Behind the Scenes - Belarus Free Theatre

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Evening. A leafy Oxford suburb in early summer. I take my place in the theatre amid academics and indefinite Russophiles, knowing that as soon as the lights dim, I will be transported far away. This is Minsk 2011, performed by the legendary Belarus Free Theatre.

 

The Theatre was founded in 2005 by husband and wife Nicolai Khalezin and Natalia Kaliada. In Minsk, they performed in private apartments until they moved into exile abroad. Tonight’s play is Minsk 2011: A Reply to Kathy Acker” (watch the trailer and an interview with Natalia Kaliada).

Acker was an American punk writer who linked New York society to its sexual identity; and this is a Belarusian reply. Dressed in khaki plainclothes, florid housekeeper jackets and lacy black lingerie; the actors rap, shout and whisper. One character pulls back his clothes to show off his numerous scars one by one. Each has its own story, whether innocent or brutal.  He explains: “Scars adorn a man. Many girls find it sexy. In this respect, Minsk is a beautiful and very sexy city. Welcome to Minsk! The sexiest city in the world!”

The play is a series of scenes with no definite characters or plot. After sundown, a workers’ stalovaya (cafeteria) is converted into a nightclub. A young, interchangeable Katya arrives from the provinces to begin her studies and slowly slips into the underworld. There are snapshots of the year 2011 – familiar to anyone who followed the headlines – from the presidential elections of December 2010, rigged in favour of Alexander Lukashenka, to the “silent protests” that lulled the capital last summer. As if in slow motion, we revisit the explosions that hit the Minsk metro in April 2011. A survivor smells “sugar and blood” as she trips over the dead bodies. They had only gone out to buy food products, before prices rose even further.

“Belarus is not sexy,” says Natalia Kaliada’s character towards the end. “The sexiness of a country is its oil, gas, diamonds, and access to sea and mountains. Belarus is the only country in Europe where there is no sea and no mountains. Belarus is flat. ... For the world to notice us, we have to take – our – clothes – off!”

And she does. The play reaches its climax, with the cast singing a plaintive Belarusian folk song in the background. But even in this faceless urban landscape there is a human touch. The cast sits on a make-shift river bank overlooking Minsk, dangling their feet in the cool water. One by one, each character (or perhaps each actor?) shares a simple memory or wish linked to Minsk. To return to his own four walls, to see her baby again, to restore a sense of normality. In this city they have so little but, at the same time, everything.

It was an entertaining evening. Those in the audience who survived the swearing and an hour of squinting at the English surtitles (the performance was in Russian) certainly learnt something about Belarus. The actors spent a lot of energy; a special mention goes to the four women actors, whose roles were particularly demanding. The play picked up speed and went beyond being merely provocative, to touch on serious themes. It illustrates the repression of minorities – sexual minorities, but not only – by the authoritarian regime (in 2010, Minsk police broke up a Gay Pride march after only 15 minutes). 

Beyond the nightlife and the glitter, the play says something valuable about Belarus. It shatters the stereotype, popular in the western media, of Belarusian society as a grey, neo-Soviet lump. What is left is not the overused concept of “civil society”, organised and democratic. Rather, it is a kaleidoscope of young people with their own identities, anxieties and dreams – just like in any other country. The Belarus Free Theatre’s style may not be to everyone’s liking. But, watching it perform on stage, you may catch a glimpse of Belarus behind the scenes.

 

Annabelle Chapman is a postgraduate student in Russian and East European Studies at Oxford University.

 

Watch the Belarus Free Theatre perform Shakespeare’s King Lear here, at the 2012 Globe to Globe festival in London (in Belarusian with English subtitles).

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Still Looking at the Stars

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Europe: An Unfinished Project
Edited by: Michał Bardel and Grzegorz Jankowicz
Published by: Fundacja Tygodnika Powszechnego
Kraków 2011

 

You are sitting outside in the Central European sunshine. Over black coffee, your erudite companion – a writer, a historian, perhaps – is sharing his thoughts. Around you, crisis: rising unemployment statistics, endless political negotiations, a lack of purpose. But you relax for a moment and listen to what he has to say.

 

This is the tone of Europe: An Unfinished Project, which brings together contributions from nine European intellectuals. In the form of loose interviews, they explore the concrete challenges facing European states today, as well as more "existential" questions about the nature of Europe.

