Anton Ginzburg’s At the Back of the North Wind
by Jeffrey Kastner
For the catalog At the Back of the North Wind (published by Hatje Cantz, 2011) on the occasion
of the solo exhibition at the 54th Venice Biennale
It is not down in any map; true places never are.
—Herman Melville, Moby Dick
The real must be fictionalized in order to be thought.
—Jacques Ranciere, The Politics of Aesthetics
A multimedia travelogue in which destination and goal are mapped with resonantly strategic imperfection on one another, Anton Ginzburg’s sprawling transdisciplinary project, At the Back of the North Wind, is a here-to-there story in which neither here nor there are ever fully stable, even as the journey between them is illustrated with meticulous, lavish clarity. Installed initially at the Palazzo Bollani in the summer of 2011 as part of the 54th Venice Biennale, the series of interrelated works that make up At the Back of the North Wind—video, photography, sculpture, paintings, bas reliefs and other works on paper—all draw on a common source: Ginzburg’s quixotic search for the mythic land of Hyperborea, literally a place “beyond the north wind,” said to be the sometime home of Apollo and permanently inhabited by a people untroubled by “disease and bitter old age…far from labor and battle.”[i] It’s a location that has long functioned as a kind of placeholder for any number of utopian longings and ethno-racial origin stories—a fascination across centuries and cultures, and referred to in sources as varied as Herodotus, Nietzsche, the Blavatskyian strain of Theosophist metaphysics and recent Russian news reports touting the discovery of its “true” location near the White Sea. Within Ginzburg’s psychogeographic system, Hyperborea too acts as a locus of desire, as well as a conceptual organizing principle through which a series of highly refined interpenetrating artistic practices can be routed.
While the formal hybridity of At the Back of the North Wind is, to some extent, simply a function of its conceptual variety, it also serves to emphasize the indeterminacy of its subject. Ginzburg’s engagement with forms of mapping, with the archive and with the conventions of scientific taxonomy and museological display all suggest that the project’s ambition is not simply to describe, but in fact to describe the character of description itself; not just to materialize an immaterial subject, but also to foreground the very structures and tactics through which such transformations are achieved.
To be sure, the project has adjacencies with a constellation of historical and contemporary artistic practices: most clearly, if not uncomplicatedly, with both first-generation Land Art and the research-driven agendas of the diverse contemporary land-related artistic programs that have followed from it. Like the former, it understands the natural world not only as a physical construct but also as a space ripe for conjuring a kind of awe, yet in contrast to the insistently inscriptive post-minimalist tendencies that informed much of American Land Art (and, indeed, even the less mechanized tracings of European artists such as Richard Long), Ginzburg’s journey refuses their penchant for colonizing, leaving no traces as he traverses his physico-historical landscapes.[ii] And in keeping with more current artistic approaches to the land, Ginzburg’s interests are not simply in the geographies of solitude; in At the Back of the North Wind, the built environment is understood as fully integrated, both physically and psychically, with the natural world.
To these concerns, the artist also brings an outlook shaped by the complex feints of data-dense parafiction, one that takes its place in a long line that stretches from literary precedents like Cervantes, Melville and Borges to more contemporary analogues in the visual arts that mobilize various forms of historical, anthropological and scientific information in order to unsettle conventional wisdom about the fixity of the real and the false. This not only aligns with Ginzburg’s interest in the mystical operation of Hyperborea—via not just figures like Blatavsky, but also in native shamanic practices that similarly question the conventional order of things and whose formal influences are vivid in the totemic forms that reappear in the sculptures—but is also enacted in its display environment. Designed as a kind of great feedback loop, the work stages a circularity that takes viewers on a kind of presentational journey mimicking the voyage of the project itself. It encompasses straight documentary, in the form of still images reminiscent of anonymous expedition photos from the early 20th century, as well as tangible artifacts like sculptures, paintings and bas reliefs, the last of which physicalize Google Earth images of the locations of the artist’s journey and function as a bridge between two and three dimensions and, by extension, the architecture of the palazzo and the artist’s installation. Most central to Ginzburg’s project, though, is the film, which at once contextualizes and problematizes all that has come before, changing our perceptions of the objects and images on subsequent viewing. The fundamental question posed again and again by each of these conceptual choices is finally one regarding the nature of the line between the “logic of facts and the logic of fiction”[iii]—a division as vivid and forever receding as the horizon that functions as the dominant compositional motif of the project’s filmic component.
