May 14, 2016 - Galeria Arsenal - Our National Body
May 14, 2016

Galeria Arsenal

Piotr Uklański, Untitled (Solidarity), 2007. Large-format photography, 300 x 459 cm.

Our National Body
June 1–22, 2016

Taras Shevchenko National Museum
12 Taras Shevchenko Boulevard

Organiser: Arsenal Gallery, Białystok, Poland

Participating artists: Adam Adach, Anna Baumgart, Chto Delat, David Chichkan, Hubert Czerepok, Aleksandra Czerniawska, Katarzyna Kozyra, Kobas Laksa, Petr Pavlensky, Marek Raczkowski, Tomáš Rafa, Vlada Ralko, Mykola Ridnyi, Jadwiga Sawicka, Piotr Uklański, Piotr Wysocki

Curator: Monika Szewczyk

We have invited artists from Poland, Ukraine and Russia to a discussion about the self-image of the states and the nations. How do they perceive their own nations? What image of their states arises from their works? How do they describe the condition of the international community? Artists have the uncanny ability to detect emergent phenomena before they even crystallise. Their ability to observe the world in its various manifestations enables them to be in touch with occurrences, collective emotions and thoughts which impose structure on social life. By watching the actions, reactions and arguments of their fellow citizens, by looking at everything that underlies the declared, debated and demonstrated attitudes, they can discover the obscured or disavowed narratives regarding, for instance, their own countries.

The invitation we extend to artists from Poland, Ukraine and Russia springs from the geographical proximity and shared history of our nations. Our countries were once parts of the same state organisms: the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, the Russian Empire and the Soviet bloc. Also, the perception of distinctiveness has been very strong in all our nations, especially since the 19th century; so was the feeling of a very special tension between us. Debates on national identity are invariably heated ones. It seems that our countries are in the process of revising the hitherto binding models.

The Polish self-image, originally derived from an exceedingly powerful Romantic myth, has been undergoing deconstruction for a long while now. This process has resulted from the need to empower the new players on the Polish national scene: peasants, national minorities—the Jews, Ukrainians, Belarusians, Germans, women, immigrants, gays, etc., and from the desire to undermine the biding model of a Pole: a member of the gentry, a Catholic, an insurrectionist, a political dissident. Even the worker Lech Walesa wore the moustache of a gentleman.

In the face of the terrorist aggression against Eastern Ukraine and the appropriation of the Crimea, the Ukrainians increasingly strongly identify themselves with their own state. Yet their identity models, even though founded on elements typical of the period when the nation states were developing in the early 20th century (folk culture, the embroideries, the "sharovary" trousers), are based not on the ethnic pattern, but on the performative one: whoever feels him- or herself to be Ukrainian and acts in the interests of the state, is Ukrainian. Certainly Ukraine’s past as a part of the USSR, where the rhetoric of cosmopolitism was employed, contributed to the weakening of the Romantic image of the country.

The position of Russia, a state founded on the ruins of the totalitarian empire, is the least obvious. The process of appropriating imperial ideologies from the eras of Catherine II and Stalin requires special narrative endeavours. The tightly rationed freedom of speech does not make answering the question what the Russian self-image is today any easier.

Artists do not propose holistic answers to the questions we have posed; they observe those segments of national mythologies and those historical periods which most powerfully shaped the national identities. The image of their own national community is their constant reference point. Our exhibition is not a quasi-scientific project; it is an attempt to discover a different type of knowledge about our world. It may not be the binding knowledge, but it certainly affects our perception of the world. After all, it is on the level of perceptions that the world changes first.

The first edition of the exhibition was presented at the Arsenal Gallery power station in Białystok 
August 21–September 27, 2015.

The event is co-financed by the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage of the Republic of Poland.

Galeria Arsenal
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