performance “TNF” within 10 Manifesta

The material was published on the website Aroundart.ru 27.07.2014

On July 13, Gluklya (Natalia Pershina-Yakimanskaya)’s performance “Debates on Division” was presented as part of the parallel program of the 10th Manifestos on the New Stage of the Alexandrinsky Theater. Art critic Valery Ledenyov was one of the participants in the project, and has decided to share some thoughts and ideas prompted by some of its plot twists.

The performance (in fact – theatrical production) “Debates on Division” was dedicated to the creation of what for now is a virtual project still without permanent residence, the Museum of Utopian clothing – a collection of textiles, each collected together with the personal history of its owner, a concept repeatedly used by Gluklya and her former cohort Tsaplya (Olga Egorova) in their jointly authored works. Tsaplya now devotes almost all of her time to working with another group – the “Chto delat?” platform, with “Factory of Found Clothes” now being single-handedly managed by Pershina-Yakimanskaya. The new “museum” page looks to be a lovely and logical continuation of the long “Silk Road” begun by the artists back in the 90s (“Shop of traveling things,” 1994) and culminating in the famous “Utopian Clothing Store,” initiated in 2003 and thereafter welcomed throughout Europe, from Paris to Vienna and Amsterdam. For the two artists, the “Shop” became not only an original art project, but also a source of therapeutic experience for participants and collaborators. All who wished to do so were invited to contribute to the shared reservoir, to creatively “rethink” items of their clothing (especially shabby items were trimmed with beads or patched in artistic ways), or to pick out a suitable accessory, or to share personal experiences of trauma, symbolically working through them (the “Factory of Found Clothes” catalog, recently released by the Moscow Museum of Modern Art, contains many “firsthand” attestations of those influenced by the textile Utopia’s individual forms of tailoring).

In order to decide on selections for future museum “exhibits,” a competent jury was invited, consisting of St. Petersburg art historian and collector Nicholas Grace, political scientist Ilya Matveev, actress Natalia Kudryavtseva, composer Vladimir Rannev, Aleksandrinsky Theater New Stage program director Polina Vasileva, and I, the author of this text. All of us could speak for or against the items of clothing presented to us, commenting on our decision as desired, and our opinions were counterbalanced by a vote taken in the audience (admission to the “Debates” was free). The audience’s vote was deliberately given priority: the agreement of the hall was more important than the disagreement of the expert. The structure of the performance parodied popular talk shows. Professional presenters were invited to take part. The stories of the people who had donated their belongings to the museum were recorded on video and were shown on a big screen. Interludes between these video displays and the commencement of the voting were filled by choreographic inserts, in which dance performers acted out the stories just heard.

Writing a text about a project in which one participated seems a questionable and ethically dubious idea. My decision, however, is motivated by the fact that most of the “Factory of Found Clothes”’s work creates meaning through the experience of collective interaction and mutual compatibility and, as a result, the opportunity for each of the participants to undergo internal transformation. For me, “Debates on Division” became such an experience in some measure, an occasion to reflect on problems that I was not always conscious of as problems. My article is not a critical analysis but a subjective account of my participation,  a commentary on my own decisions and reflections that arose in the course of the proceedings.

The main problem concerned my status as jury member: what, in fact, was I going to judge? The originality of the clothes, something clearly not relevant here? The personal stories and intimate experiences of the participants, to evaluate which is strange and out of place? Accepting the performative nature of the situation, I posited that I was taking part in the formation of an exhibition of the future museum, evaluating each “exhibit” for the kind of picture of the social and political reality it can present when isolated in the exhibition space. The message and meanings that could be reckoned from them if we imagine that the exhibition of “Utopian clothing” will always be up in St. Petersburg or somewhere else. My comments thus related not to the “quality” of the stories and did not constitute assessments directed toward anyone personally. I saw the “stories” appearing before me as plots of fictional “compositions,” to discuss which thereby became relevant and even intriguing.

The first “exhibit” presented to the jury and the public was an old dress which the owner had stood many hours queuing in order to buy, an experience she remembered mostly with rather fond and pleasant feelings. As she did her work for Soviet television or scenes of cozy everyday life, all the rough edges of which (such as the notorious shortages of products) turned out to be imbued with nostalgic notes and warmth. Pictures of domestic bliss became a mechanism for repressing all the unpleasant moments of recent history which she would rather not remember and which are painful to think about now – just as there perhaps was no desire to be aware of them decades ago. My voice was unambiguously opposed to such an exhibit. A perception of reality devoid of any critical component, such as was presented in the story above, becomes, in the context of the museum, a breeding ground for apologetics for the darkest images of the post-Soviet collective unconscious, which persist to this day (I emphasized this in my brief comments after the vote).

Among my colleagues – as well as among those sitting in the hall – my decision found almost no supporters never. The dress went into the museum collection. Probably the calm narrative of the heroine made wise by her experiences was perceived differently by others, and I myself admit I felt awkward speaking so categorically. Where, in fact, do the boundaries lie that are so necessary to the critical view?

