MON STUDIO SESSIONS
“The final outcome of my investigation presents depicted concrete objects, but photography obscures them to the abstract look, thus my work is both documentary and subjective at the same time”
Vienna / Vilnius April 2021
Interview with Valentyn Odnoviun by Jan Gustav Fiedler
Valentyn Odnoviun explores the relation between what we see and what we perceive through the means of photography. His works are abstract documentations of historical circumstances and establish a connection between the past and the now by creating conceptual series of photographs linked to certain historic events or circumstance which remain relevant up to this day.
Prison Cell Door Spyhole.
KGB Prison, Tallinn, Estonia
Valentyn, the term abstract documentation has been used to describe your work, where you capture historic places and traces through the medium of contemporary photography. Can you elaborate on your creative process and what sparks your inspiration?
I would not say inspire, but rather make me interested in. The main interest here is how we perceive the interplay of concrete / abstract in the image.
In my research, I put emphasis on details that might look insignificant or not visible at a first glance, but could reveal more information when focused on and being linked with its natural context. These kinds of traces of memory are all around us.
But my work on a project begins long before the creation of the visual part. Everything starts with elaborated research of the material for the upcoming project through open sources and archives that can provide me with relevant information about the place and / or event for my metaphorical investigation. Only after, I visit the actual scene and look for some traces (evidence) that could work as a signifier for the event. In some cases, I know what will be photographed in advance. But it also happens that some clues found at the scene may change the direction of my work.
The final outcome of my investigation presents depicted concrete objects, but photography obscures them to the abstract look, thus my work is both documentary and subjective at the same time.
Prison Cell Door Spyhole. Submarine Section Entrance Door Spyhole.
Stasi Prison, East Berlin, Germany.
Knowing how much research is leading up to the final artwork, is it still possible to look at the works without being aware of the context and background information? Just being intrigued by the aesthetics without any knowledge of the particular project?
It depends on one's desire to know. The work itself is open for plenty of interpretations. However, I would say that retinal perception is the first stage of getting acquainted with the work. The information, series provided with, about what one sees in front of him reveals the context of the actual work, which triggers even more interpretations in the viewer's mind. I invite the viewer to re-think the event conceptually. But in the case of my work, the viewer can decide how far he wants to explore what he observes.
Prison Cell Door Spyhole. KGB Prison, Cesis, Latvia.
For this approach to perceiving your work the series "Surveillance" is a perfect example. These artworks depict photos of prison cell door spyholes of former Stasi, Gestapo and KGB penitentiaries in various countries. At first glance, they resemble planets or microorganisms and are actually quite beautiful. But as soon as one is confronted with the context and background information a whole new dimension opens up in the viewers ’mind. That is one of the aspects I always admired about your works, they start a thinking process without being shocking or brutal. What was your trigger to start this series and what are the reactions both from a historical documentation point of view as well as the art market aspect regarding these works?
The fact of the loss of evidentiary power by the objective photographic triggered my interest in how the abstract-like images evoke interpretations from one’s imagination that may present a more precise picture of the event in the eyes of the viewer.
Working on this project, I visited many places which today became museums of history, and was met with enthusiasm and support for my work, as it brings awareness of the wider public to historical events and proposes to analyze them conceptually.
Concerning the art market aspect, I believe that you, as a curator, could say more about the art market reaction. I can only say that during the past years the project received particular attention from art curators, gallerists and collectors.
Prison Cell Door Spyhole. KGB Prison Lviv, Ukraine.
You are mentioning the attention your projects are receiving from institutions and galleries, what are the next upcoming exhibitions featuring your work?
This month (April 2021) my project “Surveillance” will be shown at the Ästhetik der Überwachung exhibition in the Kunsthaus Raskolnikow and at the Gedenkstätte Bautzner Straße in Dresden, Germany. One of my latest projects is planned to be shown in May in a local museum in Lithuania. In June, I will participate in the collective exhibition “Panoptikon” in a former prison in Stockholm, Sweeden. For this exhibition, I am working on a site-specific installation. Also, I plan to show the result of several years of my artistic research of the interplay of concrete/abstract in the image at the Klaipeda Culture Comunication Centre in Lithuania. The event is planned for December.
Hopefully, not much of these plans will change.
