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Reflect-Narva: Seeking answers to a burning question in -17 degree weather

Reflect-Narva.
Reflect-Narva. Source: Andrea Stanislav

Jerry Mercury asks Andrea Stanislav about the performance "Reflect-Narva" and its place in the context of the artist's creative life.

Would you be ready to articulate your greatest wish to a person coming up to you in the street? Would you want to share your wish with the rest of the world?

On the eve of the new year 2024, residents and guests of Narva had the opportunity to reveal to the world their deepest wishes. The mediator in this process was Andrea Stanislav, an American artist who works globally.

To fulfill this mission, the performer Andrea Stanislav came from faraway lands to Estonia. She started her performance on the Narva River Promenade on December 31, dressed in a mercury silver garment covered with thousands of mirrored pin-buttons, which like drops of mercury, created countless mini-worlds that reflected the world around her. This explains the name of the event Reflect-Narva, the 12th iteration of the artist's ongoing global migrating public performance – Reflect, which is both a public spectacle and a transaction of sharing between the performer and public. That is how Andrea describes Reflect: "Performers walk traversing urban and venue settings until their wearable sculptures are diminished by giving away the mirrored buttons (one at a time) to the public in trade for each individual's photograph — and an answer to a site-specific question that is recorded by audio." Later, the performers' costumes are transformed so that the buttons reflect the faces of the very people who have answered the question, while the recording of their answers is played for all to hear. The question asked of the public participants in Narva was "What is your New Year's wish?"

Andrea Stanislav, Reflect-Narva. Each button is 1" in diameter, handmade, with silver reflective mylar. Source: Andrea Stanislav

Andrea Stanislav is of Czech and mixed German/Eastern European genealogy. Born in Chicago, Andrea grew up in a bohemian environment of classical and jazz musicians. Since the early 1990s, she has worked as an interdisciplinary artist based in New York City. Since 2018, the artist has also been working as professor of sculpture at Indiana University, Bloomington, which became a place of our virtual acquaintance. But our actual meeting with Andrea took place on a winter evening in one of Tallinn gastro-pubs, where she agreed to share with me some details about the concept of the Reflect-Narva performance. Our conversation went beyond the discussion of this event becoming a full-fledged interview in which the artist shared her views on art and life values.

What are your hobbies?

My hobbies include running (I have a past life as a marathon runner), and heading to the weekly NYC Basenji meet-ups with CY, my Basenji dog (CY is short for Chuck Yeager the American test pilot). I also enjoy collecting, sourcing, and thrifting for vintage 1970-80's clothes…a nostalgic guilty pleasure.

Andrea Stanislav with CY in Kohtla-Nõmme, Estonia, 2019. Source: Andrea Stanislav

When and how did you start doing performances? Why did you choose this genre?

Performance art found me, while I was a student at The School of The Art Institute of Chicago (SAIC), and was inducted into the Rubber Bullet performance art group, which then performed nationally. Performance is one facet of my hybrid art practice.

Do you work in any other art genres?

My work also includes sculpture, multimedia installation, public art and collage constructions. Through spectacle or experiential immersion projects, my work questions how histories re-contextualize in the present – focusing on themes of genocide, migration, space exploration, and utopian/dystopian constructs.

Do you often visit Estonia? Have you had any of your performances here before?

Since 2019 I have visited Estonia at least once a year. Reflect-Narva is my first public performance in Estonia. I had an exhibition "You Can't Get There on a Goat" at the Narva Arts Residency (NART) last fall 2022 and was fortunate to travel to Estonia multiple times that year for the NART arts residency and exhibition. Estonia continues to be a place of personal and cultural informants towards my art.

What do you think about the country?

I believe people can fall in love with places in addition to people, and I currently am in love with Estonia – the culture, cities, people, land, and nature. When I return, it feels like coming home – more so than the U.S.

What about your dog?

And my dog loves Estonia!

How would you describe the concept behind the performance Reflect?

The sculpture is given away in parts to the public in trade for their photographs, and a recorded answer to a question that pertains to the performance's particular place and time.

Where has Reflect been performed before?

It has been performed globally including the (2013) Moscow Biennial, RU; The 2nd Environmental Biennial, in Finland; St. Petersburg, RU: New York City, Key West, Minneapolis, Fargo, Palm Desert, CA; and Frankfurt, KY. via an interactive sculpture/walk or dance choreography, amongst other venues.

Reflect in New York. Source: Andrea Stanislav

Why did you choose Narva as a venue?

Reflect was conceptually conceived in 2009 as a globally migratory performance about sharing through transaction, and a visualization of a global community, through public spectacle, and the accumulation of portrait photos and audio recordings of participants. Over the past few years, it was an organic evolution for Reflect to be in Estonia. As the war continued into a second year, I intuitively envisioned Reflect happening on the Estonian/Russian border, and that all of Reflect's past global performances led to the Narva performance, being the most gravely profound. In my mind, there was no question Reflect needed to be performed at that time and at that location… I was an artist in residence at NART, and the performance was my project proposal for my December residency. Narva became a touchstone as a significant and complex location, muse and research subject in my work through my 2022 residency at NART, which led to this performance Reflect – with Narva's public as the focus.

What happens to the walking sculpture in the end?

After the walk, the digital photos collected through the transaction, are hand-made into black and white "portrait" buttons and are attached to the garment sculptures – replacing the open areas on the garments where the mirrored buttons once were. These black and white portraits of all those who interacted with the work, reassemble the community onto the wearable sculpture, and/or the portrait-covered sculpture garments are exhibited in a gallery, accompanied by the recorded audio of the participants' answers to the performance's question.

