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Culturally Progressive is my blog where I write about literature, culture, and politics and share work of mine that has been published elsewhere. Scroll down for new posts. If you want to read more about me, click About Tanya, or click on appearances for upcoming and past events. All my recent published writing is listed on the Writing page. To subscribe to my awesome monthly newsletter, click here. Thanks for stopping by!

Художники существуют только потому, что мир несовершенен.

An artist never works under ideal conditions. If they existed, his work wouldn’t exist, for the artist doesn’t live in a vacuum. Some sort of pressure must exist. Artists exist only because the world is imperfect. Art would be useless if the world were perfect, as man wouldn’t look for harmony but would simply live in it. Art is born out of an ill-designed world.

– Andrei Tarkovsky

EmbassadorsAndrei Tarkovsky is widely considered one of the greatest directors of all time. He made most of his films under the constraints of Soviet censorship, films that were considered “ideologically dangerous because of their free-thinking approach to the mysteries of human existence,” writes one reviewer.

His second film, “Andrei Rublev,” “was banned by the Soviet authorities until 1971. It was shown at the 1969 Cannes Film Festival at four o’clock in the morning on the last day, in order to prevent it from winning a prize – but it won one nonetheless, and was eventually distributed abroad partly to enable the authorities to save face.”

Less commonly known is that Tarkovsky also worked in theater. Spring of 2017 will be the 40th anniversary of his production of Shakespeare’s “Hamlet,” which ran in Moscow in 1977. My mother, Katya Kompaneyets, designed all 120 costumes for that play in collaboration with another artist.

She writes*:

In the winter of 1975, I got a grant from the Moscow Artists Union, which owned property outside Moscow where artists were provided with living quarters, a studio, printing presses and models for figure drawing. In Senezh, a village near the town of Solnechnogorsk, I shared a studio with Tengiz Mirzashvili, a celebrated artist from Tbilisi, Georgia. […] At that time, he was obsessed with the idea of organizing and designing a production of Shakespeare’s “Macbeth.”

During our time together in Senezh, Mirzashvili went to Moscow […] and met Andrei Tarkovsky there. As was usual in those days, Mirzashvili was talking about “Macbeth” and Tarkovsky asked if he would like to work on a production of “Hamlet” with him instead. […] Mirzashvili asked me to collaborate with him on the costume design for the production—I had a background in textile and costume design. He couldn’t handle it alone since he lived in Tbilisi during the year. Excited by the project, I agreed even though I had two young children and knew it would put a lot of pressure on me.

But I couldn’t pass up working with Tarkovsky. Visually, his movies were stunning. I had seen his fascinating film “The Mirror” at a private screening and knew of his reputation as an independent-minded person and great director. Tarkovsky had his own views on the Soviet Union and on Russian history during a period when these ideas were strictly regulated and proscribed by the Soviet propaganda machine.

The strict regulation found its way to the production. My mother recalls that the year of rehearsals and preparation was “difficult and toxic due to Tarkovsky’s reputation as a dissident […] The theater administration was very opposed to our production and may have even gotten instructions from the Communist Party and the KGB to sabotage it.” In an email to me, my mother recalled that there were lines for blocks to get tickets to the premiere, but in the end, Tarkovsky’s “Hamlet” was only performed a few times. The official reason was that the lead actress fell ill, but it was never shown again. My mother added: “It wasn’t banned officially, just de facto. That’s how it often was in Soviet times.” She suspects that Party officials at the premiere didn’t like what they saw.

Among the few things remaining from the production are costume sketches painted in gouache by my mother. Instead of seeking historic accuracy to Shakespeare’s time, her drawings were inspired by Renaissance and early Renaissance paintings from Hieronymus Bosch, Albrecht Dürer, and Hans Holbein the Younger, some of my mother’s favorite artists. It turned out that Mirzashvili and Tarkovsvky had similar tastes, so my mother’s sketches were approved instantly.

She writes:

We always made intentional choices about the color scheme, thinking about how the costumes would look together onstage. We wanted the stage to look like a painting. Tarkovsky was very happy with our ideas and signed the sketches after approval (his signature is visible on the sketches). The costumes were then accurately produced from these sketches by seamstresses under my supervision.

