Die Grenze (Making of)

On Constructing The Border . . .

As an architect-turned-curator I find myself in a privileged position as I get to work on both the content and form of the exhibitions I organise. While art historians, museum curators or even artists rely on scenographers and designers, I can only blame myself when something goes wrong in the translation of my concepts into space. (And what is an exhibition after all if not the translation of an idea into space?) This is one of the reasons why I regularly teach a workshop titled ‘The Making of Exhibitions’, in which I explore with artists, art historians and curators the relationships between exhibitions and space. And this also explains why Die Grenze was such a unique moment in my career.

When I began working on the exhibition with Inke Arns in 2015, we did not start from scratch. I had already been travelling and researching in Central Asia for the past two years, and Inke knew Russia very well. Together, we were given the opportunity to visit twelve former Soviet states and meet artists, curators, critics and activists. So when planning the show, I knew I had to account for huge architectural and technical disparities between the potential exhibition spaces in the cities along our future route. Whereas Vladivostok and Baku boast state-of-the-art contemporary art centres (Zarya Center for Contemporary Art and Yarat Contemporary Art Space, respectively), institutions elsewhere are often underfunded and housed in buildings in dire need of repair. On several occasions, I literally smelled the patina and felt as though in a time capsule. I will never forget my visit to a certain museum with galleries staffed by elderly women sitting next to big red telephones doing crosswords. Upon my entering a room, the attendant would stand up, pull a small curtain, open a fuse box and turn on the light (and, of course, turn it off as soon as I walked out). The ritual was dutifully repeated in each room . . . It had obviously been devised to save electricity (and maybe protect the artworks), but it made for a slightly bizarre visit.

It was clear from the beginning that there would be at least six stations to the exhibition. Eventually, it travelled to eleven cities, completing no less than 30,426 kilometres along the way! It was also clear that, depending on the venue, we would have more or less wall space, more or less light, high windows or low ceilings. The exhibition venue could be a perfect example of Soviet modernism, a converted factory or a standard white cube. (Though in some cases I knew nothing at all about the institution that was supposed to host us.) In other words, the exhibition could not afford to relate too closely to the architecture, and had to create and be its own space. It was also clear that the whole gig had to be transportable, easy to install, simple to maintain and adaptable while staying essentially the same.

September 2016 was a key moment in the preparation of the exhibition. With the support of the Goethe-Institut, we invited many of our partners to Dortmund for a ten-day gathering with workshops, conferences and discussions. Artists, curators and critics from Russia, Ukraine, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia met and shared their ideas and experiences. I used that time to present my exhibition design: simple shipping boxes of ca. 1 x 1 x 1 m, one box per artist/artwork (plus one extra box for maintenance supplies, tools and small materials). The bespoke boxes played a double role: firstly, they allowed us to ship the artworks from one place to another; secondly, they served as a display system, underlining the idea of a travelling exhibition while enabling us to create our ‘own’ space within each venue. For the design, I took my cue from the way children are taught to construct a paper cube based on six connected squares. Then came the excitement of figuring out the many ways in which the cube could be used: it could contain something that might be put on top of it, so it became a very simple pedestal (Sasha Ugay, Where Dogs Run, Alisa Berger, Anastasiia Zhyvkova). It could host a flat-screen TV (Hamlet Hovsepian, Natalya Dyu, Umida Ahmedova & Oleg Karpov, Khinkali Juice, Marat Raiymkulov) or become a huge loudspeaker (Aytegin Djumaliev). It could be opened to one side and be turned into a tiny cinema with the help of a small video projector or TV (Eleonore de Montesquiou, Stanislaw Mucha). Some boxes were still more specifically designed, such as Sergey Shabohin’s neon work, Taus Makhatcheva’s photo display, Saule Dyussenbina’s wallpaper drawers or Viron Erol Vert’s scarf distributor. The box could even be turned into a fully functional karaoke booth (Farhad Farzaliyev) or totally unfolded so as to occupy 6 sqm of floor surface (Alina Kopytsa, Katya Isaeva, Olga Jitlina & Anna Tereshkina). Or it could be opened just a little bit so as to create an installation with silver foil and blue light reminiscent of a treasure trove (Gaisha Madanova).

