Andrey Yegorov THE BORDER. BETWEEN IMAGE AND FACT

THE BORDER
© Alexey Kubasov

When you begin reflecting upon an idea such as the border, it soon becomes evident that, much like a fractal, it breaks apart into pieces and branches out into its many aspects, starting from natural, geopolitical, and legal ones and ending with psychological, cognitive, and metaphysical ones. One could assume that the concept paradoxically resists its own definition—the establishment of conceptual boundaries or an “end of meanings” (if we recall the related words “limit” and “frontier”). Consequently, any discourse about borders is inevitably accompanied by explicit or implicit clarifying questions outlining and demarcating the field of discussion, such as: In what sense? What borders are you talking about exactly? Are these borders natural or artificial? Literal or figurative? And are there “just borders” as such?
 
Despite this conceptual elasticity, which forces us to recall with a touch of irony that in a certain sense “everything is a question of definition,” borders, limits, and frontiers remain acute and topical issues in each person’s personal and professional everyday life. And again, this is not just in relation to freedom of movement or the absence thereof, to the ability or inability to perform certain actions and acts (here, we are talking both about people with limited physical abilities and restrictions of an ethical, legal, and political nature), but rather on a much deeper level.  Indeed, invisible and yet tangible boundaries are detectable in the dialectical tension between the subject and the object, between “I” and “the Other,” between autonomous identities with their right for privacy and the group, as well as between the various layers the human psyche. In other words, any view on borders inevitably becomes limited itself.
 
By the same token, rhetorical slogans of the era of globalization, such as “a world without borders,” “open borders,” “democratization,” etc., wind up being vulnerable, not to mention misleading, precisely because they postulate a rejection of this fundamental condition of human consciousness. They ignoring the fact that boundaries always reappear and are being recreated, and it is not their presence that it is the problem, but rather their rigidity, impenetrability, and insurmountability.[1]
 
In light of these general observations, it seems logical that the phenomenon of the border provided the thematic vector for a travelling art exhibition that was organized by Goethe-Institut in Moscow and brought together the works of more than twenty young artists from Germany, Russia, Eastern Europe, and Central Asia. Here, I should specify right away that these artists live or have experience living in various parts of the post-Soviet space—where new state borders were rapidly formed a quarter of a century ago—and the exhibition reflects these artists’ search for identities, their views on a situation of political fragmentation, their historical memory, and the social challenges they have faced. The very format of a travelling exhibition—which perhaps brings to mind not only the Russian Peredvizhniki (artists in the Society for Travelling Art Exhibitions) but also, in a broader sense, wandering artists, caravans, and mobile tents—by its nature directly raises questions about borders and possibilities for the translation and crossing over from one cultural environment to another. After all, in our digital era images—including those generated and critically conceived by artists—are probably the freest of migrants, moving throughout the world. It would seem that art is the most natural environment for reflecting upon borders, which in their very essence have an inherently iconic dimension: The border is simultaneously a physical fact (rivers, mountains, walls, or security wire) and an image (an idea, visual sign, line, or mark).[2] Moreover, in a broader sense, it is also a certain behavioral system, implying control, transgression, and potentially the birth of a specific border culture.
 
In terms of the latter, one can provide multiple examples on a variety of different levels, from Acritic songs, which emerged on the borderlands between the Byzantine Empire and the Abbasid Caliphate in the Middle Ages, to David Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy in the second half of the 1970s, or Fredrick Turner’s “frontier thesis,” which explains key peculiarities of political culture in the late 19th century U.S. through American colonists’ consistent and decisive expansion beyond continental borders. In all such cases, there is a kind of a “double perspective,” which, in one way or another, endows these cultural manifestations with traits of hybridity and an affiliation toward both sides of the border.
 
It is precisely this cultural symbiosis that interests many of the artists with works displayed in “The Border,” but we will focus on just three of these projects, namely, “Kazakh Funny Games” by Saule Dyussenbina, “100 Pialas” by Katya Isaeva, and “Three Borders” by Alisa Berger. These works were made using different techniques, and each presents a unique perspective on the issue of borders and is informed by the author’s personal experience. On the level of artistic language, all of them explain the meaning of the border as a constitutive element of visual thinking.
 
