To be an artist does not only mean producing and exhibiting work, it also involves processes that happen behind the scenes, such as collecting, archiving, and cataloguing. Since the work of every artist is distinctive and unique, it is difficult to apply universal criteria in terms of pictorial archives.
Moscow born artist Ekaterina Shapiro-Obermair immigrated to Germany at the age of 18 and continued her artistic career in Vienna. She deals with the appropriation and reinterpretation of history, collective trauma of the soviet-post-soviet consciousness.
Mostly working with videos, sculptures, drawings, and prints, she assembles and builds ties between objects, people, memories and the mainland of a constructed past.
Besides her artistic practice Shapiro-Obermair also runs the space hoast in Vienna together with her husband and fellow artist Wolfgang Obermair.
Natalia Gurova met the artist to talk about her archiving practice, artistic intuition, and how the process of collecting things could lead to discoveries.
Do you have an archive of your works? If so, how do you organize it?
I share my studio with Wolfgang Obermair. We each have our separate working spaces, but we share the storage. As the storage space for sculptures is limited, it reminds me more of a three-dimensional Tetris game, than a proper archive. And of course, some works have no space there and have to be thrown away.
My works on paper are organized much better. In my working space, I have a beautiful flat file drawer that belongs only to me and functions as an archive for artworks as well as for materials. It is already full though, so I also use separate folders. I try to label each of them, but as it changes from time to time, these inscriptions look more confusing than describing. And there is, of course, an archive of ideas. These are sketchbooks, cut-outs, but also a digital collection of images and notes. Actually, I do not know if they could be classified as an archive; it is more of a collection.
Would you consider yourself to be well organized or rather chaotic?
On the one hand, I like it when there are not too many things around me. When there is too much old stuff around, I begin to think that I owe something to it. When I'm working on a new project, I tidy up first. In the beginning, I like it when everything is clean and in order. On the other hand, I am obsessed with objects. I continuously bring new items to the studio without having a clear idea of what they might be used for and things start to grow organically.
Do you have a digital archive in addition to your physical one?
Yes, I have a digital archive, which is organized chronologically. It is quite structured with folders and subfolders. In the beginning, I was quite chaotic, and then I realized that I somehow have to deal with all of this material. It was a conscious decision to spend a whole week in order to collect all the data. After I organized everything and made a backup, my computer suddenly crashed. It was a blessing in disguise! Almost mystical.
What's the difference for you between archiving and collecting or preserving memory and fighting amnesia?
I'm currently not feeling nostalgic towards my earlier work, but this attitude towards past projects can change from time to time. It's always possible that some ideas, which I considered as worked through, can gain relevance again. At the same time, archiving is much more than just documentation. Creating an artistic identity always means a reference to past projects. Its selection determines the present condition. The archive is not something that is ever finished, but is rather part of the current working process.
You worked with archives and used them as a research tool for your art, how has this process influenced your work?
For my projects, I have worked with public archives several times: The photo archive of the Architecture Museum in Moscow, the one of the Memorial Society in Moscow, or the Simon Wiesenthal archive in Vienna. In Moscow, I was researching images of Soviet architecture from 1955 to 1991, not only in Russia but mostly in other former Soviet republics. I did this for the exhibition "Soviet Modernism 1955–1991: Unknown Stories" at the Architekturzentrum Wien, which I was co-curating as well. All in all, I spent one week in the archive. In this case, we had to pay for the images, so looking for materials was not a free and independent process, but had to follow a kind of pragmatism. Nevertheless, it was fascinating being there.
At the Simon Wiesenthal archive in Vienna, you worked together with historian Alexandra Wachter. Where do you see a difference between historians and artists?
We worked together for the interdisciplinary project "Lwiw. Kriegsmuseum" and we started our research at the Simon Wiesenthal archive. At that time, it was located in his former office at Schwedenplatz. Being there was awe-inspiring, especially to see how Wiesenthal was working and how he collected and organized his investigations. It was incredible to see how big his collection is. In one spacious room, all the walls were full of boxes, from the floor to the ceiling. For Lemberg (Lviv), there were just four boxes full of documents. It took us one month to look through them, not even reading every paper.
During the research process, historians do the same as artists, they go through all papers. But I think it is different, how later on artists and historians work with the gained materials. There is a difference between artistic and theoretical ways of thinking. As an artist, you are, in a way, more free. You can just follow your intuition and create something without analyzing it in advance.
Building an archive might be compared to creating a container of memory. How do memories appear in your works?
I am more interested in a social or historical dimension of memory. I think that all of us are somehow traumatized and every one of us is trying to deal with it, to overcome it. I believe that people who lived in the Soviet Union and experienced the break of the Soviet system are traumatized in a particular way, though. For example: We learned about history in Soviet times and how we should perceive the past as its citizens in a very particular way and then, later on, the system collapsed by itself. It became apparent that our idea of the past is linked to the ideology of the state. At the same time, we have experienced events – I’m referring to the so-called "wild 1990s" – which could be considered as historical, but it's not easy to describe them at all, even if you were a part of it. And then I left the system physically through my immigration to Germany. It was a double break. In my works, I deal with the question through which channels our ideas of the past are constructed. It's a lot about questioning the past and what impact it has on the present or future.