By Liubou Hauryliuk, MASTACTVA art magazine, issue 2/2022, pp. 6-9.
Visual arts / Belarusians abroad
‘Who is Anna Skoromnaya?’
I have to admit, the first time I saw Anna Skoromnaya’s name was on an Italian poster – and not just any poster, either! The idea of a young Belarusian artist at the Arte Laguna Prize exhibition – one of the world’s most influential contemporary art competitions – at the Arsenale of Venice was very exciting and, naturally, grabbed my attention. Every year, over 10,000 works (this year there were around 12,000) by artists from every continent are assessed by a prestigious international jury. The selection process is divided into three stages: the entries are narrowed down to around 350 in the first stage, then roughly 200 in the second. In the end, across all ten categories, only 110 artists are invited to take part in the exhibition at the Arsenale.
I met Anna virtually – as is the norm these days – and was taken aback by how seriously the artist approached our conversation. The end result is a story of success, one which comes as no surprise given the amount of work she has put in: endless study and practice, experience of living in another country, and mastery not only of the various aspects of contemporary art, but also the vast cultural landscape that surrounds us in the first quarter of the twenty-first century. This is also closely tied to her preferred genres of multimedia and video art, which involve research, experimentation and brand-new technology.
Has the Arte Laguna Prize acted as a stimulus for your art, and if so, to what extent, and in what context? Tell me about your new Venetian project and the competition itself. Has anyone from Belarus ever taken part before?
Being named as one of the ten finalists in the Video Art and Short Films category acted as a major stimulus for me to further my career. Being the first representative of Belarus to be shortlisted as a finalist and to receive a Special Prize in the Arte Laguna Prize’s fifteen-year history, and having the opportunity to represent contemporary Belarusian art at an international level, in a competition like this and in one of the most special and sought-after exhibition spaces in the world, gives me enormous satisfaction.
The Arsenale is an amazing place… How did you manage to integrate a contemporary digital project into such a grand and historic space?
The Arsenale really is one of the most unique and evocative exhibition spaces in the world, not only because it is home to the Venice Biennale, but also because it is exceptionally beautiful. The combination of history, tradition and style creates a unique atmosphere, and exhibiting my work there was one of the most exciting things I did last year. The Arte Laguna Prize finalists’ exhibition coincides with the last two months of the Biennale, and so provides an opportunity to attract the attention of the hundreds of thousands of visitors to the Biennale from around the world. This is why the prize is so important, and provides a springboard for each participant. The project of mine the jury selected began life in 2018, when I was preparing my solo exhibition at the CUBO museum in Bologna. I had been offered two large rooms, one of which was a fully equipped media centre, including countless monitors, sensors, audio systems and software. I decided to create a giant 9 x 3 m digital work, Sweet Corner, specifically for the space and only viewable for the three months of the exhibition. When Sweet Corner was selected for the final of the Arte Laguna Prize, I realised that as well as being an incredible opportunity, exhibiting at the Arsenale of Venice also posed some serious technical challenges. On the one hand, I had an amazing opportunity to redesign the project almost from scratch to adapt it to the new space (a site-specific installation!), but on the other hand, creating an innovative project, including a vast range of technologies, some of which I had never used before, was a tough job. However, it also provided me with a great source of inspiration, and I was very happy with my work as a result.
Can you tell me more about the concept and expressive language in your projects? Have they developed over the years?
My main interest lies in themes related to the contradictions and paradoxes of contemporary society. In my first series of works, SOS CODE (2014), I began analysing people’s relationships and living conditions, reflecting on their lack of communication and focusing my attention on the mechanisms used to condition and exclude ‘Others’: individuals who are perceived as being different. In my next series, KINDERGARTEN (2017), I sought to continue my research, looking in particular at how, in spite of our technologically advanced society, there are still countless examples of exploitation of the most vulnerable and defenceless individuals in society, including children. Working on these themes helped me to develop an expressive language that not only focuses on the contrasts and contradictions, but actively highlights them. In recent years, using this language, I have honed a combination of two types of tool: innovative digital media, including some unique technologies I have developed myself (holograms, video and dynamic images created with various pieces of software and computers) and intentionally contaminated materials (such as rust and physical and chemical corrosion). The video installation Sweet Corner at the Arsenale brings together my videos depicting different aspects of child exploitation: from child labour – a modern form of slavery – through to the use of minors by pseudo-religious terrorist organisations as soldiers in armed conflicts, as well as the topic of child brides and the barbaric ritual of infibulation. The idea was to create a stark contrast using two different layers of communication: thirteen individual scenes played on a single, recurring loop, accompanied by the gentle sound of a music box, yet highly dramatic. The panorama of the play area is peaceful at first glance, but spectators then find themselves confronted with a radical contradiction between an ideal vision – also evoked by the title Sweet Corner – and the cruel reality. Interestingly, the title can also be translated into Belarusian as ‘sweet table’, and this too has a figurative meaning, adding extra depth. Like the entire series, the work draws attention to the issue of how modern society, blinded by its technological progress, continues to exploit people just as it did in the Middle Ages: this exploitation is initially invisible, but has deep roots.
