Lithuanian Culture Research Institute
Department of Contemporary Philosophy
Arts as a Tool of Re-envisioning the “Normality” in Pandemic Times
“I don’t know why we are here,
but I’m pretty sure that it is not
in order to enjoy ourselves.”
“Perhaps his demons were quite other”.
Anthropocene as new bell epoch is a valuable change in a human’s relationship with the environment. There are questions that are more important. How much human being is the guilty and arrogant in his relations to nature? Pandemic is one of the strong and dangerous calls for global humanity. How are artists responding to the pandemic? As the coronavirus forces us to endure an unprecedented time of distant social contact, art can remind us of our interconnectedness, and solidarity. The artistic images and artifacts return catharsis on the place of simple pleasure and enjoyment and unclouded hedonism. For artists and audience, the art in the pandemic times created the specific kind of emotions that often associated with the individual’s past, which person was repressed or ignored.
We use such notions of Guy Debord, as the situationist, and Walter Benjamin’s the aestheticization and spectacularization for reconceptualizasion of aesthetic and artistic images. Debord in his book The Society of the Spectacle (1967) shows the contemporary role of mediation in social, cultural and artistic practice. Guy Debord wrote, “what characterizes the spectacle is that it exists in a regime separate from everyday life… The spectacle is not a collection of images; it is a social relationship between people that is mediated by images” (Debord 1997). The notion of a spectacle is its relevance to the present time, notably by its utility in the construction of critical art’s theory and practice. “Media or art critics usually understand art as a spectacle, as an activity conducted by individuals who produce fetishes, which corrupt peoples’ fantasies and emotions. The art object is constructed as a paradox or as a question without answer” (Żmijewski 2001). Mila Kolisnyk’s artifacts are artistic and social visualization of pandemic timer’s emotions and atmosphere.
In referring to pandemic times visual art and street art notably beginning to be the rebellious territory, which shows the atmosphere of decline and social collapse. The feeling of necromancy and existential anxiety, the charm of deformed and strange bodies created its new semantics, destroying borderline of socio-cultural conventions, transforming the human body in the eyes of the public into an object. The visual pleasure and emotional terror are only part of them. Contemporary global public discussion about pandemic restrictions are assonant with Michel Foucault’s “disciplined society” concept. “Underlying disciplinary projects the image of the plague (Coronavirus in our case. B.N.) stands for all forms of confusion and disorder; just as the image of the leper, cut off from all human contact, underlies projects of exclusion” (Foucault 1995: 199). The fragmentary and unfinished representations of the visual artefact give us many opportunities to understand and interpret new ideas, which can often be in conflict with each other. While this may create intellectual and emotional tension, it also enables us to examine the source of conflict in interpersonal relations.
Body as such becomes a visual element for of phenomenological and new materialistic approaches, emphasizing the body’s materiality, and researching new dimensions of intersection between the human and non-human world, the environment and social arrangements. The method of research-assemblage allows them to connect the bodies and matters from the view of posthumanism, focusing on a conception of power and its relation with body. “All bodies, including but not limited to human bodies, come to matter through the world’s iterative intra-activity its performativity… Matter itself is always already open to, or rather entangled with, the “Other” (Barad 2007: 392–393). In our case, representing Mila Kolisnyk, we have deal with attempt to deconstruct bodies.
From my view, her heroes look as outsiders, aliens and others, which non-stabile existence finally destroyed by pandemic but, perhaps, they first time in their lives, felt global destroying of world and order to which they never belonged. They struggle against “the normalization of the representations”, against the circulation of certain discourses, which legitimize the social reality they are not living in. In fact, visual artefacts of pandemic times are mostly reflected this post-human reality and its catastrophic ecological consequences.
Next aspect or question are how much feministic these artifacts and how important gender’s matter in this case. From my view, despite the apparent strange eroticism of deformed figures, we are talking primarily about the destructive existence, which has no gender, age and ethnic origins. The body’s dynamics, gestures, lowered shoulders, face’s grimaces – everything indicates a clash of personal expectations and global chaos. The artist share out with their own characters fear of unclear future, environmental crises, deserted Manhattan and Williamsburg.
Not every painting tells a story; sometimes it is barely a static image. Which tools can artists use to create a story or message that stimulates emotions, or to avoid art commodification? Every artist in their own way tries to create a unique metaphorical image that will tell their visual story. Our experience of contemporary art is mediated by text, knowledge of the artist’s previous work, and our own visual archive.
Mila Kolisnyk’s own visual archive is taking shape from her childhood in Ternopol (Ukraine), arrival to New York, growing up, study and carrier’s creation. In my interview with American-Ukrainian artist Mila Kolisnyk she explains her path to the visual art in pandemic times. (Interview Mila Kolisnyk & Basia Nikiforova, summer 2020).
The old life. “It was the year Soviet Union collapsed, so I grew up in a free state. An idea that was heavily emphasized to us in schools and at home. Meanwhile the streets reality of the 90s looked a lot different. It was dangerous, and criminalized. I don’t think we ever lived, but we did learn to survive fairly well. Around 2000s, we were lucky enough to win Green Card lottery, as a family. Two years later, we found ourselves packing bags and heading to New York with endless amount of hope and enthusiasm”. (M.K.)
The new life. “What followed were shady brownstones of Brooklyn that looked nothing like the movies. Almost complete absence of green spaces, suffocating summer heat, but supermarkets filled to the brim with brightly packaged goods. Enthusiasm quick slammed against the wall of alien language, strange people, and new rules. . I went through Brooklyn Public High School that left me scarred and hardened from interactions with immigrant children from every imaginable corner of the world. I used to cut classes all the time, especially English, and hide in the library with a book of Russian classics. Sometimes my best friend managed to ship books in Ukrainian and that was a special treat. I resented integration and romanticized my homeland. I remember my parents would not let me go visit Ukraine for 7 years. They were afraid I would not come back”. (M.K.)
Mila Kolisnyk. Cossack (2020). Acrylic on canvas.
Carrier in ruin. “In yet another act of defiance, I started acting sensible. I received a Bachelors degree in Finance from a prestigious city college Baruch, and I began climbing the corporate ladder. Because I figured that’s what you’re supposed to do. I was able to obtain a fair amount of success, fairly quickly and began adding titles and promotions to my resume for about seven years. All along feeling resentful towards the goals I was chasing. The insides were brewing until finally the lid just snapped open. I quit my job in November 2019, and mopped around in my prestigious Williamsburg apartment for about two months. Until, I started painting just to keep my hands busy, and hasn’t stopped since”. (M.K.)
Mila Kolisnyk. Makeover (2020). Acrylic on canvas.
Impulse of painting. “It is possible and easy for me to identify my impulses to start painting as negative. It was out of desperation, feeling of confusion, and loss of direction in life that I sought a new medium of communication. Art became a pivotal outlet and delivery tactic. Canvas created a platform that words failed to support for many years. The fact that some galleries responded positive, and agreed to represent me was beyond my comprehension. I thought they were either blind or stupid, and just went along with it. Painting became almost like a garbage disposal for my headspace. It might sound disgusting, but it is meant to reach people with similar problems and hopefully provide a safe space to acknowledge and deal with contradictory feelings”. (M.K.)
Mila Kolisnyk. Patience is a virtue. Probably (2020). Acrylic on canvas.
Pandemic time. “After pandemic began, my impulses to paint grew even larger. After going through a turbulence of changing occupations, life style, daily routine there followed even more uncertainty, health scare, and panic from people. In a way, it was liberating because now it was a collective panic. It wasn’t just me screaming inside my head. It was a massive amount of people just losing their wits. I felt like I was preparing for this my whole life, to now be the hermit that anchors and provides fear survival kit. The beauty about art, it is the most stabilizing task with limited demands. It doesn’t have to be canvases with paint brushes, it can be a piece of paper and a pen (which I often do when away from my studio), and you’re already in another world that you’re creating, and you’re always in control. It’s escapism definitely, but if balanced properly can be healthy and healing. I guess, pandemic took away all the distractions from me so that I could heal. That’s how it feels”. (M.K.)
