ETHNIC LIMBS

Part One: Burnt Dust

The other night I saw on television a young man in the Near East picking through rubble. Unlike the frenzied efforts of those looking for survivors in the ruined town, he calmly and methodically searched through the debris, looking for family photographs. On another channel, and hundreds of kilometres away from the ruination, a group gathered around a freshly exhumed gravesite, trying to identify the dead. These images cut me deeply – moments, slices from elsewhere. We see them on screens, hear of them through others’ stories, but for the most part escape their direct effects. I have not witnessed such cataclysmic circumstances. But, I think, or at least would like to believe, that such lugubrious narratives mentally prepare us for collapse, should it come. Empathy can inoculate. It enlarges our capacity to say “I have lost”, or “I am searching” and imparts a deeper understanding to all who utter the words.

At this point I am unable to put together what I wish to convey. I am at a loss for words which might describe, give sense to what I feel. I can, however, look to a passage which shines some light, helping to articulate my situation. Speaking about the condition of literature, Maurice Blanchot refers to cultural production as “very ancient, terrifyingly ancient, lost in the night of time. It is the origin that always precedes us and is always given before us, for it is the approach of what allows us to depart – a thing of the past” (Blanchot 1982, 229). Loss sets up the conditions for departure. One looks through pages of history, reels of celluloid, the penumbra of memory, heaps. One looks for the particular (minutia), which is invariably concealed by terrifying magnitudes.

There is a passage in Camera Lucida that simultaneously supports and complicates my studio project. Every time I produce a drawing this particular passage from Barthes’s text reinvents itself for me. It states: “Every photograph is a certificate of presence, a reality one can no longer touch” (Barthes 1981, 87). For Barthes then, photographs are evidence of tangible specks caught in the invisible flow of time. His proclamation resonates with me on several levels. When Barthes invokes the notion of tactility, I cannot help but bring this trope into the arena of my working method, which has remained consistent for the past few years. I believe that when I draw from photos I attempt to re-establish some form of contact with what has passed. The application of an inert substance, such as pigment, to a particular ground activates a given photograph that does not represent part of my own history. By this contact, I make an attempt to traverse not only spaces and times, but also situations and cultures.

If photography is an index of intangibility, as Barthes proposes, then it is the relationship of the mechanically produced technology to hand-made technology that I find most captivating. The performative act of drawing from a photograph amplifies notions and experience of time. In a catalogue essay on Ed Pien’s drawings, Steve Bridger calls attention to how the draftsperson, even in the quickest sketch, produces work which takes thousands of times longer than any photographic exposure. “In photography, the moment of apprehension can be brief, and can nearly coincide with the moment of exposure on film. Moments of apprehension of drawings are drawn out over nebulous timeframes in the subconscious, and the apprehension continues during the production…hand movements, accreting material on a surface for the eyes to view, imply historical duration” (Bridger 1996, np). Projecting slide photographs onto a given surface affords me a mediative and meditative space.

My studio production has consistently focused on a personal and investigative discourse surrounding drawing’s relationship to photo-based media in contemporary culture. I shall briefly discuss my past working method to present a clearer idea of how to situate my most recent works. My pieces have always been informed by a deep interest in mass-media images produced in the Soviet Union. Politically sanctioned and sanitised media images uphold and sustain a reputed objectivity. However, this objectivity gives rise to many fallacies and totalitarian mythologies. By using these sources in my own work I seek to puncture and challenge their putative objectivity. I offer an alternative, subjective and visceral interpretation. The images I choose to work with trigger involuntary and perhaps atavistic memories. In relation to this, I once perceived the photographs that I drew from as touchstones for retrieving a dislocated cultural memory. And yet they were not my memories, and to some degree, nor were they vehicles of my “culture”. They were one step, one generation removed. In this regard, they were certainly displaced.

My latest series of drawings entitled “Drawings from the Basement” began last year. This project refers to Ukrainian cinematic films from my domestic repository. The sources I draw from carry poignancy and personal relevance – drawing from the film stills becomes an act of rememoration of childhood screenings in the basement of my parents’ home. These were moments when I could smell the burnt dust that stuck to the projector bulb and everything in the room sunk into a penumbra, everything except for that rectangle on the screen.

It is useful to once again invoke Roland Barthes’s writings on industrially generated images. For Barthes, film is a dynamic entity that relies on animation, flux and mobility to import meaning. In his essay “Third Meaning”, Barthes offers a structuralist reading of the single, still photograph extracted from a motion picture. The French thinker considers this still picture in multifarious ways: as a “major artefact”, a “pornographic extract”, a “remote subproduct” and a “quotation” of the filmic origin. The single frame is a recalcitrant thing, that “scorns logical time” (Barthes 1980, 68). Plucked from the miasma of the celluloid circuit, the still is an estranged particle. In this sense, it has no roots or offshoots. Much like the stills, my drawings are free-standing islands with a myriad of possible interpretations and interconnections.

Sighting Ethno-Phantoms

I have carried over the idea of arrested and bracketed imagery in a more recent project. Where the film stills are contained, scrutinised, drawn from a diegetic circuit of film, my latest work relies on the continuum of acculturated memory. I can think of only a few works and images that have been indelibly lodged in my memory. They occupy an anomalous status in a constant stream of fleeting impressions and perceptions. I like to think of these residual traces as more than ethereal imprints retained in my memory - I see them as metaphoric, corporeal forms in their own right. They sometimes solidify, become a little weightier and, like some sort of appendage, become additions to my psyche. As such, they are haunting, but comforting reminders of a limb or part which is no longer attached. What exactly this prosthesis replaces, one can only wonder, but never know for certain.

