Mail art and monumental sculpture typically inhabit very different positions within the universe of art, power, and politics. In The Head (Yakub Kolas For Detroit), Paris-based, Belarusian artist Nastassia Kotava delivers a provocative mash-up of the two forms. She began by creating a life-size paper and Styrofoam replica of the head of a statue, then collapsed it into an undersize box and mailed it to America, where it was decompressed and displayed in a small gallery on Detroit’s Southwest side.
Kotava’s sculpture of Yakub Kolas’s head, sympathetically rendered and conveying a strong sense of the Belarusian poet’s unwavering gaze, emerged from the abuses of this process surprisingly well. It certainly helped that gallery owner Dylan Spaysky, who reconstructed The Head, is an accomplished sculptor himself and collaborated closely with Kotava. The presentation emphasized the aura of the work while also allowing viewers to get literally inside Kolas’s head, where they could read its surface structure of stapled-together, glossy magazine pages. There is a somewhat pathetic quality to sending a crushed paper head through the mail, but the sculpture’s eventual reemergence with a semblance of dignity restored also sends a message of resilience and possibility.
The original statue of Kolas is located prominently in a square named after him in Minsk, the Belarusian capital. The site has been a center of ongoing protests against the autocratic regime of Alexander Lukashenko, who has ruled the country since 1994. Under Lukashenko, Belarus remains the most repressive state in Europe, scoring dead last on leading indices of press freedom and democracy. To engage in political opposition is to risk beatings, imprisonment, and other forms of violent suppression.
Yakub Kolas, who died in 1956, knew what it meant to be constantly looking over one’s shoulder. During the final years of the Tsar’s rule, he served three years in prison for participating in union activities. In the Soviet era, he was subject to regular state surveillance even while, ironically, receiving many prestigious public awards and positions. In 1926, he was named the People’s Poet of Belarus, and it is speculated that his broad popularity with the Belarusian people saved him from more severe repression.
Kotava makes one final, enigmatic gesture with her project; she proposes that The Head could be a contemporary Statue of Liberty, a sculpture created in Paris and transported to America to symbolize a shared set of beliefs. There is a calculated absurdity to this proposition, but also a serious underlying question: What are those beliefs? That we should pay closer attention to our monuments but treat them less reverentially? Or that, like Kolas with his steady gaze, we should be constantly vigilant against creeping authoritarianism? We may not know Kotava’s precise intent, but either of those interpretations would seem to fit well in the current moment in America.