Dislocating Narrative: On Anton Ginzburg's 'Terra Corpus'
Nations, like human beings, live within the web of narrative. National narratives have a beginning, like a nativity scene, whether explicit or assumed, connected to a real place. The native, for instance, is one whose nativity scene is located within the bounds of the nativity scene of the nation. But national narratives, as our recent history has shown, may shift, and with them so too their nativity scenes. The place that was the original site of birth, may move, it may be transformed, transferred to a more remote time and site, and it may, without warning, become untethered from any locale at all. The ability of the founding narrative of a nation to persist through such displacement presents a key concern for all of us today, since, as Edward Casey has eloquently put it, "The modern subject is radically unlocated, someone who does not know the difference between space and place . . ."
Decentralized and globalized, we are increasingly living in "the cloud" in more ways than one. Our narratives, the basic ones, the ones that structure the core meaning to our lives as well as the socio-political bonds they are intended to support, are on the move. What’s more, they are also increasingly inflected by multiple narratives. The sheer availability of so many narratives becomes difficult to assimilate. This raises an important question. As the consciousness of the way in which narrative origins can shift and change becomes more and more widespread and the availability of multiple narratives circulates more widely, we are faced with the question of which one takes precedence. What beginning is the true beginning? What is the ur-narrative? And underlying that question is the further one: What is the ur-location? The problem of the metanarrative is in this sense the problem of our radical displacement.
The search for an ur-location, the primal scene of lost narratives, is one of many themes taken up by Anton Ginzburg in his first solo exhibition in the United States. Terra Corpus at the Blaffer Art Gallery in Houston ponders the connection between mythical origins and present geopolitical realities. The exhibition, which presents the first two of a projected three part multi-media study of our fragile past and equally fragile future, begins with At the Back of the North Wind, a reconstructed search for Hyperborea, a place that even as the ancient Greeks wrote about it hung only on the furthest rim of their collective memory.
Hyperborea was a land without toil, a northern Atlantis, where mortals lived to extremely old age in peace, knowing neither physical pain nor political discord. Frequently visited by Apollo, the Hyperboreans held the distinction of being "the cradle of the human race," a Greek alternative to Eden. It struck Ginzburg as odd that, to this day, there were spectacular accounts being published in his native Russia about explorers having found traces of the actual Hyperborea.
At the Back of the North Wind recreates what such a search would be like. Its centerpiece and most captivating work is a spare, wordless film. Ginzburg plays an explorer fitted out with the embellished gear of a surveyor, who moves from the grey coast and lush forests of the Pacific Northwest, through St. Petersburg's aging Neoclassical structures, while finally pushing northeast beyond the snow-banked ruins of Siberian gulags.
As the explorer journeys, he is repeatedly passed by a cloud of deep red smoke that presents itself without warning and leaves without trace. The long, abysmal howls of Siberian wind and the slow vaporizing of scarlet fumes echo the increasing facelessness of the earth as the search advances. In the end, all topographic contours disappear, all landmarks and signposts vanish. The busy ports of Oregon are now as distant a memory as Hyperborea itself.
Accompanying the film, the exhibition hosts a number of works elaborating its cinematic themes: a series of photographs of the explorer's journey, topographical map-sculptures of the film's locations, paintings loosely representing the red smoke and the mythological location of Hyperborea, and, most conspicuously Ashnest, a jutting sculpture composed of wooly mammoth tusks linked in a chain-like fashion to large, ultra-white human bones made from polyurethane. Raised high in the air, animal remains and human bone perform a dance, mingling delicately above the viewer. The mammoth tusks, preserved in the frozen tundra of Siberia for thousands of years, provide a biological, scientific link to what would otherwise be a purely mythical space. The mammoth bears witness within the crust of the earth to a land before time. And yet, like everything else in the exhibit, these tusks are displayed both in the sculpture and the film—there is a long shot of a complete wooly mammoth housed within St. Petersburg's 19th century natural history museum—in such a way that, by now, they have overcome every last trace of their biological materiality. Like Ginzburg’s computer-generated 3D maps, they live now only in a conceptually constructed space (a museum), disconnected from and unable to really tell any story about which they may have, at one time and in one place, actually witnessed.
The second leg of the exhibition represents the inverse of the first. In Walking the Sea, Ginzburg documents the disappearance of an “actual” place, the Aral Sea, which before 1960 was a reservoir between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan covering over 26,000 square miles and one of the four largest lakes in the world. Its tributaries diverted by the former Soviet Union in order to increase the local cotton economy, the Aral Sea is now just one-tenth its former size.
In this film we see Ginzburg walking across dry land that was once the sea floor. Emphasizing the impossibility of his act just a few years earlier, he moves slowly as we hear in the background each step, the wind coursing across the dry earth. On his back Ginzburg wears a three-dimensional trapezoid mirror. As the spectator walks behind Ginzburg, the mirror reflects the landscape at 45 degrees in two directions, such that the viewer is deflected from seeing herself. What she sees instead is the incredible creation of a man-made desert looking quite natural.
