Grigory Sitnitsa: ‘Art should use the language of art’

[b]Creative unions have existed for a long time. Anyway, in the second half of the 20th century — during the Soviet Union existence — these were quite influential organisations. However, national creative unions continued their existence even later — on the post-Soviet territory. Belarus has not become an exception. The Union of Artists has been the most mass in the country for a long time. Its congress was held just at the very end of last year. At the congress Grigory Sitnitsa was elected as a new Chairman of Belarusian Union of Artists public organisation. He has held a post of the first Deputy Chairman for last six years. We had an interview with Grigory Sitnitsa.[/b]
Creative unions have existed for a long time. Anyway, in the second half of the 20th century — during the Soviet Union existence — these were quite influential organisations. However, national creative unions continued their existence even later — on the post-Soviet territory. Belarus has not become an exception. The Union of Artists has been the most mass in the country for a long time. Its congress was held just at the very end of last year. At the congress Grigory Sitnitsa was elected as a new Chairman of Belarusian Union of Artists public organisation. He has held a post of the first Deputy Chairman for last six years. We had an interview with Grigory Sitnitsa.

[b[The 21st Congress of the Union of Artists appeared to be rather resonant. How do you think, why it was so?[/b]
It was resonant because part of the union members — no more than 20 percent, refused to subordinate to statute norms of the union for some reasons. The statute reads the following: the representation for the congress is decided by the council. Thus, the council has made a decision. It voted and chose the next variant of representation: one — from four. By the way, we raised this quota. Earlier it was one — from five. However, it is not easy to gather all. It means to put up big sums of money for rent of the hall, hotel, as well as journey. If not to gather the congress — it means to waste this money. That was the problem. That’s why, as it is said, we adhered to the letter of the law. And when our opponents disagreed, they applied to the auditing committee. Meanwhile, the auditing committee confirmed absolute legality of actions. We even took special explanation in the Ministry of Justice, just to be on the safe side. In total, it is necessary to observe all accepted rules. If you entered the organisation and signed documents confirming that you were familiarised with the statute and undertook to fulfil obligations — so do it. If you do not agree with the rules, you can leave the organisation or change the rules. Thus, it was offered to submit offers into the statute, because congress has the right to change these rules. Then we will live by new rules if the majority supports them. All people are hot-tempered and impulsive. Several meetings were wrecked as well as the last one. It was like ‘pseudo-Maidan’. And I say at once — we do not need any ‘Maidan’. We will cope with problems without it. It is necessary to sit down and come to an agreement. Some people at the congress even tried to carry out provocation. They called their supporters to attend the congress. Thus, according to the statute, people have the right to participate in it, even without being elected. However, they created a ‘group of chanting’. Any remark was met with sudden exclamation.
There was an offer: to recognise all those who had come at the congress as delegates. But the idea was ludicrous. After all, 80 percent of the Union supported the quota — one from four. Then I explained that if we follow this appeal, the Ministry of Justice won’t simply recognise the congress, because it means unequal representation. In the end, common sense prevailed.

Probably, some behaved too bodacious at the congress while literate people should not behave like this. However, there were also sensible offers, weren’t they?
Certainly, there were a lot of good constructive speeches and wishes. When I put myself up for the post of the chairman, I told about my plans, taking into account reasonable offers. First of all, the issue is how to preserve the organisation. Nowadays we have unfavourable conditions: both economic, and others. Moreover, moral environment is not always good. However, the improvement of moral environment is very important for me. So, when I was elected I said at once: I thank all who supported me, but I also understand those who did not. I assured that I would try to be a chairman for everyone, regardless of whether they support me or not. It is necessary to find mutual understanding with everyone. After all, there are problems which are common for all. First of all, it is the expansion of co-operation with state institutes. It is obligatory, since we all represent a public organisation. Without co-operation with state bodies it will be very difficult for us to survive. Furthermore, it is not reasonable. We work for the benefit of our nation and national culture; eventually, we represent the state. Wherever we exhibit, especially abroad, and whatever private projects we have, an artist is always a representative of their state, country and nation. All this is very important, and we should realise it. However, we would like to have a corresponding support, though we have certain preferences from the state. Certainly, everyone would like to have more of them, and I am not an exception either. I will discuss and try to achieve what I need. First of all, our biggest problem is payment for workplaces in creative workshops, especially during winter. After all, it is very difficult to understand (for example my workshop is on the 9th floor) why water from the 8th floor, rising in my workshop, suddenly increases in price — almost tenfold. It cannot be so; after all, I am not a tractor plant. We do not ask for easing for our particular organisation and for our unitary enterprises. We ask for individuals. I, certainly count on co-operation with state institutes in this and other issues.
When the Palace of Independence was being built, our union and our unitary enterprises were entrusted with it. More than 15 artists worked there. I think that we fulfilled everything brilliantly; we did everything that was required in time. And, as it is said, we want that all these be estimated properly. We are ready to co-operate at any level, we are ‘state people’, if it comes to that. None of us is a private entrepreneur. Even the most private artist is anyway a representative of the state.