From an early age, a particular painting became like this for me. Looking back, it’s a rather silly work that could captivate a young kid’s mind, as would dashing pirates, lapel-grabbing soldiers, or free-booting cowboys. At some point, this academic kitsch classic painting became somewhat of an icon in the North American-Ukrainian émigré community. Poorly reproduced copies could be found in almost every cultural club, seniors’ home, community centre, church basement, not to mention the home of the small businessman. So, I could imagine that my psychological relation to Repin’s Zaporozhian Cossacks Composing a Mocking Letter would be shared by many generations in the community, from New Jersey to Edmonton. For me, Repin’s motley characters became animate. Like overripe Gogolian figures, those rebellious Cossacks became recurrent personages in a personal psychodrama. They were always “whooping it up” at sober cultural events, weddings, and funerals. I once asked Toronto painter Natalka Husar why she was compelled to cite Repin’s work in one of her own, to which she replied, “I paint things that haunt me. I looked at that stupid painting every Saturday in ‘Ukie’ school”. Another memory takes me to the State Museum in Kharkiv, where an early version of the painting was housed. Upon finishing an exclusive tour, my brother and I waggishly, if not arrogantly, asked the director how much it would cost to own the gallery’s centrepiece. We were escorted out of the museum. My earliest recollection of the work, however, was of my father gridding a canvas board, preparing to transcribe the “masterpiece” in all its bravura and glory. It is here that my current project begins. For like so many admirers and devoted fans who had a capacity for copying, not to mention an itch for kitsch, I took up the task of sculpting a plasticine version of the painting.

As already mentioned, certain iconographic elements become so intensely and intimately related to lived experience that they seem to become somatic extensions of the self. Fused and sutured by cultural conditioning, one may see them as ethno-cultural outposts (excrescences) of the body. This metaphor shares some overlap with an eerie phenomenon of pseudoesthesia, more commonly known as phantom limbs. Neurologists began exploring this condition following the American Civil War, after amputees reported feeling sensations in dismembered limbs. Recently, neurophysiologists have identified the neuromatrix, the site of electrical flux between nerve cells in the brain, as a storehouse for sensory input. The matrix is a neural network which facilitates body perception and is essentially “sculpted by experience” (Melzack 1992, 124). As such, one may continue sensing appendages after they are physically detached from the body. In regard to my studio work, my final installation confronts issues of embodiment, detachment, and transfiguration. The fragmented plasticine replicas are displayed alongside or overlapping drawings of themselves. In addition, I drew sections of Repin’s painting with powdered pigment and graphite. Just as Repin depicted a historic event on the canvas, my work is, in effect, a historical re-enactment. A multitude of layers, and proximity to the pictured event, separates the painting and my installation. This hybrid material approach is intended to address undulations and cycles of mental processes, as well as to confront how meaning shifts through place, culture, time, and space.

Repin’s monumental work ( in scale, content and stature ), was a bombastic and mythmaking canvas, used as a vehicle for upholding a particular ideological mandate. This is confirmed by the fact that the price paid for the work was the highest ever paid by the Russian state. Repin’s Cossacks are robust and unyielding superstars who have never really been out of a job. Since 1884, The Zaporozhian Cossacks were continually favoured by successive generations of Russian and Soviet cultural managers and dictators. The work was seen as a paragon of Russian realism. In a recent photography journal, a gauche rendition of the picture can be seen presiding over a para-military meeting of Cossack revivalists. Repin’s work embodies the frisson of truculence and popular revolt. Through the years it has often become fraught with conflicting associations. It is this aspect, in particular, which interests me. As with most of my studio production, I am interested in how meanings shift cross-temporally, as well as across cultures. With Repin’s highly charged icon, this inquiry is made more salient. Can semantic possibilities remain constant? If not, how do they change? I will leave off this section with a quote from M.M. Bakhtin. I regard the Russian thinker’s remarks as especially resonant with my intentions. Indeed, Bakhtin’s following words could function as an epigraph for my research. He considers the contradictions and revisions which contextual meanings undergo over spans of time. This phenomenon is fully active with a painting which could simultaneously be a symbol of freedom for a displaced community, while reportedly being Stalin’s all-time favourite. In his essay “Toward a Methodology for the Human Sciences”, Bakhtin writes:

There is neither a first nor a last word and there are no limits to the dialogic context (it extends into the boundless past and the boundless future). Even past meanings, that is, those born in the dialogue of past centuries, can never be stable (finalized, ended once and for all) – they will always change (be renewed) in the process of subsequent, future development of the dialogue…. Nothing is absolutely dead: every meaning will have its homecoming festival (Bakhtin 1986, 170).

The Potemkin Vaccine

I was recently reminded of a feeling that I had as a child. From an early age I came to recognise what was real and what was not; what I could believe and what I could sneer at. Since I was born to parents who had witnessed a society of pure deception and later escaped that world, I felt as though I was inoculated from the evils of falsehood. This privileged knowledge filled me with a sort of pride. And, I felt particularly self-satisfied when great men, learned men, did not know the things I did.

