Claustrophobia: Alexander Kalenik Documents Minsk’s Decorated Stairwells

 

I grew up in the nineties in an old five-story apartment block on Angarskaya Street in Minsk. In the 90s it was a ghetto, famous for gypsy drug dealers and all sorts of gopnik gangsta shit. In those years, the only kind of “décor” you would see on the walls of the stairwells would be cave art of a quite thersitical nature. It was where I would learn most of my offensive language from while discovering that “Nirvana rules,” “Rap sucks,” and who I needed to call if I was looking for “some fun”.

On Angarskaya Street, it seemed more logical to install a double door to your apartment than bring something of your own, even a lonely fading plant, out to the common area of the stairwell. Even the light bulbs on the staircase would mysteriously and insistently disappear. It felt like no matter how hard you may try to upgrade and humanize this living space, everything you bring or do would be either stolen or ruined. Or alternatively, someone would immediately express their opinion about it on the wall in a form more permanent than any of your shy attempts to improve the place.

Now I am living in another block on the same street, and the only ‘decoration’ of my stairwell so far is an eloquent caption on the front door claiming “Nikita is a Jew.”

A few years ago however, I was renting a place in downtown Minsk, in one of the Stalinkas near the state circus. There, in a large and spacious stairwell, begonias were in blossom and there was a small bench on our staircase where I would often share a smoke with a genteel old lady from the apartment next door. The walls were decorated with unimaginably large floral collages looking pretty much like the real verdures – only in keeping with the best traditions of the authentic post Soviet kitsch. I never asked that old lady who had hung them there and what it was in honor of – and it’s one of the very few things about my life that I kind of regret.

Minsk photographer Alexander Kalenik does ask this question, however. Only not to the babushkas next door, but to himself. Having discovered claustrophobia within himself while living in a typical box-like apartment block, he started the namesake photo project, exploring why and how people decorate their stairwells: living spaces, phobias and how to fight them according to the inhabitants of the multi-dwelling houses in Minsk (and how appropriate these means of fighting are)– this is what we are going to reflect on.

 

You say your project is not so much about the aesthetic, but more about the psychological vision of space. And the thing is that the people that try to make their stairwells look nicer are driven not so much by the need for self-expression, but it is more of an attempt to tackle their own phobias by making the cold and faceless space more “home-like”. So, it is sort of helping to expand the boundaries of “home” (read: the space that is safe), right? Is that how you see it?

You know, yes. Because actually, what we see in the stairwells or near them – the man-made murals, cutout shapes or professional wall art – for many is quite far from being an example of some exquisite taste or a source of aesthetic pleasure. Let’s be frank, it’s all cheap amateur art. And how appropriate it is in a social space like a stairwell, is a big question.

When I was starting this project I sincerely believed that such creative initiative was powered by the people’s desire to seize at least a bit of that coziness and colors they leave behind in their homes when they go out into such a trivial and depressing stairwell (and most of them are trivial and depressing).

But the more I shoot, the more I see and believe that this occurrence is not some means of fighting against phobias, and is not really aimed at the satisfaction of people’s aesthetic needs. From my standpoint, it is about the individualization of space, the transfer of its form from social to more personal.

I am sure that not all dwellers of those stairwells are sincerely fond of those mice and cats painted on the walls, or plants and curtains on the windows. So it’s more about people willing to expand their personal space at the cost of the social. Maybe it’s time to reconsider the name of my project, in fact.

 

In Minsk, we have those wide avenues and large squares but most of us actually live in absolutely claustrophobic box-houses. Why, do you think, there is so much space in the non-residential areas, but so little room provided for the living space?

It is common not only for Minsk, I believe it is a global thing – it seems there is a lot of space, even too much of it in the city, while people have to dwell in cramped boxes. But the business centers and administrative or status buildings occupy huge spaces, though they don’t bear any vital value for the common people. Maybe this is happening because some people are still trying to prove something to somebody. Alas, the burden of paying the bills for such ambitions falls on the shoulders of those who don’t want to prove anything, but just want to live properly and in comfort.


Your project is dedicated exclusively to stairwells. But I often notice that people also try to improve the yards as well. I guess, you must have seen all those decorative swans made from car tyres and palm trees constructed out of plastic bottles. What kind of phobia are we dealing with in this case? Is it also an attempt to seize a bit of space from the surrounding greyness?

