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Białystok: “Wolf in a Sack” – exhibition

August 29, 2019 - October 10, 2019




Mykola Ridnyi has developed his Wolf in a Sack exhibition around history markers extending beyond material components – such as monuments, films, chopping blocks – into the performative, such as action, storytelling, and customs. The author approaches history by focusing on the contemporary, in recognition of all its complications. Elements of war waged by Russia in Ukraine include i.a. manipulation with the use of olden-day conflicts. Visions of the past, popular and referenced in contemporary political disputes in Ukraine and worldwide, are filled with brutal omissions and interpretations intended to incite social partitioning. Yet history is also widely negotiated today, subject to gradual democratisation as new media develop. People using the past for political jostling apart, history aficionados are now at work as well. More and more individuals with no professional affiliation with the world of historians have been presenting their own story of the past, wishing to be recognised therein. Acceptance for and understanding of the fact that accounts of events past shall be formed according to specific narrative rules: our knowledge of the past is arranged according to the most frequently applied patterns of storytelling and social perception (obviously affected by the media) – and discrimination symptoms ought to be recognised, attempts made to abate them[1]. Mykola Ridnyi’s Wolf in a Sack exhibition remains close to such perception of history, in all actuality fitting within the category of a fully legitimate historical expression against the background of new humanities, including a recommendation that the author’s position be revealed, while remaining open to intuitive, individual and inimitable implements of art, occasionally difficult to verify.

An anarchist bound

The Wolf in a Sack exhibition references the film medium as its point of departure, supplemented with cinematographic frame-based images and individual objects – steel-rimmed chopping blocks and trees in planting pots – and with copies of investigation paperwork produced in the early days of the USSR. Ridnyi explores the 1920s – a time of great social turbulence and of ideological and armed struggle for the territory of contemporary Ukraine – with a focus on anarchists. In his quest for an archetype, he has compiled scenes from films about anarchists produced in the USSR over fifty years: Ivan Perestiani’s Little Red Devils (1923), Leonid Lukov’s Aleksandr Parkhomenka (1942), Samson Samsonov’s Optimistic Tragedy (1963), and – last but not least – Aleksandr Mitta’s Shine, Shine, My Star (1970). In doing so, he has identified a rather absurd leitmotiv: an anarchist is always stuffed into a sack. In the Little Red Devils, for example, Nestor Makhno allows himself to be misled by two teenagers and an African American, all wearing Budenovka hats. Yes indeed: let me reiterate that a Soviet 1923 film features a young girl, young boy, and an African American as victorious protagonists. The same picture presents appreciation-targeting actions intended to provide equal opportunities to depreciated communities – something we could also applaud today – while depriving other groups of empowerment. Makhno, leader of an autonomous grassroot movement, creator of the anarchist Huliajpole Republic, effective defeater of bolsheviks and followers of Anton Denikin and Symon Petlura at assorted times and in assorted situations, commander of an army of 100,000 at the peak of his strength – is captured and stuffed into a sack by the valiant threesome. Deprived of strength, awe, and dignity. In his sack, he is less than a prisoner: he loses his humanity. A sack may be whacked till dust flies. It’s simply hilarious when the sack makes a banging sound. The motif of neutralising an anarchist with the use of a sack passes from one film to another, undergoing slight modification in the 1970s. In Shine, Shine, My Star, anarchists intending to shoot the public (noble-hearted peasants who had unquestioningly handed their entire assets over to the kolkhoz) from the stage of a theatre housed by an atheised Orthodox church are collectively captured into the theatre curtain doubling up as a bag. The switch from the sack to the curtain ties in with a change in the array of daily use objects. While the sack was no longer such an item, it continued to be used to the purpose of neutralising anarchists.


[1] Por. Krzysztof Pomian, Historia – dziś (History – Today), in: Historia – dziś. Teoretyczne problemy wiedzy o przeszłości (History – Today, Theoretical Problems of Knowledge of the Past), ed. Ewa Domańska, Rafał Strobiecki, Tomasz Wiślicz, Cracow 2014, pp. 19-38.