Dyussenbina’s ironic wallpaper designs, which combine European rocaille motifs, Russian cultural clichés (e.g. a portrait of Pushkin), and images borrowed from the repertoire of modern Kazakhstan’s official iconography (the presidential palace in Astana, a portrait of the famous folk composer Kurmangazy, etc.), reflect the formative role of borders in the simplest “grammar” of representation. Above all, the principle of a dynamic relationship between the figure and the background—demarcated but at the same time remaining in permanent interaction—is key both for ornamentation, and, in a broader sense, our perceptive ability to differentiate and categorize visual information.
 
By dividing a visual field, a line (border, contour, horizon) is what makes an image possible. This occurs so habitually and imperceptibly that only subversive optical illusions playing with the norms of perception can remind us about the conventionality of images in a truly assertive way. An example of this is the famous Rubin vase—an ambivalent form that can be perceived both as a vessel and as two human profiles, depending on how the viewer “switches” the figure and the background.
 
In essence, a true ornament is also a rythmicized system of borders, always acting as a sort of mediation,[3] a symbolic intermediary between the viewer and an abstract surface. It is a visual code that can easily expand beyond a given frame and spread without limits, and in doing so, ensure the sustainable transmission of cultural memory. Despite the deliberately absurdist effect created by the provocative and kitschy collision of ethnographic and media clichés, Dyussenbina’s series, in light of its well-thought-out ornamental structure, becomes a metaphor not only of the tension between heterogeneous cultural elements, but also of the extravagant and patchwork ties that exist between them not only in Kazakhstan, but throughout the vast territory of the post-Soviet space.
 
Katya Isaeva’s installation “100 Pialas” also reminds the viewer about the commonality of cultures. The artist moved to Moscow long ago, but as a child she witnessed the Soviet era in her home city of Karaganda, where pialas were firmly associated with the everyday life and traditions of the “Eastern” regions of the country. At the same time, Isaeva vividly demonstrates (through the labels on their bottom sides) that the pialas were actually produced in ceramic factories—many of which are now closed—located in different parts of the USSR. Pialas used to be fairly well known and ordinary objects for people living hundreds and thousands of kilometers away from each other. The artist met personally with some of these people and corresponded with others in an effort to preserve the history of each specific piala, along with the memories connected with them for their owners.
 
For Isaeva, the Soviet piala is not a symbol of colonial appropriation of an exotic piece of kitchenware by the industrial machine. In line with the pars pro toto principle, it becomes a positive relic, almost archeological evidence, of a vast cultural space that was partitioned off by the proverbial “Iron Curtain” but not divided by hermetically sealed inner borders. Identified and carefully preserved by the artist, the pialas bring to mind not so much today’s political borders as the stereotypes and inner boundaries that inexorably emerge on people’s mental maps.
 
It goes without saying that borders are, in their iconic dimensions, firmly associated with maps—with lines and figures forming the recognizable silhouettes of regions, countries, and continents, also perceived as “figures and backgrounds.” The arrangement of the pialas in Isaeva’s installation is deliberately imbued with something like a cartographic symbol—a spatial diagram that, in a simple and eloquent way, gives some feeling of the immense distances between the different production centers. The variations in color and ornamentation, which separate typologically similar objects from one another, allow us to determine the time and place of the pialas’ creation, as well as the characteristic stylistic elements of the different locations.
 
Notably, one can see multiple borders within Isaeva’s installation, although these are not rigid boundaries, but rather vectors, coordinate axes marked with rows of upside down pialas (creating associations with both domical architecture and the starry sky), of their combinations and the “rhymes” of their ornamentation. By contrast, the borders depicted on real maps represent a far more precise and conventional graphic system despite the fact that they—just like any other image—always contain a certain ambiguity and are open to interpretation. Just look at how disputed territories and buffer zones are registered in Google Maps. As is well known, their outlines change (a dashed line becomes a solid one, for example, or a light shade turns into a dark one) depending on the country in which the map is opened.
 
Despite these “flickering” boundary lines, walls in some regions of the world are built in order to reify borders by making them as thick and insurmountable as possible. Besides the archetypal example of the Great Wall of China, the modern-day barriers between Mexico and the United States, between Israel and the West Bank of the Jordan River, the frontier barriers around Ceuta or in the south of Morocco also come to mind. In these cases, cartographic images, with all their symbolic conventionality, are supplanted by the brutal architecture in systems of control (separating and protecting “us” from “them”) that reify confines across many kilometers of valleys, hills, deserts and settlements, forming what is perhaps the most eloquent political landscape of our age.
 
