Volha Sazykina, ‘Communications’, 1978
The last chapter of the final book of the 6-volume The History of Belarusian Art – the only linear study of the national art history on such a massive scale – is dedicated to the 1970s-1980s decorative applied arts of the Belarusian Soviet Socialist Republic. Beginning in 1987, the publishing process of the project took more than five years, and overlapped with the collapse of socialism. However, the linear narration of the arts development was not disturbed by this event. The emergence of postsocialist temporality, expressed through the notion of “the contemporary” in the visual art of Eastern Europe, was completely neglected in this story. Instead, the series of books finishes with the non-monumental forms of art – tapestry, ceramics, glass – rendering the contemporary moment of socialist history of art somehow invalid, or maybe even cancelled.
The last chapter – on decorative and applied arts – starts with agitational tapestry that executed a significant ideological function, depicting the history of socialist struggles and space conquest. Not surprisingly, this medium was still dominated by male artists. It is followed by much less pretentious artworks that share artistic and utilitarian qualities – unique and mass-produced dishes, vessels, vases and decorations, created mostly by women. Previously comradely objects, they do not fit into the new capitalist economies of art, and, in the best cases, remain as museum specimens.
One of the last illustrations of the book features the work by Volha Sazykina, who, back then, innovatively worked with glass on the basis of an experimental lab at the “Neman” glassworks, and later on would become one of the protagonists of contemporary installation art in the period following the late 1980s. The work titled “Communications” is from 1978. The artwork is never mentioned in the text directly: it is an illustration, and therefore its intended use is not clear –it is probably a dish set.
Tatsiana Arciomava, set of vases ‘Buds’, 1975
The work comprises six surfaces of red glass, where white lines (streams, rays, wires, or tubes) are located. Some of them traverse the limits of the round shape and create a sort of cybernetic system. The “-S” in Communications also stresses the horizontal and centre-less structure of the composition – where the lines are moving, connecting and transmitting, sometimes they also interrupt the junction. Through the decades of Volha Sazykina’s practice, a line (also a string and a thread), and a surface (also a plane) were crucial elements of figuration, in both her graphic and installation works. She was interested in continuity, ornamentality, and rhythms (as in her series of A Diary of Breath. The Mimicry of Lungs from 1997), but also how those geometrical objects and spaces permeate each other – not only in a mathematical or abstract way, but also with deep interest and care to living and tangible matter, i.e. grass, skin, cloth and so on (like in her installation work Constellations of the Internal Sky from 1998-99). The lines also might remind one of fingers, which in the course of plates’ rotation could touch each other. The tactile experience was always of the artist’s acute interest.
Discussing the anthropological and technological aspects of string figures, Natascha Sadr Haghighian via Donna Haraway “points to string figure making as a way to change the cognitive conditions of and for thinking complexity, patterning, and entanglement1”. In a similar way, the line structures in Volha’s work blend boundaries between organic and technological, tangible and immaterial, surface and depth. One of the authors of the History of Belarusian Art writes about the artwork of another glass artist, Tatsiana Malyshava, that is also relevant to the “Communications” artwork: “Decorative elements that artist uses are mostly technological, organically connected to form2”. This particular expression of a technology through the organic helps to understand the connection between folk ornaments (very popular in the applied arts of that time), (re)production (being massively produced objects), and, surprisingly, cybernetics. The composition of the artwork, resembling a hardware communication circuit, together with the name of the work, clearly refer to the technological innovations in the field of cybernetics of that time. Cybernetics, as a science of governance and communication in complex systems through response and feedback loops, had a complex history in Soviet Union: first considered as bourgeois pseudoscience, and later – from the 1960s – massively proliferated in universities and research centres3.
Tatsiana Malyshava, ‘Apples’, 1982
As keenly proposed by Sadie Plant, weaving, as a female practice, is historically connected to programming and cybernetics in a very specific way. Comparing the analytical machine to the abstract process of weaving, Plant mentions that “the computer emerges out of the history of weaving, the process so often said to be the quintessence of women’s work.”4 I propose that the work of Volha Sazykina also points towards the similar connection, embodying the materiality of production as an object produced at Neman glassworks at the industrial scale, and reproduction as a mundane object aimed to assist the everyday work of care – “a concrete work of maintenance, with ethical and affective implications, and as a vital politics in interdependent worlds”5.
Glass, as material of the artwork and as an often transparent and amorphous solid, is not only used in everyday households, but also plays an essential role in the development of contemporary technologies – in optics, screens, and displays, besides many others. Similar to Plant’s assumption, I would like to question if there is a connection between glass production, technologies of care (and surveillance), and gender, like for example in the displays of smartphones, which connect programs to the user through interfaces. Plant also adds: “Today, both woman and the computer screen the matrix, which also makes its appearance as the veils and screens on which its operations are displayed6”. So what happens if we start to think of the glass as the supporting and haptic surface, often non-visible, transparent and matter-of-course mediator?
Tamara Sakalova, ‘Morning Still Life’, 1980
In the history of postsocialist art, the attention shifted to media, which supposedly could focus on reflecting the contemporary moment. At the same time, with the deregulation of economy, poverty, and deficit, legacies of so many female Soviet artists were neglected. The least prestigious artworks in the hierarchies of socialist and postsocialist art can actually tell us not less (if not more) about technology: of support, of care, of communication in contrast to captivation, than illustrations of technology in the new media or so-called science art. The surfaces of care and spaces of regeneration that these artworks unfold significantly exceed the place attributed to them by the genre-based histories of art. Hopefully, these can in the future be rewritten through the notions of gender and reproduction, body and care, political agency and materiality.
Aleksei Borisionok is an art critic, independent curator and researcher who lives and works in Minsk and Vienna. He graduated from the Master’s program “Visual and Cultural Studies” at the European Humanities University in Vilnius, Lithuania and the Master’s program “Curating Art” at Stockholm University in Sweden. He curated exhibitions in the gallery Ў, the Literary Museum of Maxim Bahdanovich (Minsk, Belarus), Liljevachs Hubb and the Norberg Festival (Sweden), participated in the Kyiv School (Kyiv, Ukraine) and many other events. He co-founded Kalektar (http://kalektar.org) and “Work Hard, Play Hard” (http://workhardplay.pw). His texts were published in the magazines “Partisan”, “Moscow Art Magazine”, “Artaktivist”, “Hjärnstorm”, “Prastory” and others.
1 Natascha Sadr Haghighian. Fish and Fire; or, How to Spell the Fight in Futurity Report. Ed. by Eric C. H. de Bruyn and Sven Lütticken. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2020. P. 84
2 Natascha Sadr Haghighian. Fish and Fire; or, How to Spell the Fight in Futurity Report. Ed. by Eric C. H. de Bruyn and Sven Lütticken. Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2020. P. 84
3 For the connection between cybernetics, human sciences and art, see: Янина Пруденко. Кибернетика в гуманитарных науках и искусстве в СССР: Анализ больших баз данных и компьютерное творчество / Янина Пруденко. — М.: Музей современного искусства «Гараж», 2018.
4 Sadie Plant. The Future Looms: Weaving Women and Cybernetics in Body & Society. London, Thousand Oaks and New Delhi: Sage, Vol. 1 (3-4). P. 46
5 Maria Puig de la Bellacasa, Matters of Care. Speculative Ethics in More than Human Worlds, Mineappolis, London: University of Minnesota Press. 2017. P. 6.
6 Sadie Plant. The Future Looms: Weaving Women and Cybernetics. P. 46