‘I’m always interested in the wrong side of the cloth:’ Haim Sokol on exploring the unseen violence of history

8 December 2021

Haim Sokol’s new large-scale project, Transformation as a Form of Resistance, is an ode to ambiguity and change — and as such, it could not be contained within the walls of just one gallery. The exhibition instead takes place in two spaces: while Act I can be seen in the white cube of St Petersburg’s Anna Nova Gallery, Act II has found its temporary home in the nearby 19th-century Lopukhins-Naryshkins mansion.

Like many of the romantically shabby historic buildings in St Petersburg, the mansion stood abandoned until very recently, when in 2020 it opened its doors as a public and creative space called Third Place. “I was there [in the mansion] in a kind of entertainer role,” Sokol says. “The mansion is privatised and, you could say, almost gentrified now, with a fancy bar and disco on the ground floor. And all this is happening while it’s being renovated.”

Yet while organisers hope that Sokol’s reputation will draw culture-hungry crowds to Third Place, the artist’s work is more interested in his unnamed contemporaries, labouring to make the venue viable. His solidarity with the workers who maintain and renovate the building takes form in one of his favourite materials: a floor rag.

Sokol uses the rag as a theatre curtain hung from the ceiling, or a red carpet for the venue’s grand staircase. Only in Sokol’s project, the red carpet turns pink. For the artist, the colour stands for transformation, existing between revolutionary red and the counter-revolutionary white.

“I’m always interested in the wrong side of the cloth,” says Sokol. On a literal level, the artist has always prefered rags, pillowcases, and blankets to the traditional canvas. Born in Arkhangelsk, he has explored the plight of marginalised people, be it modern-day immigrants in Russia or survivors of the many disasters of the 20th century. Sokol’s father was a Holocaust survivor, and Marianne Hirsch’s concept of post-memory — that trauma that lives on through generations — is incredibly important for Sokol’s work. Yet his projects always go beyond personal and family history, and into the realm of collective memory.

Transformation as a Form of Resistance seeks to continue that work. “I do not necessarily mean resistance in an activist sense, but in the sense of resisting the inertia of history — the thinking that the past remains in the past,” he says. Like many of his previous projects, the exhibition pushes viewers to look at the horrors of genocide in a way that moves beyond pure shock or disgust. Sokol wants his audience to be able to look at historic facts and how they connect to the present and future. Such analysis, he believes, could help society understand history better and — with luck — avoid repeating it. “We look at them not as Jewish people but as victims of violence, which, in its turn, is a result of certain social mechanisms, such as exclusion politics,” the artist explains.

In his 2018 project Directives, Sokol collaborates with artist Natalia Zintsova to rework photographs of 1941 Nazi pogroms in Lviv. They would cut away the victims from each image: forcing the viewer instead to focus on both the crime at hand and the familiar space of the not-so-distant past.

Transformation as a Form of Resistance builds on this work. Sokol returns to the original photos of the 1941 pogroms taken by the oppressors, this time erasing the backdrop and displaying the victims in their own right. By doing this, he’s allowed them to break free both from the paper which once held them and the violence and humiliation imposed upon them. We still see the pain in their silhouettes, but without the rest of the image, we are forced to recreate the context from other images we have seen. Slowly, we start to wonder whether this violence could only have happened in a specific place or time — whether the past is ever truly past.

Sokol takes this one step further. Not only are the people in his work isolated from the rest of the photograph, they are also pictured in the process of transformation. All are mid-change from bird to human (or vice versa), a nod to the 14th century Jewish text, Birds’ Head Haggadah. In the book, Jewish people appear with birds’ heads: the aniconism tradition prohibited artists from depicting God in human form, and this was sometimes applied to people too. Drawing on the historic text, Sokol gives his victims a chance to escape their inhuman pain, by turning into animals.

Similar half-bird, half-human images appear in Sokol’s other works. Not offering a single clear interpretation, they bring a range of associations: hinting at everything from the animal nature hidden in man, to the possibility of freedom and flight.

But these animal-to-human transformations are not all that Sokol explores. The figures in his paintings cross the line between genders as easily — or as painfully — as the one between the species. Some of the bodies in his works have ambiguous genitalia; in one painting, he paints a penis pink, as if wondering whether the stereotypically feminine colour would change the nature of the organ. When asked about the apparent queerness of these bodies, the artist says: “For me, queerness is a more general concept. It is a model of, precisely, transformation, where you can radically break the boundaries of some biological fact — which may not be a fact at all.” While the question of whether we can or should compare marginalised groups remains controversial for many, Sokol has found his answer: “I think that we have a right to universalise the concept of victim/survivor in order to uncover common patterns of persecution and exclusion,” he says.

Sokol’s own work has transformed many times over the years. Since he started his career in Israel without having an academic background in arts, he has learned to work with new media whenever he felt that they were the most appropriate for his new project: “I learn new skills as the need arises,” he says. In the period from 2019 to 2021 that the exhibition covers, this new media has been drawing and painting: before, if Sokol used drawing, it was to copy found images and texts through carbon paper. The new approach brings a freshness and immediacy to his work, especially to the images that are painted or drawn on rags, curtains, and coats — and on the gallery walls directly. Producing his own images instead of using the found ones proves an efficient way of talking about the issues that Sokol has been interested in since the beginning: as his work continues to evolve, he continues to shine a spotlight on unseen histories of humanity.

The exhibition Transformation as a Form of Resistance is open till December 13 at Anna Nova Gallery in St Petersburg. The exhibition at Third Place is currently closed due to Covid restrictions.

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