THE ESCAPE TOWARD FREEDOM OF THOUGHT
ANNA JERMOLAEWA IN CONVERSATION WITH FIONA ELTZ
FE: I have seen a lot of your videos and one thing that always strikes me is that you manage to bring such absurd art to life. Do you feel that your education played a role in this?
AJ: Actually, I feel that my art education in the former Soviet Union hindered my ability to be a free thinker. It was a classical, dry painting education. It mainly concentrated on technique rather than conceptual thinking. I felt that I was empty after my education. It took me years to let go of that. While I was studying art history in Vienna, I went back to the paintings and cut them up into little pieces and put them in a bag. It was a way of freeing myself from this strict thinking. From 1997 to 2002 I studied at the Academy of Fine Art in Vienna. It was an inspirational time for me. I learned a lot that brought me forward in my work.
FE: Aleksandra Wysokinska/20 Years Later is a story. It is very different from your other works. Why did you choose to make a film like this?
AJ: First of all, I usually work with short eye-catchers. My videos are short and looped so the viewer is immediately captivated and pulled into the work. This piece is very linear. I was really aspiring to make a memorial of sorts for Aleksandra. I wanted to say thank you for helping me escape.
FE: What was the main question you wanted Aleksandra to answer?
AJ: I wanted to ask her why she did this for me. Her answer to me was, “Polish hospitality.” She did so much for us without asking for anything in return. It came completely naturally to her.
FE: Do you feel that capitalism has made people more egotistical?
AJ: I feel that people have become harder. When I was growing up, people had more free time. Now there is less time spent on reflection. I can only say that no one has ever done so much for me. Not before Aleksandra and not since.
FE: Did you expect the reunion to be the way it was?
AJ: What I realized was that there were situations that I had repressed. I was in a refugee camp for almost one year. That time really brought me down. When Aleksandra and I were reunited 20 years later, I became aware of moments from the past that I had completely forgotten. I think they were erased by the traumatic experience in the refugee camp. For example, Aleksandra reminded me of the time she insisted that we go to the dentist before we left for the West. Our initial plan was to go to America, and since we had no health insurance in America she told me I had to get it done here first. So she brought us to the dentist and told him our story. He did our teeth for free. A few months later we sent a letter to her from the refugee camp containing another letter for the dentist saying, “Now we are chewing capitalist food.”
ANNA JERMOLAEWA was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1970. In 1989, she escaped from the Soviet Union to Austria. After graduating in art history at the University of Vienna, Jermolaewa studied painting and graphic arts at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna with Peter Kogler.