Marija Nemčenko on exhibition and event series BRUT
Marija Nemčenko's exhibition and event series BRUT tries to recontextualise the debates surrounding the beauty or ugliness of Brutalism, adding more nuanced philosophical, historical and artistic viewpoints
In Marija Nemčenko’s exhibition and event series BRUT, she presents artworks and discourse on the subject of Brutalist architecture. This would likely pique the interest of The Brutalism Appreciation Society – a closed Facebook group. Its 57,637 members variously post, like and comment on images of Brutalist architecture. As might be expected, there’s an emphasis on a certain black and white, geometric aesthetic. While this might signal a resurgence of interest in what’s always been a controversial style of building, public opinion is still weighted against the concrete functionalism that Brutalism is often taken to represent.
Nemčenko has been working on BRUT for two years since graduating from her Masters in Fine Art at Glasgow School of Art in 2016. At one point, she was invited to research and exhibit in Kaunas, Lithuania, for a period of time. As part of her engagement with the local community, she presented a talk in a library with a London-based artist. “The conversations I had with people sparked further interest in the project – how the people who live in there see these districts, and how it contrasts to my own views when I came and saw the building from a really different [more romantic] perspective.” One woman, as Nemčenko describes it, was really unhappy with the flats that Nemčenko was describing in her talk. At the time, the woman exclaimed: “Can you see how we live? It’s a black hole!”
“There’s just so many layers and representation to [Brutalism] and a lot of times people dismiss it in a simplistic way,” Nemčenko elaborates. “In Lithuania, there is a lot of ill-feeling towards these neighbourhoods, as they are taken to represent a Soviet legacy. However, this is also not true, as the architects of these buildings were influenced by Western architecture and were trying to bend the rules to be inspired by Le Corbusier and Scandinavian architectures.” Nemčenko describes Lithuania as being thought of at the time as the West of the Soviet Union. “The visions on which those districts were built are completely different to what they are actually seen as now.”
Glasgow formed a point of comparison for Nemčenko, and she took interest especially in the regeneration of the city in the second half of the 20th century. There are notable differences, for example the Modernist turn in Glasgow came at the expense of some of the Victorian architecture, whereas in Lithuania, 70% was rural before the new neighbourhoods that restructured the whole country. Taking cue from some of the changes in Glasgow that came during the 60s and after, Nemčenko includes prints from images of the M8 motorway in her exhibition. “It’s quite an overwhelming sight when you’re standing next to it. It’s quite overpowering and aggressive.” There’s also a print of a building from Anderston Cross of one of the ‘new vision’ buildings, half-demolished after a realisation that it wasn’t working.
For the public event BRUT on 7 May, Nemčenko has invited several prominent speakers to consider the histories, legacies and issues of Brutalist architecture. One of the speakers is Pablo Arboleda, an architect and writer. “His talk is based on studying unfinished public works in Italy. Since the 1950s, as part of the motive of modernisation, there were public plans to make new buildings but due to corruption and mafia influences, these were never finished. He’s part of a group of artists documenting these buildings, and his work considers how these spaces could be used for cultural movements and be used as modern ruins. He’s thus coming from a sustainable perspective, and wondering how it’s possible to avoid always building anew and using more and more materials. Instead, how can people reuse something that exists as a ruin?” These ideas are also related to the Scottish context by Edward Hollis, who is one of the spearheading figures of the conversion of the Modernist ruin in Cardross, St Peter’s Seminary.
Also presenting is Evelina Simkute, who started the organisation Šilainiai Project that supported Nemčenko’s residency in Kaunas. She has hosted many international artists, as well as different international political visitors, giving them tours of the city. “She did loads of great work with the community there, and her talk covers the perspective of more socially-engaged art in Lithuania, and relates to back where the project started.” She will be talking alongside a philosopher Egidijus Bagdonas from Lithuania. As Kaunas will be the City of Culture in 2022, they are working together on Fluxus Labas, which will bring together the community and artists in a creative lab to raise problems and strategise solutions.
Renowned architectural commentator Owen Hatherley will also be present on the day. Nemčenko has taken important inspiration from his writings, and she excerpts one particular passage from Militant Modernism: “Curiously enough, for an aesthetic so often blamed for demolishing the warren-like streets and rookeries, the remnants of brutalism are in the popular imagination precisely what the old slums always were – places of crime and intrigue, places where you could easily get lost, where strange people do strange things, and from whence revolt and resistance might just emerge." An important argument is also made in Militant Modernism that the preservation of the Modernist styles of architecture also often comes with a gentrification of the districts, and “this takes away from what the architecture was built for, the working class.” By removing the people for whom the buildings were intended, there is a compromising of the essence of the purpose of these buildings themselves, and makes them “empty shells for privatisation.”
However, the event is intended to be as comfortable and accessible as possible. People can come and go, without feeling pressured to arrive at the beginning of the day or required to stay put for entire talks. Lunch and refreshments will be provided, too. Incorporating more hands-on activities, Nemčenko will be leading workshops on screenprinting when people can make tote bags decorated with the Brutalist building graphic from the poster for BRUT. “That will happen simultaneously with the talks, so if they don’t feel like listening they can come to the workshop.”
Some of the structure of the event is inspired by one of the speakers, documentary filmmaker and photographer Chris Leslie, who will finish the day by talking about his work documenting the disappearing communities of the high rises and his famous work, Disappearing Glasgow. “Although my exhibition is part of Glasgow International, we’re hoping to reach out to visitors that might not usually come to those kinds of events,” Nemčenko explains. Taking cue from Leslie’s work and encounters with people, her interest is to incorporate as far as possible the voices of the people who live in the buildings, and realising the ultimate importance is not whether these buildings are beautiful or ugly, but that they are a kind of accomodation that managed to work well for a lot of people.