Anne Imhof’s YOUTH from a Ukrainian perspective
In an interview on this website about Anne Imhof’s YOUTH the Stedelijk claims that it fully respects the cultural boycot of Russia even though some of the works by Imhof are produced in cooperation with the Garage Museum in Moscow. The Ukrainian artist Yuliia Elyas disagrees and sees a show in support of Russian voices, Russian productions, Russian schemes, and Russian scenery.
By writing this article, I wish to continue the conversation with the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam that was started on metropolism.com as part of the article How Russian is YOUTH?. Anne Imhof’s YOUTH exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam features a number of works co-produced by the Garage Museum in Moscow. I feel that in the conversation about this exhibition, the Ukrainian perspective on the museum’s relationship with the Garage Museum was missing. Following discussions and interactions on social media platforms after the opening of Imhof in Amsterdam and a discussion I had with some members of the staff at the Stedelijk Museum, I decided to reply to the show from my own perspective, as a Ukrainian artist living in the Netherlands.
Let me begin with some words on the cultural boycott of Russia which Stedelijk claims to honour, as stated by director Rein Wolfs in the conversation mentioned above. What exactly does this boycott imply? The Dutch Ministry of Culture updated its official recommendations concerning this boycott in March. On the website of the Dutch Ministry of Culture, it says that money flow from Dutch institutions to Russia and Belarus has been halted, and that there is no more exchange of data and knowledge. Moreover, the boycott prohibits the initiation of new collaborations with Russian state institutions, with possible exceptions for private non-government organisations and individuals.
The point of the boycott is to prevent the continuation or initiation of processes that benefit the Russian Federation during the full-scale invasion and genocide of Ukrainians. The boycott is meant to disturb the collaboration between institutions and artists in the Russian cultural context. These inconveniences can help us to identify patterns that were overlooked before. It might help to recognize cultural politics within the European cultural sphere that were not recognizable as such, nor ever seen as part of a political program to support Russian interests abroad.
Taking into regard the fact that Russia invaded Ukraine once before already in 2014, I want to offer a few crucial remarks about how the conversations around YOUTH were shaped. Firstly, in reaction to misleading comments made by Wolfs on several occasions, I want to stress that Anne Imhof was working with Garage not before, but after the war started. The war started eight years ago with the illegal annexation of the Crimea and occupation of Donetsk and Luhansk. On February 24 2022, it entered a new stage with a full-scale invasion of Ukraine.
Garage’s public statement in reaction to the full scale invasion, did not come early, as is claimed now, but has come years too late. The museum did not completely stop its operations. Although it suspended work on exhibitions, it continued to work on other programming such as film screenings, workshops, audio walks, artist talks, and so on. You can find their programme on the main page of their website. In opposition to the regulations as defined by the cultural boycott, Katya Inozemtseva, the chief curator at Garage, was invited to participate in the roundtable at Stedelijk Museum on September 18, 2022.
When Inozemtseva was part of the curatorial team of the 2017 Triennale in Garage, the Triennale included the territory of Crimea in its programme. By doing so, they normalised the narrative of Crimea being a part of Russia. Their decision was to work with the – as they called it – ‘geopolitical fact’, rather than ignore it. However, not a single Crimean artist was selected to take part in the exhibition. The exhibition organisers pointed to the cultural exclusion of Crimea from the Ukrainian, Russian and international art scenes and the absence of contemporary art in Crimea. At the same time, they ignored the existence of significant exhibitions, like Alchemic Surrender 1994, curated by Marta Kuzma and Disputed Territory, 2012, which was organised by the Hudrada collective.
This is just one example of how Garage is complicit with the politics of the Russian state. The museum chooses silence, settling for compromises, failing to see and prioritise what is critical at the moment. They choose to be comfortable, to be the oil in the gears of the totalitarian machine – while they have the capacity to be the sand. It is this position that made the Ukrainian artist community decide to boycott Russian affiliated institutions like Garage.
