The Sochi Project – Crossroads of Arts, Sports and Politics

Sochi Project – Crossroads of Arts, Sports and Politics by  Rob Hornstra


Crossroads of Arts, Sports and Politics


At the end of this week the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics kick off. But the discussions around it have been going heated for a while already, there have been boycotts from western politicians; outcry around gay-rights, homophobia and general intolerance; and even jailed and later demonstratively released activists (think Pussy-Riot). The world of art has also had a role to play in the discussions and especially one project in particular has been gaining both increased publicity and a strong group of followers. This initiative is aptly named “The Sochi Project” and is the brainchild of a Dutch photographer/writer duo.



The strange cocktail of sports, politics and the arts

Sports and politics don’t mix. Or at least so they say. It’s a statement we often hear and are made to believe, and probably just as often we realise how rarely it’s actually aligned with reality. Like it or not, almost all major sport events these days tend to have some political inclinations. The ambiguities of the statement is exposed even further when it comes to mega-events like the Olympics or football World Cups. It happens that decisions are first made on grounds rather removed from the logics of the sporting fields, only to see reality later getting adjusted to fit the story.

Hence, we end up with football events to be played in deserts with unhealthy 40 °C (that’s 105 °F) plus temperatures. Or with winter Olympics that take place in subtropical locations, like now in just a few days’ time in the Russian Sochi. On top of it, it’s just kilometres away from one of the world’s most dangerous war-zones.

But how does art fit into all this? One of the more obvious links can be for instance found here in The Netherlands. There’s currently a photo exhibition taking place here in Amsterdam, in the ‘Huis Marseille Photo Museum’, entitled ‘Golden Years / Rob Hornstra’s Russia’. Just a few months ago this event wasn’t planned at all; the exhibition only materialised in the aftermath of a cancelled event in Moscow. Just weeks before the Winzavod – Moscow’s most fashionable art gallery – was about to open up its doors to the general public for ‘The Sochi Project’, the show got cancelled. Bypassing the explanation that the reason for the cancellation isn’t politically motivated is hard, it very likely rubbed some sentiments in Russia the wrong way, with the result that the Dutch duo behind the project never got their visas, even though during the past five years they’ve been regularly visiting the country.


The Sochi Project

The Sochi Project is the result of a collaboration between the Dutch photographer Rob Hornstra and writer/filmmaker Arnold van Bruggen. The seed to the project was born soon after the 2007 announcement that Sochi would be the host of the 2014 Winter Olympics. Rob Hornstra was already carrying out projects in Russia in the years prior to the news broke, and thereby the link with the country was already established and ready to be built further upon. By teaming up with Arnold van Bruggen, the project immediately had an enhanced ambition via the added writing component, an addition that would emphasise the message to be communicated by the images. The style used by the team is characterised as ‘slow journalism’, meaning that projects usually take several years to carry out, with the purpose of gaining a full underlying understanding for the stories.

The idea the project stuck to from the very beginning is the documentation of Sochi’s transformation into a winter paradise, for many just a few years ago a far-fetched idea. Right from the beginning, Sochi as a winter sports destinations is a contradiction: situated on the coast of the Black Sea in the only subtropical region of Russia, probably the only city that never sees one flake of snow, quite a feat in this waste country known for its harsh winters. Or to just use the words of the team behind ‘The Sochi Project‘: “Sochi is the Florida of Russia, but cheaper.


But the site of the most expensive Olympic games ever (estimated at $51 billion, compared to e.g. with $14 billion for the 2012 London Games) is not only an odd choice from a climate point of view. Just on the other side of the border made up by the Caucasian mountain you’ll find some of the most dangerous regions of the entire world: in the southern Caucasus we find the breakaway Georgian republics of Abkhazia and the Russian supported South Ossetia.

Just across the mountains from where the Olympic Village lies is the North Caucasus, made up of seven autonomous republics that are home to more than 30 nationalities and as many languages. Thus, a region during the past decades we got accustomed to know from news stories of terrorism and conflicts, but not exactly for winter sports.

Since ‘The Sochi Project’ started in 2009, among others a photography book has been published in 2013 with the title ‘An Atlas of War and Tourism in the Caucasus’, but the ambitions of the project is spreading across the globe, encompassing a multitude of different media and locations.


In a way, ‘The Sochi Project’ can be seen in a greater context as well. If you read carefully the message that Rob Hornstra would like to transmit is that we – as societies – have to pay more attention to the world around us, or as Hornstra expresses it in an interview with Huis Marseille:

I think people shout a lot but say very little, and I think there is too little investigative journalism. Art and investigative journalism are both dying out for lack of funding, and I think that puts the world at a great risk.

In just a few days the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics will kick off and it’s likely that we will be fed the glossy images from a boom-town as the best way of depicting a new Russia. It’s also likely that we have reasons to sympathise with the project, it can easily be argued that by modernising the region change can possibly be achieved.

But at the end, our responsibility is to keep our eyes open for what is taking place just around the corner from there, in Sochi and up in the mountains on the other side of the ski slopes. There are those who worked hard to show the other side of the story and it’s now our duty to pay a little bit of attention.

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If you would like to know more about ‘The Sochi Project’ please visit the website and spend some time on it. It’s definitely well worth your time and the work behind it is of highest quality, both from an informative and artistic point of view.

The exhibition ‘Golden Years: Rob Hornstra’s Russia 2003–2013’ in Huis Marseille is on display until 9 March 2014. The ‘Sochi Project’ is a worldwide project with exhibitions in several locations, as per the following exhibition schedule. If you’re nearby any of these places, don’t miss out on going.

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About The Author: Pal Ujvarosi

One half of the team behind Art Weekenders, where we travel, produce and keep developing our concept. For a living I work with management accounting, for dreaming I delve into many other areas of travel, writing and entrepreneurship, which more often than not don't result in money. Yet... I gained life experiences from living in eight different countries. Combined with extensive travelling in some fifty more, it's fair to say that I'm a global citizen with an international perspective - with the corresponding curse of becoming fairly rootless. My happy base now is Amsterdam - a faith I'm totally comfortable with.