Whereas the search in At the Back of the North Wind was the attempt to find a mythical land, here Ginzburg attempts to show how through its destruction a real geographical landmark is converted into a memory, dependent for its existence on the scaffold of the mind alone. Similar to its prequel, Walking the Sea employs an array of works in different media to carry out some of the interpretative lifting. We see similarly stunning photography, cotton textiles representing satellite imagery of the disappearing Sea, an Aeolian harp constructed out of found objects from the former seabed, and a reconstructed mirror-device that never allows the viewer access to his own self-image.
While Walking the Sea seems on the surface the opposite of the earlier work, both processes are identical, as Ginzburg tells the flip side of the same story with both halves of the exhibit. We have come to a point wherein all that is left to us and all that meaningfully orients us is that which passes through the prism of mind, like a mirror continually diverting light but far removed from its source. To borrow a Hegelian trope, nature has been encompassed by geist, by a spiritual existence that hovers just above the surface of the earth like a red cloud of smoke. Ginzburg works the question from a variety of angles, but animating each one is a deep desire to know just how long the mind can hold onto a memory without being able to place it?
Reflecting on his work, Ginzburg writes that the “frozen void of the tundra . . . has a disposition of its own and the power to alter reality for those who encounter its formidable terrain. It's a blank canvas for the projection of our collective unconscious." Despite this statement's baffling contradiction, I think we could extend his characterization of the tundra to the entire globe, and Ginzburg’s thoughtful choice of places echo the idea that what we see in this exhibit is not an isolated phenomenon. To take just one example, rather than a massive sea that can give birth to narratives for generations to come, what we are left with is simply another blank canvas stripped of its dispositional power and serving only “as a blank canvas for the projection of our collective unconscious.”
Terra Firma thus announces the tragi-comedy of modern homelessness and disorientation. Throughout the exhibit Ginzburg strikes the right balance between austere analysis and playful wonder. We may, perhaps, find joy in the deliverances of our conceptual achievements. The novelty of being able to walk on the floor of the sea is not lost on Ginzburg, and we hear a clear note of humor in every sounding of the Aeolian harp. Likewise, there is surely something utterly fantastical about those who think that the mythical is subject to the same evidential scrutiny as a crime scene.
And yet, as our most dominant heritages become more and more untethered from their original place and function, we do stretch out to more remote vistas and to more distant memories in attempts to provide a kind of context, call it a home, for our lives. In a way, we stretch out to myth, but, and here is the interesting part, it is myth retrieved through very sophisticated means rather than through ritual practice. Ginzburg consistently uses technology, the fruit of our dominant rational-scientific world-view, for mythological ends. In Walking the Sea, for instance, there are a series of photographs taken with and of an iPhone. The Sea represents that lost beginning we access now only through the interface of technological device. What we want is something that came before the heritage left to us. For at its core what myth points to, what myth has always pointed to, is an irrecoverable past, an irretrievable, irrecuperable origin. And yet we can no longer retrieve this origin except through the prosthetics of technology. But a home, in the deepest sense, is neither made nor designed. Technology fails to regain the irrecuperable origin of myth precisely in its sophisticated attempt to retrieve it.
In this regard, Ginzburg’s curiosity about “these attempts to locate Hyperborea and to confirm its specific location, rather than considering it to be a mythological country or a state of mind,” only reiterates the basic point. His intrigue is indicative of the way in which we currently think about narrative, or lack thereof, as if the places of which a narrative speaks are obviously mythological lands or mere states of mind. I’d rather like to say that myths draw us to the power of places, to a meaning-giving that begins externally. Running them through our own technologico-scientific frameworks only serves to highlight the ridiculousness, and despondency, of the search for mythological places. Our Terra Firma is gone, and attempts to transfer it into a purely noetic space deny what we are so nostalgic for to begin with.
Ultimately, what Ginzburg forces upon the viewer is the amazing question of the intractable interrelationship between narrative and place. How is it that human speech, in its basic possibilities as pure conceptuality, pure syntax, needs such intimate connection with the earth and with its places? Surely we may look upon our freedom from the limitations of region with optimism or lament. But it is hard not to see this exhibition as, in more ways than one, the lamentations of a wandering fool. Ginzburg deftly plays upon the contemporary tension of our being inebriated by the exuberant lightness of being and simultaneously burdened by a terrifying fear of heights. Within the whitewashed snow banks of Siberia, of what one would hope to be the brink of Hyperborea, we sense neither accomplishment nor triumph, but extreme disorientation. Near and far, up and down, here and there have lost all significance. Similarly, the disappearance of a landmark that was at one point the size of Lake Victoria surely disorients, indeed turns upside down, all who defined their existence in relation to its banks. The people who have lost their Aral Sea, who have lost that definitive marker of their landscape, will tell their stories much, much differently from now on. It is a credit to Ginzburg for asking how all of us are in a similar situation.
* Update: In an earlier version of this essay I erroneously claimed that the Aral Sea was, as recently as the 1980's, the size of the Mediterranean Sea. Thanks to Anton Ginzburg for kindly bringing my attention to this mistake.