Broken Secrets examines public and private conversations. Drawing from historical and contemporary narratives, the exhibition investigates distrust and deception, showing the fragility of institutional and personal connections and questioning the line between truth and falsehood.
The project understands that there are undisclosed political operations at work, but also that these are accompanied by clandestine movements. How do secrets prevent freedom? How are we incarcerated, not only by what we know but by what we don’t know, by what is omitted?
In the realm of intimacy, Broken Secrets probes the self and associated relationships. It questions the role of fidelity or its absence. It looks at personal ties and family secrets by framing domestic spaces as ones that both liberate and constrict.
By depicting diverse aspects of secrecy, four artists: Avetisjans (Riga), Jiang (Shanghai), Selley (London), Yaghmaian (Tehran) actively take part in this dialogue. The stories embedded in their work tell secrets, keep secrets, or sometimes abruptly reveal them. They speak to larger questions of militancy, migration, oppression, and victimization.
Fondazione Modena Arti Visive, founded in 2017 by the Comune di Modena and Fondazione di Modena, is a cultural production and professional training center whose mission is to spread contemporary art and visual culture. With its set of venues, Fondazione Modena Arti Visive embraces the legacy of the three institutions it encompasses—Galleria Civica di Modena, Fondazione Fotografia di Modena, and Museo della Figurina—to create a culture hub. The foundation proposes and organizes exhibitions and advanced training courses, workshops, performances, and conferences as well as promotes the collections that it manages and builds a system of networks on a local and a broader scale.
The exhibitions of the Fondazione Modena Arti Visive are increasingly interconnected with the activities of the School of Advanced Studies, a reference on the Italian and international culture scene with a focus on artists and curators. Dedicated to photography and contemporary images, it is a creative lab in working together with artists, professionals, and curators from around the world while challenging traditional genres and exploring new ground. Since 2011 the School proposes an innovative training model, as part of an institution engaged in all forms of visual arts, from organizing major exhibitions and events to managing prestigious collections.
The following interview took place virtually between Iran, England, Latvia, and Spain on the 9th of June 2020. It is an abridged version, which has been transcribed and adapted slightly for the purposes of the website and is part of a wider colloquial conversation centering on the exhibition, the artists’ process, work, and thoughts.
JLCB: How do you feel that your work speaks to central topics of Broken Secrets?
GS: I think it relates to the topic of the exhibition in the sense that the work revolves around the idea of a damaged memory, and this military training manual around which the work revolves is a historical record, it´s part of an archive that is generated by the actions and implementation of power, or the bureaucracy of warfare. I think that archives are connected to events in the past, but they can also be carried forward to new circumstances and where they can provide fresh meaning and insight on things in different ways, at different times. I think none of the material in the story could really be considered a secret in the sense that is all publicly available, but the manual, the history, and existence of the School of Americas is generally not very well known. The project attempts to reanalyze its quite secretive role in the recent historical past of Latin America and kind of reframe our perspective of recent history in the region, which in my eyes, is a perspective that could be considered to be fractured or broken. By deconstructing that document, and therefore deconstructing the language of imperialism, we are able to learn something from that.
JLCB: In previous conversations, you’ve spoken about fracturing the historical linear narrative from a Brechtian perspective and that’s exactly what you’re doing here…By using the manual and images from the Photographic Archive of the University of Milwaukee, you’re reiterating these breaks of reflection of that history – a history that has very evident links to the United States but is also very much embedded in the legacy of colonialism and the damage this has instilled in our psyches.
GS: I also think that this sheds light on the existence of the school, and the history of the school as well as its graduates. It shows how incredibly complex these kinds of geopolitical issues often are. The other thing that brings the work into the present is the fact the school still exists. You know, the manual is not used now, but the school still exists today, and Latin American soldiers are still being trained in these techniques in Georgia. Many people question: “why are these Latin American soldiers being unnecessarily militarized?” So, although it seems as though it’s part of an archive, it’s also very relevant to the present moment, it’s a living archive.