What preferences does the Union have today from the state?
First of all, we have a reduced coefficient for rent. Part of the workshops belongs to the Union of Artists, and we do not pay for rent, only for public utility services, though they are very expensive. As far as the workshops which we rent from the city are concerned — nearly 150 —we have to pay for rent there. We have a reduced coefficient, and it is really big support because those who do not have it, pay much more. However, we need to pay the value-added tax and it goes specifically on exhibition activity and on everything that is connected with exhibitions. Thus, we cannot say that we are forgotten by the state. State order is also financial support for us: both for our unitary enterprises and for particular individuals.

You stood for elections, probably, guided by experience, since during the last six years you had worked as the First Deputy Chairman.
Certainly. I will tell you exactly: if I had not worked here, moreover, if I had been by myself, I would be afraid to do that. I would never saddle myself with a lot of such responsibility. It is a hard job, and, unfortunately, it is rather thankless.

After being elected as Chairman you said that the main task of the Union would be aspiration to preserve the organisation.
Of course.

Nevertheless, what do you mean by saying this?
At first, it is necessary to once again remind members of the organisation that they have not only rights, but also responsibilities. Each member of the organisations of the country, of any collective, should fulfil this: at least to pay fees in time, at least to pay for a workshop in time. After all, there are huge debts which we, scraping the bottom of the barrel, return into the Union. Moreover, the Union pays for everyone in one day, and after that an artist returns the expenses of the Union. Here an artist is like a subtenant. However, we pay for everything at once. The simplest way is to improve discipline. It does not mean to make everyone stand at attention; however, in order to survive in difficult conditions, it is necessary to be disciplined. It is necessary to observe those rules which we all have recognised and accepted. I will demand this from everyone. I will try to be more demanding to chairmen of the sections, to the auditing committees and to the Presidium in order that they worked more actively and that there were fewer such problems. In this case, certainly, the organisation will be stronger. It is also necessary that people remember about moral responsibility for their actions. Maybe, we will create such commission and invite the most authoritative and most respected artists to become its members. These should be such people who could tell me if I do something wrong.

Much has been said about household problems of the artists, particularly, about their difficulties with keeping workshops. For certain, these are important issues. However, is it possible that somewhat different appeal of the speech was lost behind them, e.g., the role of an artist in modern society? For whom does an artist write pictures and make sculptures? Whether these things are in demand today? Whether they correspond to expectations of those people who are potentially ready to buy works of art?
These are very reasonable questions. I doubt whether we will return that importance of an artist which we had in the Soviet period, when artists were in close attention of the state, and when financial help from the state was really considerable. Certainly, the role of an artist, in general, of a creative person, is underestimated today in the society. There are many reasons for that, but we should return this role or at least raise it significantly in co-operation with state institutions. We should return our authority through participation in public activities, through expansion of information-advertising production on television and radio. Taking this into account, we have an agreement on co-operation with the Ministry of Culture, as well as with Belteleradioсompany and with the Ministry of Information. We need to participate in charity activities, enabling people to see that we exist. We did it, but maybe insufficiently. Yes, it is a pity that our status has reduced as of today, because for the last twenty years people did not have time for art. People thought where to earn money. Now, the situation has more or less stabilised. We will seek that the subject ‘World Art’ was returned to schools. Now school leavers even do not know such artists as Repin and Shishkin, let alone our painters. It is not good. Belarus-3 TV Channel has been launched recently, and I pin big hopes on it. It is necessary that there were intellectual talk-shows on problems of culture and art. We should reflect our events, our problems and our prospects. However, it is difficult to recall even one TV programme, where people discuss cultural events occurring in our country and in the world. It is not good; after all, we represent a European country. We should do this because we work for the public good. When people from my village and my relatives called me I was keen to speak to them. The whole village monitored the art congress, and it was interesting why they did it. They worried about me, and then congratulated me on the election. It is very pleasant, but village should monitor not only scandalous events, but also cultural events. We should not forget that people live there and they are sometimes even much better, than those who live in the capital. After all, they are not spoilt in moral sense, they are healthier. But on the other hand, sometimes they are deprived of cultural events. And when they started calling me, I clearly felt: I have obligations to them. After all, I was born there and I appreciate this place. I always visit village with pleasure. Therefore, it is necessary to take care of villagers, for that they had more relation to events of high cultural taste.