The selection of authors is definitively Central European. The introduction by Zygmunt Bauman, the eminent Polish sociologist, considers Europe’s search for a “mission” and how its diversity is an asset, rather than an obstacle that needs to be overcome. Timothy Garton Ash, who famously reported the 1989 revolutions, adds his historian’s insights to this theme of diversity, while also noting that “we have no theatre in European politics” (this metaphor recurs in his obituary of his friend Václav Havel). In the next chapter, Austrian writer Martin Pollack travels into the dark corners of Galicia, full of myths and abandoned objects. Rucco Buttiglione, an Italian politician, is concerned about Europe’s secularisation, which he links to its decline (this is the only explicitly Christian chapter).

György Spiró, a Hungarian writer, calls for a reassessment of capitalism from a social (and not merely economic) angle, and points out the continued value of Europe’s mystical tradition. Young Swiss writer Lukas Bärfus looks farther afield, at Europe’s failed efforts to project itself overseas, in Rwanda. Croatian writer Dubravka Ugrešić links the ancient myth of Europa – who was abducted by the Greek god Zeus – to the situation of women today, adding a feminist perspective to the volume. Hans Rosling, a Swedish medical doctor, looks at European society through the demographer’s pessimistic lens. Finally, Hans-Gert Pöttering, who was President of the European Parliament in 2007-2009, recasts the crisis as an opportunity for Europe.

Turning to the title, “unfinished” initially conjures up negative associations. Politically, the EU remains far from the nation-state paradigm that has haunted it since the 1950s. Recent parallels to the expiring USSR have filled some with horror and others with glee. But this sensationalism is unhelpful. History (not least that of the European project) is punctuated by crises. Spiró even suggests that “crisis” is an integral part of European thought – picture the angst-ridden Viennese Kaffeehaus. In the conclusion, Polish literary critic Tadeusz Sławek argues that, paradoxically, today’s crisis stems from “the conviction that ‘Europe’ is a finished and ready project”. Turning the problem on its head, he makes “unfinished” a positive adjective, overflowing with potential.

References to Eastern Europe are threaded throughout the volume (this owes a lot to the Polish editors). The EU’s geography has an “unfinished” element too, with the ambiguities surrounding its future limits. The new eastern border has generated not only practical challenges, but also patterns of inclusion and exclusion (for example, Russia as Europe’s “Other”). Each chapter somehow links the region to the book’s wider themes. What is missing is a contribution from beyond the EU’s eastern border, such as Ukrainian scholar Mykola Ryabchuk or outspoken writer Yuriy Andrukhovych.

This slim volume is a valuable addition to the ongoing conversation about “Europe”, rekindled by the economic (and some would say ontological) crisis. The liberal Catholic stance of its publisher, Polish weekly Tygodnik Powszechny, merely gives the volume a philosophical edge. Refreshingly, the authors are aware of the EU’s flaws, and even of their own somewhat Eurocentric perspective. But each of them is eager to contribute to the debate, and to open it up to readers. As Oscar Wilde said, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.”

 

Annabelle Chapman is a postgraduate student in Russian and East European Studies at Oxford University.

Loneliness in Prague

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Loneliness
Art Exhibiton by Samuel Havadtoy  
Through April 10, 2012
Stará Čistírna
Papírenská 6, 
Prague 6, Czech Republic
www.staracistirna.cz

 

 

 

Putting sculptures of Lenin and Pinocchio in a wastewater treatment plant seems a bit eccentric, but a new exhibition in Prague by Hungarian artist Sam Havadtoy is an ingenious mix of whimsy and industry.

“The idea was very site specific,” Mr. Havadtoy said. “Look at the three Lenin’s, stuck between sewer pipes and with chains hanging around; it’s perfect.”

Prague’s Stará Čistírna’s museum is indeed a former wastewater treatment plant; located in a protected industrial building from the early 1900s. Visitors can wander the dark rooms and winding passageways, checking out the steam engines and other original machinery. Now this cavernous building is considerably brightened by Mr. Havadtoy’s paintings and sculptures.

“When I came here, I decided to do the ducks,” he said. “Especially because it is an event for children.”

How a Hungarian artist came to have an exhibition in Prague is a roundabout tale. As Havadtoy tells it, a couple of years ago the executive director of the Sunbeam charity asked him to donate a piece of artwork for their fundraising auction. Sunbeam assists children with cancer. Havadtoy was sceptical, “No one knows me here, who will want to buy it?” So instead, he donated a John Lennon lithograph that he says fetched 8 - 10,000 euros. Sunbeam’s director, Pavel Boček, this year got the idea to have an exhibition of Mr. Havadtoy’s work to kick off the agency’s auction.

“Then, he tells me (Mr. Boček) people will know who you are!” Havadtoy added.

