Who made the Schinkel Pavillon and the Brücke-Museum use Aesopian language?

11 april, 2024

Back in May 2022, while the fighting for Mariupol was still ongoing, Russian citizens looking to purchase an apartment in the occupied city already started posting advertisements on social media. Today, Russian websites actually offer bombed-out apartments in Mariupol that belonged to Ukrainians. In contrast, potential buyers from various Russian cities comment that the «cosmetic repair» of bombed-out apartments doesn’t deter them.

From September 2023 to January 2024, Berlin hosted the exhibition The Assault on the Present of the Rest of Time: Artistic Testimonies of War and Repression. The project took place at the Schinkel Pavillon and the Brücke-Museum. The concept of the exhibition was based on re-actualizing the tragic story of the executions of «degenerate art,» the repressions against modernists that the Nazis began in Germany after the seizure of power in 1933. Among others, the repressions affected the generation of expressionists, who had previously been the Brücke group members (1905-1913). The works of the expressionists that were saved from the purges and World War II formed the basis of the Brücke-Museum. One of the museums that the Nazis purged in their hunt for Expressionism, the New Department of the National Gallery, was located close to the current Schinkel Pavillon.

With the history of resistance to Nazi repression at the heart of the program cooperation, the Brücke-Museum and the Schinkel Pavillon decided to highlight the oppression of artists that is still happening today in many violent forms. The initiative was driven by the escalation of Russia's war against Ukraine on February 24, 2022, to the scale of the largest in Europe since World War II.

Exhibition view in Schinkel Pavillon: Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Römisches Stillleben, 1930, Brücke-Museum. Johanna Schütz-Wolff, Der Tote (Fragment), 1930. Käthe Kollwitz, Zwei wartende Soldatenfrauen, 1943, Käthe Kollwitz Museum. Simone Fattal, Mother and Child (Green), 2005, Mother and Child, 2005, Wounded Woman III, 2013.­­ Käthe Kollwitz, Mutter schützt ihr Kind, 1941/42, Frau mit Kind im Schoß, 1911–37, Käthe Kollwitz Museum. Photo: Frank Sperling. Source: artviewer.org
To reflect on these terrible events, Berlin institutions invited Katya Inozemtseva, who has been the chief curator of the leading Moscow art institution, the Garage Museum of Contemporary Art, since 2014. The EU imposed sanctions on the owner of the Garage Museum, oligarch Roman Abramovich after Russia's war escalated to the full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The Garage Museum of Contemporary Art suspended its exhibition activities at the same period. The museum's curators decided to transfer their statements from Moscow to European venues. Meanwhile, Kyiv was under Russian siege, with Bucha and Irpin under occupation. Artists and curators wrapped and covered museum works and monuments to protect them from missile attacks, launched the Wartime Art Archive, and photographers switched to documenting the war crimes. Ukrainian artists and poets are being killed on the front lines, holding off Russian attacks.

«Against the backdrop of the war unleashed by Russia in Ukraine, the exhibition understands the past as continuity and present,» Katya Inozemtseva begins the curatorial introduction to the project. The curator introduced the works of 21 artists and collectives from different periods from Europe, North America, the Levant, and the Middle East. While there are no questions about the works presented in the exhibition—they are rather stunning—the curatorial narrative that unites them is questionable.

The curator dedicated the introductory essay to the memory of the Ukrainian poet Victoria Amelina. The poet died on June 27, 2023, from injuries she received from a Russian «Iskander» missile attack on Kramatorsk. Following the introductory text in the catalogue of the exhibition, which provides this information, a fragment of Amelina's poem is given:

«I don’t write poetry 
I’m a prose writer
Just the reality of war
Eats the punctuation
Plot coherence

As if a language was hit by a shell
Fragments of language
Look like poetry
But it’s not»

The line «As if a language was hit by a shell» was censored in the German and English translations: «Als ob eine Granate eine Granate getroffen» /«As if a shell hit by a shell». In the context of this project, the issue of language cannot be accidentally erased or interpreted as an insignificant typo. After all, the basis of Russian propaganda, particularly in Europe, is the denial of the existence of the Ukrainian language. One of the first actions the occupation authorities took in Mariupol was to seize 180,000 Ukrainian books from libraries and burn or dispose of Ukrainian textbooks in schools and universities, replacing them with Russian ones.

