New East Digital Archive

Promised land: meet the artist mapping the mythology of the post-Soviet landscape

Power and Architecture

As the title of one film by the avant-garde director Dziga Vertov put it, the Soviet state encompassed one sixth of the world: from Arctic wastes to parched deserts, via volcanoes, swamps, mountain ranges and bustling cities. While the superpower was still in effect, this massive topographical diversity was at least bound — nominally at least — by shared ideological commitment. A new trilogy of short films by Leningrad-born, New York-native artist Anton Ginzburg, which will be displayed as part of the Calvert 22 Foundation’s Power and Architecture exhibition series, explores how various mythologies have come to serve as guides to landscapes now bereft of the communist cause.

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“I felt that in the 20th century, Soviet landscape was not engaged with in the same way that it had been in the United States and Britain in the 1960s,” Ginzburg tells me from New York. “A huge territory was not really part of the conversation.” His three films — Hyperborea, Walking the Sea, and Turo — examine how now-extinguished utopian aspirations have altered the form of both natural and artificial spaces. “I deal with the real landscape but the project tends to start with a fictional story,” he says. “A lot of the content in my work comes from being at the site and seeing what it has to offer. It retains a documentary capacity, continuing the experiments of Vertov: dealing with the poetics of the real, finding truth or narratives within it.”

“You couldn’t cover it up: before there was a sea, and then there was no sea. It was non-fiction. We had to deal with it”

The title of Hyperborea refers to a mythical, utopian “Northern Atlantis” found in Ancient Greek legend, whose location many have claimed to have “discovered” in the centuries since. “At some point, I think every country in Europe — and America — claimed to be descendants of Hyperboreans. It’s a [utopian] question of establishing a Golden Age for all humanity, of claiming moral superiority,” Ginzburg notes. Prompted by a 2011 Russian tabloid report that posited the country’s polar north as the Hyperborean homeland, Ginzburg set out to document various locations that have been subject to such claims, in North America as well as Russia itself.

What comes across most forcefully is a sense of profound emptiness; the long panning shots across sleet- and snow-ridden landscapes reveal the notion of “utopia” to be a tabula rasa, a canvas for future experimentation and construction. When Ginzburg sets off a red smoke flare against the white winter background, the unspoiled territory is tainted, and yet this is perhaps the point: the post-Soviet world can no longer tolerate the idea of a “Northern Atlantis” free from suffering; as Ginzburg points out, one of the posited Russian locations for Hyperborea was the site of the very first gulag in the Soviet Union.

Still from Walking the Sea (2013)
Still from Walking the Sea (2013)

Perhaps most intriguing is the second film of the trilogy, Walking the Sea, which sees Ginzburg trekking the dust bowl between Uzbekistan and Kazakhstan that was until recently the Aral Sea in Central Asia. One of the greatest ecological catastrophes of the 20th century but little appreciated in the West, the disappearance of the Aral Sea was symbolic for Ginzburg’s generation, coming of age during perestroika. “It was something like a forced acknowledgement, you couldn’t cover it up: before there was a sea, and then there was no sea. It was non-fiction. We had to deal with it.”

“Even the signifiers of disaster are disappearing. The entire 20th century becomes framed and then removed”

After its feeder rivers were diverted in the 1960s in an attempt to increase fertility in the surrounding desert and revive the local cotton industry, the Aral Sea began to shrink into the dwindling lakes that survive today. Ginzburg recalls conversation with philosopher Boris Groys describing the Aral Sea to him as a “ready-made artwork with a collective artist: the Soviet people”. “I would say it was a challenge to nature, where everybody lost.” An industrial project designed to invigorate local agriculture has instead led to the collapse of viable fishing and mass migration: “There’s not much of an economy. It’s really an abandoned region.”

Ginzburg talks about Walking the Sea in terms of “geographical unconsciousness” and “the signifiers of disaster”. While travelling in the region he learned of the native belief in an “inner sea” beneath the soil that connects the Aral to the Caspian Sea. According to this reasoning, the Aral Sea has not evaporated into the air; rather, it has fled underground, a regular occurrence through the ages. “I thought it was a beautiful story, and it made walking through the space a kind of a geographical psychoanalysis. It’s a cyclical approach: the sea disappears and then it comes back, every 300 or 400 years. So it’s bigger than Soviet history; it’s on a different scale.” In explaining the unfolding disaster, the “inner sea” story diminishes the power of destructive Soviet industry.

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Some of the most striking images in the film are of the ruins and wrecks of abandoned buildings and ships in the midst of the desert-sea-scape. The Aral once contained over 1,000 islands, and several of these unmapped outcrops housed secret Soviet military institutions now left exposed to the elements and the predations of the few remaining locals, who have stripped them for building supplies. “Initially I think there were ten buildings like that but when we arrived there were only one and a half left,” Ginzburg says. “It’s a typical panel building, which is very Suprematist in approach.” Of these ruins and wrecks, he says: “My film documents the last remains of the disaster, because the disaster also has its own timeline. Even over the course of half a year, between location scouting and beginning filming, we saw ships disappearing, being broken down for spare parts. Even the signifiers of disaster are disappearing. The entire 20th century becomes framed and then removed.” Perhaps the Soviet military and industrial system is sinking into its own “inner sea”, its own collective “unconscious”. Ginzburg carries a mirror across the vanished sea, highlighting the ways in which its disaster reflects Russian self-representation, both during and after Soviet rule.

Still from Walking the Sea (2013)
Still from Walking the Sea (2013)

The recently completed final film, Turo (“tower” in the invented universal language Esperanto) takes us from the frozen and arid wastes of Hyperborea and the Aral back to the city. Each of its four chapters focuses on a Constructivist landmark — the Melnikov House, the Narkomfin building and the ZIL automobile factory in Moscow, plus the fantastic Monument to the Third International designed by Vladimir Tatlin for Leningrad but never realised, which Ginzburg has inserted in scenes from a video game set in Pripyat, a town ravaged by the Chernobyl disaster. Ginzburg describes these man-made locations as “a stage for ideology, for visions of the future: a direct material record of the times that’s now in a really bad state”. Each chapter sees an ivory tower transformed into a control tower, a metaphorical shift that encapsulates the ruination of the avant-garde ideal.

As a piece of “ficitonalised non-fiction”, Turo is framed as another nod to the pioneering work of Dziga Vertov, another avant-garde luminary and contemporary of Melnikov, Tatlin et al. It allows Ginzburg to explore the universalist modernist dream from within its own ruins; these Constructivist buildings are some of the few from the period to have survived the brutal post-Soviet refashioning of Moscow, providing a link between past ideals and current material culture. Alongside Hyperborea and Walking the Sea, the trilogy asks us to question claims to power that are invested in architectural space, and to wonder what will come next after we and our projects for the world have gone. “We are living in the future that these buildings were intended for,” Ginzburg says of Turo, “but we look at them as the sites of ruins, as in the 19th century they would have looked at Greek ruins. Modernity has become our Ancient Greece.”