Anna Karpenko: "People who lit the torches in the cities in the evenings were called curators too"
We spoke with the curator Anna Karpenko about her projects: the exhibition When the Sun Is Low — the Shadows Are Long, the creation of the Belarusian part of the Secondary Archive, the inclusive exhibition "Beyonders. Other Histories of Belarusian Art'" and others.
Anna Karpenko conducts a tour of the exhibition When the Sun Is Low — the Shadows Are Long, GfZK, Leipzig, 2022 / work by – (2022) / © photo: Alexandra Ivanciu
Your curatorial project, When the Sun Is Low — the Shadows Are Long, was one of the most notable exhibition projects of the past 2022. The project was first displayed in the venue of the Arsenal Gallery in Białystok and was later presented at the GfZK in Leipzig. Why were these venues chosen, and how was the exhibition planned and transformed in the changing environment?
In May 2021, I was on the train after the exhibition opening at Badischer Kunstverein in Karlsruhe, when Monika Szewczyk, the director of the Arsenal Gallery in Białystok, called me. She said that she had read my article recently and asked if I wanted to do something together and arrange an exhibition. Monika, as well as Waldemar Tatarczyk from the Labyrinth Gallery in Lublin, is perhaps one of the few representatives of Polish institutions who consistently maintain interest in Belarusian art.
The Arsenal Gallery in Białystok needed a German partner to fund a large group exhibition, and since I had been living in Germany for over a year and had a residency at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Leipzig, GfZK became that partner. This is how we got the support of the Goethe Institute in Warsaw, without which nothing would have happened at all. Monica handed me an exclusive blank check to work out the concept for the exhibition, and that's how the project arose.
As I mentioned above, we didn't choose or plan the venues. The project was initiated by the Arsenal Gallery and I found a German partner, GfZK. The typical situation, in general, for the Eastern European art scene is when not curator chooses the venue, but one simply gets an offer to make something at a certain place. This has to do with the most mundane issue of all cultural projects: funding.
The previous week, I attended the opening of the Ukrainian art exhibition at the Albertinum in Dresden titled Kaleidoscope of (Hi)stories: Ukrainian Art 1912–2023. It took a war, the Siemens Foundation (which would have been traditionally and not unreasonably criticised by Hito Steyerl), the German Federal Foreign Office, the European Cultural Foundation, and the to put on such a group exhibition. It also took the efforts of the Ukrainian institutions which participated in the project represented by the Ukrainian Institute.
It was hard to imagine anything of the sort happening to Belarusian contemporary art even a couple of years ago, let alone after February 2022. The latest large group exhibition projects by Belarusians in Europe were at Vilnius ŠMC and at the Zachęta National Gallery of Art in Warsaw curated by Keistutis Kuizinas under a visionary title, "". Well, those doors slammed shut quickly on us. In the near future (I wish I were wrong) we are unlikely to see Belarusian art exhibitions of such a scale.
Exhibition When the Sun Is Low — the Shadows Are Long, Arsenal gallery in Bialystok, 2022 / © photo: Jan Szewchyk
I believe the title of the exhibition, When the Sun is Low – the Shadows are Long, captures its main themes: the link between the natural and the political, twilight flicker of the present, anxiety over the circumstances and reality in which we all find ourselves after the events in Belarus in 2020 and the war in Ukraine. Could you outline the central ideas of the exhibition?
I find it rather challenging to 'outline the central ideas' in this context, because for me the curatorial medium is both the exhibition and the text. It's not the text describing the artwork. Rather than the text that exists independently but accumulates meanings that the audience perceives either visually or through writing. What unites these two media, in my view, is their metaphorical nature and incapability to materialise what cannot be expressed. The meaning, which always slips away, remains in the snippets of storylines.
I had a certain semantic framework, which consisted of writings by Ihnat Abdziralovič (Kančeŭski), including his essay 'Adviečnym Šliacham' (Following the Eternal Path) with ideas of a non-binary Belarusian cultural code; 'Sarmatyja' by Maryja Martysievič and her subtle irony about the eternal longing for a non-existent 'Great Sarmatyja' from a woman's perspective; as well as 'Kingdom of Ruins' by Ihar Babkoŭ, where the frontier turns out to be a liminal space of our existence, locking the subject in a loop of perpetual repetition of historical events. In addition to this, there was an ever-present emotional backdrop of emptiness, abandonment and 'estrangement', which challenged us to find connections that could, at least at the level of a single exhibition, knit together this historically and existentially torn field.
and became those connecting figures for me. The former helped build the line of cosmology, mysticism and spirituality as a source of freedom; and Strzemiński helped build the line of the avant-garde in its mythologised Belarusian version of the unfulfilled but forever desired past on which basis the future could be built; yet, this past belongs to whomever (Russian and Polish avant-garde), but us. We are now in the process of finishing a book with a German publisher, which I hope will make these lines more perceptible.
Indeed, there are many references to Strzemiński's avant-garde line in the exhibition. Could you give examples of such statements in the exhibition?
Your , for instance. 's . His abstract painting, which he dubbed as neuro-art (a debatable definition that has been the subject of many of our personal discussions), was in tune with Strzemiński's 'afterimages'. Or 's . 's videos , for which the artist uses Hantarex instead of digital LSD monitors for projection, where the image, like in an old television set, is collected with a light beam. 's piece , where the uniform itself is a literal reference to the school apron for obeying bodies has become both shackles and bulletproof armour. These are all about the search for forms and pure structures that the avant-garde was so keen to explore and embody, including within the socio-political field (if we talk about Strzemiński).
© Anna Sokolova: ORNAMENT, 2022 / Exhibition When the Sun Is Low — the Shadows Are Long, GfZK, Leipzig, 2022 / © photo: Alexandra Ivanciu
Within the Belarusian space, we are, on the one hand, walled up in these pure forms and structures represented by different institutions of power. Whenever I see a mausoleum-like Palace of the Republic or concrete vases with spruce boughs stuck in them, I think that this is what 'death shapes' look like. On the other hand, human consciousness and social system gravitate towards structures, without which we are locked in perpetual uncertainty, liminal hell and frustration. This is very clearly evident in the institutional structures within the Belarusian context. While criticism of institutions matured in Western European discourse and contemporary art aspired to go beyond the walls of museums, our art could not even enter them, because there were no walls as such. The project of a museum of contemporary art in Minsk, which had been in the planning stages for several years, as far as I know, has remained unrealised. For obvious reasons.
The other vector you outlined, the Drazdovič line, particularly stands out. Why are there so many references to paganism, natural and cosmic, in the exhibition? And why do you think addressing these narratives in the context of what is happening in our region is so important both for the exhibition and for the artists themselves?
It's hard for me to say why this might be important for the artists: I want to believe that I didn't impose any rigid narrative lines onto the exhibition, allowing everyone to stay within their individual artistic story. As for me, the recourse to the sacred is tied to the question of how, within a repressive system, the idea of freedom can still be preserved and life can break through the marble of the tomb. In this sense, I wouldn't pit Strzemiński's and Drazdovič 's lines against each other, because they have a lot more in common than they have differences. Avant-garde at its final point is associated with the search for the Absolute. In it, there is a place for an almost religious obsession with an idea which, within the emerging but already powerfully repressive Soviet system (of the 1920s and 30s), allowed artists to retain a certain level of inner freedom.
Just as it was with Drazdovič and, say, the representatives of the Belarusian national revival, for which ethnography, ethnology and archaeological research were not accidentally of particular importance. It is an almost sacred homage to the land, rituals and archaic practices that help to keep the identity of the subject within the extremely repressive imperialist system, which the Belarusian lands were part of in the early 20th century, and which, unfortunately, they continue to be today de facto.