Schinkel Pavillon, the label «The works were removed from the exhibition at the request of the artist Kateryna Lysevenko [sic!]«. Photo: Maria Vtorushina
Victoria Amelina would have firmly refused to participate in a project led by the former curator of Moscow's Garage Museum of Contemporary Art. Since February 2022, Ukrainian cultural workers have united in a peaceful strike, refusing to be represented through the Russian colonial optics that pretends to pass for knowledge about Ukraine. This was Victoria Amelina's principled position. Thus, her poem was taken to print from the public domain, not just without consent but despite the disagreement. But the murdered poet can no longer file a complaint against the use of her work or the censorship in translation.

There is no doubt that the Schinkel Pavillon and Brücke-Museum prepared the exhibition with the intention of criticising repressive tropes, not reproducing them. But the issue is that this is just one of the cases in which an alternative logic managed to slip past critical reflection.

After gaining access to the catalogue and exhibition texts of The Assault of the Present on the Rest of Time, artists Kateryna Lysovenko and Dana Kavelina (later) withdrew their works from the Schinkel Pavillon. The artists' decisions were based on several positions in the curatorial project that had been revealed only through the texts. European critics, whose eyes did not catch any paradoxes, wrote favourably about the exhibition. The feature from ARTnews that Lysovenko withdrew the work from the exhibition after outrage in social media, caused by the appropriation of Victoria Amelina's poem, did not inspire a more detailed analysis of the exhibition; moreover, the exhibition itself was extended till late January 2024.

The first part of The Assault of the Present on the Rest of Time at the Brücke-Museum serves as a commentary on the collection. Additional works are included in the permanent exhibition. The Brücke-Museum has made a significant contribution to critiquing the crimes of the Nazi regime in Germany and revealing the facts about the Shoah through art history. Through the biographies and practices of Der Brücke artists, one can trace the chronology of events: the dates of confiscation of artworks, imprisonments, evacuation of artists abroad, mass deportations, and deaths in Auschwitz. In general, every work in the museum serves as a reminder, through its physical existence, that it was saved from the «Degenerate Art»  exhibition in 1937.
Exhibition view, in Brücke-Museum, Forensic Architecture, Drone Strike in Mir Ali, 2013, paintings of Ernst Ludwig Kirchner. Photo source: bspoque.com
«Similarly, the war unleashed by Russia against Ukraine on February 24, 2022 [sic!] gives historical art of the 1930s and 1940s an unexpected topicality. It can no longer be viewed only retrospectively or academically. Correspondences between then and now become visible,»  writes the curator in the first edition of the catalogue. The war waged by Russia against Ukraine began in February 2014 with Russia's occupation of Crimea. Any other dating is a distortion of facts and disinformation.

After hundreds of outraged comments on social media, the curator apologized for quoting Victoria Amelina's poem and promised to mark the start of the war properly by reissuing the catalogue. And indeed, in the digital version of the catalogue, the pages with the poem were redesigned into blank spaces.

Nonetheless, in a collaboration where the German side discloses in detail the history of Nazi crimes, it would be at the very least symmetrical to cover the repressions of the Soviet totalitarian regime as a «correspondence between then and now.» In particular, the most apparent tragic «correspondence,» which was, however, not mentioned in the exhibition, is the execution of Ukrainian artists and poets, numerous imprisonments, persecutions, and tortures for the use of Ukrainian language by the Soviet regime. Similarly, the Executed Renaissance, which was destroyed by Stalin's terror of the 1930s, wasn't featured.

