1.4. 2019 – 6. 7. 2019
Anca Benera & Arnold Estefan, Ali Cherri, Elle Márjá Eira & Mai-Lis Eira, Lucia Nimcová, documents on the Gabčíkovo–Nagymaros Waterworks from the archive of Mikuláš Huba, and The Archives of the Protest Movement against the Damming of the Alta-Kautokeino Water System (Alta Museum, Norway). / Curated by: Rado Ištok
In 2017, the river Whanganui in New Zealand became the first natural site in the world to be granted legal rights and status as a living entity. As an article in The Guardian pointed it, the local Maori tribe on the North Island of New Zealand fought for this recognition for 140 years. Gerrard Albert, the lead negotiator for the Whanganui iwi (tribe) offered the following comment as a summary of this effort: “the reason we have taken this approach is because we consider the river an ancestor and always have”. As he explained, the Maori tribes consider every part of the universe equal: the mountains, rivers, seas, animals, and human beings all share the same world and are equal. In a similar way, water is the main focus of the exhibition Liquid Horizon, and by examining the regulation of rivers, the exhibition also touches on the notions of communities, migration, displacement, and cultural heritage.
Liquid Horizons is an excellent example of a project which addresses a relevant issue – the construction of large-scale dams – from several different angles. The topic of the construction of large-scale dams is important not simply because of the ecological and sociological effects of dams and the accompanying transformation of habitats, but also because, as a phenomenon, the construction of dams needs to be reconsidered in order to shed light not only on their role as facilitators of modernization (as they provide electricity, drinking water, etc.) but also to glean insights into the “darker side of this modernization, namely the price that had to be paid in terms of the displacement of various communities, the destruction of cultural heritage and damage to the natural environment”– as the curator, Rado Ištok summarizes it in the curatorial text.
The exhibition does not fall into the trap of being didactic or illustrative when choosing the characteristic symbol of the dam, and it elegantly balances between various practices and mediums, including video and installation. The refreshing aspect of the exhibition is that each work chooses a different strategy, attitude, and voice when addressing the issues of dam construction. The outcome is thus a multivocal exhibition, in which the works speak on their own, yet also engage in a dialogue with one another, circulating around the same topic, but not repeating it. The exhibition invites the viewer to find the parallels and connections between the works and highlight often repressed or hidden narratives.
One of the most interesting aspects of the exhibition is that it presents very different artistic approaches about how can we deal with the archives in contemporary art. In these cases, the archival material is of course more then a document: it becomes a dynamic terrain, within which the artist turns towards archival material and uses it not only as a resource but as a source. The artists often use archival documents in a performative way, as they appropriate, reconstruct, re-enact it in their artworks. Lucia Nimcová’s project contrasts the different kinds of archival materials and combines artworks with found images. Elle Márjá Eira and Mai-Lis Eira use the archival imagery as a base, and they collaborate with museum’s collections and reconstruct a story based on them in their videos. Anca Benera and Arnold Estefán collect a wide range of archival materials for their research and develop the aesthetics of the artwork based on these materials. Ali Cherri focuses more on the notion of cultural heritage and the appropriation of found objects. In addition, in the bookstore of tranzit.sk, one finds the official archival material (texts, photos, maps, publications from Mikulas Huba’s archive) about the Gabcikovo-Nagymaros dam project, which was planned between Hungary and Slovakia in 1990/91, connecting the exhibition in another way to its local surroundings.
This relates to the project (Starina, 2019) of Slovak artist Lucia Nimcová, whose work is also crucial if one wants to examine the years of transition and the changes which took place in the region in the late 1980s. Nimcová’s starting point is the construction of the Starina Reservoir (1983-1987), which is the most important source of drinking water in Eastern Slovakia. In her research, Nimcová uses her own photos and found photos from families and privately taken snapshots, and she contrasts them with the official archival material (from museums, for example). A huge wallpaper, showing scenic rural land in Slovakia, serves as a backdrop for the strange “before-after” photos, which highlight not only the contrast between the different kinds of images but also the differences between their subjects: the drastic change which happened as the construction of the dam required the evacuation and flooding of seven Ruthenian villages.