I remember seeing footage of G.B. Shaw visiting the Soviet Union in 1933 – that avuncular playwright surrounded by pudgy, half-naked children from a kolhozp (a collective farm in Soviet Ukraine) orphanage. I was struck by how perversely comical the scene was; Shaw’s orchestrating gestures, kids parading around him in an almost mechanical manner, arms outstretched, delirium. And in this comedy, the well-fed children marched as a man-made famine ravished the country. Shaw was convinced that what he witnessed was a utopia. The trip irrevocably changed his work and world outlook. Similarly, J.P. Sartre wrote ecstatic accolades upon his return from the USSR, which he felt had afforded its citizens a high level of freedom and egalitarianism. I, on the other hand, had experienced the worker’s state vicariously, via picture books, films and particularly through my parents’ stories.

The deceptive strategies which had their intoxicating affect on Western intellectuals visiting the Eastern Bloc in the twentieth century were not new. These tactics evolved early in the Romanoff dynasty, grew more elaborate, and were perfected during Catherine II’s reign. I first heard of the Potemkinskij sela from my folks. These were the mock villages set up by one of Catherine’s lovers - Prince, General, or Admiral (I can’t remember his title) - Potemkin. His was a successful attempt to conceal the poverty and downtrodden conditions of the Empire from foreigners. The Potemkin village, populated with rosy-cheeked peasants and quaint thatched roof huts, was a wholly artificial, “trompe l’oeil” experience.

Repository Notes

We, the children of exiles, immigrants, displaced persons, experience histories and geographies and cultures in odd ways. We have odd, uneasy relations with all that has passed. Very early in childhood, we are not taught how to weave, but learn this skill out of necessity and circumstances. And so our entire life is spent weaving. We interweave our own experiences with shared, inherited experiences. We interconnect the things we know and that which we can never know first hand. Our stories and voices coalesce with those of others. My studio production is this type of endeavour. Many, if not all the things I draw from, are taken from an exact locus – home. The poorly reproduced pictures, the grainy films, those stories are all taken from home. All these things represent home, but they can never be symbols for homeland. In either case, they are removed and dispersed artefacts. The movies that we housed in our family archive, for instance, were exported and subtitled for an anglophone audience. The mass-produced print of Repin’s “Zaporozhians” was made by the same agency that published the main Communist Party newspaper, Pravda. In what were to me mysterious, untold ways, these things arrived in the house I grew up in. My project has become one of negotiating, translating, recovery. I negotiate between cultures, I translate between mediums, I recover between memories.

As already mentioned, my work originates from home. It is here that films, pictures, stories became interwoven with my family members’ daily lives. In that house we learned another language, and talked about other things. Watching the films in the basement was one of the many quiet, domestic pleasures. They were the subjects of discussion, interpretation, and light talks on Saturday mornings. That is not to say that the movies dominated our conversations. They were simply topics included among real concerns, trivial matters and stories. I would argue that the films shared more affinities with oral tradition than with popular entertainment. In her essay “Fifth World”, Kateryna O. Longley underlines the pervasiveness and importance of oral traditions among postwar immigrant cultures. Longley makes a distinction between the way story-telling traditions function in Fifth World and Fourth World cultures, namely Aboriginal and First Nations groups. In the latter, oral traditions are a communal pool of stories that have a sacred relevance. Fifth World stories, on the other hand, are “first-hand and autobiographical…cut off from other similar stories told within the closed circle of the family or small friendship group” (Longley 1992, 23). As such, Fifth World stories are not a unified tradition, but an aggregate of atomised narratives, generated in the homes of émigré families. For a “vast, world-scattered migrant population of disempowered people who have lost their cultural, linguistic and political bases” (Longley 1992, 19), these stories are a way of reclaiming what has been lost. In the case of the movies I watched with my family, since no written accounts could confirm the film’s existence, the oral tradition and private stories were therefore of crucial importance in locating the movies’ significance.

Having recently read an essay that grapples with the epistemological problems of anthropological fieldwork and modernity’s inadequacies in researching socio-cultural transformation, I found some affinity with Nadia Seremetakis’s recollections. In her essay, she emphasises the importance of certain family members who bridge rural and urban cultures and economies in Greece. The paper is a touching and highly personal account, which focuses on Seremetakis’s grandmother who, “brings the past into the present as a transformative and interruptive force…[the grandmother] extracts and liberates, disassembles and reassembles the substance and fragments of myth in order to create passageways between times and spaces” (Seremetakis 1995, 219). Through a series of what she calls “montages”, the author reconstructs intimate and “sensory” moments of acculturation and reciprocal exchanges between herself and her grandmother. She invokes the ancient practice of colportage, which has deep traditions in many cultures. Colportage, in all its shades, is exchange. The medium of interchange of the colporteur ranges from old books to narratives and wisdom. One could consider this as sharing parallels with the raconteur, or the kobzar1 . “In colportage, moments of the past and the different are glued onto the experience of the present. This is both montage and the fermentation of nonsynchronicity in the present” (Seremetakis 1995, 220). The grandmother embodies the economic, social, historical and cultural significance of the colporteur. “With her saliva and stories, the grandma glues past generational and collective history onto present biographical experience” (Seremetakis 1995, 221). While reading this source, I could not help but relate Seremetakis’s experience to my own.