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At the Back of the North Wind sets itself a series of nesting, paradoxical goals: at once about a place and the impossibility of that place;about a journey but also about what that journey suggests about the nature of journeying. It insists, in all its various formal modes of address, on operating along the boundaries between the imaginary and the actual. Take, for instance, the primary locations of the film, which both organizes and recapitulates the larger structure of the project: each of them has what might be thought of as a “truth value,” which is to say an array of actual natural, historical and/or cultural data that attaches to them, and a “use value” in the context of Ginzburg’s narrative. This latter, functional identity intersects at numerous points with the verifiable information, but is never allowed to align fully with it, and it is in the gaps between these two states that the project’s poetic surplus is produced.
Ginzburg’s journey originates on the ocean in America’s Pacific Northwest—in and around the town of Astoria, Oregon, a port at the mouth of the Columbia River that began its life near the turn of the 19th century as the westernmost outpost of John Jacob Astor’s fur-trading empire. The first permanent US settlement on the Pacific Coast, Astoria lies at the northern tip of the state; still an important anchorage for ocean-going vessels, it also sits along the strip of coastline that includes some of North America’s richest temperate rainforest. This conjunction sets the scene for the first of the project’s psychogeographical moments, as the artist moves from the docks of Astoria, with their promise of travel, across the Astoria-Megler Bridge—the nation’s longest continuous truss bridge—toward the windswept coastal heaths and misty old growth forest that lie to the north.
Although certain organizing elements of civilization are initially present—the docks and container ships suggesting global networks of trade and transportation, a small trawler making slow headway through the chop evoking the local economy’s more intimate ties to the sea—this early sequence is, like the film itself, largely depopulated, a kind of dream-space at once within and outside of the world of everyday experience. The only legible human figure here, and indeed in the entire project, is that of the artist, who first appears with the traditional tools of the surveyor, someone literally attempting to get the lay of the land. When he peers through the eyepiece of his theodolite, however, what he sees is himself holding the measuring pole in the distance. It is the first of several metaphors in At the Back of the North Wind designed to evoke the Lacanian concept of the “gaze” and its relationship both to the development of identity in the “mirror stage” and, in the psychonalayst’s later extension of it, to the anxiety produced by the sensation that the things we observe are, in some sense, observing us as well.[iv]
Questions regarding the psychological and political status of observation, and the relationship between the watcher and the watched, are central to Ginzburg’s entire enterprise. From the forest scenes of the first photographic sequence—which, in addition to juxtaposing the boreal and the arboreal in a sly visual rhyme, also introduces two animal “familiars,” the wolf and the owl, that reappear later in the film and in the sculptures, as well as a mysterious cloud of red fog that becomes a kind of ephemeral doppelgänger for the artist as he moves from place to place—to the sweeping shot along the port area of Saint Petersburg, Russia, to the train that brings viewers to that nation’s northwest frontier with its ruined Gulag complexes, the camera is in almost ceaseless (nearly always horizontal) motion, quite literally scanning the various environments. Judging from the next two geographical sequences of the film—the first of which prowls around the uncanny environments of a decaying baroque palace and an empty zoological museum and the second of which investigates the abandoned structure of a Soviet prison camp—they are scanning for some kind of evidence. But evidence of what?
The Saint Petersburg sequence is perhaps the most vivid and complex of the film, and its urban, architectural and artifactual contexts begin to provide some answers to this question. For nearly two centuries the seat of the Tsars, and long the cultural and intellectual capital of Russia, the city has also endured unimaginable hardship, including being besieged by the Nazis between autumn 1941 and winter 1944, a period during which well over one million of its citizens died. Reports from the time depict it as a kind of ghost town, depopulated by starvation and evacuation. The city is also, not coincidentally, Ginzburg’s birthplace, and here it becomes another in his series of geographic imaginaries as he unearths aspects of both histories from beneath the surface of the contemporary metropolis.
