Just ten years ago, the national identity seemed to have become obsolete. It was awfully inappropriate to say “I am French” or “I am Russian”. The enthusiasm related to the former glory of one or other nation vanished when it turned out that all that heritage is absolutely worthless in the new world, where people are constantly transforming throughout their lives. However, by the end of the 2010s, a new wave of national identity washed over the world. With no irony or no critical distance. The previously oppressed nations have risen and inspired at once those who were anything but expected at this festival of national renascence – the power nations that made the world shake. We started hearing people say “I am Chinese” and “I am American”. Now it has become inappropriate – I would say, even impossible – not to identify oneself in any way in the table of ethnic groups, cultures and state entities. But seriously, we did not return to the 19th century.
Then why all these national antics? Is it a sort of a global cosplay? Maybe, after all, this second awakening of nations has some kind of historical relevance, practical worth, or, at worst, applicability in the national economy? Scientists are arguing, journalists are disputing, emotions are running high on social networks. They cannot find a clear-cut answer. And here the pot holder comes to the rescue. It is a simple yet perfectly symbolic object. It protects hands from the fire when they are engaged in the ancient art of cooking. That is exactly what is expected from the perfect nation state – to take on the function of protection while citizens are peacefully doing their business. Peace and quiet. Decorated with the colors of the national flag, as in Olga Bozhko's project, the pot holder allows you not only to define your identity but also to get quite definite benefits from it, here and now – day after day. Even with football fan scarves, created to clearly distinguish no less imaginary identities, this does not work – they are certainly scarves, yet they are rarely used to keep warm. But Bozhko's pot holder demonstrates a strong and harmonious union of the symbolic and the practical. You can even take it with you to a manifestation. Let's imagine: hundreds, thousands of people marching and smiling, waving their pot holders with, for example, a Chinese flag. It looks like reality. Now imagine the same with Czech, Danish, Moroccan flags... Unexpected, but quite realistic.
And since, according to the recent events, the national question is here to stay, shall we focus it on similar areas? At least, it will be useful. In the art of cooking, despite any globalization, the ethnic trace is strong. We understand well when people talk about Italian, Indian, Japanese cuisine. So let the kitchen space itself be a national reserve! Just imagine visiting your friends and seeing the pot holder with a Georgian flag hanging next to the stove – you can get straight away that within these four walls there is a culinary consulate of khinkali, phali and khachapuri. That's good. You can get a stamp in your passport at the entrance. Meanwhile, the neighbors have a German pot holder and a queue for sausages in their kitchen. And they pour beer – everything is clear. We just have to choose which gastronomic tour to go on. Stereotypes in this case even seem to be adorable. And may no national question with conflicts and claims of the past, no insults to the feelings of ethnic groups, and definitely no “great power chauvinism”, go beyond the walls of the kitchen! But I wish it was only about the new nationalism – as the artist shows, everything is much more serious. Recognizable symbols of the Soviet project are being reconstructed for the tenth time. The emerging post-Soviet rituals – from official St. George ribbons to protest emblems – are on air. Every day we are invited to join one or other party which suggests, in particular, the adoption of a certain set of symbols. A filter (attitude) for a profile picture, a sticker (worldview) on a laptop, a T- shirt with a slogan (accusation), a graffiti (challenge) on the way home – all this is so ubiquitous that no flags can compete with this amount of political declarations. You cannot hide, you cannot run away. The key question is how to live with it. Well, the same way Rimbaud answered and the same way Olga Bozhko repeats in her project: day after day.
The boundaries of political world were extensively pushed towards the kitchen in the art of this century – from the revolutionary years' constructivism and propaganda porcelain to the contemporary feminist works. Kitchenware was featured in some of the most radical works of American Second Wave Feminism, like Martha Rosler's “Semiotics of the Kitchen” and Judy Chicago's “The Dinner Party”. In Ilya Kabakov's paintings, albums and installations, the kitchen was included in the narrative as an intimate and therefore the most vulnerable part of Soviet communal life, where the essential features of social contradictions were manifested. The kitchen was a special phenomenon of Soviet culture. It was a place where neighbors practiced “trash talking” as well as a meeting point with friends for important intellectual debates. It was in the kitchen that the individual fantasies of Soviet intellectuals were fused into the amalgam of collective desires, and fragile individual freedom acquired a solid support in the collective belief in its authenticity. The question “Whose Fly is This?” (the title of the painting) acquired the universality of representing collective dramas that were hidden behind the walls of the “personal” space.
