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Viktor Misiano

Where Are We? 0

Interviewed by Ieva Kulakova, art historian and curator

My conversation with Viktor Misiano (1957) – a well-known Russian art theorist and curator – was one of life's chance happenings which I duly accepted as providence. In the barely two hours between's request for an interview and the time allotted for our interview, I saw  irony in the fact that I didn't have questions at the ready, just in case I happened to meet him. I adapted to the situation – Misiano was in Riga for the conference “Revealing the Invisible Past. Current Approaches to the Study of the Art History of the Socialism Period in Eastern Europe”, so I began the interview with the subject of the reassessment of the art history of the soviet period, which would help us to move on to more topical questions concerning art, and possibly even the future of art.

Staying within the theme of the conference, I'd like to start with a line of questions regarding  the post-soviet experience of our art. Where are we? How do we set out a strategy that would help us to both understand the situation and make a judgment as to how we should continue? What methods should we use? And first of all – taking a look back. If we assume that a clear regard for history really is important. What do we do with this huge legacy of soviet art?

Really, since 2004, no, actually a bit earlier, the theme of my work is bound with post-soviet issues. As a whole, my biography as a curator can be described very schematically. In the 90's I worked with what was later taken to be called the “performative selectioning of art”, i.e. working with experiments – like works in progress, open projects, dialog projects, etc. These projects, of course, were executed in post-soviet conditions, and in many ways, they problematized and sounded these conditions, yet they didn't see it as their job to embody the “post-soviet”. But then, at the beginning of 2000, I returned to, relatively speaking, the traditional exhibition format, and my work centered mostly on the post-soviet, post-communistic theme. In 2007 I made a large exhibition project for which, by the way, I came to Riga for the first time. The project was shown in four European museums – these were four independent exhibits, all dedicated to the post-soviet condition and part of the whole curatorial, conceptual and dramaturgical framework [1]. I gave this project the title “Progressive Nostalgia”, and in 2008 I published a large book – a large catalog [«WAM № 33/34. Прогрессивная ностальгия. Современное искусство стран бывшего СССР», 2008 – I. K.], in which, under the same name, I consolidated the material from all four exhibits. This project, I believe, is also the main reason you invited me for a conversation about post-soviet art. It wasn't shown in Moscow, by the way, and no one there understood why I was working with post-soviet art –  why was I going to Kirghistan, Georgia, Armenia? Why does all of this seem interesting to me, when everybody knows that what is most important is breaking out in London and New York? When it's clear to everyone that there is nothing between Moscow and Berlin?

And why was that important to you?

Many reasons brought me there. Including personal ones: I was thinking about my family's taking part in the history of communism – which I don't look upon as a heavy load to bear, and from which I don't intend to distance myself...

It's important to talk about the soviet experience because... because it happened! But in the 90's it seemed to be something that should be crossed-out as unnecessary, as if it never were. It seemed as if a completely new life was to begin, in which it will be easier to settle-in if we destroy all ties with the past. That was the first post-soviet decade, and at the same time, the first decade of the New World Order, when everybody hurried to put their new, construed-in-haste identities into political commerce, as well as new historical roots, where the soviet-period was brushed aside because it seemed to be something inorganic, a kind of mistake, something forced upon, a sort of sidestep off of the normal way of things. Something similar, by the way, was experienced by colonial countries which, once independence was gained, began to wipe away the memories of their colonial past. This phenomenon – postcolonial theory, was, thanks to Leela Gandhi [2], called the will-to-forget. But the problem – or rather, just one of the problems! – hides in the fact that it is enough for our countries to reject the soviet past, that our belonging to the current times (meaning modernity) becomes questionable. Because the soviet past – that was our current time. We had no other! But, if we have had no current times, then we can be ethnicized, i.e., our experience can be described in national, ethnic or racial terms. That is exactly what the West began to do, beginning their colonization work there, where the Second-World used to be. That is why, if we want to be able to say that the problems that are timely to us have the same relation to global symptoms as those of Western Europe or North America, we have to admit to our having belonged to the soviet-period and we have to gain this experience anew.

When you said that your reasons for turning to post-soviet topics could seem unclear, this prompted a reply – everything that happens in the post-soviet territory is also a continuation of this past experience, and that is why the question of a soviet legacy is topical.

I think that, especially in the beginning, if the soviet-era was starting to return, it was not in the linear narrative form. To pick out our present from the soviet past – that is beyond our powers at the moment. It is enough to step out of the world of anti-communistic stamps that have been pushed from their pedestals or nostalgic apologies for us to understand that the soviet experience is too encompassing, complex and variable to look at with a linear legacy.

[1] In 2007, the curator Viktor Misiano organized the exhibition “Return of the Memory” at Tallinn's contemporary art museum, “KUMU”; the exhibition “On Geekdom” at the Benaki Museum in Athens; the exhibition “Time of the Storytellers” at Helsinki's contemporary art museum, “Kiasma”; and the exhibit “Progressive Nostalgia” at the Luigi Pecci Contemporary Art Center in Prato, Italy.

[2] Leela Gandhi (1966) – Professor at the University of Chicago (USA), acclaimed academic in the area of post-colonial theory, co-editor of the academic journal “Postcolonial Theory: A Critical Introduction” and editorial board member of the journal “Postcolonial Text”.