SubСonscious Art. Artistic reflections. Ukraine after 2013

The book «SubСonscious Art. Artistic reflections. Ukraine after 2013» should have been introduced to readers at the beginning of March. But Russian invasion of Ukraine threatened our lives, plans and the existence of Ukraine as a state in general. However, the first days of the war showed the Ukrainian people’s phenomenal courage, unity and victory in the liberation struggle.
The modern world was amazed by such bravery, and people started to dig more into the origins of the paradigm of Ukrainian unity in the pursuit of freedom.  In many aspects, this book sheds light on our recent past, where evidence of historical events appears before us in the most accurate optics of visual art. 

«Art is one of the main things worth relying on in the “post-truth” era» — conversation with Olesya Gerashchenko (Shambur) about the new book «SubСonscious Art».

“Osnovy” publishing house with cultural studies researcher and mediator Olesya Gerashchenko (Shambur) created the book «SubСonscious Art. Artistic reflections. Ukraine after 2013». 

This book attempts to understand the events that happened in Ukraine after 2013 through the work of Ukrainian artists. There are more than 50 interviews with artists, art critics and curators who answer the question of whether art can play a constructive role in conflict resolution, whether contemporary Ukrainian artists feel the social function of their art, and what, in fact, is the place of Ukrainian art in the world?

In this material we spoke with the author to find out how “SubСonscious Art” was created and the role the publication plays in understanding the events in Ukraine after 2013.

Osnovy: How would you describe this book – as a call for dialogue in society about the events that happened and are still happening; or as an explanation and a desire to understand what is actually happening and what role art plays in this?

Olesya Gerashchenko (Shambur): Future readers of this book and I perfectly understand what we as a state and as a society are going through. But perhaps such “clarity” conceals a certain danger  because, through it, we end up in a “filter bubble”, comfortable intellectual isolation. However, outside the “bubble”, some people do not share our point of view. Therefore, this book is for those who don’t feel comfortable when they are in the zone.

Although contemporary artists are mostly free of a political (in the sense of politics) agenda, their personal plans and memo are usually much broader and more interesting than politics. Artists create society. And their visual language, sometimes mysterious and metaphorical, sometimes in-your-face, can influence a person much more subtly and irrevocably than the greased clichés used by modern opinion leaders.

O: Was there a situation when the answer of one of the heroes changed the “mood” of the publication, and you wanted to pay special attention to something?

O G: I would define the “mood” of the book with the word “diversity”, so the artists’ answers did not change the vector of the publication but only expanded the context. However, the topic of us acquiring a certain “imperial snobbery” came up unexpectedly for me during the interview. It implies our culture’s potential and natural attraction towards inclusiveness as opposed to monoculturalism. Quite a controversial topic, but I would be interested in discovering it in the future.

O: Books can both arouse delight in the public and complete denial and rejection. And is there a place for complete denial in the mediation process? Have you ever wanted to deny someone’s statement while recording an interview categorically?

O G: At first, the parties to the conflict are always against each other – this is their nature, but the mediator must be neutral. This is one of the vital points, and it is good when the mediator feels this neutrality. I developed an unbiased attitude towards Ukrainians with different views during my work. I’m interested in finding out not only WHAT a person thinks but also WHY. Not everything in the world needs our appreciation. It is enough to take certain things into account “modulo”.

In the context of the book, my internal task was only to present to the reader the artists’ opinions and do it as thoroughly as possible. It is easy to resort to “self-denial” when you clearly see the goal. I didn’t want to educate readers about how they should evaluate our turbulent present but show them something exciting and different from the ordinary. Therefore, the more radical the judgment demonstrated by the hero or heroine of the book, the more dimensions the discussion receives. And thus, the book is enriched and filled with new meanings.

O: Working with trauma and the problem with the perception of art in Ukraine, in general, is something the book’s characters often drew attention to while answering your questions. What do you think should be the first in this order: the formation of a proper perception of art in society and its kind of “validation”, or maybe artists need to be proactive and constantly talk about important topics in their works so that society “pulls up” and pays attention?

O G: To change our world, artists need only remain artists, and to competently speak about the perception of art, there are curators and art critics. They have more solid reasons to talk about the Ukrainian artistic texture, the readiness of the audience to perceive the artist’s idea, etc., adequately. Actually, that is why the book contains interviews with representatives of both of these groups.

I have researched the role of visual art in making sense of traumatic social experiences, and I can join the cohort of scientists who consider the ability to transform experiences not only a privilege but also the essential function of aesthetics. The challenge for witnesses of the latest disasters is that their voices are heard in an already crowded public space with testimonies. Art can draw attention to these testimonies, can act as a warning against the polarizing political manipulation of “imagined memory”, overcome social scepticism and empathy fatigue, and teach us to experience trauma without losing our inner integrity.

O: According to the interviews you conducted, what kind of influence of socio-political problems in the country do you think dominates in Ukrainian artists’ works – meaningful or unthoughtful?

OG: Each artist is a separate universe. It is impossible to generalize to calculate a “weighted average” result. Indeed, many artists have declared their civic position and orientation towards the most painful problems of society. But does it matter to the viewer if it is an artistic intuition, an awareness of some aspect, an insight, inspiration, or a tribute to the situation? If the work is successful and resonates, it will remain in the history of Ukrainian and maybe even world art; if not, it will catch some hype, actualizing a hot issue.

Even a deliberately provocative work of art, this kind that polarizes the audience, is helpful in conflict because it becomes an occasion, even a call for discussion, some sort of “shock therapy” aimed at humanizing society. Thus, the community ultimately benefits from the artist not doing. This is a huge freedom and responsibility.

O: The question around which the most extensive discussions are constantly taking place: can art still be outside politics? Does it have such a chance in modern Ukraine? And is it correct to separate art from anything that affects people’s lives: politics, economy, social problems?

OG: Why is this the most controversial issue? I didn’t get that impression during the interview. It is clear that I touched only a tiny part of the discourse; still, the most polemical question I “caught” at the level of “mutterings of the artistic crowd” is whether the state should support art or whether it will necessarily lead to censorship. Here the opinions of the artists differed the most.

Regarding the “separation” of art, I like Picasso’s quote: “Art is a lie that makes us realize truth, at least the truth that is given us to understand.” I see the social and political potential of art precisely in this. Art is one of the main things worth relying on to understand what is happening in the post-truth era.

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