Robert Smithson "Monuments of Passaic", 1967 (c) Estate of Robert Smithson, VAGA, NY

Francisco Infante "TheLife of a Triangle", 1976

Film stills from Dziga Vertov, Man with a Movie Camera, 1929

Tatlin as blind bandura player, Berlin, 1914

Anchor in Muynak, Uzbekistam, Aral Sea area

Melanie Mariño
The Mirror and the Sea
2014

Earth, isn’t this what you want, to arise invisible within us? Is it not your dream to be, one day, invisible?
—Rainer Maria Rilke, “Duino Elegies”

It is not enough to say, in the manner of all poets, that mirrors are like water. Nor is it enough to take this hypothesis as an absolute and presume, like some Huidobro that cool breezes blow from mirrors or the thirsty birds drink from them, leaving their frames empty. We must make manifest the whim transformed into reality that is the mind. We must reveal an individual reflected in the glass who persists in his illusory country (where there are figures and colors, but they are ruled by immutable silence).
—Jorge Luis Borges, “After Images”

 A recurrent scene in Anton Ginzburg’s film Walking the Sea unfolds the solitary figure of the artist, back turned, surveying the arid field of the Aral Sea Basin. A traveling dervish water bottle dangles at his side, while a three-part mirror construction hangs on his back, reflecting on one facet another view of the desiccated landscape, inserting a representation within this representation: La Rencontre (Bonjour Monsieur Courbet).

Gustave Courbet’s rich, intricate 1854 painting depicts the youthful traveler-artist meeting his bourgeois patron, Alfred Bruyas, and a manservant, as the vibrant Midi landscape extends behind them toward a low horizon. Standing at a sandy crossroads, Courbet leans away from his host and servant (and, implicitly, toward the viewer), bearing hat and staff in hand and easel and sundry accessories on his back. Here, the artist models himself after a popular broadside image of the Wandering Jew, splintering the encounter with artistic genius into an allegory of the modern artist as itinerant, as outcast, even as accursed oracle for the aesthetic calling of Realism.

Ginzburg playfully invokes the vagabond artist. A modern-day golem, the artist constructs himself as a wry collage of miscellaneous attributes.[1] While the water flask nods to traditional Sufi culture in Central Asia, the white cloth and yellow scarf return to Courbet’s costume and nineteenth-century Realism, and the mirror appendage recalls Robert Smithson’s and Dan Graham’s mirror architectures. These citations announce the film’s connection to the geographic region and to modernist experiments with mimesis. But proximity also mingles with distance.[2] This back and forth obliterates the stability of form, shattering the mirror representation inside the representation. The mimetic image thus survives as part-object, a synecdoche for the film’s ruinous subject.

 

Walking Through the Looking-Glass

Walking the Sea is the second in a trilogy of works titled Terra Corpus. While the first part, At the Back of the North Wind, tracks the artist’s quest for the mythical land of Hyperborea, cradle of Apollo “beyond the North, beyond the ice, beyond death,”[3] Walking the Sea documents the artist’s journey through an obverse space, the Aral Sea, that paradoxical sea without water. Real rather than mythological, desolate more than lush, the environmental ruin spans a 26,000 square mile area shared by Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan. Once the fourth largest sea-lake in the world, the Aral Sea lost over ninety percent of its water over the last fifty years as its two feeder tributaries, the Amu Darya and the Syr Darya, were diverted to irrigate the cotton fields in the surrounding dessert. Today, the depopulated area stands out of time, an open-air record of the evaporation of water into desert, a history lesson in the ecological disaster that decimated the former center of the commercial fishing industry in Central Asia and precipitated climate change in the region.

