Last November in Paris, an exhibition with pieces of art from the former Soviet republics was organised in order to celebrate the two decades that passed since the creation of the Commonwealth of Independent States.
Last December, the 20th anniversary of the USSR collapse not only received inadequate attention from the media, but the presented image of the past events made an impression as if the last two decades left no trace in French attitude towards the eastern region of the continent. Yet for some the time goes by. Russia seems to be seriously interested in presenting an alternative image of the past and the present – using media impact and its ability to create reality, it draws attention to regional integration spearheaded by the Commonwealth of Independent States (CIS), instead of the Union.
From 18 November to 28 November, La Cité de la Mode et du Design, a space situated on the bank of the Seine in Paris, hosted the anniversary exhibition entitled “PROCHES” (proximity/closeness/close to one another), celebrating creation of the CIS. Its organizers – the “Proun” Gallery and the Intergovernmental Foundation for Educational, Scientific and Cultural Cooperation of the CIS states (IFFESCCO) – are based in Moscow. The former, founded in 2006, specializes in promotion of Russian avant-garde and post-avant-garde movements. The latter was launched in 2007, basing on the agreement signed at the Meeting of Heads of Governments on 25th of May 2006 by Armenia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kirghizia, the Russian Federation, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, and later also by Azerbaijan. Despite not being members of the Foundation, Moldova, Turkmenistan and Ukraine joined the Paris exhibition as well.
Being PROCHES – united and divers; proximity and closeness
At a first glance, those familiar with the term “European integration” would automatically think that the idea was to prove the closeness of the former Soviet republics to their western European neighbours. But a closer look at the exhibition itself would challenge this assumption. Around an opened central space, eleven sections displaying art from eleven countries formed a circle. But each sections looks like breaking out of the centre, like the eleven former Soviet republics (if one does not take into account the Baltic countries or Georgia) had once freed themselves from the Soviet Union, willing to become sovereign states. The absence of common centre forced the organizers to indicate what exactly had been keeping these countries together – from their point of view, it is a shared cultural space. In reality, the empty political space left by the disappearance of the Soviet Union was immediately filled by the Russian Federation, both at an international and at a regional level.
The combination of 150 art pieces – representing original ethnic handcraft as well as creations from the avant-garde movement and works of contemporary art – allowed Marina Loshak, the curator of the “Proun” Gallery as well as the PROCHES exhibition, to create “a visual investigation with a motif forcing to contemplate the closeness of the artists from different regions that, nevertheless, share common past relating not only to the Soviet period, but also to their earlier, ancient history”. Painted, photographed or filmed representations of daily life allowed the visitor to witness the “merged cultural proximity, an emanation of sadness caused by longing for the common political and social life of the past, yet also for a way to pull through the harsh period of transformation”.
Marina Loshak stated that “as the curator of the project, I tried to show how the archaic material could be used in the modern and contemporary artistic endeavours”. But in some creations, such as Andrei Liankevich’s photos – in which the author is depicting rural pagan traditions still alive in some parts of Belarus – the very theme, and not the material, is archaic. Liankevich believed that his work reflected the topic “naturally”, proving “the strong creative capacity of the country”, because “these traditions by some miracle survived seventy years of communist atheism that forcefully reorganized all the spheres of people’s everyday life”.
Another participant also aiming at “reflecting the archaic in contemporary art of Belarus”, Oxana Zhgirovskaja, the curator of the Belarusian section, selected works that “on one hand, would partially destroy the stereotypes related to ex-USSR republics and, on the other hand, would not give the illusion of success and well-being in the field of Belarusian art”. After all, according to Zhgirovskaja, the context is created by its archaic dimension – “both the originality that is inherent in us and similarity that unites us [as a nation]”.
The old, though, must not eclipse the new. One of the young generation artists Mher Azatyan, translating the difficult daily life of Armenia into art while using photography and text, makes “magnificent moments” out of “tiny arrangements of objects, unseemly situations, poetic fragments or philosophical meanings over a conversation in the street”.
Azatyan’s phrases beneath the photographs were very helpful in understanding the puzzle that these former Soviet countries can become for many Europeans: “The Soviet Union has failed”, “I [the citizen of Armenia] am no longer in jail [that my country and myself were]”. “Now I am outside, yet it still hurts – fellow citizens leave their homes going abroad, though they try to remain united despite the space between them”. This combination allowing interpretation of some of the sentences used by Azatyan has made the comprehension of one of the ideas behind the exhibition a little bit easier. Breaking away from the Soviet Union was followed by similar re-actions from the artists. They broke free from the isolation lasting seventy years and got closer to global artistic movements, all in search of specificity of their national culture and in order to recreate a broken continuity.
Furthermore, the exhibition highlighted the identity of the Commonwealth of Independent States’ members reaching beyond their common Soviet past. This shows that the Eastern countries share closeness/proximity – they endured the same suffering, and now deal with their newly gained independence and have common artistic orientations. The organisers underlined existing connections among these countries, despite differences – which in this context may relate to disagreements as well as dissimilarities dividing the post-Soviet countries. Don’t the EU members disagree as well when it comes, in their case, to a common foreign policy? Developing a southern and eastern dimension of the ENP is a proof that each country has different interests at stake and is more or less involved, depending on its location.
Soon: A Short Story of the French approach towards the Eastern Partnership.
Photos through the courtesy of Mher Azatyan.
The photos are excluded from the Creative Commons license. All rights reserved by the authors.
The author: Born in Romania, Horia-Victor Lefter is currently a journalist and independent expert based in Bordeaux, France. He writes about the region of Central and Eastern Europe in connection to the European Union; author of articles about Belarus, particularly in context of human rights and Eastern Partnership. He publishes in several online magazines, notably Le Taurillon, New Eastern Europe, Regard sur l’Est, The New Federalist and The Robert Schuman Foundation. For Le Taurillon, he is in charge of the special week dedicated to Belarus.