‘Digital technologies represent our age. And they represent me’.
Do you think new technologies represent the language of the future? They are clearly very important to you now.
Technology has always had a special place in my world. I remember how, in the early 1990s, innovative technologies like personal computers kept on appearing in our homes, and we realised that all these new devices could really change our lives. I recall my joy when the first video camera, audio equipment and notebook appeared at home, followed by my long-desired first Macintosh computer. My decision to use new media in my work is linked to these distant emotions, and also because I believe they are the most representative tool for our era. They allow me to express myself in a more dynamic and multisensorial way, which I find not only modern, but also closer to my artistic sensibilities. Technology was already an integral part of my practice when I created the SOS CODE series: I began researching and experimenting with LED light as soon as I graduated in painting from the Academy of Fine Arts in Florence, as I wanted to go beyond static images, which always felt restrictive. I created my first series of multimedia works using a completely original technique I named Dynamic Lightbox: the movement of the embedded LED light causes an optical illusion, so the figures in the images appear to move and constantly change. I used sound to add the finishing touches to the works, and at the same time to provide spectators with a multisensory exploration of the artworks’ theme. In the KINDERGARTEN series I introduced holographic technologies, including some innovative tools, in addition to the embedded monitors, transforming my works into video sculptures and video installations. I feel it is important that Sweet Corner, the work selected for the Arsenale, is a fully digital project, designed for ten monitors, each of which plays its own segment of video. Every minute, a special piece of software synchronises the monitors, so they become a single, large video wall, measuring 7 x 3 metres.
Are you interested in more traditional exhibitions, and in particular group shows? Why do you think they are so important?
Solo shows provide great opportunities: they enable artists to provide a broader display of their expressive language and cover a certain period of their work. The biggest challenge with group exhibitions is creating a well-balanced show that also highlights the unique traits of each artist. This harmony can only be achieved if the curator succeeds in finding an invisible common thread – a subtle, unbreakable connection – between the varied and diverse pieces of art. This requires great curatorial skill, and an ability to position works harmoniously within the exhibition space. When done successfully, artists can enter into dialogue with their colleagues’ work, with other topics and with other forms of artistic expression, which can obviously enrich each of the artists’ work and promote their development. This year, owing to the pandemic, two years of the Arte Laguna Prize finalists’ exhibition were displayed together, meaning I was part of a fruitful partnership between the exhibitions’ respective curators, Igor Zanti and Matteo Galbiati. They have organised international competitions and curated major exhibitions both in Italy and abroad for many years, and this year they did an excellent job once again. As an artist, I really liked how the three-dimensional installations invaded the space, complementing the two-dimensional art on the walls and reinforcing the unique nature of each artist’s work. I would say that a successful group exhibition encourages spectators – and the artists themselves – to reflect on the current state of art, and highlights its variety in the most surprising areas.
‘My universe is a globe’.
Could you draw your own personal map of Italy for our readers?
