Title: Ukraine: Post vs Proto Renaissance
Artist: Oksana Mas
Curator: Achille Bonito Oliva & Oleksiy Rogotchenko
Venue: Chiesa di San Fantin & Campo San Stae
Developed from the custom of painting wooden eggs in traditional decoration during Easter, Oksana Mas attempts to reclaim the sphere as a geometric space holding within itself a principle of oneness. Mas distributed the eggs and asked a number of inmates in women’s penitentiaries, intellectuals and people working in various fields from more than 42 countries to paint them.
Ancient and modern art combine, embracing stories of sins and dreams of redemption. The iconographical reference to the Van Eyck brothers forms the basis for the work. Taking parts of the Ghent Altarpiece, Mas recreates it with her 3,640,000 eggs. When put together, the eggs create a structure that evokes a mosaic in which the eggs’ iconographic tattoos constitute the single elements. As you step closer to the work, it breaks down as if it were a digital file.
Jemma Craig: You have been working on “Post-vs-Proto-Renaissance” for several years now. Are you excited to finally present it in the Venice Biennale?
Oksana Mas: Certainly it is very honorable for every artist to present his or her country at Venice Biennale. Biennale is a world exhibition, intended not only to display artworks but rather as representative collection that allows estimate contemporary art’s course of development. So artists participating in the Biennale must be daring and without fear offer novice concepts, novice aesthetics, novice solutions, further promoting art development and perfection. “Ghent altarpiece” is a courageous project, “total”, as Achille Bonito Oliva called it, very power- and labor-intensive. In Venice there are only eight fragments presented that is less than 10% of a planned work that will consists out of 303 fragments, its size will be 90 by 134 meters, and it will be made out of more than 3.5 millions of ornamented eggs. The project is coming along and I plan to complete it in 5 – 8 years. But even now the Ukrainian Pavilion hosted by San Fantin church where there are exhibited five out of eight fragments is visited on average by 1600 persons every day, while at “museum night” there were more than 3700 persons. I believe that it is unequivocal evidence of public’s interest in the project. Another installation is located at campo San Stae at Canale Grande embankment where there are three more fragments presented.
The project is very interesting also because every new presentation will be inevitably different because of new fragments added, new exhibition space while exhibition space is very important as light, sound and the soul itself of a space are essential elements of the exposition.
JC: You displayed 15,000 eggs in St. Sophia Cathedral, Kiev. At the Venice Biennale, the installation is composed of 102,000 wooden eggs – which is a monumental installation. Is this your largest piece?
OM: Yes. In Sophia Cathedral I’ve presented the first large scale mosaic made of wooden ornamented eggs. St. Sophia Cathedral in Kiev is one of the most ancient in Europe, it have been constructed in XI century, and preserves its original appearance, ancient architecture, houses the most complete complex of XI century mosaics and wall paintings. It is the outstanding monument of worldwide importance, recorded in UNESCO list of World Heritage. “Oranta” is my gift to Ukraine. “Ghent altarpiece” is for sure much larger not only in size and in number of people involved in its creation, but also in grandeur of Van Eyck primary concept implemented in the original whose modern interpretation I offer.
JC: It seems as though you are heavily influenced with custom and tradition, particularly of Ukraine. Do you feel a sense of responsibility to deliver and represent Ukraine as best as you can?
I have turned to the applied art relatively not long ago, before I used to work in painting and graphics, where I used my own, patented techniques. But I’ve always been interested in finding universal language that is why I looked for symbols that are easily recognizable to any person. The project presented at the Biennale is really based on traditional forms. Mosaic is traditional but this tradition belongs not only to Ukrainian but world culture. The theme of redemption, Good and Evil being also traditional is a global one. Generally it is doubtful whether there exists a topic artists have not turned to yet, so contemporary art task is to find, to create new means of expression, new language that would enhance their recognition by contemporaries. Concerning material of my choice – wooden ornamented eggs – they also do not belong to mere Ukrainian tradition. Ukrainian culture is based on ancient traditions rooting from the same sources that feed the roots of the earliest cultures, of Maya, Persians, India, Egypt… It seems that some time people lived following the same laws, guided by same rules. After the Tower of Babel collapse that is after settling apart, dispersion and disintegration of a mankind people have preserved the memory of this common culture. And superficial divergences in peoples’ cultures are explained by different conditions under which their isolated developments run. Europe geographical center is located in Transcarpathian, Ukraine is a crossroad on a way of the great migration of peoples. So it is not surprisingly that their traditions and cultures got rooted and were preserved here, including tradition of having eggs as an object of veneration, taking them as symbols of fertility and immortality, global symbol of the creation of the world, eternal cycle of death and rebirth. The image of the cosmic egg out of which the world appears is present in the cosmogony myths of the Greeks, Polynesians, Japanese, Inka, Chinese, Phoenicians, Finns and Slavs. In Egypt the hieroglyph designating the egg is a determinative symbol meaning “potential opportunity”. Eggs are often depicted by artists.