The exhibition, entitled Loneliness, is scattered throughout the museum.  In the building’s main room is a huge cheerful looking duck, the walls are lined with his college prints of mini-ducks. Downstairs, you can find 60 of these colourful creatures bobbing on pedestals, spotlighted and scattered around the mechanical works of the factory. Mr. Havadtoy’s original idea was to float the ducks in the pool of water that is here.

“I originally wanted the ducks in the water, and to have them lit, but there are blind fish in the water and the light would have killed them,” he said. “Like all great ideas, everything was planned out on paper, but things never turn out like you had planned. But whatever you end up doing is usually better than you had planned. It’s not saving the world – it’s art.” Mr. Havadtoy’s gigantic version of the duck was originally supposed to be placed on Wenceslas Square, but the city was afraid it would be destroyed. Now it lords over the main room, looking smug, but happy.

Mr. Havadtoy uses lace in all his work and the material gives his sculptures on display here a rich texture that appears even in the prints. After creating the mini ducks, he photographed and layered them, printing them so they look like a collage. This texture is intense in the prints as well, making each duck come alive and subtly standout from its neighbour.

 

Sam Hadvadtoy - Lenin (speak no evil) Photo: Stara Cistirna                                       Sam Havadtoy: Pinnochio Photo: Stara Cistirna

Sam Havadtoy: Lenin (Speak No Evil)                                          Sam Havadtdoy: Pinocchio 
Photo: Stara Cistirna                                                                    Photo: Stara Cistirna 

Mr. Havadtoy is an English born artist of Hungarian origin who lived and worked in the vibrant New York art scene of the 1970s and 80s. Connecting with a host of well-known names there like John Lennon, Andy Warhol, David Bowie, and Keith Haring; Mr. Havadtoy lived with Yoko Ono following her breakup with Lennon. His work reflects the pop-art from his time in New York, combined with the sensitivity of someone intimately familiar with eastern European life. Opening the Sam Havadtoy Gallery and Interior Design Studio in New York, Mr. Havadtoy was deeply involved in design, something he has put behind him a bit.

“I’m getting older, design is so interactive, very personal, but in the studio I lock myself in, put in my favourite music and I’m happy,” he said, adding that he can see evolvement in his work.

“I’ve also started to paint with dots, normally I cover my problems with paint, but with dots it’s like a mantra,” he said. “The ducks are lace, then paint, then dots and I see that my dots are no longer sad. In other works the dots are very sombre, but I have come out of whatever was in the past and I am in a very happy-go-lucky situation.”

For about 10 years now, Mr. Havadtoy has been starting his work by writing his problems, complaints or other concerns on the canvas, painting over it, then covering it with lace and starting his piece. The method comes from hypnotherapy sessions Mr. Havadtoy participated in following his breakup with Yoko Ono. The sessions were recorded, and afterward he was encouraged to write out, by hand, what he said while under hypnosis.

A typical lace duck by Sam Havadtoy. Photo: Stara Cistirna

 

“The story itself is for me a way to work through my grips, self-pity, but I’m having so much fun with it, processing certain angst about oneself,” he said. “I’ve been doing this more than 10 years and I’ll continue, sometimes it’s funny stuff, I’m not always complaining.”

There are two other exhibitions of Mr. Havadtoy’s work this year, one in Milan and one in Romania. The exhibition in Milan is in a sleek, gallery space, while in Romania his work will be displayed in a Transylvanian castle, complete with mouldings and gilding. A Pinocchio will appear in both locations, while the three Lenin’s (hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil) will only be in Milan.

“These are totally different spaces to fill, so the designer in me is very happy, I’m still decorating,” he said. 

As for his Prague exhibition, Mr. Havadtoy deems it a success.

“For me, I achieved what I wanted to do as a dialogue with the space; it’s nice in the space and I’m happy.”

 

Jacy Meyer is a freelance journalist living in Prague. She has contributed to a number of international and local publications, including The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Christian Science Monitor, and many others.

 

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So Many Stories in One Piece

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Exhibit: Another Air - Close Your Eyes and Open Your Window
The Czech-Slovak Surrealist Group
Location: Prague 1, Old Town City Hall
Dates: 9/2/2012 - 4/4/2012

Surrealism exhibit in Prague offers retrospective from the past 20 years.

“Many people believe surrealism is a dream, escape, imagination but that is nonsense. It comes from reality and in it we can feel a strong connection between dream and reality.”

