Two yurts, a dome, and a stage: These four elements make up “To those who have no time to play,” a solo presentation by Gluklya (Natalia Pershina-Yakimanskaya), an artist based in Saint Petersburg and Amsterdam. Between these structures, a collection of figures stand facing the stage on which her play Antigone Update (2022) was performed during the opening and will be repeated once again this month. Their bodies are shaped from discarded formal dresses and rough canvas workers’ clothes; an eclectic series of sewing machines appear in place of their heads. Antigone Update was produced collaboratively with the Matras Platform, a collective whose members belong to the global diaspora of migrants and exiles based in Amsterdam. The cyborg sculptures are both a chorus and avatars for those involved in a much longer process of making things in common in public, an idea at the foundation of Gluklya’s practice.
In the dome, Gluklya presents video footage of the May 1 protests in Saint Petersburg. She herself joined these protests and made costumes for them. Coats, dresses, and women’s undergarments line the wall behind the dome in a separate but related work, with some new garments produced in response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and others from an earlier piece Demonstration Against False Election of Vladimir Putin, 2015. Gluklya has altered each piece of clothing to signal an idiosyncratic rejection of authoritarianism. For instance, she embroidered the legend STOP SLAVERY! in red thread across the back of a cream-colored chemise and stitched the word SORRY in a scrawl across a bright-green women’s wool coat. Small protest signs sit beneath some figures, their deadpan messages written in a delicate cursive hand, for example, PUTIN—MURDER.
A small yurt tucked into the back corner of the exhibition space represents a quieter moment in the artist’s collaborative practice. Made of draped fabric and lined with carpets and embroidered pillows, the yurt is related to a new publication, Two Diaries: Gluklya and Murad (2022). The book emerged from a series of workshops Gluklya organized in a former prison that had been repurposed to house asylum seekers and artist studios on the outskirts of Amsterdam. Cowritten with Kurdish activist Murad Zorava, the publication compares words that sound the same but mean different things, testifying to the slow process of building a sense of belonging in a foreign language.
The most visually striking structure in the show is Red Yurt, 2021–22, made from large tricolor felt panels hung in a circle on a bamboo frame. On one of these, a hybrid human/machine figure raises two hands in submission, though we don’t see to whom. Like the chorus of creatures surrounding the stage, the figure’s head is a sewing machine. The artist made panels for Red Yurt collaboratively with women laborers around Issyk-Kul, a lake in the eastern region of Kyrgyzstan, a small country sandwiched between China and Kazakhstan that is home to a significant textile industry.
In the curatorial essay, Charles Esche argues that Gluklya’s work “imagine[s] a future that adjusts to reduced material security without despair.” He is describing the fragility of her drawings, her homemade costumes, and the contingency of her material choices. Gluklya’s tenuous aesthetics anticipate the loss of Western European material comfort as political structures in place since the end of the Cold War disintegrate. Though I appreciate Esche’s focus on vulnerability, I wonder how concerned Gluklya really is with whether Amsterdammers are comfortable. Rather, the exhibition reveals formal analogies between playing, acting, protesting, and mourning—things that we need to do to make sense of the world but that are excluded from the workday in Kyrgyzstan and Amsterdam alike. Her commitment evident in each of the four projects on view in “To those who have no time to play” proposes that the time to play must be made, no matter the consequences.
— Natasha marie Llorens