Nikolay is from Odesa. He is currently walking down the streets of Brussels, the capital of Europe, and tells me about an exhibition he is planning for Prague. I’m in the historically cosmopolitan city of Palermo, where cultures have always mixed. I don’t hear him very well, but looking at the Norman-Arab penetration of the local architecture, I fully understand cultural appropriation, which Nikolay tries to outline to me through his works.
Although against the background of our phone call, a little more to the east, there is a war, we can continue to move freely across the European area. Sometimes the hand on the imaginary geopolitical weights of polarity shifts a little further east, sometimes more to west. At the same time, it is becoming increasingly difficult to determine where the East begins and where the West ends, whether the Orient still exists and, standing in opposition to it, the Occident. Or whether it is better to see it through the concept of ‘nesting orientalism’ introduced in the 90s by Serbian theorist Milica Bakic-Hayden about possible fluid ‘orientations’, as each culture considers its neighboring regions to the east and south to be more primitive, and therefore there are gradations of ‘East’.
So we are currently in Prague, in the middle of Central Europe (Wikipedia actually defines Central Europe as consisting of nine nation states with Prague as its center), which we could at least for this exhibition consider as an oasis, a mobile laboratory in which to experiment with colonial perspectives.
One of the objects exhibited is a lightbox ‘advertising’ Estern Union and which gives the name to the exhibition. It does not refer so much to the political organization of the EU as to Western Union, the company which is a hundred years older. WU does not engage in the transfer of ideas or cultural capital, but in international money transactions. Trans moments, moments undergoing a transformation, can often be found in the work of Nikolay Karabinovych – in the form of transits, transcultural exchanges and translations.
In a similar way as the art group Slavs and Tatars who focus on Eurasia, Nikolay works with language and cultural references to create new connections between seemingly disparate concepts. He freely deconstructs known structures and leaves space for play and error. He uses the exhibition space as a laboratory in which he engages spectators to reconsider their views, to alter how they see things, whether it is through ready-made objects or direct references drawn from Western-established art history, appropriated and newly interpreted.
An important component of most of Nikolay’s projects is also music. Cover versions of well-known songs defining historical eras are a functional artistic tool to stimulate the senses of the audience and through their own musical interpretations allow them to see deeper structures conditioning the origin of the composition or its cultural references.
The lightbox Estern Union gives the exhibition its name. A recreation of a deliberate or non-deliberate error on a lightbox designating a branch of Western Union that allows money to be transferred across countries is a linguistic game referring to the generally common phenomenon of spelling mistakes and words, letters lost in translation. At the same time, however, the Arabic inscription for money transferring is left here, which for most Western Europeans represents only a graphic synthesis of ornament and is for us an index of the Orient.
The photographic assemblage of the black-and-white image of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul allegorically shows how easy it is to annex territory. Since its completion in 537, Hagia Sophia had been the most important Christian shrine of the Eastern Roman Empire. A thousand years later, after the conquest of Constantinople in 1453, it became a mosque and then secularized during the 20th century during Ataturk’s reign and functioned as a museum. In 2020, Turkish President Erdogan signed a decree transforming the Temple of Divine Wisdom (once a church, later a mosque) into an Islamic mosque with a daily five calls to prayer. In his collage, Nikolay Karabinovych refers to the historical ideal of the Russian Empire, where Constantinople, straddled between Europe and Asia, ranks together with Rome and Moscow as a church epicenter and the fictional transformation of Hagia Sophia into an Orthodox church is an ambition that would confirm Moscow’s coveted position as the Third Rome.
And the Smoke of the Motherland is Sweet…is a poetic title inspired by a poem by the Russian writer Lermontov, referring to the colonization of the Caucasus in the mid-19th century and a place of exile for many Russian prisoners. This hybrid ready-made is a combination of a samovar, which is traditionally associated with Russian culture but has spread throughout Eastern Europe, with the shisha hookah spread from India throughout Asia and the Middle East. Although it is a non-functional object, it clearly refers to other, often very sophisticated, historical objects which were created by mixing the traditions of different ethnicities. However, it is necessary to remember that the colonial influence of other cultures also often ends in failure and useless pasquils.
Wind of Change
Wind of Change is a song by the West German rock band Scorpions, recorded for their eleventh studio album, Crazy World (1990)…[and in this recording Nikolay whistles over it]. The power ballad was composed and written by the band’s lead singer Klaus Meine following the band’s visit to the Soviet Union at the height of perestroika. With estimated sales of 14 million copies sold worldwide, Wind of Change is one of the best-selling singles of all time…The band presented a gold record and $70,000 of royalties from the single to Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991, with Soviet news sources claiming the money would be allocated to children’s hospitals.
The song is the subject of the podcast Wind of Change, released 11 May 2020, which raises questions regarding the song’s origin. Patrick Radden Keefe, the New Yorker author and host of the podcast investigates the allegation that the song was written by or connected to the Central Intelligence Agency, citing a rumor originating allegedly from inside the agency. In a Sirius XM interview with Eddie Trunk on 13 May 2020, Meine stated “It’s a fascinating idea, and it’s an entertaining idea, but it’s not true at all.” In December 2020, Deadline reported that the podcast will be adapted into a television series for Hulu directed by Alex Karpovsky.
As of 2022, the Scorpions still perform the song live but with lyrical changes in light of the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine. The opening lines are changed to “Now listen to my heart / It says Ukraine, waiting for the wind to change.” Meine stated, “It’s not the time with this terrible war in Ukraine raging on, it’s not the time to romanticize Russia.” (source: Wikipedia)
Collective Action Group
This hammock contains a quote from Andrei Monastyrski’s book: “I do not complain about anything and I almost like it here, although I have never been here before and know nothing about this place.” but in the visual form of a protest slogan. It is a cult work of the participatory art group Collective Action Group (Kollektivnye Deistvia), which, although operating in Moscow, its founding members were Ukrainian artists who could not study in Kyiv. The participatory art of the 1960s and 1970s, created under the Soviet Marxist-Leninist regime, was a strong opposition art form, although it avoided direct political confrontation. The CAG group included later important personalities of Russian conceptual art, such as Ilya Kabakov and the poet Lev Rubinstein. An event displaying a red banner with this inscription was held up in a snowy landscape on the outskirts of Moscow in 1977 and became one of the group’s founding events.
At that time, the CAG, which recently celebrated its 45th anniversary, had only 4 founding members. Although the number of CAG member has since increased, in the history of art it is the group with the longest continuity of work.
By transforming the political protest banner into a hammock that suggests leisure and rest, Nikolay Karabinovych deconstructs the work, giving it new content and, above all, functionality. Although it ceases to be legible, it is suddenly possible to really ‘rely’ on the propaganda slogan.