In an interview about “Hamlet,” Tarkovsky wrote:

Hamlet hesitates because he cannot triumph. How should he be? What can he do? He can’t do anything. This will always be the way. But he must still say his word… And the result is a pile of corpses. And four captains carry him out. This is the meaning of Hamlet, not ‘to be or not to be,’ ‘to live or die.’ Nonsense! It has nothing to do with life and death. It has to do with the life of the human spirit, about the ability or inability to become acclimatized, about the responsibility of a great man and intellect before society.

Through working with him, my mother came to understand why Tarkovsky was so drawn to this play:

Tarkovsky viewed the story of Hamlet as autobiographical since it paralleled his life story: a creative personality and member of the intelligentsia fights for truth and justice in the context of twisted times. Hamlet’s effort to speak the truth proved fatal. Working on the production with constant sabotage by the theater’s administration—they would refuse to give us a stage for rehearsals, a storage room that held our costumes burned down, etc.—proved to be suicidal, too. We were constantly stressed and strained, which we found an apt metaphor for the play we were working on.

The sketches are now on display at the Santa Monica College Emeritus Art Gallery in Santa Monica, CA alongside fifteen paintings my mother made during approximately the same time period. Many of these paintings I had never seen before — they had been stored in closets or under beds for the last thirty five+ years.

Getting these works out of the Soviet Union was a feat in itself. My mother writes:

I applied for an exit visa in 1979 and was faced with the problem of getting permission to take the works out of the country and the inevitable need to pay to do so (as was Soviet regulation). […] The Soviet government felt they owned my works created within their borders and made me pay for each piece. I could only afford to pay for some since I also had to buy the plane tickets for myself and my two kids to leave the Soviet Union. In order to take these sketches and my own paintings out of the country, I had to go through two state-run committees. […] I had to bribe them with some pricey paintings from my collection, which I knew I couldn’t get out of the country anyway.

After they gave me the list of prices for my own works, I had to approve this with Ministry of Culture. These people were bureaucrats and very vicious. They were not happy with the prices and wanted me to pay more. I had to fight them, but they finally put the stamps of approval and visas on the backs of each piece. You can still see them on the backs of the sketches.

The show will be up until November 4 (details here). For more on my mother, visit her website or Houzz page. And if you read Russian, here’s her short essay reflecting on the collaboration with Tarkovsky.

* quotes from my mother come from the exhibition text, edited by me

all paintings are copyright Katya Kompaneyets and may not be reproduced without permission

MeganRapinoeThis video is making the internet rounds. It’s been described as triumphant. (It’s of U.S. soccer star Megan Rapinoe being asked to describe herself in one word, and she responds with “GAAAAY.”)

I’ve certainly felt triumphant about being queer before. In fact, being queer is possibly my favorite thing about my life.

The queer community and queer love are so important to me. Queer people are my closest friends. I tend to be attracted (intellectually, romantically, and friend-wise) to people who play with gender, who are attracted to multiple genders, who don’t shy away from nuance and gray areas, who mess with binaries, who feel some kind of identification (even if complicated) with the words “queer” and “genderqueer.”

I love who and how I love. I love that my form of love plays with gender and sexuality norms. I love queer bodies, mine and those of the people I love. I love people who play with color, who bind, who shop in the side of the store not traditionally “designated” for them, who shave shapes into their hair, who take feminine accessorizing and inject it with a hearty sense of play, self-awareness, and edginess.

My love makes some people uncomfortable, makes some people stare. It might be because they are trying to read the gender of my partners, the most recent of whom have identified as trans* or genderqueer. But there might also be some young people who see themselves reflected in my love and know that soon they too will have real queer love. Maybe I’m being presumptuous or self-absorbed. Or maybe just hopeful. Or maybe I’m just remembering how I looked upon queer couples before I knew myself to be queer.

I’m sure straight people have communities or groups where they feel most at home, most affiliated. And I know that as a white person, it’s a privilege to be able to choose which identity is most important to me. People of color in the U.S. are often told who they are in a way that erases their intersections. But I can relate to Megan Rapinoe. I love celebrating my queerness.

More to say on this in the future, but for now, these are just some initial (read: jumbled) thoughts. Thanks for reading. Love you.

Writes my smart poet/translator friend E.C. Belli:

Because we are so multi-rooted, because we are from everywhere, we are no longer really from a place. Instead, we are from beings. Saint-Exupéry noted, “We come from our childhoods as we come from a country.” But what is childhood if not the moment in which we experience some of the strongest social bonds of our lifetime? For all of our nomadic existence, our roots today are as people based as they are placed based. We belong to beings as we belong to a country.