The “protagonists” of the next story were two men’s sweaters – keepsakes to the woman presenting them from a loved one, who was no longer alive at the time her story was recorded. The story was deeply personal and honest and told about the complex trajectory of relationships with others, the pattern of experiences into which those sweaters were tangled at certain points. Here he gives her the sweater when she’s cold during a visit. Then once again, she had nothing to throw on when it got cold, so he gave her another. She recalled a funny and touching story of going shopping. He disappears and later reappears in her life. The sweaters remain in her home. During the time that they did not see each other (a few years almost), the world lived through the war in Kosovo (the young man was a native of Belgrade). She called him at home, tried to talk to his grandmother who picked up, and they did not understand each other, but everything was more or less clear without words. He again visited Russia, and sought to meet with her. She decided against it. She later learned from friends about his death from complications of a disease. He had come to say goodbye. The sweater is still at her place. It turns out there are a lot of things she would have liked to say when he was alive.

The jury almost unanimously voted “yes,” only one vote opposing. Less sympathy was expressed by the hall: most of those present raised their white dresses (voting “no”). The sweaters had no luck. I voted “yes” – not least because of the disarming frankness and courage of the story. Though I had some doubt in my heart, feeling I was giving my preference to a story that was too personal, and didn’t tell about anything other than private experiences, closed off from other people’s.

My doubts were pretty quickly seen by me to have been unjustified. The heroine, though she told about herself, still saw her life in one perspective with the course of world history, of which the Balkan conflict represented a refraction into her private life. External events became facts in her individual consciousness, and the seemingly distant world was perceived at arm’s length. The personal was political, so I found no justification for second-guessing my vote.

The baton was passed to a young man who gave the museum his gym class uniform. The “gift” was accompanied by a story about physical education, which for him – and, as is no secret, for many in their school days – represented an episode that was not always pleasant and sometimes traumatic.

In the self-contained world of school, “P.E.” class in particular seems to be a parallel dimension where the established hierarchy and values stand upside down. The “transition” into it is symbolically marked by changing into a uniform, and the skills and qualities valuable for studying literature or algebra in the classroom give way to other skills; those who embody them brusquely push aside the solid B-students and academic overachievers. For a teenager, this situation is superimposed on the situation of growing up and attention to changing physicality and differences from classmates which during exercise is particularly pronounced, as are the visible (or imagined and perceived) bodily imperfections, becoming a subject of apprehension and confusion.

Looking at the world through the prism of physicality becomes an instrument of self-awareness and consciousness of the differences between self and others. Together with clothing, the surrounding world turns into another metaphorical layer of the “problem of the body,” not only shading and hiding the details of appearance, but also symbolizing social status and the particular individual. That is what the protagonist told about, remembering, for example, how difficult it was to buy a replacement for a damaged or lost school uniform in the “poorest years” of his family’s life.

I spoke in these terms, commenting on my choice (I voted yes), and the other members of the jury decided, although not unanimously, to accept the exhibit in the museum. The audience also had no objection. For my part, I noted that if the museum were in reality going to be established, it would be good to introduce the theme of the “problematic body” in its diversity by balancing the female against the male gaze, and so on.

The next pice of clothing was a dress belonging to a native of Kyrgyzstan residing in Russia. In this dress, she had attended a children’s festival, organized according to local traditional rites. The woman told about her hometown, located near Lake Issyk-Kul, about her desire to go back there one day, to buy land and build a house, and about work in Russia, which she likes in many ways, and that she is grateful for the opportunity to come here and earn her living.

The white dress she presented to the audience met almost no opposition and made it into the museum. Of the jury members, Ilya Matveev expressed doubt, stressing that the story told by this woman had the probable effect of strengthening the system of (often illegal) exploitation of migrant labor, and left off-screen the tangle of related problems: corruption and the violation of human and civil rights that new arrivals often face. What is there to be grateful for here? For the possibility of work, for which, perhaps, she ought rather to thank herself?

Matveev’s arguments sounded convincing, though I had already voted yes – and my decision can hardly be considered entirely level-headed. After thinking about it some more, I realized that I gave the dress the go-ahead not because of its importance, but because I did not dare to vote against, having decided that the insulted and humiliated should not be “offended” amid the growing xenophobia and intolerance in our society. Tolerance manifested as condescension, which is easily integrated into the same logic of exclusion and discrimination, but with a “minus sign” in front of it, a fact of which Ilya’s comment indirectly reminded me. Furthermore, such a view does not allow the “work” (the artifact) to open up – at least, does not allow us to hear its own voice, replacing its meaning with the fact of its belonging to the “correct” environment, and one’s critique with a banal phenomenon. The “work” itself in this case was truly of debatable value, but I could not ignore the pitfalls of the situation.