The opening sequence of the film condenses this history simply: black waves flow into a locked shot of the desert landscape with its rippling horizon. The juxtaposition operates horizontally and vertically, braiding contiguous scenes into the structure of analogy. Consider the eye adjusting to the abrupt shift from black water to stark white light. The eye blinks and, in that flickering moment, renders the sense of a void or a gap, creating a temporal metaphor for the frame that separates the elements of cinematic montage. The experience of the interval calls up a material property specific to film, as if to emphasize the medium as the content. But that self-reflexive language is rerouted by a more realist imperative—that is to say, Ginzburg’s structural frame establishes the transition from imaginary projection (a latent “inner sea”) to real time and space (the Aral Sea now).

Lapidary and poetic, the introductory montage of black and white precedes close-up views that transmute sand into salt marsh, magnified to disclose the white salt and crystalline deposits washed away from cotton fields. Then, a dried saxaul plant takes center stage, displaced in the next scene by a veiled geometric figure, its black cloak billowing and slipping to expose a standing mirror construction. Is this a rhetorical idiosyncrasy? The mirror re-appears on the back of the artist, who traverses the saline field, moving like the horizontally panning camera: a sly allusion to the artist as a Man with a Movie Camera.[4]

Pairing myth and document, Walking the Sea reconstructs the artist’s journey from sunrise to sunset. The arc of the day is paced as stillness and movement stumbling now and again into the vortex of fragmentation.[5] The film begins with locked shots that evoke the dead zones of the Aral Sea and segues into tracking shots that dilate the basin’s topography. In this initial sequence, nothing seems to happen. Haltingly, movement and sound enter the picture. Return, for instance, to the saxaul languidly awakening to the wind, its presence amplified by the blowing cloak of the concealed mirror.[6] The field recordings of the wind (real) then trill with the soundings of an Aeolian harp (constructed) as the artist crosses the desert.

Here, movement is dissected through sound. As the relation between one image and another is threaded through the relation between image and sound, visual experience becomes more ambient. Flirting with negative montage,[7] the film’s sound vibrates through the horizontal combination of images: the shot is heard and felt. The overtonal effect is sometimes dissonant—for example, the wind gusts about a static shot of inert bark, or the harp’s crescendo escorts the artist’s monotonous trek through the land. Landscape is also a soundscape, the film ventures, and the acoustic a primary actor in ushering the presence of time.

 

Seeing Double

Does Walking the Sea propose a form of “mirror-travel”? It brings to mind the illustrated essays by Robert Smithson that track his Grand Tour through an otherworldly Passaic, New Jersey and his anthropological encounter with the Yucatán Peninsula.[8]  As site-seeing, Ginzburg’s film intersects with Minimal and Conceptual art in the nineteen-sixties and seventies as well as extra-aesthetic practices, including walking rituals within Sufi Islam.[9]

Ginzburg characterized the Aral Sea Basin as a “readymade earthwork.”[10] Its para-documentation in film, sculpture, and photographs advances the logic of the supplement: “It adds only to replace. It insinuates itself in-the-place-of; if it fills, it is as if one fills a void.”[11] The supplement functions as spatial proxy and temporal extension; as the sea is already a document (an anti-monument to Soviet colonialism), Walking the Sea represents a document of a document.

In the film, the absent sea comes into view through the split mirror reflections enfolded within a given frame as well as through successive images. The mirror construction, the artist suggests, operates like a film camera whose real-time montage disrupts mimetic coherence in flashes, with abstract reflections. For example, the artist enters the scene, and the camera slowly tours the cratered basin, scavenging through its mundane debris—twigs, plants, crystal sedimentation, some brush, a camel skull. The next frame pictures a larger patch of salt desert, cleaving without warning into double planes that spread across the screen before retreating into the mirror.

Such prismatic refractions install a double vision within the core of the film, layering the discontinuous and incomplete over cohesive perspective. They look back to Smithson’s early mirror wall sculptures as well as to the later “standstills,” for which the artist scattered nine twelve-inch square mirrors throughout the Yucatán that, half-interred among tree branches or cantilevered into the ground, reflected only partial glimpses of the sky and land. Like the wall structures, whose tilted pairs of mirrors bounced jumbled views of the viewer’s environment, Smithson’s intervention in the jungle thwarted the mirroring of vanishing point and viewing point found in Renaissance painting and Realist photography and cinema.