Beyond his own personal relationship with Saint Petersburg—which Ginzburg left as a teenager, coming to the United States to study art—the artist’s engagement with the city also has roots in its early 20th-century cultural environment, and in particular with the literary movement known as Acmeism. Founded in 1910 as the Guild of Poets by Sergei Gorodetsky and Nikolay Gumilev, and later joined by such writers as Anna Akhmatova and Osip Mandelstam, the Acmeists were opposed to what they saw as the “Dionysian” indulgences of the Russian Symbolists.[v] As advocates for a return to classical, Apollonian order (indeed, their flagship journal was named Apollon, after the god), the Acmeists identified with Hyperborea, which, according to some mythological sources, was where a disobedient Apollo went after refusing his father Zeus’s request to go to Delphi.[vi] These disparate influences, along with the investment in a certain notion of isolated exceptionalism that somehow lies over the physical (and metaphysical) horizon—indeed, Nietzsche begins The Anti-Christ claiming for both himself and his willful readers the status of “Hyperboreans”—all produce in the character of Saint Petersburg a landscape rich with potential for the artist’s scheme.
Though the camera enters the city at its edges, Ginzburg is seen at its center, crossing the frozen Neva toward a row of elegant riverside buildings. The red cloud is with him again as well—now established as a kind of traveling companion, an emanation that describes the artist’s own habit of spreading and dissolving his presence into the fabric of his locations, it rolls across the flat expanse of the snowy ground like a storm moving across prairie land before slowly dissipating and then reappearing inside one of the grand, faded buildings. Like virtually everything in the project, the journeying cloud has its own double: a pile of ash, laid in a circle on the floor of one of the baroquely detailed salons like an immaterial, dissipating inversion of a Richard Long stone array, that is whipped up into a mini-dust-storm that fills the space floor to ceiling with an obscuring gray fog.
This persistent doubling, running as deeply as it does both conceptually and compositionally through the work, becomes most resonant and explicit in the second portion of the Saint Petersburg sequence, as the camera takes viewers on a very particular tour of the Zoological Museum of the Russian Academy of Sciences. The camera tracks across a beautiful old relief map and the vertebrae of an enormous animal, lingering on the various display cases and dioramas—containing taxidermied versions of the owls and wolves that populated the forest scenes in Oregon and which can also be seen as figures on the map—before turning its gaze on the so-called Adams Mammoth, which was discovered in Siberia in 1799, and which here emerges from a bank of red fog, a mute witness to a time that now resides in myth.
Named for the scientist who performed the excavation, the featured specimen was the first complete wooly mammoth skeleton ever recovered, and remains one of the museum’s prize holdings. But Ginzburg’s interest in it is less for its strict scientific value than for the way it (like the other artifacts collected by such museums) instantiates a form of historical memory that trades on dramatization and produces unexpected surpluses. In this way, the zoological museum—which was founded in the early 18th century on the zoological contents of Peter the Great’s legendary Kunstkamera, and which for nearly 200 years was part of a larger institution that also included collections of botanical, geological and (importantly for Ginzburg’s interests in shamanic practices here) ethnographic material—functions as a touchstone for the practices and modes of presentation that structure At the Back of the North Wind.[vii] Many of the major sculptural works in the project point to this important relationship between the real and the fictional as embodied in the museum environment. There is Ashnest, a chain of torqueing “bones” set on a series of iron poles atop a recapitulation of the Longesque ash circle, and composed of both actual mammoth tusks and altered 3D micro scans of human bone that “complete” the 30,000 year old fossils. A “skeleton” of sorts that both simulates and problematizes the archeological method of creating forms from incomplete remains, Ashnest towers over the viewer, producing a spatial analogue for the animal’s own scale. Bone Totem Owl and Bone Totem Owl Shadow, a pair of elegantly rendered sculptural forms in white and black marble, respectively, are fabricated using the same scanning process as Ashnest, though the change in materials evoke a different aura. The pair gestures toward the birds themselves, in both of their cinematic forms, and in doing so nods to the duality embodied in the pairing of black and white (life/death; visiblity/invisibility) in the shamanic tradition. Just as Ashnest fills in the blanks of the ancient animal’s missing anatomy by deploying a cutting-edge technological device that in some sense “envisions” the missing material, so too does Bone Totem Owl make a connection between knowledge and vision, as the white figure’s eyes have been reimagined as ilgaak, the traditional slitted sunglasses worn by the Inuit people—and, in one of the film’s final sequences, by the artist—to protect against snow-blindness, extending the power of the Lacanian gaze to the owl, as well.
