Still from the video 'Portrait of the Tree I', Olga Kisseleva, 2019

Trees of Memory: They Saw Everything Interview with Kateryna Semenyuk and Oksana Dovgopolova

As an artist, Olga Kisseleva works with nature, mainly by analyzing the subject of the correlation between historical experiences and attendant elements of nature. From August till September the Center for Contemporary Art Łaźnia II located in Polish city Gdańsk has been the place where Olga’s exhibition ‘Trees of Memory: Roots and Runners’ takes place. In the conversation with the curators of the exhibition, Oksana Dovgopolova and Kateryna Semenyuk, we discover contexts and methods of French the artist. 

the curators of the exhibition, Oksana Dovgopolova and Kateryna Semenyuk, photo by Bogna Kociumbas

Vera Zborovska: Having seen Olga Kisseleva’s works I reached the conclusion that trees are her main tools for expression. 

Kateryna Semenyuk: Olga Kisseleva worked with plants and art&science tools for a long time. She has been participating in the Eden project for many years now. It is a science and media art project, which has a complex and multi-layered goal –– to treat the plant as a collocutor, to heal the wounds inflicted on the plant world by our civilization, and restore the extinct species.

With the help of special technical means, the Eden project team began “listening to” the voices of trees by reading electromagnetic impulses coming from their trunks. As the curators of projects aiming to preserve the memory, we felt that this is an appropriate language, consonant with our searches. 

VZ: Was this project the thing that began your interest with Kisseleva?

KS: We have paid attention to her project dedicated to the elm tree in the French city of Biscarrosse. This elm tree witnessed the city’s history for several centuries and had a particular symbolic meaning. It is believed that the Biscarrosse Elm is the oldest elm tree in Europe. It was planted in 1350 and unfortunately died in 2010 due to the climate change. Local people wanted to preserve the memory of the elm. The artist suggested taking a complicated but brilliant solution –– by using the DNA of a dead tree, they tried to create a new plant that would be resistant to the effects of the climate challenge.

A new tree that carries the DNA of the old one has grown in the same place. The memory of centuries is present here, but they’re encapsulated in a new body. This is a very important message for us. It is impossible to reproduce the past exactly the way it happened. But this does not mean that it is completely gone. A new living creature carries memory in itself, not hindered by the fact that it is numerically different. This is important: they didn’t create an artificial monument made of metal, but rather a living creature. It is impossible to reconstruct the past. But memory can become a part of a new life.

‘Trees of Memory: Roots and Runners’ exhibition, photo by KociumbasBogna

VZ: How did Olga Kisseleva come up with the idea for this exhibition?

KS: Olga Kisseleva has never intentionally worked with the topic of memory before. We have looked closely at her artistic practices and presented our point of view to her as well as our idea of the tree as a vessel of memory. Olga Kisseleva agreed to cooperate with us on working with the memory of the Babyn Yar tragedy. In 2019, the artist, together with a team of French scientists, visited Babyn Yar to collect data for their work. Then, on the basis of the processed data, a graphic visualization was created –– voices and portraits of black poplar and maple.

VZ: Is there a special reason for this exhibition to be shown in Poland?

Oksana Dovgopolova: The idea of working with common traumas uniting Ukraine and Poland was important for us. The wound of the Holocaust has gone through the body of each country in its own way, but nevertheless, we all are trying to work through the tragic past. The Auschwitz death camp, created by Nazi Germany on the Polish territory, became the symbol of the Holocaust for the whole world. There were no death camps on the territory of Ukraine. Nevertheless, the nightmare of the Holocaust also spread across the territory of our country.

Our project is dedicated to the memory of the massacres in Babyn Yar. In the last days of September 1941, in the ravine of Babyn Yar, the Nazis shot more than 33 thousand Kyiv Jews. This was the part of the so-called Holocaust by the Bullets, or the Holocaust before Auschwitz. All over the world, the word Holocaust evokes the image of Auschwitz –– a death “enterprise” that was created by the Nazis in the territory of Poland. But in 1941 hundreds of thousands of Jews, Roma and mentally disabled people were shot dead, near their homes in Ukraine. Describing this, the French priest Patrick Debois introduced the term Holocaust by the Bullets.

