibition entitled “Photographics”, understanding “photographics” (without any references to Jan Bulhak) as creative photography, concentrating on graphic quality of photographic image. The exhibition had a great success and had been repeated five times over the next 20 years, bringing together the works not only by Belarusian authors, but also by Ukrainian, Russian and, of course, Lithuanian artists, who had a very high level of photography at that time. A distinctive feature of “Photographics” was the passion for visual qualities of photography, experiments with form, the escape into a fantasy world, the world of metaphors. The movement of photographics was the top of Belarusian club photography. The political apathy of photographics was a kind of response to socialist realism, which occupied the sphere of documentary and reportage photography.

The situation is, as characterized by the Western curators, that the Soviet artists, not being able to work openly with real social issues, “have reached their liberation by turning into themselves”. “They’ve created their own private language, a kind of deep reflection, full of surrealism, allegory, image manipulations and internal dialogue.” This language opposed itself to the official propaganda, as well as to severe and traumatic reality of the Soviet life. According to Western experts, the photographs turned out to be like medieval monasteries that had preserved the tradition of creativity thanks to the complete isolation from the outside world [1].

The Soviet period spawned a deep distrust to the status of photography as a document, and the fear of censorship. And these are the problems the authors of perestroika and the post-perestroika period have begun working with, trying to restore “the body” of a photographic document, to restore photography as contemporary art. During this period, the most vivid conceptual projects which aroused great interest among the Western public were conducted. For example, the series “Without Face” by Igor Savchenko, “Persona non grata” by Vladimir Parfenok, “Phantom Sensations” by Sergei Kozhemyakin, some series by Vladimir Shakhlevich and Galina Moskaleva.

© Igor Savchenko / from the series «Without Face» / 1990

However, not having time to get rid of the Soviet propaganda legacy, Belarus has plunged in the propaganda of the new period. Belarusian artists, including photographers, are forced to deal with the problems that had already passed for the neighboring countries long time ago. In this connection, the actuality acquires a very different meaning in Belarus.

The activity of the Minsk Center of Photography, which has gained more influence in recent years, is quite significant here. This center has united a large group of people. “Archives of time”, “Visual Documents”, “BY” have become its most important projects. In their program texts, the managers and curators of the center claim that the task of a photographer is the impartial documentation of facts.

The participants of the center do not bind themselves by any concepts and keep aloof from politics as much as possible. They fix a “neutral image” of Belarusian everyday life preserving “the integrity and impartiality of a photographic view” and call it the “Belarusian factual account”. This position looks rather anachronistic against the background of modern tendencies in documentary and reportage photography, but in this position you can see the continuation of dialogue with the experience of socialist realism and present propaganda machine: another attempt to defend the right of photography to the status of a reliable document and clean up the image of reality from falsehood. It still remains relevant for the Belarusian context.

But, unfortunately, the metaphor of a medieval monastery remains not less topical. It’s just enough to look at the review of Belarusian exhibitions at least for the last month. Belarusian art photographers concentrate on self-expression rather than on examining of other people; on escaping to the area of landscape poetry rather than on critical analysis of the present. Does this mean that in order to be contemporary Belarusian photography has to be political? No, it doesn’t. But in order to be contemporary photography must be actual, be able to locate itself in the reality here and now, and not everyone can make it.


[1]  Ursitti Ch., Walker J., Lavrentev A., McGinniss P. (1991) Photo Manifesto: Contemporary Photography in the USSR, Stewart, Tabori, & Chang.

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