Why the performance How to Sell Yourself to the West is not taking place
[Beitrag nur in englischer Sprache]
Scene 1. Sesselclub
“Hello, my name is Ada Mukhína. I am a theatre-maker from ‘evil’ Russia.” That was the opening of my humorous lecture performance How to Sell Yourself to the West. I came up with the idea during my art residency at the Akademie der Künste (Academy of Arts) in 2020 when I moved from St. Petersburg to Berlin. At my lecture performance, you were supposed to learn what you need to do to become famous in the West, how to receive a prize, or at least end up in the art archives posthumously. Each performance is tailor-made for the art institution where it is presented. I have been preparing a new version for the Akademie der Künste, which includes the perspectives of artists from Russia, Syria and Cameroon for more than two years.
Since 24 February 2022, the start of the Russian invasion in Ukraine, my opening punchline does not work anymore. Now it feels more accurate to write evil Russia without the quotation marks. The context has changed drastically: a sarcastic review of the Western art market feels inappropriate when people in Ukraine are dying, fleeing or need to defend their homes. Two of my Ukrainian colleagues, also fellows of the Junge Akademie (Young Academy), whose works you can see in the exhibition were not able to come to Berlin. It did not feel right to do this performance today when they are absent because of the war. A war that has been waged by Russian forces but not in my name. A war that has crushed the future of both countries. A war that has already destroyed so many connections and human relationships.
The performance will not take place, but I decided to keep the scenery there for you to see. As a document of what we hoped would happen, but that will not happen. Or maybe it will still happen one day, in the unforeseen future. In the first scene, I wanted to ask you to look at the room. This is the so-called Sesselclub (Room with armchairs). Many famous artists’ butts sat on those chairs. For example, exactly here in 1961, Roma Bahn, who performed in Bertolt Brecht’s The Threepenny Opera, received the Hermine-Körner-Ring Prize as an “actress striving for excellence”.
I wanted to tell you how I got accepted by the artistic crème de la crème and got into the closed fellowship at the Akademie der Künste. I wanted to tell you all the secrets for success I found out while interviewing curators of this art institution and its art archives. I wanted to hear applause and how much you loved my work. I wanted the Western curators I invited tonight to invite me back to their theatres and festivals. I want to be as famous as Roma Bahn and Bertolt Brecht together. It was hard to make this decision. But it is not the time.
Scene 2. Clubroom
Let’s move to the Clubroom. A lot of decisions are made inside these walls. I wanted to suggest that here you could slip into the shoes of the Akademie der Künste jury members and decide who will receive the Berlin Grand Art Prize worth €15,000. My two collaborators, Anis Hamdoun and Serge Fouha, would have joined me at the head of the table. Each of us would have presented you with a candidate to choose from.
Anis would have suggested himself as a Syrian director and playwright whose career caught fire on the wave of “refugee crisis” in Germany six years ago. However, the art market quickly turned its interests to other burning issues. Serge would have promoted himself as a black actor from Cameroon who has been living in Berlin for more than ten years. Nevertheless, he mainly works in Switzerland, Belgium and France because there are nearly no roles for non-white actors in German theatre. I would have suggested myself as a female theatre-maker from Russia. My shares are rapidly going down in the Western art market. That’s why international support is especially needed for artists like me who are critical of this bloody political regime and escaped the country. To which of the three of us do you think you would give the prize?
Anis, Serge, and I met in this room last week to make a decision about the performance under the circumstances. Anis said that he had never cancelled any of his shows. Because if he did that every time any violence occurred in Syria, he would not have created any art in the last ten years. I argued that this time is different. I hold a passport from the country which is producing death, fear and destruction at this particular moment. To such an extent that other countries like Germany decided to increase their military budgets. Where will it lead our world? Then Serge asked if the Akademie pushed me to cancel the performance. He will support my personal choice, but not a cultural boycott of me as a Russian artist. It is my decision and my chance to say something, I said. Let’s make it count. Then Anis said okay, if we decide not to do the performance because of the war, it should not be mistaken for cancellation due to COVID. We should write a statement together and use these rooms to talk to people. Serge said that wars constantly happen in Africa and, sadly, nobody cares. And that’s exactly why solidarity should be shown to every country in the world where violence occurs and to every human being who suffers. And now that means Ukraine. That’s how we came to this joint statement:
“On the day of the opening of the work presentation What Matters at the Akademie der Künste, two of our fellow artists from Ukraine are not able to come to Berlin because of the war inflicted on their homeland by Russian forces. In solidarity with them, we decided not to perform today. We are against Putin’s war in Ukraine, as well as his military aggression in Syria and other countries. Violence has a devastating effect on peace around the world. We stand for humanity and for equal value placed on people’s lives no matter their race, nationality, gender, religion, beliefs, abilities, age, sexual orientation, etc.”
Ada Mukhína (St. Petersburg, Russia/Berlin)
Anis Hamdoun (Homs, Syria/Berlin)
Serge Fouha (Yaoundé, Cameroon/Berlin).
*1988 in Leningrad, lives in St.Petersburg and Berlin
Ada Mukhina is a nomadic artist and theatre-maker with a focus on politically/socially engaged documentary and participatory performance. Her practices include directing, performing, curating, writing, teaching and researching. She graduated with distinction from the Russian State Institute of Performing Arts and earned an MA in Advanced Theatre Practice at the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama in London. Her theatre work has been presented in the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, South Africa, the USA and Russia. As a winner of the Black Box Residency at the Meyerhold Theatre Center, she recently directed and co-authored two theatre productions in Moscow – Locker Room Talk and Caries of Capitalism.More about Ada Mukhina