Carol Kino in coversation with Anton Ginzburg
Carol Kino: Why did you choose to focus on Hyperborea, the mythical land of eternal spring and plenty, for your Biennale project?
Anton Ginzbrug: I’ve always been interested in mythology, because I think its archetypes exist in our reality. Growing up in Saint Petersburg I had a classical education, and because St. Petersburg is architecturally a neoclassical city, that tradition is present there. So I had always heard about Hyperborea but didn’t know much about it. Then last summer I read a magazine article that placed Hyperborea in northern Russia, near the White Sea. That caught my attention, so I began doing research and the project started to build itself.
Hyperborea was first described by Herodotus but interest in it resurfaced at the turn of the 20th century, when national identity was being expressed in the establishment of world’s fairs, like the Venice Biennale. The concept was appropriated by Nietzsche, by the Symbolist poets of St. Petersburg, and by the followers of Madame Blavatsky. This happened during a time of social and political upheaval and experimentation, when Europeans and Americans were looking for new ways to find justice and harmony. I think Hyperborea became a metaphor for that search.
CK: The video takes us to three locations: Astoria, Oregon; Saint Petersburg, and the White Sea off the northwest coast of Russia. How did you choose them?
AG: Nobody really knows the location of Hyperborea. Some have claimed it’s in England. Others have claimed it’s in the United States. But it’s really more of a metaphor, so trying to find its physical location was absurd from the beginning. Even the idea of taking a trip to Hyperborea was an exercise in futility—a Don Quixote-like venture.
But after doing research I created a map of all the places that have been associated with the concept. One was Astoria, Oregon, the oldest American town on the West Coast. That caught my attention because it was connected to the Astor family and New York, so I decided to start there. Next I chose Saint Petersburg because of its Symbolist poets. It was also familiar to me since I grew up there.
CK: What about the White Sea and the gulags—had you ever visited there before?
AG: Never. For a long time that territory was closed.
CK: Did you do a lot of research about each location before you arrived?
AG: Yes. I started out with a general sense of what I was going to do, but I felt it was very important to make the final decisions once I was there. That meant there was always a sense of discovery. My idea was to channel the poetic information in the geography—almost like geographical psychotherapy.
CK: The forest you filmed in Oregon looks almost primeval.
AG: Yes, it has this moss, which is like the prime matter on earth. Nature seems so alive there. And it creates an interesting progression in the film, from these very vibrant green colors to the white silence of the White Sea.
CK: What was it like seeing the gulags for the first time?
AG: It was very moving and strange because nobody was living there—it was just abandoned. So in a way my project became a visit to the ruins of the 20th century and its conception of Utopia.
CK: You appear several times in the film as a surveyor, mapping and measuring the territory. What does that figure represent?
AG: It was important to establish that the trip really happened, that the film wasn’t created in a studio. So there’s a performative aspect to it. The surveyor also serves as a vector to connect the locations and create the narrative. This project aims to map out a mythological territory, and the surveyor carries a leveling instrument used to create maps—so it’s really about mapping the void.
CK: What about the red smoke that turns up in many of the scenes?
AG: For me that too has a performative aspect. It is also a representation of the collective unconscious, of a creative energy that travels across the world in search of Hyperborea. And because I conceived of the film as if it were a painting, the red smoke provided the ultimate color against a white landscape.
CK: The installation consists of quite a bit more than this film—there are sculptures, as well as reliefs, paintings, photographs, and works on paper. Why did you work in so many different mediums?
AG: I like to find the one that is most appropriate for each project, because ultimately I think that creative energy is abstract—it doesn’t belong to any particular medium.
CK: Tell me a bit about the sculptures. Did you make them before or after the film?
AG: I started working on them beforehand but they ultimately came together while I was filming. One connects to the scenes in Oregon; it’s a monolith made up of shipping pallets—the ultimate travellers. There are two totem poles, which relate to the shamanic cultures of the north. And the fourth was created with actual mammoth tusks, the mammoth having been a witness to Hyperborea. Mammoth remains are frequently found in northern territories, and the earliest one that’s ever been found also appears in the film, in the scenes I shot in the Zoological museum in St. Petersburg.
CK: When you were working on this project, did it feel as though the entire world had been transformed into an installation?
AG: Yes, that’s what it was. It was about making reality my studio, which was extremely liberating.
© 2011 Carol Kino