Sunday, October 23, 2022

Exhibition Layers: Small but Mighty in Prague

I've spent more hours than I could possibly imagine working on how to tell complex stories in exhibitions:  how to layer a story,  how to draw people in, how to include multiple perspectives, and most of all, how to make it something where people want to look, to read text labels, and something where visitors walk away talking about it.  As those of you who also do this work know, it's really hard!

So when I see an exhibit that really is layered, that really draws people in, and is the first exhibit produced by an organization, I really want to share it.

This summer in Prague, I had a chance to see the exhibit "Sandarmokh – Where the Trees Have Faces"  produced by, an organization dedicated to documenting gulag sites of the former Soviet Union (and elsewhere). was also the sponsor of a series of workshops I did in the Czech Republic this spring--their work is tremendous on many levels.  

What were the layers?  First, the exhibit is the story of Sandermokh,  "a distant place in Russia’s Karelia, close to the Finnish border, and the scene of a massacre that was meant to be forgotten. As the Stalin repressions peaked in 1937–1938, more than 6,000 people of 56 nationalities were executed there. In addition to many Russians, Karelians, Finns, Ukrainians and the members of other European and Soviet nationalities."  

Second, it's the story of historian Yuri Dmitriev from the Memorial association in Russia. Dmitriev and colleagues from the St. Petersburg Memorial office located Sandarmokh precisely in 1997, and they found and documented the names of the majority of those executed in the years that followed.  But the official attitude of this work has changed greatly over the decades.  Dmitriev was unjustly arrested, tried three times, and finally sentenced by the Russian Federation's Supreme Court.  He is now serving a sentence of 15 years in a Russian penal colony.

The third part of the story is that of Memorial International, a co-winner of this year's Nobel Peace Prize but also an organization that Russia considers a direct threat and which has faced repeated challenges to its work in Russia and has been disbanded there (though it continues its work elsewhere).

And the final part of the story: issued an open call for art relating to the topic.  More than seventy artists responded with an astonishing variety of work.  When I saw the exhibit in Prague, just a few of the works were on exhibition, with others to be shown at each location. Once the tour is completed, the works will be auctioned off to benefit humanitarian aid to Ukraine.

What made all these stories, all these layers, work together in a small-scale panel exhibition when we often see layering attempts in big, expensive exhibits that fail?  Here's the elements that I thin made it work.

People-centered.  This exhibit is about people, about Yuri Dmitriev and his work, about others at Memorial, about those killed in the forest, and the artist statements give us an entirely other group of people to consider.  No matter where you are in the exhibit, people are at the center.  The goal of Stalin was to eliminate people and in every way, this exhibit reinforces that these people, and these stories matter.  It's particularly relevant as Stalin's tools are returning every day in Ukraine.

Different ways of learning.  You can look at the artwork--some of it easily accessible and some of it more challenging.  You can read the labels.  You can look at a recreation of Yuri's desk.  You can look at historic photos of those who were killed and more recent, yet historic photos of memorial ceremonies at the site.

Really well-written labels.   I was lucky enough to visit the exhibit with Stepan Cernousek and Petra Černoušková of  When I mentioned how well-written--brief and compelling--the labels were, Stepan laughed and said, "oh, that was all Kristýna!  She kept telling us that we had to use less text!"  A big shout-out to Kristýna Pinkrová, a tremendous museum colleague who I also got to know this spring.

Simple, low-budget design.   The exhibit is traveling, so the design needed to be affordable and adaptable to many different spaces. It was a modern, window-filled space in Prague and it looks like a vaulted brick-ceiling space in Brno.  But the design works both places.

And lastly, and perhaps most importantly, tell stories that matter.  There are important, vital stories to tell in every community, no matter where you are in the world.  You don't need to do another display of wedding dresses or the chronological history of your town. If you don't think those stories exist, you aren't listening. 