Mila Kolisnyk. Oh no, your face is gone (2020). Acrylic on canvas.
Loneliness. “Loneliness definitely, we’re all alone just constantly surrounded by others. This wasn’t a new concept for me, but seems like pandemia has brought this realization mainstream. I tried working on a “commercial project” that would be cheerful and it didn’t work out as well as my other “dreadful” pieces. I think people feel honesty. And as an artist, there is a responsibility to speak truth. Fear is a great emotion to exploit, its highly responsive. And as I mentioned, I have a life long acquaintance with it, and as such consider myself qualified to identify and represent it. Hopefully, I don’t have to be too ethical. Every time I start a new piece I feel excited, and nervous. Nervous that I will fail and it won’t work out, and I’ll be identified as fraud after all. But then I just show up every time. For an excellent piece, mediocre piece, unfinished piece. I work fairly fast, almost compulsive, I’m not sure I have feelings when I work, it’s pure concentration. All I know is when I’m done, I feel tired and empty. But a good empty, like cleaning closet”. (M.K.)
Mila Kolisnyk. Smoke break (2020). Acrylic on canvas.
Tiny dogs. “Being born in a tiny, proud country forever gave me a syndrome of a ‘tiny dog that never grows up’. In other words, I’m always ready to stand my ground (maybe sometimes too excessively). Growing up as an immigrant in Brooklyn gave me a lost identity, no longer there and not quite here. I think, the term ‘home’ is forever lost on me. Question of female role in current times is also something fascinating to me. Having transitioned from a traditional family values to being raised by Brooklyn streets that applaud, and breed independent women. And the notion of ‘normalcy’ which I could never ever comprehend. Probably direct reason a lot of my paintings are about freaks”. (M.K.)
Mila Kolisnyk. Hope (2020). Acrylic on canvas.
“I started painting right before the pandemic, and when that happens you quite literally see the world differently. I started noticing shadows, human features, colors all in a completely new way. And I was super, I mean super, upset that now with this new found vision I can’t visit any of the museums, and galleries. There are plenty of virtual incentives now, I am actually working on my fourth joint exhibition with Van Der Plas Gallery in Lower East Side, NY. And aside from the usual in person display they are creating a 3D library that stays accessible for a year. It’s a great way to keep artists engaged and working, as well as possibly changing the Art Market forever. I think it’s important to stay flexible, if it takes moving countries or changing careers”. (M.K.)
- 2020 August. Under the Mask: Metamorphosis exhibition @Van Der Plas Gallery
- 2020 July. Pigmentonline.org Art Magazine July publication with cover feature
- 2020 June. Colors, Shapes & Shadows exhibition @ Van Der Plas Gallery
- 2020 May. US Quarantine Art Contest 1st place Winner sponsored by @weknowcity and @startshows
- 2020 April. NY Stories 2 Art Exhibition participant hosted by @startshows (cancelled due to virus)
- 2020 March. Joint artist exhibition @AW Gallery, Las Vegas
- 2020 February. Ongoing representation agreement with @Zigguart.official online gallery
- Barad, K. 2007. Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning. Durham, London: Duke University Press.
- Debord, G. 1995. The Society of the Spectacle. New York: Zone Books.
- Foucault, M. 1995. Discipline and Punish. The Birth of the Prison. Trans. by Alan Sherida. New York: Vintage Books.
- Żmijewski Artur (1998), Eye for an Eye. © Artur Żmijewski, courtesy Foksal Gallery Foundation. http://artmuseum.pl/en/filmoteka/praca/zmijewski-artur-oko-za-oko [accessed: 05.09.2019]
Vilnius, September 2020
Basia Nikiforova is Doctor of the Humanities (philosophy), Associate Professor, Senior Research Fellow, Department of Contemporary Philosophy in the Lithuanian Culture Research Institute. The areas of research are European cultural and religious borders, tolerance and the image of body in Lithuanian visual art. The author of more than 100 publications.