That is why it would be a mistake to regard eggs as typical to only Ukrainian tradition. The matter is that Ukraine is one of a few countries where ancient codes of ornaments have been preserved and are still used. In the course of thousands years people invented new images, and have forgotten their old roots, beliefs and knowledge but in the furthermost corners of human memory reminiscences of the old codes are still present and they are easily recognizable. An egg gives rise to four basic elements (earth, water, air and flame) completing them with a fifth – world ether. The colors traditionally representing these elements in the cultures of all the peoples are the same, and this is one more uniting key.
Religion has separated mankind, tore people away from their age-old roots, so in searching for their origin people turn to Buddhism, practice yoga, mantras, in other words to detheistic traditions that allow them to reunite with the Universe. Painting the ornaments on the round egg is a kind of mantra as well for one cannot see the complete picture, it takes concentration and deep immersion to perform, otherwise you won’t get a perfect picture-symbol. An egg is a bundle of energy as a new life arises from it though discussions about the primacy are still on. In India all the birds laying eggs are named “born twice” as hatching out of the egg means second birth. Ornaments on the eggs are energy portals and we have to decipher them.
Sure I feel responsibility for revival of ancient roots that feed genuine Ukrainian culture, for the rebirth and reconstruction of age-old codes. I would like to see my work as an element that incorporates in a contemporary culture puzzle bringing spirituality back. Ukraine is the cradle of numerous significant accomplishments and innovations in all cultural domains, it has produced eminent greats who have enriched mankind such as Nikolai Gogol, Mikhail Bulgakov and Anton Chekhov, Sergei Prokofiev and Peter Tchaikovsky, pianist Vladimir Horowitz and the congenial violinist Yehudi Menuhin, Kazimir Malevich and Kandinskiy, Korolyov and Amosov. In the old times Ukraine, then Kiev Rus, had close economical and cultural bonds with Europe. Prince Yaroslav the Wise and Ingegrda Swedish daughter Anna became the wife of Henri I, king of France and mother of another French king – Philip I. Then for the long centuries Ukraine turned to the shield of Europe protecting it from Mongolian invasion that explains its isolation. Now Ukraine is an independent state seeking to revive its ties with Europe. Culture is an inseparable element of this process.
My project presented at the Venice Biennale is a visiting card of Ukrainian nation soul and spirit.
JC: Venice is a city of high caliber when it comes to art. As an artist yourself, do you feel that there is greater sense of responsibility when it comes to producing your work for the Biennale?
OM: Certainly it is, and being not only professional artist but a bachelor of philosophy as well, I’m very interested in trends in art, persons affecting its progress, as well as tendencies in contemporary art as a whole, including music, cinema, and architecture. An artist, creative personality, who takes part in major artistic events, whose artworks are presented to large number of people, is responsible for the directions of art’s development and influences the process.
I’ve studied modern tendencies in art, and my impression is that the notion of beauty has disappeared from contemporary art; it just states the chaos and disruption, randomness and aimlessness. The beauty is transformed, modified, twisted, distorted and is absent as such. While true beauty makes our brain to pause for a moment and then it restarts from the new level. True beauty is easily recognizable for meeting it once you remember it and realize that it has changed you, possibly, not much, but you have really turned better. Lots of people visit Vatican to see the Sistine Chapel and it is very interesting to watch the spectators. There are whole lots of people, from various countries, of various religions, beliefs, occupations while the expression on their faces is the same. I long for creating just this sort of art. Have I succeeded it is for Ukrainian Pavilion visitors to judge.