At the Prague opening, Dmitriev himself was able to speak by phone from the penal colony where he is currently unjustly incarcerated and delivered the following thoughts:

"I immensely appreciate your hard work which you do to preserve the memory. However, I think we've done less than we could. At least, those who were engaged in the preservation of memory in the Soviet Union and in Russia. Maybe that's why we live in such difficult times now. Complicated and tragic times. Nevertheless, I don't think we should give up for we must continue to deal with what we have dealt with, to talk about what has happened and what is happening now. For there is a direct connection between the past and the present. That's probably all I wanted to say to everyone here. Good luck.“

These are my own photos--you can see many more, and much better ones on's site.  Many, many thanks to Stepan, Petra, Kristýna, and all those who worked on the exhibition.  I am so proud to know you and inspired by your work!

Sunday, September 25, 2022

Manifesta 14: The Stories in Pristina

In late August, my colleague and friend Annemarie DeWildt and I set off (see previous post) to Pristina, Kosovo to explore the art at Manifesta 14.   

Manifesta, headquartered in Amsterdam, describes this year's event:

rethink[ing] the relation between culture and civic society, investigating and instigating positive social change through contemporary culture in response to, and in close dialogue with, the social sphere of the Host City and its communities. Manifesta has consistently chosen unexpected host locations that reflect Europe’s ever-changing DNA to shed light on a world defined by changing ethical and aesthetic imperatives. Manifesta, as a recurring event, has transformed itself into a multilayered and inclusive instrument of civic engagement projects. In 2022, Manifesta 14 Prishtina will take place in Prishtina, Kosovo. Manifesta 14 aims to support the citizens of Kosovo in their ambition to reclaim public space and to rewrite the future of their capital as an open-minded metropolis in the Balkans and in Europe through the development of a new cultural institution.

I had encountered bits and pieces of a previous Manifest, in 2014 in St. Petersburg, Russia, and needless to say, this was quite a different experience. Kosovo is a young country, having declared its independence from Serbia only in 2008, and is now formally recognized by more than a hundred countries, although not Serbia, Russia, or China.  The wars of the Balkans, too complicated to explain in this blog post, shaped a great deal of what we saw in Pristina as it continues to echo into and shape the lives of Kosovans and others in the region. 

The art was all over the city, and in just over two days, we visited as many places as possible, which helped us understand one goal of Manifesta, to "support the citizens of Kosovo in their ambition to reclaim public space."  Ir's not a large city, and by walking everywhere, we got a sense of the city itself, encountering artworks and public spaces along the way, creating as it were, our own narrative of this place.   For both of us, I think, we found the works that explored the complex past, present and future of the region most compelling and often found ourselves, as history museum people, talking about the many ways that the artists used narratives in their work--and sometimes wondering about who gets to use whose narratives and who tells what stories.  My understanding of contemporary art is really that of an interested observer--so context, other artistic inspirations, movements and the like are absent for me.

Here's just a sampling of some of the works I'll long remember (and as I write this, so many others return to me--so please explore them all here).

photo: Manifesta 14

Marta Popivoda's Yugoslavia, How Ideology Moved Our Collective Body   looked at the ways in which Yugoslavia's collective body, as shown primarily in found footage of youth festivals, changed over time, from an idea of a collective solidarity, leading to the question she poses, "Why, did citizens so readily abandon the maxim of brotherhood and unity in favour of nationalism, individualism and capitalism? Was there, is there not something to be salvaged from socialism? "  When my daughter was in middle-school, she came home one day having learned about Communism for the first time.  "I don't get it, she said, "it seems like a good idea."  Marta took that sense of a good idea and by brilliant editing and narrative, brought a sense of the collective body and of the possibilities, than then fell away.   The narrative in this was both collective and intensely personal.

Artan Hajrullahu's beautiful small-scale works, done on brown packing paper, are the most personal of narratives, showing images of everyday life in detail that is both realistic and dream-like.  They drew you into imagined lives, where you could both sense his story and create your own narratives.

I find myself often looking at hands and feet in portraits, and Alije Vokshi's work intrigued me.  After becoming fascinated with a laborer's hands, she began putting those large hands, those hands, she says, as  “a signifier of hard work and diligence.”  She makes seen the unseen narratives of hard work done by many,

And of course, I have to mention a story that includes pickles!  Fahrije Hoti and the Women of Krushë e Madhe is an incredible narrative, one not often seen in art exhibitions.  243 men and boys were taken from the village in 1999, now presumed killed by Serbian forces.  Those devastating losses also had economic impact.  In 2005, Hoti, along with other war widows, founded a company to sell ajvar and pickles, despite cultural prejudice against women in business  The company now employs 50 women and their products can be found all over the country.  I wanted to know more of the stories in the installation, but the inclusion alone in Manifesta told a particular narrative of feminism and resilience.

