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Ales Pushkin

An Introduction

Martin SchibliKalmar Konstmuseum is proud to be able to present the first solo exhibition in Sweden of the work of artist Ales Pushkin (b. 1965) from Belarus. Pushkin is known to Swedes through the film Belarusian Waltz. The film gives a good overview of the artist’s work as a whole. Belarus is often called the last dictatorship in Europe, ruled by Alexander Lukashenko since 1994 amidst a strong personality cult. The media are strictly controlled, protest against the regime is dangerous, and opposition figures risk a variety of forms of repression by authorities, including prison. Some critics of the regime have even disappeared. Under conditions such as these, art—and artists—take on a different role than in a more democratic society where art is supported by an institutionalized system. The political situation in Belarus makes it difficult to show art that is critical in any way to contemporary society.
Pushkin was educated at the Belarusian State Academy of Arts in Minsk, where, as in most Eastern European art schools, the emphasis was on the craft of painting, composition, and drawing. He was also required to study restoration and mural painting. Pushkin graduated in 1990 and moved the following year to Vitebsk, where he was employed in the restoration of church paintings. He chose that city for its importance in the history of 19th century art: Vitebsk is where Marc Chagall was born, and at the time of the Russian Revolution Chagall became the city’s arts commissioner. He founded an art school there that became for a short time a gathering place for the Russian avant-garde, including El Lissitzky and Kazimir Malevich. Pushkin opened a gallery in Vitebsk in 1993 that was, according to the artist, the first postmodern gallery in Belarus. Many of its exhibitions gained widespread attention. Pushkin’s final production, after which he was forced to close the gallery, was to hold the First Assembly of Belarusian Nationalists in the gallery. This so provoked the authorities that he even spent two weeks in prison. Since the end of the 1990s, Pushkin has been living in the village of Bobr, home to his family for five or six generations, a few hours’ journey by car from Minsk, the capital. Bobr is an old-fashioned village of primarily wooden buildings, only one paved road, and no municipal water or sanitation systems. The artist’s studio is in his parents’ old home, and many of his performances take place in the village.
Pushkin’s first performance, in 1989, resulted in fifteen days in prison and a five-year ban on travel abroad because of its treatment of Belarusian independence. He had experienced a number of performances in more concealed settings, such as private homes, and with a more limited audience (in the former Eastern Bloc, much of the contemporary art scene was limited to such clandestine gatherings). Pushkin saw great potential in performance art, but wanted to bring it out into the streets in order to share it with many more people. To this day, his performances usually take place in public spaces, and most end the same way—with Pushkin being carted off by the police.
In Pushkin’s performances, the artist assumes one of several different identities. One is the soldier or paramilitary nationalist. In these performances, he is clad in black and wears long, black boots. In one example, July Morning of Jahar Dudaev, he honors the memory of friends killed in Afghanistan, though the work also refers to the situation in Chechnya. (Pushkin’s studies were interrupted for mandatory military service in Afghanistan 1984-6, during the Soviet occupation.) A second persona is the Christ figure who takes on the sins of the world. A third is that of the poet/artist, an innocent who appears at times naïvely detached from the real world. These roles all share a common identification with the culture of Belarus—with its history, culture, symbols, and language. Pushkin often presents himself as a patriotic Belarusian artist, but he identifies with an entirely different Belarus than the one President Lukashenko stands for.
In Soldier of Fortune (a performance given in Independence Square in Minsk on July 3, 2002, the national day of independence), Pushkin was again the soldier: on the surface he appeared to belong to some sort of paramilitary nationalist group. To strengthen the impression of aggressive militarism, he was accompanied by a muzzled black dog—a German breed. In the square, he set up paintings of two Belarusian generals, Usievalad Rodzka and Mikhas Vitushka, who had struggled during the Second World War to liberate Belarus (then a republic within the Soviet Union) from the Russians. Today, however, the generals are known in the official state version of history as Nazi collaborators. In many Eastern European countries, the defeat of Nazi fascism is a singularly meaningful event that helps crystallize a cohesive official version of history. The victory is traditionally celebrated on May 9 in ceremonies that essentially recreate the state. They redefine and extol its formation, while in the minds of many who lived through the historic events, the memories are of tragedy, sacrifice, hardship, and the loss of loved ones suffered by most families. For many, the personal suffering is mitigated and given meaning by the notion that such sacrifice was necessary to save Europe from fascism, to secure the victory over Nazi Germany. Pushkin’s reference to the Nazis was therefore not only offensive to the state, but also considered by many individuals to be a personal provocation. As usual, the police quickly appeared and told the artist to put an end to it. Pushkin shouted to the large crowd that had gathered around him, “People! Remember the heroic deeds of Usievalad Rodzka and Mikhas Vitushka. To the glory of heroes!” At that moment, the police wrestled him to the ground, handcuffed him, and took him away in their patrol car. The audience was divided, and many were heard to applaud the actions of the police.