JLCB: This takes us to another question which is speaking to the moment in which we find ourselves. We’re on zoom and connecting from different countries. We´re living through a pandemic and we´re trying to find new ways to engage. It would be impossible for us to have a conversation around our exhibition without contextualizing it within what we’re currently experiencing. Would any of you feel the relevance of speaking about this? Do you feel that the present situation is somehow reflected in our exhibition?
YJ: I feel what’s happening with art, is only a small portion of what’s happening in a wider context. There are a lot of untold stories, biased narratives we´ve seen in the news in terms of how people are coping during this time. For example, who has the privilege to work from home? In terms of artists: who can afford to carry on making work in such a destructive time? I think these things relate to the idea of secrets or Broken Secrets because they´re not discussed openly enough or really be put on the table. I’ve been quite aware of the unfair grounds. We don’t share the same ground. Recently someone said to me that we do. Her son said we are all on the earth. It’s easy to make such an idealist claim and I appreciate the hope in it, but the day-to-day struggles many people are facing require us to acknowledge the huge differences. I think that really speaks to secrets, and how I’m thinking about it in the context of the pandemic.
NY: I want to talk about it from another perspective. I think there are resemblances between the current situation and the story that I worked on. When I heard about the Covid-19 outbreak in my country, I was in Dublin and I found out that my flight to Iran had been canceled. It made me so nervous and I was worried about getting back home. Finally, I returned but the situation was still complicated. I spent around three months in self-isolation, and I couldn’t see my friends and family. Every visit became restricted. I faced anxiety and loneliness that I had never experienced before. We knew that this was a temporary situation and that life would get back to normal sooner or later, so it made the situation somewhat more bearable for us. Sometimes I compare our experiences to the story of people I met in the Persian Gulf. They have been struggling with the sad feeling of separation for many years. They have encountered many regulations and impediments to travel and meet their families. It has lasted for decades and there is no hope that this will end. Another difference is in the way we deal with this feeling. The pandemic is a universal crisis that connected people more than before. We share our experiences and emotions to help each other. But my project talks about people who don’t express themselves easily. Their hopes and concerns are always latent.
JLCB: Negar, one of the things that continues to captivate me about your work, is the closed eyes of the people in your pictures. This is such a powerful motif, not just in terms of what is said or what is not said, but it provides a further metaphor in terms of photography. Who is being viewed? Who is viewing? Who’s aware of being viewed? And then there´s the idea of connection through the gaze or the lack of eye contact, which is such an important part of communication. Georgs, you show this in some of your pictures too, but you do so very differently. Some of the people you photograph also have closed eyes. In terms of your own journey in sharing the story of your family, through your camera, the Salut, how is this an essential instrument in communicating that history to audiences?
GA: The whole journey itself, my research, and the idea of having the camera and, additionally, the voice recorder, pencil, and my notebook with me in those places made me understand and re-visit the history from today’s perspective. In a framework of the exhibition Broken Secrets, I’m dealing with the documents, untold stories, and memories by other people, which have been hidden during that period of time and have started to unfold only after the collapse of the Soviet Union. This was the time when people started to uncover the truth, and I’m interested in this through the perspective of my family history. In terms of answering the question in our discussion about Covid-19, the lockdown, or the future: I think that even this very situation hides a lot of secrets, which might only be discovered after a certain period of time. At the moment it’s quite difficult to talk about it, but we can relate our projects in some senses. I´m thinking about the kinds of similarities. There are a lot of people who are facing health issues and going through economic challenges. I was also thinking about connecting this to the past. For me, the period of the journey itself was quite an uncertain time for me. I wasn’t sure how it was going to go, or what was going to happen. I had to take many risks because I went to places where I didn’t know anyone and I also wasn’t sure of how the weather condition in a polar region’s permafrost zone would affect me, my health and my working process. I was conscious of all these choices in order to face uncertainty and the fears of not understanding this future and to be taken out of my comfort zone into another one. Looking back at the testimonies and memories through reading a memoir by a woman who was writing and referring to my grandmother, I just want to read a short sentence of what she was describing. I think it fits what’s happening today but from a different perspective. She was writing this after they were sent in the cattle cars to an unknown future. They didn’t know whether they were going to see their husbands again or not, and they didn’t know where they were going. She wrote:
