Haim Sokol Witness, Moscow


Haim Sokol “Witness” (2011) Marat Guelman Gallery, Moscow

In his first solo exhibition at the Marat Guelman Gallery, Haim Sokol follows Georgio Agamben’s concept of ‘Witnessing’, which this celebrated Italian philosopher developed in 1998 in relation to the Holocaust. Sokol extends the problem of the marginalization of Jews to the realm of contemporary Russia, when he draws parallels between the migrant workers currently flooding into Moscow and Jews. Through his art works Sokol suggests that the migrant workers have fallen into the category of the “inhuman” in a similar way to how Agamben describes Jews in Nazi Germany.

The artist goes as far as to install a large neon sign which reads “Desinfektion” (2011), a straight borrowing from what was found in concentration camps to disguise the gas chambers.

Haim Sokol Desinfektion (2011) Neon tube, wood, 120х30 cm
Migrant workers in the modern era of civil intolerance, according to the artist, are in the same position as were the Jews. In the text for the exhibition Sokol writes: “Nothing in the long run has changed since Auschwitz, just as the Jews today are the refugees, illegal immigrants, guest workers, and all of us …in this sense Vienna is not very different from Moscow. In this situation, as an artist, I only have to testify.”

The show includes two video works. In one he films seven workers standing still in a courtyard, dressed in heavy-duty fabric which is normally used for cleaning. The workers are wrapped in the manner of Roman togas worn over their clothing of T-shirts and polyester pants. Filmed slightly from the above, the workers seem more like slaves of the Roman empire when viewed by the Emperor.

Haim Sokol Witness video, Marat Guelman gallery 2011
In the video “Witness” (2011), the artist documents a stray dog which sits on a busy Moscow street. Its obvious state of abandonment is a poignant metaphor for the status of an immigrant. A wall-size map of Russia, cut from black fabric and framed by a heavy-duty white fabric, is titled “Hole”. It confronts us with a country which should be ashamed of its nationalistic attitudes.

It’s hard to ignore the racial remarks in Moscow where people openly use derogative terms such as Gastarbeiter or “Churka” (which literally means ‘piece of wood’) to describe workers who have come from the ex-Soviet republics of Central Asia, which were part of the USSR only 20 years ago. Now these immigrants are driven by the work opportunities in Moscow, which has accumulated loads of wealth and can afford to dispatch all the ‘dirty work’ to people whose skin color happens to be different.

The arrival of guest workers in Moscow has created a multitude of problems among them a renaissance of nationalism and bloody attacks. Surprisingly, artists only started to comment on this issue about four years ago. One relevant project was “Gastarbeiters of Spirit” Voina’s last exhibition for which they created a controversial video where two foreign workers are hung in a supermarket.

VOINA celebrated Moscow City Day by executing through hanging one Russian homosexual, LGBT Jewish activist and three illegal migrant workers inside the city’s biggest supermarket «Auchan».
Today at a time when migrant workers are an object of fear and hated, art circles are trying to alert others about the emotional discrimination which takes place on a day to day basis. In this exhibit, Sokol creates a moving account of a social plague which has currently contaminated Russia. The next step will be to engage the workers in a creative process and treat them equally as talented people able to create contemporary art as well.

Haim Sokol (b. 1973) grew up in the Soviet Union and immigrated to Israel at the age of seventeen. Returning to Russia after 17 years, he became a staple of the burgeoning Moscow art scene. In 2006, Sokol became a member of UNESCO’s International Association of Visual Arts. His works have been exhibited at top galleries in different countries including Russia, USA, UK, Greece and Israel.

Haim Sokol Dead Letters, 2009 displayed at Witness Marat Guelman 2011