Essays and Texts

Refracted Reflections

by Claudia Schmuckli

For the catalog Walking the Sea (published by Hatje Cantz, 2014) on the occasion
of the solo exhibition at the Blaffer Museum of Art (Houston)

At the entrance to the exhibition, a partially mirrored plaster staff leans against a temporary wall that interrupts passage into the gallery. On the right side of the wall, a window is cut at eye level. Two panels, one a standard mirror, the other a translucent one-way mirror, are inserted at each end of the frame at a forty-five-degree angle, leaving a narrow opening in the center. Together, they serve as a viewfinder, carving out a layered view of the space beyond the window, and at the same time implying, albeit to different degrees, the space and elements behind, including the viewer. Regardless of the angle of approach, the person looking at and through Window always encounters her own reflection. Forcing a confrontation with one’s gaze and place in space, the opening to the exhibition produces a moment of self-recognition that announces the installation as a self-reflexive journey of discovery.

Structured as a window and identified as such by its title, the opening suggests a framing of Anton Ginzburg’s Walking the Sea not only in terms of sculpture but also in terms of painting and its Western trope of a window onto the world.  However, this window doesn’t open onto a mathematically defined representation of space according to the illusionistic mandate of the Renaissance metaphor. While Window invokes the mechanisms of linear perspective through its construction––the two mirrors simulate converging parallel lines that guide the eye to a vanishing point in the distance—the use of reflective surfaces immediately confuses this logic. Instead, the mirrors introduce multiple competing perspectives that connect what is in front with what is behind. In so doing, Window refers to a pre-Humanist, Eastern idea of spatial representation in painting, associated with Byzantine icons, in which different views of objects, including reverse (or inverted) perspectives, are combined in a single image. In this tradition, a non-realistic hierarchy of motifs informed by symbolic importance occupies a dynamic space that seemingly envelops the viewer.  By drawing together classic painterly conventions and the conceptual and minimal strategies of American artists of the nineteen-sixties and seventies, Window introduces transnational and trans-historical cultural references that lead the viewer through the installation.

A suite of eight photographs lines the passage that leads away from Window into the gallery space. The first image introduces a mirrored prism, half-shrouded in a black cloth, which rests on a salt desert, its shape possibly a mold for the volumes outlined in the window that serves as a literal and metaphorical opening to the exhibition. Yet, unlike Window, whose mirrored planes point inward, away from the viewer, in the photograph the three angled mirrored surfaces are directed outward, toward the viewer. In another image, the object appears uncovered, strapped to the back of a bearded male figure holding a wooden staff––similar to the cast version on the front wall––as he gazes across the expansive landscape in front of him.

Ginzburg modeled his male protagonist (played by himself) on Gustave Courbet’s self-portrait in his 1854 La Rencontre (Bonjour Monsieur Courbet). In the painting, the artist, carrying an easel and brushes on his back, encounters an art patron and accompanying servant en plein air. This key representation of the working artist outside the studio marks the beginning of Realism’s turn to everyday life as a subject for artistic consideration. In Ginzburg’s version, the painter’s tools are replaced by the mirror structure he carries on his back. Unlike Courbet’s equipment, the use of which requires the artist to stop walking and remove it from his body, Ginzburg’s tool is activated when worn, and becomes dormant when detached from his person. When the device is in motion, the figure is transformed into a refractive device for looking. Paradoxically, the artist himself is blind to this effect; only the camera following him bears witness to it. Triggered by movement, the mirror images dramatize the act of walking, the abruptness of each step palpable in the sudden change of reflections that flash in and out like snapshots of a fleeting moment. 

The photographs alternate between images that emphasize the artist’s role with straight-up vistas of landscapes far and near. Some are marked by traces of human activity: in one, a large concrete building rises from the brush; abandoned and crumbling, it once formed part of a Soviet military base that was scattered among islands in the Aral Sea and vacated when the sea dried up. In another, a camel grazes near the rusted body of a ship on dry land. Like the salt-covered seashells in yet another image, everything in these photographs points to the absence of water. Two close-up photographs conflate mirror images and views of the empty basin––folding looking ahead and looking back into one.