The borders mentioned above can be seen as spatial phenomena, whereas Alisa Berger’s film “Three Borders” pushes the viewer to consider how frontiers correlate with temporal dimensions. The film, which consists of photographs and videos from the artist’s family archives as well as random images and fragments of text, contains ten stories from the lives of her family members, who belong to different generations and ethnocultural groups. That said, the defining points here are the intersection of human fates and the encounters that led to the complex identity of the author (something representative of many people born in the USSR), whose background is a mixture of Korean, Jewish, Russian, Ukrainian, German and Dagestanian roots.
 
Following the logic of the archives, family pictures in this work act as material evidence, captured moments that have been pulled out from the vibrant stream of life. Accompanied by audio commentaries that have been ironically integrated into the film in line with the “oral history” method, chains of images form touching personal narratives, which, in their turn, are perceived as pieces of a larger social, ethnical, and linguistic mosaic of late-Soviet and post-Soviet realities. At times, however, the artist diverges from analytical documentary optics, adding to the footage a dream-like sensation of fragility and instability. She focuses the viewer’s attention on the intangible distance between memories preserved in the archival images and the present moment, on the borders between yesterday, today, and tomorrow, on the inseparable connections between the life trajectories of people she knows and the milestones of history as a whole. The episodes forming its narrative can be easily conceived of as borderline marks on the chronological axis or timeline.[4]
 
In approaching themes of memory and time, it is entirely natural that Berger chose the hybrid cinematic toolkit she is familiar with, combining digitalized videos, static images, and texts. To a significant extent, the works created by Dyussenbina and Isaeva are also defined by combinations of different media: stenciled ornamentation and so-called applied art that utilizes a wide range of materials, as well as handicraft and industrial practices; an installation entailing a spatial arrangement of “found” objects rich in commentary. The poetics of stratification and polyphony, which persistently manifests itself in the works presented by the artists, finds formal support in their “permanently mixed” techniques.
 
Sooner or later, any discussion about borders in the field of art reaches the soft spot of Western modernist theory and, more specifically, touches on the concept of “medium specificity”—compliance with qualities and restrictions that are determined by the chosen art form, artistic materials, and corresponding technical procedures. It is this search for a medium’s natural boundaries, dictated by the very materials and structure of art, and the necessity for keeping pieces of art clear from “outlying” techniques and expressive features (figurativeness, narration, multidimensionality, indistinguishability, etc.), that in the previous century constituted the main force driving the progressive logic of art—it is sufficient to recall the “family tree” of art movements on the cover of Alfred Barr’s exhibition catalogue Cubism and Abstract Art (1936).
 
The era that began around 1989 (that is, following the collapse of that commonality and system being retrospectively reflected upon by many of the artists in the “The Border”) has heralded a powerful cultural turn toward the assertion of a different vision—one that is global and open to alternative histories and “multiple modernities”—and toward acknowledgement of the fact that historical time has different centers scattered all over the world, disparate tempo-rhythms and local trajectories. For an open mind, this is not reduced to the dominant chronometer of the Western European and North American modernism that has been canonized by the art market. Then again, all this is fair in theory but difficult to translate into practice, having developed under conditions of the increasingly expansive neoliberal economic system, which breaks uncontrollably through the borders of states and local communities but zealously guards its own corporate hierarchies.[5]
 
When discussing the invisible barriers within art itself, one should not fail to mention that there is, at least in modern Russia, a fairly obvious institutional polarization not just between “traditional,” “realist,” and “classic” art on the one hand, and “contemporary” and “topical” art on the other, but also between artists, art historians, curators, critics, and viewers who have to side with one or another category governing discipline, taste, and world-view, none of which are irreproachable, and all of which strive for mutual insulation from one another. In light of this, it is extremely interesting that the exhibition “The Border,” organized in partnership with the Moscow Museum of Modern Art, was shown in the Zurab Tsereteli Art Gallery, which is part of the museum and exhibition complex of the Russian Academy of Arts. It thus becomes an example of dialogue between different artistic communities and generations, a gesture that does not erase aesthetic boundaries in an iconoclastic way but rather reveals the common ground between them.
 
