The Netherlands-based artist Tamara Stoffers makes all sorts of art. Like many artists, she looks for inspiration in our collective yet personal artistic inheritance — everywhere from the carefully-curated museum exhibits that get auctioned off for millions to the little knick-knacks abandoned in the farthest corner of her local thrift shop. Her imagination, however, isn’t captured by the crowning achievements of Italy, France or Britain. Instead, Tamara’s endlessly fascinated by the USSR.
This fascination manifests in many creative ways, including colourful collages, vases in the shape of Lenin’s bust, and poetry performances in full historical getup. Today, Tamara shares some of that enthusiasm and discusses why kitschy knick-knacks, eerie propaganda posters, and other bewildering bits of history might be worth a closer look, a longer conversation, or even their own exhibition.
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As children, we often have the craziest dreams. Have you always wanted to be an artist, or did you have any bigger dreams?
I’ve been drawing and painting from a very young age. Of course, I considered different professions throughout childhood and adolescence; from becoming an archaeologist up to studying German.
Going to art school was viewed as a bad decision that would lead to a lifelong professional struggle. Considering so many options, I always came back to art. It is the only thing of which I am certain it will never get boring or monotonous. If one is tired of painting, you can try a different medium. And the amount of subjects to explore is infinite.
In my dreams, life after art school looked a bit different from reality. I imagined myself painting all day in an attic with large shelves of books. In reality, there is much more to it. If you’re only immersed in your creative process, nobody is going to see your works. But my dream came true in some way. I am currently working as an artist full-time in a small room and have a great book collection.
Looking back at your student years, what do you think young artists gain from art schools?
That depends on the tradition an art school is in line with, the one I went to in the Netherlands was postmodern. It provided a safe bubble for those who wanted to experiment in expressing themselves. It was about shaping you as an artist and constantly asking yourself why you do things a certain way or hold a specific opinion. In that sense, it is very valuable, as it accelerates your personal development and brings you in contact with people who express themselves through visual means as well.
On the flip side, little attention is paid to the technical aspects of art such as colour theory or anatomy. So, for those who want to learn how to paint like Rembrandt, I would say that this type of art school will unfortunately not bring you much closer to your dream.
What sorts of things — in art and in life — inspire you the most?
The driving force is curiosity. I’ve always wanted to understand complicated things, especially with regard to history. When a subject has my attention, it becomes a fixation. So the things I enjoy most are connected to studying the USSR and its heritage. I like to visit museums with collections of Russian avant-garde art, especially by Rodchenko. A good book or conversation can be inspiring as well. However, travelling is the most nourishing source of inspiration.
I like to travel throughout Ukraine and Poland to see the architecture and art typical of the Soviet era. You can find me walking through residential areas with large grey panel-buildings, somehow they fascinate me most. I’d sit there on a bench across from them with fresh bread and just observe in awe for hours. Just the thought of being able to experience that again motivates me to work harder.
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Tell us a bit more about what sparked your interest in the USSR. And who’s stocking these Dutch second-hand shops with Soviet memorabilia, anyway?
My interest started when I found a picture book in the second-hand shop with images of Moscow in the mid-sixties. There was something about it that made me want to see more images and objects from the time. So I started collecting.
There are many curious items in second-hand shops, but it takes quite some time to find a real ‘treasure.’ Because the shops are stocked with stuff brought in by a very diverse crowd, it is possible that people who used to have an interest in Soviet memorabilia bring in their items.
The joy of second-hand shops is that everyone considers something else to be their treasure. I can be happy for days about finding a porcelain knick-knack considered of no value to others.
Most collectors go to thrift shops very regularly, I also used to drop in at least twice a week. It takes some luck and patience to build up a nice collection, I’ve been building mine for six years.
Before fully immersing yourself in the subject, what had you learned about it from Dutch history books? How does that compare to the Russian and ex-Soviet state perspectives?
The Western perspective on history is very different from the one presented in Russia or other ex-Soviet states. From the Dutch perspective, the USSR was the opponent during the Cold War. Of course, this affects which aspects of the regime are brought to attention, such as the emphasis on the nuclear program and political repressions. There is little nuance in this portrayal.
