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Isolated by an unforgiving media ban, the closed town N hides from the prying eyes of the outside world, dancing on the boundary between fact and fiction. Its semi-fictional story unfolds at A Joyful Archipelago, an exhibition of ten Russian-born female artists opening tonight at Yinka Shonibare’s Guest Projects. Curator and Chelsea College graduate Olga Grotova talks to us about the vision behind this evocative exhibition.
What led you to the topic of closed cities?
Closed cities are a Russian phenomenon. They began appearing in the Soviet Union as places where secret research was conducted, mostly aimed at developing weapons and nuclear power. A lot of those cities remain closed to the present day.
For me, the closed city is mainly an allegory for the situation when people live in their self-contained bubble and prefer to ignore the rest of the world. In Russia, there is a proverb that says, "The less you know, the better you sleep." Because of this attitude, people fail to resolve even the most obvious issues, preferring to live in a delirium rather than facing reality.
Could you describe your research process?
For me it always has to start with a story – I write a lot and then use it for the visuals. For A Joyful Archipelago, I first wrote an imaginary account of a person who managed to leave a closed town and the nostalgia she felt after that. This story for me became the starting point.
Where does the title A Joyful Archipelago come from?
"Archipelago" is a reference for Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago. The word joyful for me brings in an element of contradiction. It describes an attitude when people can live in environments when wrong, terrible things are happening such as repressions, wars and terror, but prefer to ignore it.
It was fascinating, then, when I was doing research and suddenly came across a lot of Soviet fashion magazines from the 1930s, the era of Stalinist repressions. It strikes you how people in the same country live in completely different realities: for some, it is suffering and terror, whilst others may live like nothing is going on.
Did you draw from a personal narrative in curating the exhibition?
I was born in Russia, but left the country when I was fifteen. My grandmother and great-grandmother were Gulag survivors, so their life has always been fascinating to me, although they rarely talked about their experiences. Being Russian and knowing my country's history, but at the same time being detached from it, is a very unsettling experience which often influences my work.
What led you to these specific artists?
I have been an admirer of many of these artists' works and approached them with an idea. Some are my close friends from uni and one is even a childhood friend. It is a very intimate society. We met and begun discussing the exhibition and it just felt natural for us all to work together.
How were the artists guided or instructed to shape their work to the theme of the exhibition?
I have written the story of the closed town N, where residents willingly prefer to isolate themselves from any means of mass media and mass communications. I then asked each artist to present their own interpretation of the story. As our discussions progressed, the story became less obvious, as most of us also couldn't ignore the political situation in Russia today. There are therefore many layers in the exhibition. We are all very different, and it was really interesting to see people taking different directions in their work.
How do you think both their works and the layout of the space engage with ideas of communication and isolation?
Each work looks at these notions from a different angle: some tackle them in a more direct way, whilst others do that very subtly. There are works that discuss communication on a more universal level; for example, Daria Irincheeva built the primitive communication device, which [makes you feel] like you need to go back to basics and rethink our communication in general. Yelena Popova has grew up in a closed city herself, and her video is a semi-biographical account of her experiences. Tatiana Baskakova and Ariadne Aivazovsky developed a very playful, child-like approach to a serious issue.
As for me, part of my work is a model of an old Soviet watch tower, similar to those that could be found in any penitentiary or labour camps in the USSR. In the late 20th century, most of them decayed, and as a child, you could see them sometimes rotting in a forest where you would go camping. It is both a reminder of a part of history that many people would rather forget and a question of surveillance and authority in the world today. At the same time, the visual image of the tower has now lost its historic meaning of control and terror. For many, it is merely a simple structure which could be part of a children playground or a dovecote.
The participating artists are: Yelena Popova, Taus Makhacheva, Maria Gruzdeva, Daria Irincheeva, Natalia Skobeeva, Ariadne Aivazovsky, Elena Gavrisch, Maria Kapajeva, Tatiana Baskakova and Olga Grotova.
A Joyful Archipelago is running from 12th - 28th April at Guest Projects, located at 1 Andrew's Road, London E8 4QL.
Friday, 20 April 2012, 7-9 pm will see a special event with a group performance.
See A Joyful Archipelago's website here