Beauty and the beast

Art on Site, Kaliningrad, Moskau, 2009
Ambermosaic, from a public fotoshooting, 230 x 133 cm

The Dom Sovetov, the House of the Soviets popularly called “the Monster”, stands in Kaliningrad. In front of it, the city’s young people gather on the square of the former castle. Rumour has it that the Amber Room is located in the cavernous spaces down below. A photo shoot staged by Empfangshalle was the starting point for a public contest. The citizens chose their “Beauty” for their “Monster” via various media. The winning picture was made into the largest known amber mosaic and exhibited in the local amber museum.

Interview with the artists’ group “Empfangshalle”

What were your impressions of Kaliningrad? Were they different from those of your first trip?

One’s first impressions are the most important ones. One’s opportunity to see a city objectively lasts only the first three days, after that, one is no longer fresh. That is why our first trip was also the most intensive phase of our work. We talked for hours at a time about everything we had seen. We felt like treasure hunters – and that also influenced our choice of material: costly amber. How did you structure your project work? Our project work was like collecting pieces of an amber mosaic: matching each individual piece of amber with the next one, searching for the piece that fits. This is just how we gathered our impressions and sought to put together a complete picture with them. We quickly realized that the image of the House of the Soviets and the history of the place where it was built were important to us, as it is a genuine symbol of this history: nobody lives in it, but still it exists, and the city and its inhabitants have to think about what they want to do with it, and how to live with it.

In your view, is history the most important issue in Kaliningrad?

History is still an open wound in Kaliningrad. Both the war and the post-war years live on in the flesh and blood of the city to this day. It is as though people cannot relate to their city even now. So many layers of history are mixed together here. First, there is the old Koenigsberg, a very important image for the city’s people. The Russian population feels drawn to their old roots in Koenigsberg. The Soviet era comes next, during which what was left of the Old City was destroyed and the new one was built. The third layer is the present, with its pursuit of everything new, with advertising, with its brilliance and dynamism. And we asked ourselves: what might the symbol of a modern Koenigsberg be? If we bought a postcard of Kaliningrad as a souvenir, what would it show? We decided to create our very own, personal souvenir of Kaliningrad. We took amber from the city’s history, the House of the Soviets from the Soviet period, and we asked the Kaliningraders themselves about the present. Why did the image of a girl and a car become the answer to this question? Most Kaliningraders find the House of the Soviets monstrous and an eyesore – totally unsuitable as a symbol of their city. We therefore asked ourselves about beauty and ugliness: what Beauty might be contraposed to what is monstrous in the eyes of the inhabitants, to their Beast? We therefore began to investigate the Kaliningraders’ ideas about beauty. Beauty is very important to people here. Women invest huge amounts of time, money and energy in their appearance, and men in the beauty of their cars. One sees fashion shows wherever one goes, in every café there is a TV showing fashion shows. We had never seen anything like it! So our Beast, the House of the Soviets, was unthinkable without its Beauty. What we like about this idea are the contrasts between past and present, of lifelessness and vitality, what the city’s people find ugly or beautiful. But maybe things are more complicated than that, and in this situation one can never say exactly who is Beauty and who the Beast.

Art on Site, NCCA Moscow and Goetheinstitut, 3. Moscow Biennale, Russia