Boris Groys in conversation with Anton Ginzburg

For the catalog At the Back of the North Wind (published by Hatje Cantz, 2012) on the occasion
of the solo exhibition at the 54th Venice Biennale.

Boris Groys: Anton, your exhibition “At the Back of the North Wind” was part of the 54th Venice Biennale this year, could you please tell how the project started.

Anton Ginzburg: Well, the project started with an article I read in a Russian newspaper that claimed the actual location of the mythological Hyperborea had finally been discovered at the White Sea. I found this curious and symptomatic, since the search for Hyperborea had been a popular theme at the beginning of 20th century and was connected to the search for national identity and the transition into modernity. I felt it was an appropriate subject to explore for my exhibition at the Venice Biennale, which was historically modeled on the idea of a World’s Fair with international pavilions asserting their national identities. Since my project was not linked to a particular national pavilion, I liked the abstract idea of Hyperborea as a utopian state, as a canvas used by different nations to define themselves. So I researched the potential location of Hyperborea in literature, mythology and the press and documented my own physical journey from Astoria, Oregon, to Saint Petersburg and finally to the White Sea—locations that have a historical or literary link to the myth. I imagined the northern Russian landscape, with its massive territories of frozen earth, as a geographic subconscious mind filled with the remains of mammoths, which represent the archetypes and memories of times past.

Boris Groys: To be under snow, to be frozen, is a kind of natural museification. If you put something living out in the cold you achieve something like corporeal immortality, which is different than the immortality of the soul. This is very much in affinity with the dream of art, which has always been the dream of corporeal immortality. It’s this concept of hibernation, of freezing bodies until a time comes when resuscitation is possible. It’s also a kind of metaphor for memory, because memory functions as a freezer.

AG: Absolutely. I found the Zoological Museum in Saint Petersburg so peculiar because it hasn’t really changed since the beginning of the last century. It functions as a museum of a museum, since everything in it has remained in such a perfect state of decay.

BG: But at the same time it’s frozen decay. And frozen decay is the highest possibility of art because it’s a stable form of decadence, which is what 20th-century art tried to attain. In general it seems to me that the Soviet system as such was a big freezer in which all the cultural values and traditions of world history—especially 18th- and 19th-century history—were kept in frozen form. And as the thaw began—though I’ve always hated thinking of perestroika as a thaw—the freezer was opened and everything decayed in a couple of days.

AG:  The country was alienated from the rest of the world, which prevented the thaw for decades.

BG: The border was closed and everything was frozen. This frozen condition was always regarded in Russia as imperial might, memory and high art. Konstantin Pobedonostsev himself said that it was good for Russia to be frozen. I think what was important for the Acmeists was to develop a form and a concept of form that was stable—frozen despite societal and historical changes. The Symbolists, in contrast, were too emotional—and to be too emotional is to be too hot.

AG: I was recently reading Osip Mandelstam’s manifesto “The Morning of Acmeism,” in which he compares the Acmeists to builders. Because the Symbolists wanted to travel all the time, they couldn’t be good builders since they couldn’t connect to one place and one vision.

BG: The Symbolists were like your red cloud. They were day-dreaming—a vague kind of dreaming that dissipates in the air. Think of Vladimir Mayakovsky’s “A Cloud in Pants.” It is still more a Symbolist than Futurist poem. What the Acmeists were interested in was form—pure form—so they were immunized against emotions, against hotness, against reflection, which is also hot. So with the Acmeists you have this pure frozen form that is defended against all these powers that dissolve form. Hyperborea became an allegory of pure form.

The Acmeist tradition was very much an Imperial one. They considered themselves living in an Imperial center and also had this feeling that Russia should be frozen.  It actually was frozen by the Imperial style, which especially in Saint Petersburg was very geometrical and cold.

AG: Saint Petersburg itself is more of a sculpture than a city.

BG: Yes, it’s very formalist.

AG: There is a paradox in Acmeism, though, a contradiction between its desire for progress and modernity and its highly orthodox stance. Was this poetic tendency unique to Saint Petersburg?

BG: Acmeism is a kind of neoclassicist attitude that had to do with the attempt to position classical form against the flow of time. So you had that attitude everywhere, though of course in Russia you had a political condition that was also being frozen. If in Germany, France and England you had a kind of contrast between the poetic project of the repetition of classical form and a fluid democratic evolution, in Russia—and especially in Saint Petersburg —you had the complete confluence of Acmeistic poetic production and Imperial political production. Deleuze writes about the ideal coincidence of the poetic and the political, but this was a kind of coincidence in a different way—in a reactionary way.

AG: So if the northern territories of the White Sea in my project function as the subconscious, then Saint Petersburg is the ego.