Therefore, no aggressors other than the Nazis and no genocide other than the Shoah were directly mentioned nor called by their names in the exhibition. The Holodomor (1932-1933), the deportation of the Crimean Tatars (1944), and the mass exterminations of Ukrainians, Chechens, Ingush, and Crimean Tatars by the Soviet regime are completely left out of the narrative. There is also no criticism of the chauvinistic, racist, and xenophobic ideas of the «Russian world»  and the aggression of the current putin regime. The seizure of Chechnya, the occupation of Georgia's North Ossetia and Abkhazia, and the occupation of Crimea, Luhansk, and Donetsk regions of Ukraine seemed to be unimportant for the story, which was being broadcast at the highest moment of war terror.

Cultural appropriation is an inherent aspect of settler colonialism, alongside the resettlement of «territories» and the obliteration of the memory of the people who once inhabited these places. According to Raphael Lemkin, an integral part of genocide is the destruction of culture. Lemkin not only introduced the term «genocide» but also was the first to classify the crimes of the communist totalitarian regime against Ukrainians as genocide. Lemkin's speech from 1953 is now known in genocide studies as the «Article in 33 Languages».

Instead, to gather artistic practices that were scattered in time and space, Katya Inozemtseva introduces a construct she calls the «poetics of testimony.» The «poetics of testimony» strangely erases identifying features of criminals: specific facts, leaders, crimes against humanity, and the circumstances of conflicts are not revealed in the texts. It is not only the Soviet regime or contemporary Russia hiding in silence between the lines. Often, the aggressive strategy of the US is completely omitted.

The elephant in the room in this exhibition is the complete absence of reflection on the atrocities committed by Russia in Syria. There is no criticism of Russian aggression, even though both the Brücke-Museum and the Schinkel Pavillon featured works by the iconic Syrian artist Simone Fattal. The text explains the presence of Fattal's works by saying that she presents evidence of some «incessant, meaningless wars.» The rest of the information about the artist's practice is limited to the fact that Fattal's ceramics «resemble archaic scenes»; that the artist creates a symbolic memorial to the soldiers who resist, and her collages consist of «elements that float in chaos, trying to find structure
Simone Fattal, Mother and Child, 2005, Mother and Child (Green), 2005, Wounded Woman III, 2013. Schinkel Pavillon. Photo: Frank Sperling. Source: artviewer.org
Fattal's nuanced and subtle art is acutely critical. While her works from the 1970s, such as «Vous avez fait une paysage moral exact,» address the consequences of French colonial policy in Lebanon and Syria, her later works «Bunker with Soldiers» (2013) and «Wounded Woman III» (2013) clearly refer not to archaic scenes but to the current events of the war in Syria, in which the US, Russia, Iran, Turkey, and Israel are directly involved. Since 2014, Fattal has been a member of the Syrian Archive, a Syrian project aimed at preserving, enhancing, and perpetuating documentation of human rights violations and crimes committed by all parties of the conflict in Syria.

In March 2011, anti-government protests, also known as the Syrian Revolution of Dignity, erupted in Syria, where the Assad family had ruled for more than four decades. The situation escalated: the opposition forces split into many groups. Some opposition groups became radicalised, in particular, by joining ISIS. Assad's government, with the full military support of Russia (since 2011), Iran, and Hezbollah began to use air strikes and chemical weapons against Syrian civilians. However, Russia's military presence in Syria dates back to the 1950s. The USSR and Russian navies have had access to the port of Tartus since the 1970s, using it as a logistics hub¹.

In 2013 (officially in 2014), the US entered the war on the side of groups opposing both the Assad regime and ISIS, declaring that their goal was to «defeat ISIS.« It was only in 2015 that Putin announced the start of «a Russian special operation to combat international terrorist groups in Syria,» in support of Assad's regime. Since then, Russia's military presence in Syria has only increased. Attacks on civilian infrastructure continue unabated. Just between 2015 and 2018, the Syrian Archive recorded nearly 1,500 incidents in which Russian troops attacked civilians or civilian infrastructure and hundreds of cases of cluster munitions and thermobaric weapons use. While Russia was razing Aleppo to the ground, Russian diplomats were lying about how their experts would help rebuild Palmyra, which was «destroyed in the war.»