But kitchen, as it was understood in the “classical” period of conceptual art, is also a space where the relationship of dominance and power was manifested. Martha Rosler's video questioned exactly this side of kitchen life, expressed through dark humor of a woman's despair in the face of social stereotypes that demanded obedience to her intended role as a kitchen maid. Rosler studied how stereotypes of obedience are translated into the language of popular TV shows for “good housewives” and then go back to private space in the form of an implicit narrative of obedience. The stereotypes and mechanisms of gender dominance were the focus of feminist art in the United States and Europe in the 1970s. The feminist movement though did not develop in the unofficial Russian art, so conceptualism took on the role of creating works on symbolic representation of the obedience mechanisms. Kitchenware can be found in the props of “Trips out of town” by the Collective Actions (CA), in the series “Courses in Self-defence against Objects” by Vadim Zakharov and Victor Skersis, in the works of Elena Elagina. Elagina's “Within the Limits of the Beautiful” is an elegant play with the language, in which everyday objects reveal the political meaning hidden in them, indicated in red color, with all its official connotations. Margarita Tupitsyna interpreted this work as a metaphor for “the incompleteness of a feminist project, stuck in the “kitchen reality”. After Perestroika, the kitchen theme crystallized in the long-running project “A Reading Housewife” by Maria Chuikova, which, in fact, fulfills the long-standing dream of an unofficial artist of transferring the art debates from a private space to the institutional space of an art gallery – and was essentially the first example of the aesthetics of interaction, before the term itself appeared.
“Every kitchen maid” is a fragment of a popular phrase attributed to V.I. Lenin that was distorted in the liberal mass media as an example of the absurdity of socialist utopia. It is usually pronounced as “every kitchen maid should rule the state”, omitting not only the context of the entire article, but also the keyword “learn to”. Lenin's article “Will the Bolsheviks retain power?”, where the metaphor with a kitchen maid was taken from, was devoted to the need for self-governance of simple workers who were called upon to learn how to rule the state so that the state as a repressive apparatus could disappear.
A kitchen maid is a woman whose profession is to take care of a family. In a traditional patriarchal society, the caregiver is the most repressed figure at the bottom of the food chain. The kitchen maid was a servant in poor families, while the rich ones maintained cooks. It is in this connection that Lenin mentions the kitchen maid, saying that all workers should be taught self-governance – and self-governance should, in theory, destroy patriarchal hierarchies based on the suppression of the weak by the strong. “Learn to rule” means that governance should as well be delegated to those who take care of others. In a society more perfect than ours, affective labor will be rightly seen as highly paid and prestigious, and this has been one of the main focuses of the present day Feminism.
And from this point of view, the works by Olga Bozhko hold a special place since by their very technique they declare that they belong to affective labor, labor of giving care. Knitting is, by definition, a care-giving technique: women knit clothes to keep warm and please their loved ones. But it is also a technique available to a female artist who does not want to stop caring for her family while she is working as an artist. You don't need a workshop, an easel or a loom for knitting, assistants are not required; you can create knitted works everywhere: at home, in the hallway while waiting for your child to come from a music class, on the road.
Bozhko's works are soft and have a warm texture, yet their themes are radical; and these themes are rooted in the tradition of Moscow unofficial art. Like Soviet Pop Art artists, she displays the clichés of official propaganda in its modern twist. On the floor there is a rug in the colors of St. George's ribbon, under the ceiling there is a rainbow lampshade with letters that form the word “freedom” when walking around it. A rainbow “in the sky” and a nationalist symbol on the floor – here you can see an allusion to ironic “Paradise” and “Hell” of famous Moscow Conceptualism artists. But you can also be surprised at the boldness of the direct expression that these works carry.
On the wall there are bright pot holders in the form of state flags and a red scarf with white letters “Right to the Left” in the manner of the Soviet Pop Art slogans. This is a flip-flop slogan, the key to all the works of this exhibition. The St. George ribbon, which two decades ago retained the symbolism of pure heroism, the readiness to sacrifice oneself for others, in modern Russia has acquired the connotations of nationalism and obedience. The rainbow, a biblical symbol that, it would seem, should be supported in every possible way by the state in which Orthodoxy plays an important role, turned out to be actually prohibited. It is remarkable that in the UK, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, residents hung children's drawings with a rainbow in their windows in support of workers in the National Health System. Meanwhile, in Russia, the production of rainbow ice cream was banned.
But kitchen is not only a territory for manifestation of hidden political contradictions – it is also a space where, even for a while, fears and prejudices disappear. “Olga Georgievna, it is boiling” sounds neutral and calls the viewer to become a collaborator in filling the work with emotions – in the entire spectrum from irritation to friendly participation. A knife can be a weapon but you need it in order to prepare delicious food and feed your friends. The radio can be turned on or off in order to have heart-to-heart talks with you loved ones. And here is a St. George's ribbon, cozily rolling up in a ball at the feet in the form of a rug: the stripes are ultimately just stripes, and the flags of various countries are a decorative ornament for pot holders. And only the rainbow lampshade remains itself, floating over the kitchen/gallery space; its symbolism has remained unchanged: from the ancient times till now, the rainbow has symbolized hope and freedom – for everyone, without exception.
(Elena Zaitseva, September, 2020)