Katerina Sidorova, 'Bottleneck' at West Den Haag, photo: Katerina Sidorova

Facing cruelty with minimalism – Katerina Sidorova’s ‘Bottleneck’ at West Den Haag

Issue no5
okt - nov 2022
Neo-90s

Born in Russia, Yaroslavl, a city located 200km away from Moscow, Katerina Sidorova is now based in The Hague, where she tries to understand the development of the country towards its current state of authoritarianism and aggression. ‘Bottleneck’, her current exhibition at West Den Haag, is the result of this personal and political artistic process.

A peaceful protest can mark the start of a revolution and signify hope for change. As history teaches us however, it can also lead to the incarceration of many innocent protestors and activists. In West Den Haag, Katerina Sidorova’s exhibition responds to a series of protests that took place from 2011 to 2013 in Russia, as well as to the horrific events that followed up on it: the so-called ‘Snow Revolution’, also known as the ‘March of Millions’. In 2012, protestors rallied against election fraud on Bolotnaya Square -the biggest protest in the revolution.

The exhibition starts off with this spontaneous and peaceful protest that can now be seen as a significant moment in Russia’s turn towards a more and more authoritarian leadership. Since then, there has been a decline in citizens’ freedom, and an increase of governmental control of the press.

Once you realize the situation Sidorova is working in you will understand what motivated her to employ such a minimalist and abstract visual language

Katerina Sidorova, 'Bottleneck' at West Den Haag, photo: Katerina Sidorova

Katerina Sidorova, 'Bottleneck' at West Den Haag, photo: Jhoeko

Katerina Sidorova is an artist and scholar born in Russia, Yaroslavl- a city located 200km away from Moscow. She is now based in The Hague. Her current exhibition is an attempt to understand the development of the country towards its current state of authoritarianism and aggression. Her exhibition highlights other significant protests that have in recent years taken place under the Kremlin regime as well. The artist alludes to the protest preceding the Sochi Winter Olympics in 2014, the protest that took place in response to the annexation of Crimea in 2014, the protests that occurred after Navalny’s arrest earlier this year and finally to the demonstrations following up on the invasion of the Ukraine on February 24th, earlier this year.

It is almost ironic to have a Russian artist present an exhibition that deals with the biggest anti-governmental Russian protest since the 1990s at a former US embassy in The Hague. In a way, Bottleneck feels like a re-enactment of the cold war period, with the USA supporting anti-Russian agitprop. The name ‘Bottleneck’ refers to the police tactic of creating blockages that prevent groups of protesters from passing through narrow streets.

Aesthetically, the show speaks the language of modernism: concrete walls, blue-greenish flags, and red-and-black plexiglass together form a restricted color pallet. The heavy concretes appear to be fragments of a building. The prison-like architecture resonates with the rigid way in which the artist has installed images of the protests. Alongside this grid of images, there is a letterbox, and a masklike sculpture with two surveilling eyes; all of which refer to the connection between the prison space and the freedom that lies outside of it.

By centralizing the exhibition around the theme of ‘punishment’, Sidorova is able to offer a subjective interpretation, rather than an ‘objective’ documentation, of the protests on view. In part, the idea of punishment is present in concrete objects like handcuffs. However, Sidorova also calls to mind more hidden forms of state control, thereby referring to Michel Foucault’s highly influential book Discipline and Punishment: The Birth of The Prison.

Eye-catcher of the show is The Game of Knives, an installation that exists of a sandy playground in the shape of Bolotnaya Square, with four small metal knives stuck into it

Katerina Sidorova, 'Bottleneck' at West Den Haag, photo: Katerina Sidorova

Katerina Sidorova, 'Bottleneck' at West Den Haag, photo: Jhoeko

Eye-catcher of the show is The Game of Knives, an installation that exists of a sandy playground in the shape of Bolotnaya Square, with four small metal knives stuck into it. Red lights and the sounds of an angry crowd’s screams allure to imminent danger. At the opening Sidorova demonstrated how to play the game (in The Netherlands known as ‘landjepik’) by throwing a knife in the sand. If a player manages to have a knife landing vertically in the sand, then she can carve a line in the sand with it, bracketing her territory. In turn, another player then throws a small knife in order to conquer this rival territory. Here, a children’s game addresses the imperialist brutality of Russian politics towards its neighbors that we are witnessing today.

In its minimalistic set-up, the show can only present a fraction of what the Bolotnaya Square protest meant for Russia. If you do not know about the context of the work, Bottleneck may appear simplistic. But once you realize the situation Sidorova is working in you will understand what motivated her to employ such a minimalist and abstract visual language.

Clearly, the artist wanted to address the Russian social-historical context in its full color and maintain her artistic freedom. I am not sure, however, if the modernistic abstract and inherently Western language of the exhibition is the appropriate one in which to address Russian’s recent brutal, surreal and illogical history of persecutions and repressions.

Katerina Sidorova's Bottleneck remains on view at West Den Haag until the 2nd of October

Maia Paduraru
studies journalism at the University of Groningen

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