The artists were actively involved in the design process, as we discussed potential issues and options in Dortmund. What could have been perceived as a restriction turned into an inspiring source of dialogue between the artists and the curators, between the artworks and their displays. Such was the artists’ implication that Anton Karmanov insisted on bringing personaly his work before the first opening at Tsereteli Gallery in Moscow without telling us beforehand what it consisted of. He arrived at the gallery with . . .  a box full of wooden cubes ready to be put in our box!

Shortly after our meeting in Dortmund, Karola Matschke and her office Liaison des Arts joined the project. It was autumn in Berlin and everybody was already making plans for Christmas and New Year’s Eve, when Karola dedicated all her time and energy to producing the exhibition. You can be an architect and a curator, but a sparring partner (in this case Camille Rouaud, who did all the technical drawings), a producer and a few skilled technicians are essential in making an exhibition. As in film or theatre, curating is not a one-man show but teamwork. Karola coordinated the carpenters, multimedia technicians, clothes makers and neon sign manufacturers in Berlin. I will never forget the day when Josche Allwardt brought a scale model of the box to my office for us to check the dimensions, the positions of the screws, the folding and unfolding principles. It was a time of excitement, but also a time for exchanging ideas with professionals who helped me improve the original design. Black and signalisation blue became the generic colours of the whole exhibition for a simple reason: they did not mean anything in particular, whereas other colours could have represented a flag, a revolution or a specific event depending on the country. After three months of intensive work in Berlin, the boxes were finally hauled on a truck on a very cold day in January 2017 and set off on their journey, which eventually lasted nearly two and a half years.

But what do those boxes have to do with Europe and Asia? The main difficulty for this exhibition was to find a thread that links a dozen countries with a common past (the Soviet era) but whose current situations are radically different. (Inke Arns is sharing some insights and anecdotes on this aspect in her contribution.) Obviously, when tackling an issue such as borders in the former Soviet republics, you are bound to touch upon conflictual issues that are cause for anger and resentment. But we always made it clear that we were primarily concerned with art, not with making geopolitical statements that would have required extensive academic research to be properly discussed (for a good start, I recommend Peter Frankopan’s book The Silk Roads). As a consequence, Asia and Europe became the real topic of the exhibition, seen through wedding culture, poetry, feelings of belonging, religion and traditions. Of course, informed visitors could always make out a subtext or comment on a given global or individual political situation; artists don’t live in a fairy tale and don’t turn a blind eye on reality. But we never emphasised those issues and thus managed to exhibit an Azeri artist in Armenia, Ukrainians in Russia, Russians in Ukraine. While some visitors in Minsk might have felt far removed from Asia, they quickly understood that we questioned the European idea in the era of Brexit and the rise of nationalism, populism and isolationism. And asking inhabitants from Kazakhstan if they feel closer to China or Russia always leads to interesting conversations.

The box system provided us with maximum flexibility in terms of the presentation. The only requirement for potential venues was to have a minimum surface of 350 sqm. The exhibition could be accommodated in repurposed industrial spaces, museums or art centres, as long as there were power sockets. The artworks could be shown in one single space or be spread over several rooms. As we know, exhibitions result from the dialogue between the artworks, so we were particularly delighted to see that our presentation changed and produced new meanings with each new venue. In Moscow for example, the artworks of the Armenian and Azeri artists stood side by side and were surrounded by the works looking at ‘wedding culture’ in Asia and Europe. In Tashkent, the boxes were aligned on a grid in one vast white-marbled hall, like an orchestra standing on a stage before the concert starts. And at the Kasteyev Museum of Arts in Almaty, where the exhibition was shown alongside the gallery’s amazing collection of paintings, contemporary creation engaged with modern art. On that occasion, Alexey Kubasov-Myslitsky and Natasha Zabrodskaya, who always travelled with the show to install and maintain the works, faced a particularly challenging task: establishing conceptual, formal or simply accidental connections with the museum’s collection. Katia Isaeva’s 100 Pialas stood in front of a large canvas picturing Central Asians drinking tea in cups similar to the artist’s bowls, Farhad Farzaliyev’s karaoke booth corresponded with the portrait of a singer who looked like the Soviet-era rock star Viktor Tsoi, and a painting of a lady in white acted as a backdrop to Alina Kopytsa’s wedding dress.