The identity of the territory being reflected is revealed in Aral Sea Tapestry: Sea-Cotton-Image. Here, four satellite images of the same geography taken at intervals of three to four years (1989, 2002, 2008, and 2012) are finely woven into a length of cotton cloth. These images evince the radical shrinkage of a significant body of water over the course of only a few years. Formerly one of the four largest inland sea-lakes in the world, the Aral Sea once occupied a 26,000-square-mile area between Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, also known as Karakalpakstan; through the first half of the twentieth century, it supported farming and fishing in the surrounding river deltas. In the nineteen-sixties, the Soviet Union diverted two rivers––the Syr Darya and the Amu Darya––to bring snowmelt and rainfall from distant mountains to newly created cotton fields in the desert surrounding the basin. Within less than fifty years, the Aral Sea has been reduced to twenty-five percent of its original size and holds about ten percent of its original volume of water. The loss has caused a transformation in the regional ecology of such consequence that it is considered an environmental ruin of unparalleled proportion.  Disposing of irony, Ginzburg’s delivery of images of the sea’s demise in cotton thread, the very material that led to its disappearance, imbues this history with an emotional texture unseen by the disembodied eye of the satellite.

Surprising as it may be, the fate of the Aral Sea is still a phenomenon little known outside the circles of regional experts, scientists, and environmentalists. This has partly to do with the fact that access to the sea basin, in particular from the Uzbek side, is tightly controlled. It took six months of negotiations for Ginzburg to obtain permission to shoot in the area, and even with official papers in place, his right to be there was often disputed. The difficulty of access heightens the importance of the documentary dimension of Ginzburg’s project. Providing a personal perspective and counterpoint to the empirical, data-driven satellite imagery that dominates the conversation about the sea’s condition, Walking the Sea serves as a poetic record grounded in photography but ultimately working across media.

Below the cotton tapestry, three plaster vessels are organized in a loose arrangement on the floor. Titled Whirling Vases, their bulbous two-tiered gourd-like shape is inspired by that of a portable water vessel, called a calabash, that forms part of the traditional habit of Turkestan dervishes.  An extensive region extending from Siberia in the north to Tibet, India, Afghanistan, and Iran in the south, Turkestan was internally connected in the nineteenth century by trade and the practice of Sufi Islam. The dervish was a prominent presence in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan (as well as Turkmenistan and Kyrgyzstan) before their colonization by the Russians. Following the rigorous Sufi path, the dervish embraces asceticism and poverty. Largely suppressed during the Soviet regime, Sufism, and with it numerous spiritual traditions, have recently seen resurgence in the region. By conjuring the image of the wandering dervish, Ginzburg ties his figure (who carries a dervish water bottle) to a heritage of regional beliefs and traditions that imply a time pre– as well as post–Soviet Union. While speaking to the possibility of loss and return, the Whirling Vases also have a functional purpose, pointedly marking the absence of the water they are supposed to contain.

To the left of the vessels is the interactive sculpture Seaharp, composed of a large group of objects: a relief-encrusted wall diagonally inserted into a corner of the room; two triangular concrete wedges set at right angles to one another; a life-size plaster cast of an anchor; metal strings drawn between points on the wall to the wedges and anchor; and a petrified seashell. The anchor and seashell represent residue from the dried-up sea that Ginzburg photographed during his walk. The wedges introduce other regional references: according to the artist, they are modeled after large marble Koran stands in Uzbekistan; they also recall the concrete remains of the military buildings scattered across the sea basin that have since become scavenging grounds for builders.  The same triangulated wedge, or prism, shape reappears as a plaster cast applied serially to the wall to form three long horizontal reliefs whose protruding edges create a modulated, rhythmic pattern of light and shadow.

Metal wires connecting these disparate elements transform the whole into a monumental musical instrument. Invoking the sonic quality of the dry Aral Sea basin, Seaharp is an acoustic environment responsive to the viewer’s movement. Like a re-imagined Aeolian harp, Seaharp emits sounds that Ginzburg recorded throughout his journey. But while an Aeolian harp traditionally relies on the wind to caress its strings and trigger musical notes, here the motion-induced sound is the whistling of the wind across the landscape, albeit digitally recorded and electronically processed for presentation in the gallery.
As a corner relief, Seaharp pays formal homage to the pioneering Russian avant-garde artist Vladimir Tatlin, whose corner counter-reliefs ushered in a new era in Russian art by anticipating the Constructivist dictum of the integration of art and life in the service of a modern communist state. In Seaharp, Ginzburg moves the concept of Tatlin’s constructions—which were indebted to the Orthodox corner placement of icons—from the walls onto the floor. The tunes issued by this life-size walk-in corner sculpture amount to a wistful serenade for a failed utopian aspiration, whose hopeful trajectory remains as unrealized as Tatlin’s 1919–20 Monument to the Third International.