Bruno Solarik is one of the curators of a large Surrealism exhibition now on in Prague. “Another Air 1991-2011” is a look back at the past 20 years of Surrealism in the Czech and Slovak Republics, courtesy of the Czech-Slovak Surrealist Group. An international element is added, with work from surreal artists from France, UK, Greece, Sweden and the US, to name just a few. The last significant Surrealist exhibition happened here in 1990-1991. Through a chance discussion with a friend, Mr. Solarik realized that 2012 would be an excellent time to put on another.

“That group exhibition was dedicated to the 70s and 80s.” he said. “We should have another exhibition after 20 years; it is important to look to the past and now we can’t wait to see what will happen in the next 20 years.”

About half of the 70 participating artists are from the Czech Republic or Slovakia with the remaining from abroad. Photos, simple sketches, graphics, paintings, sculptures and more creations are on display…some are overwhelming in intricate details, others are startling simple. Most apparent are the colours and emotions; some meanings are clear, or maybe they only seem clear to the individual viewer, while some are open to interpretation.

According to Mr. Solarik, the most important thing to remember about Surrealism is the differences in aesthetic points.

“Many people believe surrealism is bizarre – that’s a simplification,” he explained. “Most important is creative inspiration – no one wants to be inspired by something fashionable but the real shape of the imagination – that’s why artists go their own way.”

 

Jan Gabriel, Totem, 2007, Photo Courtesy of Art Movement o.s. / Czech Slovak Surrealist Group All Rights Reserved   Michel Zimbacca, ualek damka, (2007) Photo courtesy of Art Movement o.s. / Czech Slovak Surrealist Group - All Rights Reserved

Jan Gabriel, Totem, 2007                             Michel Zimbacca, ualek damka, 2007 
 

The exhibition is located in what seems like a peculiar place for a Surrealism exhibition – The Old Town Hall. Built in 1364, the gallery space has a typical ground-floor exhibition space, a brick-walled, stone-floored cellar and an upstairs with beautiful painted wood-beamed ceilings and bits of historic wall protected by glass. The exhibition is divided into four sections: Lightening, which is dedicated to polarity: emotion and destiny, love and death, etc; Object, which demonstrates the connection between dream and reality; Magnet, focused on connections to things coming together and things being forced apart and finally Spring, which are sources of creative activity.

Mr. Solarik says when putting the exhibition together, at the beginning it was the art, then after the themes were set, he hoped to inspire artists to design to the theme. The exhibition is showing both older works and pieces designed for this show.

One of the artists displaying work at this exhibition is Bill Howe from Leeds, England. His connection with the Czech-Slovak Surrealist Group dates back to 1999, and he says he regularly returns to Prague for the motivation.

“I come for the creative interaction, for the inspiration,” he said. “It’s good to see the connections between our art, and for encouragement.”

Mr. Howe had no formal art training; in fact, he didn’t begin drawing until he was in his 30s. His work, which consists of sketches filled in with tiny dots, could be considered mythological, but he’s not categorizing it.

“It’s an abstract background until I see a shape; I may start in one corner, move into another and eventually it coalesces into a whole,” he said. “It can take three months to do one drawing; it’s a process – I’m not trying to draw something, just imaginatively trying to interpret it.”

Mr. Solarik says it’s common for surreal artists not to have studied art formally.

“The desire to be creative is more powerful than the necessity to learn the craft,” he said. “This exhibition looks like a mix of styles, but it’s not a mistake. It shows artists go according to their own desires not what others tell them to believe.”

Kathleen Fox, Schovej se, valko, 2002

Mr. Howe adds that many people don’t realize the diversity of Surrealism. “The artists aren’t limited to one thing, it is limiting if you just stick to one type,” he said.

The Czech-Slovak Surrealist Group has its roots in the avant-garde era between the wars. Devetsil, an association of modern culture, founded in 1920, transformed itself in 1934 into the Group of Surrealists of Czechoslovakia. The group stuck together after World War II, with a number of artists, including Karel Teige. At the end of the 60s, Vratislav Effenberger brought the artists together under the so-called Czechoslovakian Surrealist Group. Since the 1990s, the group has been active in both the Czech Republic and Slovakia under the name The Czech-Slovak Surrealist Group. As Solarik put it: “We were together once, why split just because some politicians made some decisions?”

Another Air is a vibrant, engaging exhibition expertly showing the all-encompassing nature of Surrealism. While the art form is often discussed as one that “was” not one that “is”, this show should prove that Surrealist artists from around the world are actively connecting their dreams with reality and producing some thought-provoking pieces.

Jacy Meyer is a freelance journalist based in Prague. She has contributed to a number of international and local publications, including The New York Times, International Herald Tribune, Christian Science Monitor, and many others.

 

All Photos courtesy of Art Movement o.s. / Czech Slovak Surrealist Group 

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