Next the baton was passed to an artist from St. Petersburg who had donated her golden-hued dress. The history of this item, however, was not traced; instead the woman’s story focused on her dissident past, when she had been branded an “anti-Soviet element,” her efforts to overcome the current stereotypes and clichés imposed by members of her generation, as well as the religious searching that played a role in her life throughout the years (the work of the wandering eighteenth-century philosopher Grigorii Skovoroda exerted a strong influence on her).

This narrative presented an interesting story for the museum, dealing with the religious feeling in its connection with the dissident movement in the Soviet Union, when religious conversion obviously had a different meaning than it does today. I nevertheless voted against this dress. The interest and respect for culture that characterized its owner, in my opinion, took on a defensive coloring at times, and specific complaints, for example, about today’s “carelessness” with regard to language conformed in no small part to conservative attitudes current in society. To attribute them to this narrator-protagonist would hardly be justified, but to misinterpret her words in today’s conditions would be extremely easy, and the museum space concealed within itself, it seemed to me, the potential danger of “transfiguring” meanings in the interest of undesirable objectives.

I must admit that this decision was also very hasty and did not consider one important circumstance. In the artist’s story, I paid  attention only to the surface level of her statements. The “work” itself contained enough meaningful indicators and markers to help you correctly figure out the picture – to see, for example, the dissident past of the heroine. To relate the item only to the present moment would be wrong: its center of gravity is shifted to a greater extent toward the past, which is why the remarks we heard about culture took on a slightly different undertone. Beyond the loud, bright colors, I could not see these significant half-tones. The dress nevertheless became an addition to the museum’s collection: the audience, at least, voted yes.

The penultimate story was devoted to a T-shirt in which its proud owner had gone to one of the winter protests in Moscow, specially traveling from St. Petersburg. Realizing that any statement “against” in this situation would not only put me in the camp of pro-system critics of protests, but also incur the wrath of my professional colleagues, I nonetheless spoke out against it. The girl spoke of the deep personal significance of those events and the feeling of “making history,” but the story it was limited to a description of unanimous delight and fun, stories about the open microphone on the stage and joyful meetings with friends in the crowd. The protest experience was presented not as political (with the formulation and specification of one’s own position, awareness of the pragmatic consequences of one’s actions and clear understanding of means and objectives), but as an experience of pleasure, almost as a debutante party. To this Vladimir Rannev replied to me that to reveal the protest as a living human experience would be no less significant, and, taking the microphone, Natalia Kudryavtseva said that in the early 90’s, when she went to mass rallies, people’s reactions were precisely the same: all were seized with an extremely high degree of emotion. It will come as no surprise, then, that the audience was in solidarity with my opponents and almost unanimously raised the red signs which corresponded to a “yes” vote.

In the first few minutes I was even willing to agree with my colleagues’ objections – Natalia Kudryavtseva’s experience seemed like weighty evidence to me. But the events of the 90’s, in the end, present a phase which reached its historical completion, one way or another a meaningful step forward at the level of mass consciousness. It is appropriate to study that period, including in terms of the political subject’s direct experience, correlating it with all possible interpretations and readings which it has managed to acquire. Emotions, in that case, do not displace cognition – they only add a necessary sharpness to it. That situation, however, can hardly be extended to processes that are still current and quite recent, such as the winter protests in Moscow. Their effects have not completely settled, and their meaning is not fully understood. We are generally aware of the spectrum of human reactions to them. The emotional refraction of such social upheavals – and this was confirmed by Kudryavtseva’s words – often remains the same and becomes “flesh” only when correlated with historical specifics; otherwise it turns into a selection of stock phrases. The human itself is always too human, and to put the “protest” T-shirt in the museum would mean to once again confirm this well-known fact.

The most acute contradictions were brought out by the last piece of clothing: non-existent trousers that their owner wanted to sew for himself in Soviet times (going so far as to ask his parents for money), but never did. Instead, he went to a rock festival in the Ukrainian city of Dneprodzherzinsk, where, for the first time, he encountered Ukrainian nationalism (fortunately without serious consequences). Next he told about how he long ago entered with his father – a staunch Communist – into a lively debate about the impossibility of justifying Stalinist repression, and, unimpressed by Russian policy on Crimea, argued about it with a colleague, to his later regret. He still has not sewn the trousers. After the story was shown, the vote was left unfinished; a discussion developed between the jury and the audience in the hall (this had to some extent been accounted for in the planning of the event), which sharpened in tone, until all were invited to leave the theater and join the procession through the city center, carrying all of the Utopian clothes which had appeared in performance.

Just before the moment when the alarm sounded (Gluklya stylized it as a warning of increased toxicity levels in the air, with apparent symbolic meaning), a girl from the audience, working in St. Petersburg but born in Ukraine, made the remarkable comment that for her, in her experience of the situation around Ukraine as a personal drama, these events constitute a real division. Perhaps the reason the trousers have so far turned out to be non-existent is that the decision to sew them—as well as what material to use– demands careful consideration.

Valery Ledenyov

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