As Smithson’s mirror chambers and fragments deflected retinal fusion,[12] Ginzburg’s non-mirroring operates strategically against the cancellation of visual data.[13] Indeed, the film often inserts one reflection (dynamic abstraction) inside another (illusionistic stability) to interpolate the non-mimetic language of Constructivism within the codes of Realism. As such, they pronounce a simultaneous affinity and dissociation from the landscape, while innovating culturally specific aesthetic discourses.[14]

Turn to the long tracking shot of the artist scanning a canyon range that was submerged in water only thirty years ago. Horizon lines align in the mirror and the landscape as he perambulates the flat brush below, which breaks abruptly into blurred and abstracted close-ups. The following frames return to unitary views of the low land, punctuated by sea shells, grazing camels, an abandoned housing block, stonebreakers at work, and shards of concrete walls. These are the remains of panel buildings that functioned as Soviet military bases on unmapped islands, which became accessible with the water’s disappearance. In the post-Soviet era, the structures were taken apart by hand by local residents, a literal unmaking of the twentieth century’s dream houses of the collective.[15]

The artist navigates the architectural remnants, whose geometric window casements and irregular cavities frame quotidian bits of the environment. Such visual rhymes for the ocular fuse architecture, organism, and machine. Can these ruins see? Toward the conclusion of the artist’s ramble, the plane bifurcates, collapsing the natural environment on one half and a crumbling edifice on the other.

In the film, doubling is a redoubling. A fragmented scene superimposed on a given frame, whether in part or whole, always already refers to the latticework disintegration of sky and land in the mirror. Indeed, the artist’s presence insistently flags the mirror’s duplicitous reversibility. As he moves forward or across the landscape, the mirror always looks back. The view remains the same: primordial and still. As such, the vicissitudes of politics congeal into the myth of a perpetual present. Might this present harbor an untimely kernel of consciousness? When the flow of events comes to a standstill, Walter Benjamin mused, “history forms, at the interior of this flow, a crystalline constellation.”[16]

 

A Lyric Reflection

Hortatory and oracular in address, while intense, inward, and meditative in mode of consciousness, Walking the Sea suggests an apposite, more poetic reflection. Following the lyric tradition, the film extols a subjective experience of the landscape, which becomes animated as a listener. The artist’s meditation is also therefore an action of naming that operates along the axis of the performative to generate what it names. Reference is suspended, and the terms of conventional mimetic representation declined.

Dating from the Hellenistic period, when the librarians of Alexandria collected the poems of Greek Antiquity and canonized nine lyrici vates, the lyric was accorded scant attention in Aristotle’s Poetics precisely because of its non-imitative character—if it was anything, it was dubbed an “error” or a “flaw.” It was not until the nineteenth-century that the genre was fully elaborated within Romanticism, where it was favored as a mimetic expression of individual imagination; as internal mimesis, it was conceived as the subjective form.

In Ginzburg’s film, the traveling artist is absorbed in the landscape before him; there is not a single moment when he confronts the viewer directly. “The lyric poet normally pretends to be talking to himself or to someone else: a spirit of nature, a muse, a personal friend, a lover, a god, a personified abstraction, or a natural object,” Northrop Frye explained, “The poet, so to speak turns his back on his listeners, though he may speak for them and though they may repeat some of his words after him.”[17]

For Ginzburg, indirection (the artist turns away) is also a calling forth (metrically irregular images reorder the landscape). This active address is exemplified by the apostrophe,[18] the literary trope that directs itself to someone or something other than a typical, empirical listener, who is in turn endowed with the power to respond.[19] Walking the Sea might thus be apostrophized “O, Aral Sea!”