Three years later, on Independence Day, July 3, 2005, Pushkin gave a performance outside the National Museum in Minsk. Again he assumed the black-clad soldier’s persona. Some time prior to the performance, the artist had written to the museum director to request permission to exhibit a number of paintings in the museum that dealt with Belarusian history; he had been turned down. On the steps of the museum, Pushkin placed several portraits from his series Belarusian Resistance of the Twentieth Century. The paintings represented people Pushkin considers Belarusian patriots, people who fought for the county’s independence but have never been properly recognized. Instead, they have been labeled in the official version of history as traitors to their country and collaborators with the Nazis. These paintings may be seen as conceptual portraits that have been executed in the best tradition of 20th century painting—Pushkin is considered by many to be one of the best painters in Belarus. Again the performance ended when the artist was taken away by the police.
In BNR 90 Years, performed in 2008, Pushikin celebrates the 90th anniversary of the declaration of the Belarusian National Republic on March 25, 1918. He stood in Bobr’s public square and offered passers by pieces of a cake his wife had baked. It ended as usual, with the police arriving promptly on the scene, asking what he was up to, videotaping the “crime,” and finally arresting him. In the trial that followed, he was convicted and fined the equivalent of two months’ pay for having set out an EU flag, a red-and-white Belarusian flag, and a table with the “Pogonia” crest (a red-and-white emblem with a knight on horse that had served as the national symbol 1991-5), and five nesting boxes for birds. The nesting boxes, a work entitled Bird Nests, may be read as small homes for various groups and factions of Belarus. The boxes are overtly symbolic: the one for the military holds elements such as a tear gas canister, a weapon, and a helmet. Another is dedicated to the young people whom Lukashenko wants to house in faceless structures reminiscent of Soviet kolkhozes (collective farms): their nesting box includes a construction helmet, barbed wire, and handcuffs painted in the president’s red and green colors.
Every year on March 25, Pushkin brings the same painting down from the attic to work on for that day only in a performance called Planner Freedom. The painting is based on the history of Belarus, and artist will not consider it completed until the country has become free. For the performance, he takes on the persona of the naïve artist standing in a snow-covered landscape, working at his easel. In many ways, he appears to be the stereotypical artist, lost in a world of his own, palette in hand and a beret on his head. For his performance on March 25, 2009, the beret was covered in wet paint as a defensive weapon against the police, whose uniforms would have been spoiled in any attempt to arrest him: resistance through paint. The police came as usual and interrogated him; for once, however, they decided not to arrest him—but only after consulting with the higher authorities. In this performance, the artist reveals the absurdity of the uncertainty that plagues civil servants in a dictatorship when they are forced to take a stand on actions that don’t conform to the usual forms of political resistance, actions that are exaggeratedly peaceful, even though the authorities realize that those actions are definitely intended as some sort of protest. Pushkin demonstrates the power of the poet in a dictatorship.
Pushkin sees himself as a patriotic Belarusian artist. His alternative nationalism, and the alternative version of history it implies, is a protest against the established history as well as that promoted by Lukashenko. It is worth noting that there has never been an independent, internationally recognized Belarusian state, even though there is a distinct Belarusian culture. As a result, the country has essentially no written history of its own; that history must largely be constructed. Pushkin’s nationalism is disruptive of this system, making Lukashenko’s nationalism seem banal and eventually undermining it, because at the heart of any nationalism is the belief in a single true concept of the nation. The symbols, events, and people Pushkin uses and refers to are different than those propagated by the regime. The use of color is a clear example: Pushkin uses red and white to refer to the pre-Lukashenko national flag of 1991-5, colors that are strongly rooted in the cultural history of Belarus. Shortly after becoming president in 1994, Lukashenko introduced a new red and green flag that is largely the same as the one the Belarusian Republic had under the Soviet Union. Pushkin calls it “the Russian colonial flag.” His strategy of openly presenting an alternative form of Belarusian nationalism stands in stark contrast to the approach taken by Marina Naprushkina, another artist from Belarus whose work was exhibited by Kalmar Konstmuseum in 2006 (Double Dictatorship) and 2008 (as part of the exhibition Friction and Conflict). The difference is that Naprushkina identifies (in an exaggerated way) with Lukashenko’s totalitarian aesthetics and symbolism: the way she appropriates the state colors of red and green serves to undermine rather than celebrate the regime.