As a curatorial statement, “The Border” certainly has its own inner limitations—contours and characteristics of a methodological and ideological nature. It is vital, however, that these limits were critically laid out by Inke Arns and Thibaut de Ruyter themselves. It was also the curators’ decision to use specially designed containers as transformable exhibition modules for each of the works. These containers, which have become a symbol of the exhibition, allowed them to create a spectacular and complete installation, simplified logistics, and, at the very same time, physically defined and indicated the “comfort zone” of the works. To a large extent, they determined the size and the technical design of the works and, finally, isolated them from one another. Plus, in the light of the immense rhetoric question posed in the text “Where Does Europe End and Asia Begin?”, which accompanied the exhibition, the containers act as a visual reference to practices of colonial collecting and transcontinental trade.[6]
 
Such observations are explained by the very dialectical nature of the concepts addressed in the exhibition. In order to talk about borders, one must in effect create other borders. The combination of boxes housing the artists’ works can be seen as a sort of a metacommentary by the curators, who do not try to conceal the contradictions of the theme they chose or even their own approach to discussing it, but rather are ready to visually emphasize the borders that remain invisible in many exhibitions dealing with such complex and broad subject matter. Thus, the very shape of the exhibition “The Border,” recognizable and complex as it is, contains a dramatic and polemical intrigue and becomes a powerful “trigger” for further reflection, doubt, and discovery. After all, for a message to get across and be persuasive, it must, first and foremost, be confidently outlined.
 
Andrey Egorov (born 1984) is an art historian and curator. He has served as Head of the Department for Scientific Research at the Moscow Museum of Modern Art (MMOMA) since 2012 and is a corresponding member of the Russian Academy of Arts. In 2006, he graduated from Moscow State University’s Department of the History and Theory of Art. He is the author of the MMOMA collection guide New Media Art (Moscow: Meier, 2014).
 
Together with Anna Arutyunyan, an employee of the MMOMA Department for Scientific Research, he carried out the following projects: “Dreams for Those Who Are Awake” (2013); “Nikolay Shumakov. Private Affairs of the Architect” (2014); the cycle “Words and Things. Open Collections” at the Mikhail Bulgakov Museum (Moscow, 2014-2016); “Fortune Museum” (2014-2015, in collaboration with Vasily Tsereteli); “One within the Other. Art of New and Old Media in the Age of High-Speed Internet” (2015-2016); the “PLAYMMOMA: The Game of Contemporary Art!” children’s festival (2016, in collaboration with Polina Zotova); and “What Appears to Dmitri Prigov’s ‘Poor Cleaning Lady?’ A Gift to the Moscow Museum of Modern Art” (2017).
 
In 2017, he became a member of the Board of Experts of the VI Moscow Biennale for Young Art. He is a member of the Artistic Committee for the 2018 Pernod Ricard Fellowship (Villa Vassilieff, Paris).


 
 
 

[1] Artistic strategies of so-called “post-socialist” art, which test the durability of the ideologeme of democracy in its contemporary geopolitical sense, are examined in Anthony Gardner’s recently published monograph. Gardner, A. Politically Unbecoming. Postsocialist Art against Democracy. Cambridge, MA, 2015.
 
[2] This duality of the definition and perception of borders was noted by W. J. T. Mitchell: “There are thus two basic kinds of borders: actual and virtual, literal and metaphoric, material and imaginary. It is important to stress, however, that these distinctions of kind, while seemingly obvious, themselves have permeable borders. Real, material borders can be erased; virtual and metaphoric borders can become actual.” Mitchell, W. J. T. Border Wars. Translation and Convergence in Politics and Media // Image Science: Iconology, Visual Culture, and Media Aesthetics. (Chicago: University of Chicago, 2015), p. 167
 
[3] This term was proposed by the famous historian of Islamic art Oleg Grabar in his book: Grabar, O. The Mediation of Ornament. Princeton, 1992.
 
[4] For a fascinating story on the translation of temporal continuities into graphic images, see Rosenberg, D., Grafton, A., Cartographies of Time. A History of the Timeline. New York, 2010.
[5] The split and tension between dominant and local times in history, as well as an autonomous aesthetic time entailed in experiencing works of art, have been thoroughly analyzed by Keith Moxey in Moxey, K. Visual Time: The Image in History. Durham, NC, 2013.
 
[6] Here is a curious analogy: Three large cargo boxes, which metonymously represent the history of European geographical discoveries, colonization, and collecting, make up a part of the permanent exhibition in the regional Zeeuws Museum in Middelburg under the title De Wonderkamers (Cabinets of Curiosities). Visitors get inside these cargo boxes full of various artifacts that embody the corresponding themes of “Home and Trade,” “Life and Death,” and “Power and Splendor.”