Diaspora Defined

The notion of diaspora and diasporic communities has undergone a radical shift in recent years, particularly for peoples of Eastern European extract. It is a change that calls for a re-evaluation of terms which are inherently tentative and interchangeable. One such definition is used in an introductory textbook for students studying geographical and social sciences. Stuart Hall offers an engaging discussion of how cultural communities have come to identify themselves in the late-modern world. He subtitles the subsection on diasporas, “From ‘roots’ to routes”. These homonyms provide a compelling paradigm, nicely summarising the diasporic inclination relating to both heritage and passages. Hall writes:

Diaspora refers to the scattering and dispersal of people who will never literally be able to return to the places from which they came; who have to make some kind of difficult settlement with the new, often oppressive cultures with which they were forced into contact, and who have succeeded in remaking themselves and fashioning new kinds of cultural identity by, consciously or unconsciously, drawing on more than one cultural repertoire. These are people who as Salman Rushdie writes in his essay on “Imaginary Homelands”, ‘having been borne across the world…are translated men and women’. They are people who belong to more than one world, speak more than one language (literally and metaphorically); inhabit more than one identity, have more than one home; who have learned to ‘negotiate and translate’ between cultures, and who, because they are ‘irrevocably the product of several interlocking histories and cultures’ have learned to live with, and indeed speak from difference. They speak from the in-between of different cultures, always unsettling the assumptions of one culture from the perspective of another, and thus finding ways of being both the same and different from the others amongst which they live.... Although they are characteristic of the cultural strategies adopted by marginalised people in the latest phase of globalisation, more and more people in general - not only ex-colonised or marginalised people - are beginning to think of themselves, of their identities and their relationship to culture and to place in these more open ways (Hall 1995, 206-7).

Hall’s observations on the topic of diaspora are valuable in orienting hybrid identities in an ever-shifting geo-political landscape. However, the passage continually relegates diasporic peoples to a realm of otherness. Throughout the citation, the author uses exclusionary pronouns to nominate his subject. Hall continually refers to diasporic peoples as “they”. In this regard, the author seems to deflect entire communities into the margins of what may be seen as the mainstream “we”, or “us”. I turn instead to the autobiographical memoirs of Esther Salaman. Dr. Salaman was a respected research physicist, who received her formal education in pre-World War II Germany. Salaman’s, A Collection of Moments is a sensitive and compelling exercise, which attempts to delve into involuntary memories of her early childhood. Salaman was born to well-off, Jewish parents, in what is current-day Ukraine. In 1919, following the Bolshevik Revolution, the family was forced to emigrate to various places in the West, eventually settling in Germany. The rise of fascism in Germany once again forced the émigré family to relocate in the United States. Thus, the forced peregrination and subsequent readjustments Salaman had to endure most certainly allow us to view her in light of Hall’s writing on diaspora. She was a multi-lingual, inter-cultural woman who was in active flux for the first half of her life. In her autobiography, Salaman offers a more inclusive understanding of displaced identity. She writes, “It was years before I realised that my homesickness in Berlin had been for the past, that people who have never left their country have similar experiences: we are all exiles from the past” (Salaman 1970, 16). With this proclamation, the idea of exile takes on a new dimension. It is possible to consider the exile as one who is not only displaced spatially, by political and geographical factors, but also by temporal, psychic vicissitudes. In this respect, we are all displaced persons, continually negotiating between what we once were and what we are to become. We are banished to this uncomfortable space between past and present. Here, no codified language exists – no hyphenated dictionary can help translate this moment of continual flux.

Part Two: Siberian Rhapsody & Trauma

My parents, like so many émigrés, surrounded themselves with things that reminded them of the old country. Our house became a home away from the homeland – a kind of ethnic repository. Our home was a museum of odd things, strange curios; there were those wooden dolls within a doll within a doll and picture calendars evoking the idylls of a rustic past. All these things, and pictures, were interwoven with our daily experience.
Like the drawings I extracted from the Soviet movies, my studio production continues to be an archaeological endeavour. It involves excavating and taking stock of personal memory and the relics of home. The most poignant of these were the paintings that hung on our walls. My father painted several works based on key Russian and Ukrainian academic masterpieces from the nineteenth century. From an early age these pictures became tightly entwined with my character and psychical composition. My latest work relies on this continuum of inherited and acculturated memory.

The pictures that hung on the walls at our home depicted an “elsewhere”. I, personally, could never recognise anything I knew firsthand in these works. I didn’t know the people in these paintings. The flora and fauna looked unlike anything in the southern Ontario neighbourhood. The paintings depicted an arcane world, an instead of. To have an understanding, a slight inclination of what they were about, one had to engage in some sort of flux (any kind would do). For me the pictures were the sites of reverie. I realised, from an early age, that the pictures were actually vortexes, magnetic pools for the imagination. Once in their domain, there were no facts, no gravity, only an eloquence of thought. They elicited day-dreams and phantasmagoria of all sorts. To remember some of these remote and abstract musings today, I would risk embellishment, revision or falsification. I can, however, recall how the pictures became entwined with play-narratives.

The images I grew up with are now part of another, more systematic narrative. For me, the pictures have only recently become categorised as belonging to the history of art. I can now attribute each image to a particular artist, working in a specific country at such and such a period, and so on. I can evaluate the formal qualities of the images, determine their historical value, and understand, more or less, the socio-economic circumstances that went into their production. Prior to this codification and understanding, however, the pictures possessed their own inner syntax.

Of all my father’s oil paintings that decorated our walls, one in particular was evocative and inspirational for me as a child. This painting had an illusion of deep atmospheric perspective: a matutinal fog envelopes the forested ravine where, in the foreground of the scene, a mother bear watches over three cubs playing in a morass of misty logs and vegetation. As a boy, I considered this work to be the least foreign of the paintings. This wilderness with its ursine inhabitants could have been a representation set in Canada. Later in life, I learned that this scene, like Repin’s Cossacks, was a widely loved cultural icon originally painted by Russian landscape artist, Ivan Shishkin.

