Desht-e-Art Center (SO “Laboratory of Social Development”)

Larissa Pletnikova

Guldana Safarova

Desht-e-Art Center (SO “Laboratory of Social Development”)

Mozhayskaya str.13, room 310, Karaganda, 100009, Republic of Kazakhstan

When Art Restores Memory

A great deal of information about Stalinism period and political repressions in the USSR was disclosed in the late 80s - beginning of the 90s of the past century. The community was shocked then at the revealed facts. Some time later people got tired of total public politicizing and the peak of interest to the Stalinism period gradually went out. However, at present, when the humanity is undermined again by different cataclysms, wars, terrorist acts, the sharp sense of the History is actualizing again, and the artistic thought turns again to the historic discourse with its narrative character and authentic materials.

We live in Karaganda, a town, which is located in the center of Kazakhstan, and its history is directly connected with the events of the Stalin eacute;poque. The tragic collision for millions of people appeared to have quite a different effect on our town. The town grew and developed mostly due to the efforts of those who had been repressed and exiled. But strangely enough, it is not known widely and spoken much. The true complete history of the town has never been written, and people, who still remember everything and devoted all their energy, minds and hearts to this town, are gradually leaving this land or already deceased. Only legends and myths that can be hardly verified are left which results now in mythologization of the history.

Being involved in the study of the regional art history Desht-e-Art Center (SO "Laboratory of Social Development") - The Projects: "The Trajectory of Fate", "Minus 6","When Art was neglected ..." 2004 Open Museum Forum (Russia) - "Arch of the Future" / The special diploma for artistic expressiveness of the document When Art Restores Memory for many years we have experienced the unique feeling of living in that eacute;poque. That eacute;poque left much visual evidence in pictures, documents, photos which may be found in museums and archives. But very often we were in great need of listening to a live human voice telling about the past. We were eager to see a person with his own recollections, thoughts and feelings. We would like to reconstruct the unique art situation in Karaganda of that time characteristic of a very high level of creativity. It would help us to fix those invisible things in modern cultural-geographical space of our town that still are alive and perceived through human senses.

The long wished opportunity to develop an independent curator strategy with representing our own personal-subjective view on the history appeared only with the foundation of an independent public institution - Desht-e-Art Center (as a subdivision of NGO "Laboratory of Social Development"). It will be worth saying that at that moment we had minimum material resources, not enough even for an exhibition. The only way for us to improve the situation was to materialize non-material things, to substantiate all the accumulated art information we had on Karaganda Art of the period of repressions, to fix all the remaining fragments of the past world in the form of video, photo and audio documents. And, as the last point, to bring this information to people. Here we encountered another serious problem - how to make it vividly, not The Best in Heritage 2005 43 stale, how to get such a form which will make people to perceive the atmosphere of the eacute;poque? How to avoid a sensation of museum "dust" and academic edification and boredom? It was methods of contemporary art - interactivity and forming up of the original curator idea - that helped us to achieve this goal.

Use of imaginative methods of contemporary art allows going out of the strong time structural limits of the past reality, creating to some degree conditional, not concrete historical context - thus giving a museum exhibit additional meanings and vividness. In our opinion, the contemporary individual is not interested in a thing in its abstract historical context. An actual idea expressed by means of this thing is more interesting to him as well as the way this thing is associated with the present, and consequently, the way this link extends indirect "projection" on him. We consider such kind of interaction of the thing with contemporary art as the bridge connecting the past and the present. This idea was realized in our projects "The Trajectory of Fate" and "Minus 6"; their kea expositional trend may be formulated as follows: About History through Contemporary Art Means.

The exhibition "The Trajectory of Fate" - is a part of our study of the Karaganda Art History which began as early as 1988. It was pre-determined historically that the first artists, working on our land, were Karlag political prisoners. Their contribution has not been given worth value so far. They were neglected by "high" culture, and here, on our land, were considered and are considered to be a part of the marginal culture. The totalitarian system was transformed into more flexible and mild forms but, as a matter of fact, it still exists and prospers.

The leitmotif of the exposition became a prison wall. The real wall of the exhibition hall was covered with thick polyethylene film. This way the prison wall, once separating them from us, was created symbolically in the exhibition. You could see dim contours of the past through it.