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The dissolution of the Soviet Union, the ensuing economic crisis, inflation, the patriarchal system of society, the Orange Revolution, Euromaidan, a change of power and then war;  in a brief portrait of modern Ukraine, these would be the main characteristics. Contemporary Lynx has picked five of Ukraine’s top artists, who are known for communicating directly with audiences using the international language of Art, and revealing Society’s state; it’s essence.

VZ: So, do You believe that the analysis of this trauma could help other affected nations too?

OD: It was important for us to show our project in Poland to outline the field of this common trauma. We also tried to  focus on the specifics of the tragedy of the Second World War from the perspective of Central Europe, which both Poland and Ukraine are parts of. 

Our project about the memory of the Second World War is an attempt to find the way of talking about the tragic past that will allow us to get a new point of view, to see the common field of pain to create a vision of the future in which we understand each other better.

 In addition, this project had a diplomatic component. It is implemented in partnership with the Ukrainian Institute and is part of the Visualise program, which’s main goal is to promote cultural projects from Ukraine globally and to establish institutional partnerships.

‘Trees of Memory: Roots and Runners’ exhibition, photo by Bogna Kociumbas

VZ: The works presented at the exhibition present events that took place in Ukraine. The exhibition itself takes place in Gdańsk, Poland. Do you think that this affects the way they’re understood by the audience?

KS: We would like to look for a universal language that is not tied to geography. In this case, it seems to us that the difference is not in the perception of the artistic language by the viewer coming from a particular country. We believe the difficulty is rather caused by the understanding of the historical context. This is the reason why we recorded a curatorial tour and presented it in the exhibition space. We tell the story of the tragedy and the place after the events of 1941-43 and also show some contemporary footage from the Babyn Yar.

At the same time, the first thing we visited in Gdańsk was Westerplatte –– the place where the Second World War began 82 years ago. It is located literally a kilometer away from the Center for Contemporary Art Łaźnia II, where our project Trees of Memory: Roots and Runners is presented. For us, as the curators of the project, this was not intentional to present it so close to place of such a historic importance, but it was an important addition.

VZ: Could You tell us about the related events? Why were exactly these topics chosen?

OD: The exhibition was accompanied by a public program that included discussions about the concept of the exhibition and peculiarities of using art&science tools in commemorative projects, as well as a general discussion of practices of working with traumatic past through the means of art. We would like to mention the international discussion Mapping the Memory by Means of Art, which we did together with the ŁAŹNIA and the Ukrainian Institute as a part of the Ars Electronica festival.

Together with artist Krzysztof Wodiczko and professor of cultural studies and media research at the University of Łódz Ryszard Kluszczyński, we discussed how to work with the tragic past if we were not there to witnesses it. Does an artist have to recreate the nightmarish reality to comprehend it? Or do they have to produce an indirect statement to hold the dignity of the victims and those included in the artist’s study? We face the issue of the representation’s limits.

In addition to the exhibition, there were also some side events: discussion between Olga Kisseleva and Prof. Ryszard W. Kluszczyński on  August 26, on  August 28 the artist and Sylwia Chutnik and Jana Szostak held a discussion panel titled ‘Can We Still Be Good… Together?’ September 10, the Mapping the Memory by Means of Art was taking place at Ars Electronica festival

Although these events have already passed, the exhibition runs from August 13 to September 30, so you can still visit the Center for Contemporary Art Łaźnia II before it ends.

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About The Author


Graduate of film and audiovisual culture at the University of Gdańsk, advertising and public relations at the Oles Honchar Dnipro National University, and finance and credit at the Zaporizhzhia National University. Fascinated with cinematography.

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