In a conversation with Jeff Deutsch, when asked whether the digital technologies used by the Syrian Archive can help find those responsible for mass killings in Ukraine, «such as in Bucha,» Simon Fattal replies: «Unlike in Syria, the International Criminal Court has already started investigating alleged war crimes committed in Ukraine.» Syria is not a party to the Rome Statute. Therefore, the International Criminal Court cannot automatically exercise jurisdiction over crimes committed in Syria.
Simone Fattal, Vous avez fait une paysage moral exact, 1977 © Courtesy of the artist and Kaufmann repetto Milan/New York, Photo: Andrea Rosetti. Source: goout.net.
Fattal continues: «Today is the fifth anniversary of the Khan Shaykhun massacre in Syria in which sarin gas was used [by the Assad regime, with the full support of the Putin regime—ed.] to indiscriminately target and kill hundreds of civilians. In the absence of international accountability bodies having access to the ground, open-source content became the primary way of understanding what happened, where, and how. We used this content to file a criminal complaint to prosecutors in Germany, France, and Sweden.»

By substituting real testimonies, such as by Fattal, for the «poetics of testimony» in the text field of the Assault on the Present on The Rest of Time, Katya Inozemtseva takes advantage of the position of the global West, which is very comforted in (not)perceiving the war in Syria as a series of «incessant, senseless wars,» as a «rapture of chaos» and a «Middle East condition.» With the latter two phrases, Amazon sells the famous «Arab Apocalypse» by Etel Adnan, who was Simone Fattal's partner. In this poetic cycle, words, color, and emotional experiences of the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) are gathered in a dense, almost visual structure.Fragments from the «Arab Apocalypse» open the exhibition's second part at Schinkel Pavillon.

Among the works in the Schinkel Pavillon are paintings by Hannah Höch, who hid from the Nazi regime in a garden; a video by Lawrence Abu Hamdan documenting the violence of Israeli aircraft over Lebanese airspace; works by Kateryna Lisovenko depicting those who were tortured by totalitarian regimes; Dana Kavelina's installation dedicated to the Jewish poet Zuzanna Ginzhchanka, who was killed by the Nazis, and Marek Wlodarski, who lived in a closet for several years while hiding from the Nazi regime; an archive of documents and denunciations accompanying the murders of political dissidents in Iran, collected by Parastou Forouhar.
Etel Adnan, a fragment from the Arab Apocalypse (1975-1980), translated by the author. The Post-Apollo Press, Sausalito, 1989, p. 23. Image Source: garadinervi-repetitiori.blog
Paradoxically, in the curatorial narrative, the real weight of a single event, life, and every minute of resistance is hidden behind a multitude of stories that are not connected by anything but violence. The omissions here and there erase the specificity of evil. Can a curator who has built a career in the capital of Putin's regime, take the position of a neutral observer and not criticise Russia's colonial aggression? Is it even possible in this situation to try on the role of a detached, enlightened commentator on other conflicts?

As Paul Celan wrote, no one bears witness to the witnesses. I first encountered the evil that hides its name and face in Crimea. After the Revolution of Dignity, we briefly returned to Yalta. At the same time, in February 2014, the «green men»—Russian occupation troops without identifying uniforms—began to operate in Crimea. The Russian military took Ukrainian journalists and Crimean Tatar activists to torture chambers, occupied administrative buildings, and forcibly expelled representatives of international organizations. In March 2014, a so-called «referendum» was held, after which Russia annexed Crimea. That was when I got involved in this war, against my will and choice. In these ten years, my civilian body is still unharmed by Russian shells by sheer luck. Can I be present as a neutral observer?