All of the above works were in the Grand Hotel, built in the 1970s and including, in an of itself, numerous narratives.  Half of most of the floors were stripped back to the concrete and used for exhibitions, but in the other half, the hallways and rooms remained. We got a glimpse of Tito's restored apartment (both creepy and cheesy) there and learned about the art that had once been on its walls. 

The work of Alevtina Kakhidze from Ukraine, "Invasion, 2022"  shared a different kind of narrative.  Her drawings and botanical samples combine to help us understand more about Ukraine's vibrant agricultural life--and at the same time, those plants, she proposes, can be examples for us, spreading around the world.  Plants, she says, "are pacifists as much as possible on this planet. They don't kill each other in an instant; they don't run away either in case of danger." Plants as storytellers!

At a historic hammam, 
Chiharu Shiota created a work of narratives that I found both beautiful and frustrating.  This installation is composed of hundreds of handwritten memories about the Kosovan war.  But whose are they?  How are they collected? How are decisions made about their use?  Is the goal (does art need a goal?) for us just to consider that memories are always a cascade together?

And finally, the
Hertica Schoolhouse and its many narratives provided the most memorable experiences of the trip.  It was the only place we had to take a taxi to, with the driver questioning why we would even want to go there.  In the 1990s, ethnic Albanians set up more than 400 schools in homes, essentially creating a parallel school system to teach in Albanian, which was banned in schools.  Mehmet Aliu-Hertica offered his home for high school students who met there for more than nine years, with classes running in shifts all day long.  The house was damaged by fire and now stands empty.  We were lucky enough to have Aliu-Hertica's daughter (above,right)  join the mediator on our tour to share her own memories and stories.  The future of this building is unclear, but I was struck by the power of this kind of fighting against oppression--not with guns and bombs, but rather with the power of knowledge. 

I saw so many other artists' works I was intrigued by, admired, or in some cases didn't understand at all.  I was particularly drawn to those works that helped me understand more about the city, the country and the region even though so many questions still remain.

As we traveled around the city, we talked about often how these works, using narratives, can inform the work of history museums.  Are we too concerned with only the factual truth?  What is the role of emotions in our work?  At the same time, can we do something that artists cannot?  

Yesterday on Twitter I came across this from writer Hilary Mantel, as part of tributes to her unexpected passing that somehow helped me connect artists and historical narratives. In a 2017 Reith Lecture, she wrote:

Evidence is always partial. Facts are not truth, though they are part of it – information is not knowledge. And history is not the past – it is the method we have evolved of organising our ignorance of the past. It’s the record of what’s left on the record. It’s the plan of the positions taken, when we to stop the dance to note them down. It’s what’s left in the sieve when the centuries have run through it – a few stones, scraps of writing, scraps of cloth. It is no more “the past” than a birth certificate is a birth, or a script is a performance, or a map is a journey. It is the multiplication of the evidence of fallible and biased witnesses, combined with incomplete accounts of actions not fully understood by the people who performed them. It’s no more than the best we can do, and often it falls short of that.

In Pristina, many artists turned  those scraps of history, personal and collective into something new, and for me, helped turn history from just a map, just a scrap, into a journey.  Here's just some other bits and pieces (I notice that I am also attracted to artwork that uses text!)

[Special thanks to Annemarie for asking me along on this adventure and to the many terrific young mediators at every venue.]

Sunday, September 4, 2022

Back to Blogging? On the Road Again

For more than a decade, I blogged regularly--I aimed for once a week.  But, since the start of the pandemic in March 2020, I have managed a measly total of 8 posts, with absolutely no posts since May 2021.  Every once in a while, I think about it, and don't quite manage it.  It's been a time of change for sure--I shifted to a new position at the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience in November 2020 and last year, undertook my non-travel personal project of driving every road in the county I live in--something that proved unexpectedly joyous.  But I think I should jump back in.  I certainly can't promise every week, and for sure, it seems that blogging may be out of style. Is it?  Should I be making Tik-Tok videos?  Doing a newsletter? But blogging it is--and I'm jumping back in with a travel post.

