Andrew Miksys divides his time between Seattle and Vilnius, Lithuania. His photography has been shown internationally including exhibitions at the Seattle Art Museum, Vilnius Contemporary Art Centre, and the Maureen Paley Gallery. He has been the recipient of grants from the Guggenheim Foundation, Fulbright, and the Aaron Siskind Foundation. Through his publishing imprint ARÖK he has self-published three books BAXT (2007), DISKO (2013) and TULIPS (2016). His work has also been published in several magazines including VICE, HOTSHOE, DAZED and The New Yorker. He has also collaborated with several fashion brands including VETEMENTS, Gosh Rubchinskiy, and Helmut Lang.
The name Belarus can easily be deciphered as White Russia. The evocation of the color white in the name of the country summons an image of an achromatic, unpopulated, snowy landscape. In the art of cartography, “white places” came to epitomize the unknown areas of the world, regions ready to be named, explored, charted out, divided, colored, and conquered. White, then, is the first shade in imagining space, the unsoiled canvas where geography—the narrative of place—is set into motion. On the map of the Soviet Union, though, emptiness suggested the finality of the narrative: faces and places condemned to oblivion were brushed out, with whiteness camouflaging the act of disappearance. The sentence of white, however, implied the likely existence of the erased, and in the grey fog of Soviet uniformity this meant the openness of memory.
Belarus is a new state, yet upon arrival one can immediately and unmistakably place it within the colors of the USSR. Sites and sights all around tell the story of a bygone era: red stars, sickle and hammer, Lenin, Marx, collective farms, Red Army memorials, standards calling for the unity of the proletarian world, portraits of the dear leader. The country can be easily taken for a museum of Stalinist antiquities or a well-preserved archeological site of socialist realism. A renounced, discarded world—but alive and budding. Once you crack the ideological code of stale Soviet propaganda or became disenchanted with the idea of wandering
back in time, Belarus opens up as tabula rasa, a place emptied—whitewashed—by the history of Europe. Modern Belarus is a forlorn child of World War II, celebrated in the Soviet Union as the Great Patriotic War. For centuries, White Russia has been a variable terrain of regional differences: peoples, religions, cultures, traditions, histories, and memories. Proportionally, no other country in Europe lost more people during the war than Belarus.1 And while the war bled the country of its colors, the following decades of Soviet amnesia took away its history, leaving Belarus a pale spot—blanched—on the map of Europe.
Miksys ventures into this outcrop of Soviet iconography with the eye of a trickster, searching for signs of intimacy and memory in a land of grand delusions. In Belarus, Soviet-style celebrations and repressions are not things of the past, which makes picturing Belarus a tricky proposition, for the space between permissible and forbidden is very narrow. Framing this slivered landscape requires mastering the art of persuasion and the ability to revive the personal within the frames of the official. Miksys builds his Byelorussian itinerary as a conceptual maneuver, following the ideological formulas of mass celebrations of Soviet history in expectation of finding memories of the present. He shows us the hollowness of history—the aftermath of the ersatz Soviet celebrations—and three generations of women.
Looking at their triptych, I am haunted by the missing—unrecorded and eroded—faces of Belarus. White Russia is a province of women, albeit not one where they hold significant political power. Women dominate Belarus in numbers:2 as a rule (and not just because of the war), men have been expiring at a much younger age, leaving women the sole inheritors of memory and family ties. Still, history in Belarus is habitually presented as the official fiefdom of men. The white landscape between history and memory— public and private, war and peace—is best captured by the disappearance of women from the ruler’s family portrait. The president of Belarus, renowned as the last dictator in Europe, was raised after the war by a single mother. He has been married for almost forty years, but his wife was quarantined from the media in the remotest spot of Belarus as soon as he usurped power. Galina—the wife—is tacitly acknowledged as the First Lady of White Russia, yet no picture of her has entered the world. An eremite of the communist order, she is known only in name (and vague biographical sketches): no face, no history, no color. The president has three sons: two with Galina, and a younger one (still a child but already being publicly groomed as his successor) with a phantom, presumably of the female variety. The mother of this heir ordained has never been officially identified. Reportedly, the leader has no daughters—thus perhaps, no woman’s memory to carry his name.
1. Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin (New York: Basic Books, 2010), 251.
2. See National Statistical Committee of the Republic of Belarus, www.belstat.gov.by/homep/en/ indicators/population.php.
Andrew Miksys was a Light Work Artist-in-Residence in August 2011. For more information on Miksys and his work, visit his website at www.andrewmiksys.com.
Laimonas Briedis holds a PhD in geography from the University of British Columbia and is the author of Vilnius: City of Strangers.