BG: In viewing your exhibition, it becomes very obvious that you use this state of frozenness as a natural metaphor for the museum and cultural memory in general. You take these elements of cultural memory that are already frozen and put them into the exhibition space, which is like bringing them from one freezer to another. Because a museum exhibition space is also a freezer; it’s where things are supposed to be kept stable, where they cannot dissolve or be destroyed by social action or weather. So I think this Hyperborean condition functions in your project as a natural metaphor of keeping memory and accumulating memory. Of course if you speak about the subconscious in the Freudian sense, then to get the subconscious out means to make things warm, to start the thaw. But if you start the thaw then these forms of subconscious also dissolve and you get this kind of dream instead of reality. Lacan, among others, described something like a narcissistic Urszene of reflection and I think your project is an attempt to connect your own Urszene of memory with the museum. So while this Hyperborean condition operates as a kind of allegory or metaphor, at the same time it serves as some kind of actual cultural tradition of keeping things intact.

AG: Or a form of resistance.

BG: The Hyperborean tradition stands for a resistance against history, a resistance against time and its powers of dissolution—a resistance against climate change, as it were. So by going back to Saint Petersburg what you are actually doing is resisting psychological change. You’re not changed through immigration—you resist all the change of Saint Petersburg that happened after the “defrosting” of the Soviet Union and you want your Hyperborean condition back. You want to put everything on ice. It’s a very natural psychological reaction to all that has happened.

AG: There must be something else that is alive in this frozen condition, though.

BG: Yes and no. I think that what is alive is this figure going through the frozen museum of life—an exhausted, frozen museum visitor who is moving very slowly and gradually turning into a museum object himself. The red cloud is something that is red like Communism, and that dissolves. Nothing comes out of it.

AG: I was thinking of the cloud in terms of Jungian creative energy, as in Jung’s Red Book

BG: That could be.

AG: The thing about Communism is, despite the rhetoric, it never actually happened in Russia.

BG: That is exactly what it looks like, then: a red cloud that comes out of nothing and dispersed into nothingness. If you consider the white/red opposition that formed 20th-century Russian history after the civil war, obviously we’re looking at the victory of white over red. The red has dissipated. But this victory of white over red is imagined—it is a victory in the museum of memory. The fact is Saint Petersburg is neither white nor red; it is bourgeois and capitalist. So it’s a kind of symbolic process that takes place in the site of memory, in the museum, in the imagination, and it takes place as a conflict between red—which is movement, history, class struggle—and this Hyperborean Acmeist reactionary, conservative, imperialistic Russian desire to freeze everything and not to allow history any place. As an artist you inhabit that tension because of your interest in the museum and your desire for your objects to be shown in places where they won’t be destroyed by worms.

AG: So museification is the ultimate coffin. 

BG: Exactly, it’s the ultimate coffin. It’s a natural process, this freezing, and a state of memory that resists history. This is typical for the immigrant—especially for the immigrant in New York. It’s interesting, if you look at immigration in Europe, people kind of flow together with the European milieus. But you can’t flow here in New York because it’s a country of immigration. So you come to New York and you remain in the same state that you arrived.

AG: New York life is quite active and integrated, though. There is a certain harmony among the variety of all different identities. I don’t feel it alienates the immigrant as the “other.” I think it gives the immigrant its own New York identity.

BG: But that is precisely what we’re speaking about. In America you do not have to become American. You are just American by being in America. It’s not accidental that Americans speak more about identity than anybody else. Europeans always speak about difference but Americans always speak about identity. So what is identity? It’s a feeling of being self-identical. And this feeling of being self-identical is the feeling of being frozen. 

AG: I guess that’s possible if we’re just talking about national identity but it gets far more complex if we start to introduce other elements like religion, sex, generational legacies and the like. 

BG: It has to do with parts of your experience that you cannot communicate simply because you don’t have language for that and because the milieu here in America is unable to respond to it because they don’t have access to this kind of experience. So there’s a certain part of your identity that remains uncommunicated and frozen. 

AG: So in your opinion, the artistic project is a mechanism to communicate the “unspoken” identity? 

BG: Yes, to communicate the uncommunicated part of identity. Of course the mammoth can’t explain or communicate his experience.

AG: He is a mute witness.

BG: He is a witness, but he doesn’t say of what. There is a mute part of language, a condition marked by a lack of expressivity and communication. Every immigrant has that: a kind of personal freezer or personal museum.

AG: When I think about Russia, I definitely think of the landscape and how one relates to it. Coming back to Russia after 12 years of being away, I felt the immensity of the territory in a physical way. It’s a very particular relationship that the human body has to the land and its scale.

