At Arm’s Length
As the old grey owl hoots, all vanity turns to dust. – Derek Jarman, Grey Matter. Chroma. A Book of Colour (1993)
It was Anna Škodenko who lent me Derek Jarman’s book from which the above quote was taken. In all the time we have known each other, she has also given me lots of music and video files as well as movie and show recommendations. You rarely come across people who delve into and get excited about things as passionately as Anna does. There is no room for vanity in her openness and warmth; every rustle, suddenly noticed movement, sound and cry instead sharpen her sense of life and beauty. Not to mention the cultural experiences that inspire and encourage her, helping her cope with the burden of making things overly complex, which is so characteristic of Anna. Associations with emotions related to real life and their parallels from philosophy, literature, music, theatre, film and art that constantly swirl around in Anna’s mind feed but also destroy each other. Breathing in some of them, she breathes out others at the same time. Conscientious, helpful and trusting in everyday life, yet restless deep inside and open to unexpected challenges, Anna sees contradictions and tensions as something extremely productive in her work, taking her from feeling to knowledge, and through self-denial onwards to achievement. “And this is precisely the link to Beckett,” Anna says, speaking of the 2014 group exhibition focusing on painting, Can’t Go On. Must Go On, “… so only movement that is aware of its own incapacity or has gone through self-negation can take a step forward, and not merely repeat the things that it has already come through.” (1) Four years later she spoke about the works submitted for the Köler Prize as follows: “I start by writing, I explain, I describe … and I do not read it through. At some point, I get tired of text, and the text turns into a picture, a character … Only then can I start thinking abstractly /—/ Odradek comes to mind, /—/ who can’t even be liked, who has no meaning. /—/ When all hopes disappear /—/, a productive moment arises, the feeling that I am not alive /—/.” (2) Like Odradek, who moves in intermediate spaces, Anna too prefers intermediate states, grey zones where every distinction is clearly visible. “I absorb and process all types of things in relation to the problem I explore until they both fulfil and exhaust each other, allowing something else to emerge. I always aim to reach the point where there is only one possible pathway to proceed. /—/ It is a longing for a kind of liminal situation, where there is clearly nothing left to say, and also nothing can come after, but you are still making choices and keep on moving.” (3) Bold and ambitious on the one hand, yet extremely modest on the other, Anna sets herself the seemingly impossible task of expressing something that is almost non-existent or cannot be subordinated to the will to express. She willingly puts herself in the background, taking on the role of a silent observer from the shadows, as if the personification of “I’m no longer alive”: “My purpose is to record, remember, locate, fix something. /—/ The only exertion in strength and will is the attention paid to things and phenomena: readiness and the desire to notice, receive and probably lose later on”. (4) Even when we are talking about Anna Škodenko’s solo exhibition, it seems to be a small part in some larger whole. However, this real and true whole that reaches beyond the exhibition space, which Anna longs for, is the size of an entire world order – clearly impossible to fathom, but irresistibly beautiful. Giving up is not an option, and so she approaches the goals set in her artistic work step by step, inventively and consistently. Anna’s attempts to illuminate different aspects of the big world are almost always successful, and the results are unique even when the artist realises that the light beam of her torch is inevitably limited and her attempts inescapably repetitive. “There is that profound certainty in the uncertainty,” she says in her best interview, the title of which, Solidarity, Uncertainty, Sensitivity, superbly characterizes the person interviewed. (5) When stumbling upon something interesting and unexpected in her research before the exhibition, the artist begins to develop it further. New trails of thought create new formal solutions. Canvas, plexiglass, metal, blackboard, faux leather and spatial installations are the base materials for her works; drawing, sculpture, video, voice, word and sound, oil, chalk, 3D pen, burin, camera and recorder are her tools. It’s a lot, indeed, but luckily Anna is educated and manually skilled; she doesn’t shy away from technical problems or grateful adoption of what others have done. Her huge advantage is her realist attention to detail in both thought and formal expression. Her Russian mother tongue and cultural background drag her into the unknown; Western rationality and aesthetics keep her from branching out. Most importantly, she is able to present her weakness for the exploratory and theoretical as self-sufficient artistic expression. In such a symbiosis, the grey mundanity of Realism acquires the potential to become silver. Sometimes I would like Anna to be simpler, happier and easier to understand, so that her hidden feelings and accumulated knowledge would leave more room for unequivocal, simple sincerity. But then it would no longer be Anna – an artist for whom, in her inherent discovering, nothing comes without thinking or effort. Instead of trusting the big picture revealed in fragments, she always strives for more, aiming for the whole through self-transcendence so intensely that this is precisely what these fragments accessible to the human grasp – that is, her works – express.
(1) The title of the exhibition refers to Samuel Beckett’s novel The Unnamable written in 1950. https://arhiiv.err.ee/video/vaata/op-kunst-169575
(2) This is about Anna’s installation The whole thing looks senseless enough, but in its own way perfectly finished and makes reference to Odradek, the strange protagonist of Franz Kafka’s short story The Cares of a Family Man. https://kultuur.err.ee/828394/vaata-dokumentaalfilmi-ekraaniproovid-koler-prize-ile-2018
(4) Press release of Škodenko’s solo exhibition “[field], which is nearly pure” in Hobusepea Gallery (2016). https://sirp.ee/s3-pressiteated/anna-skodenko-hobusepea-galeriis/