Ginzburg repeats the relief motif in three panels, alternating material combinations and configurations of white plaster, yellow pigment, and mirror tiles that replicate the proportions of his portable mirror device while also evoking a classic decorative feature of central Asian architecture.  This pattern, both ornamental and minimal, finds an echo across the room in the plaster treatment of the wall adjacent to Window, thus materializing an architectural reference within the installation. A concrete basin rests on the floor to the right of Window: partially filled with water, Well marks the only instance in which the missing element central to Walking the Sea is physically present. The reflective surface of the still water recalls the mirrors at the beginning of the exhibition and conjures the myth of Narcissus as an originary allegory. It again reiterates the triangulated shape that is repeated throughout the installation. By placing Well and Window side by side, Ginzburg offers the two classic Humanist conceptions of painting: as a window onto the world and as a mirror of the world that offers its true (then understood as mimetic) reflection.  While inherently self-reflective, Ginzburg’s project rejects mimesis in favor of metaphor expressed in aesthetically related, but otherwise self-contained, heterogeneous objects arranged along a prescribed path.

The specific nature of the artist’s references and recollections is finally revealed in a series of twenty-four contact silver prints that the artist refers to as Subnotes. Displayed at the far end of the room, on a wall painted black, they are negative images (reversing black and white) that tentatively emerge from their background to provide a visual glossary of Ginzburg’s forms and images.  Subnotes includes iPhone captures of the artist’s check-ins in Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan, a regional map of the Aral Sea, photographic documentation of dervishes at the turn of the century and their rendering in paint by Vasily Vereschagin, photographs of Central Asian Islamic architecture, a Henry David Thoreau quote and sketch for an Aeolian harp, reproductions of a corner relief by Tatlin, Courbet’s La Rencontre (Bonjour Monsieur Courbet), an excerpt from Jacques Lacan’s 1949 lecture “Mirror Stage as Formative of the Function of the I as Revealed in Psychoanalytic Experience,” typologies of shells, and fabric designs for the ikat, a type of cotton scarf characteristic of the Uzbek region. The Subnotes reveal the underlying text of this body of work, bringing the installation into focus as the aesthetic articulation of Ginzburg’s personal vision.

An actual ikat lying on the floor reasserts the importance of cotton for the genesis of Walking the Sea. It also inspires a moment of identification with the artist––who wore such a scarf on his walk––at the conceptual endpoint of the installation. Looking up and around, the viewer realizes that her movements have unfolded along a spiral circuit winding to and out from the ikat in a loosely looping motion. The spiral is an archetypal symbol of growth and renewal, but given Ginzburg’s overt nod to Tatlin in the installation, it also invites comparison to Monument to the Third International, reinforcing the idea of the Aral Sea as a ruin of Soviet modernity, whose present-day remnants represent the shards of an ideological fantasy come undone.  

In light of all the clues that Ginzburg lays out for us to consider, Walking the Sea emerges as a poetic denouncement of the invisible political and socioeconomic forces that have intruded on the cultural and spiritual histories that define the Aral Sea region. Ginzburg draws a spatial portrait of the sea that conjures its past and present through objects that allude to these forces and histories. He establishes connections between Eastern and Western artistic conventions, and pre- and postmodern cultural references, to express within a unitary body of work the multiplicity of ideas and traditions that infuse the sea’s dried-up emptiness with meaning. However, the cotton tapestry of the evaporating sea, the fractured images of the landscape, the reflections the artist generates and is unable to see, and the mirrored surfaces of staff, well, and vessel all deny the formation of a cohesive image of this sea the artist set out to walk. Like the solution to its demise, the sea, tragically, remains eternally out of Ginzburg’s reach.

In today’s global landscape, ravaged by the memory or experience of catastrophe, the concept of the ruin of history or ideology has become ubiquitous in contemporary art, often aesthetically addressed using Post-Minimal and Post-Conceptual strategies. Ginzburg’s Walking the Sea represents yet another effort to both expose and contain disaster by employing a widely understood formal language. But in the end, the aesthetic “sanitation” of history through formal legibility doesn’t manage to hide the pathos Ginzburg ascribes to both the trauma of the disappearance of the Aral Sea––as the embodiment of the failure of modernist utopianism in the East––or the endeavor to absorb and overcome it through a transformative act of commemoration. For all his efforts at aesthetic transcendence, his walking and its conceptual framing and photographic documentation read as an act of recovery that is deeply emotional and personal. For Russian-born Ginzburg, who studied at art academies in the Soviet Union before leaving for the United States as a teenager, Walking the Sea could well represent a quest for identity. The paradox of a sea without water would be, in that context, emblematic of the search for an unrecoverable (Soviet) past as an act of restoration and commemoration in view of a (post-Soviet) condition yet to be defined.

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