The Union intends to expand creative contacts. In what way are you going to do this?
The Belarusian Union of Artists is included into the International Confederation of Unions of Artists, headquartered in Moscow. Each chair, as it is said, is a member of this organisation. Next year, Belarus will preside over the Confederation. There is an executive committee with which we closely co-operate and, personally knowing all chairs of the Unions of Artists of the CIS, I will use this potential. It is necessary to involve our ambassadorial services, because there is a problem with transportation of exhibition from one country into another. We’ve managed to establish close contacts with Lvov organisation of the National Union of Artists of Ukraine. However, there`re some difficulties with Kiev in establishing contacts. Now, we also have an offer from Smolensk to exchange exhibitions.
Two years ago, I was in St. Petersburg with the exhibition and it is necessary to expand it. Earlier we knew what occurs and where. All-Union exhibitions were always very interesting. Even today I can name two dozen Lithuanian, Latvian and Estonian artists who were popular in the Soviet times. As far as modern artists are concerned, I will not name anyone. Probably, I will recall one or two names. You see, it is not good. As of today, we are on friendly terms with Moldovan artists. We invited them in our country. We’ve also organised an exhibition ‘Belarus and Neighbours’, inviting representatives of the neighbouring countries. It was a really interesting exhibition, and we even issued a catalogue at our own expense. Now Chisinau invites us to come. Being part of the Confederation, we’ve issued a splendid album ‘Modern Art of Belarus’. All were delighted with it. This album became the best book of 2011. And now all Unions of Artists of the CIS try, as it is said, to make their albums to our samples. We’ve made an exclusive album, that’s why this became interesting to all. Now Chisinau invites us to bring our exhibition. However, there are problems — it is not right next door. We need to come to an agreement with our Embassy in Moldova regarding assistance. Once I came to Vilnius with my exhibition — the then Ambassador Vladimir Drazhin helped me very much. They came by car, loaded it, and there were no problems: neither at customs, nor at border. At that time, our President was on a visit in Vilnius, and within the limits of the cultural programme we’ve made our exhibition in the lobby of the Vilnius Philharmonic Society. It sounded beautifully, and this was for the common benefit. As it is said, it is time for us to gradually gather stones together. We already had time to cast away stones — now it’s time to stop doing this, particularly, when we are interesting to each other.

The congress announced the possibility of implementation of quite an ambitious project — transformation of Minsk’s Palace of Arts into National Art Centre. Could you tell about this in details?
As of today it is a dream, but it is not groundless. I had a conversation with one serious investor who also wants to have such an art centre. By the way, the Palace has an internal court which is tenantless... If such intentions remain — we will meet again. When we met for the first time and discussed the intentions for actions, there were interesting and ambitious offers. Another thing is that it is expensive. Certainly, if investors have interest in this project, it will be necessary to apply to city and state authorities to make the procedure legal and to receive a construction licence. It is necessary to make the project and to prepare legal base. Meanwhile, an attempt — is not a promise, yet the prospect is quite real. Certainly, if such project appeared in the city, we would get out all our funds... After all, we have gold artistic funds. Just imagine what kind of centre it would be. Meanwhile, being a European country, Belarus is obliged to have such centre. Of course, I’m like that Kremlin dreamer, and my dreams and wishes still settle down in such initial offers. Anyway, it is necessary to make them more concrete.

As far as I understand, investors are people who invest money, aiming to receive profit. However, the National Art Centre is primarily a state institution. Isn’t this some contradiction in the approaches towards the implementation of the idea?
I meant the nationwide in its importance. Our gallery also belongs to the Union of Artists but is called ‘Republican’, since it performs the functions on a nationwide scale. If such centre appears in Minsk, it doesn’t matter for the cultural environment whether it will be a state institution or not. For example, there’s Pinchuk Art Centre in Kiev, which belongs to one of Ukrainian oligarchs. However, this is a nationwide centre, since it performs the nationwide function. Moreover, this is entrance to Europe. Undoubtedly, it’s necessary to bring to the state that this is a vital function. We’ll be hosting the Ice Hockey World Championship and foreigners will arrive not only to see hockey matches. The world event will over and what then? As they say it’s necessary to ‘enrich’ ourselves with sports and cultural facilities, etc. We’re ready for such dialogue and are ready to conduct it.
Will the Union of Artists continue its activity in organising exhibitions, expositions or other forms of acquaintance with creativity of Belarusian painters?
Of course, we’re not going to cut this activity. Moreover, I’d like to mention that over six years we’ve considerably expanded the exhibition activity of Belarusian painters: both in the terms of quantity and geography. We’ve brought today works from Polotsk, where we’ve been organising various shows for several times already jointly with the Polotsk Art Gallery. Russia, Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia participate in these events. This is a concrete example of cultural exchange. A triennial of the applied arts has just finished there.
Once we’ve made an experiment with the Berlin Tacheles Centre (exhibiting ultra-modern art) and twice organised these thematic exhibitions at the Palace of Arts. Both events gained great popularity, taking into account that this happened in August, when few attend exhibitions. Meanwhile, there were crowds of people and these were more than simply exhibition. This was a true festival, with musical bands and some patriotic actions. Why not to involve this? It’s necessary to show diverse art while giving an opportunity to express themselves both to traditional masters and contemporary painters. This is a decisive task.

Aren’t you concerned about the fact that few attend exhibitions, e.g. at the Palace of Arts, after their solemn opening? Are people unaware of such exhibitions or something else hinders the dialogue of the creator and the spectator? However, the problem of such communication does exist and how can it be solved?
Of course, there’s such a problem. Each is keen to see increasing numbers of visitors at the Palace of Arts. Moreover, I was surprised to see several excursion groups during the latest exhibition — a rare case. It turned out that tourist groups were brought to our capital and their programme included acquaintance with the Belarusian art. It’s here that we need to work. If there’re tourist agencies that show Minsk to tourists, why not to plan the visit to the Palace of Arts?
There’s no problem is reducing the cost of tickets. We need to work in this direction and, of course, the necessary advertising support is required. I’ve already said that we’ll be speaking with the Belarusian State TV and Radio Company and the Ministry of Culture. There’s an agreement to maximum expand information space. The Palace of Arts needs to return its good name to it and we’ve achieved this to a large degree. Until 2008, nothing has been injected there. However, now, we increase these investments from year to year and the Palace earns money itself. We’ve already replaced the whole heating system and windows, with interiors and exhibition equipment being next in line. It has become warm in the Palace and, as people say, it’s possible to walk there without coats. This is also the return of the Palace’s attractive image. Moreover, we need to set up an art-cafe. There’s much work to do and we’ll pay attention to every detail.