Pushkin often makes use of religious symbolism, which is uncommon among performance artists. His The Way of St. Josephat performance of November 13, 1995 in Vitebsk was based on the murder of the priest St. Josephat in1623 by the city’s Russian Orthodox inhabitants in front of the house where Pushkin had his studio. After killing the priest, the angry mob dragged his body down to the river and threw it in, whereupon the river began to glow with light. They killed Josephat because he wanted to join the Russian Orthodox Church with the Roman Catholic Church to form a united Belarusian Church. After his death, the priest’s body was taken to Rome, where he was canonized by the Vatican. Pushkin views the murder as a sin committed by the Russian Orthodox Church, and in the performance he bore the guilt of that sin by carrying a cross from the scene of the crime down to the river. It involved a whole procession, including an orchestra that wandered throughout the town. Pushkin walked barefoot, burdened by the cross as well as several stones. The act of symbolically bearing that guilt becomes an act of personal purification from sin. He sought support for the performance from the Russian Orthodox Church, but they turned him down.
That Pushkin sought purification from what he considers a Russian Orthodox sin was more than just an artistic gesture. He considers himself a faithful member of the Russian Orthodox Church, though he does distance himself from the clergy. Over the years, he has undertaken several commissions for the church, including restorations, wall murals, and icons. The frescoes in the Church of St. Nicolas in Bobr are just one example. A scene in one mural depicting the sinful included the face of President Lukashenko. That didn’t go unnoticed, and many came to the church to see it. A television crew even did a story on the portrait, and after the program appeared on Russian television the face was quickly painted over by workmen. The painting, The Priest Georgi Bortnik (2007), is a portrait of a priest who was shot by the KGB in 1951 for preaching in the Belarusian language. It is possible to interpret Pushkin’s incorporation of Belarusian cultural elements into work for the Russian Orthodox Church as a subversive strategy. Yet the fact that Pushkin belongs to a church that is fundamentally pro-Russian would seem to be a paradox: the supremacy of Russian Orthodoxy in Belarus is clear expression of the Russification of Belarusian culture so adamantly opposed by the artist.
Perhaps the explanation for this apparent paradox in Pushkin’s relationship to all things Russian lies in the fact that Russian culture is itself filled with contradictory traditions. On one side, the Russian Orthodox Church with its thousand-year history, together with the Russians’ view of nature; on the other, the country’s shorter imperialist history, spanning only recent centuries and culminating in the Soviet Union. In many respects, the old Russian culture is diametrically opposed to the system of values that emerged with the Russian Revolution and on which the identity of the Soviet Union was based. There is even a remarkable coincidence in the fact that Ales Pushkin has the same name as the author of the Russian national epic poem (Alexander Pushkin), who died prematurely of a wound sustained in a pistol duel outside Moscow.
Pushkin weaves together politics, religion, and everyday events in his art. His world is complex, with many points of entry, with surprises and paradoxes, and it’s not quite possible to describe him in terms of the art world’s usual categories. But what else could be expected from a country devoid of institutions in which to exhibit art? Pushkin must create on his own the conditions in which to present and communicate his art. And his work is not without risk: in addition to the regime’s routine bureaucratic repression tactics and repeated imprisonment in connection with his performances, he runs the risk of being attacked and even killed by Lukashenko supporters. He has been assaulted many times. And in a country like Belarus, the commitment to work as an artist is a decision that affects not only the artist himself, but also his friends and family. Many Belarus observers see the younger generation and the cultural elite as the greatest hope for changing the current situation. That makes Ales Pushkin perhaps one of the most important activists in Belarus. And perhaps it is only under a dictatorship that can a poet/artist can become such a powerful force.

Martin Schibli
December 2009.