Maria Kapajeva, Dream Is Wonderful, Yet Unclear

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Milda Books (here). Silk-screen printed clothbound softcover with end-flaps and open spine Swiss binding, 170 x 240 mm, 304 pages, with 244 color reproductions (photographs, cutouts, and archival materials). With essays by Elena Semyonova and Philipp Dorl, and an author interview by Liisa Kaljula, in Estonian, Russian, and English. Design by Jaan Evart. In an edition of 600 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.) 

Comments/Context: Kreenholm textile mill was founded in 1857 by the German industrialist Ludwig Knoop. Situated on an island in the middle of the Narva River, on the Estonia/Russia border, it had convenient access to water power and a workforce from nearby population centers (St. Petersburg is 75 miles away). The mill designed and manufactured cotton fabric. In time it became the largest clothing mill in Russia and one of the largest in the world, employing 12,000 workers at its peak, spread across several buildings. Just across the river, the eponymous settlement Narva developed into a company town, providing a steady labor pool in exchange for a modicum of career security. Its workers may have had limited prospects, but their livelihoods seemed safe. But nothing lasts forever. After the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1991 and Estonian independence a few years later, Kreenholm was thrown to the wolves of privatization. The mill was never able to find its footing in the global supply chain. In 1996 it began introducing “redundancies”—a euphemism for downsizing—and in 2009 it closed for good. Narva’s residents are still wrestling with the boom-bust aftermath. 

The hulking shell of Kreenholm and its dismal fate provides the backdrop for Maria Kapajeva’s monograph Dream Is Wonderful, Yet Unclear. The title comes from the lyrics to an old Soviet movie anthem describing the tale of a female weaver and the glory of hard work. For Kapajeva, the phrase is personal. “When I was a kid, I dreamt to be like my mother—a textile designer,” the book begins. Following her mother’s cue, Kapajeva began tinkering with fabric patterns at an early age. An early spread of hand-drawn Disney characters reveals a little girl with artistic proclivities, and also the creeping globalism which would eventually doom Kreenholm. When the mill shut down, Kapajeva’s mom (Natalja Kapajeva, to whom the book is dedicated) was out of work, and Kapajeva was out a childhood dream. 

The impact of mass layoffs on the surrounding community is a casebook example of post-industrial disruption. But in tragedy is opportunity, and for Kapajeva closure provided an opening. Kreenholm became her artistic muse, eventually spawning a variety of interwoven approaches in a multimedia project. The titular sub-project features the phrase Dream Is (Un)Clear lettered neon tubing, in Russian, with the prefix “un” blinking on and off to create alternate meanings. Mapping My Mother recreates her mother’s design as a rubber stamp. The Bright Way employs a dancer to perform inside the old mill. Cutbacks collages archival mill photographs with Photoshop background effects. Group Photo is a slideshow displaying sections of old group portraits, capped by a recent group photograph made by Kapajeva herself. 12,000 stamps a logo onto fabric, in homage to the 12,000 jobs lost at Kreenholm. Diaries Of A Textile Worker features selections from the daily journal of a former mill worker. Ironically the mill exterior is never shown, but its presence is felt by all.

Each of these sub-projects is a lot to take in on its own, and their power is even more staggering in combination. It’s a challenge for any book to give them all proper attention, and in fact Dream Is Wonderful, Yet Unclear was not originally designed as a book. In its original incarnation in 2017 it took up most of a building on the former mill site, a multiroom installation for the (first ever) Narva Art Residency. A physical show probably remains the project’s most suitable form. But alas, the pandemic has limited such opportunities. Exhibitions scheduled for Ireland in 2020 have been cancelled. So this monograph is the best outlet for now. 

The translation into book form presents challenges and opportunities. One aspect which Kapajeva has advantaged to good use is the book’s cover. It’s composed of deep pink cloth with hand-stamped gold flowers adopted from one of her mother’s templates. It feels like the type of fabric swatch which at one time might’ve been manufactured at Kreenholm, a sensibility fostered by spine text spilling seamlessly onto the rear cover. It’s probably not possible for any cover to encapsulate a book’s entire contents. But this one comes close.

Once inside, Swiss binding and an open spine help the book to lay flat for most spreads. Considering the book’s relative thickness this is helpful, as is the densely annotated reference page outlining various project divisions. Large end flaps for bookmarking are also a nice touch. And for those who prefer to read Estonian or Russian, the trilingual translation goes above and beyond. Overall, a lot of effort has gone into production of this photobook, resulting in an object which is not merely a spinoff of the installation, but a monograph which stands on its own.

Dream Is Wonderful’s primary body is comprised of the sub-project Group Photo. In installation form, these group portraits were sectioned off into pieces. In the book they are shown whole. These are pictures mined from archival material dating back 150 years. Each one shows a cluster of former Kreenholm workers in roughly the same structure: a formation of bodies smiling proudly at the camera. They’re beautiful in their direct simplicity. While the contemporary photo world employs various codes circumscribing photography as art, for the non-photo world—which is to say, the vast bulk of humanity including textile workers—photography is generally less complicated. A photograph simply serves to verify an event, location, or gathering. A quick snapshot of a birthday or beach vacation certifies that thing’s existence, cementing the present for posterity. This happened, cries the photo. We were there. This moment existed.

