Post-Soviet DIY: An Interview With Belarusian Artist Alexey Shlyk

 

The title of the “New East” is problematic and has many undercurrents of colonialism. Yet, due to lack of a better term, the so-called New East has been defined less so by a particular aesthetic, than by the organic nature through which it emerged – despite the absence of state or NGO support. At its basic level, the likes of Gosha Rubchinskiy, Coals and Dina Oganova have emerged as a consequence of an unadulterated desire to create and re-imagine that reality.

Minsk-born, but now Antwerp-based, artist Alexey Shlyk, looks to address that remarkable capacity to be innovative and creative, particularly under dire circumstances, exemplified by the early post-socialist years. His series Appleseed Necklace looks to address that remarkable DIY culture of his native Belarus. Speaking of his work, he says: “I am talking about creativity, craftsmanship, diligence, and typical recycling that were natural to the people living in conditions of constant shortages. It was a time when one either had to find a way to snatch what was needed, or to make it out of the accessible materials.” Although his work revolves around home-made items, it raises many questions about an increasingly vibrant technological scene in Belarus, and a post-Soviet culture that tends to be lead by self-starters and people willing to take a chance.

We spoke to Alexey about his work and the concept of DIY in the post-socialist world.

 

You speak about the nostalgia that you feel towards these designs in Appleseed Necklace and the culture that they emerged out of. Though recently there has been a growing interest in craftsmanship, such as woodwork and leather, they have been byproducts of bourgeois interests. Can you speak about your nostalgia for this period? Do you feel a certain loss because of the bourgeoisization of DIY culture?

I find the role of DIY culture that I am talking about in my series to be very important in shaping the culture of all post-Soviet countries. I think that this craftsmanship and resourcefulness are wonderful skills that Soviet people learned during that period and those qualities are definitely peculiar for the region. As I was born in the mid 80s, I have learned a lot from my dad about how to fix things, how to come up with creative solutions in everyday life and how to reuse available material. Of course, every piece that was built or repaired had a special story linked with it and that is something that I feel nostalgic about.

Today we live in a world dominated by mass-production and it is very easy to find anything you might need or imagine online or in a shopping mall. But in many cases those objects lack a “soul” and tenderness of the creator and there are fewer people who have the knowledge for a certain craft. So in my opinion all that is creating a growing interest in hand-made.

 

So much of the Belarusian historical narrative has been based upon the trauma suffered by seemingly every generation. In contrast, your work in “Appleseed Necklace” almost whimsically reflects upon how Belarusians have contended with this turmoil, specifically with the collapse of the Soviet Union. Do you feel that your work is a more positive interpretation of how Belarusians contend with struggle?

I have mixed feelings towards the living conditions in the late 80s, early 90s and I think that you can see that it my photographs. I always try to learn from events and, being an optimist, to find positive sides them. In ‘The Appleseed Necklace’ I am trying to highlight skills and creativity that were obtained in the Soviet period – those qualities became typical to people of the region. Despite the great turmoil of the ‘perestroika’ era, people were still creative enough to adapt to the changed life values. Knowing that there is always a solution, they could dream big, and now those people are forming a middle class and the rich.

Much of your portfolio deals with the issue of design. Projects like “Faceless,” “Brain Fashion,” and now with “Appleseed Necklace” looks to diminish the corporatization of fashion. Do you believe your work holds a critique of consumerism?

Indeed almost every series I produced was started as a cultural research, but in the final form it becomes an open dialogue with the viewer, a proposition to discuss. I hope that through my photographs I am able to touch wider topics and more important issues.

So in “Brain Fashion” I offer different ways to look at shoes – fashion objects that are so common to everyone that they no longer belong to fashion, but rather become an abstract idea. In “Faceless” I am deconstructing a classic fashion shoot to its original purpose to show the dress but I am leaving out everything else that normally creates the atmosphere – emotions of the model, the space that she is in, even the model herself to some extent.

In “The Appleseed Necklace” I am re-staging some stories that are related to the fashion industry, as it was also important to look good, and to be stylish. But I don’t think that it is a direct critique of consumerism in this case, it is a reminder of another possibility or of an alternative lifestyle, that is based on up-cycling and creativity. But I do think that we all can be more selective with what and how much we buy, and even more about what we throw away just because it is a little bit damaged, for example.

One of the most intriguing trends in recent years has been Belarus emerging as a center of technology. Apps like Viber and games like World of Tanks were created by Belarusians, which has caused the High Tech Park to be labeled ‘Eastern Europe’s Silicon Valley‘. Is this a consequence of the constant shortages suffered by Belarusians and the need to be inventive during the post-Soviet years?

Just before the Soviet Union collapsed Belarus was an important center of computer sciences, and microelectronics. And a lot of today’s professionals were studying at that moment, so the knowledge and curiosity were passed on. Of course it was a special time at that moment – when a lot of new was coming in, and business was just starting. Everyone was trying to be inventive, as nobody knew what was possible, and how it would be to live in a new world with shifted social values.

Some people were dreaming very big (and I think it is contagious) – so a lot of people succeeded. I think that this blend of time with its new possibilities, together with knowledge, creativity and purposefulness were the causes for the development of those big companies. And of course the most important part is good ideas!