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Anna Jermolaewa with a wax figure of Vladimir Putin

No. 3

Good Times, Bad Times

Anna Jermolaewa talks to Christiane Erharter


The third edition of Zachęta Online magazine will focus on travel – in all its forms. Here is an interview with Anna Jermolaewa – a reminder of the 2015 exhibition Good times, Bad times.

Good times, bad times, Shopping with Family and feminist art production

A very personal work of yours is being presented at the Warsaw exhibition. Shopping with Family shows you buying a wig accompanied by your family. Do you regard this work as part of the tradition of creating feminist art where themes of illness are referred to in works of art, a tradition which was started in the 1970s by such artists like, e.g., Hannah Wilke, Jo Spence as well as the Polish Katarzyna Kozyra?

Certainly. However, I definitely didn’t think about using this material for my work when I was actually shopping. This was a very difficult time for me, immediately following my operation and before the chemotherapy treatment. I was very afraid of the chemo and of losing my hair. Well, and of course my family was anxious about me too. But I like this particular work because it is so positive and we’re laughing and joking a lot there. The saleswoman was just incredible. She worked as if she’d been rehearsing this performance for a long time, which in a way was the case since she does deal a lot with grieving families in her work. This work constitutes the central part of the exhibition because it talks about life’s good times and bad times, the ups and downs we encounter as life goes on. I am absolutely sure that the hardships we encounter during our lives first and foremost teach us things.

Is there also a sort of feminist method hidden in focusing on everyday life situations that you adorn with meaning and use them as a theme for your art?

Let’s say that it’s often the case that situations from my everyday life are reflected in my works. I know from own experience what it means to be an immigrant or refugee. So it’s absolutely true that emigration plays an important role in my work and life. I fled to Vienna, my entire family emigrated to America and I have no more relatives living in St. Petersburg. I hate the question: ‘Are you going home for Christmas?’ Because in my case, where is this ‘home’?

Your interest in marginalised social groups, such as refugees, immigrants, the opposition, cleaners, carers, and I’d add also animals here — is all that also part of your own history?

Immediately after leaving the refugee camp in Traiskirchen in 1990, as a freshly acknowledged refugee, I went over to the Employment Office in Vienna asking for a job. This resulted in my having had worked briefly as a cleaner. I checked in 2011 whether that company still exists and managed to persuade the boss to allow me to work with his people. That is how the work about cleaners came to be. It was actually though already Aleksandra Wysokińska who drew my attention to this when I was filming in Kraków. And then also during my own research this picture surfaced: while Polish and Serb women come to clean in Austria, Russian and Ukrainian women do that in Poland, in Serbia it’s Romanian and Alban women, and in Russia, those who clean come from the former republics of Central Asia. You end up with this absurd kind of spiral where cleaning work is carried out mostly by female labour migrants who come from countries with lower wage levels. My tax inspector asked once: ‘What do we need Russian artists for here in Vienna, don’t we have enough of our own?’ My colleague suggested to me then: ‘Tell him that you’re doing the work that your Austrian colleagues don’t want to do.’

Aleksandra Wysokińska / 20 Jahre danach, the flight and Polish hospitality

You’ve already mentioned Aleksandra Wysokińska. The video portrait Aleksandra Wysokińska / 20  Jahre danach about a Polish woman who helped you in your flight constitutes the next main work exhibited. Tell me please about how this work was created. Why did you have to flee Russia such a short time before the Changes? You were still so young then.

This work is my tribute to a woman from Kraków who in May 1989 helped me in my flight to Austria. I was politically engaged in Russia at the time and I had already been confronted by the KGB, and interrogations and house search followed. We managed to get to Poland and that’s where we met Aleksandra. From the moment we knocked on her door in Kraków and after she took us under her care, she also organised and financed our further travel on to Austria. I managed to find her in 2009 and I talked her into filming our reunion. To my most important question of why she had helped us back then, she replied modestly: ‘That’s to do with our Polish hospitality.’

Our meeting and filming it in Kraków was very moving. An additional aspect that I did not take into consideration was that I realised during that reunion how many details of that time I had completely forgot or suppressed. Aleksandra reminded me, e.g., of the following story: When we told her that we want to continue further on to the West — we were thinking of West Berlin at the time and from there to the United States — she said straight away: ‘Alright, but first you have to get your teeth fixed, because you won’t have any insurance there for sure.’ She took us to a dentist the next day, told him our story, after hearing which he immediately put our teeth in order. About a month later, when we were already in Traiskirchen, we sent a postcard to Aleksandra and in the same envelope there was also a greetings for the dentist. We wrote in it: ‘Our new teeth are already eating capitalist food!’

You speak about Aleksandra Wysokińska who helped you in your flight back then and the notion has a positive ring to it. In today’s social and political debates and in the media, you don’t hear about people who offer help to those who are fleeing, but rather about human traffickers who take advantage of others to get richer. The whole theme of immigration and refugees has a negative connotation. People who have to run from their own homes and who seek shelter from us are suspected of wanting to rob us of something. How do you see this negative turn in the social reception and in media reports?

It is exactly in this film that I want to thank Aleksandra and offer her a kind of monument. The media don’t differentiate between those who help in the flight and the traffickers: it has all become negative, and it’s something that I interpret completely differently. I am very happy that I can show this work for the first time in Poland, also because of its anniversary — it’s been 25 years since my flight.