While portraits line the upper portion of the book—cropped flush to the edge so that the stream can continue on the succeeding page—the lower half contains quotes from mill workers. These captions don’t seem to correlate directly with the photos above, but they provide a running commentary about life in the mill. They reference long hours, hard work, and the gritty pride of blue collar labor. “I wish I could find a job where I work less but get paid more,” says one. “The work was very intense and crazy,” says another. “I love watching television series and films,” says one worker, “but nowadays they never show people working in manufacturing. Everyone is always sitting around in bureaus and offices—as if nobody is working. I am sitting and thinking—then where to handbags and others things come from, who makes them?” For most of Kapajeva’s audience, such questions will hit home.

A stream of group portraits can take on a homogenous tone. But any tendency to rush through is rebuffed by these captions, whose small typeface and dense anecdotes give the reader pause and a chance to digest the material carefully. Slowed down, Kreenholm’s history is a world of astonishing diversity. The older photos peek in on a distant world of grainy black and white, while recent color pictures feel as if they were shot just yesterday. Some workers are in uniform, some dressed casually, some at the beach, some just off work at the factory. Some are in studio settings, some out on the back patio. For one ancient pose, workers are dressed in formal wear in a park setting, as if preparing for a wedding or celebration. Thousands of rank and file passed through the mill over its 152 year history, most of them women, and a sizable sampling is represented in this section. It runs through more than half the book, with hundreds of photographs, capped with brilliant finality by a large contemporary worker portrait made by Kapajeva herself.

The book’s other major section is devoted to Diaries Of A Textile Worker. Here Kapajeva takes a page from E.B. White to personalize broad trauma through specificity. Plunging into the humdrum minutiae of everyday life, she shows annotated spreads from the personal daybooks of a former millworker from the 1980s-1990s. We see song lyrics, work schedules, fabric defects, appointments, doodles, ovulation cycles, remodeling plans, shopping lists, bills, collage, and other notes. All the tidbits that one might jot thoughtlessly into a day planner are here. They’re only made remarkable by their unwitting ephemerality. By transforming Kreenholm’s closure from generic news article into something concrete and relatable, Kapajeva heightens the impact. 

Taken together these two sections comprise about 90 percent of the book. Sprinkled before, between, and after are fleeting segments from other sub-projects, including pictures of the original installation. We see movie stills from The Bright Way, from which the title is taken, and Maarja Tonisson’s reenactments. There are several samplings of Cutbacks, the old factory shots with workers removed. “I put them in my working space and walked around them for two months until I finally decided to take a knife and cut the figures out,” says Kapajeva. “These posters were on display at the mill for many years as images celebrating machines and people. Therefore, it was a symbolic gesture for me to violate them by cutting the people out and questioning agendas.” By excising people from these pictures physically with scissors she makes an abrupt declaration of their fate, while Photoshop’s background replaces them with a dual nod to pattern design and automation. Elsewhere we see glimpses of fabric patterns, not only Kapajeva’s girlhood illustration but a floral print designed by her mother filling a two page spread. Another section focuses on an individual pattern stamp, with rubberized block paired with a sampling of 12,000 hand-stamped imprints, “thinking of each worker who lost their job, including my own parents.” Essays by Elena Semyonova and Philipp Dorl delve further into the trauma of economic disruption. 

It’s all rather doom and gloom, and the mood would be entirely downcast if not for Kapajeva’s rejuvenatory spark. Interviewed by Liisa Kaljula, she strikes a tone of idealism. “The dream and the nostalgia go together,” she says, “ interwoven with each other…It is about the dream of communism’s arrival; it is about the dream of capitalism; it is about the dream of women who dedicate their lives to one factory and wanted to be respected for it; it is about their dream to make their burden lighter, which most women carry involuntarily; and, it is about the dream of a small girl, who makes her own dream come true in her art work and in the search for her own place in this world.” The very existence of her installation inside the abandoned mill site signals that rebirth is possible, and its incarnation in book form is further evidence. 

As the world’s economy has globalized, factory closures and relocations have become a routine byproduct. The pace of change is increasing, and very few countries remain unaffected. Thus Dream Is Wonderful, Yet Unclear’s storyline will be familiar and relatable for workers everywhere, and it may reach a receptive audience there, in addition to the fine art community. For these readers, whether in Narva or elsewhere, the project might provide a partial salve for community healing. This happened, affirms the book. This moment existed.

Collector’s POV: Maria Kapajeva does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. Collectors interested in following up should likely connect directly with the artist via her website (linked in the sidebar).

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JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Vexer Verlag (here). Hardcover (33.3×24.5 cm), 264 pages, with 175 color reproductions. (Includes a short text by Trmasan Bruialesi. (Cover and spread ... Read on.

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