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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Isolation: production of meanings

18 October, 2011 - 00:00

Production is a broad concept. Plants, factories, and workshops produce a certain product. Properly used showroom helps to produce meanings, artistic signs created by an artist who exhibits his work in this space.

Art center Isolation in Donetsk (its official name is Foundation “Isolation. Platform of Cultural Initiatives”) has been and still remains a production site in both senses, which is still quite rare for Ukraine.

In case with Isolation, an overlap of a few in some way symbolic components catches one’s eye. The street, where the buildings are located has a truly Taoist name Shining Path. The plant for the production of crude mineral wool opened here two years after Stalin’s death (March 5, 1955), when the city still had the name Stalino. Like most of industry focusing on the planned economy, the plant ceased to exist with the fall of the USSR. Then the management decided to give the territory to artists.

The names of the products manufactured by the former plant sound almost like music to humanitarian ear: basalt cardboard, basalt mats, and plates on the basalt base. The landscape produces approximately the same effect. A part of Donetsk steppe surrounded by a fence. The remains of railways with static platforms, semaphore, and traffic control barrier. Huge metal construction of obscure use, similar to either fragments of an ancient spaceship or to remains of giant robots, as they were pictured by film directors back in the 1930s and 1940s, are scattered here and there. The glory of the place is the old waste heap overgrown with grass – hand made hill with a somewhat ridiculous figure of flat metal dear, chained to the rock. The whole city, all its streets, factories, pipes, houses, its wounds and its rejoicing can be seen from this vertical. Neglected industrial aesthetics textured with grass and trees is charming. For the local residents this kind of landscape is, apparently, a simple commonplace, worth of most utilitarian use: the abovementioned dear has been stolen a couple times already and each time people from the scrap metal collection station would phone to the Isolation office to let them take it back.

The Soviet past is imprinted in bulky squareness of the abandoned shops, in hopelessly gray concrete of the walls, in the old hall with its squeaking, padded with red cloth chairs, however, from the stage, clearly missing a portrait of Lenin above it, western art critics now deliver lectures.

This is the place of typical life style and look for this region. Its new life won’t be easy because in an industrial region with a high level of corruption only classic genres or kitsch have steady support – all that provide image profit for the authorities or the richest segments of business (in our situation it is all the same). The art in process of searching casts doubt on itself and prior traditions and under such conditions finds itself in a ghetto situation. In case with Isolation, it is literally so as it is a place far from the football fair and oligarchic vanity that abounds in the down town streets. The Foundation managers have chosen the only correct strategy here: balancing the social and cultural, from the beginning they focused on the projects which somehow involved the city community.

The especially successful in this respect was the invitation for conducting the first large-scale exhibition “1,040 meters beneath the ground” of the US-Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang. Guo-Qiang specializes in colorful projects in public sphere, his achievements were acknowledged by numerous prizes, including the Golden Lion at Venice Biennale (1999).

The exhibition “1,040 meters beneath the ground” consists of two parts: “Lullabies” and “Monuments on Shoulders.” It is interesting that intellectual elite of Donetsk criticized the author for that he went the path of the least resistance and used the stereotype vision of the “land of miners.” As we shall see, it is not like that.

In the gallery Shop No. 2 Guo-Qiang placed nine old mine trolleys in one line. With the help of engines and side travel drives he turned them into giant cradles that swing rhythmically. Above each cradle there is a canopy-screen onto which films of Soviet era are projected. The trolleys are decorated with items of poor life in those years: plastic toys, pennants for sports achievements, gas masks, tools, wedding lace, and the last cradle is topped with a cross. The song by kobza player sounds above it all over and over again.

This turned out into a rough, rusty, twisted matrix, which is, in fact, much spectacular and effective than speculative nightmare by Vachkovski brothers. The whole country laid in those cradles for more than 70 years, that is why it looks horrible and funny. But maybe this is the way we should part even with the past which not that funny.

The second part Monuments of Shoulders – installation of portraits of the miners and the materials they extracted, namely coal and salt, became the subject of dispute. The installation was presented in the main gallery (also a former shop). Much is written about miners, films are shot about them, paintings and photographs are made. Usually, it results in another social report which due to its material turned into cliche. The essential difference of the Monuments is in that it is social by the way of performance, but not by the content.

Guo-Qiang worked with volunteers from local artists and miners: the first worked as draftsmen and the second – as models. Guo-Qiang painted himself. Then out of zoomed images the stencils were cut, which were put on large sheets of paper. The artist put different gunpowder fractions into the openings and lit it. The image obtained after burning reflected on paper.

The floor in the gallery is divided in half: one half is covered with coal and the second – with salt. The portraits are installed at human height in two groups facing each other: coal portraits against salt ones on the line of division, two shifts of miners moving towards each other.

Only two colors are used – black and white. But the semantic richness of exquisite graphics installation is the deepest. In fact, Guo-Qiang not just captured the essence of the miners’ work, he went further and created an extremely precise and volumetric author replica of the ancient myth of the hero, who goes down in mysterious and dangerous underworld and returns from there with the treasure. Faces of miners become images of real titans that grow from under the ground, challenging it and leaning on it at the same time. The texture of gun powder burns gives each of them unique features of their own life story. One can also see here the metaphysics of risky trade with its eternal “black and white” choice between life and death.

Comparison is unreliable method, but it should be mentioned that there is nothing closely similar in Kyiv despite the ambitions of art managers. After all, the general flaw inherited from a bygone era by, among other things, the gallery movement in Kyiv is a desire to conform the artist to the space in which he exhibits his works. No matter how skillfully the work is made, it ultimately comes to the level of an item at which people glance passing by, one in an indistinct series, as in a store, of diverse opuses. Therefore, Isolation that exists in the scenery of the totalitarian era is the least Soviet structure in its artistic approach among the rest present in the country.

It is difficult to say what the future of the Foundation will be like. This amazing place has every chance to become useful for the city community, but it is a big question whether the quiet voice of Isolation will be heard among the gilded fanfares of our wild capitalism.

Anton KORABLIOV, representative of the Foundation on the future plans:

“In the spring we will begin to implement the plan for the main gallery hall where the exhibition “Monuments on Shoulders” is now taking place. Frankly speaking, the building is in a very bad condition and it would be easier to demolish it and build a new one. But there is an idea to preserve it the way it is. The shop will be sheathed with metal, and when, for example, it will be raining the building will be all covered with rain drops flowing down the walls like some houses in New York that are designed this way. Grass will be planted on the roof. Architect Krists Ernstsons and landscape designer Rick Rowbotham work on this project. Giant plates will be put near the gallery on which one could sit. We plan to make an interesting setting here on the heap.

“We are going to receive funding from grant programs. We have already received the grant from the Dutch Fund Matra, which sponsored six-month environmental program: master classes, lectures, and meetings with representatives of environmental programs. The main task is to discuss the aspects of environmental awareness, because as we know from the experience the eco clean-ups, when volunteers and the foundation team clean the heap from garbage, don’t help. It would be much more productive to change the approach when it is easier for a man to simply throw a bottle in the garbage box than to litter.

“In general, Isolation will further develop and will build up strength. We want to make a multidisciplinary center that would not only be limited to visual arts but will become a platform for photographers, filmmakers, critics, musicians, etc. We will attract different people from different spheres, enthusiasts, who will want to do something. The main point: Isolation aims to ensure that people come and do projects related to this particular space instead of bringing the ready works only to exhibit them here.”

By Dmytro DESIATERYK, The Day. Photos by Andrii PARAKHIN