Lena Prents

Text for the catalog for the personal exhibition of Sergey Shabohin Practices of Subordination in the Arsenal Gallery

Białystok, 02.09 — 30.10.2016

 

 

 

Sergey Shabohin’s personal project, Practices of Subordination methodically and meticulously analyses mechanisms of power. Since 2010, the artist has collected and documented stories about everyday events in Belarus, a testimony of deliberate, forceful interference of the state in the life of its citizens. Within his social circle and in the public space of Minsk capital city, Shabohin finds trivial, mundane objects and images which are a reminder of what happened or a reference to the ideological regime. The artist himself sees them as evidence of the ever-invigilating and punitory order. He organizes the collected materials – text documents, images, photos, objects – as an archive. From that, he builds a poignant narrative on state structures oppressive pressure on citizens in modern Belarus.

An important impulse to start the project were the stories of Shabohin’s friend (a well-known public figure) about cases of invasion of her private space. Coming home, she would find traces of somebody’s presence there in her absence, for example a chair standing on the table. The explosion in Minsk metro in 2011 – immediately explained as an act of terror, investigated in record time and leading to execution of two suspects – has become a central event for the artist.

 

 

 

 

Keeping Belarus in mind and relying on local facts, in his project Sergey Shabohin analyses the nature of power in general. He recreates the line of human life – from birth and formation to death – and shows, how skilfully the external pressures infiltrate it, giving rise to fears and trauma. First inoculation, first clash with coercion structures and realization of propaganda influence – in retrospect, such moments are seen as pivotal. The artist records both important experiences of an abstract person, and his own experiences. In his archive, there is a note from a father, who helplessly admits his fear for his son. Sergey shows, how he himself tried awkwardly to imitate the practices of the authorities, trying to eavesdrop on his neighbours conversations using a glass pressed against the wall.

Sergey Shabohin’s Practices of Subordination have become the author’s collection of various pathologies of an authoritarian system, singled out, as well as a total archive of their manifestations. Artists turning towards the archive methodology has its roots in avant-garde of early 20th century. However such an artistic practice has become truly widespread in the 1990s. Art criticism has reacted to this phenomenon by a whole array of definitions and concepts, which convey the essence of the phenomenon. Hal Forster has indicated the influence of “archival impulses” in artists’ works, (2004), Mark Godfrey has proposed to view “artists as historians” (2007), Dieter Roelstraete sees in the art of recent decades a “historiographic turn” (2009). All the while, it is understood that the artists work with documents of existing archives or adopt the structural principles of archives and create their own collections, which are informal and frequently far from trivial. As opposed to actual archives, the artists have “methodological freedom” (Mark Godfrey), which opens the possibility for an artist to bypass generally applied methods of representation of historic events, an instead uncover things forgotten, hidden deep and pushed out of memory.

 

 

 

 

In his archive, Sergey Shabohin plays with classic image of a similar institution in 19th century, its strict classification by alphabet and subject matter. The collection of Practices of Subordination is founded and organized based on the object’s origin and keywords. However, this is where any parallels to a traditional archive end. In each specific place, Shabohin creates his own space for emotional experiences. In Bialystok, he displays his project in an unused space of Arsenal Gallery power station, which once housed the plant’s technical services. Tiny rooms with glass dividers, white tile walls, pipes, exhaust hoods, rows upon rows of electric wiring and a plethora of details purpose of which is difficult to discern today – all those were subordinated to the logic of the artist’s archive. The result is a somewhat temporary laboratory, with a special atmosphere of experiments conducted in there, and control. The individual is in juxtaposition with the oppressive character of overwhelming ideology. The artist leads the viewer through the labyrinth of human life – unstable, contradictory, and depending on external framework of mercy or despotism of authoritarian powers.

From early decades of 20th century, among central artistic expressions was discovery of predecessors – kindred spirits, creating one’s genealogies and comparing one’s own work with those who came before. To this purpose, the artists started creating lists, developing graphics and diagrams, which anthropologist Jack Goody dubbed “artificial memory“ (1977). Seemingly, Sergey Shabohin has resorted to a similar method as the created his lab in the former power station. The space divided into 18 parts was explained by a map and diagrams, which, in turn, followed the composition of Pablo Picasso’s Guernica and structure of James Joyce’s Ulysses. References to those works are, on one hand, pragmatic in nature: having accumulated large volume of diverse material, the artist started searching and establishing his own organization system. Meta-narrative of the Ulysses, laconic complexity of the Guernica are dazzling in their mastery of conveying an extremely complex matter. On the other hand, Shabohin, whose new projects frequently include, in details, links to previous ones, returns to the problem of utilizing the legacy of the avant-garde in modern mass culture. In the project We are Stern Consumers of Cultural Revolutions (2012) he has shown how globalized culture industry has reduced avant-garde’s utopian potential to souvenirs and objects of fashionable design. In defragmenting and taking over Ulysses and Guernica, Shabohin draws attention to a similar phenomenon: key oeuvres of modernist tradition today seem so close and commonly used that the true, painstaking analysis and consideration no longer take place. In essence, he suggests that the viewer should rearrange his optics, reset his approach to canons.

 

 

 

 

Practices of Subordination project definitely demonstrates Shabohin’s meticulous study of Michel Foucault’s concepts of power. However, from critics’ perspective, for the purpose of denoting Sergey Shabohin’s artistic and epistemological methods, another term borrowed from Foucault asks to be used – “archaeology”. Shabohin does not reconstruct the past using physical resources an does not build a chronology of facts. He provides diverse fragments of personal life and daily life of the state and shows how certain formations of power and knowledge (or absence of knowledge) were able to emerge.

Practices of Subordination is a mutable space, in which both the artist and the viewer have the opportunity to reflect, generate knowledge and experience emotion.