The Transylvania Archive

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.

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

The Transylvania Archive was made possible thanks to the generous support of: