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Maria Proshkowska: “The Czech art scene is interested in Ukrainian artists”
25 January 2019
Talking about the concept of “The nature of anorexia. Project-study” Maria Proshkowska outlines the objective prerequisites and personal reasons for its creation: “…Studying the nature of anorexia, the artist cannot be objective because she has experienced such an eating disorder and to this day is in a constant struggle with herself. But at the same time this project is about feelings and sensations and its main mission is to shift the focus from condemnation to understanding. Since about 97% of Anorexia Nervosa cases are women and girls of different ages, like the artist herself, the project has become very feminine. It is a sincere story of many women about what and why they have experienced or are experiencing with an afterword of the artist. This project is about different feelings: pride and joy, bitterness and despair, self-torture, envy, shame, fear and loneliness, it’s about seeking help and trying to regain oneself. This is a project about what women feel about their appearance in the modern world and how much they have to blend in, in order not to be condemned by themselves and the others.”
The “Project-study” by Maria Proshkowska consisted of three complementary parts. The first one is called “Pride” – a mini-exhibition of photographs, an attempt to comprehend the aesthetics of Anorexia Nervosa, to ask oneself what feelings a viewer really gets by looking at these images. (All images are taken from the open sources or resized from the computer screen and do not violate copyright). The second part – “Shame” – include abstract works in mixed technique, painted on sheets from the Czech cookbook of 1960. Each work is a soundless cry, visualization of relations with the outside world and food through the prism of anorexia. “And the final part is “Anger” – a performance where a female body will be presented as a material for consideration: what does it mean today to be a woman and why actually being naked and having the feeling of being naked may no longer have a difference. The performance will be a kind of therapy for the artist and will serve as an action against the habitual self-torture that millions of women around the world are engaged in.”
On participating in an international artistic residency
It was my first foreign residency, so I did not know what to expect, and I was a little worried. As it turned out, the tizzy was absolutely vain. A.I.R. Futura in Prague is the type of residence where the artist is not required with anything specific: the process of his work is not strictly supervised, it’s not restricted. If the artist himself outlines a certain plan, the gallery does minimal alterations and participates in the preparation of the final presentation of the project. If the artist decides to conduct a study – the residence supports him or her. I had the “open studio” format: the visitors had the opportunity to go to my workstation. There was also a presentation of my project. During my residence a couple of artists from France in lived next door. Our apartments were located near Prague city centre, it was very convenient to move around the city and study it. By the way, Prague has the best public transport system in Europe, and for the first time I thought that it’s not so bad not to be a driver for the half of your life there. The gallery-studio complex Karlin Studios, where my workshop was located, is situated in the Karlin district, rebuilt after a major flood in 2002. Karlin Studios was created specifically to work with young Czech and foreign artists. But the main institution where the staff works is in the Futura art center, the largest private contemporary art gallery in Prague. Five separate art projects were presented while I was working there. This is a large and quite complex space for exhibiting, but the curators` work is impressive, and all the projects were presented perfectly. Karlin Studios seemed to me a more understandable and democratic gallery, which suited me very well. My idea with the performance worked well in the studio, as people had to get in there specifically. I did a similar project in a room in the art squat within the Gogolfest 2017 – in a building that has already been demolished a few months ago. I like to completely redesign the room assigned for the needs of a project.
On the project, its preparation and implementation
My project consisted of several parts: drawings on the old Czech cookbook of 1960, pastel, watercolor and thread. The second part – photos taken from online communities, inspired by extreme thinness. These photos were spread by the girls, showing the results of their weight loss (this part of the project was called “Pride”). And the third part is a performance: I stood up for two hours and tried to express this emotion, the inner anger of a woman towards a society that constantly assesses and forces not to love her own body. When people came into the room, they did not know what would be inside. They had been warned that there was a performance there, but they did not know that there would be a girl only in flesh-colored underwear. I specifically looked for visual contact with the audience, looked straight at the people.
On visitors’ reaction
A lot of people could not stand it. The last viewer was Michal Novotny, the Director of FUTURA, who told me that everything turned out well, because my performance caused the effect of extreme discomfort. We talked a lot before the performance started, and it was clear that, in human terms, he carried for me, for my physical and moral state and for the result, of course, too.
I want to note that the Czech public was very well-bred, prepared. Everyone tried to talk in a whisper, moved quietly, tried to understand the context and idea of the project, returned with friends who were late, and explained to them what they had already read. A similar impression was made by Prague itself – there are many museums and galleries, there is a municipal art guide, where all the current projects and exhibitions are proposed. A.I.R. Futura curators send to the residents all invitations to exhibitions, lectures, discussions. We could visit all of them to get acquainted with other artists. So, for example, I met a French artist Julie Bena. And also I had a successful meeting with the curators from the Czech Republic, with whom Marina Shcherbenko helped me organize the meeting, sending them my portfolio. Previously, we agreed to discuss my participation in several projects. I want to note that the Czech art scene is interested in Ukrainian artists, especially if they work not only with Ukrainian problems, but also with global issues, as in my case.
On the idea of the project
The idea of the project came to me on my way to Prague. I was reading a book about food: a great study of what has changed in society over the past hundred years, about trends existing in this area. Previously, I have been thinking about anorexia for a long time, analyzing my own experience. And on the way to Prague I decided that if the curators support me, I would prepare a performance project on this topic, since with the help of this medium I can most effectively visualize the feelings that almost every woman experiences because of the prevailing stereotypes and pressure. I used to analyze the world through watching people, and I haven’t seen a single girl, a woman who, starting to undress on the beach, would not hesitate for a second, thinking about how she would look, comparing herself to others. No matter how beautiful they are, even if she is the winner of the beauty contest (and I know such girls), they still feel that something is wrong with them. I understand that this is one of the main reasons why the statistics on anorexia are so sad.
As part of my project, I spoke to five girls who had suffered (and / or still suffering) from anorexia. There was a particular girl who reached the weight of 22 kg. They helped me by describing how they felt, how they experienced it. In the end, I turned to my own experience, although I did not get to that far.
On the importance of anorexia issue
There is a common opinion that anorexia is a disease of girls who have nothing more to do but attract attention. I wanted to visualize this problem so that the audience did not treat it scornfully, as if this problem can never reach them. Now this disease occurs more and more often with children and adolescents. According to one study, the pubertal period now begins about five years earlier: usually the body of a modern adolescent reaches a weight of 40-45 kg, at which hormonal changes begin. And since humanity as a whole is heavier now, these changes start much earlier, and a child is often not psychologically ready for them. The girl rejects her new body, especially if all classmates around are still small and thin. Or, with the help of anorexia, girls try to control their body, if they can not control the world around (e.g., the parents divorce). Meanwhile, they control their food – and clamp themselves in the grip of total control. In general, anorexia is often the problem of honors puppies, perfectionists, girls with an unusually strong will, capable of methodically withholding themselves with food. And then at a certain stage of exhaustion there are changes in the brain, including chemical ones: the feeling of hunger is completely dulled, the attitude towards oneself and the world changes, but the person stays conscious. Hence the statistics of deaths – more than 25%. The Red Cross has such a test in the regions where children are malnourished, with the cases of death from exhaustion: they offer a child food, and if he does not eat, he is immediately hospitalized and reanimated, because this is an extreme degree when the self-preservation reflex is turned off. Girls with anorexia, in fact, reach the same conditions and are not able to assess what is happening to them, they die of hunger, melt in the struggle for the ideal.
In the project, I wanted to show the whole array of experiences that I spoke to people and lived myself through. When I started to get in shape after the birth of my child, I went in for sports, adjusted the food and could not stop. But I was luckier, and I did not slip into the abyss – my husband was with me. Anorexia is often difficult to identify, girls often hide everything from the beloved. Most of them start with proper nutrition and exercise. Gradually, sport is getting bigger, and food is getting smaller, the diet is reduced to 500-700 calories per day (and in Auschwitz, for example, 900 calories was the minimum dose of products a day to keep prisoners able to do some work and not die). In parallel, there are mental changes, in which it seems that any dose of food makes you fat and cross out all previous efforts. In Ukraine, there is only one private center for helping patients with anorexia, where they work according to Western protocols. Treatment is inpatient in public clinics, where patients are generally prescribed with strong drugs that reduce anxiety and fatten. But then a person returns home, and the circle of struggle for an ideal self begins anew.
There was a reason I draw on the pages of a cookbook – all patients with anorexia love cooking for the family, many are baking. Four out of five girls I talked to are engaged in the confectionery. This is a kind of sublimation. I took the Czech culinary book (with pork legs, rabbits in bacon and other stuff). On the pages of the book, I expressed anger, despair, shame, contempt, self-disapproval… These drawings were left there, they were glued to the painted wall, and then it would be painted again. In my opinion, this is symbolic.