Award Winner exhibition review

by Flóra Gadó

Ekaterina Shapiro-Obermair often deals with the legacy of the Russian avant-garde, questions related to architecture and urban space, and she is interested in “the correlation of formal and social issues.” In her installations the artist combines modernist-minimalistic approaches with the strategies of repetition and multiplicity, in order to create a precise, yet often uncanny work. These special “constellations”, which combine paintings and videos as well as found objects, also reflect on the post-socialist era, our current geopolitical circumstances and present a new kind of dialogue with the history of art.

In Ekaterina Shapiro-Obermair’s installation, all three exhibition elements presented – the painting hanging high on the wall, the strange cross-shaped wooden installation with objects and the video – could be considered as one work. What the visitor saw first – as a quite unusual but very powerful set-up – was the back of a big monitor fastened to a pole. Installed towards the corner of the room, it evoked the tradition of Russian icons which were often presented in the corner like in the case of Kazimir Malevich, who according to an archive photo, showed his famous Black Square at the Last Futurist Exhibition of Paintings 0.10 (1915, Dobychina Art Bureau at Marsovo Pole, Petrograd). Also, the video, which did not face the audience, suggested that it needed attention and a private space to be watched. The video titled Display Case (2014) is a short “documentary”, shot in the Central Armed Forces Museum, Moscow in April 2014. According to the artist, the visitors, mostly school classes “were in high spirits due to the fact that Crimea has recently become Russian again”. The shaky camera work suggests that the artist used her camera in a secret way and filmed the guided tours and the children’s reactions without their knowing. As the video presented the exhibition’s display which evoked patriotic feelings through emphasizing the several victories of the Soviet-Russian Army, we got an honest and striking documentation of how children react in this situation. The title refers to the fact, that only one display was dedicated to the Holocaust and the concentration camps, marking it just as an “episode” in the history of the World War II. Becoming voyeur, the viewer could hear and observe how the students were stunned learning that the Nazis used human bodies for industrial purposes, especially human skin and hair. The video suggests in a simple yet powerful way, how vague the students’ knowledge is and how difficult it is for children to find a relatable “point” in history. In Addition, the “official” narrative of the museum itself becomes even more important as we realize that the word “holocaust” or “jew” is not even mentioned by the adults. The silence is very suggestive as it underlines the institutions underlying political agenda.

In the other part of the room, four cross-shaped objects were standing (Untitled, 2011–2015). their shape and colors resembled Shapiro-Obermair’s installation which was presented in 2014 at the Ludwig Museum’s Holocaust exhibition in Budapest. The abstract, constructivist object shown at Chimera-Project, which also looked like a piece of furniture, had a poetic, mysterious aura which worked well with the documentary style video. It also had some figurative elements: the “crosses” were standing on glasses and small busts of Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel in a small pot were placed on them. The fact that the two politicians were presented close to the ground in a ridiculous size could be seen as an ironic gesture towards current political circumstances. The miniature portraits also behaved as anti-monuments mocking the famous and enormous sculptures about warriors or politicians. The last piece (Scroll Down, 2014) was an abstract, black and white painting which also reflected on the artist’s interest in the Russian avant-garde tradition and the question of repetition and multiplicity in art. According to the artist, the black and white upper motif resembled a stylized Ribbon of Saint George – a widely recognized military symbol in Russia, which symbolizes the Soviet Union’s victory in World War II – which linked back the whole concept to the video about the Central Armed Forces Museum and the question of today’s military forces. However, it is also important to note, that since the mid-2010’s the black and orange Ribbon of Saint George became the symbol of the supporters of Vladimir Putin, or as The Moscow Times online named it as representing, the “unofficial Putin’s Army”. Thus the abstract painting of Shapiro-Obermair not only goes back in time, referring to the Russian avant-garde but points out the present situation in Russia, emphasizing the new, nationalist movements and ideologies.