One of the exhibitions during the 3rd Moscow Bienniale was No Echo, No Shadow, Anton Ginzburg’s solo show at Galerie Iragui. After the show opened I sat down with Anton to talk about the exhibition and his impressions of this year’s Biennale.
Alexandra Lerman: What is the driving idea behind your show?
Anton Ginzburg: No Echo, No Shadow explores the concept of alternative history as defined through the prism of personal memories and revisions of the past. My focus is the end of the 80’s in the USSR, the period of Perestroika, which coincided with my teenage years in Leningrad prior to my immigration to the United States.
This was a time of transition for the USSR and for me personally. The existing political system was in decay and was moving away from the Communist ideology with its mutant Modernist inspired rhetoric. Simultaneously I was experiencing my own ”coming of age,” [and was] being exposed to Leningrad’s underground contemporary art and music scene.
The title of the show is based on one of the neon text works in the exhibition. It portrays the psychological and cultural condition with the “phantom limb” syndrome, something that cannot be seen or heard, yet is present, similar to the sensation of an amputated limb that is still mentally attached to the body. It is a second chance to reveal the potential that hasn’t been realized.
For this exhibition I was interested in tracing the invisible moments between intention, actualization and interpretation of an art project. I divided the gallery into two spaces by a wedge-shaped wall to create an “inner” space and a ”collective” one.
The “inner” space takes the form of an idealized collector’s cabinet and is comprised of a table with small bronze sculptures, a Medusa mask, text works and drawings, artifacts that would be typical for an enlightened collector of the early twentieth century.
The multiple reflective surfaces in the gallery, from the polished aluminum circle, to a convex mirror in the mouth of Medusa (allusion to Jan Van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait), to black vinyl floor, create a “hall of mirrors” with refracted trajectories expanding the wall space through illusory doublings, making text pieces written backwards in neon legible.
The sculptures are compositions of everyday objects, like stacks of bronze cast vegetables or plastic bread loaves and abstract geometry represented by onyx and amethyst spheres. The intersection of the mundane and the ideal captures the invisible tension between the intention and outcome.
The “collective” space features a blank tiled wall with a hole smashed into it with a trail of steam coming from inside. A yellow neon “No Echo, No Shadow,” written in Russian is placed on the upper left corner. On the opposite wall there is a poster featuring an image of the Soviet actress, Natalya Negoda, from her 1989 Playboy photo shoot and a bronze cast of an audio tape with a torn magnetic ribbon, typical of the bootlegs circulating in the USSR at the time.
These artifacts are the urban remains of the transformation of the late Soviet popular culture, totems of the Dionysian expression of the end of utopia.
AL: The quote by Natalya Negoda on top of your press release reads, “I’m amazed by how easily I was able to fight off a lot of complexes. I invented a role for myself, as an actress in America, and it started to please me very much.” This sets the tone for the exhibition. What made you pick this particular quote?
AG: The idea to use a Natalya Negoda quote from her Playboy interview was suggested by the art critic Brian Droitcour in response to one of my works featuring a spread from that issue.
Natalya Negoda was an actress of the Perestroika period—star of Little Vera, a film, key to the transformation of sexual identity for the last Soviet generation, which happened to coincide with my teenage years in the Soviet Union.
The film was a realist portrait of Soviet youth in a Russian province. It had a scandalous quality because of the erotic scene in it, quite modest by today’s standards, but for the squeaky clean Soviet morality it was revolutionary.
After that movie Negoda was invited to pose for Playboy magazine, which she accepted. She was the first Soviet actress to do it, creating a huge discourse within society, even though the magazine or photo shoot was not available in the USSR. The morality of her action was questioned and discussed publicly, revealing that the body of the Soviet utopia was changing from the inside. It was a clash of two Cold War ideologies, and the female body was the meeting point for it.
In my opinion the photo shoot had particular historic significance and defined the end of the epoch. For my generation it was a period defined by hope and anticipation of a new beginning, a chance to reinvent ourselves, reinvent the culture, reinvent the country. It is reflected in the title of my show No Echo, No Shadow, defining the space that exists only as a phantom.
AL: This is not the first time you appeal to art history, particularly to modernism, in your work. What makes you come back to it?
AG: The beginning of the twentieth century was a fascinating period, dominated by the spirit of innovation, hope and discovery, with a longing and search for utopia. That period created a number of aesthetic, social, and philosophical road maps that following generations including mine actually lived out, and witnessed its results and occasional decay.
In my work I try to bring together the projections and hopes that were anticipated, and the historical realities that have resulted—the intersection of the imagined and the actual. I explore the alternative history, the possibility of Modernism 2.0, following the route that hasn’t been realized, in order to reveal dreams, free from the gravity of the real.
Also, I’m attracted to the precise and laconic language of Modernist expression, its search for clarity and harmony of the form and the message.
AL: Why do you feel the symbol of Medusa is strongly connected to your home town St.-Petersburg?
AG: The myth of Medusa has always fascinated me, it is full of mystery and has multiple layers of meaning.
Once Perseus cut off Medusa’s head, Pegasus, a symbol of poetry, flew out of her body, yet Medusa retained her deadly gaze turning whoever looked at her into stone. I recognize Medusa, as a symbol of sculpture in its pure classical form, as an urge to stop time. There is a reverse perspective in action, when the spectator and art piece exchange places. Medusa turns spectator into stone by returning his gaze —a switch of agency from viewer to object.
Growing up in Saint-Petersburg you see the image of Medusa quite a bit. It can be found all over the city on building facades, iron fences and doorways. Medusa gives away Saint-Petersburg’s personality, a paradox of imperial vision that is frozen in time and exists by its own swamp laws.
AL: When you start working on a project, do you begin with the idea or the material?
AG: Its usually an idea, but sometimes it can be a feeling or reaction inspired by a particular material.
Material and texture deal with emotional, intuitive aspects of the project, they create the setting, the mood, and a way to enter the artwork. The conceptual component of an artwork establishes the historical and intellectual backbone of the project. Ideally, both the conceptual and the emotional parts of the artwork should be in dialog as they are both necessary to reveal its invisible essence, poetry, and tension.
AL: This is not your first time in Moscow for the Biennale. What is your impression of the exhibition this year?
AG: I think the Biennial this year was very coherent and clear. The Garage is a beautiful space, and architecturally the show was very well resolved.
I feel it was an important show to see but there were not many risks taken. It was well articulated and direct in its presentation, but I was missing the creativity of the first Moscow Biennial, where there was a fascinating display of chaos, anarchy and sense of discovery, between the freezing cold January weather, recent transition of post-Communist Russia, and the anticipation surrounding this cultural experiment.
For me the essence of the 1st Moscow Biennial was encompassed by Gelitin’s project—an enormous urine icicle on the facade of the historical museum in Red Square. It was daring, witty and couldn’t be ignored.