The Russian perspective is rather complex. Talking to Russian citizens, it seems no one is indifferent with regard to history. Some view the collapse of the USSR as a great tragedy while others see it as something liberating. There are many people with personal memories and experiences on which they base their opinions. I talked to people who fondly remembered the garden plot provided to workers and the cultural events and clubs available to them. Others remembered their frustrations about the long lines in front of shops to get basic consumer goods and the shortage of housing. The nostalgia seems prevalent, but opinions are very divided.
How do you get informed about all of this?
Having close friends from Ukraine, I keep informed on their perspective. Their government has condemned the Soviet era as an occupation by a criminal totalitarian regime. In Poland, things are quite similar. Yet in Russia, there is a resurgence of appreciation for Joseph Stalin, with people considering his role in history as positive for the country. It’s very hard to grasp the consequences of either of these perspectives. I feel like the truth is much more ambiguous.
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What’s your creative process usually like? How do you construct an image?
I sit behind a desk scattered in images and flip through books. This can go on for hours, sometimes without any satisfactory result. The decision on which images should be merged is intuitive. I refrain from reflecting on this process because I am afraid understanding it would take the joy out of it.
Why do you think audiences want a ‘foreign perspective’ on how their lives are, were, and could’ve been? Are there any particular challenges to such cultural exchanges?
While making collages, at first I didn’t really consider which audience would be interested. They were first exhibited in the Netherlands. When I was invited to Moscow, I was mostly excited to present the collages in the environment I so often refer to within these works.
I don’t think my collages are a commentary on the lives of people in former Soviet countries. They are a deformation of a highly idealised version of Soviet life. Though elements of my works are recognisable to those familiar with the subject, as a whole they are not close enough to reality to reflect what life was or could have been like if history had taken a different course. It’s also not what I’d like my work present. Collages allow the viewer a freedom to create their own narrative on what they’re looking at, everyone has different associations. I don’t aim to guide them in this process of interpretation.
The challenge of presenting my work in Eastern Europe lies in the confrontation with people’s personal opinions on history. This usually shapes their judgment on my work as well. But that makes it interesting. When presenting in the Netherlands, comments usually regarded the technique of collage. In Eastern Europe, they lead to a dialogue where I mainly listen to the viewers’ experiences and associations with the content of my work. It seems that people value the collages because they allow them to reflect on the subject in a more personal and depoliticised way.
In the process of creating Soviet-inspired art, you’ve also started learning Russian. How has that changed your artistic approach and your worldview?
It has given me access to many new sources of information, such as original publications from the time. And of course, it has been very helpful in interacting with people from the former Soviet bloc. So I felt like it allowed me to dive way deeper into my subject than I could have otherwise, without knowing Russian. Soviet films became available to me, as well as music and magazines. I’m quite fond of the innocence of comedy films and songs about noisy neighbours in a communal apartment. They never fail to lift a bad mood.
I don’t think knowing Russian changed my artistic methods, but I do think it highly influenced the direction of my research. Recently I took a deep dive in political poetry from the ‘30s to see the changes in officially approved literary works from different decades. This was in preparation for a performance where I would cite these poems. Most of it hasn’t been translated. The things I found were so distant from my experience of everyday reality that they were hard to grasp. It leaves an impression.
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As you may well know, one Russian news report on your exhibition ended by panning over to one of the Lenin vases and rhetorically asking what Stierlitz would’ve thought of it. What was it like, seeing your work on a foreign newscast? And what would Stierlitz have thought?
It feels very odd to see my works on television. I was very nervous about how it would be viewed in Russia because I’m an outsider who uses their imagery in a way. Some visitors to the exhibition expressed that they felt it was disrespectful for a foreigner to take on the subject. Others were positively surprised an outsider would dedicate six years of research and art projects to their national history. Every interview I did, I was nervous about being judged negatively. Fortunately, the press reviews were overwhelmingly positive.