The incantation is musical; think of the Aeolian harp that conjures the water’s flow—the Greeks spoke of lyrics as te mele, “poems to be sung,” and the Renaissance associated the lyric with the lyre and the lute. The musical ascension that trails the artist’s half-day journey is chromatically graded as the passage from pink and orange-streaked skies to the iconic blazing yellow sun. But that passage is less linear than cyclical, more lyrical than narrative.[20] Near the end of the film, the horizontal scene of the artist walking the darkening brush rhapsodically separates into two, then into three registers, inhabited by a double then momentarily tripled sun.

The lyric rhythm is oracular, associative, and unpredictable. In Ginzburg’s film, interruptions pierce visual patterns, like memories welling up within the realm of awakening. A falcon flies into the crevice of a decaying concrete wall. Or, the shadowy silhouette of a tree spotted green and pink by a multi-colored lens flare reframes earlier rhymes for camera-seeing. Or, a blurred foreground, perhaps a phantom line, recedes to the mirage-like image of camels dallying in an unlikely pasture.

Toward the film’s conclusion, the artist’s walk is cast as a voyage. Rusted ship relics summon the lost sea as camels frolicking on land rebound to the present. The most striking scene reinvents the immutable profile of a boat at sea; instead, an abandoned ship looms large as the sky above renews its graduated horizontal migration. The vessel’s presence is made audible by the metallic tremor of the harp, whose own visual echo resounds from the earlier apparition of a marooned anchor. Then the head of a chewing camel superimposed with the skeletal prow of a boat pulls past and present into dialectical tension. This is a centripetal space that draws the artist, who returns again and again to the dreamscape of ruin. Ordinary, yet faintly plaintive views of the land follow, before the figure, turned away from us, descends toward the setting sun, moving backward to a moment that has yet to be imagined.

The final image of the night sea waves reprises the beginning. It acts mnemonically, as a reminder of the water that was once there, while operating in the subjunctive, as a metaphor for the myth of a subterranean sea. Elegiac in tone, Walking the Sea cantillates an experience in which the artist looks as he recollects. These two directions, which travel from the present into the past and the past into the present, produce a historical contra-zoom, joining intentional recollection with involuntary remembrance.

 

 




[1] In Jewish folklore, the golem is an artificial being brought to life by written word placed under his tongue.

[2] The metaphor of a contra-zoom, in which a lens that moves in as the camera moves away, would elaborate this thematic antithesis.

[3] Friedrich Nietzsche, The Anti-Christ (1895), trans. H. L. Mencken (New York, 2013), p. 17.

[4] Crucial to young Soviet Constructivist cinema, Dziga Vertov ’s 1929 film Man with a Movie Camera disarticulated “the process of movement,” using juxtaposition and superimposition to generate “formalist jackstraws and unmotivated camera mischief.” Sergei Eisenstein, “The Cinematographic Principle and the Ideogram” (1929) in Essays in Film Theory: Film Form, trans. Jay Leyda (New York, 1949), p. 43.

[5] Vertov’s film played with the multiple homologies between the camera and the human eye, but his notion of the “kino-eye” was predicated less on identity than on the radical difference between the two systems of seeing. Ginzburg’s film, on the other hand, projects the image of the camera as a body double of the artist, a prosthetic extension of the human being’s perceptual and cognitive apparatus; in this sense, it aligns itself with the more contemporary preoccupation with the post-human. Nevertheless, Eisenstein’s language remains productive for the film’s molding of a differential present: “The mechanical eye, the camera, rejecting the human eye as a crib sheet, gropes its way through the chaos of visual events, letting itself be drawn or repelled by movement, probing, as it goes, the path of its own movement. It experiments, distending time, dissecting movement, and in contrary fashion, absorbing time within itself, swallowing years, or schematizing processes of long duration inaccessible to the normal human eye.” Dziga Vertov, “The Council of Three” (1923), in Kino-Eye: The Writings of Dziga Vertov, ed. Annette Michelson (Berkeley, 1984), p. 19.

[6] The mirror’s tunic compounds the Sufi hirka with the cloth of large-format photography, the black water with the cotton, whose production led to the draught.