Titled Early Morning in the Pine Forest, Shishkin’s historically significant canvas can be seen in light of several landscapes painted by mid to late nineteenth century artists such as Albert Bierstadt, C.D Freidrichs and Cornelius Kreighoff. Like these other landscape artists, Shishkin offers a vision of nature that is chaste and pure (Casey 1993, 231). Further to this, a more elusive political subtext bolstering the expanses of Empire can be interpreted in Shishkin’s depictions of the Russian landscape. Ivan Shishkin’s scene takes place in the coniferous wilds of Siberia. This largest geographic region on the planet has inspired many epic works like Kurosawa’s Dersu Uzala to Farley Mowat’s accounts in Sibir. But just as this vast territory inspired adventurous texts, thoughts of Siberia instilled immense terror in millions. Tsarist absolutism and later Soviet totalitarianism, transformed the Siberian expanse into the largest open-air prison ever known. “Siberia, in its sinister, cruel form, is a freezing, icy space plus dictatorship,” is Polish author Ryszard Kapuscinski’s equation of this territory. In folk culture, Siberia came into being as a land of harsh retribution. Kapuscinski recalls how stern mothers would warn children to behave or “’they’ll deport you to the Sybir!’ (They said it in Russian – Sybir – for this sounded more menacing, apocalyptic)” (Kapuscunski 1994, 26). Its most brutal incarnation came under Stalin. My father was a victim of this regime. When father was in extremis, my mother told me of his final words: “they’re taking me to Sybir now.” Sybir was a symptom of Stalinist trauma.

Recesses, Pictorial Spaces and Other Synthetic Paraphernalia

The meticulous duplication of Shishkin’s painted content into tangible, volumetric forms is where my current material output begins. For the past year, my studio research has concentrated on making sculptural copies of my father’s works based on other artists’ paintings, such as Evening in the Pine Forest. With the three-dimensional revisions, I directly refer to the size of my dad’s paintings. My sculptures are diminutive maquettes that roughly correspond to the scale of whatever my father painted on canvas and board. Not only are my models based in parental lineage, they are ultimately hybrids of many generations and reproductions.

The process of making the sculptures catches me with a curious vision. I imagine the oleaginous medium of the pictures morphing and inflating into sculptural forms. This prompts several exercises in bricolage – a matter of finding affordable and domestically available materials that approximate elements in the paintings. All my maquettes and miniature scenes are exclusively hand-worked. A number of material resolutions came about in the course of translating a pictorial content that had been represented time and again in oil paint. The ingredients of the maquettes range widely. Trees are composed of masking tape, papier mâché and drywall compound covering aluminium screen. Finer branches are made by twisting masking tape so that the adhesive is exposed. This technique ensures an efficacy in the additive process of branch making. Sponge soaked with green acrylic paint is later minced creating believable moss and shrubbery. The palm-sized bears are stitched piece-meal from dark brown synthetic fleece. As the number of sculptural objects proliferates the installation process requires several orchestrations and revisions.

Looking at the most recent presentation of my work, I am reminded of previous steps. An earlier version consisted of three materially separate, yet conceptually integrated constituents. The triad of my installation included the following: a mechanical reproduction of Shishkin’s painting, my father’s copy of the lithographic reproduction painted in oils, and my own rendition of the painting literalised in three-dimensions. The entire installation existed as an amorphous organism. These three takes on Early Morning in the Pine Forest rotated about on a common fulcrum. This pivot point was merely alluded to, but not present. Instead, the three generations acted as surrogates, holding the place of Shishkin’s original canvas.

Considering the many arrangements according to which my studio labour has been presented, several threads remain consistent. With my sculptural models, I intend to disrupt the seamless visual surface that is inherent in representational (illusionistic) picture making. This total illusion of three-dimensional space was privileged by Western artists from the time of the Italian Renaissance (Dunning 1993, 35). Leonbattista Alberti, a mid-Quattrocentro writer and theoretician, cast a long shadow across centuries of picture making. Alberti developed and codified a perspective theory that convincingly translated real or imagined space, and its contents, into pictorial terms. His technical and philosophical treatise on pictorial art harnessed the magic of spatial illusion. In her discussion of the Albertian model, Svetlana Alpers points out that “It was the basis of that tradition that painters felt they had to equal (or to dispute) well into the nineteenth century” (Alpers 1982, xx). Certainly, what happened within the frame changed immensely over the course of five centuries following Alberti’s Della pittura. His perceptual schema introduced in the treatise, however, stayed the same. As an academic painter, Shishkin employed this accepted cultural paradigm for depicting the illusion of three-dimensional space.

I see my maquettes of Shishkin’s work residing in the fissure between factual transcription and fictional interpretation. The models simultaneously correspond to the content of the original painting and are radically divorced from it in their materiality. Working in a sculptural mode, I am not bounded by a fixed viewpoint. This idea is carried through in the installation. A viewing subject is not bounded by “a framed surface or pane situated at a certain distance from a viewer who looks through it at a second or substitute world” (Alpers 1983, xix). However, as with painting, my maquettes offer an equally artificial world. Just as Shishkin translated natural phenomena in his forest scene with bears, my models represent this same scene using radically different materials. The branches which I re-created are not made of wood or oil paint, but nevertheless represent the same branches that Shishkin depicts. Similarly, the ursine forms that I stitched refer to Shishkin’s painting, but they can never be equivalent to it.