Yes, of course, I’ve seen it. I can tell you more, the entire front gardens under the balconies on, it should be noted, “common land” can be occupied by somebody’s old toys, painted plastic figures, etc. Such observations lead me to only one conclusion – it is an attempt to steal a piece of personal space. I’ve basically described it in the first question.

 

I recall the stairwells of my 90s childhood where the only wall art you could see would be offensive captions left by the local young gopniks. Any other forms of decoration at that time seemed kind of unthinkable without the fear that the fruits of your endeavors would be stolen or ruined. What has changed today? Is it the general cultural context? Have people become kinder? Or has it just become safer since the arrival of intercoms?

I believe, it has nothing to do with the intercoms. To my mind, people now are trying so hard to survive and, if possible, live a proper life that they actually don’t care about what is happening around, they just don’t want to get involved. It’s like we all are wearing blinds, and I wear those blinds too. And snatching a plant already implies a certain degree of involvement. And getting involved nowadays is unfavorable.

 

Apart from the psychological, the aesthetic side of this topic is also of interest. The photos from your project represent very different options – from complex murals and orchards to some obvious kitsch, which, to my mind, is incredibly touching in its awkwardness. The thing is, some of it was clearly supposed to look nice, but de facto ended up looking quite creepy instead. What do you feel about such kind of kitsch?

You know, I feel pretty much the same. I don’t find any aesthetic value in this occurrence. What I do find, is that I or a girl next door just have to look at these images because they have been imposed upon us. And we face them, because somebody has satisfied their greed for space at the cost of a common wall.

 

After your project I felt like I wanted to go and paint some big cosmic mural on the walls of my own stairwell (not sure whether my Babushkas next door would appreciate it though). Do you try to fight claustrophobia by the same methods?

No, I fight against my claustrophobia with the help of a glass and a few of my favorite drinks. More seriously, I don’t want to fight it, I have a strong feeling that I just want to leave. Not because the life here is shit, or people suck, but because I’m missing the sun- it’s as corny as that. I just love the sunshine, it’s simple.

 

Claustrophobia is about the fear of closed spaces. And what do you feel about the concept of personal space? From my standpoint, this concept has been completely absent in our post Soviet system of values; practically until now. What value does it carry for you personally and do you try to find a reflection for it in your work?

I do value personal space, not only physical, but psychological as well. As for the physical perception, in Belarus, many people that surround me seem to have no clue that it exists at all and keep on shamelessly interfering, be it on public transport, in a queue at an ATM, or in a cargo elevator. I don’t know how to explain it, but it feels unpleasant. As for the psychological aspect, to me this personal space means certain beliefs, feelings and memories that I want to keep to myself not having to share them with anyone and cutting out any attempt to break in – from this point of view I am lucky, because the people that surround me understand where I stand on this and keep their noses out of it. I’m not looking to find any reflection of it in my work.

 

Do you think Belarusians in general are more prone to claustrophobia or agoraphobia? If we look at it from the point of view of how we organize our space?

I am asking, because I am more inclined to believe in the second option: I think I don’t know any people other than post Soviet with that kind of passion for all sorts of fences, hedges and enclosures. They are being erected for some reason even symbolically, even where they don’t bear any functional load. Where does this love for delimitation of space come from? Or maybe it’s not love, but the fear of the spaces that seem too open?

You know, I wouldn’t take on the responsibility to claim that all Belarusian are agoraphobic, but looking into our history, I tend to believe there is something to it. There is a certain trend for fencing ourselves off, staking our claims. However, at the same time feels like we have the understanding that this certain piece of land that I, that guy, or someone else has fenced in is something that we are responsible for, something that needs to be developed, secured and taken care of. And this formula, I guess, applies not only to the inanimate objects or space, but to people as well. And that’s the positive side of this occurrence.

 

Have you ever caught claustrophobia in old apartments?

Practically all flats of my friends and relatives that I recall from the childhood were always full of some huge impressive furniture, and nearly all the drawers or shelves would always be stacked with items and things most of which were hardly ever used at all. Playing hide and seek in such interiors was quite a lot of fun though, but do you share the feeling that people would somehow deliberately create such claustrophobic spaces in their flats that even without it could be called anything but spacious? As if a living space was not for living but for accumulating more things in it. Why? What for?

I’m sure this is very personified. In my life I have met very few people with such tendencies for accumulating stuff. It’s very individual and is not some kind of a global tendency within Belarus. I feel the same about hoarding – it’s all very individual.

 

 

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