Can you recall some examples of the previous questions in other Reflect events?

For Moscow there was a question "What is your most meaningful memory of love in Metro?" And for the New York event performed on the 10th anniversary of the 9/11: "What was the most meaningful memory of that day? Or: "Where were you during that day?"

Looking at these photographs more closely, I can see that the other performer is already wearing buttons with black and white portraits, while you are wearing mirrored buttons... Why so?

For Moscow Biennial, we performed the project over the duration of two weeks… for such long performances we may wear the photo buttons as we begin production on location… and eventually perform a walk with the garments completely covered in photos instead of mirrors.

Reflect in Moscow. Source: Andrea Stanislav

How did you choose the question for people in Narva? What were the most impressive answers that you remember?

For Reflect-Narva, it became symbolically important to perform on New Year's Eve, with the current state of global politics, wars and conflicts. The more I thought about more complex questions the more my intuition led me back to a simple but also urgent question – "What is your New Year's wish?" It was the first time in the 14 years of this ongoing performance where almost 99 percent of the answers were the same or similar for "the war to stop and peace between Russia and Ukraine." I think that the unanimous similar answers, defined this iteration of the performance.

What was your own answer to this question?

My answer was the same – for the war to end peacefully, with the additional wish for the end of the even increasing global fascism and historical illiteracy.

How many people participated in the performance? Did the result of the event meet your expectations?

We had about 120 people who participated in the performance overall. I was surprised by the outside turnout with the temperature being -17°C, and there were more people outside than I had expected it being New Year's Eve. Their reactions when I asked the question were often emotional including anger and sorrow… much more emotional than expected. The results of the performance exceeded my expectations — this was the most poetically and politically charged location Reflect has been performed to date. The location that afternoon was sublime in its winter beauty and peacefulness — hopefully a harbinger of future peace in 2024, and a good omen for the participants' wishes. Everything went as I had hoped it to — except I needed to wear three layers of polar underwear and a ski jacket under the sculpture garment to keep warm, making my movement a little stiff, and I felt like the Michelin Man, but I was warm.

Reflect-Narva. Source: Andrea Stanislav

Do you believe that it can change something in the current situation?

I believe the arts have the power to transcend division, politics and war. I participate globally in professional art and culture communities where people of different origins create, collaborate and work in peace, while discussing openly global politics. There is a great respect amongst us. I am fortunate and hopeful as these communities transcend global politics – because ultimately, we are here to create and share our art. Societies are eradicated when their culture is.

Do you generally believe that performance can change something in the world?

I'm not sure that a single performance can change the world… none come to mind and I'd like to be proven wrong, but I consider my art and that of others in the words of Walt Whitman, "Like a stone into a pond, an article of that sort may spread out its concentric circles of consequences." I believe my art is an experience of ideas that can shift in small conscious or subconscious ways how the viewers/participants perceive their reality, and can activate it as a gift that becomes part of their daily life and memories. Performance can create a space to bring people together instead of dividing and fracturing.

According to you, what is the main difference between performance and theater? What do you prefer and why?

Performance art often derives from the artist's and/or participants' emotions and feelings being directly experiential, often blurring the lines between the performer and the audience. Performance art may exist without a story or narrative, whereas theater interprets a narrative as a three-act structure or another construct with defined boundaries between the audience and performers. I've always been fond of Marina Abramovic's thought on the subject – that the difference between performance art and theater is that in performance art the blood is real, and in theater the blood is fake.

What do you think about contemporary art in general?

By definition, "contemporary" reflects and frames the time we live in. My feelings on contemporary art are as follows — some days I wake up on the jaded side of the bed where I feel contemporary art is a vacuous and exhausted art form, and then other days I wake up, where I'm completely driven and thrilled with the future, potential and deep value of contemporary art, and my personal projects. Also, from a U.S. perspective, I believe we're experiencing a complex phase, where all art is at risk of being re-contextualized, and forced into the absolute present with insidious labels – without consideration, thought or understanding for the maker, time, and culture it was made. The societal phenomenon of accelerated time, and diminishing of focus and memory which social media has created – all these are contributing to this false need for conformity and division through labels and identity politics. This is dangerous…a century-old replay of fascism disguised as liberalism.

What are your artistic plans for the future?

I am currently working on a sculpture commission for TMORA in Minneapolis, including a collaborative music component with Jesse Gelaznik, a New York-based contemporary classical composer, and musician. I plan to continue to work collaboratively with musicians and dancers to create experiential and immersive installations and public art. My next media installation will be based on the Slavic fairytale of the Vodyanoy, merged with an autobiographical reflection on a past relationship and death, filmed in my ancestral home of Stráznice, Czech Republic. I'm also working on a new body of collage constructions for my gallery Melissa Morgan Fine Arts in Palm Desert, California. I love the framework of a gallery, and my collage works provide a different working mode, focusing on the handwork and weaving of the collage elements. I look forward to continuing to work with the curators and gallerists who believe in and understand my work. My projects would not happen without them.

Stráznice, Czech Republic. Source: Andrea Stanislav

What are your top personal values?

Honoring the value of self-preservation and intuition, and through that, you are then capable of fully valuing art, love, friendships and collaborations… while practicing acceptance and gratitude. And last, but not least I value democracy and freedom.

What is your greatest dream?

To have a long and productive creative life, making meaningful art and a feature film from my studio-home in Stráznice, Czech Republic.

What would you wish to the readers of this interview?

I wish the readers of this interview freedom of self-expression, peace, and to take charge to make their dreams and wishes come true.

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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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