JC: Was it your intention to reflect the inmates’ lives into the installation? By requesting their artistic hand, are you hoping that each egg will represent the dramatic destiny of mankind whilst contributing to the monumental installation as a whole?
OM: My first idea had been to ask people to depict their wishes and I was greatly disappointed by results. The wishes are very similar and primitive – home, car, husband/wife, and meals. But the main issue was that nothing happened to people’s thinking. They were just painting their goals. They were doing this just like all the other routine things they are doing every day to reach the goal, like getting up in the morning, cleaning the teeth, getting to the workplace. While another task - to depict own sin, evil, demon, fear, shortcomings – made people think. Searching own soul to find own demon that has to be driven away or the vice that has to be transformed person becomes better and the whole world turns better. Eggs have been painted (and are still painted) by rehabilitation centers patients, inmates of men’s and women’s penitentiaries, pupils of art schools, government ministers, the range is really vast. But when I receive ornamented eggs I am never able to comprehend whose picture it was – of a deputy or a prisoner. This is one more interesting aspect of the project underscoring that eventually there is no deep difference between people despite the differences in conditions of life, level of education, wellbeing. And the sins of a mankind are the same although the variety is much wider than the diversity of wishes. It seems that we are all prisoners, someone in a real colony with stone walls and barbed wire, someone in a handmade prison made of fears, prejudices, restrictions, in an egg shell that has to be broken to be free. Samsara in Buddhism is imaged as an egg, and egg’s shell break symbolizes Nirvana, way out of the endless cycle of rebirth limits. In fact lots of people said that they sensed a feeling of liberation and purification having comprehended own sins. They were interested in getting more information, after ornamenting one egg they wanted to continue as soul liberation is like an avalanche and it intensifies geometrically. There were even people who were unable to paint a picture but it doesn’t matter, for they started to think and their transformation began.
An immense work behind the project, the work of deliberate soul transformation is going on. This process concerns me as well, for when I had seen the pictures on certain eggs I realized that depicted sin is inherent to me as well and started to work over it. It doesn’t matter for which of the fragments the egg is meant, the main issue is the picture on it, the confession. Though it is considered that confession must be performed in secrecy, St. Joann of Kronstadt forced people to confess aloud, to shout out their sins in the church, and such public confession brought relief and enlightenment because people got rid of their sins and understood that their sins are innate to everybody. The problem of human beings is not that they are virtuous or sinful by nature; the problem is that their nature is human. Demons and angels are present in every person. Getting the right balance helps a lot. Possibly mankind has to realize this to change. So one of the tasks of my project is to let mankind cry out all the problems, get rid of demons and idols substituting the angels and I hope this will help people to become better. We’ve even created a devoted website (www.ghent-altarpiece.com), any person whenever he/she is can visit it to leave own picture there and we’ll copy this picture on an egg.
JC: The iconographic reference is the work of the Van Eyck brothers. Would you describe your work as homage to the proto-Renaissance?
OM: Van Eyck’s creation is the first masterpiece of the Renaissance. Famous Italian masters came later. Really in the history of art “Ghent altarpiece” (or “Adoration of the Lamb”) is unique, being an amazing phenomenon of artistic genius, combining absolute design completeness with an opportunity to develop further the ideas offered. Occurrence of this masterpiece is not a casual event. As after the “dark times” as well after any crises we start to think about own self, of what is it made of, when taken out of the cocoon of material success symbols, are there anything behind our souls beside the idols we’ve created instead of a proper values. A crisis is a shock that forces people to think. That is why every crisis is followed by spiritual renewal, renovation. I believe that now we are at the new Renaissance threshold. The door there is opened. Van Eyck laid down the foundations of creation of times to come that are valid in our times as well. “Adoration of the Lamb” depicts New Jerusalem or the heaven on earth, redeeming sacrifice is done, the blood turned to water of eternal life and the humanity is forgiven. The font depicted in the foreground symbolizes revival to a new, better life. The Heaven – common dream of a mankind – is achievable only through heaven and peace in our souls.
I offer my project “Post-vs-Proto-Renaissance” – let everyone splash out own sins, ornament the wooden egg, turning better and making heaven on earth closer.