From here.

It’s such a weird day to be a queer person.

I know that today’s Supreme Court ruling signals some kind of social shift, moving the needle on mainstream acceptance and visibility of queer relationships. I know how important this victory is for so many families who will no longer have to worry about whether their union will be recognized across state lines.

And yet reading Kennedy’s majority opinion just confirms my discomfort:

No union is more profound than marriage, for it embodies the highest ideals of love, fidelity, devotion, sacrifice and family.

No. I don’t actually believe that marriage is a form of love that trumps all others. It’s not everyone’s ultimate ideal. If social acceptance of queer love relies on my love looking a certain way, I’m not interested. I don’t want conditional acceptance. I want non-traditional families celebrated.

And I worry that some will see this as “mission accomplished.” I worry there will be less energy (and therefore less funding) for the work that remains: battling violence against trans people (especially trans women of color), ending LGBT youth homelessness, assisting LGBT asylees and refugees, addressing mental health and suicide among LGBT people, expanding access to life-saving healthcare for trans people, the list goes on.

As a dear friend wrote earlier today: “What a moment to be queer, to hold all the complexities and limitations of social acceptance and legal recognition. To celebrate and know the fight has just begun.”

Today, companies like WordPress are showing their support by adding a rainbow to their logo. But will they do the same when we finally pass an inclusive Employment Non-Discrimination Act?

I feel so ambivalent. Maybe I’ll bike over to the Supreme Court to be surrounded by happy LGBT people and allies. Maybe that will allow me to just celebrate. We’ll see.

I was humored and humbled when Columbia University asked me to be on this panel:LATMFA

Very much looking forward to reading, to hearing the work of my fellow alums, and to seeing anyone in NYC who is able to come!

– – –

Columbia Selects: MFA Alumni Readings
Thursday, March 5 @ 7 pm
KGB Bar 85 E. 4th St
F Train to 2nd Ave

What is Columbia Selects?  The first Thursday of each month, the Columbia MFA program hosts a reading series featuring Writing Program alumni. These fresh talents are finished with or near to finished with their first books, but do not yet have a book contract and/or an agent. In recent years, many of our featured writers have achieved critical and commercial success. This is your chance to glimpse who you’ll be reading in 2016!

Join us Thursday, March 5th, at 7 pm, for our stellar March lineup! Selected by the Columbia Writing Program, our readers are sure to dazzle and delight.

Our lineup this month:

Tanya Paperny is an essayist, translator, and editor based (mostly) out of Washington, D.C. Her work has appeared in Pacific Standard, VICE, Washington City Paper, The Washington Post, The Literary Review, and in many other fine journals and magazines. Her collection entitled “Short-Shorts” was a semifinalist in the Gazing Grain Press 2014 Poetry Chapbook Contest. She is the recipient of fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center and OMI International Arts Center, and she is at work on a collection of essays about violence, trauma, and resilience.

Elysha Chang is a writer from Virginia who lives in Brooklyn. Her short fiction has appeared in Bodega Magazine, The Literarian, and Park Slope Reader. She is an Emerging Writer Fellow at The Center for Fiction where she is at work on her first novel.

Andrew Eisenman is a writer and editor in New York. He’s a former assistant fiction editor of The American Reader and, before that, an editor at NOON. A 2012 teaching fellow at Columbia, he’s currently a senior editor of Kindle Singles. Andrew is working on a novel about the unraveling of a wealthy Ohio family.

Columbia Selects is curated by Bryan VanDyke and Emily Austin.

Last week I wrote about FBI Director James Comey’s speech on law enforcement and race relations. A few new thoughts since then:

Can institutions with toxic origins or a toxic past ever be truly reformed? (Consider school turnaround strategies and whether those are effective). Can people imagine a day where our law enforcement system is just or do we need something new entirely? What do we do until then in the absence of real community accountability alternatives?

Two things that seem relevant:

  • The U.N. Committee against Torture recently “urged the United States … to fully investigate and prosecute police brutality and shootings of unarmed black youth…”
  • Activists are demanding reparations for the survivors of police torture in Chicago.

These are both things I wish got more coverage, and they both make me wonder if we need some sort of equivalent of a “truth and reconciliation commission” — an external body to help our country face and move forward on race and policing.


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