[7] See Sergei Eisenstein, “The Filmic Fourth Dimension” and “Methods of Montage” (1929), in idem. 1949 (see note 4), especially pp. 64–71 and 78–83.

[8] Robert Smithson, “The Monuments of Passaic,” in Artforum 7 (December 1967), pp. 48–51 and “Incidents of Mirror-Travel in the Yucatan,” in Artforum 8 (September 1969), pp. 28–33.

[9] Ginzburg’s work could be related to Krauss’s conjugation of sculpture as landscape and not-landscape. Her category of “marked sites” encompasses earthwork sculptures like Michael Heizer’s Double Negative and Robert Smithson’s Spiral Jetty as well as Heizer’s Depressions and Dennis Oppenheim’s Time Lines, or, most relevantly for Ginzburg, the photographically documented walks of Jan Dibbets, Hamish Fulton, and Richard Long.  Rosalind Krauss, “Sculpture in the Expanded Field,” in The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1986), pp. 275–90.

[10] Ginzburg, interviewed by the author on March 20, 2014.

[11] Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. G.C. Spivak (Baltimore, 1976), p. 145.

[12] It was the enantiomorph that enabled Smithson to envision a model for non-mirroring that could undo traditional perspective. Derived from a peculiar category of symmetry within crystallography, the enantiomorph denotes two forms that mirror each other across a single axis, while failing to fit one over the other like imperfectly correspondent gloves for the left and right hands.

[13] While Smithson withheld the image of Mayan ruins from the binocular, Western gaze in order to impede imperialist tourism, Ginzburg displays the Aral’s fragments in an unusual moving history museum. His doubling of perspective and reversed perspective deconstructs the unified image, enabling the artist to build a critical distance from Soviet-era politics and advanced art of the nineteen-sixties and seventies.

[14] The work of the Russian-born artist Francisco Infante is also influential for Ginzburg. Schooled in the vocabulary of Suprematism and a member of the Movement Group. As early as the nineteen-sixties, Infante created environmental installations that inserted geometric objects into natural environments. Although they exist only as photographic documents, these “synthesis-artifacts” describe a process of transformative exchange between the manmade and the organic. See Alexander Borofsky, “Conceptual Photography in the Russian Museum,” in Art Journal 53, no. 2 (Summer 1994), pp. 40–42 and Boris Groys, “Moscow Romantic Conceptualism,” in Laura Hoptman and Toma?s? Pospiszyl, eds., Primary Documents: A Sourcebook for Eastern and Central European Art Since the 1950s (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2002), pp. 162–73.

[15] For Walter Benjamin, “The dreaming collective knows no history. Events pass before it as always identical and always new. The sensation of the newest and most modern is, in fact, as much a dream formation of events as ‘the eternal return of the same.’ Now [these] formations dissolve within the enlightened consciousness.” Walter Benjamin, The Arcades Project, trans. Howard Eiland (Cambridge, Massachusetts, 1999), p. 854.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism: Four Essays (Princeton, 1957), pp. 249–50.

[18] See Jonathan D. Culler, “Apostrophe,’ in The Pursuit of Signs: Semiotics, Literature, Deconstruction (Ithaca, 1981), pp. 135–54.

[19] Take, for example, John Keats’s Romantic odes to nightingales and urns or the “lyric of indifference” loosened by more modern poets such as Emily Dickinson.

[20] The lyrical operation of the film should not be assimilated into the model of dramatic narrative that dominates prose fiction. The artist’s persona is not a character in a novel, and the film does not stage a drama of consciousness with motivations to be unpacked. The “I-you” relation inherited from Greek and Roman literature offers an alternative to this modern paradigm as well as to the mistaken conception of the lyric as radical solipsism, as an overheard “I-I” relation: “Lyric as inherited from the Greeks was sung to an audience, so that there is a you as well as an I, ‘a speaker or a singer,’ talking to, singing to, another person or persons.” W.R. Johnson, The Idea of the Lyric: Lyric Modes in Ancient and Modern Poetry (Berkeley, 1982), p. 3.