“If I could change into a bird, I would fly out of this cage. I can now understand how a caged animal feels. Everyone here, in the cattle car, is sitting in his own dark corner overcome with depressing thoughts. On which road will they take us? How can one escape if there is an armed guard posted at each end of the cattle car? What have we done that is so bad? We were taken by force without a trial or conviction and herded into dirty smoke-stained cattle cars.” (Memories about Siberia, Valija Kampins (1905.01.09 – 1996.10.09)
So, I think that, in some ways, this could stand in parallel because some people are being forced to stay at home, they´re restricted and I think about this experience and what we can learn from this situation and understand in a wider sense. For instance, about environmental issues, about animals and how we treat them … and this also forces us to reflect on what’s happening now in the United States in terms of racism, and all these kinds of questions. I think this is something we as humans can learn from. We can learn from history and draw lines of connection and understand that all humanity needs to develop. This lady was on the same cattle car as my grandma, so I could relate to the whole journey up until she got to Siberia. She was journaling. I was reading this on the train by myself and realized that there are two parallel worlds: one world in which I kind of understood from their perspective, and another one, which is my present place, but at the same time, I like this idea of time … time and space. In a way, it´s like time travel.
JLCB: In a way, I feel that your work has a performative element because it’s almost as if you´re subconsciously re-performing acts that came before you. For instance, you´re traveling, but then you’re also taking part in these very analog moments of silence by writing in your diary in the same way that Valija Kampins did. You´re doing this on multiple levels: both consciously and subconsciously. These reflections of yours, come out in the videos and they come out in the photography of people performing, too. Like the two people who are performing a play. In thinking about all of your work, I can definitely see many threads that link the project together. Would any of you feel a connection to one of the other artists´ work?
GS: I certainly feel that the questions in the project I was working on, heavily relate to Georgs´ project in the sense of how individuals can be affected by the implementation of power. I´m thinking about this very emotional passage that Georgs just read … you know, I think about the idea that some bureaucrat or government official, somewhere, decided that these people should be put on trains and treated as if they were a bunch of cattle, this kind of de-humanizing bureaucratic process that is often so far removed from its consequences, is often contained in documents released through the freedom of information act. It becomes clear that someone is just sending letters and making orders. It shows how objective and cold the actions of the state can be. You then see though Georgs´ project how that affects the individual and the very personal experiences that happened because of those decisions and email chains, and bureaucratic meetings.
JLCB: This is something we discussed previously, this idea of small gestures, just like what you’re describing, which then link up to horrific atrocities committed by and through the State Apparatus, much like we see in your project regarding Latin America and the dictatorships that have ensued in this part of the world.
GA: I also think that there are many similarities in relation to George´s work in terms of its multi-layered complexity, which seeks to challenge and comprehend the way in which we understand not only the archival materials but also the historical past in the present. I could also relate my work to Negar´s project as she is working and dealing with the community today, borders, and the history of the place. There are two aspects: there is this journey of displacement, and at the same time, we both look at how people are living today, their hopes and dreams, and how they perceive these historical facts. Are they aware of them? Do they influence them? How do they see these issues from their own perspectives, living in their own countries and communities? Because from our perspective, as Baltic countries, we perceived historical facts differently and for me, it´s important to see both sides. What I learned was that it´s not only about looking at the perspectives of ex-Soviet countries being displaced and the people that were tortured, but also to consider the Russian people. So, when you start studying, you realize that he (Stalin) wanted to destroy intelligent people who were against the system, and it did not matter where they were from. The labor system, the camps, all of this, is very sad and frightening.
JLCB: Interestingly, all of you, in some shape or form, deal with the idea of migration, movement, or borders. Yuxin, could you draw some links here at all or could you relate some of the themes you deal with to the other projects?