About the (current political) situation in Russia

In these last years you’ve been creating more and more work that is critical about Russia: Untitled (Gulag), Methods of Social Resistance on Russian Examples, Rainbow over Russia. What is the context of these works? And where did you find out about the ‘toy protests’?

Because of the election frauds in December 2011, the year that followed was marked by a rise in the political awareness of Russian citizens and large waves of protests. I am very much in solidarity with the protests and I often travelled to Russia at that time. I personally took part in the demonstrations and also filmed them, and my journalist friends and colleagues also supplied me with materials on video. In my film Methods of Social Resistance on Russian Examples, I tried in a more or less chronological order to incorporate those events into a presentation about a wider spectrum of methods of social resistance. These methods are quite diverse, starting from such ‘classic’ instruments like hunger strikes or blog posts, leaflets during sit-in protest camps to happenings that aim at ridiculing the regime. The ‘rebel’ toys play the main role in this work — toys from the first banned toy protests that took place in the Siberian town of Barnaul together with their placards. When the opposition did not receive permission to hold a demonstration against the election frauds, these small figurines were installed instead in the snow on the central square, holding the banners intended to be originally carried by the demonstrators. The police moved in, they wrote down all the slogans but they weren’t up to arresting the toys or removing them. This action attracted considerable attention, photos of it were circulated all over the world. The organisers applied again for permission to have a toy demonstration but their application was turned down on grounds that Chinese toys are not ‘Russian citizens’, so they cannot be granted permission for a rally. So I proposed to my colleagues from Barnaul that I will take the demonstrating toys along with me in my suitcase to enable them to continue their protest. In 2012 I gave them room to demonstrate at my exhibition in Krems Kunsthalle. Next, in 2014 they travelled to Gwangju and now they’re in Poland.

It is at this time that you made Gulag. Why did you want to trace your family history?

I decided to travel to the Perm region to where part of my family had been deported in 1930, during Stalinist times. I rented a truck and together with my travelling companions — an ex-camp supervisor and an ex-prisoner — I wanted to travel to my destination. We spent a total of 30 hours on our journey in the truck because on the way we got stuck in the snow and mud. But this journey into the past turned out to be a journey into Russia’s today and its future. The whole region is full of functioning labour camps, with barbed wire and watch towers everywhere. Maria Alochina from Pussy Riot was in prison at the time in that region. I went there but wasn’t allowed to see her, though I could pass a parcel.

Goats working on trees and the role of animals in Anna Jermolaewa’s art work

You have created a new work for the exhibition in Zachęta with goats occupying its centre. Its visual leitmotif is a photo of goats on a tree. Where was it taken and what is the context of this new work?

This is something connected with the process of extracting argan oil. It is the most expensive oil in the world and produced only in Morocco. These trees are found nowhere else in the world. For centuries, this oil has been used in medicine and nowadays, it is more and more being used in the cosmetic industry and in food production. The shell of an argan nut is 16 times harder than that of a hazelnut, which makes processing it difficult. Historically, goats have always been an integral part of this production. Records dating back to the 13th century talk about Berbers placing goats up on argan trees. The animals ate the flowers and kernels and the local population then gathered the excrements. The passage through the digestive system and gastric acids softened the nuts and they were easier to crack as a result. This method relieves the local people of a lot of work and effort but the oil extracted in this way has an unpleasant smell. Nowadays, goats are no longer used so often in the process of oil extraction because large companies that further process it don’t want this smelly oil. All attempts to find an industrial way of obtaining the oil have failed because the kernels don’t remain intact. Every single nut still has to be cracked individually. This work is then carried out by women who have organised themselves into cooperatives and they take care that the tradition of manual extraction of argan oil survives and ensures incomes for families in the rural areas and in small towns. The time and labour-consuming process of extracting the oil and the fact that argan trees are so rare explain why argan oil is the most expensive oil in the world.

Animals are present in many of your works — goats, cats, monkeys, dogs, frog, sheep, rats. Where does this interest in animals come from? Why do they become heroes of your art? Are you a vegetarian or an animal rights campaigner?

The animals in my work take on the character of metaphors, like the toys from my earlier works. I am neither a vegetarian nor an animal rights defender. As a child, I wanted to be a vet when I grow up, and now I make up for this with my pets at home and in those of my works where animals appear. I read all Gerald Durrell’s books and I still dream of far-away journeys in search of animals. I see my trips a bit in this way — to Morocco to film goats, to St. Petersburg in search of the Hermitage cats, as well as my safari trip to Chernobyl in June last year, on the basis of which I am developing a new work for the next Kiev Biennale — this is all kind of like Gerald Durrell’s expeditions. So I remain quite close to my childhood dreams.

Do you also want to show that animals are treated as labour force? Like in the work about goats or in the Hermitage Cats installation?

I was intrigued by the story of cats ‘employed’ for over 250 years to fight mice and rats in the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. I went there and for a week I could observe these cats at work. The Hermitage cats suffered during the 872-day blockade of the city during Second World War. They met with a tragic fate because they were eaten, together with other animals, by the starving inhabitants of the city. Immediately after the blockade ended, thousands of cats were brought in by train from Siberia to St. Petersburg to bring the booming rat population under control. To me, themes related to the dramatic history of the city where I was born and grew up are particularly interesting. I was able to tell them through the images of the cats that attract attention since they are so very kitsch. In case of the goats, I wanted to show production processes and ways how age-old traditions penetrate through into our globalised world and undergo change.

Interview conducted by e-mail in January 2015
Translated from German by Barbara Pomorska