I was born in Minsk, and lived there for 22 years, but I have now been based in Italy for fourteen years, and it has become my second home. My journey around Italy began in Florence, the city of art. I chose the city when I won a scholarship from the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs while I was still studying at the Academy of Fine Arts in Minsk, giving me the chance to graduate from one of the best academies in the world. I created my first series of works, SOS CODE, in which technology played a decisive role, in Sanremo, a seaside town best known for hosting the Italian Song Festival. Later I was offered a position teaching painting and drawing at the Academy of Fine Arts there, a role I still hold eight years on. Some of my works have been displayed in nearby Monte Carlo at the famous Yacht Club, where I also had the honour of meeting Albert, Prince of Monaco in person. I took part in group shows in Slovenia and Prague, and my first solo show (2017) ran for three months over the summer at Must Gallery in Lugano. More recently my workload has increased, and the geographical spread of my new projects has widened: it has, of course, been a great thrill to have my work exhibited not only in Italy – in Milan, Turin, Bologna, Trieste and Venice – but also in other European countries, and recently in China. In 2021, as well as the Arsenale, I was chosen to take part in the JCE (Jeune Creation Europeenne) Contemporary Art Biennale where, following an initial exhibition at Le Beffroi de Montrouge in Paris, my work was then shown at the Museu de l’Empordà in Figueres, Spain and the Amadeo de Souza-Cardoso Municipal Museum in Amarante, Portugal. Because I won an Arte Laguna Prize Special Prize, one of my works was displayed in the major exhibition Art Nova 100 at the Guardian Art Center in Beijing, which came to an end on 31 December 2021. And in the last few days I have just received some more excellent news: I have been shortlisted for the Exibart Prize 2021. I now live in Genoa, where I have opened a studio, and go there with a spring in my step every morning. My goal for the new year is to keep my inspiration and enthusiasm burning bright, and to carry on creating new work.
‘Cultural differences provide a precious opportunity for knowledge’.
One poster shows you representing Italy. Does this mean you have turned from a Belarusian artist into an Italian artist?
I think a balanced approach is best. With an unusual life trajectory like mine, it is very important not to concentrate on cultural differences and variations in mentality and education. Instead, we should treat differences as a precious opportunity to gain a broader vision of the world. That is how I found my training: it brought together various approaches and ways of looking at art. When I arrived in Italy, I already had an excellent grounding in drawing, painting and composition, acquired first at Minsk Art College and then in the Faculty of Graphic Art at the State Academy of Fine Arts of Belarus. This academic knowledge was fundamental at every stage of my later studies; indeed, even as a lecturer at the Academy of Fine Arts in Sanremo, I still try to pass on the principles of the Russian and Belarusian school of drawing and painting. I particularly enjoyed the composition course at the academy in Minsk, and I still remember my teachers Vladimir Savich and Valentina Sidorova with gratitude. Composition is one of the creative tools I now use constantly, not only in two-dimensional art, but also when putting together three-dimensional works and video sculptures. Perhaps that is why the Academy of Arts in Yunnan (China) invited me to run a series of workshops on the topic of Composition in contemporary art. The Academy of Arts in Florence, meanwhile, provided me with an entirely different range of knowledge; here I could concentrate in particular on just one big question, which one of my old painting teachers once asked me: ‘Who is Anna Skoromnaya?’ This question led to a process of reflection and ultimately to my realisation that the content and concept and one’s ability to create new forms of expression are just as important as how well executed a drawing is. The constant experimentation opened up new opportunities for me. These two different educational experiences, various cultural influences and my active involvement in the international art world have given me a deeper understanding of contemporary art. When the JCE Contemporary Art Biennale jury committee chose me to take part in a series of exhibitions in seven different EU countries, I felt doubly honoured, both as an artist from Minsk who had the opportunity to take part in such an important art event, and at the same time as a representative selected by Italy, a country that in some ways is the birthplace of the arts.
1. Anna Skoromnaya
2-3. Sweet Corner. Video wall, 10 Full HD monitors, audio. 2021. Arte Laguna Prize 2020-21 finalists’ exhibition, Arsenale of Venice. 2021.
4. Solo show Anna Skoromnaya. KINDERGARTEN. Childhood Denied, Unipol CUBO museum. Bologna, Italy. 2018.
5. Sweet Carousel. Video and audio. 2021.
6. Popcorn Machine. Holograms, matte and gloss plexiglass and audio. 2017.
7. Cotton Candy Maker. Painted iron, 2 Full HD monitors, fabric and audio. 2018–2019. JCE (Jeune Création Européenne) Contemporary Art Biennale. Paris, France.
8. Homeward. Lambda print, dynamic lightbox and audio. 2015. CBM Prize finalists’ exhibition, Art Salon S Gallery, Prague, Czech Republic. 2016.
9. Detail of the videosculpture Cream Hand Mixer # 2.