In June 2019, after the final leg in Armenia, the exhibition was dismantled. The boxes were donated to different institutions and artists in Erevan, and will continue to be used for transport or storage. And the people using the boxes there nowadays probably have no idea of their origin and the journey that brought them there.

We live in a world where geopolitical power relations are redefined every day. Countries that once ruled entire continents by means of war, colonisation or political alliances are forced to continually reassess their influence and diplomacy. But it would be naive to think about the modern world in yesterday’s terms (such as constantly referring to the Soviet Union when speaking about Central Asia or the Caucasus). Europe as a continent needs redefining; Asia starts somewhere west of Baku and ends near Tokyo. Trying to draw a line between the two is impossible (and futile) – a bit like sweeping a motorway with a broom (as in the video of Umida Ahmedova and Oleg Karpov) or walking around a rock for hours on end (as in Hamlet Hovsepian’s film). We never attempted to draw such a border but instead to encouraged visitors to ask questions. Humour and absurdity were our allies in this approach – not only because it is easier to make people think once you make them smile (instead of assaulting them), but also because the best artworks are never a simple comment on a political situation: they carry multiple meanings and are open to new interpretations. Surely, visitors in Krasnoyarsk had a different understanding of the artworks than exhibition-goers in Tbilisi or Saint Petersburg. And although the content of the exhibition stayed the same from one city to another, perceptions varied as much as visitor figures per venue.

One thing that never ceased to astonish me was that visitors didn’t seem to mind, let alone realise, that they were looking at artworks in ‘plain’ transport boxes that could simply be shut, wrapped in plastic and loaded onto a truck or temporarily stored in a warehouse. The design of the boxes shaped the image of the exhibition, but it also visualised the unity and equality between the artists. Another big surprise was Alina Kopytsa’s Wedding Dress. The Ukrainian artist created this dress in 2015 when she married a Swiss national. When the Swiss state expressed its doubts over the true motives of their engagement, she designed a dress on which she printed her private skype-chats with her future husband so as to ‘show’ that their love was real. Could I really ask an artist to lend such an important personal object and ship it across the world in a box? Well, it appears that in my hundred or so guided tours of the exhibition, nobody ever surmised that the dress on display might be a copy and that the original had remained in Switzerland all along . . .

An exhibition such as Die Grenze produces hundred little stories like this one, full of awkward moments but also sweet victories, many of which I share and owe to Astrid Wege. Still, the single most important thing during all this time – and I hope visitors felt this too – was love. The love and respect between the participants, the love for exchange and communication, the love for art. Things that have no border.

Thibaut de Ruyter

Die Grenze
Curated by Thibaut de Ruyter & Inke Arns

Exhibition architecture: Thibaut de Ruyter (with the assistance of Camille Rouaud)
Technical direction: Karola Matschke
Organized by Goethe-Institut Moscow, supported by the German Ministry of Foreign Affairs

Artists: Umida Ahmedova & Oleg Karpov, Alisa Berger, Aytegin Djumailiev, Natalya Dyu, Saule Dyussenbina, Farhad Farzaliyev, Hamlet Hovsepian, Katya Isaeva, Olga Jitlina + Anna Tereshkina, Anton Karmanov, Khinkali Juice, Alina Kopytsa, Gaisha Madanova, Taus Makhatcheva, Eleonore de Montesquiou, Stanislaw Mucha, Marat Raiymkulov, Alla Rumyantseva & Alexey Rumyantsev, Sergey Shabohin, Alexander Ugay, Viron Erol Vert, Where Dogs Run, Anastasiia Zhyvkova.