My entire project lies in the past tense. It is a synthesis of many traditions. The most recent of these lineaments are familial and proprietary. In abstract terms, I feel most distanced by what lies in the pronounced recesses of the original, historical paintings. Here, I consider the earth, the light, the living tissue that was translated into oil paint on canvas, to lie furthest from my self. Indeed, this schema is determined by personal proximity. Where does this situate the viewing audience, those who have not shared my life experiences? It goes without saying, that viewers’ responses vary with each individual and in all circumstances. However, my installation participates in issues outside of autobiographical detail and familial intimacy. These issues communicate to broader cultural strata. One such example is the illusionistic convention of image making. As we have seen, this paradigm permeated the ethos of Western culture and was codified during the Renaissance, by theoreticians such as Alberti. With my installation I wish to test this model, expanding the relationship between the viewer (myself included) and the image.

Along with the windowpane illusionism that defined painting after the Renaissance, other cultural codes were strengthened. Two-dimensional depictions of the material world and its presentation established fixed conditions between imagery and viewing subject. Drawing from Leo Steinberg’s writings on human posture and its effect on the picture plane, William Dunning comments: “Paintings inspired by the natural world evoke responses normally experienced in an erect posture, with the parallel to the picture plane. Therefore the traditional picture plane implies a vertical position…” (Dunning 1991, 222). A varied arrangement of my sculptural pieces calls attention to this traditionally encoded axis of viewer and painted illusion. The implied horizontality of the painted depictions is made real, literalised as are the contents of the pictures, in the form of constructed protrusions that extend from the gallery walls. The depth of these ambiguous shelf-like/frame-like supports is intended to remind one of how some paintings create illusion. Other models punctuate the gallery walls, underscoring the vertical convention of painting display. By fracturing the pictorial cohesion of the original works, I wish to communicate to the viewer and to emulate for myself my own situational experiences of the pictures that hung for so many years in my living room.

The Russian structuralist semiotician, Boris Uspensky, provides a valuable overview of the differing mechanisms by which artists process and organise visual information derived from the external world. Uspensky notes the significant shift that occurred around the time of the Renaissance in graphic representations. This shift delineates the difference between internal and external viewing positions. Uspensky contends that from the time of the Renaissance, artistic production is generally marked by an externalised point of view; that is, the artist depicts the outside world in an “objective” manner. Spatial relationships between various objects and figures in view conform to a unified, cogent composition. This holistic approach to synthesising and perceiving the world introduced the model of the picture as being a flat sheet of glass that frames tangible reality. A sense of “looking in” a projected space became an effective way of simulating “being in” a given space. Representing material reality this way produced a distanced, “second or substitute world” (Alpers 1983, xix). Uspensky refers to this phenomenon in the framing of pictorial space as ostranenie, or estrangement.

In contrast to the externalised tendency in linear perspective following the Renaissance, Uspensky analyses ancient and medieval works. Looking specifically at Russian icon paintings, Uspensky points out that “the artist seemingly placed himself within the represented world which he then portrayed as being around him – not from an estranged or external viewpoint, but from a point of view internal to the representation” (Uspensky 1973, 135). To put it another way: the icon painter, as well as other pre-Renaissance artists, mentally projected themselves into the spaces they depicted. This internalised approach produced a perspective system quite different from the two-point linear perspective that followed the Quattrocentro. Icons and other ancient paintings were structured from the point of view of an internal viewer, using inverse perspective. Commenting on the foreground/background relationship, Uspensky observes that “the typical feature of inverse perspective is the diminution in size of the represented objects – not in proportion to their distance from the spectator (as in direct perspective), but in proportion to their proximity to him – so that the figures in the background of the painting are represented as being larger than those in the foreground” (Uspensky 1973, 136). Furthermore, the author characterises inverse perspective as having the ability to compress the field of vision. Here, elements may be reduced to their common denominator: a few leaves can represent foliage, an entire military legion by a few soldiers and so on (Uspensky 1973, 170).

Uspensky’s discussions of inverse perspective and the resulting compression of visual fields in icon paintings resonate with my handicraft, particularly with my endeavour to literalise the flatlands of pictorial space. Uspensky offers the possibility for considering the picture as a porous membrane, a realm that can be entered and observed from multi-dimensional perspectives, or as having a “plurality of viewpoints” (Uspensky 1973, 171). This notion diminishes the visual and psychological barrier inherent in Renaissance picture making conventions. The extension of self into a depicted, two-dimensional space is an important aspect of my project. I cannot consider the paintings that I work from as distinct and separate from my own being and vision. The paintings, like the previously mentioned movies, are interwoven with my psychological make-up.

I find that my current efforts of literalising the pictures, the idea of origin evaporates. A complex and reticular order is continually revealed. Stable and unified notions of chronology, ethnicity, and media are simultaneously troubled. This raises issues of mereology2, the logic of the relationship of parts to whole. My three-dimensional maquettes can be viewed vis-à-vis the pictures that preceded them. As such, they are parts extracted from other parts: segments that came before them in time. The pictorial space has been theorised as being composed of many intervals. I turn once again to Uspensky, who refers to these parts as microspaces (Uspensky 1973, 117). The aggregate of pictorial microspaces composes an image that corresponds with the viewing subject. As we have already seen, the subject can be internal, as in proto-Renaissance art, or external to the space depicted as in imaging after the fifteenth century. I am interested in extending and testing Uspensky’s reading of pictorial space as a parcelised domain.