The thought that, despite the artists' statements, something unnamed, constantly slipping away and disappearing, was at work in The Assault of the Present on the Rest of Time was not just my own but shared by many colleagues. Thus, an artist Sasha Kurmaz, posted an interview with Katya Inozemtseva in 2017. There, instead of criticising her country's armed invasion of the territory of another state, while the global community had condemned the annexation of Crimea by Russia, the curator used the opposite narrative: «Ukraine simply crossed this piece [Crimea—ed.] out, and artists based in Kyiv or Lviv stopped going there. There are no exhibitions there, nothing.» And included works by artists from the Russian-annexed Crimea, which is from a «region of Russia,» in the exhibition at the Garage Museum in Moscow.

These tricks of distortion and paradoxical substitutions of cause and effect are familiar to those who know what Soviet newspeak is. It is not surprising that all this does not catch the eye of the European critic. When I got acquainted with the practices of the Lithuanian curator and artist Ruta Junevičute, who investigates the phenomenon of Soviet censorship, in particular, the Aesopian language, the component of this project, which was constantly slipping away, acquired an unmistakable, familiar silhouette.
Lea Grundig, Krieg droht: der Tank, 1936, etching.The work was included in the exhibition in Brücke-Museum. Source of the image: www.kunstausstellung-kuehl.de
Aesopian language emerged to evade the censor's punishment, and for decades it was perfected in Russia. It became widely known as the language of kitchen anecdotes, used as a substitute for impossible political criticism. «There is a tradition of the Aesopian language that is as old as censorship itself. This tradition has always existed in Russia and Eastern Europe (and in China, I think, too), and it continues to be an important component of the way of life there. This is a special, very subtle form of communication, and a writer from the East who finds himself in the West often does not know what to replace this language with,» wrote in 1983 the Lithuanian poet Thomas Venclova.

However, the emergence of the Aesopian Soviet language was preceded by a newspeak (novoyaz) introduced by the censors themselves. Nothing has changed since Orwell wrote that newspeak was designed to make oppositional thinking impossible. Words in the newspeak lose their meaning or change it to the exact opposite. In the Russian media, the war is called a «special operation,» the occupation of territories is called «liberation,» and people living in the countries invaded by Russia are called «terrorists.» And a real estate agent in Mariupol, who gives a room tour to the propagandist, calls the apartment bombed to pieces by the Russian army «big and comfortable.»

So, last summer, 28 German intellectuals posted an open letter to Chancellor Olaf Scholz urging him not to provide Ukraine with weapons for defense. In the same text, all authors strongly condemned Russian aggression. If the proposal were to be implemented, it would mean giving the aggressor tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians whose lives couldn't be protected. One of the authors of the letter was film director Alexander Kluge. Katya Inozemtseva named the exhibition after Alexander Kluge's film The Assault of the Present on the Rest of Time (1985).

The text field, which reveals the curatorial opinion for the exhibition The Assault of the Present on the Rest of Time, is crafted from both Aesopian language and newspeak. While under the Soviet regime, the writers employed Aesopian language with the hope of conveying truth between the lines; Katya Inozemtseva uses Aesopian language to distance herself from the war and conceal her reluctance to reflect on her own role during current events as if it were possible to merely assume the role of an exhibition-maker who observes conflicts in the world.

As for the newspeak that, pretending to be the truth, is making its way into the narratives of major institutions like the Schinkel Pavillon and the Brücke Museum, I hope that a few more years of cultural exchange and dialogue will help Western audiences and professionals recognize the manipulations on their empathy in a context broader than Western academic theory, which currently does not include enough information about Ukrainian culture.

¹   In 2019, Assad approved the operation of the Tartus port by Russia's Stroytransgaz for another 49 years. In 2020 and 2021, Russia provided Syria with $1 billion in loans on the condition that payments would be made to Russian companies, including those that contribute to Russian military operations in Ukraine.

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