Prison Cell Door Spyhole. KGB Prison Lviv, Ukraine.
The Connection between historic events and your very much research based work is reflecting in the Institutions and venues where your works are presented. Looking back at the past few years, what were key moments during your research? Dealing with topics like oppression, dictatorship and cruelty, not everyone likes to be reminded of the past, did you ever encounter Individuals or institutions that were trying to hinder your work and cause difficulties regarding your research or artistic process?
In 2018, I worked on the project Horizons in Poland under the support of the National Centre for Culture and with the help of the University of Arts in Poznan and the Institute of National Remembrance.
The idea was to visit buildings where previously were situated Nazi Gestapo, Soviet NKVD and later Polish People’s Republic UB and SB oppressive state security agencies. I wanted to take photographs of the stairsteps leading to the basements where people were kept and tortured. With time some of these places became museums, but some serve for Police Departments. With the help of my project curator Anna Kędziora, I sent requests to different Police Departments and penitentiary institutions around Poland to enter their facilities. Some of them officially refused to let me into their territory, but several located in Gdansk, Poznan and Warsaw agreed to grant me access.
The only place that did not answer my request was Regional Police Headquarters in Wrocław. So, I decided to visit the actual place and try to talk to somebody concerning my project. I was warmly greeted by two officers in the hall of the headquarters and during our conversation, one of them assured me that the basement preserved its authenticity from times when the Gestapo occupied the space and said that it should not be a problem for me to get access to the place. I left with a good feeling, but in few days I received an email with refusal and the explanation that due to many renovations of the basement no original traces of the past left.
Once, Esquire magazine in Russia proposed to write about my Surveillance project but they wanted to change “political prisons” to “correctional facilities.” I could not agree with such a term and did not give them my permission.
Such reactions of authorities and media, may reveal the local socio-political environment and current relation to the issues of the past.
Exhibition View “Surveillance” by Valentyn Odnoviun at Museum of Now Berlin Edition October 2019
These insights behind the scenes of your projects appear to be a reflection of the artworks which conclude the intensive research. They have a strong political message which is still uncomfortable for certain institutions and individuals. That’s one of the reasons why nine positions of your “Surveillance” series were a central part of the Museum of Now Berlin Edition in 2019. The title of that exhibition was “In the search of now”, and the surveillance of the individual is still a very relevant topic within our society. Many aspects of our daily lives are being surveilled, ranging from video surveillance in public places, our online activities or tracking of our movements via smartphone, only to name a few examples among many. How important is this digital aspect of surveillance within your body of work? Or do you focus strictly upon historical events and use them as a cautionary tale for the present time?
My artwork may be called a commentary on today’s situation through the events of the past as our present and future cannot be imagined without the past. As I mentioned in my photo book Surveillance. A Typology of Oppression: “With time, surveillance taking new forms, but the main essence remains. Total physical and mind control of society.”
But it does not exclude my interest in digital surveillance and what is linked with it. Currently, I am researching this field for my future projects.
Prison Cell Door Spyhole. Stasi Prison, East Berlin, Germany.
Regarding these future projects, can you already give a little outlook into what is ahead of you in the month to come? Or is it still too early in the research process to talk about it?
Today, due to the ongoing pandemics, it is hard to plan something in advance, as there is still some uncertainty about new restrictions that may be applied in different countries in the nearest future. These obstacles may affect the process of creation of projects, postpone or even cancel some of my plans. For now, I would abstain from talking about the site-specific installation for the “Panoptikon” exhibition in a former prison in Stockholm. But, I hope that you will see the results of this project in a month.
Concerning future projects on digital surveillance, I am researching drone vision and social surveillance at the moment
Prison Cell Door Spyhole. KGB Prison Lviv, Ukraine.
Valentyn, thank you for these insights into your art and what lies ahead of you. I am looking forward to seeing what you are building in Stockholm and hope the Pandemic won’t have that big of a negative effect on your plans. All the best to you and stay safe.
Thank you very much for this conversation and interesting questions. I think nowadays curators playing an even bigger and more serious role than before, searching for and creating new ways to deliver art closer to the public. I appreciate all of your energy you are putting into this work.
MUSEUM OF NOW STUDIO SESSIONS