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LEFTOVER STORIES

FOR NEW GENERATIONS


Text by Laura Bivolaru
A dialogue with artist Andrii Dostliev
 

It is telling that the concept of `postmemory` was conceived by Marianne Hirsch in the early `90s to describe how the children of Holocaust survivors were relating to the unspeakable trauma inflicted on their parents. Hirsch herself was born after WWII, the child of a Jewish couple that fled Chernivtsi, a multicultural town that was, over the years, part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, Romania, the USSR, and now Ukraine. "Postmemory describes the relationship that the "generation after" bears to the personal, collective, and cultural trauma of those who came before - to experiences they "remember" only by means of the stories, images, and behaviors among which they grew up. But these experiences were transmitted to them so deeply and affectively as to seem to constitute memories in their own right. Postmemory's connection to the past is thus actually mediated not by recall but by imaginative investment, projection, and creation.” [1] It is in this framework that Ukrainian artist Andrii Dostliev has developed a practice that primarily deals with issues around Ukrainian identity and the recent history of the region.

Andrii Dostliev’s photographic work is based on archival photography interventions, drawing from the power of the image as a memorial object. In 2014, Dostliev had to leave his hometown, Donetsk, following its occupation by Russian-backed separatists. His family photographs, dating back to the interwar period, were left behind. In his work ‘Occupation’ (2015), he used anonymous vernacular photographs that held a resemblance to the memory of his own family archive in order to recreate this lost visual memory. For example, one of Dostliev’s images echoes the one his grandmother had taken with a friend and two Soviet soldiers in a studio to celebrate the liberation of the Nazi forced labour camp in the Sudetenland. It is a powerful collage that recalls the post-war relief and hope. The grandmother’s figure is later invoked in another series, ‘I still feel sorry when I throw away food – Grandma used to tell me stories about the Holodomor’ (2018), which was developed in collaboration with artist and cultural anthropologist Lia Dostlieva. Memories of the Holodomor, the man-made Great Famine perpetrated by Soviet Russia, which led to the death of millions of Ukrainians, are passed down generationally, inflicting guilt on the now grown-up grandchild, who lives in capitalist surplus. Here, traces of leftover food are paired with fragments of unidentified landscapes, in order to reflect on the visibility of the trauma of national, deadly hunger. However, Dostliev is also preoccupied with the historical entanglement between Ukraine and the wider Eastern Europe, as well as his country’s position in a globalised environment. A more recent collaboration with Lia Dostlieva, ‘An unduly restrictive view of salvation (Vinnytsia Limbo)’ (2019), focuses on the migration route that Somali took to reach Germany, passing the small Ukrainian town of Vinnytsia. The duo speculates how the migrants would have perceived the town and the domestic spaces they would have inhabited. This state of limbo seems to be a concept that Dostliev approaches in his wider practice, and which he is trying to annihilate through different strategies: the archival image is brought to light and becomes activated through interventions or repurposing; collages give way to new narratives; the public space is transformed through performative actions. In all cases, truth is reached by way of fiction.



© Andrii Dostliev, Soviet Ukrainian photography of the 1930's, 2020.




ON THE ARCHIVE...

Working with archives—both photographic and non-photographic—as an artist and as a photography researcher, I am often involved with archives very practically, even literally working with their physicality. But every now and then working with existing archives, exploring what is stored there and what is missing from them, facing the power structures that shape these archives inevitably leads me to thinking and trying to comprehend the whole concept of these archives and the archive in general. Like in the case of my ongoing work with Soviet repressive archives stored in Ukraine, which had brought me eventually to the art project that re-frames and re-conceptualises the role of photography in these archives and in the Soviet repressions altogether. My approach to archives has changed a lot over the years. Nowadays, I am more used to either creating my own archives from scratch around some new, moderately crazy frameworks or approaching them with existing ideas but instead discovering something there which is much more fascinating and switching to this new line of work, completely discarding the original ideas that had brought me to those archives in the first place.




© Andrii Dostliev, Lia Dostlieva, I still feel sorry when I throw away food – Grandma used to tell me stories about the Holodomor, 2018.



© Andrii Dostliev, Occupation, 2015




ON THE LAST 10 YEARS...

My practice was triggered when my hometown in Eastern Ukraine was occupied by Russia-backed separatists in 2014. The loss of my family photo archive and the understanding that the same has affected many other people exiled from Donbas and Crimea were the starting point of my artistic interpretation of archival materials and the idea of an archive as such. In turn, this event has brought me into memory and trauma studies and eventually brought my whole artistic and research practice closer to archive and archival photography.

© Lia Dostlieva, Andrii Dostliev, An unduly restrictive view of salvation (Vinnytsia Limbo), 2019.




ON ARCHIVE FEVER...

I would say that mostly I do not suffer from archive fever—at least according to the incredibly helpful diagram drawn by Oliver Bendorf [2] for those who, like me, do not care much about psychoanalysis in general and are too lazy to actually read Derrida’s books.



ON DISCOVERIES IN THE ARCHIVE...

I’ve been working a lot in the past two years with the archives of Ostarbeiter—the forced workers from Eastern Europe in Nazi Germany—researching, among other things, the ways of appropriating hostile landscapes that they have discovered themselves in. And by accident I came upon a fascinating (even though not directly related to Ostarbeiter as such) picture taken by Ukrainian soldiers in Berlin in 1945 in front of the Reichstag—to commemorate the victory over Nazi Germany, no doubt. But to make the picture even more “memorable” its owner had written with black ink on the photo print over the Reichstag facade the word ‘RESTAG’ in Cyrillic letters—as if it was a shop sign of some sorts. Just a peculiar detail which I don’t know yet if I will be even using anywhere.




Archival Image





POST SCRIPTUM

I’ve written these answers before February 24th. And then Russia started the war. And the words failed me. All my experience and my work appeared to be completely useless in the face of the missiles flying toward my homeland. All of my plans that were related to Ukrainian archives became invalid—but that doesn’t even matter anymore compared to all the deaths and destruction brought upon Ukraine. And I just cannot leave all my answers—written what seems now like ages ago—to your questions without this note. — Andrii Dostliev


 

[1] Marianne Hirsch, The Generation of Postmemory. Writing and Visual Culture after the Holocaust, Columbia University Press, 2012, p. 5.



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