BG: Do you know how the structure of Mars was discovered? An American astrophysicist was flying over Russia and realized that from above the landscape looked exactly like Mars. Nobody at the time understood what created the so-called “canals” on Mars and he saw that the Russian territory had very similar structures. That’s when he realized that under the surface of the snow there was a layer of ice with large cracks in it. You could only see these cracks from a great height, so he developed the idea that Mars was comprised in party by ice, which turns out to be true.

AG: So Russians could be in fact Martians!

BG: Which is what the Russians always said: the red star, Velemir Khlebnikov’s “Trumpet of the Martians, Yakov Protazanov’s “Aelita: Queen of Mars,” and so on. There’s always been this analogy between Russia and Mars in Russian culture. Russia was a frozen dream, a frozen utopia.

AG: Something I noticed at the White Sea was how moss grows over everything. It covers the trees, the ground and all kinds of structures. I read if you fly over certain areas around the White Sea, you can see numerous perfect rectangles in the moss—the remaining footprints of the barracks and prisons that were located there. They are earthwork ready-mades, paintings in the moss.

BG: They’re a frozen memory of the Gulag.

AG: There is an interesting parallel to the American experience of the earthworks of the 1960s and ’70s.

BG: Yes, but not in a similar artistic way. There were of course these big earthwork projects, like the White Sea–Baltic canal.

AG: It’s interesting that you mention that, because my next project is dealing with the Aral Sea. I see it as a poetic condition—an artwork without the intention of being so. All of these heroic earthworks were created in the Soviet Union without the artistic intention of doing so.

BG: But it was with intention. The difference was that they were collective and not individualistic. If you read the aesthetic texts of the 1920s and ’30s, all of them said that the Soviet Union was an artwork, only a collective artwork. 

AG: An artwork by anonymous.

BG: The whole nation was understood as a nation of artists. What’s the difference between the Russian and the western artist? The difference was made plain by Marx. The worker’s work was alienated labor and the artist’s work was not alienated. The Soviet nation as a nation was not alienated. It created its own artworks like the White Sea–Baltic canal and the Aral Sea.

AG: And now the artwork is thawing.

BG: Now it’s thawing because the nation is gone and the artist is dead. Instead of artists you have the population and the population has been brought back to the condition of the alienated laborer. 

AG: It hasn’t been preserved?

BG: Not at all. I think it was the Tate Gallery that tried to show Communist propaganda and realized that there was nothing to find in Russia, that everything had been destroyed. So the museum took everything from the personal archives of Komar and Melamid. The Tate couldn’t find anything in the whole of Russia!

AG: I’m also interested in the spiritual discourse that was established between Saint Petersburg and New York in the beginning of the 20th century by such figures as Madame Blavatsky, George Gurdjieff and Nicholas Roerich. It was so influential in political, social and artistic circles.

BG: It was this English/Russian/Indian axis. Though it took a kind of Aryan turn in Germany later, at the time it had to do with the idea of invisible concept, of spiritual life being also a life of forms. You had this aura phenomenon, the idea of a second body.

AG: It was considered an emotional body that was separate from the physical body and transformed into the abstract, like a red cloud. It overcomes the notion of time, this state of being “ultimately unfrozen.”

BG: The ultimately unfrozen has to do of course with complete abstraction. Wassily Kandinsky’s Concerning the Spiritual in Art is actually an explication of this theory, where you have certain forms and colors and if you have the combination then the sum creates a certain aura or spiritual or emotional atmosphere. You can’t rescue yourself from its influence. You are influenced on the subconscious level maybe even against your own will and individuality. As an artist, you become a kind of deliverer of emotional power, a subconscious power that you manipulate. So the artist becomes a demiurge. You find it in Kandinsky and you find it in Mondrian very strongly.

AG: It’s a very Gnostic approach.

BG: It’s very Gnostic, but also very Indian as well. It’s about the capability of the individual artist to become a power and a force. Which leads me to wonder whether art is something like its own force. It’s not only an object of contemplation.

AG:  I believe it is a force and the poetic experience is being able to reflect and channel that force.

BG: Yes, but this force acts not through channels of communication but subconsciously. Basically art begins to manipulate your sensibility on a subconscious level and that is its force. Art can manipulate at the point that you can’t resist. It can be used for good reasons and for bad reasons, for good goals and bad goals. In that way it’s like Star Wars. You have this force to use for good or bad. But it is a force that imposes itself on you.


Boris Efimovich Groys (born 19 March 1947) is an art critic, media theorist, and philosopher. He is currently a Global Distinguished Professor of Russian and Slavic Studies at New York University and Senior Research Fellow at the Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design in Karlsruhe, Germany. He has been a professor of Aesthetics, Art History, and Media Theory at the Karlsruhe University of Arts and Design/Center for Art and Media in Karlsruhe and an internationally acclaimed Professor at a number of universities in the United States and Europe, including the University of Pennsylvania, the University of Southern California and the Courtauld Institute of Art London.

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