Doesn’t the Union abridge the freedom of the painter in any way? As you’ve said, artists need to conform to overall rules, existing in the Union…
There’s currently no abridgement in the Union. I’m a censor for myself, because I put forward maximum requirements for myself: both professional and moral. If I see that I lag behind something in the professional context, I will not better exhibit the work. However, this is not because somebody forbids me to do this. It’s another matter that a painter must be responsible for their works, as well as for the organisation I order not to harm it. Yes, there’s provocative art, when a person acquires a famous name through some artistic provocation. There’re various painters and today the range of the Belarusian Union of Artists is almost the widest: from traditional painters, who are moving in the stream of the realistic art, to people who call themselves acute painters. These are contemporary trends and no one bans. What bans there can be? There’s legislation and there’s moral restriction. Of course, if a painter promotes violence through their art, this won’t be art to me. This breaks my moral principles legislation, and we definitely won’t allow this. Let they call this censorship or something else, we won’t ever allow this.
People may say that a painter was banned because of some personal or political motifs. There hasn’t ever been such a situation. Painters exhibit their works and there’re no problems. Vice versa, once we had to abolish a youth exhibition because of a very simple reason — inactivity. Then I myself called my pupils and ask them to exhibit, saying that we’re ready to give them exhibition grounds. When I opened that exhibition I reproached them that they aren’t ‘young’. I expected they astonish us with something, but they had nothing so far. I appeal to surprise me. You’re allowed even to outrage but don’t violate what shouldn’t be violated. An artist should bear responsibility for themselves. I’m also keen to expand the artistic range and none restricted it in the Union. Probably, this was during the Soviet period but now we have complete freedom — you’re welcome to create. There’s ‘Ў’ Gallery and I don’t always agree with its projects. For example, there was a project, dedicated to the memory of Chikatilo — this is recklessness beyond the borders of my moral priorities. This is inadmissible. Moreover, they’ve made a hero from a student painter, presenting him with a luxurious catalogue and organizing PR-campaign in the Internet. I’m against this. Probably, this can’t be banned within the limits of legislation but it was nastily for me to see such an exhibition from the moral point of view. Nevertheless, I frequently visit this gallery and many of its projects are rather interesting to me, and I would be the first to oppose if they wanted to close this gallery. By no means. Let they express themselves; finally, something will be born in the struggle. I could even exhibit something from this gallery at the Palace of Arts and invite some of these painters to create on our premises. There will be a youth exhibition in September-October, so you’re welcome to create. We’re preparing an exhibition, devoted to Kastus Kalinovsky. I’m afraid that again it will be traditional and arousing little interest. Therefore, I tell my pupils to make some video-art to this topic. Finally, you can make some interesting installation. However, there’s no need to say that people have done something and this was banned. There’re also such approaches: to deliberately create something so that to be banned, thus achieving the necessary result. However, this is no art at all. Art uses the language of art rather than that of scandals.

I suppose the life of creative community of painters is nowadays different from that seen 10-20 years ago.
Of course.

In what way?
The space has become more informative, since people travel and see much. We’re located in the centre of Europe, so are open to information. How can we be closed from it if there’s Internet, enabling people to get everywhere they wish… Undoubtedly, art is changing. The city is changing and we ourselves are changing; apparently, so does the art. However, it doesn’t always change for the better, though these are my personal conviction. I won’t ever agree with something that works for the destruction of pan-human moral values or with someone who mocks at what has been created by the humanity over the last time. There’s was a very popular painter in Moscow, who cut an ancient icon with an axe in public, thus organising an artistic event. What kind of artistic event can it be? This is barbarism, which should be prosecuted under criminal law. He has destroyed a very precious item. Art should use the language of art whatever wide the range of the arts is. However, when this goes over the lines, excuse me, but I refuse to recognise this as art.

You likely have little time for personal creativity, being busy with civil, organisational or administrative issues. Nevertheless, you’re an artist. What are you working over when you have such an opportunity?
I do have an opportunity. The work with civil issues disciplines me. Previously I could sometimes be artistically idle while now I have neither desire nor opportunity to waste time. Undoubtedly, when I do have this time — on Saturday, Sunday or just any evening — I spend it very thriftily for myself and my creativity. I’ve exhibited at the latest exhibition my ‘Artefact 6’. Why 6? This is sixth in number. In total, it should be a project, which probably will be entitled ‘Belarusian Atlantis’, encompassing artefacts from our past time. By taking them from the oblivion, I create a work of art, which speaks a contemporary language, although these artefacts are very old. At the same time, I also plan to launch one more graphical series, which will be entitled ‘Doors of Fate’. These will be various doors: doors of sadness, doors of laughter, doors of tragedy, doors of joy, doors of childhood, doors and death… This is a philosophical and artistic work. I have enough material but I now need to gradually start implementing these works. Some of them have been already created, with the whole series comprising some 15-17 works. When it’s ready, it can be exhibited. In total, I have lots of ideas but little time. However, I won’t ever agree to stay simply an administrator or a civil figure and stop to be an artist. Moreover, I’m a friend of the Union of Belarusian Union of Writers and this helps me greatly. When I have little time for drawing I write much as a literary man. I write and I’m published; as they say, I have what to be involved in.

By Viktor Mikhailov
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