© installation fragment (2022) / Exhibition When the Sun Is Low — the Shadows Are Long, Arsenal gallery in Bialystok, 2022 / © photo: Jan Szewchyk
Within this exhibition, Drazdovič was a metaphorical embodiment of Abdziralovič's 'flowing form' for me, related to the radical idea of creativity as a source of life. To which Drazdovič dedicated his life.
Last year, together with Sophia Sadouskaya, you also co-curated and co-edited the Belarusian section of the impressive Secondary Archive project, which resulted as the online platform about 23 Belarusian female artists, and their presentation at Manifesta 14 in Pristina. Tell us about this experience and project.
and I were invited to participate in this project by and , who, after the closure of the Gallery in Minsk and emigration, were quite successful to preserve their 'institutional structures' and continue to be 'the most well-known Belarusian contemporary art gallery in Europe'. The was initiated by the Katarzyna Kozyra's Foundation and Katarzyna Kozyra herself, in order to make artists from Eastern Europe more visible. The issue of Eastern European visibility and underrepresentation in the so-called Western context has already triggered a certain degree of idiosyncrasy, but you have to understand that the representation of Eastern European artists at the so-called large-scale exhibitions is pitifully minimal, if not to say "absent". I'm not even talking about a well-known MoMA publication about Central and Eastern European art, which doesn't mention Belarusian art scene at all, but traditionally includes Boris Groys, Ilya Budraitis and Viktor Misiano.
So this 'secondary' archive, as the authors of the project titled it, is very important, if only in terms of being actually present in the artistic field outside Belarus. I still have questions about the selection of the participants, but we were put within certain limits by the foundation. For example, one of the rather confusing inclusion criteria for me was the extent to which an artist had made an impact on the local art scene. The question that arises then is how to assess this. Especially with regard to those female artists who have not lived in Belarus for a long time.
As for , I was not involved in the participation of the project and learned about it from an announcement. We were not listed as curators of the Belarusian part of the Secondary Archive.
The theme of inclusion/exclusion can also be seen in your other curatorial projects, such as the exhibitions and "", which are focused on inclusiveness and literally make the excluded groups of people and their problems visible. You also try to include the names of those who are not yet known in all your curatorial projects. Tell us about these projects and your strategies for including others.
Both projects are surely valuable to me, but in a way, they belong to the past. The topic of exclusion was a personal trigger for me. I always felt like an outsider. And I'm not very good at team projects or working on topics about communities and horizontal interaction.
Exhibition "Beyonders. Other Histories of Belarusian Art", Ў gallery, Minsk, 2019
The psychiatrist 's archive, which he collected at Navinki psychiatric hospital from 1961 until his death in 1998, and which includes artworks by , , , and other artists whose names cannot be verified, is now kept at my mother's house. And the print copies of the book we made with Sophia Sadouskaya and Ihar Yukhnevich are apparently getting mouldy in some basement in Minsk, marked 'sealed'. Ironically, Sophia and I rescued Kruglyansky's archive, which had spent 25 years in his son's garage, from mould in order to present the artworks at the exhibition and then digitize them for a book.
As for 'new names', I think this is one of the professional curatorial duties. The Latin verb 'curare', which mostly means 'to take care', in the Middle Ages referred not only to the practice of medicine. People who lit the torches in the cities in the evenings were called curators too. So 'novelty' is not about a timeline, but about the light we share for each other on those parts of the world that have been revealed to us during our individual pathes.
You are currently working on a research publication based on the results of the exhibition When the Sun is Low – the Shadows are Long. Maybe you can already introduce the catalogue structure you have in mind?
Let's better talk about it when the book comes out. All I can say is that I didn't want to create a 'catalogue of exhibition illustrations'. In this, as you elegantly put it, 'research publication', I wanted to convey through the text my feelings when I find myself in the Belarusian Forest. At home. To the end.
TO THE END
They give me defeat in my left hand, but I manage to grab a victory with my right one.
Then they give me joy in my right hand, while I reach out with my left hand for sorrow...
They ask who I am – and want to stop me.
I keep silent and keep going.
Soul focused, I fumble for a thin line of meaning which I must follow to the end.