The maquettes are made in a piecemeal way. I concentrate on a singular episode in the painting and make a commensurable, three-dimensional rendition. The models are simultaneously motivated by the pictures and radically divorced from the images they emulate in their materiality. My installation is not a dialectical enterprise; I do not wish to suppose a negation of preceding systems, such as the pictorial model. My maquettes are not intended to offer a higher order of Truth. Instead, they operate in dialogue with, and indeed augmentations of, the pictures. Displaying the pictures alongside the sculptures points to the constant negotiation between being and becoming.

Duplication and Evaporation

Transcription has a peculiar and distinctive status in the visual arts. It is an exercise that is predicated on sequence. It requires a certain degree of patience and commitment by the transcriber to, more or less faithfully, reproduce a subsequent rendition. This strategy of visual representation has a wide gamut of intention. For some it is solely a technical exercise; others are driven by an admiration for a particular work. In terms of my own production I am interested in transcription as a means of invoking a generational continuity – a continuum which is both familial and broadly ancestral. I am interested in repeatability, a certain return which is conjured. This encompasses a whole variety of concepts prefixed by “re-”. Some of these notions are mentioned in the following passage:

Poems and pictures are iconic documents, cultural records which are open to discovery and rediscovery over time. Once produced, canvas and short story enter into a bank of forms which can take on new utility in unpredictable ways. To put it another way, when an artist or writer contemplates a predecessor’s creations there can occur flashes of recognition, unexpected insight and reformulation which cross over chronological boundaries and give new definition to the earlier text. We see what we need to see and gain new, per- haps unintended, utility from older cultural icons (Anderson & Debreczeny 1994, 5).

The past thirty years have been set ablaze by the “flashes” of renewed insight mentioned in the above text. As a means of reconciling with the past, cultural producers3 have “consumed” and regurgitated history under the rubric of appropriation. Since the 1970’s, visual artists have self-consciously and unapologetically cited past cultural forms in their own works, as a strategy of interpretation. Craig Owens accounts for this “allegorical impulse” in the postmodern era. If history is seen as a vast storehouse of icons by Anderson & Debreczeny, then Owens provides an analogy to a profound chasm. In the aforementioned citations, the past is either regarded in radically additive or subtractive terms. In both cases, however, the cultural producer mediates this space of history whether it is interpreted as immeasurably full or empty. For Owens, an artist who appropriates is an “allegorist”, an “interpreter”, a “confiscator” of images. “He does not restore an original meaning that may have been lost or obscured…. Rather, he adds another meaning to the image. If he adds, however, he does so only to replace: the allegorical meaning supplants an antecedent one; it is a supplement” (Owens 1984, 205).

Taking up the issue of quotation, Susan Stewart further acknowledges the infinite realm of the past. Stewart underlines and concurs with Owens’s observation: original and intended meaning can never remain intact once framed by quotation. She states that, “Quotation involves an infinite regress and an infinite resource. The discourse, once repeated, is given existence and detachability independent of a context of origin. Its origin dissolves into an etymological infinity, while its detachability gives it self-generation. By means of quotation, discourse comes to speak through us” (Stewart 1978, 122). As conduits for past texts, our quotation marks rehabilitate and contort meaning.

It is the supplementation and self-generation that Stewart and Owens invoke which particularly interest me in my studio research. These processes were activated in the course of making the sculptural models derived from my father’s pictures. The original content of the painting and its inherent meaning seemed to evaporate, only to form unforeseen storm clouds.

The Noise in Inversion: or Taiga, Chornozem and the Miniature

In painting, two-dimensional elements produce repetition. Consider, for instance, an image of a field of wheat. My father painted a copy based on Volodymyr Orlovsky’s lugubrious landscape, Harvest. Both painters produced a convincing illusion by balancing several elements such as line, colour, atmospheric perspective and so on. To generate this same wheat field into a tangible object in the material world also involves a repetition of an obviously different sort. An internal rhythm formed as I worked on the sculptures. Field plots were produced by planting thousands of coarse bristles in plasticine. Wet plaster bandage was rolled, like the masking tape trees mentioned earlier, to make the logs of a wattle fence. Oven-hardening modeling compound was tediously rolled, pierced with a pin, baked and threaded with a string to produce miniature necklaces. Through the monotonous labour and meditative pace of producing the above-mentioned pieces, I came to expect the ensuing results. Astonishment, for me at least, came in making the animate content of the paintings, such as the fauna and human subjects. It was at this point that my material production estranged me.

Once realised in new material forms, the content I worked with, and its originary syntax, became fugitive. The maquettes seemed to resist containment, pressuring the boundaries of the quotation marks that surrounded them. For instance, the four bears central to Shishkin’s composition could no longer be seen as the “noble” creatures of nature they had come to represent. As diminutive, soft sculptures the bears form new meanings and associations; it is not surprising that more delicate sentiments are stirred. A similar inversion happens with the human subjects. Once crafted into the third-dimension, the dramatis personae set on the nineteenth-century stages of Orlovsky’s and Trutovsky’s sentimental scenarios take on associations with playthings. As dolls and marionettes, the peasant subjects elicit feelings that range from softer sentiments to more menacing apprehensions.

