This Magazine

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

March-April 2011

This45: Mark Kingwell on illustrator Olia Mishchenko

Mark KingwellWebsite

Detail of "2005 of the Top 3000" (2005) by Olia Mishchenko. Collection of Art Gallery of Ontario, image courtesy Paul Petro Contemporary Art.

Detail of "2005 of the Top 3000" (2005) by Olia Mishchenko. Collection of Art Gallery of Ontario, image courtesy Paul Petro Contemporary Art.

“A bee puts to shame many an architect in the construction of her cells,” Karl Marx noted. “But what distinguishes the worst architect from the best of bees is this, that the architect raises his structure in imagination before he erects it in reality.” Born in Kiev in 1980 and based in Toronto since 1997, artist Olia Mishchenko uses a paraphrase of this passage to situate her work. Bees perform a collective algorithm larger than any individual, while architects are engaged in singular imaginative play, a poesis, that brings forth something new. The tension between the plan and the realized built form—the translation of thought into reality—is a creative crucible, like the battle between paint and canvas, ink and paper, body and field of play.

But whereas Marx falls firmly on the side of the architect and human imagination, and thus allows architects more of the Fountainhead-style self-congratulation that can make them so obnoxious, Mishchenko’s whimsical renderings of collective construction are just as unstable as the buildings being erected in them. Or are they even buildings? In work after work, armies of tiny cartoonish figures—running children, dogs, people on bicycles—enact coordinated but uncanny undertakings, building and playing, laughing and working, leaving behind piles of materials, tools, ramps, walkways, and rickety towers as they venture across sometimes long horizontal vistas of creation. The details offer ambiguous and sometimes disturbing narratives. Who are the children? What are the structures for? What is the social system that calls them forth?

I have one Mishchenko drawing, untitled like all of them from this period, and in it there are no figures at all, just an apparently abandoned minaret fashioned of waterwheels, boxes, and large canisters full of clothing. Is it a dump or a supply centre, a folly or a shrine? And where are the usually busy figures, with their game boards and ladders and rope pulleys, their walking sticks and trunks of hewn wood? The absence is provocative. Mishchenko doesn’t celebrate architecture, she investigates the very idea of shared space, of public meaning, of makers and made. In their lighthearted manner, these joyous political artworks offer fresh sketches of the place where individual identity meets its collective other.

Mark Kingwell Then: This Magazine editorial board member, 1998–2001. Now: Professor of Philosophy at the University of Toronto and author of 15 books in political and cultural theory.
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