YJ: I would really like to find some strong connections, and I’m sure we each contribute in a very unique and valuable way, but I do find it difficult to locate a specific connection between my work and that of the other artists. I guess because I’m dealing with something in a way very vulgar, and something that´s often regarded as a joke. When you scroll through your phone and see something kind of hilarious and weird, you don’t really take it seriously. That’s something I picked up. I decided to take these “jokes” seriously and look at what’s behind them. When we first started to talk about our own take on the idea of Broken Secrets, I was thinking about this in roughly two dimensions: am I breaking some sort of secrets by making this body of work? Because those Instagram posts are almost disguised as if they’re normal like there’s nothing wrong with them because it´s part of the Internet popular culture that people love. They´re the kind of things that people laugh at when they go to the toilet perhaps. But also, when I think about secrets, I´m thinking about myth, and I’m thinking: whose secret is this? Who is being kept from the secret? When those photos were taken, often there was a secret going on – some information that was not shared between the subjects and the photographers. The motivation of the person who took the picture is not openly shared. I’m thinking a lot about this imbalance, which creates a secret. Then these pictures go into circulation and often become a secret pleasure in our own private spaces. We begin to consume them. I also think about secrets in relation to truth, and these images are often seen as if they are documenting some reality, but they’re not. At most, they are a mediated reality.
JLCB: Perhaps you feel that your work doesn’t speak directly to the other artists, but it definitely speaks to the topic of the exhibition. Your body of work is not only exposing secrets, but it´s actually inverting them. You are taking private moments, intimate moments, that are shared on a very public platform like Instagram, and then you edit them and present something, through “appropriation.” When we see this image, this is in and of itself an inverted secret that you are using with the motivation of exposing the truth as you see it. In this sense, it’s paradoxical. Yuxin, what do you mean when you’re using the word “vulgar” in relation to your work?
YJ: Some of these pictures are really dirty jokes. Others display “silly” behavior, “weird” things on the street, like someone doing a kind of squatting position to keep boxes still while riding a bike. You wouldn’t think these images are high culture, they’re the complete opposite of that. There is nothing artistic about them. But, in a way, what I’m also trying to do here is to elevate those so-called “vulgar” images by neutralizing them. I’m transforming these pictures into a kind of artwork within the context of the gallery space, a place they wouldn’t belong naturally. I’m challenging what we think deserves to be seen as art and, in doing so, I´m challenging the very notion of art itself.
JLCB: We also see this in the original collages you made, and how you contemplate the relationship between “high” and “low” art. You´re challenging our perspective by creating these superimpositions by using Instagram pictures alongside the figure of, say, Andy Warhol. We don´t need to get into specifics of Pop Art and how that movement historically shifted the very conception of art and its links to popular culture and consumerism, but it´s interesting to think about in terms of what you’re sharing. We´ve been taught that artistic space is a “more elevated space”, which, in my opinion, necessarily isn’t.
Negar, what about you? Do you see any relation to the other art presented in our exhibition?
NY: I think there are many things in common between my work and Georgs´. We both travel in time and we talk about something that happened in the past and we try to just bring it to life again. I want to add something about the connection between my work with the topic for the title of the exhibition. When I traveled to the Persian Gulf, I spent my days chatting with locals, old men, and women. Stories about their past intrigued me. They always talked proudly about their tradition, sailing skills, and the thriving trade, but they hardly mentioned anything about their family life unless I asked them. It made me curious to hear more about it. I asked myself: why do they ignore such an important part of their lives and avoid talking about it? The answer is rooted in our social behavior. In a small society, like villages and towns in this region, issues associated with personal life are kept private. People usually don’t open up and talk about it freely. Family life remains a closed book. In my opinion, a secret is not only about a hidden fact. When you tell a story and leave out something on purpose, you are concealing something and it remains untold. I call this a secret too.
JLCB: There is so much integrity in how you cover these stories, Negar. In terms of privacy, I´m thinking about the image of the two women with their backs to us. You show them, but you don´t reveal their identities as they walk away.
I just want to end by thanking you all. There is so much more we could talk about, but we have limitations of time. You are all opening up incredibly valuable conversations with audiences and you are challenging how we think and feel about ourselves, and about each other. Thank you.