I now turn to some of the above-mentioned associations that are prompted by the models. Here, one formal aspect, more than any other, exerts a profound effect on the reading of the sculptural component of my material research. Scale, particularly if it is reduced physical scale, has a peculiar magnetism. Not only can a small-scale representation draw a viewer into its intimate visual field, the miniature object is evocative of several psychical realms. In this capacity, the writing of Susan Stewart has inspired me. Her book, On Longing features a chapter devoted to the miniature. Stewart presents an argument that is multi-dimensional and seductively aphoristic. Some of her many maxims on the miniature include: “the miniature appears as a metaphor for all books and all bodies” (Stewart 1984, 44), “the miniature becomes a stage on which we project” (Stewart 1984, 54), it “offers a world clearly limited in space but frozen and thereby both particularized and generalized in time” (Stewart 1984, 48), “There are no miniatures in nature” (Stewart 1984, 55). Many of these observations resonate, albeit in a generalised way, with the scale of my works. In particular, Stewart’s discussion of the miniature and its relation to the past is especially germane to my project. “Today we find the miniature located at a place of origin (the childhood of the self). The miniature, linked to nostalgic versions of childhood and history, presents a diminutive, and thereby manipulatable, version of experience, a version which is domesticated and protected from contamination” (Stewart 1984, 68-69).

Stewart’s sketches of the miniature as it relates to memory and transcendent vision are poetically illustrated by Soviet director Andrei Tarkovsky. In his semi-autobiographical film, Nostalgia, Tarkovsky explores the yearning of a Russian émigré poet for his native soil. On numerous occasions the protagonist, who is visiting Italy, is reminded of his past. In one scene the poet enters a room that contains mounds of dirt and puddles of water. Here he is immersed in the reverie of what he sees. As the camera slowly zooms in, the small dirt piles reveal themselves as the rolling hillocks of the Russian countryside, the puddles transmogrify to a lake. The visual effect is seamless. By slightly shifting the depth of field and the camera’s point of view, Tarkovsky simply and effectively produces this complicated visual paradox. The telescopic view simultaneously miniaturises what is seen and at the same time explodes it onto the scale of lived experience – the scale of memory.

As we have seen, the discourse around the miniature is useful and worthwhile vis-à-vis my small-scale sculpture. Many parallels exist between the miniature and the way my studio production has been discussed. But can my little representations ultimately be considered miniature? The presence of the painted matrix, namely my father’s pictures, seems to trouble the issue. The scale of the paintings and models is loosely based on a one-to-one relationship. In this case, can my dad’s easel paintings be considered miniatures? Once divorced from the pictorial framework, can the sculptures truly be considered miniatures? In this ratio, the proximity of pictures and sculptures determines the outcome. If displayed in propinquity with the paintings, the models resist miniaturisation.

Temporal, spatial and contextual forces destabilise the nature and genesis of meaning in pictorial form. The anachronisms, material and scale transformations involved in my project twist and contort the subjects at hand. This torsion eludes me. My interpretations seem to pirouette between devotional imitation and ironic templates. As already discussed, my research participates in a gamut of longing, nostalgia and sentimentalised emotion. The original works are sympathetic to bygone, pastoral days of old. Academically trained Ukrainian and Russian realists often utilised their formal and polished technical skills to represent folk simplicity. My father, an untrained painter, seemed to reclaim the representations in a direct, sincere and unaffected way. His renditions are hypothetically infused with a longing for pre-industrial and pre-totalitarian spaces in history. My project falls in tandem. I cannot help but wonder if my works are a species of sentimentalism.

Oscar Wilde’s oft-quoted connection between sardonic temperament and sentimentality resonates for me here: “the sentimentalist is always a cynic at heart. Indeed, sentimentality is merely the bank holiday of cynicism” (Wilde 1979, 501). It is difficult for me to view my entire project in terms of Wilde’s sweet and bitter extremes. Nevertheless, his passage opens tributaries for renewed insight. For instance, what about the conflicting sentimental and cynical responses in the viewer?

It has been observed that both sentimentality and cynicism are hinged on some form of emotional investment (Solomon 1991, 3-5). For example, cynicism challenges standards that were at one point accepted. Similarly, sentimentalism offers the opportunity to induce an emotional response that is hyperbolic and distorted within a particular situation. I can write here in general terms and conjecture that, for most part, the contents (subject-matter, historical/cultural implications) of my work will be unfamiliar to the average, North American viewer. I am aware that an over or self-indulgent response, such as sentimentality, or a caustic and cynical attack on past traditions, is an unlikely response for a viewer who is unacquainted with contents that are highly personal and culturally specific.

It is perhaps more true that an odd and unsettling humour, rather than cynicism, resounds in my project. This is a comedy of displacement. It is the disconsonant collision of grotesque peasants and cute teddy bears – of Ukrainian chornozem4 with Siberian taiga5. Similarly, a comic effect arises from the intersection of three centuries: the original nineteenth-century subjects, my father’s renditions of those subjects copied in the last century, and finally, my translations most recently completed. Anachronisms such as these are “potentially funny: in the incongruous mixture of different periods there is the raw material for comedy and burlesque” (Barnes and Barnes 1989, 258). Also apparent here are the traces of heteroglossia6, or “different tongues”. The interjection of more than one voice into a work produces many results. For, just as appropriated forms possess the capacity to destabilise, and in some cases deteriorate the “authoritative claim to meaning” (Owens 1984, 205), so too does hybridity defy authority. Boundaries that once seemed firm become porous.

The project I had come to know so well now rests on a new plane of significance. Thinking back, it now seems odd that my intentions were once faithful and devotional. There seemed an agency, a participation in the dreamings of those before me. This was a longing for what I could no longer physically access. Bit by bit, the cumulative development of my project revealed my desire to recoup the measurements of verisimilitude, or the semblance of truth. Every nuance and vagary, each branch and facial expression was attentively observed and recreated from the antedated sources, namely the Soviet reproductions of the nineteenth century paintings and my dad’s oil reproductions. All along, I was actually “making strange” the pictures I knew so intimately.

 

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