The space of the exposition was arranged in two different information fields: before the Wall - the present, behind the Wall - the past. What was behind the Wall? Those things that had been inaccessible and unknown for a long time: personal, innermost, expressed in THEIR reminiscences or kept in laconic lines of archive documents. Before the Wall - those things that are available at present: the materials of our study along with our subjective personal experience: our own recollections, connected with THEM, pictures which THEY personally presented us, booklets of the rare exhibitions for several decades where THEIR works were represented. At the same time on TV screen were demonstrated video materials of the places associated with Karlag areas: the prison wall, ruins of the barracks, the place where prisoners were buried.

In order to see the materials hidden behind the 44 polyethylene "wall" (the polyethylene was intended to show only contours, the texts were not distinct to read) one had "to destroy" the symbolic wall - to cut it with the scissors which hang there. To some degree it was monitoring of the public interest to the subject of the exhibition. It should be noted that the experiment was successful - almost all the "wall" was "destroyed" during the presentation. Taking into consideration an unusual approach and unprepared Karaganda audience to such kind of things we were both surprised and elated as it confirmed public interest to the material and effectiveness of the innovation methods used for displaying.

Interactivity of the exhibition "The Trajectory of Fate" was based on unconditioned reflexes inherent in a human being. The "obstacle"-polyethylene provoked mere curiosity in accordance with the principle: "what is prohibited is more desirable", and motivated people to see what was behind the "wall". The second reflex targeted at in the process was unconscious human desire to destroy. Particularly, if all the necessary tools are at hand - in this case, scissors placed beforehand. It was done in accordance with great theater director Stanislavsky: "If there is a gun on the wall in the first act, it is bound to shoot in the last one". The scissors in the exposition were that "gun". Using unconditioned human reflexes we achieved the next, higher level of perception - arousing of the conscious interest to the subject of the exhibition. And at this stage it was specifically important what kind of material people would see behind the polyethylene. To make any person sympathize the hidden material should be of private character, "hook up" everybody by terrifying every day events.

The ruins of a prison barrack in Spassk which we discovered during one of our trips there gave an impulse for creation of the second project "Minus 6". Those ruins became a symbol of the period in the history of our town which is usually omitted, the period when dramatic events of everyday Karlag life coexisted with everyday life of an ordinary Soviet miners' town. "Minus 6" in the title of the exhibition initially meant restricted civil rights of released political prisoners. Former political prisoners were debarred from residing in most big cities as per the prescribed list; many people were prescribed to reside only at Karaganda. For those who got "minus 6" on releasing it meant that their restriction list consisted of 6 cities, some people got "minus 32". Figures were different. Absence of rights was the same.

In the "ruins" of the wall artificially created in the exposition two realities merged: the Stalin camp for political prisoners (cards) and the old, surprisingly attractive image of Karaganda (in photos of the 30s -50s period). In photos you could see children-pioneers, monuments and numerous portraits of the Leader - a "happy life of the Communism builders". People smile, participate in demonstrations, perform everyday acThe Best in Heritage 2005 45 tivities. And next to the pictures there were "walls" made of cards, exact copies of original cards from the camp archives. Many of them were blank. Blank forms symbolized thousands and thousands of unknown ruined and lost lives. The visitors were suggested filling up the forms with the names of their close people who had also been repressed. This act made them direct participants in the reconstruction process of missed pages from our history. Here arise some analogies with the wall of cry where people go to worship the dead.

An important constituent of interactivity at both the exhibitions became booklets given to every visitor. The booklets core contents consisted of the concept of the exhibition, photos and an interactive enclosure. In the first event it was a piece of the same polyethylene in the exposition which the visitors could cut, in the other - a blank form of the camp card, one of the same cards which became "bricks" for the "walls" of the symbolic barrack. Iin the first case a piece of polyethylene could be considered like a "souvenir" by analogy with the Berlin wall (here we counted on the well-known behavioral stereotype - after visiting a museum you would like to have something to remind you of the event), in the second case - the enclosure could be a detachable coupon (to fill in). In this case the card became materialized evidence of the family history and the booklet of the exhibition "Minus 6" - a piece of the family archive, materialized memory. Pondering over the fate of simple people in a totalitarian state, the relationship of the individual and the society does not lose its actuality nowadays. At the same time those ruins made of cards symbolize in a way contemporary state of the public attitude to the themes of Karlag. The past world is fading away like features of the night dream seen long ago and disappearing in workaday routine. These exhibitions were made in attempt to draw public attention to the history of the most contradictory period of the past which can provide invaluable material for future researches.

Larissa PletnikovaGuldana Safarova
(translated by Larissa Nam)


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