Maria Gvardeitseva explores official and individual memories of wars and traumatic events. She offers visitors to join a so-called memorial table as a space of transforming grief and sorrow, and a dialog with the past. What new taboos and what new minefields of memory will emerge?
In our modern world, memories are often contested, and their meanings are subject to manipulation and questioning. Norman Finkelstein’s cautions against the sacralization of memory, warning that turning it into a kind of 'mystery religion' can serve particular interests and lead to indifference towards historical facts. By treating memory as a sacred, untouchable concept, we risk distorting the past and using it for our own purposes. It is essential to maintain a critical and honest approach to memory, one that acknowledges its complexity and allows for a nuanced understanding of history. Only by doing so can we truly learn from the past and move forward as a society.
Maurice Halbwachs's theory of collective memory highlights the illusion of independent memories. People usually believe that they are free in their thoughts and feelings, when in fact, according to Halbwachs, they draw the same part of common thoughts and feelings, and rituals of commemoration play a significant role here. For the artist it is important to recognise that our thoughts and feelings are not entirely our own but are shaped by our shared experiences and collective memory. Our rituals of commemoration play a significant role in reinforcing these shared memories and shaping our perceptions of the past.
Maria Gvardeitseva - PriceLess
By incorporating elements of collective memory into the artistic performance “Price-less”, Maria’s idea is to tap into a shared cultural consciousness and create an artwork that resonate with a wider audience. By acknowledging the ways in which our memories are influenced by our shared history and experiences, the performance evokes to the universal aspects of the human experience, while also engaging with the specific cultural contexts in which we operate. By creating a “memorial body” that is both deeply personal and culturally relevant, the artist invites the audience to engage on multiple levels.
The artist's performance takes place in a cell-like space that reflects the somber atmosphere of a crypt and refers to the sacred rituals that take place there. The installation is a carefully curated reconstruction of the communal meal that was traditionally served after funerals in the Slavic republics of the USSR, and which continues to be a custom to this day.
The idea of the performance is to involve visitors to interact, and based on the reactions and stories of the participants, it will create a unique and dynamic experience each time it is presented. The artist herself prepares the "feast," with each product carefully selected to fit within the conceptual framework of the installation. This attention to detail ensures that the experience is both immersive and thought-provoking, inviting participants to engage with the work on multiple levels and encouraging them to reflect on their own relationship with tradition, memory, and the rituals of communal mourning.
We choose to center certain memories because they seem to us to express what are central to our collective identity. Those memories, once brought to the fore, reinforce that form of identity.
The tradition of a communal meal after a funeral has its roots in the distant past. Similar customs are observed in the faiths of various nations and are related to belief in the immortality of the soul. In the Christian (particularly the Orthodox) tradition, the funeral meal is a particular ritual, intended to remember the deceased, pay tribute to them and commemorate their good deeds. In practice, such meals a heady mixture of paganism, Christianity and a drinking session.
In Soviet times, such meals took place in flats, canteens and restaurants, or outdoors in the warmer months. There was also a widespread tradition of collective mourning for the dead, to which professional mourners were invited. Death in Soviet and post-Soviet times is not an “aesthetic” event, especially in rural areas. The body of the deceased is kept in the house where he or she lived, and us washed, usually by female relatives. Cremation is not customary in the Orthodox tradition. The body is buried in the ground. It is usual to kiss the body of the deceased and weep over it. Partaking of food at the graveside is also accepted, and a table might even be laid specially for the purpose. A glass of vodka and a slice of black bread is traditionally left on the grave as the portion of the deceased (in everyday life, the food and drink left for the dead is often taken by homeless people and alcoholics).
Soviet and post-Soviet propaganda puts private death in the context of Christian asceticism and martyrdom, which it treats as a necessary part of the “Great Victory”. Official memory has no room for individual stories and personalities. Its form of commemoration tends towards pain and ugliness, drunkenness and excess to the point of nausea. Such nausea may also infect the funeral meal, when its rite is celebrated with a lack of aesthetic feeling and distance.