As Wolfs emphasises in the interview on metropolism.com, Anne Imhof’s exhibitions in Moscow and Amsterdam were developed parallel to one another, without direct collaboration between institutions. However, Garage Museum is present in the work of Anne Imhof, even in a literal sense. The videos presented in the show were filmed in Moscow. To be precise, the location in Chertanovo and the Hexagon pavilion, will be the future location of the Garage museum, as was discussed at the round table that was mentioned earlier. Furthermore, the Stedelijk is presenting a romantic image of Moscow in the Anne Imhof exhibition at the time of the full scale invasion of Ukraine, while there are more than 80.000 refugees from Ukraine living in the Netherlands.
One of the symptoms of colonial consciousness is that you know the culture of your oppressor better than your own
One of the symptoms of colonial consciousness is that you know the culture of your oppressor better than your own. In my case, this happened thanks to the painful processes of forced Russianification. In Imhof’s work, Fate (2022), which is also on show in Amsterdam, you can see Eliza Douglas, the partner of Imhof, riding a horse in the snow and a herd of horses galloping in the snowy background. Everyone who has been in touch with Russian education knows that the horses in the snow represent a symbol of Russia, its exceptionality and unique historical mission. It is the national emblem and archetype. It comes from Pushkin’s poem Winter Road (1826) and is also referenced in the final part of The Dead Souls (1842) by Nikolay Gogol, which Russian youths are supposed to learn by heart in school:
‘And you, Russia of mine – are not you also speeding like a troika which nought can overtake? … What is the unknown force which lies within your mysterious steeds? Surely the winds themselves must abide in their manes, and every vein in their bodies be an ear stretched to catch the celestial message which bids them, with iron-girded breasts, and hooves which barely touch the earth as they gallop, fly forward on a mission of God? Whither, then, are you speeding, O Russia of mine? Whither? Answer me! But no answer comes – only the weird sound of your collar-bells. Rent into a thousand shreds, the air roars past you, for you are overtaking the whole world, and shall one day force all nations, all empires to stand aside, to give you way!’
The viral image of Putin bare-breasted while riding a horse, is intended to represent him as leading the historical mission of Russia. The inspiration for this imaginary comes from the Western world; equestrian imagery is actually rooted in Roman culture. As such, there is a connection between horses and power that even exists at the heart of Rome: Emperor Marcus Aurelius rides a horse at the Capitol. This image has been adopted by many imperial regimes. In the film titled Fate, Eliza Douglas reproduces this image. Anne Imhof claims in an interview with the Financial Times that this vision was not consciously chosen. The connection was pointed out to her after the movie was made, and she was shocked to learn about it. She herself is not a supporter of the Putin regime, and claims to be sensitive to how different communities perceive her work. With all respect to her intentions, the images she presents here are heavily charged with meaning and promote a particular ideology.
Archetypal Russian imaginary supports and shapes certain narratives. It is not purely historical but is still used in propaganda today. A recent example might be a Russian propaganda video featuring Gazprom (the gas mining company) showing how Europe will ‘freeze’ during winter. Historically, Russia achieved its military goals with the help of ‘general winter’, so it is no surprise that amidst their full-scale invasion of Ukraine they terrorise civilian infrastructure, leaving ordinary people without heating and electricity. They choose winter footage to showcase their might over the rest of Europe.
The Russian state is actively instrumentalising its artistic heritage during this war. They allocated money to support cultural initiatives after the full-scale invasion because they achieve, with culture, almost the same results as with military interventions. They also target and loot museums in Ukraine today, knowing the power of culture. They kill artists, writers, and musicians in occupied territories as they did during Soviet times. It is imperative that we recognize Russia as an empire and unlearn patterns of serving their political goals for the future, not only of Ukraine, but also of all former and current Russian colonies.
In response to the initial question if Stedelijk respects the cultural boycott of Russia: Can you support it and, at the same time, continue to depend on Russian voices, Russian productions, Russian schemes, and Russian scenery?
is a visual artist