MacLaren Art Centre


Olexander Wlasenko: As We Slept
September 13 - November 4, 2007
MacLaren Art Centre, Barrie, Ontario, Canada

In the fall of 2007, Olexander presented his commemorative series As We Slept dedicated to the 75th anniversary of the man-made famine, the Holodomor, which claimed seven to ten million lives in Soviet Ukraine.  This series explores the tension between artifice and actuality.  By interspersing rare and graphically horrific images from 1932-33, the artist intended to destabilize and subvert the visual rhetoric of the Soviet propaganda which ignored the genocide.  This was one of the first major solo exhibitions in Wlasenko's career, which saw the artist moving into a broader historical framework.  As We Slept participated in the contemporary discourse around ethics and identity, the deconstruction of totalitarian propaganda, raising questions of the (under)representation of world events in contemporary media.

[thumbnail of Olexander Wlasenko's Far East ]
[thumbnail of Olexander Wlasenko's Farm Workers]
[thumbnail of Olexander Wlasenko's Sanitorium]
[thumbnail of Olexander Wlasenko's ]

Olexander Wlasenko: As We Slept

As We Slept installation @ MacLaren Art Centre

A deep silence fills the room as one walks in and witnesses the intense and large scale imagery of these smiling individuals that remain anonymous to the viewer.  On the surface these individuals appear proud, joyous, and content in their actions being depicted.  When first encountering these images, I was drawn in by the smiling faces of these life size men, women, and children, as if they were confronting me, I smiled back.  The happiness portrayed is moving and reactionary, coming closer to study and investigate, the drawing pigment becomes apparent and a sense of Wlasenko's hand and process becomes evident.  Each face carefully studied, questioned, like many portraits one asks, who is this individual and what is their story?  There is a sense of intrigue, yet also unrest and it is not until one dives beneath the iron oxide surface and through the white wash that the realization of content and context can be examined and unveiled.

In this drawing installation, As We Slept, Wlasenko intervenes to explore and respond to the imagery of several vintage photographs from the Sovfoto Collection.  The response is not only nostalgic, historical, but reflects a familial relationship to Wlasenko's Ukrainian heritage.  The twelve photographs dissected from the collection shed light on the Soviet Union's communist regime and the collective farming and work industry implemented by Stalin in the 1930s.  It is through propaganda devices such as the Sovfoto collection that the Soviet Union was able to demystify the devastation and death of millions of people during the Ukrainian Famine.  The 2004 book The Years of Hunger: Soviet Agriculture, 1931-1933 by R.W. Davies and S.G. Wheatcroft gives an estimate of around 5.5 to 6.5 million deaths in the Soviet-wide 1932-1933 famine. 

As We Slept installation @ MacLaren Art Centre

To some scholars, this tramatic world event has been termed the Hidden Holocaust, it was as if it had been edited from history metaphorically similar to the manuel edits that have surfaced and are evident within the photographs selected by Wlasenko in, Broken Promises: Soviet Photography in the Age of Stalin.  In representing these photographs through drawing, Wlasenko slips into this space between what is artifice and what is actuality.  The drawings are a deconstruction, becoming a new representation that highlights the illusion of the once constructed representation of the photograph and a nation.  Did these individuals photographed have control over these images?  Did they ever see the image after it was produced?  These images do not tell their story, but rather evoke another, a determined tale of communism, a forced nationalism that was foreign and blanketed a true sense of self and culture.  In talking with the artist, he often reflects on a time spent watching films with his father.  This personal memory would have lasting influence on Wlasenko and his artistic practice.  He remembers his father editing the Soviet Ukraine films, produced in the USSR, his own deconstruction of imagery in order to provide a more accurate representation of himself, and Ukrainian culture to his family.  It is this same act that Wlasenko is able to publicly mimic within this exhibition to bestow clarity and voice to these silenced individuals represented.

As We Slept installation @ MacLaren Art Centre

The word archetype comes to mind when examining untitled (collective farm-workers).  The honour and stance of this young farmer, an archetype of the famine-representing a larger whole, is compositionally and passionately comparable to Eugene Delacroix's, Liberty Leading the People, 1830.  Once aware of the context of this imagery, these images take on new meaning; it is as if he stands flying a flag of freedom.  The two women workers, untitled (wheat queens) are illuminated in the sunlight as they poor a rich and plentiful harvest at their feet.  (Description of this image from the back and date) Like goddesses their faces glow, captured in a split second, and posed; what were the events that followed this image?  Even with their warm expressions, and the movement of the grain falling out there seems to be an arrested stillness that is not quite real.  Wlasenko then moves beyond the paper to the roughness and aggressive white washed images drawn directly on the walls of the gallery.  Imprinting these images of the death and disappear that was experienced by millions into the physical architecture of the building.  In this juxtaposition of imagery a glimpse into the horrifying reality of the Ukrainian genocide is revealed.

As We Slept installation @ MacLaren Art Centre

The physical and labour intensive process of these drawings highlights a powerful spatial and temporal transcendence that can not be overlooked.  For example in, untitled (tractor factory) a total of 32 workers are individually represented with attention to detail and character.  Wlasenko spends hours with each of these images, with each individual, studying and carefully examining the structure and expression on their faces.  Is it possible that through this process of investigation that one is able to connect and experience a past, a feeling of nostalgia that can only be reflected upon through a revisited position?  Experiencing these drawings a similar transcendence through time and space is experienced as Wlasenko has provided an opportunity for one to stand and encounter his process of intervention, his tracings of time and place, marking through to a new reproduction.

As We Slept, reflects those unaware and unwilling to admit to what was taking place in the 1930s, Soviet Ukraine.  This year marks the 75th anniversary of the Great Terror and the beginning of the Ukrainian Famine.  In Wlasenko's execution of imagery, compassion and honour is restored and is given back to these voiceless individuals.  The silence was at first quiet and still becomes deafening as they shout out, the closed mouths of these characters loudly yelling to tell a different story, a more honest story.

Sarah Beveridge, Curator

1 R. W. Davies, Stephen G. Wheatcroft, "The Years of Hunger: Soviet Agriculture, 1931-1933 (The Industrialization of Soviet Russia)", Palgrave Macmillan, 2004, ISBN 0-333-31107-8