In August, I joined friend and colleague Annemarie DeWildt for a road trip through the Balkans to Manifesta 14 in Pristina, Kosovo and then on to the ICOM Triennial meeting in Prague. Manifesta is a roving contemporary art exhibition, held, I think, every two years.  Believe it or not, I saw an earlier iteration in St. Petersburg, Russia, which seems a lifetime ago. I'll come to Manifesta and ICOM in later posts but will start with the road trip.  

Annemarie and I flew separately to Dubrovnik, Croatia, and took a taxi to Trebinje in Bosnia and Herzegovina (first border crossed).  We overnighted in Trebinje and met the guy who was renting us his car.  Off we went, a bit bumpy at first.  Our first stop was an artist residency in, literally, the middle of nowhere, to the artists' residency Kamen run Kostana Banovic, a friend of Annemarie's. The residency on the shores of a man-made lake and when we arrived, much back and forthing to set up a screen directly on the shores of the lake to show a film by Vita Soul Wilmering. In some ways, this lovely and moving film set the tone for the rest of the trip. Vita uses Dutch tourist films of the former Yugoslavia overlaid with narration by a local man, observing what he says--they are not from here, he says, they are from here, he says about another shot. Who's from here, who's not from here, who belongs and who doesn't were thoughts that continued to resonate as we crossed more borders (Bosnia/Montenegro;  Montenegro/Albania; and Albania/Kosovo) in a single day's drive.   We drove along, up and down mountains, alongside lakes and broad fields, passing roadside watermelons for sale, over and over (and even spotted a watermelon on the walls of a mosque).

We made a stop for lunch in Prizren, Kosovo, which was full, full full of tourists.  But we came upon a quiet corner with a mosque--and a shaded courtyard of kids, including girls, playing soccer and dashing in and out of the mosque, respectfully putting their shoes on and off each time. It made a tourist-filled city seemed like a real place, the place that people lived and cared about. At another stop at a church, we couldn't enter, but the guards, once they learned Annemarie was Dutch, wanted to chat about Dutch footballers from earlier eras.  

It wouldn't be a road trip without a little car trouble, and we put-putted into Pristina under much-diminished power.  Luckily, our Airbnb host recommended the Volkswagon/Mercedes dealer for repairs to our VW Gulf.  In the morning we arrived at the dealer's and explained the issue, with the help of another customer, who, as it happened, had gone to school in Tulsa, Oklahoma.  After a bit, they come out with the news.  The car was twenty (!) years old and this shiny new dealership didn't carry parts that old, but they made a temporary fix.  

Manifesta in the next post, but some observations about travel these days.  We found Pristina to have the nicest people of almost anywhere I've been.  Someone asked me not long ago how I managed in countries where I didn't speak the language (which, to be honest, is pretty much everywhere).  I still remember, pre-smartphones, all the maps that people had to draw me my first year in Kyiv, to do the simplest things!  Pristina had, it seemed, a large number of English speakers, and that, combined with their friendliness, made it really easy.  Annemarie and I were sitting outdoors at dinner one night, trying to figure out why to order from an Albanian-language menu.  The woman at the next table leans over, and says, "can we help you?"  She and her husband explain all the dishes, explain which ones are mostly local, pulls up pictures on her phone so we can see what they look like, and as well, tells us that her mother, sitting with them, makes some of the dishes the best. It's lovely to be back traveling again, and this trip reinforced for me that it's not the big destinations or sights that make it worthwhile, it's the kids in the mosque courtyard or the friendly family next to us at dinner.  

This is an immensely complex part of the world, with the former Yugoslavia now divided into seven countries. For centuries differences have been exploited, often by those outside the region, and wars are within living memory of most people. But at a time when the world seems ever more fractious and despite the many borders we crossed, this trip was a hopeful reminder that there might just be more things that bring us together than we think. (And oh yes, we made the round trip safely back to Trebinje).

For those map-lovers among you, here's the route we drove.