As an image of the mammoth fades out, viewers finds themselves on a train, bound for the film’s final destination, the area around the White Sea where the animal’s remains were originally found and where, as recent Russian “news” reports have suggested, researchers have pinpointed the location of the original Hyperborean territory. But this portion of the trip is not simply designed to cast a jaundiced eye on the jingoism of the popular media. In it Ginzburg succeeds in completing the psychogeographical circularity he so assiduously courts in the project. There’s an important maritime port area in the northwestern corner of a great national landmass; the seasonal inversion from the dense forest greenery of summer to the deep silence of snowdrifted winter; the return of the surveyor/surveyed, now sporting his own ilgaak; even a doppelgänger for Astoria’s bridge, here collapsed across a frozen river like the skeletons of the ancient animals that populate the museum and which are recapitulated in Ginzburg’s mammoth simulacrum, Ashnest. This last location additionally demonstrates the persistence of the Hyperborean legend and its ability to continue to connect with certain kinds of overt, and latent, yearnings for definition and order. The irony that this ancient Apollonian empire would be claimed to be found so near to these reminders of order gone murderously awry is impossible to miss. Accordingly, in Ginzburg’s exploration of the architectural remnants of the Soviet Gulag—prisons and guard barracks for the hundreds of thousands of men whose forced labor built the Belomorkanal, the inland waterway created in the early 1930s to connect the White and Baltic Seas—the sharp red of his companion cloud takes on an entirely new resonance.
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In the very final moments of the film, as the camera continues its familiar level scan of the landscape, moving slowly from left to right, it finally comes to rest—the wide expanse of snow and low skies combining to nearly erase the horizon line and turning the screen into a monochromatic field of white before a lap dissolve reveals the precise oceanic space where the film’s journey began. We are, strictly speaking, back where we started. But of course we have always, in some fundamental sense, been in the same place, no matter where we have apparently traveled: at the point where the earth meets the sky, where the solidity and certainty of the actual melt into thin air. That these two realms are understood in At the Back of the North Wind not as opposites but rather as part of an essential dialectic that influences not just the fictional but also the factual is, finally, the central organizing principle of Ginzburg’s quest.
[i] Pindar, “The Tenth Pythian Ode,” in The Odes of Pindar, trans. Richard Lattimore (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1947), p. 88.
[ii] In this respect, it’s interesting to consider Ginzburg’s work in the context of artists such as Jan Dibbets or Hamish Fulton, who have often been discussed and exhibited with the land artists, but whose programs are primarily based in photography and walking, respectively.
[iii] Jacques Ranciere, The Politics of Aesthetics, trans. Gabriel Rockhill (London: Continuum, 2007), p. 38.
[iv] In his discussion of the gaze, Lacan invokes Paul Valéry’s line from his 1917 poem La Jeune Parque: “Je me voyais me voir” (“I saw myself seeing myself.”) See Jacques Lacan, Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis, ed. Jacques-Alain Miller, trans. Alan Sheridan (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1998), pp. 74, 80.
[v] Among the leading Symbolists was Andrei Bely, whose early modernist novel Petersburg (1913)—much admired by Nabokov, among others—enlists the city and its monuments as actors in a tale set in the time of the Russian Revolution of 1905.
[vi] For an extended analysis of the Acmeist position, especially with regard to Nietzsche, see Elaine Rusinko, “Apollonianism and Christian art: Nietzsche’s Influence on Acmeism,” in Nietzsche and Soviet Culture: Ally and Adversary, ed. Bernice Glatzer Rosenthal (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 84–106. For more on the Apollonian context of the Hyperborean mythos, see Timothy P. Bridgman, Hyperboreans: Myth and History in Celtic-Hellenic Contacts (New York: Routledge, 2005.)
[vii] It’s worth noting the echoes here between Ginzburg’s cinematic treatment of the museum and Robert Smithson’s prominent inclusion of New York’s American Museum of Natural History in his 1970 film Spiral Jetty. Like Ginzburg, Smithson was interested in the natural history museum as an environment that both magnifies and collapses time and space: “There are times when the great outdoors shrinks phenomenologically to the scale of a prison, and times when the indoors expands to the scale of the universe.” See “The Spiral Jetty,”  in Robert Smithson: The Collected Writings, ed. Jack Flam (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996), p. 152. For an insightful reading of Smithson’s film, see Michael Ned Holte, “Shooting the Archaeozoic,” frieze, no. 88 (January/February 2005). Holte’s essay, re-titled “Robert Smithson’s Archaeozoic Medium,”, accessed January 2, 2012.