Nimcová’s project captures delicately the transition from the rural countryside to the modernized world and the forced changes in the name of progress. Even though the pairings sometimes can seem a bit didactic, the whole project itself is a sensitive reflection on a repressed story. The forced relocation of the people and the changes they have had to make in their lifestyle evoke the emblematic scene from the hit-series Chernobyl (HBO, 2019), when, because of radiation, the town has been evacuated. An old lady milking her cow refuses to leave: she survived both World Wars and the socialist regime, and she refuses to leave in what, I principle, is supposed to be a time of democracy and individual rights. The solution is simple: the military kills her cow and thus forces her to leave.
In recent years, Sámi artists have gained wider recognition. One could think, for instance, of the amazing textile piece by Britta Marakatt-Labba at Documenta 14, which focused on Sámi epistemology and storytelling. Liquid Horizons presents the works of the Sámi sisters Elle Márjá Eira and Mai-Lis Eira, which focus on our relationship with the past and asks the question what kind of parallels could we draw between the struggles of our ancestors and present-day activism. In one video, the story of the hunger strikes in Oslo (1979, 1981) are being retold, and the artists emphasize the importance of these events in terms of early eco-feminist movements. In this work (6 February 1981, 2018), the Eira-sisters pay homage to the fifteen women from Máze (which is also their hometown) who occupied the office of the Norwegian prime minister in 1981. This event was one of the “highlights” of the Áltá action, a protest movement which fought against the development of a dam with a hydropower plant on the Altaelva river. Had the dam been built, the Sámi village of Máze would have been partly submerged, and the activist successfully prevented this (later, another, less harmful dam was built). An extremely powerful activist movement unfolds, as the archival materials from television and newspapers merge with contemporary recollections in the film.
In another video (Don’t Fuck With Me, 2019), which uses the aesthetics of a music clip, we can see young adults preparing and then marching in Oslo, dressed up in traditional folk costumes. The dynamic video serves as a certain kind of memorial gesture to the Alta action events, as the main protagonists re-enact the protests metaphorically, while arriving at the Norwegian Parliament, referring to the protest in 1981. On another screen, we can engage with the archival materials which the artists collected from the Alta Museum about the activist group and protest movement and the various posters, flyers, and documents of the late 1970s and early 1980s could be discovered. The last video (The Sámi Have Rights, 2018) moves away from this historical period and calls attention to a different story about the difficulties contemporary reindeer herders face because of the construction of the Storheia windmill park. We can listen to the opinions and statements of the Sámi community, which underline the dangers which lies in the construction and the problems they have to face because of the new power lines. As in the other video, members of the community wear traditional costumes, and the amazing landscape serves as a backdrop. Although the video could fall into the trap of aesthetizing, the powerful statements and determination of people captured in it encourage the viewer to take a stand on certain issues affecting his/her own community. The sisters’ series of works is the most political, environmentalist project in the exhibition, which works very well with other, more poetic approaches, like Ali Cherri’s.
In his installation, Ali Cherri not only takes us to another continent virtually, but also physically challenges us, as he plays with the exhibition space and changes our perception of it. His main installation (Plot For a Possible Resurrection II, 2019) is made of mud bricks and two found sculptures placed on them. It shows its back to the viewer, and the best way one can see it is from the street, looking through the window. Thus, already on our way to the gallery of tranzit.sk, the installation offers something for passersby, inviting them to come in and explore in more depth the artist’s research. In his project, Cherri examines the largest hydropower dam built on the Nile, in Sudan, the Merowe Dam, constructed in 2003-2009. The dam doubled Sudan’s electricity generation, but it also forced many people the leave the fertile Nile valley and move to less economically fortunate lands. Not only did it cause the relocation of people, it also submerged several archeological sites before proper research had been done on them, as we learn from the curatorial text. The notion of cultural heritage plays an important role in Cherri’s practice, and in this work, he refers to ancient Nubian treasures which could be gone forever due to the construction of the dam and the subsequent floods. Similarly important in the piece is how the artist connects the seemingly distant situation in Sudan with what’s happening in Slovakia. The mudbricks out of which the installation is made refer on one hand to the bricks made from the Nile river mud, but on the other hand they also evoke the mudbricks which were used in Slovakia (and in other places in Central Eastern Europe) to build traditional houses. Thus, it also creates a dialogue with Nimcova’s work and touches on the disappearance of rural life in Slovakia. The two sculptures – possibly of Virgin Mary and Jesus Christ – evoke in their materiality and symbolic value the aforementioned and now lost treasures in Sudan, yet they are found objects the artist borrowed from two conservators from Slovakia.