Regarding Stierlitz, being the good Soviet spy and model citizen that he was, he would have condemned these vases. Or at least he would consider them to be curious. I’ve rarely seen functional propaganda objects shaped like Lenin, certainly none where one can place leafy greens inside his head. The combination of this questionable object and my accent would certainly make him label me as a suspect. 
Speaking of, what’s the story behind the Lenin vases?
I’ve become quite intrigued by the image of Lenin. His image and quotes were so omnipresent within Soviet culture that he became a symbol with almost religious significance. His portraits were everywhere, sculptures were placed in public places and some comrades put him on their desk. It is easy to label those sculptures as kitsch, but it is a cult object to those believing in what it represents.
I’m curious about the fine line between art and kitsch, a tightrope propagandistic art often balances on. My way to explore this is by the distortion of symbols in quite simple ways, so they remain recognisable. The vase is one of those explorations. I imagined it and it made me smile. It’s a bit absurdist, light-hearted. And, often, I cannot let go of an idea until it has been made into something visual.
You’ve mentioned how you’re drawn to the atmosphere of the period more so than its actual imagery. How would you define this atmosphere and its appeal?
It’s very specific. The images I saw featured living areas full of the same standard housing constructed of grey panels, very uniform and neutral. Then there were the red banners with slogans everywhere. The cars on the streets were colourful and mostly of the same type. Dresses and suits seemed to all have a similar cut.
The photographs of people at work were striking, as the blue-collar worker was presented as a true hero. Everything seemed to be a political statement, from architecture to images of personal life. Yet the images had a certain awkwardness. The people pictured were clearly striking a pose.
The books are both beautiful and tragic at the same time because they projected trust in a bright future. They showed off all kinds of progress, from agricultural to new inventions. And the political goal of these books is very clear; to show how society progresses towards a secure communist future. The tragedy of course is the gap between the way life was presented and reality. And of course that the dream, which sounds good in theory, turned out to be unattainable. The images present a very complex kind of fairy tale. They feel ungraspable.
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Political dogmas aside, have you considered how the positive, bright veneer of Soviet imagery was influenced by people’s attitudes towards mental health back then?
The official imagery distributed within the USSR wasn’t concerned with representing reality, it focused on what should become reality. Because of this purpose, the expression of criticism or individual struggle was undesirable. Struggle was only displayed as something collective, productive for the development of a communist society.
I don’t think much was invested in research on mental health. Those who struggled overtly were usually secluded from society. There were little awareness and little visibility. It’s a recent development that people started talking about mental health in an open and respectful way without being shunned. I think the attitude on mental health in the USSR was mostly influenced by a lack of transparency and understanding.
Our memories are notoriously fluid, slippery yet lasting. Even now, the Poles continue to debate the fate of Warsaw’s Palace of Culture and Science and Kino’s Changes! (Перемен!) lives on as the unofficial anthem of the Belarusian protests. Why do you think that is and how can art help us make sense of it all?
Art and architecture can be read as a symbol. The Stalinist building in the very centre of Warsaw is now interpreted as an allegory for political subordination to Moscow during the era of the Polish People’s Republic. The current government views this era as a black page in Polish history. Prominent socialist heritage can cause discomfort because of this perspective.
Art and music have a wide and impactful reach. The messages and functions attributed to art are often not the ones envisioned by the artists. The meaning can change because of a shift in the context surrounding the artwork, the re-interpretation of history is a good example. Or meaning changes when a community starts using it as a symbol to support their views.
This flux of interpretation makes it difficult to tell how art can help us all make sense of what’s currently going on. But art can certainly be a valuable tool for personal reflection on hopes for the future or personal opinions and emotions. And it can help you in finding a community who feels the same way.
Seeing as your chosen subject is clearly limited by space and time, do you think you’ll ever exhaust it? Then what?
Of course, the Soviet-era has a beginning and an ending, however, the topic is so big that I don’t think I’ll be able to exhaust it. There are so many things one can zoom in on, from aspects of daily life to art and architecture. Besides, I’ve always liked to immerse and specialize in one subject. My fascinations are very constant, so I am confident the USSR will be part of my artistic research for a very long time to come.
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