‘We come from Russia, a country where archives often remain locked, which means that people can be fooled into believing anything about history.’
Artist duo Marta Volkova and Slava Shevelenko play a sophisticated game with truth and myth. The Transylvania Archive is about a secret KGB archive discovered a few years ago. The installation ingeniously intertwines themes such as how artists relate to power, the fear of strangers and the relevance of the archive.
Could you talk a little bit about the genesis of The Transylvania Archive?
Slava Shevelenko: The starting point was the archive at Het Nieuwe Instituut. That inspired us to construct a story around an archive. Our projects always concern the space between mythology and reality. This work examines a secret archive discovered by chance some years ago in a former KGB building in Romania during a flood.
Marta Volkova: It’s really true!
SS: The archive revealed that the Russian secret service spent years researching the yeti (also known as the Abominable Snowman) in Transylvania in Romania.
MV: That’s partly true. The KGB did carry out investigations in Eastern Bloc countries.
SS: It turns out that the KGB hunted the yeti until it was extinct. The archive reveals that the yeti is human, although he is different from us, bigger. The archive also contains limbs and a pelt, complete with head and legs attached. Just like the bearskins that hunters prepare as a trophy. These yeti body parts were presented to party leaders as gifts. Yetis were believed to possess healing powers.
Do the yeti myths say anything about their healing power?
MV: No! (laughing)
SS: And the figure of the yeti is unrelated to Transylvania. But it’s a romantic region that fires the imagination. Its ancient myths provided the inspiration for such figures as Frankenstein and Dracula. That neatly matched our story.
MV: The Transylvania Archive consists of three parts. The core is made up of archival material from the KGB investigation. Then there are the gifts for party leaders, and the case of an artist involved in the investigation. Artists were added to the team to document the finds and results of the investigation. One of those artists went mad, and his story is also part of the archive.
You tell the story with total conviction. When does the observer start to doubt if what you’re presenting is really true?
SS: We’re always surprised at how much people are willing to believe, and when they start to entertain doubts. Some people always have doubts, but most believe everything!
SS: They believe everything. Even the story about The Altai Files (a work that was on view at the Bonnefantenmuseum in Maastricht from 1 July to 4 September 2016, ed), about a region in Siberia where space debris falls to earth on a regular basis. The inhabitants start to hallucinate about it. Once we had a project about beetles that could turn into euro coins. People even believed in that.
Your project demonstrates how gullible people can be
MV: Yes, we do our best to sway people, to immerse them in our projects and get swept along by our stories. But we also incorporate things that are clearly untrue, which should make people start doubting.
You go quite far. That parts of the Abominable Snowman’s body were presented as gifts is pretty far-fetched
SS: Yes, that is odd, but people become drawn deeply into our stories because we don’t specify what’s true and what’s not. By the way, you see that happening more and more in real life, too.
MV: Lots of museums have opened in Russia in recent years. In Saint Petersburg, for example, you have a museum about Rasputin, a travelling monk who became a spiritual mentor to the Tsarina just before the revolution. He was murdered by the aristocracy, who saw in him a threat to the survival of the Russian Empire. That museum has a display case that contains his penis — Rasputin was a renowned womanizer. Everybody knows that his body was dumped into the water immediately after he was killed, but people still believe that that’s his penis on display!
Is that where the idea for the yeti body parts came from?
MV: Yes, we play with phenomena like that. People don’t ask any questions: they look and take what they see as fact. Interesting.
SS: We come from Russia, a country where archives often remain locked, which means that people can be fooled into believing anything about history. There are many layers to this project, as there are in all our work. An important theme this time is the relationship between the artist and power. Collaborating with power. During the Soviet era, Russian artists had a choice: either work for the regime or go underground. We chose the latter. Most artists opted for the official route, and we’ve always wondered what that means for an artist. There were artists who spent the day working for the regime and tried to maintain an autonomous practice in their free time. Which is actually impossible. You gradually lose your spirit as an artist.
MV: The character in The Transylvania Archive is one of those artists who works for the regime, for the KGB in this case. He has become part of the machine. He realises that he has become an accomplice in the crimes against the yeti, that he has blood on his hands. That’s why he goes mad.
SS: The relationship between artists and power has had a long tradition in Russia. We wonder if this theme is understood here in the Netherlands. Artists here have never been confronted by this issue.
Interview: Lotte Haagsma