Different geographical sites and temporalities merge in the newly commissioned work by the Romanian artist duo, Anca Benera and Arnold Estefan. In other projects, these two artists often deal with how power and politics exploit nature, such as the installation Debrishpere (2018), which was shown, for example, at MUMOK at the exhibition Natural Histories. In their recent installation, Benera and Estefan present an almost abstract hand woven carpet (East of the Danube, West of the Euphrates, 2019), which is interesting in part simply because of its medium if one thinks of the recent comeback of textile art lately. But of course in the duo’s work nothing is by chance, and they used textile as a medium for a reason. They literally sew together two stories, which function as the beginning and ending point of the Ottoman Empire. One is the story of the Tomb of Suleyman Shah, who was the grandfather of the founder of the Ottoman Empire, Osman I. The other one is the memory of the island of Ada Kaleh on the Danube. The carpet shows seemingly abstract coordinates, and one can imagine the original location of the two sites, with the sunken island and the displaced tomb woven together. It is an imaginary possible merge of the two locations, based on the sonar scans which were taken by scientists of the underwater sites. What they used as a source, is thus a 3D reconstruction based on underwater archival materials. But of course these images are never fully complete, imagination and fiction is also needed for their “reconstruction”.
Of course, the motif of flooding and the notion of displacement appears here too: the 13th-century tomb was first moved because of a flood caused by the construction of the Taqba Dam on the Euphrates, and after other removals, the tomb, which was still the property of Turkey, is now located in Syria. The Ada Kaleh island on the Danube was inhabited by Romanian Turks until 1968 and was submerged in 1970 because of the construction of the Iron Gates hydroelectric plant. The artists found several motifs which connect these two stories, which resemble symbolic starting points and endpoints. One motif is that of the carpet, referring to the carpet of the former Ada Kaleh Mosque, now shown at Constanta Mosque, and other carpets which traditionally cover Muslim tombs. On this new carpet, – which was made by an artisan and its 100% handmade – the different storylines are woven together and evoke the notion of invisibility, erasure, and disappearance, not only conceptually, but by the aesthetic choice, in this case, the unclear patterns and blur of the carpet. The history of the Ottoman Empire, marked by migrations, transitions, and the merge of different nationalities, is being underlined in the project. There is also a timeline with archive images, which helps the viewer navigate this complicated storyline.
Another artwork which was not shown at the exhibition but was seen in Slovakia in 2017 merits mention here. In Somorja, at the At Home Gallery, András Blazsek (a Slovak-Hungarian artist) presented his research on the effects the Gabcikovo-Nagymaros dam. The installation, entitled History of a Split between Islands and Dams, Circles and Lines, dealt with the notion of mapping and remapping a certain era after such construction projects have taken place. His large-scale panorama showed a 3D modelled landscape on which the viewer could examine the changes which had taken place in the land after the construction of the dam. Bringing together personal and collective memory, official and private maps, the exhibition also presented (on the basis of research conducted together with Zsófia Nagy, PhD researcher, Eötvös Loránd University) a series of mental maps drawn by the inhabitants recalling how their everyday lives were before and after the construction. The amazing building of the former synagogue, where At Home Gallery is located, added an extra layer to the reading of the story. In 2017, I visited the Gabcikovo (Bős in Hungarian) – Nagymaros dam, which I had never seen before. The view was on the one hand breathtaking and on the other frightening, including the movement of the river, the sound, and the people looking at it. When I saw the exhibition Liquid Horizon, it conjured this memory, as well as a certain kind of curiosity to learn more about the history of the construction of the dam and how it was part of the history of the change of the regime in 1989.
The author is awarded by Ernő Kállai Scholarship for art historians and art critics supported by the Hungarian Ministry of Human Capacities.
Cover image: © Ali Cherri, Qubba, 2019 (Old Dongola, Northern State, Sudan), colour filter by Aurélia Garová