The story/stories of objects
A conversation with Astrid Peterle
Astrid Peterle: In the object chosen from you from the Memorial collection, you concentrate on the idea of appropriation. Can you explain to us the artistic process involved?
Ekaterina Shapiro-Obermair: I feel much too uncomfortable about the experiences that the unknown person who did this embroidery might have had. I didn’t want to make any comment on her suffering, because what can I say or know about it? Under no circumstances did I want to draw parallels with the present situation in Russia. Not only because every comparison is invidious, but also because I don’t regard the artist’s task as a didactic one. I tried to concentrate on the object itself and its formal properties, on what I see in it from my perspective as an artist. My aim was to distance myself as much as possible from the terrible context in which this embroidery was made and to observe it from the perspective of painting in its historical context. I didn’t want to add anything to the original pattern but to let it speak for itself. My strategy in this project can thus be seen as one of appropriation. In the installation the original pattern is shown in different ways: as an enlarged picture, as a b/w copy, as text. The five concepts on the wooden slats — “light at the fence,” “dark shadow,” “light shadow,” “glass/sky”, and “rain”—were titles invented by me while I was painting and stuck on the cans with the paints I had mixed. The painter’s palette motif comes from another object from the Irina Ugrimova collection: a small faded cloth. For me it symbolizes modern painting—a large ornament made of black palettes on an unclean painterly background. The painting is on a curtain, which as an object can be connected with the window motif. The blue color could stand for the color of the sky.
AP: Do artists have a different approach to historical objects to historians and museum curators?
ESO: I am sure that artists perceive objects quite differently. When I look at the motif—a window with bars—I am reminded first of all of the classic text “Raster” by the art theoretician Rosalind Krauss written in 1978* in which she describes grids and bars as a main motif of the Modernists: through its ability to express the two-dimensionality of a picture, the grid proclaims the autonomy of art and has been present as a motif with artists from the beginning of the twentieth century to the present. When I consider when the embroidery was done—late 1940s to early 1950s—I recall that it coincided with the emergence of Abstract Expressionism in the USA and with Clement Greenberg’s theory. Based on Kant’s Critique, Greenberg saw the task of the arts not in synthesis but, on the contrary, in the consideration of the special features of each medium. Painting should therefore concentrate in the first instance on the color and two-dimensionality of the painting. It was these conceptual parallels that I found particularly interesting, because suddenly there was a connection between a picture made in a camp and the contemporary American art of the time. The fact that an anonymous inmate was obliged to live in a confined space was suddenly linked with the self-imposed limitations of Modernism.
AP: In your earlier works you already focused intensively on objects and their story/ stories, and when this exhibition was being prepared you once said that your attitude to historical objects had changed. In what way?
ESO: I took an interest early in my career in everyday Soviet objects. Of course, it is possible to say metaphorically that all everyday objects in the Soviet Union originated in the gulags. Or, as Irina Sherbakova aptly said on our first visit to Memorial in April 2014, we had the same padded jackets and pants on both sides of the barbed wire. Production from the gulag arrived in civilian households, but even more, the rights and liberties of people outside the gulag were also massively curtailed— although obviously not to the same extent. My earlier research had a completely different focus, however. I was primarily interested in the connection between the industrial production of everyday items in the USSR and their form. The focus in this project is different. The objects from the Memorial collection that we have to choose from are not industrial goods. With the exception of the record with Stalin’s speech at the 8th Congress of the Soviets in 1936, they all come from a gulag context. Whether they were made by the inmates themselves or belonged to the camp administration, they all look like small and pathetic objects. And yet they are material witnesses of one of the greatest crimes against humanity and of the suffering associated with it. Their only value is symbolic. During the work on this project I was forced to reflect on the value of objects in my everyday existence and discovered that only a few objects within my private surroundings are worth preserving. Among them, paradoxically, are a couple of small items I acquired cheaply at a flea market and about which I have little information except that they were probably made in a Soviet labor or prisonerof- war camp.
AP: Museum objects have a life before they are inventoried. Your project illustrates that objects tell more than one story. To what extent did the story of the objects presented to you at Memorial play a role in the creative process? Does your project add another story to the objects?
ESO: The background story to the embroidery recounted to us at Memorial was important for my work on the project. I was very moved by the personality of Irina Ugrimova, a professional artist, who motivated the inmates of a labor camp to be creative and who had the inspiration to collect these wretched testimonials. I also looked at other objects from Ugrimova’s collection—primarily postcards, toys, or embroidery—and it was evident that scope had also been allowed for reflection on the role of the artist and the task of art. I don’t think that my work adds another story to the object. It is more likely that it reveals something that was already inherent in it. It is more a shift in perspective, the emphasis on an aspect not normally taken into account with objects connected with the gulag. It is self-evident that when the context in which the object was created is as marked as it is in this case, it is almost impossible to look at the picture without being aware of this context. I wanted with my work to pay tribute to the artistic creation, even if the artist is anonymous. I wanted to restore the pictures’ autonomy.
AP: How much does your own history influence the artistic process? You were born and brought up in Moscow, but studied art in Nuremberg, Berlin, and Vienna. How do these different types of socialization affect your artistic creativity and in particular your work for this project?
ESO: From an artistic point of view, I am much more grounded in Western and particularly German-speaking art discourse. My studies in Nuremberg were still very much influenced by the Cold War from a West German perspective, which remains an important basis for my work, naturally from a different angle. Although I still have professional contacts with Russia and the other successor states and have taken part in a number of projects dealing with different aspects of Soviet and post-Soviet visual culture, for the last sixteen or more years, the center of my existence has not been Moscow. It is a different story with history. The repression under Stalin affected practically everyone in the Soviet Union including my family. Even without this background, I feel personally involved with this subject. It has something directly to do with me. In this project I have devoted myself to formal aspects, but it is probably my personal knowledge of the history that fostered this approach. The greatest influence my own personal biography had, I think, is in the choice of techniques I worked with: gouache and black tea on paper, and poker work. They were often used in the camps and I am very familiar with them from my time in Russia.
AP: What potential do you see for confronting history through contemporary art?
ESO: I am sure that there are things that can be communicated much more clearly and directly and perhaps even exclusively through the language of art.When artists devote themselves to historical themes, they have not only another perspective or focuses, but also a different vocabulary with which to formulate specific statements. In addition, artists have much more freedom compared with classic historians, because they are hardly bound by academic or disciplinary constraints. There work is ethical rather than scientific. It is here that I see great potential for an artistic approach to historical themes.
* Rosalind E. Krauss, “Raster (1978),” in: ibid., Die Originalität der Avantgarde und andere Mythen der Moderne (Herta Wolf, Amsterdam and Dresden, 2000), pp.51–66, here p.51.